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By Alice C. Aldridge
Page 2 of 18

Deirdre stood over him, nursing her bruised knuckles, "Do you know how many people died . . . lost their homes, their families, everything they had, because of you? How many you crippled and maimed. . .or that just wasted away from broken hearts, because of you?"

She took a deep breath, regaining some semblance of control, "I should order you off the planet." She glanced over at her people who had stopped watching the fire and were staring at her, stunned by her vehement outburst and sudden attack on the visitor.

"Keep your eyes on the field," she shouted hoarsely. "We don't need a bloody brush fire on top of everything else."

One of the men started over, "What's wrong, Deirdre? Did he insult you? Do you want me to deal with him?"

"No, Jackson. It's my concern, not yours. Just keep watching that fire."

Travis felt the knot in his stomach loosen a bit. At first, he thought she might call out to the others, inciting a lynch mob, but she seemed to have her emotions under control for the moment.

Blake was pinching his nose to stop the bleeding as he climbed slowly to his feet.

"I take it that was a refusal of my offer."

Deirdre turned on him with a mixture of anguish and icy rage twisting her face, "Oh no, Blake, you don't get off that easily. My people need your weather control equipment too badly. Unless you intend to withdraw that offer. . .now?"

"No," Blake turned aside to spit out some of the blood trickling down the back of his throat. "The offer still stands. But I would appreciate it if you would refrain from abusing the people who come down to install the equipment. They opposed my actions, but I didn't listen."

"What about you?"Deirdre turned her piercing gaze on Travis. "Were you there? Did you try to stop him?"

He was momentarily stymied, not knowing what to say. What answer would fit with his role as a Free Trader captain. But Blake solved the problem for him, "He was there and he did try to stop me. . . but I shot him."

Deirdre gave him an approving nod before remarking with an ironic smile, "You must be a very forgiving person."

"Not really," he managed to grate out hoarsely.

Her eyebrows drew together, "I'm sorry, I didn't get your name."

"Colin. . .Colin McRae," Travis answered through a throat as dry as ashes.

Deirdre's face went momentarily wistful, "One of my brothers was named Colin. . . ." Then her expression hardened, "But he's dead now. Dead and buried. . . like so many others."

Blake's nose was obviously swollen but most of the bleeding had stopped and he gazed steadily at Deirdre, "I know nothing I say will convince you of how sorry I am for the destruction that I caused. I just hope this weather device will begin to make amends for what I did."

Deirdre's expression was calm but skeptical. "Let's just see if it works before we talk about forgiveness. But I will guarantee the safety of those installing the equipment."

Blake signaled Dayna to activate the teleport, praying that she was alone at the controls, but to his chagrin, half the ship seemed to be there. Avon's sharp eyes took in his bedraggled appearance and bloodied upper lip.

"Trouble, Blake?"

Blake dabbed at his nose tentatively before answering, "A brief misunderstanding, Avon. Nothing for you to worry about. We'll start teleporting the equipment down at planet dawn."

He called up to the flight deck, "Tarrant, establish a geosynchronous orbit over this area. We'll want stay in constant contact while the equipment is being installed."

"Jason is computing the coordinates now, Blake," Tarrant replied. "And tell Avon, Zen's been monitoring atmospheric conditions and has some preliminary readings."

Avon interrupted sourly, "Link sensors directly into Orac so it can start calculating the necessary algorithms."

Turning a disgruntled look towards Blake, "I presume the 'misunderstanding' has been resolved so the rest of us won't be subject to similar attacks while visiting this rustic paradise?"

"You won't have any problems, Avon. Their leader gave her word."

Cally took Blake's arm, trying to lead him towards the medunit, "Come with me, Blake. I want to make certain the bleeding's stopped. That kind of injury can be dangerous if not properly treated."

"I'm alright, Cally," he tried to brush her off, turning towards Travis, who stood off to one side while Blake was explaining the situation. Though his facial expression remained unemotional, Travis's slouched posture virtually shouted his uncertain mental state.

"Did you see anyone you knew, Travis? Survivors from your home world, Metis III?"

