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Picking up the Pieces

By Alice C. Aldridge
Page 1 of 14

"It's no good. Break off your approach, boy. The angle of entry is too steep."

Former Space Commander Colin Travis, who still tended to expect unquestioning obedience despite more than a year as a Free Trader captain, Travis didn't look up from the Flight Engineer's board to see if their new apprentice was following his orders.

But the trainee at the pilot's controls with Travis's determined jaw and Jenna's piercing hazel eyes countered tersely, "We're too low to make another orbit. I'd have to waste fuel on a suborbital approach. The angle's not that far off the beam. I can do it by dead reckoning."

"`Dead' is what we'll be if you make that foolhardy approach," Travis growled. " Obey my orders, you young idiot, and abort the landing!"

Jenna Stannis watched silently from her station at the navigator's board. The angle was steep but not impossible. Jason could probably make the landing, if he was half as good as he thought he was. But Travis was the co-pilot/trainer on this run and wouldn't appreciate her contradicting his orders.

She busied herself with logging the coordinates of all incoming orbital craft and tried to ignore the growing tension between the two. Jason's gaze was cold and unyielding and there was a tic in Travis's left cheek that did not bode well for his temper.

Headstrong and impulsive, Jason balked at the cautious, by-the-book instrument landing Travis had ordered. Instead he set coordinates for a fast intuitive approach requiring nerves of steel and a stomach to match.

"I'm piloting this craft and the final judgement is mine, Captain," Jason retorted, as he hit the firing controls that committed them irreversibly to the landing approach.

Cursing sulfurously, Travis reached for the override on his control panel but the abrupt attitude change caused him to misjudge his aim and hit the auxiliary rockets' firing switch instead! The unexpected power surge disrupted Jason's delicate handling of the reentry and they tumbled toward the planet's surface, yawing and pitching wildly.

Travis wrestled with his secondary controls using the full force of his cybernetic arm but with the override not activated, Jason still had primary helm control. The apprentice's instincts were those of a born pilot, but he lacked the training and experience to bring the ship out of its uncontrolled spin.

Sparks arced upwards and acrid fumes from the overheated controls set them coughing. Thrown against her restraints by the ship's wild gyrations, Jenna could only watch the viewscreens glowing white hot as their ship spiraled down into the atmosphere!

The blinding white glow exploded into darkness. . .

And ponderous stately chords of "The Federation Funeral March" droned from the communication panel. Then bright fluorescents flickered on while the vents labored to suck out smoke and fumes.

Jenna let out a shaky breath as the monitor's officious nasal tone admonished them, "Please check under your seats and remove all personal belongings before leaving the simulator. Failure to comply will result in delay of your final evaluation score."

Jason was seething with outrage, but Travis remained silent, his expression hooded and withdrawn, clutching the test flimsies in a white-knuckled grip . Long habit of caution kept the trio silent until they were back in the Stannis Compound, inside Travis and Jenna's suite and away from curious ears or spycams.

Then Travis turned a cold, vitriolic rage on Jason. "That was the most hare-brained, recklessly stupid example of piloting I've seen in years! At the FSA, you wouldn't have left the simulator alive. A firing squad would have executed you on the spot for deliberate defiance of a superior's orders!"

"This isn't the damned FSA" Jason spat. "At least in the Enclave, most trainers usually trust a trainee's instincts instead of playing it safe, flying by the numbers like you want me to do!"

"You expect me to trust your instincts? After that test run? I don't know about you, boy, but I've got better things to do with my life than wind up scattered bits and pieces across Sanctuary's hinterlands."

"If you hadn't panicked and tried to take control..." Jason started contemptuously, but his words were suddenly choked off the fierce grip of Travis's cybernetic hand on his throat.

"I don't panic, boy. Don't make that mistake again or I'm likely to forget..."

Jenna pushed angrily between the two of them, forcing Travis to relinquish his grip. "For pity's sake, Travis. He's still a raw apprentice. . .and our son besides. We're supposed to be training him, not beating him to a pulp!"

"Pounding seems the only way to get anything into that thick skull. " Travis glared at Jason's sullen withdrawn expression.

Jenna glared between the two of them in exasperation. "Mikhail was right. Inbred stubbornness has reached lethal levels in this clan. Butt your heads together as long as you like. I'm due at the refit yards."

Travis took a deep breath then let it out slowly, as the rage boiling through him died down to a simmer. But Jason was still seething and pushed rudely past Jenna, snarling, "If you don't have the balls to teach me how to pilot, I'll find someone who does. Like. . .Tarrant."

