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The Best Revenge

By Alice C. Aldridge
Page 1 of 39

Travis opened his eye slowly then winced as the glaring white walls of his cell stabbed new shards of agony into a head that was already exploding with pain. He took several slow deep breaths to subdue the throbbing in his skull to a more manageable level then cautiously swung his legs off the pulldown sleep pod and surveyed his most recent gaol.

Time shifted backwards and he broke into a cold sweat, his heart pounding heavily. For a moment he believed was still in the grim holding cell in Space Command HQ awaiting his court martial. That secret Star Chamber tribunal was ostensibly convened to bring him to "justice" for the murder of civilians on Zircaster, although in actuality its purpose was to silence him about the debacle surrounding Blake's raid on Central Control in the Forbidden Zone. But he no longer wore Space Command black, nor was he sequestered within the gunmetal walls of Servalan's headquarters.

Instead he sat, nude and shivering, his body covered with welts and bruises he had no memory of acquiring. A stained grey utility coverall lay crumpled at his feet and with pain-wracked deliberation, he donned it in an attempt to ward off the bone deep chill pervading his cell. His surroundings had the typical prison stench of vomit, urine, and old blood, but the stink was overlaid with heavy chemical odors as well.

Where in the two hundred civilized worlds was he? How had he gotten here? Was this another session with one of Servalan's psychostrategists? Or something worse?

He glanced around hopelessly, then slumped in a corner and buried his face in his hands trying to put the jigsaw puzzle of images within his mind into some kind of coherent whole. With a kaleidoscopic burst, events of the past six months broke through the white wall of pain blocking them and Travis remembered why he was alone and abandoned in this sterile laboratory cell.

That farce of a trial had been the final straw that shattered his loyalty to Space Command and when Blake's raid on HQ provided him the opportunity to escape Servalan's control, he'd taken his chance and run. That reckless strike resulted in Blake's disillusioned pilot, Jenna Stannis, calling it quits, as well. While they were separately running for their lives, an unfortunate clash with a Federation pursuit squadron left them stranded together on a lifeless, inhospitable world. Forced to cooperate for mutual survival, they forged an uneasy alliance to repair Jenna's ship, the Reina del Sol and escape the planet.

After reaching the Rim Worlds, they intended to go their separate ways, but reality dictated otherwise. His reputation as Servalan's bloodhound made him a hunted man, unable to sell his weapon's skills to the highest bidder as he'd planned. While Jenna discovered competent, trustworthy crewmembers weren't so easy to find for resuming her smuggling career on the lawless border of Federation space

Forced by circumstance to continue working together, their grudging respect for one another's skills slowly grew into a wary partnership that managed to survive confrontations with two of Jenna's former allies - Cally and Avalon. Both rebels had more than sufficient reason to shoot him on sight, until Jenna interceded and forced them to curb their homicidal impulses because she "needed" him.

Need. Much too weak a word to describe the emotions searing through his body like liquid fire as he recalled Jenna's velvet mouth and soft panting cries that reawakened desires long suppressed by the discipline of the service. Or how her warm hands soothed his nightmare haunted sleep when the savage past threatened to overwhelm him. Warm, gentle hands-not blood-stained and corpse-cold, like Servalan's mutoid guards. His memories burned cold recalling how Servalan had had a neural augmenter had implanted in his cybernetic arm to fuel his hatred of Blake and transform him from a loyal Federation officer to psychopathic killing machine.

He massaged his temples slowly as he sifted through those emotion-charged images, still attempting to recall the sequence of events that led him here.

He and Jenna had just developed a cautious working relationship when they got wind of Blake's intention to sabotage Star One. Although they wanted no part of that insane suicidal strike, old loyalties and genuine fear of the chaos likely to result from the base's destruction forced them to follow Liberator to the galaxy's edge. When they discovered the Andromedan fleet lurking just beyond Star One's minefield, it made their effort to stop Blake that much more urgent.

His mouth twisted in a caustic, self-mocking smile. He and Blake had finally confronted one another in Star One's underground control room and, for Jenna's sake, he'd tried reasoning with the rebel rather than shooting him on sight. More the fool he! Blake had not exercised similar restraint, with the result that both of them were out of action before the aliens launched their attack on Star One. Jenna and Blake's new pilot, Del Tarrant, had led Liberator's crew in a desperate last-ditch holding action until the Galactic Eighth Fleet had arrived to finish off the alien armada. Afterwards, Jenna had come after him on Star One and they'd escaped Federation pursuit ships by the skin of their teeth,

Though Jenna had alluded to reclaiming her ships before the battle, only afterwards while he was convalescing from his injuries, did she fully explain what was involved. Years before, after her father and mother were killed in a clash with a Federation border patrol. Jenna, a pilot-apprentice, had vowed to avenge them. To stop her, her uncle, as First Captain of her clan, had negotiated a marriage contract to stop her from pursuing that vendetta. So Jenna fled the Enclave to work as free-lance pilot and smuggler and strike back against the Federation when ever she could. She also searched for a man strong enough to help her reclaim those ships, which was the chief reason she'd found Blake's charisma and persuasive abilities so appealing.

Only Blake had other plans.

