Magic Bullet Productions

 

The Mark of Kane

Part 1 - War Crimes

Novelisation by Martin Odoni

based on an original script by Alan Stevens

 

Chapter 1

Noise can be addictive. There's no explanation for why this should be so, it just seems that the ear-splitting pain of extreme volume triggers such immense pleasure in some people that after they have experienced it once they have to go back and try it again. And again. And again.

The exact cause of the loud noise can be anything, and it varies from addict to addict of course. Since the dawn of human history, city-dwelling folk have always had a strange appreciation for the general noise and bustle of the inner areas, be it the hubbub of too many people gathered in too little space, or, since the birth of the motorcar, the thunderous ground-shaking roar of traffic rumbling by at illegal speeds, turning round sharp corners at too high a gear, or best of all, crashing.

Then there are sadists. Their pleasure stems from some charm and poetry that only they can see in cries of agony. Most particularly from the sound of their victims' wails of terror and their screams of mortal torment before the final death-throes when the killing blow is struck.

The problem for sadists appears to be that once the bloodlust has subsided, there follows an inevitable depression, even a sense of loss. Sometimes even guilt. A sadist of high amoral standards can usually, with a conscious effort, ignore and suppress these feelings. Sadly, no man can remain conscious indefinitely, so bad dreams become the order of the day when time comes to get some shuteye.

Bad dreams were definitely the order of the day for Travis. All his days were bad days, and so likewise his dreams were more and more frequently dominated by bad memories, even if they weren't guilt-ridden ones. He had, until roughly four months previously, been a Space Commander in the immensely-powerful Military wing of the Terran Federation. He had also, until two days previously, been wrapped up in a suffocating and embarrassing combination of bandages and a heavy green cloak that had concealed every inch of his face and body. He had been stashed in this ludicrous and degrading manner for somewhere in excess of six Earth weeks, sweating off pounds of weight and water, and worst of all, it hadn't even been for medical purposes. It had been a disguise as a long-dead rebel called Shivan, and it had worked perfectly even while the rest of his plan to infiltrate the Liberator and destroy the Resistance movement had failed.

Well, failed in Travis' single eye anyway. Servalan, Supreme Commander of the Federation Space Fleets, was happy enough with the outcome of the trap. The treacherous Arbiter General Ven Glynd and the tiresome Governor Le Grand had both been killed with appropriate swiftness and precision, and all their subordinates had also been gunned down in their feeble attempts to protect them.

The one blemish in the operation was that Blake and the Liberator had managed to effect a somewhat fortunate escape at the last instant, but that was all right. On this occasion Blake had been only a secondary target of the operation. The important issue was that the conspiracy for a peaceful revolution had been thwarted.

In fact Servalan had been so pleased with how things had gone on Atlay that she even allowed Travis and his crew of mutoids to go free once again, on the firm condition that Travis continue to make himself useful and to dog Blake's path, wherever it might lead him.

So Travis had returned to Pursuit Four with his mindless crew of half-human half-vampires and set off into the stars, almost whimpering with frustration that once again he'd had Roj Blake in his grasp, and once again Blake had found a way to wriggle free. Things had not gone well at all as far as Travis was concerned.

The big picture was no longer visible to Travis. The mechanics of overall plans meant less to him now than the singular goal of finding Blake and tearing the life out of him. Indeed there was no big picture. Killing Blake was the only picture Travis could see at all, and it always seemed so far distant he was beginning to doubt that he would ever see it in its fullest glory.

Where had it all gone wrong? This was a question he had been asking himself quite a lot recently. He had after all been one of the finest and most dedicated officers in the Federation only two years earlier. Granted, his was not a record without its occasional black mark. The Federation had referred to them as "atrocities" in fact, but Travis still felt that the powers-that-be were ignoring the circumstances.

The bare mechanics of the case against were strong of course. He had been "overzealous" at the Battle of Tomo, dropping antimatter warheads on the capitol and wiping it out of existence. He'd murdered over five thousand people on Auros, even though they had already surrendered a full hour before he'd sent the troopers in. And he had slaughtered a further fourteen hundred civilians on Zircaster, none of whom were armed. These facts spoke for themselves, at least in the eyes of the few whom the information had been allowed to reach.

But even so, Travis felt that they were simply an indicator of his thoroughness, his application, his strength of character. In many circumstances, a few of his superiors might even have agreed, albeit privately. So where had it all gone wrong?

It was a straightforward answer really. Blake was where it had all gone wrong. The day that Blake had shot Travis, he had tainted the jewel, scarred the perfection. With Blake's recent re-emergence, the feud had resumed, but each time Blake had got the better of Travis, humiliating him, shaming him.

Even disgracing him, to such a degree that Travis had been dismissed from the military and had become as much the fugitive as Blake himself. More than ever, the hunt to kill Blake had become Travis' sole reason for living. It was just that by now, the very thought of Blake filled his head with such vile anger and choking hatred that the desire to kill him had actually started to blind him to the reason why he wanted him dead in the first place.

This was why he kept on having to ask himself where it had all gone wrong.

It goes without saying, at least to an outsider, that he was mad. To Travis himself, maybe there was some tiny part of his old self that had survived the "retraining therapy" he had undergone after Servalan's botched attempt to steal Orac. And maybe that part of him knew that Blake's death would be his own.

Perhaps that was the reason why he now had to make the forthcoming "preparations" for what would follow after he finally gunned Blake down. Although in truth, all he actually knew to be driving him was a hatred of one man that had grown into a hatred of everyone.

