Necessary SacrificesBy Alice C. Aldridge
Page 1 of 23
Hidden in the shadow of random orbital debris, the hawk-faced, dark-haired
man watched as the Federation squadron ripped into the planet's gravity well
at just under Time Distort six, dumping velocity in a furious burst of energy
that lit up the system like an emergency beacon. He snarled in frustration as
the energy flare generated by that near suicidal high-velocity maneuver
overloaded the cloaking system of his scout, making it suddenly visible to
Firing his engines, he skipped along the outer edge of the planet's atmosphere gambling that its albedo would confuse his pursuers' sensor arrays long enough for him to get out of range. Unfortunately, whether out of a justifiable fear of Servalan's poisonous wrath or genuine greed for the bounty on his quarry's head, the squadron commander was vigilant and suspicious. He ignored the distorted data his sensors reported and simply used his viewscreen to pinpoint the shadow of the fugitive's ship.
Within moments ex-Space Commander Travis was surrounded, ensnared by a squadron commander using the Picard Maneuver taught to first-year Academy cadets. Although Travis had the instincts of a born pilot and enough hands-on experience to outfly and outfight any two pursuit craft with a ship of equal size and power, his current vessel was a cramped, lightly armed scout with virtually no shielding. Against three to one odds and the superior reflexes and suprahuman endurance of the mutoids piloting the Federation craft, Travis knew he was overmatched.
Still, he wasn't about to surrender to the arrogant commander of this flotilla, even if Servalan had given orders to take him alive. Blake's surprise attack on Space Command had allowed Travis to escape Federation "justice" amid the panic-stricken mob that fled the courtroom just before the inner hull blew. Despite years of disciplined obedience, a fierce instinct for survival overruled his long-conditioned loyalty and in the melee that followed, Travis had smashed his way into Servalan's office intending to use her as a hostage to assure his freedom. Unruffled by his armed presence in her sanctum, she'd offered her "assistance" with his getaway. For a price.
"You're not going to use me anymore," he'd spat, refusing the pursuit ship and mutoid pilot who would have reported back to her. Instead, he'd taken a faster, virtually invisible stealth prototype and run for the Rim, intending to put Space Command and its Supreme Commander's ambition behind him forever.
He had joined the Space Force at a time when its uniform was something to be proud of; when troopers protected colonists on the Outer Worlds from raiders and hostile life forms and kept the peace against terrorists like Shivan and Avalon. He rubbed his left shoulder where artificial joint met tortured flesh. <And Blake too,> he thought grimly. <The worst of the lot.> But now Servalan was turning the once proud and respected force into an army of thugs and bullies whose sole purpose was to support her rise to power.
Glancing again at the surrounding pursuit ships, he ignored the buzz of an incoming comm signal. Better to go quick and clean in a burst of blaster fire or by opening the hatch to space rather than face Servalan's vindictive smile as she condemned him to the slave pits on Ursa Prime or the tender mercies of still another psychomanipulator. <NO!> Travis vowed bitterly to himself <At least I'll take an honor guard into hell with me!> and started to redline the drive mechanism of the scoutship as he plotted a kamikaze course through the middle of the formation.
But before he could engage the self-destruct, a free trader with the stripped-down lines of a blockade runner hurtled between his ship and the squadron, breaking up the overlapping shield effect that had nearly immobilized him. Seizing the chance offered by that momentary diversion, Travis raked his blasters down the port side of the command ship, disabling its main shield generators.
Meanwhile, the second pursuit ship peeled off after the trader, trying to get a weapons lock but the rimrunner snap-rolled end-over-end, evading his tracking beam. Oblivious to the abrupt course change, the Federation pilot blundered along his predicted vector until hunter became hunted and the trader spat a sharp burst of short-range plasma bolts that smashed the pursuer's shields, opening his bridge to space in a white spume of escaping oxygen.
Although crippled by his opening attack, the Federation flag ship returned Travis's fire, forcing the ex-Space Commander into a fast inside loop that wracked him with unshielded g-force while his tiny vessel shuddered with the stress of deep-space manuevers it was not designed for. Ignoring the howl of its alarms, Travis reversed course to face the lead ship again, triggering his fire controls until, with a soundless glare, it dissolved in a burst of superheated plasma.
Travis's ship bucked wildly, caught in edge of the explosion, while random debris flung around the drive sphere opened a deep gash in his forehead. Pausing only long enough to wipe the blood from his eye, Travis resumed his desperate struggle with the disintegrating controls, trying to pull the erratically pitching ship out of the planetary atmosphere before it broke up.
