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By Alice C. Aldridge
Page 3 of 18

Early the next morning, the majority of Liberator's crew was helping Blake teleport the weather control machinery down to the planet's surface. After studying Orac's topographical surveys and consulting several of the local farmers about weather patterns in the area, Avon had finally chosen a site to set up the monitoring station.

As Jason blinked out of the teleport alcove, Travis felt a momentary qualm and turned to Cally, who was filling a large box with medical supplies.

"Do you think it's safe for Jason to go down there? His resemblance to me might get him in trouble."

Cally looked up and smiled, "You haven't looked at him that closely in the last few weeks, have you?

"Well, the tattoo's gone. . ." Travis frowned to himself, trying to remember if he'd even spoken to his and Jenna's son in the past week. "He and Dayna were laughing about something on the flight deck a couple of days ago."

"Yes, they were," Cally nodded. "And from what I recall of your memories when Jason and I were linked, I don't recall you laughing at all when you were growing up."

"Life was too hard. . . and death too close," he answered bitterly.

"But not for Jason. The life you lived showed on your face like a brand. Since he's been aboard Liberator, Jason has lived his own life and made his own memories. He's no longer just a reflection of you and Jenna, he's becoming a person in his own right."

Travis nodded thoughtfully and then took the box that Cally held out to him, "More computer equipment for Avon's project?"

"Just some data crystals. I'll be teleporting down medical equipment and supplies for the colony's doctor later this morning This colony is running low on almost everything. Besides we hardly need these items anyway, since we're no longer battling the Federation."

Materializing at Avon's site, Travis glanced around, impressed by the panoramic view from this particular peak. Besides overlooking the entire valley, its location was almost directly in the normal path of the disrupted jet stream, source of most of the weather systems in this part of the continent. Ideally situated for both monitoring and adjustment.

Obviously, Blake's crew had been hard at work since before dawn, erecting and anchoring the sturdy prefab building that would house the weather control system. Inside the building he spotted Jason, Dayna, and Tarrant unloading boxes and sorting thru program modules, while half a dozen volunteers from the settlement began to assemble the initial monitoring system under Avon's impatient direction. Travis handed the crystals to Tarrant and was about to leave when Blake approached him.

"Why don't you teleport back up and help Cally with the medical supplies? That would give you the chance to talk with Dr. Daniels. . .get some background on the settlement, maybe even learn a little more about the people. Doctors usually know all the local gossip."

"I'm not interested in gossip, Blake," he growled. " My purpose here is business, strictly business. Looking for export goods, mineral rights, and other trade possibilities. . .like a Free Trader captain should."

"Of course, Captain McRae," Blake replied in a neutral tone. "Just be careful. Vila is on teleport watch, if you need to get back to Liberator."

"I'll remember, Blake." Travis shook his head wryly at Blake's subtle way of telling him to stay out of trouble. Depending on Vila for a fast retrieval would likely prove fatal.

He glanced around at the rugged terrain, wondering if he should call back up before Cally left and request teleport into the valley, then decided against it. He was in no rush to begin questioning local farmers about their memories of the Federation crackdown eight years ago. Exploring the region would fit in with his Free Trader persona and give him a chance to compose his thoughts about how to approach the touchy subject.

Taking a rough trail that led across the ridgeline, Travis paused in the shadow of a cliff, pulled out his scanner and took a wide range reading for useful ores or crystals. He was well aware that the Federation's preliminary geophysical surveys would have eliminated Zircaster as a commercial mining operation before turning the planet over to the agrarian combine that had initially developed it. Still, the colonists didn't need commercial quantities of ores or gemstones to improve their living conditions. Just enough to make them a viable trading stop.

The scanner remained obstinately silent as Travis surveyed the rocky terrain.

A stream of pebbles nearly dropped on his head and he glanced up from the scanner to see a small ragged figure inching up a crumbling trail along the steep tor that loomed above him.

"Look out, you little fool," he bellowed. "You're going to get yourself killed!"

The climber must have heard his warning because he gave a rather emphatic negative gesture. Though whether he was signaling for silence or cautioning him not to follow, Travis could not be sure.

What he was sure of was that the trail up side of that cliff was obviously starting to crumble and unless the climber planned to grow wings, he was almost certainly stuck on the side of that cliff. Travis squinted into the early morning sunlight trying to determine why the idiot was attempting that suicidal climb anyway. There were much easier ways to reach the top of the tor.

Suddenly he spotted the cleft in the rock just above the climber's head and the bundle of sticks and mud that could only be some kind of nest. According to planetary records, there was a large winged raptor native to these mountains which normally fed on local wildlife. But due to scarcity of its usual prey, it had recently begun attacking farmers' yard fowl and newborn herd beasts. If the climber intended to kill the creature and its offspring, he'd certainly picked a recklessly suicidal method.

And for a sudden painful moment Travis flashed back to Metis III, hearing his brother Dar's voice as though it was yesterday.

"You're still determined to go through with this reckless stupidity?"

"I've located den sites for nearly a score of fenris. It's whelping season now and the females are still nursing their young. A few well-placed bombs will flatten out this group's population growth curve. . .for this year at least."

"Damn," he muttered to himself, as he hurriedly scrambled up the ridge to a ledge that jutted over the crumbling trail and peered down to where the climber was spread-eagled against the cliff. Like all Federation Command officers Travis had the requisite mountaineer training, but at the moment he lacked even the most basic equipment.

He glared in disgust at his teleport bracelet. If Dayna had still been aboard Liberator, he could explain the situation to her and she'd teleport down ten minutes later with enough pitons and line for him to rappel down and rescue the trapped climber. But Vila-- Vila was useless. Then he looked at the bracelet again, a desperate idea suddenly taking shape.