For now, Travis slept in his command chair. He had wanted to take a dream suppressant before turning in, but the ship's supply had to be rationed carefully - if he ran out of any drugs, goodness knew when he'd be able to restock. So his unconscious mind was filled with more bad dreams.

The images in his mind's eye were faces. Bloodied and broken faces burning in the fires of a dozen weapons and more.

The first words they had uttered he couldn't remember exactly. It was something along the lines of, "We surrender." But now every voice and every eye was turned toward Travis, each sound and each pointed look filled with betrayal. For he had responded to their surrender with fire. The screams and cries all whirled into a crescendo, warping and stirring over one another into a single deafening voice that howled just one despairing question...

"WHY?"

"Why? Why what?" he wanted to cry back, but his voice sounded dead even to his own ears.

The inferno of dying screaming faces folded before him into a flaming vortex of howls, blood and tears. Then the vortex spun and resolved itself further into a vast face towering above Travis like a mountain. The face of a leader. Their leader. A strong face, tousled wiry hair, and dark eyes so hard they looked like they could cut diamond with but a look.

Those dark eyes looked at Travis. Travis felt searing pain as they cut through him. He felt lancing pain, as fire spread from the eyes and engulfed him. He felt gruelling pain as he cried the name of his tormentor...

"Blake!" cried Travis, sitting up in his chair with a start. He heaved several breaths to steady his pulse.

"Commander?"

Travis looked up sharply, and saw the soulless gleaming expanse of a Pursuit Ship Flight Deck before him. In each of the two seats ahead of him sat the dark-clad, hooded figure of a female mutoid, their expressionless expressions directed at him, quietly attentive but disinterested. Travis wasted a second with another steadying breath, so the mutoid who had called his attention decided to address him again.

"Commander?"

Travis coughed slightly as his mind tried to make the rest of his body wake up a bit. He always found when waking after a nightmare that it took a strange toll on his energy - in spite of his remarkable physical fitness, sometimes he'd wake up feeling even more exhausted than when he had fallen asleep.

Where am I? he suddenly wondered. Well, on Pursuit Four, obviously, where else would he be? But where in the Galaxy was Pursuit Four? Oh yes, of course. It wasn't in the Galaxy was it? That was what the "preparations" were all about.

"Have we achieved co-ordinates?" he demanded in a strange kind of authoritative croak, a telltale indicator that he was still not completely awake.

"We are positioned exactly one thousand spacials from the perimeter of the Defence Zone," answered the mutoid crisply. Were he the sort to consider such things important, to even notice them, Travis would have believed she was a pretty one, this mutoid. That is, if he could ignore skin as white and bloodless as chalk. Which was another thing he considered unimportant.

Still, as ever there were more important matters that demanded his attention anyway. Like being so far beyond the theoretical Galactic boundary that every star in the Federation could be seen clustered in a vast fiery swirl in the incomprehensible distance behind the ship. He was now in a place to which few men had ever journeyed, perhaps ever would. This was the "Road to Andromeda" - Intergalactic Space.

Up ahead, scarcely visible to the naked eye in the deep blackness of the starless void, were thousands upon thousands of tiny mechanisms, scattered halfway to infinity above, below, and side to side. They glowed as dim specks of redness on the detector screens of the ship, the only indication that they were even there.

In fact it was a minefield composed of thousands of antimatter satellite generators.

"Start sending the ident signal," ordered Travis.

"The ident signal," continued the mutoid monotonously, "is already being transmitted."

Travis narrowed his single pale eye, letting annoyance flood into him.

"Then turn it up so I can hear it!" he fumed. The brief rush of anger, he noted to his satisfaction, seemed to get his blood pumping and wake him up a little more. Good. He'd always believed that anger was the only useful emotion.

The mutoid pushed a control on the comms and the Flight Deck was filled with the noise of electronic chatter.

"We haven't received a reply yet, I take it?" Travis asked.

"No."

"How long have we been transmitting?"

"Thirty-four minutes."

Travis rubbed his jaw, staring ahead into the inky blackness. He was not by nature an indecisive man. In fact he almost never felt the slightest hesitation. He was conviction personified, the embodiment of single-mindedness. And yet right now he really wasn't sure what he was doing here, or even what he was truly trying to achieve. Yes, he had a plan, but even in his obsessive state of mind, he recognised the absurdities of it. It depended entirely on someone being here. Someone he'd never met, someone who had no reason to trust him and four hundred reasons to hate him - four hundred dead bodies that is. Someone to whom no man had ever spoken or even seen. Someone who there was every possibility wouldn't even be here. Someone who perhaps, just perhaps, didn't even exist. The information that had led Travis here was, after all, several years old, and the source was not exactly a hundred per cent reliable.

And now Travis was depending on it. His whole plan depended on the lead being accurate and the co-operation of whomever he might find here.

For some while the electronic chatter from the ident signaller was the only sound that could be heard. There was no sign of a response from anyone in the zone. Not a movement, the receiver was silent.

Travis did not let frustration intrude on his thoughts, but he had to accept that this plan was already coming unstuck. Maybe the information was no longer accurate. Maybe it had never been accurate.

He glanced at his timekeeper uneasily. Thirty seven minutes and still no response.

Travis eyed the sensor read-outs. The unending red specks still shimmered hazily.

"Hmm," he murmured. "Is it possible that the Defence Zone's blocking our tra-..." His voice tailed off. No that wasn't it, it couldn't have been. "No. Perhaps..."

Then it happened. A loud sharp beep pierced through the tension followed by the thin reedy whine of a sub-beam signal being received on not-quite the right frequency. Travis clenched his fist in triumph. It was working. It was actually working! There really was someone on watch here, surely it was the ones he was searching for. And they'd replied! They'd accepted his signal, been taken in by the code he had transmitted and now they were transmitting back to him.