After leaving Blake, Jenna had almost given up on returning to the Enclave. Until a crash landing had brought the two of them together. Much to Travis's surprise, after only a few weeks of cooperating for their mutual survival, Jenna had suggested they team up to reclaim her ships. Strictly as a business proposition, of course.

Travis shook his head in rueful disbelief. He was nobody's prize catch, even within the Federation, but Jenna had said that skill, cunning, and boldness were the traits her clan valued. And those he did possess in abundance.

Even though he agreed to help Jenna regain her inheritance, he wasn't in any particular rush to return and make that claim, preferring to continue their trade missions on the Rim while pumping her for information on the Enclave and her family. He'd even have welcomed little more time to defuse the physical and emotional landmines in their relationship. But Jenna had been adamant about setting course for Sanctuary as soon as he recovered from his injuries.

"The Reina's an overage refitted blockade runner that's fought two battles and flown a high speed pursuit in the last six months. It's sheer luck her comp systems haven't crashed or she hasn't blown her drive rods by now. We must negotiate with my uncle from a position of strength. I'd hoped to have Liberator at my command . . . but the Reina will have to do."

The Federation had not considered the Free Trader's Enclave as either a potential ally or a threat, so intelligence on them was virtually nonexistent. Still, he'd been confident that his finely honed combat skills were more than sufficient to meet any challenge they could throw at him.

More the fool he!

Once they set course for the Enclave's homeworld, Jenna's urgency to rejoin her clan had been replaced by an increasingly brittle anxiety. Their entry into Enclave controlled space had been relatively uneventful once Jenna relayed a copy of her genetic ID to the patrol ship they'd encountered, but that did little to reassure her. When they finally arrived at Sanctuary, they were instructed to remain in orbit while Jenna's master's papers were processed. Well acquainted with the snail's pace that bureaucracies operated at, Travis suggested they both get some rest. But Jenna had been edgy and ill at ease, insistent on standing watch, although the Reina's automatics could easily manage station keeping orbit

Recognizing it was a waste of breath to argue with her in that mood, he'd gone to his bunk, relying on a long cultivated ability to catnap even during the nerve-wracking hours just before a battle. Nonetheless, sleep eluded him, until finally he pulled on his pants and stalked foreward, determined to discover just what was preying on Jenna's mind.

Jenna stood in the shadows, staring at the viewscreen image of the planet below. Her arms were folded tightly across her chest and she was shivering despite the constant temperature maintained by the ship's climate control. Travis halted cat-silent at the entrance to the flight deck, watching and waiting.

"... not a mistake coming back. Mikhail is my father's brother, he was only trying to protect me. " Her head dropped and although he could not see her tears, he had no doubt they were there. Midnight fears and doubts undid far too many able-bodied troopers. Time to put a stop to this.

He padded behind her, placing both hands on her shoulders. She froze, rigid and unyielding, still radiating the anxiety he'd sensed earlier, then slumped against him in surrender. He breathed the wildflower fragrance of her hair and then began to skillfully knead the tensely drawn muscles in her neck and back.

"If you're this uncertain about facing your clan, why go through with it? There are plenty of other ships out there. . .for the taking, without having to confront your past," he murmured.

She pulled irritably away. "I have to go back, Travis. Not just for the ships, but as a Stannis and a member of the Enclave. I need to reclaim that kinship."

"Kinship." There was a dark note in Travis's voice. "That's a deadly weapon to put in the hands of people you hardly remember."

"The Enclave is based on kinship," Jenna began wearily. "With family dynasties and empires and power struggles between various clans and septs for profitable routes and favorable contracts." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "There's also power brokering and arranged marriages and family alliances. When I ran away it wasn't just because I was angry at my uncle for thwarting my vendetta against the Federation, I didn't want any part of my clan's dynastic schemes and arranged marriage. But, bringing in an outsider as my bondmate. . . ." Her voice faded away

Travis made a fist with his cybernetic hand, emphasizing its deadly power. "If strength and skill are all they require for your bondmate, you needn't worry. Or is there something you're not telling me?" He gripped her shoulders tightly "You don't break into a cold sweat if you expect your family to greet you with open arms. Bloodties can strangle more surely than a hangman's noose." ."And bind far tighter," she answered in a whisper..

"I have to go through with this, Travis. I've tried to ignore my past for the last twelve years. It's time to go home and face it, healing the old wounds, if I can."

"That won't be easy with a renegade Federation officer at your side."

"You're not a Federation renegade, not any more. But my chosen bondmate. . .and the toughest bastard in fifty parsecs," she glared at him defiantly.

"Let's just hope we can convince your uncle and your clan of that."

He'd studied her for long moments, thinking how their intimacy since Star One still held the kind of guarded caution usually reserved for defusing solium bombs. It was a brutally honest passion, based on physical proximity and sheer erotic need. How would that change after Jenna reclaimed her father's ships and renewed her clan bonds.. Would there still be a place for him in her life? Or would she dispose of him as readily as Servalan had when he'd outlived his usefulness?

He pulled her tightly against him. "Let the automatic controls handle the orbit. Neither of us needs to sleep in a cold bed tonight." As he buried his face in her silken hair, she took a deep sobbing breath then surrendered to his embrace.

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