Jenna slipped quietly out of her small but luxurious cabin. The Red Raven might be a smuggler/trader ship, but she was a very successful one, and Captain Atton did not believe in scrimping on crew comforts. Of course, his cabin was twice the size of hers, but Jenna wasn't complaining. Atton was a generous man, when he was happy. And when he wasn’t…well, she had yet to discover what he was then, but from the warnings of the rest of the crew, it was best not to find out.
She was benefiting greatly from Atton's largesse. At this rate, in several months, maybe sooner, she would have enough to continue her search for Avalon. The revenge that Blake's blood cried out for would be a step closer.
Jenna crept quickly along the deserted corridors. Except for those on the flight deck, it was a sleep cycle for most. Atton and the engineer, RC, were busy dealing with an obstinate trans-cycle-regulator in the engine room. It was the first time Jenna had any chance of visiting the cargo holds alone and out of the way of watchful eyes.
She was determined to discover the contents of the containers they had been picking up intermittently from the neutral research labs in the Ciscus region and delivering to Sector Ten. This was the third run in the past two months.
They dealt with shadowy figures who didn't seem to have any names and who insisted on rendezvous in remote locations. Other than for prearranged coded signals, times and places, Captain Atton didn't seem to know them personally either. All the crew knew was that their share of the profits afterwards pointed to something very lucrative and most likely highly illegal. Nothing else would generate such high profits.
Atton deflected any crew questions with casual jokes. His people knew better than to ask questions of their leader when he didn't want to be forthcoming. They just did their jobs and reaped the rewards of being on one of the most successful smuggling crews this side of the trade lanes.
At times, Jenna was envious of the man's success and missed the old days when she had her own crew and command of her own ship. There was a time when she had even more of a reputation than Atton had. Jenna's mouth twisted into a wry smile. She had allowed too much of a reputation to develop or she wouldn't have been caught and sent on a one-way trip to Cygnus Alpha. It didn't pay to be well known in too many circles when your business required discretion.
But then she wouldn't have met Blake.
Sometimes Jenna would have wondered what it would have been like if she had never met him, had never been caught up in the aura of the man who believed in something. She had wanted to believe in that dream; but she had to admit to herself, what she really had wanted to believe in was the man behind the dream.
Now she didn’t even have that. All she was left with was a consuming desire for vengeance. One that she would do anything to fulfil. Maybe then, she would finally have some peace.
Jenna scowled unpleasantly at the thought of the devious villain who was the bane of her existence. She grimaced at a twinge from an old malady. Ulcers. She'd developed them first during the Liberator days. They had become so bad that she had to ask Cally for pills to manage the pain. It only got worse after she hooked up with Blake again after Star One. The man's obsession impelled them all, beyond all reason or endurance.
Jenna had loved him and had chosen to stay, hoping to keep him alive from the passions that drove him.
Damn you, Avon! You should have kept him safe! He needed you!
Jenna's fists balled up tight in anger. No matter how hard she had tried, she couldn't escape the fact that Avon had a great deal to do with keeping Blake alive all those years they were together. And he gave Blake the success that he craved. It was for that, almost as much as the cold-blooded murder, that Jenna had grown to hate Avon. The fact that Blake couldn't seem to manage without the man who had killed him.
The groups that Blake had burned through since Star One was destroyed could be counted in the number of scars on his body; marks of his brushes with death. The one over his eye was the worst. He had refused any tissue regenerators to remove the sign of his own responsibility.
Each failure only seemed to drive him harder. She had loved Blake for that, the fact that nothing could keep him down for long. He always came back up fighting.
The cost was too expensive and was paid in the blood of the innocent and the followers, as much as the enemy. Jenna couldn't watch it happen anymore; one group after another, like lambs marching into the jaws of death.
Why couldn't Blake see that what he was doing didn't make sense? That the risks were too great? That it made no sense to continually throw lives away for very little gain? There had to be other ways of doing things. But as from the start, Blake never listened to any counsel other than his own. She had known that from the beginning.
