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By Alice C. Aldridge
Page 2 of 22

The militia colonel, an auburn-haired woman with steel-gray eyes, wore a cool, competent expression and the by-the-numbers attitude of a rulebook officer.  She ignored their protests, questions, and verbal insults with a deliberate equanimity that left Travis seething.  He was prepared to play balls-to-the-wall head games with a male CO but was stymied by an officer who lacked the testosterone to react to his jibes.  

Travis wasn't sure if the woman was actually psychically sensitive or just a good judge of character, but she kept a dead bead on him while her troops strip-searched Jenna, doing the same to Jenna as they peeled him down to his skin, locating their concealed weapons.  The troops remained business-like as they did their jobs, making no provocative moves that might have given any of their captives the means or motive to attack them.  

After a thorough surface screening, the colonel regarded them blandly, "I'd prefer not to put either you or my troops through the distasteful experience of a body cavity search.  Give me your word as Free Trader Captains that you won't try to escape and I'll forego the indignity.  Otherwise . . . ."

Travis would have promised, then cracked their captors' heads at the first opportunity but Jenna stepped forward and spoke up.  "You have my word, Colonel as an Enclave captain . . . and a Stannis.  Just let our crew go.  It was my decision to land, despite the warnings at the Space Port.  We had special clearance from the Auron Council."

"Your crew will not be harmed, Captain.  But I have orders to bring the two of you to my superior."

The Colonel gestured for the two of them to get dressed and then ordered her troops to bind and blindfold them securely.  As they were hustled into surface transportation, Travis grimaced in disgust.  But once the door was slammed shut, he began to flex his cyber prosthesis, testing the strength of their restraints.  Solid titanium.  Little chance of breaking loose without doing serious damage to his flesh and blood arm, a situation he wanted to avoid unless absolutely necessary.  

Beside him, he felt Jenna squirming around, digging with her nails at the side of her leg.  

"Sitting on a rough spot?"

Jenna stopped what she was doing and pressed her fingers into his palm, hurriedly spelling out her intentions in Lassa trade talk.  

Travis signaled his agreement.  Jenna had acquired a few of Vila's simpler lock picking skills and even blindfolded, he still had sound, smell, and a fairly reliable "bump of direction" to make a good guess about where they were being taken planetside.  

As Jenna struggled to open her cuffs, Travis listened intently, sniffing the air on occasion for clues about their route and destination.  

Once she freed herself, Jenna pulled off her blindfold, then quickly swept the confinement area for hidden cameras or mikes before turning her attention to freeing him.  

"We may as well speak freely.  If they have monitoring devices on us, they're too well-hidden for me to locate."

"It's highly unlikely.  Despite their professionalism, this was a spur-of-the-moment operation.  Otherwise they'd have better intel on both of us."

"You mean, not disabling your arm?" Jenna knelt beside him, tongue between her teeth as she worked on his bindings.  "Maybe they have orders to bring us in uninjured."

"Maybe, but orders from whom?  We're definitely not headed back to the capital."

She gave him a questioning look and he continued.  "No checkpoints.  Traffic's virtually non-existent, no echos from buildings . . . and the air's too fresh."

Moments later, his wrists were free and as he rubbed his right arm to restore circulation, Travis questioned, "You had a better chance to study the map grid before we landed.  How far did Alamo actually put down from the BioReplication Center?"

"Less than five miles.  If that's where they're taking us, we'd have been there half an hour ago."

"Unless this is some kind of 'snipe hunt'."

Jenna looked at him in bewilderment as Travis gave her a menacing smile, "Scare tactics, m'girl.  Drive us around in circles blindfolded and make us think we're a lot further from our ship and crew than we really are."

" Why?"

"Psych us out, break down our resistance to questioning.  Any of half a dozen other reasons."

"Again, why?  We're just Free Traders, bringing in medical supplies, not bloody commandos."