"That's it!" Travis growled. "That's it. Open voice channel."

The mutoid punched in a control on the comms.

"Ready?" barked Travis impatiently.

"Voice channel open," confirmed the mutoid.

"My name..." began Travis, then paused to clear his throat - he meant business, and knew it was better to sound as forceful and bullying as possible. If he couldn't impress these people on first contact, there probably wouldn't be a second. "My name," he repeated into the communicator more loudly, his earlier uncertainty gone, "is Travis. I'm a fugitive from the Federation. I believe our interests coincide and I can help you."

The only response to this from the comm speakers was a sharp crackle of static and then a return to complete silence. Travis frowned and put his hands firmly to his hips. "Look, I know you're out there," he insisted. "You've answered the signal."

Silence.

"Alright, have it your way," said Travis, then slyly dangled the first piece of the bait. "But ever heard of Monopasium-239? That ore is going to give the Federation an Intergalactic Drive, and once they have that, they'll do to you exactly what you're planning to do to them."

Silence. Travis waited a few more seconds for another response from the communicator, refusing to let the renewed tension show how nervous he was. Eventually he gave a resigned shrug, not sure whether to be disappointed or relieved.

"Turn the ship about," he snapped to the second mutoid. "Let's get out of here."

Travis felt the faint unsettling jolt in his feet as the main drive kicked in and Pursuit Four began to turn. He sighed very quietly. He was partly relieved as he really hadn't known what to expect out here. But in equal measure he felt disappointed, as he really did need the help of these people if his ultimate aim was to be achieved.

The last crumb of rational thought left in his head had come to notice something after the battle on Atlay. He had had the Liberator and he'd relinquished it for nothing. Avon and Cally had been at his mercy on the Flight Deck of the Liberator, and the most powerful ship in the Galaxy had been his to command. In that, he could have stayed out of the Federation's grasp for years. And what had he done? He had teleported off the ship to chase down Blake. It was only after Blake had escaped that Travis actually came to recognise the mistake. He'd given up the Liberator to take a shot at Blake, and in doing so had handed Blake his escape route.

Travis had long wanted to kill Blake of course, but now it had become everything to him, the love of his life almost. He no longer had the Federation to fight for, in fact he had nobody at all, and he could no longer even think whenever Blake was in his reach.

More pertinently, Travis was starting to wonder about the dangers, not of failure, but of success - if Blake were to die, what would be left? He had a greater purpose in the long term now, and he needed help from these intruders beyond the frontier if he were to achieve it.

Sadly, they were refusing to even talk to him. Ah well, he hadn't really expected much better.

The vast brilliant spiral of the Galaxy sidled onto the view screen ahead. Pursuit Four began to increase speed away from the Defence Zone.

"Wait."

The voice had emanated from the comms. It sounded crude and sludgy, like a man talking through a mouthful of grapes.

"Cut engines," hissed Travis, smiling to himself. The ship gently slowed to a halt. "Yes?" he asked politely into the communicator.

"How did you obtain the signal identification code?" the voice demanded. It sounded nervous and uncertain, two undeniably human traits, and yet there was no identifying the texture or shape of such sounds. They were strikingly... alien.

Travis sniffed arrogantly. "You had a forward outpost on a frontier planet called Auros," he explained. "I was the Space Commander who wiped it out. Of course your lot had shape-shifted. Infiltrated the civilian population. So I had to shoot a lot of them as well to make sure."

Travis paused, remembering again the bloody massacre that had been his responsibility, and his alone. Even after the people had surrendered Travis had ordered his men to kill everything that moved that wasn't in a Federation uniform. It was his duty. He'd had to kill all of them. If even one of these shape-shifters had survived, the consequences could have been disastrous. The innocent deaths were regrettable... It was his duty. They all had to die.

"So when I came across the Ident signal and rendezvous point," continued Travis, betraying not a glimmer of weakness, "I kept it to myself."

"Why?"

Just the briefest uneasy pause. "There were five thousand colonists on that planet," answered Travis, "and the news got out about what happened to them. The news about me killing them all I mean. Not about your presence there." He remembered, not without bitterness, how Space Command had made him the scapegoat then, and how so many times since then Servalan had made him the scapegoat. Yes. That was why he was here. Killing Blake was everything, but killing Blake was no longer enough. "Anyway I was suspended pending an enquiry, which never happened. Eventually I was given back my command. A political decision I think. They didn't want the masses to find out about you." And wasn't that always the way with Servalan? he thought to himself, sourly. Even on the rare occasions she helped him it was entirely to help herself.

There was a long silence while the faceless contact seemed to mull this over. Eventually the silence was broken.

"How can you help us?"

Travis nodded imperceptibly to himself. Time to apply a little more bait to the hook.

"I believe I might be able to find a way to deactivate the antimatter minefield for you," he offered.

"How?" demanded the Andromedan.

"I've still got a few contacts who could lead me to Federation Central Control. That's the setup that looks after all the Federation's main facilities. Climate control, computer flight co-ordination. Probably even this Defence Zone. If it does, then I can bring the barrier down from there."

"How do we know we can trust you?" persisted the Andromedan, clearly trying too hard to be skeptical.

"You don't," said Travis simply, folding his arms. "But then you don't have to. I do all the work, all you have to do is prepare and wait."

"You will tell us the location of Control?"

Travis suppressed an impatient sigh. It was one stupid question after another, which always annoyed him intensely, but then no one said that convincing an alien shape-shifter was going to be easy. "Yes, that as well."

