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By S.L. Koss
Page 1 of 11

Avon was on the flight deck when Orac monitored a message that held promise. It was brief and to the point. Cally logged it and went off to fetch Blake. Avon sighed, he had monitored the transmission from his console wordlessly. Another call from another Federation-hating society who wanted the assistance of the now infamous leader of the masses who wanted to rid themselves of the Federation. Avon thought the whole thing was lamentable at best.

It was not long at all before Avon found himself in search of 'background' information, as if he had nothing better to do than ask Orac to search Federation files for information Blake could just as easily get himself. Since Gan's death, the self-made rebel was becoming entirely too obnoxious to bear at times. Avon had to admit, to himself at least, that he quite enjoyed and kept track of every time he got the best of Blake; particularly in those frequently ignored but never frivolous battles of words. While he studiously gathered the requested 'background' information on the seldom heard of race called Felinians, he made sure he also gathered ammunition for his own use.

The meeting in the crew room was typical and totally without purpose as far as Avon was concerned. He sat sullenly, palm screen in hand, incessantly going over and over again the pertinent facts which were highlighted. He would do his best to convince Blake the stray message gathered via computer channels and not over space channels was a useless endeavor to chase. The message indicated that some government backed group of mercenaries bent on doing harm to the Federation wanted Blake's help and to such an end would arrange a meeting with their leader. Coordinates to a specific far-flung planet as well as specific landing coordinates were given and no room left for reply or response. Blake read the message aloud once more, watching carefully everyone's reaction and wondering at the particular depth of Avon's distance today, it seemed far greater than usual even.

No one in the room had failed to notice Avon's blatant lack of interest in the other information being given and he meant it that way. He would play this agonizing game for just a little longer, his opportunity would come. He had calculated with solid mathematical precision exactly how much the crew individually and corporately would take before they saw clearly Blake's faults as a leader. He needed to play his part, he didn't need to like it, or let anyone else think he did. He was more than ready when Blake turned to him as asked for his information.

Avon got up grudgingly, taking the palm screen with him. "Disturbingly little exists in the Federation records regarding the Felinian race. No official records are available and all data gathered came from references in data files of other civilizations on the Felinian's borders. They actively and regularly trade with several of the outer systems merchants, trading in fur primarily. There was at one time, Federation gained information, but whatever was there has been removed by a very talented programer with access to top level systems. Whoever we are dealing with, Blake, of one thing you can be certain, they are not who they seem to be."

Blake knew well where this road lead and he knew he needed to reign in Avon's hysterics before they got out of hand, risking in the meantime a full scale confrontation. "Enough of the histrionics, Avon, what did you find out about the species, specifically we can make our own conclusions." Blake said, infinitely patient, for today at least, he knew the tech had more but was not likely to give it up willingly.

"I've heard they have teeth and claws like a cat and can cut you to pieces in seconds." Vila offered. After a moment of thought on what Avon had said, he turned daringly to the tech. "A talented programmer, huh? Surely not more talented than you, Avon, that would be something to be worried about."

In a vague effort to bring about some order, Blake persisted. "The Federation frequently wipes certain files from the records, particularly when they are of a sensitive nature the Federation would rather forget about. It seems to me I remember there was some controversy over the Felinian project, they are simply covering their bases. The legends surrounding these people are plentiful and far-ranging. I thought perhaps you could bring some science into it, Avon, more than Vila's tales of wild cat-people stalking babies in the night." The challenge had been lain and Blake knew he could count on Avon to pick it up. He was not disappointed.

Avon, though disappointed he had not achieved what he had been aiming at, settled for playing his part. "The Felinian project was started several hundred years ago. The original aim of the Gentechs on the project was to create a race capable of hunting down dangerous animals on planets the Federation was attempting to colonize but could not due to inability to control the animal population. Modifications made genetically included providing them with claws, lethal by the age of three. They're eyesight is enhanced as well as their hearing. Information from their surrounding neighbors does not give any indication they would be friendly or likely to ask for assistance. They lack any civilized trade agreements with their neighbors and they trade with the Felinians at their own risk, the fur they trade in is highly prized."

"They jealously guard knowledge of their numbers, they attack only in single ship formation, making the exact number of their fleet impossible to calculate. Commerce would suggest, however, that they have a sizable fleet. The Farlian Empire which closest to their self-imposed and efficiently guarded borders, lost approximately half it's star systems to an aggression more than two hundred years ago. This invasion in addition to giving the Felinians more planets, also gave them several mining facilities and they now trade in various metals and crystals as well as fur." Avon spit out facts automatically as was expected of him, a learned teacher lecturing to a group of recalcitrant remedial students.