"Maybe other Aurons don't believe 'a leopard can change his spots' . . . ."

He cocked his head to one side, listening intently.  

"You remember any mountain ranges near the capital?"

"None shown on the map.  Why?"

Then Jenna noticed it too.  The sudden resonant echo of their engine noise and deepening rumble of their tires.  "A tunnel?  But where could it lead?"

"Given our welcome at the spaceport, likely some sort of civil defense facility . . . possibly even a government bunker."

"You think the situation has gotten that bad?"

"Automated defensive fire at incoming ships.  A militia detail assigned to a Free Trader crew.  What do you think?"

"Oh shit," Jenna swore.  "And we're grounded right in the middle."

The vehicle lurched to a halt and as they heard the escort detail checking their weapons before exiting, Travis hissed, "Quick, get those shackles back on."


"Too many well-armed guards expecting trouble right now.  Better if they think we're sheep, not wolves.  They let their guard down . . . then we make a break for it."

Jenna hurriedly refastened both their manacles, making sure her lockpick was well hidden, just as the door swung open.  The CO peered in at them, noticing their missing blindfolds, then smiled ruefully as she gestured for one of her troopers to remove their handcuffs.  

"Sorry to truss you up like holiday wildfowl, Captains.  But it was necessary to get you away from the capital without drawing undue attention."

"What's this all about, Colonel?  We're carrying medical supplies, not weapons.  Why was our ship fired upon and our crew taken hostage?"

"Clinician Franton is waiting, Captains.  If you'll kindly follow me."

From the underground motor pool, the Colonel led them into a labyrinth of flourescent lit, concrete walled hallways.  Jenna had cultivated a knack for memorizing distance and direction and attempted to map the area in her head as they were taken through the maze of security stations and winding corridors that led to an express lift.  After they entered, the Colonel used a key to activate the panel which had no other controls to indicate how far down they were going.  Judging by the speed of their descent, they might have been headed for the infernal regions though Jenna thought it more likely that the shaft led to a doomsday bunker.  

The lift doors opened onto a flourescent lighted hallway that appeared almost identical to the one that they had just left.  They were escorted into an office furnished with little more than a desk, three chairs and a computer work station.  A mature woman with haunted eyes and blonde hair cropped just below her ears was seated at the desk, studying a table of readouts onscreen.  

"Colonel Amara reporting as ordered, Clinician, with Free Trader Captains Stannis and Travis of the Enclave ship Alamo."

"Thank you, Colonel.  That will be all."

The colonel saluted briskly and turned on her heel, leaving Travis and Jenna alone with the woman.  Turning her attention from her screen, she gestured for them to be seated and began to speak in a brisk, businesslike manner.  

"I'm Clinician Franton, a member of the Auron Genetic Council.  I apologize for the less than hospitable welcome, but given the current situation and Captain Travis's belligerent reputation, it seemed the safest method for all concerned."

Jenna felt her growing unease congeal into an icy lump of dismay.  

"What is this place?  Why'd you send the militia to take our crew hostage?"

"I had no choice," Franton said tight-lipped.  "Having you arrested was the only way to guarantee your safety.  The Council declared Auron a Closed World just this morning and ordered that all off-worlders be taken into protective custody."

Travis glared around the starkly furnished room.  

"I thought Aurons were supposed to be peace-loving and enlightened?"

"No one is immune to fear, Captain.  Especially in our current situation."

Before Franton could explain further, dark-edged sarcastic voice rasped from the comm on her desk.  

"Franton, Avon here.  Orac's just come up with data that I think you'll find extremely interesting."

"Orac? . . . and Avon?"  Travis's scowl deepened.  "Don't tell me Blake and his crew are stuck down here too?"

"Cally and Avon arrived yesterday,"Franton sighed, pushing away from her desk.  "You might as well come with me.  Judging by Avon's voice, the situation is much worse than we thought . . . and you have a right to know what you've gotten into."

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