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Necessary Sacrifices

By Alice C. Aldridge
Page 2 of 23

Crawling slowly out of the shattered wreckage of his ship, Travis scanned his immediate surroundings for hostile life forms or possible survival resources. The barren grey plain undulated outward until it blended into the dismal pewter skies, naked of any sign of caves, firewood, or forage suitable for food or shelter. It seemed his life here would be short and painful. Already the raw wind cut through the tattered remnants of his black leather combatwear and the pale sun overhead provided little warmth.

Staring down at the torn plastiskin covering his cybernetic arm and the sputtering circuitry within, he wondered which would finish him first: the biting cold that would descend at planetary nightfall or the electrical surge from his malfunctioning arm. He'd been able to salvage a small survival kit from the remnants of his ship, with the tools to disable the limb's internal controls, except for the fact they were deep inside the shoulder joint itself and beyond his limited visual field. He could attempt to do the disconnect blindly by touch, but, in all likelihood, he'd just set off the neural shockwave that much sooner.

A deafening roar overhead jolted him out of grim contemplation of whether he'd prefer to die by freezing or electrocution. The foolhardy free trader who'd come to his rescue must also have suffered battle damage, forcing him to ground here and make repairs. By a stroke of fortune, he was coming in close to Travis's crash site and, as far as he could tell from the ship's descent, neither its main drive nor superstructure appeared severely damaged.

Travis smiled grimly to himself as he broke into a jog heading towards the rimrunner's touchdown site. Although such ships often had a three-man crew--pilot, navigator, and engineer/weapons officer--he felt confident of his ability to intimidate the foolhardy spacers into giving him a lift off this misbegotten world and out to a neutral planet. Most Free Traders were pragmatic enough not to argue with a loaded blaster and a man with his reputation for ruthlessness. For a fleeting second, he considered just shooting the whole crew and piloting the ship himself, until a sharp jolt from his failing cybernetic arm reminded him of his vulnerability. Far better to "reason" with the crew and work out a deal. Their survival for his passage offworld.

The craft had settled down at the edge of an old lava flow as blowing ash obscured much of her clean, crisp lines. Only the name, Reina del Sol, splashed in gold across her bow provided any brightness against the stark, grey sky. The airlock was sealed but responded to standard Federation access codes and he entered cautiously, using his left arm to operate the manual controls on the internal lock despite the pain searing into his shoulder, in order to keep his blaster out and ready.

He did not encounter anyone at the airlock or in the lower companionways so he moved cautiously, silent as a ghost, up to the flight deck. The ventilating system was operating at maximum but, judging by the acrid smoke and fumes, there had been major damage to the ship's computers and mainline systems. That suspicion was verified as he entered the cramped flight deck and found the smoke-charred panels where much of the guidance circuitry and main piloting controls were fused ceramic slag. Apparently, he and his "rescuer" were in the same bind.

Quickly glancing around for the pilot whose recklessness had overcome common sense, he only spotted a single body half-buried under a mound of shattered plasform. Judging by the elaborate autopilot system at the helm, installed by a computer tech of considerable skill, navigation, engineering, and weapons had all been slaved into the piloting controls. With it, one man could handle the ship, if he slept on the flight couch and didn't take stupid chances. . .like flying through an ion storm.

"Or picking fights with Federation pursuit squadrons," he muttered to himself. Heaving off the debris that covered the pilot's unconscious body, he swore a blistering oath as he spied the slender curves and fall of blonde hair. Kneeling beside her to confirm his suspicions, a cold fury surged through him as he brushed the hair back from her face.

"Stannis!" Her name was a strangled curse on his lips and his hand clenched in her jacket, lifting her semiconscious body off the deck. Blake's pilot, who had waltzed into a Space Command base and snatched Servalan and Kasabi's daughter right out from under Security's nose, forcing him to release the captured rebel in exchange for Servalan's worthless life.

"Where is he?" he spat. "Where's Blake?"

She was still too stunned to answer and he dropped her thoughtlessly, wheeling around in a fury and prowling through her ship, every sense hyperalert. There had to be some clue as to the location of Blake and the rest of his crimo scum. Much to his surprise, Jenna was not only alone but her cargo holds were empty as well. By the time he returned from scouring the vessel for some hint of the rebels' plans, Jenna had regained consciousness, although her face was pale as milk.

"You're wasting your time, Travis," she gasped through cracked, bloodied lips. "Blake isn't here."

