Expeditionary ForceBy 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
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
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
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
. . . 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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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,
know, Avon. The Enclave may already be organizing a rescue wing
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
* * *
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
within the clan, they still had far too many links - financial and
- 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
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
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
"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 . . .
The room was deadly silent while Travis tried to take in the
implications of the strontium grenade Jenna had just dropped at his
"Dani's an independent," he finally rasped. "Why the hell
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
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
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
"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
* * *
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