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By Alice C. Aldridge
Page 1 of 18

Travis blinked his eye as the shimmer of Liberator's teleport beam dissolved, leaving them on the surface of the planet.

"Down and safe," Blake murmured into his bracelet. "Have Avon stand by with the equipment. Our welcoming committee hasn't put in an appearance yet, so I'm leaving the comm link open."

"What's the matter, Blake? Don't trust your new allies?"

"Things have changed on Zircaster since the withdrawal of Federation troops. Besides current data is essential in dealing with the colonists."

Travis did not continue the discussion, glancing around the area uneasily. This was not the world he remembered with its ramshackle, overcrowded warrens huddled around the huge mechanized commercial agricultural facility. In the aftermath of the Andromedan war, the farming factories had been left little more than rubble as surviving colonists fled from the devastated lowlands into the mountains, where it was easier to hide from Federation patrols or bloodthirsty renegades. According to Blake's contact, the fugitives had initially prospered, building snug, sturdy cabins and raising enough food to keep them alive through the harsh winters.

But without Star One's regulation of the weather control satellites, Zircaster's temperate climate had deteriorated, with increasingly severe winters and harsh summer droughts. Even the annual rainfall had become sporadic, dwindling until this year there had been no precipitation at all. Without satellite control, the planetary jetstream shifted and systems which normally dropped rain in the mountains were breaking up long before they reached the settlement, leaving its once lush valleys parched and crops withering. in the fields. Though Zircaster's colonists had suffered at Federation hands, the aftermath of the Andromedan War and Blake's attack on Star One had left the planet itself battered, its ecosystems on the brink of collapse.

That's why Blake was here with the most advanced weather control equipment money could buy. Hoping to undo the harm he'd done at Star One and, with Avon's reluctant cooperation, help the settlers of Zircaster become a viable colony again.

Travis had his own agenda for this visit. Like Blake he had sins to atone for, ghosts to exorcise, but unlike Blake his face was too well known and hated by the survivors to allow him to move freely among them. However, with the help of one of Avon's gadgets, a holographic image inducer, he - hopefully- should be able to walk among the colonists unrecognized.

Avon had been in full sarcastic mode as he fine-tuned the device before Travis and Blake teleported down, "This is an imaging device, Travis, using light and shadow to create an illusion. It won't hold up to inclement weather. . . "

"I was told it hasn't rained in this particular region in over a year," Travis replied testily.

"Or intimate touch of any sort."Avon continued. "So try to resist your impulses, both carnal and heroic, unless you want to be guest of honor at a lynching."

His cover identity as an independent Free Trader captain scouting new trade routes had also fit in with Blake's plans. Now, Travis stared in the mirror, scrutinizing Avon's handiwork. His hair was rusty brown, his complexion sallow, and his two eyes a faded, watery blue. At first he'd worried that his lack of binocular vision and compromised depth perception would be a problem, then decided the inconsistency was too minor to worry about. Besides, if he was going to be talking to survivors of the Federation massacre, he was better off with nondescript features that people wouldn't remember five minutes later

Travis glanced around the deserted square where they'd materialized then asked sarcastically, "They were expecting us, weren't they, Blake?"

Blake seemed totally bewildered, "Where is everyone? The person I spoke to said there were over three hundred colonists in this valley alone."

Travis studied the dry rolling hills, spotting the parched fields and withered trees, then looked at the cloudless sky, noting the position of the sun relative to the horizon.

"Harvest time, most likely. If things are as bad as you've heard, every able-bodied man, woman and child are in the fields, gleaning every last scrap of the local food crop."

Glancing at him sidelong, Blake remarked, "I'd forgotten you were raised on a world much like this."

"Too much alike," was the grim reply as Travis scanned the horizon, suddenly spotting a dark pillar of smoke. "Looks like a large fire in that direction. Maybe that's why your welcoming committee didn't show."

Blake pressed the communicator on the teleport bracelet, "Dayna, have Zen scan the coordinates for that smoke cloud and put us down near the area."

"But Blake," she protested, "you don't know the conditions there. It could be a deathtrap."

"Just put us down out of sight of any bystanders and keep communications open," he replied pragmatically. "We can teleport back up if there's any trouble."