It hadn't been as bad on the Liberator. There had been other voices to join her own, even if Blake didn't listen. There had been dissenters to speak against the recklessness. She hadn't felt as alone then.
Jenna thought that with Avon gone, she would finally have Blake all to herself. However, she soon discovered that Blake’s only passion had always been his desire to rip out the heart of the Federation. He never had room for anything else.
That fire to destroy should have abated after Star One; more than enough blood had been spilled on every side. However, for Blake, it never did. It almost seemed to drive him mad.
At first, no one listened to him; everyone was caught up in surviving. With the Federation on the run in the Outer Colonies, no one could see the need for rebellion anymore. Everyone was sick of the violence and death.
When the Federation quickly re-established itself in the Inner Colonies, Blake began to find odd pockets of resistance springing up again. It was his amazing gift. His message was clear. The siren cry of the Freedom Party was relevant once again. It was only a matter of time before the enemy began extending its iron and grasping fingers towards the Outer Colonies.
That was when the deaths began.
Jevron had been a horrific disaster. Blake had almost died there. It was only by the greatest stroke of luck that he had survived. After two days, Jenna had found his lifeless form amidst the rubble. With the few remaining rebels, she had managed to carry his blood-soaked body back to the ship. She refused to leave him behind. He was to become the great martyr that the Federation had always feared. Jenna was going to make sure of it. His legacy would go on; the desire of his heart would go on.
Once they got him back on the ship, Blake’s eyelids fluttered and he looked up at her with those warm eyes that always drew her into his irresistible aura. His voice was hoarse from days of exposure but still magnetic. "Jenna?"
Blake was back in the land of the living. They were all amazed until they realized that most of the blood on his clothes were not his own. There was a severe gash on his head, extending from his eye and there was a laser burn along his ribs. He made a remarkable recovery. The only sign of the Jevron massacre was the scar over his eye. Blake refused to allow them to use the tissue regenerators on it. It was to remind him of those who had fallen. Of course, it never stopped him. He started pushing himself again long before he was ready to get back into the fight again.
From Jevron to GP had been a trail of blood. At times, Jenna felt as if they were wading in it. She couldn't stomach the cries of pain anymore or the agony of defeat in Blake's eyes.
Blake always survived to scratch out another batch of recruits. Jenna knew that the established rebel groups became wary of him after awhile. Oh, they still loved him and applauded his legend. They still lifted him up as a shining example of defiance, but no one wanted to be another Kasabi or Avalon or the countless others since then. The price of following Blake was too high.
There had been whispers that there was something odd going on. Why was it that every rebel group that worked with Blake ended up being slaughtered by Federation forces? From his early days with the Freedom Party, to his journey on the Liberator, and all the way up to Gauda Prime, why did every rebel group that worked with Blake, have such incredibly bad luck?
There had to be a reason. Of course, no one dared mention it in Blake's presence. He made it difficult to see or say anything bad about him when he was there. The man was supremely gifted in that respect. However, when he was not there…Jenna had heard troubling rumours whispered in dark corners, quickly quashed when she came within earshot.
After the disaster at Jevron, all of the ex-military groups had refused to work with him. The only one still willing to was Argus but even then, Argus insisted on leading his own missions.
Blake could not stand that for long, he had to be in control of everything and Argus would not accept plans that were as risky and pointless as Blake’s were. He refused to sacrifice his own men. Not for random acts of violence that did little more than be a minor thorn in the side of the rapidly-re-expanding Federation.
As a result, Blake had to go further and further afield to recruit followers. Places that were far enough that they’d only heard of his legend and not the troubling rumours. That was why Blake had ended up on a fourth-rate planet that was begging to be let back into the Federation; recruiting among murderers and thieves that had once made that planet one of the most dangerous and lawless ones in the Federation. Where most decent people had fled long ago or had been murdered by the very people he was trying to recruit. Jenna couldn’t believe it when she’d heard but part of her was afraid that it was true. The fanaticism that bordered on incomprehensibility was what had driven her away from Blake.