"How will this benefit you?" asked the Andromedan suspiciously.

"That's my concern," snapped Travis.

"We can provide you with power," suggested the Andromedan. "Is that what you desire? You can rule..."

Travis could barely avoid a hoot of derision. "Don't give me that! There won't be anything left to rule when you've finished."

There was another silence, frostier than any previous. Eventually the Andromedan returned. "We do not trust you," it stated flatly.

Travis decided that trying to keep his temper with these people was not worth the waste of energy. "Have I got a deal?!" he demanded loudly.

With some hesitation the Andromedan voiced acceptance. "Yes. We agree." Travis smiled to himself as he felt the snag on the line as the bait was taken. "Contact us again when you have procured the location co-ordinates." And the channel went dead. The first mutoid switched off the communicators.

Travis nodded in cautious satisfaction, still not sure if he truly understood what he was setting in motion. He was also not sure if he truly cared.

"Right," he concluded in a restrained voice, "move out. But make sure nothing follows us."

The second mutoid engaged the flight controls, the engines fired into life, and Pursuit Four began its long journey back toward the Federation frontier.

"The communication did come from behind the Defence Zone," the first mutoid stated reassuringly.

"I know," nodded Travis, "but they must have found some way to get through or they wouldn't have been on Auros, would they?"

"Might they not have settled on Auros before the minefield was raised?" suggested the mutoid.

"Don't be naive," sneered Travis. "That Defence Zone's been there for..." Travis stopped and thought about it. "Well it's been there..." He shook his head. Now that he thought about it, he realised that he had no idea how long any of the Defence Zones had been there. In fact, for all his strategic training and in-depth knowledge of tactical history, he'd only ever been half-convinced that there was ever a time that they hadn't been there. There were at least six of these zones along the frontier, and each one covered so many light years in both length and breadth that it seemed laughable to suggest that anyone could be capable of building them.

"Then why do they require your help?" asked the politely confused mutoid.

"Because they want to invade, not visit," explained Travis. "And while they may be able to steer a scout craft through the Zone, that won't work for a fleet of battle cruisers." Not for the first time, he found himself resenting the way Servalan had inflicted these zombies on him. It was bad enough having to spend his life on the run. He needed his every ounce of thought and strength to stay alive, let alone hunt down Blake. But with a crew like this he found he was having to waste so much time doing other people's thinking for them. With all the stress in his life this was less than healthy. "Have the scanners picked up anything?"

"All scans are so far negative."

"What course shall I lay in?" asked the second mutoid.

Travis idly fingered the lazeron trigger on his artificial arm. What course indeed? He knew that his best bet for finding both Central Control and Roj Blake lay with one man, someone he had known from his Federation days. He had to find Docholli.

"Set course for the planet Cynra in Sector Five," he ordered, seating himself back in the command chair. He then added with an amused grunt, "Docholli spends a lot of time drunk. I know a bar where we might pick up his trail."

 

Chapter 2

 

Cynra was one of the finest commercial districts beyond the Federation's jurisdiction. It was also something of a tourist attraction, more or less, loosely speaking. Not because it was a pretty sight of course, good heavens no. It was grey and stormy, covered in dozens of small smoggy cities, and dark and cold with the handicap of orbiting an undersized star.

Cynra was popular as an independent frontier planet that, while not entirely Open, had suspended more than fifty per cent of its commerce laws. It was like a magnet for all the businessmen in the Fifth Sector, hungry for the chance to buy or sell with none of the inconveniences of taxation or contraband rules. And of course holidaymakers were regular visitors as well, knowing that export duties on any souvenirs or gifts they bought would be nonexistent.

At least that was the way Cynra had been when Travis had taken shore leave there, a little over two years previously. Since then, Federation Security had got to work on the place, and everything had changed.

Cynra had long been a target of the Federation High Council for annexation, and so a small group of undercover agents were sent in to infiltrate the planet's Government. It was a long term strategy that required enormous patience, but in the end the espionage network brought huge dividends. Cleverly constructed political manipulation had gradually brought the elected Government down, and when the rigged elections that followed resulted in a hung parliament, the planet faced a crisis in the shape of a sudden power vacuum. Months of uncertainty were followed by months more of an unstable coalition Government, which too collapsed in turn. After two years of civil and domestic chaos, all parties within the Parliament agreed to petition the Terran Federation for membership, hoping that Earth could restore order.

So now, as Pursuit Four entered its upper atmosphere, Travis had an opportunity to see Cynra as it now was - one of the Federation's newest and most loyal servants.

*****

"Ground Zero," reported the second mutoid unnecessarily as the ship touched down with a hefty jolt. "Contact achieved, Commander."

Travis pulled himself out of his chair so quickly that he almost somersaulted to his feet. He'd been cooped up on this ship for far too long and he was feeling impatient and restless.

"Right," he growled, stepping over to a small locker and pulling out a heavy hooded cloak. "You two stay here. If anyone tries to board Pursuit Four while I'm away, kill them." He pulled the cloak around himself, noting sourly that he was getting tired of being wrapped up like this. He was beginning to feel like a third class parcel. "And if I'm not back in an hour," he added, "come after me."

Travis strode over to the main hatch, slapped his palm against the lock pad with more than sufficient force, and watched, his right leg twitching with impatience, as the door slowly trundled open.

"And make sure you're armed," he advised the mutoids irritably. The last thing a Federation criminal needed after wandering around Federation turf looking for an ex-Federation Medical officer on the Federation's Wanted list, was to return to his ship and find his crew had got themselves killed by straying weaponless into a fire-fight.