As his instrument readings went redline, warning of impending failure of the drive system, Travis nursed a feeble hope that the planet below might be at least marginally habitable since he'd likely be spending the rest of his life there. . . if he managed to survive the landing.
But the shrilling proximity alarm warned of the approach of the surviving pursuit ship and his chances of making a landing dropped to zero. He tried to open fire but his blasters only sputtered weakly before an empty silence declared their depleted energy banks. He cursed the tenacious Federation pilot then firewalled his faltering thrusters in a final hopeless effort to ram the larger vessel.
"You bloody bastard! I may be finished, but you aren't getting back to Servalan to gloat over your kill!"
Once again, before he could give vent to his suicidal impulses, the free trader came to his rescue with a decisive salvo of plasma bolts that smashed the pursuit ship's main drive and triggered an overload, consuming it in the fury of its own atomic fires. Trying to outrun the detonation, the blockade runner skipped along the edge, heeling over hard as only its pilot's superb skill prevented a fatal spiral into the atmosphere.
Travis muttered sourly to himself as he fought his controls, struggling to stay in one piece long enough to land.
"Typical heroic ending, trader, both of us shot down in flames. Wish I could be more grateful but I don't think we'll be grounding on one of the Federation's garden spots."
The experimental scout ship he'd stolen was stripped down for speed and sensor-blinding qualities but in the atmosphere, it had the aerodynamic qualities of a falling brick. Travis wasn't even sure why he was fighting so hard to bring it in for a soft landing after his earlier self-destructive impulses. But a rekindled instinct for survival had overcome that death wish...for the present at least. Probably due more to curiosity about his rescuer than any other reason.
Any rim runner who'd stick his nose into the middle of a Federation ambush obviously had more guts than brains...and he hadn't seen that kind of hellbent piloting since the three months he'd been on restricted duty, teaching Urban Warfare Tactics to wet-behind-the-ears cadets at the Federation Space Academy while Medical did the neural connections to his cybernetic arm. There'd been a cadet there with the same kind of spit-in-your eye reckless bravura that free trader had shown. Travis wondered what had become of the boy. Probably hadn't survived to graduate, judging by the blindly orthodox tactics of pilots he'd just battled.
Finally, not even brute force could keep his floundering ship stable in the final descent and, in desperation, he punched in the backup retrostabilizers. They cut in late and at a quarter power and as he hit the emergency switches to throw every last erg of power into the landing sequence, a mocking voice in his head whispered. <At least it'll be quick. At this velocity you won't even leave a grease spot.>
But at the last second, the emergency power cut in long enough to slow the ship so its landing impact was bone-shaking rather than shattering. As it settled to the ground with an almost human groan, a deep silence descended on its battered hulk.
"I've called this meeting so we can discuss our options about future operations," Blake began tentatively.
"Hopefully, ones that are not as suicidally insane as the last two," Avon injected with his usual cool vitriol.
"It was a calculated risk," Blake dragged his arm across his eyes in weary resignation "It's success would have aided the Resistance enormously."
"And your rash, foolhardy attack on Space Command? How did that further your Cause, noble leader? Or was it simply a sop to your guilty conscience, trying to atone for the death of one of your devoted followers?" Avon continued in a snide tone.
"Stop it!" Cally broke in with unusual intensity. "There was no way Blake could have known Central Control was an elaborate Federation hoax."
"Not by relying on the ill-informed, ignorant rebel bands as his sole sources of information." The computer expert's contempt was plain. "But you're afraid to face the truth, the hard facts that ORAC would make inescapably clear. Your outlandish scheme of inciting the oppressed citizens to throw off the Federation's control is a madman's delusion and doesn't stand the chance of a snowball in hell." Avon's savage outburst cut through Blake like a knife.
"If you are that disgruntled with my cause. . .and my leadership," he responded softly, "why didn't you leave with Jenna on that blockade runner you helped her repair?"
"Because I am not one of your blindly loyal followers. Why should I settle for that fourthhand death trap, instead of the fastest, most indestructible ship in the galaxy? No Blake, you won't get rid of me that easily. Even with your penchant for foolhardy actions and hopeless causes, this is still the safest place for me to be until I find my bolthole and the wherewithal to live the life of safety and ease that I require. Until then, I intend to be the token voice of rationality in this chorus of fools."
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