The blonde smuggler glared up at him with surly defiance, despite the fact he could almost smell the stink of fear on her. There was a hopelessness in the slump of her shoulders that told him she wasn't expecting any rescue. That and the absence of Liberator's teleport bracelet on her slender wrist seemed to indicate she'd finally broken off with Blake and his hopeless Cause. Still, it wouldn't hurt to probe a little deeper.

"Where is he?" The reptilian gleam in that cold blue eye chilled Jenna to the bone, even more than the numbness seeping through her from the loss of blood.

"In hell or on the far side of the galaxy for all I know," she retorted with deliberate sarcasm, glaring at him in resigned petulance. "We've parted company."

"You expect me to believe that?" He squatted beside her, his expression flat and emotionless, observing the blood pooling under her body. "That Blake would let the best pilot in this sector just walk out on him? " He gazed at her obliquely. "You're good, Stannis. Good enough to command your own ship in the Federation. If you hadn't picked the wrong side."

"And you picked the right one?" she sneered. "Then why was that pursuit squadron hot on your tail?" She winced, shifting her weight and trying to ease the sharp pain shooting up from the gash in the back of her thigh. "Never mind, I don't really care. As for being a Federation pilot, modification to mutoid never appealed to me, if you know what I mean?" She moaned softly and caught her breath as the sharp pain bit deeper. "Well, get on with it, man. If you plan to beat on me till you get it through your thick skull I'm not lying about Blake's whereabouts."

Travis blanched, as something dark and painful surged up in his eye. Then straightening stiffly, he prowled around the flight deck as though hunting for something. "Bloody waste of time. The way you're bleeding, you'd be dead before you broke." With a grunt of satisfaction, he located what he was searching for, then knelt beside her. "Turn over."

She gaped at him dumbfounded for a moment and, when she wasn't quick enough to comply with his order, he flipped her on her side, one-handed, with surprising strength.

With a chill of horror, she felt him fumbling at the rent in her trousers, ripping it wider, and she flailed back at him with her fists, determined to fight off rape as long as she was still conscious!

He recoiled sharply, snarling at her, his voice hoarse and tight with effort, "Stop thrashing around, Stannis. Whatever gashed your leg, didn't tear the artery or you'd already be dead, but it's close enough that if you jiggle my elbow I'm likely to hit it myself."

She froze in shock, unable to believe this Federation butcher would try to save her life instead of finishing the job her crash-landing had started. Then a momentary searing pain along with a queasy odor of burning flesh made her realize he was using the laser cautery from the Reina's medical kit to stop the bleeding. After slapping a heavy field dressing into place and tossing her the gauze, he climbed slowly to his feet, favoring his left side much more than he had earlier and remarking with a weary sarcasm, "You can probably tie that on better than I can manage onehanded...and you won't have a Federation killer manhandling you."

She almost blushed that he was able to read her fears so well, then threw him a baffled, suspicious look.

"Why, Travis?" After your treatment of Cally and Avalon, you can't expect me to believe you've developed a sudden streak of chivalry?"

He shifted painfully and gave her a dark, hooded look. "Call it a favor returned, if you like...for getting that Federation pursuit squadron of my neck. Or simply the fact that you're more use to me alive than dead."

"Why were they after you?" Jenna was curious, ignoring for the moment the implied threat in his answer.

"After Blake escaped following his raid on Central Control, someone had to take the blame and I was the sacrificial goat." His smile was cold and bitter. "Of course, Servalan had to have concrete charges for the court martial, especially if she wanted the death penalty. So they dug up an old incident in which I was overly zealous in obeying orders to put down an insurrection on Zircaster and turned it into an `unauthorized' massacre of unarmed civilians." His jaw tightened as though holding back some dark and venomous secret. He bit off his next words harshly. "It worked. Despite the fact I had only done as I was ordered, there was enough self-righteous hypocrisy on that Board to have me drawn and quartered for the vidshows. I didn't wait around for the sentencing."

"You don't expect me to believe that pack of lies?" She pushed to a sitting position, gazing at him in open contempt.

"I don't care what you believe, Stannis. I saved your life because I need your help." His voice was devoid of emotion.

"What?!" She looked up, startled, from where she'd been knotting her bandage.

"The cybernetic circuitry in my arm is overloading its neural connectors. I need someone to short out the main power before the feedback delivers a fatal shock." He slid down the main panel till he was slouched beside her.

She stared into his hard-edged features, noting the grey tinge to his skin and clammy sweat oozing down his forehead.

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Alice C. Aldridge

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