Travis hunched slightly to duck his head under the low door frame.

"Commander?" asked the second mutoid.

Travis paused at the top of the gangplank. "Yes?"

"You instructed me to tell you when my blood serum level reached a certain point."

"Well?"

"My blood serum level has now reached that point," explained the mutoid, with the kind of limitless patience that only a finely-judged lobotomy or unmotivated stupidity (or perhaps both) will ever bring about. "Do I have your permission to replenish...?"

"No!" barked Travis, quickly and firmly. "Wait until I get back." Travis turned to leave again.

The mutoid looked slightly affronted. "But..." she tried to protest.

"NO!" shouted Travis, and he strode down the gangplank, the hatch sliding shut behind him.

The Flight Deck of Pursuit Four was now silent. The first mutoid, as per her protocol programming, sat ignoring all but the system read-outs on the screens in front of her. The conversation the Commander had just completed had not involved her nor even been about her, therefore it was not her place or business to intervene or offer an opinion in any way, even if she were capable of opinions, which of course she was not.

The second mutoid sat staring at the recently-closed hatch, thoroughly confused. Partly it was the Commander's strange insistence that she not take further blood serum. Surely any rule of logic would dictate that the Commander would require her to perform her duties at peak efficiency at all times, especially given due consideration to the Commander's precarious situation. But the confusion stemmed from more than that. It also stemmed from a sensation that the mutoid had never expected to experience. At least not again, not since...

What she had experienced was supposed to be impossible, but it appeared to be a psycho-metabolic reaction to the Commander's unexpected and strident order. It had been an unwelcome sensation of increased heart-rate and a slight dizzying touch across her temples. It felt suspiciously like an emotion. This was surprising in itself, as emotions were scarcely possible for one who had been modified. But even less wholesome, she realised, was the nature of the emotion she had felt. It was unsettling, concerned. She had felt alarmed. She had felt fear.

*****

For those in the know, which was still many even in these post-Federated days, Stenner's bar on the lower South side of Kalga City was one of the last links between Cynra and the comparative freedom of The Outer Planets. Most businesses, including drinking establishments, became strictly regulated whenever the planets they were on came under Federation control, but local Governors usually found it was good for the economy to allow the occasional exception, as it would attract more business from merchants on independent planets. Any such merchants usually preferred entertainment free from Federal interference as well. So, as long as the proprietor paid a strict sales fee to the Federation on a regular basis, the occasional free-trading bar could be found on most planets.

Stenner's bar was such a badly-lit, foul-smelling, ill-frequented, incoherently-staffed and poisonously-stocked rat-hole, that Cynra's local Governor didn't much like the idea of being associated with it anyway. It was a known lure for all levels of gutter business and black market deals, with a jukebox playing some of the worst hits from the first century of the New Calendar, and beverages slightly lower in flavour-quality than base-grade engine oil.

Travis rather liked the dump at the moment, but that was only because it was the first port of call in his search. His search was the be-all and end-all of his life, which meant that liking Stenner's bar was necessary, at least until he had procured the information he needed.

Tam Stenner himself cut a vaguely bumpkin-like figure, and a very bumpkin-like mentality. He was a figure of modest build, slim of waist but with even slimmer shoulders, and he had a broad reedy accent that chimed of green fields and cider apples. In a previous era it might have been described as a West Country accent, but such concepts were long-forgotten by now. Stenner's big eyes and drooping nose gave him an appearance of third-rate intelligence that was a little unfair - but only a little. Certainly he was never going to outwit, for instance, your average Federation Space Captain, but then he didn't need to just to run a bar, a job for which he was more than adequately-equipped with his streetwise cowardice and charmless eye for making the quick credit.

Trade was going steadily on this fine evening - steadily slowly. He had a few customers in, some local down-and-outs, a couple of visitors from off-world playing an ancient drinking game, and a couple of "ladies" offering delivery on paid demand, so to speak. The less than hectic pace of his evening's work gave him time to continue plans that he had in mind for the following week, when it would be "Couples night" at Stenner's bar (which in Stenner's language meant simply that everyone got twenty per cent off whenever they bought a couple of drinks). As luck would have it Dorcus was here this evening and was happy to discuss it - talking always built up a healthy thirst in him, and thirst was his favourite excuse for drinking too much, not that he ever needed one. He was a young man whose clothes betrayed how poor he was in his chosen profession of picking pockets. This week he had agreed to organise the festivities of "Couples night," in the optimistic belief that he couldn't do anything like as bad a job of that as he did of stealing things.

"S'pose we should get some girls in," suggested Stenner, making a very unconvincing attempt to sound indifferent. "Those last strippers we had were a bit posh though."

"My mate had some strippers in," said Dorcus, warming to the subject with astonishing speed.

"Oh yeah? Any good?"

"Brilliant," said Dorcus, nodding with such enthusiasm that he nearly strained his neck. "I can get 'em for you if you want. Real tarts they were."

At the mere mention of the word "tarts" Stenner started drooling uncontrollably, and he was so busy wiping his mouth that he failed to notice the door sliding open and a tall hooded figure stepping in. "Get the tarts!" Stenner smiled mischievously. "Tarts is what we want."

The tall figure stepped up to the bar, and pulled the hood back just far enough to make his face dimly visible. Stenner saw the eye-patch and distorted good looks. "Travis!" he hissed in surprise. "What are you doing here?" Stenner then put his hand over his mouth when he realised how loudly he'd spoken. He glanced around quickly. No one had batted an eye-lid from the look of it. They were obviously too drunk to hear.