"The Gentechs used a combination of selective breeding and genetic manipulation. Their end result was not separate species, but rather a race, related though mutated from the human race. They are perfectly made for their purpose, but were not happy in being slaves. Records indicate at one point, they began to isolate themselves from the Gentech community. They began to wear a long braid made of hair which grows thicker and differently colored than the rest at the back of the neck, this they called their 'tail', it served to set them apart. But, the Gentechs did not want trained animals, they wanted thinking and reasoning people, that's where they went wrong. They had managed to engineer an intelligent race whose only purpose was to serve the Federation's purposes."

"That's disgusting creating a race to do their dirty work. What ever became of them?" Cally asked.

"The Gentechs and their facilities were located on one of the moons of Jupiter, effectively cutting them off from contact with the general population. They wanted to have an environment where they could be sure the race they created could breed among themselves and not lose genetic definition. Three generations were raised. They are meant to breed quickly, becoming sexually mature at 12. After only 50 years into the project, a colony of over one thousand Felinians lived on the moon base. The distance between the Felinians and the Gentechs grew exponentially until the Gentechs had virtually no contact with them other than as the Felinians deemed necessary. Communication was eventually lost with the Gentechs and the Federation sent out three freighters to Jupiter with the intention of evacuating the entire colony to the outer planets. The entire Gentech population had been slaughtered, including a contingent of top level Federation troops sent to guard them. The freighters landed, their crews were never heard from again and neither were the Felinians. No communication has ever been received or attempted by the Federation."

"Well that's the answer to your deleted files then." Blake said easily, feeling he did not quite understand Avon's reluctance in the matter beyond his ever growing need to undermine authority on the ship. "The Federation was caught in a mistake they did not want to admit to, it would have been standard procedure to erase the files."

"You don't understand!" Avon slapped the palm screen on the table for emphasis. "Files were deleted in a specific manner, not just everything relating to the project, but very specific files, leaving others completely intact. It was the result of a surgical precision capable of being traced only by someone looking directly for it, few programmers are capable of that kind of precision."

"I understand Avon." Blake answered blithely. "These people know their way around computers, just as well, though I'm sure not better than you do and it makes you nervous. We'll make sure we don't involve anything to do with computers unless you've approved it." Blake felt that closed the topic, though Avon's dark gaze continue to bore through him. Avon completed his circuit of the room, hands clasped behind him, turned and favored Blake with his 'you poor idiot, you can't possibly understand' looks. He had vented himself, he had impressed on everyone his superior understanding of the perils to follow, he would cede from here and Blake knew it. "What else did you find?"

Now a dare, Avon smiled at himself, though he was not entirely sure he should be happy at knowing this game so well, after all, there were more important things than getting to Blake, at least there had been. "Nothing pertinent." He said briskly, sitting down once more, indicating his participation in the conversation was at an end.

A collective sigh circulated the room palpably. They all knew very well Avon's penchant for digging up useless but interesting facts that he enjoyed keeping to himself, they were seldom interesting to anyone else, but as they knew Blake would insist.

Avon had gone back to reviewing his screen disinterestedly. He waited the usual length and added a few second for emphasis before he looked up again. It was clear to him that Blake missed the point entirely, after all, there was no way he could grasp the implications. Every programmer had a particular style honed and perfected from their own previous experiences, entirely individual, like a fingerprint. His were all over the deleted files. He gave up, though, knowing the could not make them understand any further, there was nothing they could do anyway. He decided quite suddenly he would appreciate and by some chance, benefit, from other opinions on the puzzle he had found. "Recent attempts have been made by the Federation to access the Felinian files prior to institution of a project called Pandora. Apparently several Felinian women were trained at Federation expense, their arrivals were clearly noted, where they are now is not indicated."

"All women. Why?" Vila asked, women were always something to be interested in.

Avon was the teacher once more and despite himself, he felt better about it. "Apparently, the Felinians do not educate their women, not an unheard of practice. In this case, however, all the participants were extremely intelligent and earned advanced degrees at some of the Federation's most prestigious learning facilities from medicine to astrophysics. The last degree was granted in trauma surgery less than five years ago. The degree is listed clearly. Other than receiving the degree, the recipient is not mentioned at all and it is not clear whether she is still in Federation territories or not, the records have been deleted and the project was discontinued shortly after the degree was granted due to counsel conflict on their further funding."

"Perhaps those who participated in the program were never returned to their home world and the Felinians are upset about it." Jenna hypothesized.

"Possibly, though you're right Avon, it is interesting but hardly pertinent." Blake said, gaining his hold on the conversation once more. "Whoever deleted those records is a puzzle, but sheds no light on whether or not we should meet with these people and try to negotiate."