Jenna pounded her still-clenched fist against the bulkhead. She knew that part of her hatred of Avon was caught up in hatred of herself. She had failed Blake. She should never have left him. She should have helped him; the man needed help. Blake had cared so much that it had driven him slowly into madness, making him as dangerous as the people he was trying to destroy. If she had been there on Gauda Prime, maybe she could have stopped Avon’s treacherous plans. If Avon had helped him instead of being a devious, lying bastard...
With shock, Jenna realized she was outside the cargo hold that was her destination. How long had she been standing there locked up in her own anguish? She quickly slipped inside and let the door slide closed behind her. There were stacks of crates here, luxurious foodstuffs and delicacies that were rare commodities in this Sector, but these were not her goal.
Jenna felt along the far wall for a slight indentation. There was a hold within a hold that held the ship's greater treasures, its hidden wealth.
The electro-key she had appropriated from Atton's cabin, during his last attempt at seduction, seemed to be burning a hole in her pocket. She absently felt its flat, circular shape with her fingers, just to reassure herself that it was still there. Of course, she had to return the key before Atton discovered it was missing but she wasn't worried.
Her fingers dipped imperceptibly as she found her target. A hand span from it, she found the matching indentation. With both hands, she pressed together. Sounds of metal sliding against metal as the hidden door catches were released. The wall panel slid aside to reveal a human-sized opening at hip-height.
She activated her hand torch, bent down and went inside. Packed tightly together, clearly marked with the tri-star emblem of the research labs, were a half-dozen metal containers. Her fingers touched the circular hole on the side of one of the containers. She took the key from her pocket and slid it into place. There were several snaps as its electronic encoding was recognized and the locks were disengaged.
She lifted the lid and played the hand torch over the contents. Row upon row of clear cylindrical tubes containing reddish liquid. She carefully lifted one of the cool tubes and studied its contents. There was a chemical name on the side in gold lettering but it meant nothing to her. She committed the incomprehensible name to memory and hoped that the ship's database was as useful as the Liberator's had been.
Jenna closed up the lid, removed the key and quietly left the hold the way she had found it.
The Justice was finally headed back to Chandar to help that planet lift itself from the dark ages of an oppressive society. They had delayed for two days on Tellar as they waited for Avon to receive the stem cell therapy to repair his heart. He had originally insisted on going back to Chandar with them and return for the treatments afterwards. The Tellaran medical specialists had proposed performing the majority of the treatments on the planet but that the recovery period could occur on the ship as long as two of the doctors accompanied him and he followed their directions.
As this would give him the benefit of both courses of action, Avon agreed.
The treatments were performed without incident and a recovering Avon was transported up to the ship along with a battery of equipment and the two medical specialists.
The atmosphere of the Justice was ripe with excitement as the crew and the Tellaran team headed by Marlena made preparations for Chandar. Planning and strategy sessions were carried out between the key members of both groups.
Travelling at an unhurried standard by four, gave them two weeks in which to prepare. Argus instituted drills for the crew to re-sharpen their reflexes and training after weeks of holiday. He also set up coordinated exercises with Marlena’s team so that they could gain experience working together.
At Argus’s insistence, Corinne had extra training sessions with Reya and several of the Athol soldiers while he personally familiarized her with the operation of the ship and her duties. He would not assign her a place on the regular flight deck rotation until she had completed her training.
As Avon recovered in the medical unit, he became increasingly difficult to handle because of the forced inactivity. The knowledge that planning was going on while he, with a relatively functional mind, had no participation in it, was an unacceptable situation. Strident protests and attempts at persuasion were met with a wall of patient but firm refusal by both Cally and the medical specialists.
It was a good thing that old habits died hard and despite the modifications that had been made to repair his brain and hormonal imbalances, Avon was still a highly emotionally controlled person. If he hadn’t been, the heart monitor he was required to wear would be set off constantly with his increasing irritability.
At times Cally would roll her eyes and listen patiently to his latest argument. Of course, each one ended with Avon brooding but still resting in the medical unit. Sometimes she thought that he seemed to take a perverse pleasure in seeing how she would deal with his latest verbal attempts at escape.