If Travis was angry at him for nearly blowing his cover he didn't show it. "Is there anywhere we can talk?" His voice meant business - but then Stenner had never known Travis to mean anything else.

Dorcus had never met Travis before, had never heard of him, but he took one look at the man towering over him and decided that it was time to be somewhere else.

"Er, right," he stammered, putting his hat back on, "I'll er, just be getting along." He turned and headed for the exit, walking so fast he was almost running.

"Yeah okay," Stenner called after him, trying to sound tough. "But don't forget what I said!" He turned to the back-room and opened the door. "Now er..." He raised his voice slightly. "Bethan! Oi Bethan! C'mere." A young barmaid with pretty cheekbones stepped out of the room and looked up at her boss with only slightly-concealed loathing. "Take over at the bar for a minute will you? I got some business in the back-room."

Bethan's only response was a put-upon nod as she took her place behind the till. Long experience had taught her that whenever Stenner said, "Take over at the bar for a minute," he meant, "You're on duty for the rest of the evening 'cos I'll be too busy getting whammed to do any work," and that when he said, "Business in the back room," he meant, "I've got crimes to commit." Long experience had also taught her to say nothing.

"Right," nodded Stenner, satisfied that his bar was in good hands (which was actually a change from the norm), and turned to Travis. "Right come through, Tra-..." He quickly corrected himself, "er... friend." He motioned Travis to follow him and headed through the door into the back room.

They didn't notice that they were now being watched with close interest. At a side table sat two men, one of whom was still just sober enough to see past the end of his beer glass. The sozzled expressions on their faces didn't disguise the perpetual surliness in their natures. They both had closely-cropped but untidy black hair. One of them had blue eyes, but they gave him no air of hypnotism or charisma, only murk and emptiness. The other's eyes were green, not that you could tell - by now he had descended so far into drunken stupor he was struggling to open them without the benefit of a laser probe and a vehicle jack.

The blue-eyed one was called Kane, though that was as far as his resemblance to anyone of biblical significance stretched. His ill-mannered bullying was famous among the dregs of Cynra's urban squalor. It was where he belonged, and all you had to do to know that was look at him. He nudged his companion, Lec Royce, who was now only able to prop his head up by perching his chin on the rim of his glass. The act of nudging him tipped the carefully-judged balance Royce had achieved, and his face plummeted into the hard wooden tabletop with a light thud. Oblivious to any pain Royce was experiencing (which was none thanks to sheer intoxication), Kane nudged him again and pointed towards the bar, which Travis was quietly making his way around to the back room.

"Hey Royce," muttered Kane.

Royce made what appeared to be a heroic effort to raise his head from the table and look from side to side, blinking unhappily as his eyelids rolled back without due care and attention, allowing light to intrude where his retinas did not welcome it. His eyes focused on thin air, and saw even less. "Wha' is it?"

"You see that guy at the bar?" whispered Kane, gesturing in a direction that was perfectly accurate and clear-cut, yet which Royce seemed to have enormous difficulty grasping. Kane scowled impatiently. "Come on!" He pointed again a little more sharply, and made a few precise movements with his fingers, well-intentioned, but the extra force jolted the table slightly and almost caused Royce to topple over again. "The big one with the eye-patch."

Royce sighed and tried to look again but still couldn't make anything out except a vague distant blur of tall darkness. He wondered if he'd been well-advised to have that extra glass of Silvolvian Whiskey. Or the previous fourteen extra glasses of it for that matter. It wasn't unhealthy particularly, not if you don't mind having a liver resembling the great cliffs of Talaban Six after a boat of a thousand furry animals has crashed into them, which Royce didn't. It was just it did make more complicated bodily-functions, like moving an appendage in the direction you actually wanted it to, a demanding and at times embarrassing chore.

For his part, Kane was wondering why he'd agreed to buy Royce the extra glass of Whiskey. He couldn't remember clearly as he was slightly the worse for drink himself, but it was probably because he realised that picking Royce's pocket would be easier if he were out cold.

"No."

Kane grappled with his temper in the manner of one grappling with soap in the bath. The big fellow was about to disappear through the door. "Look will you?" he insisted nudging Royce again. "Look now. Going through behind the bar."

Royce looked again and decided to act like he could see him. It seemed easiest.

"What about him?"

"I think I recognise him from that Federation bulletin," explained Kane. "His name's er..." His voice tailed off as his brain lapsed into unaccustomed thought. Trying to give the memory a work out after what he had drunk in the last hour and a half was not going to be easy. "Ooh, um. Ah. Tr-... Tr-something.Tr-Tra-... Tre-... Aha!" he cried with triumph. "Trevor!" he proclaimed. "That's it."

The ludicrousness of this was enough on its own to shock some fresh activity from Royce's dehydrated brain. He looked up in Kane's direction, and missed by no more than forty degrees. "Trevor?" he sneered. "What century was he born in? No one's called Trevor anymore, i's a tosser's name."

"Well 'is name's Trevor," Kane repeated firmly and a little too loudly. "He's worth a..." He quickly cut himself short, reduced the level of his own voice a notch, then started again in a much quieter key. "He's worth a small fortune. Now are you gonna 'elp me or what?"

Royce was tempted, no two ways about it. Except that he realised that his legs were going to argue with him if he tried to walk, and he was too embarrassed to have a blazing row with his own legs in public. So he decided to feign skepticism. "It can't be 'im."

"It is 'im!" hissed Kane stubbornly. He glanced up toward the bar again, as though to reassure himself, but by now the stranger had already gone. "It damn well is I tell ya!"

Royce swallowed a sigh and slumped quietly over the table again, his eyes rolling shut once more.