As Jason stalked out, Jenna arched an eyebrow at Travis. "That's all we need, Tarrant's irrepressible self-confidence added to Jason's adolescent reckless streak." She continued on a more serious note, "But you were too hard on the boy. He's sixteen and he thinks he's invulnerable."

Travis muttered in frustration as he hurled Jason's test scores at the nearest disposal chute. "Reckless adolescent idiocy. Never had to dealt with green troops. By the time they were assigned to my unit, they'd been conditioned to absolute obedience. . .or they were dead."

"Wonderful," Jenna sighed, wondering if it was too late to enlist in a Free Amazon mercenary company. Half-joking, she retorted, "Surely, you remember what it was like when you were his age?"

There was a long silence and when she looked into Travis's face, it was stark with pain.

"Mostly I try not to," he whispered hoarsely.

Travis remembered . . . running for his life through the fireweed as its caustic sap smeared into the fresh scratches whipped bloody by crown of thorns. Tears and sweat mingled, burning his eyes before dripping down his trembling muscles. Stumbling over an exposed root, he almost slammed into hard-baked ground, but managed to stagger onward, ignoring the red-hot pain knifing up his leg He gulped down burning sobs of air as the nightmarish howl of the fenris pushed him onward.

Feared by the Metis III colonists as the most brutally efficient killing machine on the planet, the fenris's hairless, low-slung, muscular body and razor-edged talons looked like a cross between a komodo dragon and a mountain lion. However, its reptilian predisposition for preferring its dinner warm and twitching was its most horrifying trait. The beast used venom sacs in its claws to immobilize its quarry, dragging its prey back to a hidden lair to feed at its leisure, often while the hapless victim was still alive, unable to move. He'd been unfortunate enough to stumble on a fenris larder once. The putrid odor of decaying flesh and crazed screams of one of its half-eaten victims were seared into his memory long after he charred the stinking pit into slag.

The beasts' normal range was in the high mountain caves beyond the settlement, but a scarcity of game had driven the beast down to the edge of the colony's fields. His older brother Diarmid had suggested that the two of them should do something about the "problem." Since Dar had been the one to sneak their father's blaster and its carefully hoarded charges out of the cabin, Colin had reluctantly agreed to act as bait to lure the fenris out of its lair and into Dar's weapon sights..

Only something had gone wrong. Dar was supposed to bring the beast down on the far side of the river. He'd lured the fenris right up to the bushes where his brother was supposedly lying in wait. . . and nothing happened. Now he was the doomed quarry of a fenris's relentless pursuit, with no hope of escape.

Colin turned to face the beast slavering on his trail, with nothing but a utility knife and a hopeless resolve not to die running in fear.

The lean reptilian body lunged out of the underbrush, its venom-tipped claws aimed at his eyes. Then a blinding light charred bone the top of its skull into a stinking black fog as the corpse dropped at his feet, still thrashing with inhuman vitality, splattering blood and brains across his trembling legs.

He gagged at the stench, retching as he dropped to his knees. When his outraged stomach settled, he glared weakly as Dar stepped calmly from behind the tree where he'd been waiting for his younger brother to lead the fenris into his sights.

He'd climbed unsteadily to his feet, glaring at his brother -- his darker mirror image -- in a mixture of relief and fury which Dar had ignored, as he recharged the aging blaster. Dar, who was always calculating and planning, with ocean depths of guile behind a charming smile and eyes that weighed every word and action. Recently Colin had begun to recognize his older brother's ruthless pragmatism and calm manipulation. But this was the first time Dar had deliberately endangered his life! Or worse, knowing what he did of the fenris's habits.

Staggering over to the still twitching carcass, he kicked it in a fit of temper then turned to Dar wanting to pound those coolly amused features into a bloody pulp.

"Why the bloody hell did you wait so long?" he gritted out. "You were supposed to bring him down on the other side of the creek!"

Dar deliberately ignored him until he lunged forward, burying his hands in his brother's shirt and pulling him up until their eyes locked. "Why, damn you? Why?!"

The older boy shrugged off his frantic grip. "We were too close to the hill country. Wounded, it could have escaped into the caves and we'd have nothing to show for our efforts."

Colin shuddered. "Another half second and you'd have had my gutted carcass to show for your efforts.

His brother's answer had only troubled him more.

Dragging out his own well-honed blade to blood their kill, Dar continued with a bitter sarcastic note to his voice. "Then our father would just add one more stone cairn to that monument to his pride and stubbornness behind our cabin and our mother would have one more 'lost bairn' to croon her mad lullabies to on this misbegotten hellhole of a planet. " He slashed at the carcass viciously, splattering the thirsty ground with the orange gore.

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