As was their habit, and whenever their schedules permitted, Cally and Reya would meet for breakfast twice a week. It was a chance to share and spend time together even if the rest of the day was too busy to even speak to each other in passing. The dining area was only half-full at this hour and they were able to find a quiet corner to talk.
With a few distracted strokes, Cally spread some sim-butter on her multigrain muffin.
Reya glanced at her as she put her steaming cup of tea down. “You’re worried about Avon?”
The question seemed to startle Cally as she put the knife down. “How did you guess?”
An amused smile played on Reya’s lips as she said, “Your major source of worry is Avon. It was a safe guess.”
A wry smile appeared on Cally’s face and she sighed, “Perhaps I need another source of worry that isn’t so obvious?”
Reya picked up her own muffin and broke off a piece. Its delicious apple and cinnamon aroma tickled the senses. This was her favourite and the ship’s dispensers managed a fairly decent version of it. “How is he doing?”
“Physically the progress has been better than expected. He’s still weak but his heart is responding well to the treatments. We will start rehabilitation therapy in a few days.” She started in on her own muffin.
“That’s good to hear. I imagine he can’t wait for that to happen?”
“He doesn’t want to wait,” said Cally.
“Ah.” Reya grinned with sympathy. “If you need, I’m sure I still have those cuffs we used to keep Argus in bed when he was injured.”
“It’s not necessary. Yet. Avon is still compliant as long as I can win against his arguments.”
Reya chuckled. “It might be easier to tie him up.”
“How is your source of worry?”
“He’s…worrying. I still can’t get him to talk about what happened in the dreams. And I’m fairly certain that he hasn’t talked with the others either.”
Cally said with resigned sarcasm, “Typical.”
“He doesn’t see the need.”
“That’s always Avon’s excuse.”
Both women sighed.
Cally mused, “You’re right. We need another source of worry other than the men.”
Reya broke off another piece of the muffin. “I don’t think I could handle more than Argus.”
“They’re both quite a handful,” agreed Cally.
“That they are. What we really need is something to occupy our minds that doesn’t involve thinking or talking about the men.”
“We should try, if only for our own sanity." Cally pondered this idea. “Something that doesn’t involve fighting.”
“Hmm. The only non-martial activity I do is drawing.”
“I think we need something a bit more interactive.”
“I know the boys play chess sometimes. Though the way they play, it would qualify it as a combat sport.”
Cally grinned, “I imagine that they could make almost anything they do into a combat sport.”
Cally immediately leaned forward in concern. “Are you alright?”
“I think we both have a problem.”
“We’re talking about them again.”
Cally started laughing. “We do appear to have one don’t we?”
Corinne entered the dining hall. Her eyes swept the tables until they rested on Cally and Reya. Cally waved and said in greeting, “Corinne, come and join us.” She indicated a free chair at their table.
Corinne smiled. “Thanks. I’ll get some breakfast and join you.” She headed to the dispensers.
Cally said, “We should include Corinne.”
“That’s a good idea. Maybe she might have some ideas. I can’t think of anything.”
After a few minutes, Corinne returned with a bowl of chocolate ice cream, two slices of toast with some marmalade and a cup of milk tea.
As Corinne started on her food, Reya asked, “How are you finding everything, Corinne?”
“There’s so much to learn but everyone’s been very helpful,” she said enthusiastically.
“Have you been finding the training hard?”
“Oh, no. It’s not hard at all except for the sessions with you. All of the soldiers have been very nice.”
A look passed between Reya and Cally. Reya asked casually, “They have?”
Reya pointed out, “The training is supposed to be challenging. Else it won’t be as useful.”
“I love the ones with you. You’re very hard but I like that. I like the challenge,” said Corinne.
“You’ve done well,” remarked Reya.
Cally said, “You should take that as a great compliment. Reya doesn’t give them out lightly.”
Corinne had a thoughtful expression on her face, “I’ve always wondered why Vila seems so nervous around you.”