"It's none of your damned business, Blake," he snapped. "I'll be in my quarters. Call me when you go back down to the planet." Turning sharply, he retreated down the hallway.

In the privacy of his room, with the door securely locked, Travis carefully removed Avon's device before dropping onto his bunk. Deirdre McConnell's fierce expression was vivid in his mind, as he remembered his sister with a similar look on her face. It had been the night his bondmate Rissa had died, ripped apart in a fenris attack.

Travis shuddered as the memories spilled over him. . . firing frantically. . .hopelessly, into the pack that had dragged his bondmate down screaming, until all he could do was take aim and end her agony with his final shot. He gritted his teeth, trying to banish that harrowing vision, then bolted to the fresher, barely able to reach the sink before his outraged stomach spewed up its contents. For long moments he slumped there as spasms of nausea wracked him, haunted by the painful images of aftermath of that attack.

How he'd grabbed his knife and slashed at the remainder of the pack in a berserker rage, until he'd driven them away from Rissa's tattered corpse. Then staggering home with her blood-stained body clutched in his arms, only to have Rissa's grief-stricken father accuse him of abandoning her to the pack. Only his sister Deirdre had stood up to Jacob Reeves, attempting to defend him from those accusations, pointing to his venom-stained jacket as she had cleaned and bandaged his brutally lacerated hands and forearms.

He rubbed his arm across his watering eye, recalling the angry, defiant look on his sister's face and how much it had resembled Deirdre McConnell's expression earlier today. Could that woman truly be his sister? Or was he merely deceiving himself because of a desperate need to believe that any of his family might have survived his ruthless actions on Zircaster eight years ago?

Rinsing the foul taste from his mouth, Travis collapsed on his bunk again. This time recalling images of his final argument with Jenna before he'd "volunteered" to accompany Blake on this errand of mercy. They'd already been at odds about the newest trade mission Jenna had just taken on at First Captain Mikhail Stannis's suggestion and his decision to go with Blake only made the situation worse - much worse.

"It's a fool's errand, Travis," she'd protested bitterly. "And a recklessly dangerous one as well. No matter how appreciative they might be of Blake's generosity, you're risking your life if they discover who you are. Backwater agrarian societies have long memories."

" No more reckless than you taking Balkis on that run to Inviedi Prime through the Hesperus Drift with an unseasoned crew. . . and Akema absent, as well."

" Akema couldn't help that his quadrennial upgrade exams were due this month. Besides, getting that serum delivered on schedule will give us twenty times the profit of any other trade mission."

"At a hundred times the risk." He'd grasped her shoulders in rough appeal and she'd jerked angrily away.

"You're hardly one to talk, volunteering to go to Zircaster with Blake." Jenna made a visible effort to calm herself. "I know the massacre still haunts your nightmares. You want to make peace with your past and possibly even discover if any of your family survived. But I'm telling you, it's too soon to stir up people's memories, particularly on a colony that's suffered as much as Zircaster has the last few years. People with little to distract them nurse their grudges and feed old hatreds to the point of obsession. If they discover who you are, they won't just kill you. . . they'll rip you to pieces."

The horror on Jenna's face was plain and he'd ached to kiss her fears away, but he knew if he touched her, he'd never find the resolve to leave.

He'd turned away, answering in a rough-edged voice, "I'm sure Avon can come up with something to hide my identity, since his safety will depend on it remaining a secret."

"If you can trust him not to turn you in himself." She turned angrily towards him, "Whynow, of all times? If we complete this run on schedule, it could be a major break for us, maybe even put us in the black enough to buy another ship, expand our operations. What's more important than that, Travis?"

"Finding my family. . ." his voice dropped to a ragged whisper at the hurt look in Jenna's eyes.

"I thought we were a family now."

Squaring her shoulders, she'd tossed her head defiantly. "Well, you've made it quite clear this wild goose chase to Zircaster is more important than any obligation you might feel to me. I guess I'll see you when you return. If . . . you return."

Her eyes had been blazing with a mixture of anger and tears as she stalked away, leaving him to wonder if she would even be there when he returned.

He rubbed his face fitfully, trying to banish those painful memories before dropping into an uneasy slumber.

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Alice C. Aldridge

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