Avon called up the relevant information once more, he hadn't really thought he would gain any useful insight from them and he knew that Blake had already made up his mind anyway, no clear path other than acceptance made itself available to him. He got up sullenly, crossing to the other side of the table where Blake stood reviewing a hard print of the region of space they were heading for. He took the palm screen and pressed into Blake's hands. "It is not relevant at all unless you consider that I deleted those files." A thin smile graced Avon's undefeatable features as he looked at Blake defiantly. "You can ask Orac, he will confirm it." That being his final comment, Avon left the room and the comment hanging perceptibly in the air as he headed for his console. More facts were needed, more figures if he was going to settle down his thoughts and they had to be settled, he instinctively knew he was hovering on the edge of flashbacks that had to be avoided at all costs, the episode with Grant had been bad enough, he was still recovering. Of one thing he was certain, flashbacks were deadly and the only way to avoid them successfully was to engross himself in some task. There were always tasks to be done about, he made sure of it. At present, however, he found it difficult to concentrate on any of them. When all else failed, there was the square root of pi and though simple enough, it was distraction enough for him at present, he let the numbers calm him. One half of his mind kept adding numbers to the decimal point while the other half kept tract of how many places he had reached. His personal best was well over 500 and he was determined to break it. The distant sound of Anna's voice became more distant by the moment and soon forgotten completely, she did not exist and never would again and the hollowness that followed that realization became just as distant.

The coordinates they had received were well distant from what appeared to be the dominant city of the planet. Avon confirmed quietly the absence of scanning signals as they put into orbit smoothly. The planet, named Dartine, was well outside any patrolled Federation planet, they were relatively safe, detecting no pursuit. Cally descended the stairs to the teleport causally, dressed in light surface clothes. The others were already there. "Everything is earth-normal." She said snapping on a bracelet. "Fairly temperate zones for most of the planet's year. It seems to be used primarily as an agricultural planet. Their technology is unconfirmed, but it seems they trade for most of what they need. They trade in animal pelts primarily, enough of a market exists so that they are able to trade for whatever they need apparently."

"I don't see why I should have to go, Blake." Vila lamented uselessly, clasping his belt around him. "There's no use for me down there."

"There's even less use for you up here." Jenna scoffed.

Blake was not sure what to expect, so he wanted as many numbers as he could possibly take, though data had suggested numbers would not make a difference if they intended to be hostile. Cally was going because these people were supposed to be telepathic and no one even knew if they could speak, Federation records were less than clear, though records gained from surrounding systems indicated they did trade with them and while there were not overly friendly, they obviously communicated with them. Surprisingly, Avon had volunteered, though Blake was not sure if that was entirely good. Avon had recently become all too observant of his movements for his own liking. Leaving Jenna alone on the ship seemed reasonable since there were no Federation bases near the system they were in. They were pretty far out from the inner planetary systems, and as such Federation power and influence. No indication could be obtained as to what sort of independent militia or space fleets existed in the area. At present, no ships could be detected within the sector, even freight traffic, so Blake felt relatively safe at least. "Let's get moving, it will be dark down there soon and I would like to get the lay of the land before we run into anyone." Blake said, ushering a reluctant Vila toward the teleport area sternly. Avon and Cally were already waiting, ignoring Vila's protests as usual.

Something undefinable was bothering Avon and he did not like it one bit. He needed something to get his thoughts on something and a trip down to the surface seemed a good idea. He needed a focus and he was not about to let Blake out of his sight either. He fidgeted uncharacteristically with his gun as everyone gathered on the teleport pad, uneasiness growing stronger despite his efforts.

They arrived in an open field bathed brightly in the afternoon sun. There was no one about and no buildings of any sort, but that was expected as per Zen's report on the area. Upon reporting their status to the ship, Blake did not get a reply. Avon and Cally tried their bracelets with no better luck. Blake looked in askance at Avon, who shrugged, his discomfort climbing to a nearly intolerable level. "Zen reported random ionic reefs in the upper atmosphere, if one were between us and the ship, communication could be effected. Try again later, it should be clear." He looked around discouragingly at the field they found themselves in, alone. It was a quite open area and no one could be seen anywhere, nor was there anywhere to hide. Behind them, perhaps a mile, cliffs rose sharply against the landscape. In the other direction, the land became slightly more hilly and tree-covered. Avon walked curiously toward the line of trees, stopping suddenly. *Ware the hills, the patrols are out early and far from the city today.* A voice, undistinguishable, his own but not his own blew vaguely through his mind. He was not even sure he had heard anything, but kept his distance from the trees anyway. He looked over at Cally wondering if she had heard anything. If she did, she said nothing, her expression was slightly bewildered though and he decided he would speak to her when they could be further from the others.