"So if you-..." Kane looked down and saw Royce apparently falling asleep. "Are you listening to me?" he growled dangerously, shaking him. "If you want any money tonight you'd better give me some backup!"

Kane hauled himself to his feet. His legs felt heavy, sharp pains ran along the temples of his head. Even more unsteadily, Royce pulled himself upright, looking devastated that he wasn't going to be allowed to drift off to sleep in the pool of beer that Kane had kindly spilled on the tabletop an hour ago. Kane pushed past the table where the drinking competition had ended with one of the men similarly slumped over, then headed in more or less a straight line for the exit. Royce wearily followed.

*****

Stenner poured a glass of Travis' favourite brandy, and a jar of dry ale for himself. "There we go then," he said, proffering the glass with a sickly grin, "have a drink with me. On the house."

Travis took the glass, keeping his sole eye fixed on Stenner menacingly. He downed the whole glass in a single swig, still watching Stenner without a waver. He gently rolled the empty glass between the fingers of his artificial hand in a manner so casual that nobody a woman-born could have a right to take offence at it. It made Stenner's nerves jangle a thousand times faster. "Thanks."

Travis looked around in disapproval. This whole building had only changed for the worse over the last couple of years. Dingy, underlit, badly furnished and full of grime. And that was just the proprietor. Grime was now the predominant characteristic of this bar in fact. The paint on the walls was peeling, and had filled out with a layer of grime. The lights were dimmed by the films of grime, which stained the surfaces of the grimy filament housings. The beer pumps were trickling where they should have flowed because of the grime that had built up steadily over the years on the inside of the valves. Travis might have refused to ever drink in this place again because of the grime, if it weren't for the strange way that it seemed to make the beer taste slightly cleaner.

This small room was at least cozy, but it was still unkempt, with clumps of paint peeled from the dirty walls gathered on the rusted metal floor, a pair of wobbly chairs and a small battered table in the corner. Another door at the back of the room led out from here to a part of the building that looked no more enticing than the rest.

"You're taking a bit of a risk coming here aren't you, Travis?" asked Stenner glancing at the door nervously. "Coming to a public place like this? Cynra's part of Federation Space now. What were you court martialed for?" Stenner wasn't sure how wise he was being raising this particular subject in front of Travis, but decided to blunder on regardless. "Mass murder wasn't it? On Zircaster?"

Travis' expression remained neutral, unreadable, but the menace in his bearing still seemed to grow. He slowly put his glass down on the creaky wooden table. "You know about that then?" he said in a quiet, matter-of-fact tone.

Stenner found the tone reassuringly free of hostility, enough even for him to risk trying a little respectful chumminess. "Know about it?" he chuckled. "You top the Federation's wanted list. Almost."

Travis looked up at Stenner sharply. "Almost?" The question was made casually, more curious than offended.

Stenner nodded, feeling enough encouragement to try speaking with enthusiasm. "Yeah, your name goes just after that terrorist... um..." he screwed his eyes up as his memory tried to pluck the correct information from the murky depths. "Blake."

Travis' expression just seemed to flicker. Just slightly. But that was all. His tone remained quiet and calm. "Just after Blake, eh?"

"Yeah," smiled Stenner, now sure that being this cheerful was entertaining Travis and not annoying him. "There's a big reward out for you as well. In fact two."

"Two?" muttered Travis. This was clearly unexpected news. "Who's the second one from?"

Stenner looked from side to side to make sure no unwanted ears were listening in, then leaned closer conspiratorially. "Bayban the Butcher." This revelation left Travis looking utterly confused. Not angry, not hurt, not scared, certainly not scared, just confused. And that of course was entirely understandable: after all, what had Travis ever done to upset Bayban? Bayban never took the slightest interest in politics, so why would he put a price on the head of a political criminal like Travis? Stenner explained. "He's so pissed off you demoted 'im he's put a contract out on you. Before Blake came along he used to be top of that list."

"Is that so?"

"Yeah," continued Stenner happily, "and now you're on the run, he's in third place and it's er..." The look on Travis' face suggested to Stenner that they were now entering a part of the conversation where sounding amused was not such a wise way to behave. "Um... well..." he concluded a little more gravely, "I'd keep my 'ead down if I were you."

Travis said nothing, just offered a mild grunt. Silence followed. It lasted only for a few seconds, but it was enough to set Stenner's nerves jangling again. He couldn't bear dealing with punters like Travis without knowing what was on the agenda first, and Travis was so difficult to read. So Stenner decided to try pre-empting him.

"So, um... so why are you 'ere then? Um, just passing through were you?" he prompted Travis hopefully. "Business somewhere else I expect. Just came 'ere for a drink, eh...?" Stenner knew he was babbling and hated himself for it.

Travis leaned forward, his single pale eye piercing Stenner with a single glare. "I came to see you, Stenner," he answered, putting such emphasis on the name that it filled Stenner with anxiety, an effect that was of course entirely intentional.

"Me?" Stenner replied, trying not to tremble. "'Ow can I 'elp you?" he heard himself asking.

"I want you to tell me where Kline is," answered Travis simply.

Kline? Well that wasn't quite as bad as Stenner had feared. It still wasn't good, but at least it meant Travis wasn't here for blood. "What do you want 'im for?"

"He's got some information that I need."

"Kline?" exclaimed Stenner, trying to hide his worry behind affectations of surprise. "You've got the wrong man," he protested. "Kline's just an old drunk. He don't know anything."

"Oh yes he does," retorted Travis calmly. "And I think you know where I can find him." That was the exact thing that Stenner was afraid to hear. "After all," Travis added slyly, "you do look after his daughter." Stenner tried, without success, to keep his face from falling. "How old is she now? Twelve is it?"