Reya asked, “Is he still doing that?”
Cally had an amused tone. “I think they’re all doing that, even Avon.”
Reya had a bewildered exasperation on her face. “I don’t understand why. There’s nothing I can do that one of them can’t. What’s so intimidating about that?”
Cally said, “You really don’t know, do you? Even after what you did on Chandar?”
Reya asked, “I don’t make you nervous, do I?”
“No. But then, I’m a woman.”
Reya asked incredulously, “You’re not serious?”
“I’m afraid so. A woman like you is very intimidating for men. They’re either afraid of you or they love you. And some of them manage both at the same time.”
Corinne said, “That’s silly.”
Cally gave her a good-natured grin. “It is very.”
Reya said with light annoyance, “I wish they would stop it.” She groaned again. “Oh, no.”
Corinne looked concerned even as Cally realized what the problem was and started laughing. Cally said, “We do have a problem, don’t we?”
Corinne asked, “What problem?”
Reya explained, “We’re trying to stop thinking or talking about the men. We’re not succeeding very well.”
Corinne was puzzled. “Why would we want to do that?”
Cally said jokingly, “Give it a few months, Corinne, and then you’ll understand.”
“There’s so much to learn. You don’t have training on that, do you?”
Reya asked, “Understanding men? I’m afraid that requires hands-on experience, lots of patience and the occasional hard knock on the head. Maybe we could use a support group?”
Cally said absently, “Singing.”
Reya asked, “Singing?”
“Yes, it’s a good group activity and it aids in releasing stress.”
“I don’t know…,” said Reya with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm.
Corinne said eagerly, “I’d love to try it.” She enjoyed trying out new experiences and wanted to know the two women better.
Reya took one look at the young woman’s keen face and said half-heartedly, “I suppose I could try it once. But you might need ear-protectors.”
Cally grinned, “I will bring a supply from the medical unit.”
Reya finished the rest of her tea and stood up. “I’m due for my shift. Singing tomorrow after the training session?”
Cally said, “I will arrange the music.”
Reya picked up her tray and before she headed out said, “And I’ll speak to the soldiers.”
Corinne was wondering if she had missed part of the conversation.
Cally glanced at Corinne before saying, “That’s a good idea.”
Argus was walking along, headed for a well-earned shower after his workout when his sharp senses heard something mechanical sneaking up from behind. There were no weapons to hand but he wasn’t concerned. In one motion, he whirled and prepared to throw himself at the intruder. It was an odd contraption, with a strange shape, reminiscent of an Earth-style domestic animal. However, this one did not have lovable fur, instead it had ominous instruments that protruded and were extending from all directions, one of which was his.
Somehow, this strange device had been able to gain access to the ship. The Tellarans had not mentioned bringing any such device aboard and Argus doubted if they would have let one roam the ship with out informing him first. He couldn’t think about that now, in a split second he had reacted.
“Beep…” The thing barely got out a sound when Argus pounced on it and rendered it harmless with a few swift kicks. He went to the nearest comm panel and activated the ship alarms, “Intruder alert! Security Team One to Deck Two, corridor…three. Security officer coordinate a deck-by-deck sweep. Intruder alert! Unidentified mechanoid device found on Deck Two.” A claxon began its ship-wide warning, waking up all to the danger that had befallen them. Red emergency strip light along the ceiling blinked in unison with the sound.
Confident that Reya would take care of the rest, Argus bent down carefully to examine the machine. From the looks of it, he had thoroughly disarmed the device and there didn’t seem to be any hidden explosives. The weapons protruding from it, and which were now bent in awkward angles, seemed odd. He’d never seen such ones before.
When the security team arrived, he directed them to make a thorough search of the corridors. Then he picked up the offending device and carried it to the medical unit where Avon was ‘confined’ during his recovery. Argus was certain that Avon would be able to identify what it was. Not to mention, he would welcome the distraction. Cally had refused to let Argus talk to Avon about anything important during his recovery, which limited the conversation somewhat. Surely, she could see the need now.