"Vila!" he called loudly. "Wake up, Vila. I need your help."

"Whatta ya want, Travis? I'm on duty at the teleport, I can't leave my post."

"I don't want you to leave, Restal. Just stay awake for the next fifteen minutes and when I tell you to teleport, do it quickly."

"What's going on, Travis? What are you up to? If this gets me in trouble with Blake. . ."

"It won't. Just shut up. . . and try to remember, I'm McRae, not Travis, or I'll cut off your ears and feed them to you. Now, I've got to concentrate. I haven't done a free traverse in years." Recalling Avon's warning, Travis hastily switched off the imaging unit and placed it beside his discarded scanner, hoping that whoever the climber was, he was too young to remember the Federation crackdown or the officer who led it.

Sliding downwards until he felt what remained of the trail under his feet, Travis sidled along until he reached the point where the slender ridge had crumbled away, leaving nothing but sheer cliff. But Travis had learned how to climb rocks like this from an expert, finding finger and toeholds where the untrained eye saw only naked stone. He inched his way along, not moving at all until he was sure his grip would support his full weight while he searched for the next tiny niche or outcropping.

As the sun climbed higher in the sky, it beat down on the rock face turning the once shadowed cliff into an inferno. Travis ignored the sweat dripping into his eye and edged his way along until he finally reached his goal, the slender ledge just below the raptor's aerie.

He eased alongside the trembling climber, not surprised to find it was a young boy, no more than ten or twelve years old. Skinny and dark-haired with intense blue eyes, the boy was dressed warmly, though his clothes had gotten torn and dirty during his climb.

Travis grinned, hoping to reassure the child, but the boy cowered away, shielding something against his chest. Peering between the boy's cupped fingers, he snorted in disgust. It was a fledgling raptor, undoubtedly taken from the nest just over their heads.

"Of all the stupid, hare-brained stunts. I hope your Pa takes a stick to you when we get back down." The child tried to retreat from Travis's anger, edging away from him until the rock began to crumble beneath him, but Travis grabbed his elbow, pulling him close. "Hell no, I didn't risk my life just to have you throw yours away. Relax, boy. My bark's worse than my bite. What's your name? Who are your parents?"

The boy trembled in his grip, staring at him in wide-eyed alarm, still refusing to speak.

"Never mind. Blake can sort it out when he gets back aboard."

Carefully he unclasped the bracelet and held it in front of the boy's face. "This is a teleport bracelet. I'm going to fasten it around your arm." He did so, sliding it above the child's elbow so it wouldn't slip off, "Then when I press this button, you'll suddenly be somewhere else . . . somewhere safe."

The boy just stared at him, still clinging to his hard-won prize. "Don't worry, the bird will go too." Travis reassured him. "Though I doubt your Ma or Pa will let you keep it." Pressing the comm button, Travis ordered, "All right, Restal. Activate the teleport now."

The boy vanished in a white-edged shimmer and Travis slumped in relief on the narrow ledge, wiping the sweat and dust off his forehead and cheeks. Glancing nervously around, he hoped Mama Raptor wouldn't return anytime soon and find her pillaged nest. He didn't feel up to going a round against the savage talons and beak that he'd seen displayed in the planetary records.

As he straightened up and prepared to begin his traverse back to the ledge, the breeze carried a distinctly carrion smell from the nest just above his head. Against his better judgement, Travis crept upward and peered into the nest, thinking to find only decayed remnants of prey brought to the nestlings. Instead, he spotted an adult raptor, sprawled lifelessly across the empty nest, its partially devoured body impaled by an arrow. He didn't know if the boy had seen the wounded bird and followed it to the nest or just set out to retrieve the fledgling on his own, but it had been a brave thing to do.

Flexing and stretching his stiffened arms and shoulders, Travis sighed as he looked back at the stretch of rock he'd come across earlier.

"I suppose it's too much to expect Restal to teleport down a replacement bracelet." He grimaced wryly, "He's probably already yammering to Cally that he's on teleport duty and not signed up to babysit kids and wild animals."

Travis glanced at his right hand with its torn nails and raw bleeding fingers and his left hand, smooth and unmarked. "Well, there's some advantage to having a cyber arm after all."

Without the urgency of a rescue mission driving him to hurry across the bare cliff, Travis was much more painstaking in choosing his hand and footholds. The sun beat down out of the cloudless sky, baking the rock beneath him and drawing the moisture out of his body. His adrenaline fueled energy was slowly boiling away and the inside of his mouth felt like sandpaper. Reaching the precarious security of the cliffside trail where he'd began his traverse, Travis closed his eye in exhaustion, then glared up at the security of the ledge some twenty feet over his head.

"Damn," he swore softly, wishing he'd at least thought to carry a canteen on this trek. He was covered in sweat and his mouth was dry as dust. Next time he'd remember. . .if he managed to survive this little outing. Wiping the sweat and blood from his right hand onto his shirt, Travis began his slow, painful climb back to the ledge.

The upward ascent was even more difficult because the sun reflecting off the rock made it much harder to spot hand and footholds. Added to the fact of his compromised depth perception, Travis began to believe he might not be able to save himself. Then with a growl of frustrated fury, he flattened himself against the cliff and used the heavy-duty strength of his artificial left arm and hand to hammer out handholds for the last few feet.

Dragging himself over the top of the ledge, Travis collapsed in an exhausted, panting heap. As his breathing slowed and his vision began to clear, he sensed that he was not alone.

Struggling to lift his head, he spotted a shaggy, fur-covered, four-legged beast with a long snout full of very large sharp teeth sniffing at his head and arm, as though deciding where to take the first bite.

"Oh shit," he groaned to himself. "Could this day get any better?"

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Alice C. Aldridge

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