Blake sat down while the others went off in different directions, getting the lay of the land. He did not want to stray too far from where they had teleported, so they could signal again from the same spot.

"Eeew!" Came Vila's startled voice from a few feet away.

"What is it, Vila?" Blake asked.

"Some kind of dead animal." Vila answered in disgust.

Avon wandered over and looked over his shoulder. "Someone's dinner most likely. What's kind of arrow is that?" He pointed to a shaft sticking out of the creature's side. Curious, Vila bent down to pick up the animal for closer inspection, wanting to know what sort of weapons these people were likely to have, after all, bows and arrows could hardly be a threat. He froze instantly as a voice came from the brush in front of him.

"Touch that thief, and you lose your hand!"

Vila snatched his hand away quickly, looking around for the source of the voice, relaxing somewhat as a small boy appeared from the brush. By his size, he could not be more than five. He wore a sleek black one-piece tunic that clung to him tightly. A fur-lined cloak reached to his waist and he carried a rather vicious looking weapon, which he pointed threateningly at Vila. Despite is size, he carried himself with tight, predatory precision, every movement calculated and economized. His jet black shoulder-length hair was bound at the back of his head by a leather thong. A thick braid of white and golden-red hair extending for more than two feet was decorated by various pieces of jewelry and painted bone fragments. At the end of the braid was a clasp of gold and set with a large emerald that caught Vila's eye immediately. The boy's face was stern and looked older than he could possibly be. Sharp, severe lines made up the shape of his face. His eyes were brown, the pupil slitted. Triangular ears topped is head, gold striped with red and trimmed in jet black, they moved about independently as he surveyed the group in the field. He grabbed the animal, growling as he stuffed it a bag he carried and then stood up from a crouch to better view those before him. He cocked his head to the side as he studied each.

"Your human, aren't you?" He asked curiously. "I've seen some of your kind down at the freighter ports. The area is restricted and no one goes there, but they ignore me." He spoke softly and looked up cautiously at Avon and then Cally in turn.

Blake stood up and turned toward the youth. "We don't want to hurt anyone, we came here to talk to someone in charge. Do you live around here?"

Before anyone could see him move, the boy crossed to the other side of the circle they had been investigating to stand a few feet in front of Blake, studying him intently, weapon leveled and ready, he growled softly before he spoke, one ear directed at where Vila and Avon stood and the other towards where Cally was moving slowly toward him. "I can sense your intentions, be warned if you intend violence, I will not hesitate to kill you." He looked back at Blake, defying him to question his statement and perfectly ready to prove what he said.

"Well mannered little thing, isn't he?" Vila said, turning with disbelief to Avon who never took his eyes off the youth. "Just what is that contraption he keeps pointing at everyone?"

"It's a crossbow Vila, it fires bolts or darts, likely it's capable of bringing down small animals mostly and foul, but I don't think you'd like to have one stuck in you." Avon smiled faintly at the thought of how much noise Vila could make over the slightest scratch.

"Are you Felinian?" Cally asked, standing next to Blake watching the youth who had commenced pacing a wary circle around Blake and Cally, never presenting his back to Avon and Vila. "We came here to meet with some of your kind, we got a message."

The boy pointed the crossbow at Cally, growling. "Woman, are you in the habit of speaking without permission? Look at me." Cally looked down at him and froze, her eyes unable to look away from his. She gasped slightly and waved the over's concern away. The boy looked away, slinging his crossbow over his back casually, apparently he found them no threat. He had a knife sheath strapped to each arm and Avon wondered distantly why someone who was supposed to have lethal claws at three years of age would bother being so obviously armed, perhaps they were not nearly as deadly as they had been purported to be. He made not a sound as he walked carefully on the dry grass of the field. He turned imperiously to Blake. "I have no kind, the Felinians do not accept me, neither do your kind. You had better hope you don't run into anyone else out here. The Star Commander will not have humans outside the perimeters in the city. He'd likely filet any of your kind he found this far outside the city."

"Is he in charge? I think that's who we came to talk to." Blake said, obviously the child did not understand their intentions here and he did not expect him to.

The boy looked at him as though he were stupid. "One does not speak to the Star Commander, don't look at him, don't dare reach for a weapon or he'll kill you without thinking. You don't understand. He's got his patrols out late this afternoon, he must have spotted your ship and got nervous, they never come out this far. You're on my lands, though, he can't cross the territorial lines, at least he shouldn't." He looked around at the surrounding hills uncertainly.

"Congratulations, Blake, you've lead on another useless chase." Avon said dryly.

The boy paused in his circle and looked sharply at Cally. "Do not try to scan me, Auron, I find it rude, especially when you have no shields of your own." Cally looked away once more, his ears pricked as he scanned the hills carefully.

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