When they approached the area moments later, the situation was not what Blake had expected. A small group of roughly dressed men and women with blankets, rakes and shovels surrounded a burning field, though no one seemed in any hurry to put out the fire. Two men pinned the arms of a third while a tall, attractive dark-haired woman, with a torch still in her hands, berated him.

"Hawkins, you were told by the council to burn this field three weeks ago. . .before the rot spread any further. Why didn't you do it?"

"The whole field wasn't contaminated. We could have sifted out the bad grain and used the rest."

"And likely infected half the fields in this valley," she spat. "Don't you realize you put your neighbors at risk because of your pig-headed stupidity?"

" And my family will starve if you burn this field. There's nothing left, Deirdre." The colonist had stopped struggling against his captors and slumped in despair. "We lost our early wheat to the frost, the garden to edge worms, even the wild fruit trees aren't bearing or if they do, it's so bitter no one can stomach it. How am I going to feed my children?"

He broke down weeping.

The woman called Deirdre gazed a him with a mixture of compassion and exasperation. "They won't starve, Matthew. No one in this valley is going to starve as long as I have breath in my body." She nodded to the two men holding him to release their grip and after handing one of them the torch, put her arms around the sobbing man. "Things are bad but there's been enough harvested on other steadings that no one will starve - this year. We may have to tighten our belts another notch, but we won't starve."

"But what about next year?" Hawkins' reddened eyes bored into her "We barely had enough seed grain for this year's crops and things are even worse. . ."

Deirdre's voice turned sharp as her intense blue eyes glittered, "I said we'll manage. Now get out there with your neighbors and make sure the fire doesn't spread beyond this field. You've already given me enough trouble for one day."

As the chastised farmer joined his neighbors in keeping the blaze contained to his diseased field, the woman wiped sweaty hands on her calf-length skirt and strode purposefully towards Blake and Travis.

"You must be the visitors that Byron said to expect."

"Dr. Byron Daniels," Blake confirmed. "Yes, I spoke to him about the weather control equipment aboard my ship. He said he'd meet us at the town square and show us around."

She looked at him in exasperation, "He likely had an emergency call. Anyway, harvest is our busiest season. We don't have the time or energy to listen to every snake oil salesman that comes through, peddling a cure for our problems."

Travis hid a grin behind his hand at the woman's outspoken skepticism, while Blake tried to explain his intentions. "I'm not selling anything. . .miss."

"My name is Deirdre. . .Deirdre McConnell. Current head of the duly elected council of Conavale." Travis's brow drew down after hearing her name and the name of the valley. Something about her voice. . . her face. . .even the defiant look in her eyes seemed oddly familiar.

"So, why are you here?" she demanded sharply. "And keep it brief, I have a busy day ahead of me."

Blake drew in a deep breath, then exhaled sharply. "We brought weather control machinery that should mitigate some of the damage to your climate caused by the shutdown of Star One. Hopefully even restore the normal weather patterns on your planet, so you no longer suffer from droughts and other extreme conditions."

Deirdre stared at them, momentary hope lighting her expression, before she quickly stifled it. " What's the price for this miracle? There's always a price for salvation," she glared angrily at both of them, before muttering, "Just ask my father. . .or my brothers."

Travis felt a sudden jolt in the pit of his stomach while Blake tried to explain.

"Nothing. We don't expect you or your people to pay anything. Although some of them will need to learn how to maintain the equipment and make the necessary calibrations to adjust for changes in your planetary atmosphere. But that shouldn't be too difficult."

"Why?" she demanded. "What's the reason for this generosity, this benevolence? I don't believe in gifts with no strings attached. What's your real reason for doing this?"

There was a long agonized silence as Blake stared at the burning field and the dry, barren landscape surrounding them.

"To try and make up for the damage that I caused, by attacking Star One. . . just before the Andromedan War." Blake's voice was a strangled whisper.

There was a long shocked silence as Deirdre stared in disbelief

"You caused . . .attacking Star One. You're Roj Blake?" Deirdre's eyes were wide with shock and outrage.

Blake nodded shamefully and before Travis could stop her, Deirdre drew back her fist and threw a roundhouse blow with such force, smashing into the middle of his face, that Blake dropped to the ground, half-stunned, his nose gushing blood.

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Alice C. Aldridge

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