Stenner decided to twist his fearful look into a look of bemusement. "Kline's got a daughter? Who told you that rubbish?" That's it, sound as mocking as possible, thought Stenner, make it sound as ridiculous as possible. Winning this point was crucial.

"Docholli did," answered Travis. "Kline's alter-ego."

Uh oh, thought Stenner, so he knew that too. Make that, winning both these points would be crucial. Stenner's only approach here was to pour more scorn on the information. "He told you he was Docholli? And you bel-...?"

"No," Travis cut him off quickly. "I recognised him. He's a wanted man."

Stenner judged with a rare burst of shrewdness that his approach was not going to get him anywhere. Time for the traditional get-out card; feign ignorance. "Look, I don't know where he is, he's on the run. People on the run don't leave forwarding addresses."

"I think you know where he is," said Travis coolly, effortlessly keeping the conversation from getting side-tracked. He was in command now. "And I also think he sends you money to look after the girl. And keep her off the..." he paused just briefly, but in a way that Stenner did not dare to try and use to interrupt, thus establishing beyond doubt Travis' total control of the discussion, "...off the stuff," he finished. Stenner didn't reply, but looked slightly pale. So Travis took this as the confirmation it undoubtedly was and decided to continue. "I assume the reason Space Command aren't here yet, is because the mother's dead and she never registered Docholli as the father." Stenner did not answer, which did not satisfy Travis. Being in total control of a conversation didn't mean that he didn't require answers. "Yes?" he demanded, with increasing force in his voice. Vocal confirmation was hardly necessary of course, Stenner's feeble attempts at trying to bare-face his way out of this had petered out damply, but that was not enough for Travis. It would only be satisfying to hear the capitulation out loud, nothing less.

Stenner let out a long sigh of defeat. "That's the trouble with Docholli," he said quietly, "once he gets a skinful..." He shook his head. "Look honestly, I don't..."

Travis suddenly snapped. This was wrong, Stenner was suddenly trying to bare-face it again. This was against the rules, Travis had earned the full truth, Stenner had to answer. Travis' right hand snaked out faster than the eye could follow and instantly had a grip on Stenner's throat. Stenner gave a strangled gasp of surprise more than pain. With an effortless push forward Travis sent him smacking back into the wall, then stepped forward and grasped him by the throat again.

That was it. What resistance was left in Stenner was now gone in a single violent gesture. The old softly-softly-then-heavy approach always worked best with the spineless ones.

"No wait!" squealed Stenner weakly, "Wait! All right. Last I heard he was on the planet Disentastra. In the sixth sector. That's all I know now please..."

Travis was not finished yet. "When was that?" he snarled, giving Stenner's throat another intimidating squeeze.

"A-about two weeks ago," croaked Stenner miserably. He was having real trouble breathing. He squirmed and struggled under Travis' grip, but it was like a vice.

"What name was he using?" Travis grilled quietly, his grip tightening further - once you have your opponent on the rack, that's when you step up your attack.

"K-Kline," Stenner managed to gasp.

"Still?" growled Travis fiercely, suspiciously.

"Still!" Stenner managed to nod. Travis loosened his grip ever so slightly so that Stenner could shape his words intelligibly enough, but no more than that. "It's still Kline. Occasionally Masterson but still Kline." Stenner squirmed again.

"Yes," murmured Travis, rolling this thought over in his head a few times before finally releasing Stenner, who slumped to the floor, sighing with relief and gasping for breath. "Is there a back way out of here?"

Stenner looked up, only half-realising that he'd been asked another question. "Wh-...? Yeah. Through that door," he said as affably as he could, gesturing to the back door, "down the 'all. Leads out to an alley."

"Good," grunted Travis, finally satisfied. He looked around the room for a moment before his eye fixed on the bottle.

Stenner decided to risk asking a question. "One thing. Just before you leave," he added, trying to make a subtle but, he hoped, influencing hint, "if you knew who he was why didn't you turn 'im in? I mean two years back you were still in the service."

Travis looked back at him. "Yes. But before he went on the run, so was he."

Stenner blinked, as if hoping that the act of closing his eyes would wipe away the confusion and that when they opened again the world would suddenly make sense. It did not. "I don't understand."

Travis looked down at his artificial arm, then back at Stenner, and shook his head gently. Stenner wasn't a member of the military. "No. I didn't think you would. Now I'm sorry about this, Stenner. But I'm going to have to kill you."

Stenner's eyes bulged in horror. He shrank back against the wall. "Kill me? You can't do that!"

Travis clearly thought that this claim was preposterous. "Oh yes I can."

"Why?" protested Stenner.

"Because I can't trust you."

Stenner put his hands out fearfully, as if that was all that was required to defend himself. "Oh you know me, I won't say nuthin'..."

Travis snorted. "That's what you told Docholli."

Stenner again found himself having to change tack, only this time it wasn't just to cover his friend's back. Stenner's own life now depended on convincing Travis. "'Ow you gonna do it? You can't shoot me, Travis, everyone'll 'ear."

Travis looked amused. "It's a problem isn't it?" he said, although his confident, assured tone suggested it was anything but. He turned, picked up the bottle, and carefully broke it against the side of the table, muffling the sound just enough inside the gauntlet of his artificial hand. Most of the shards scattered quietly on the floor, rained upon by the alcoholic contents of a destroyed bottle. Between his fingers Travis kept a firm grip on the still-intact neck of the bottle, which now ended in a sharp jagged edge.

He held it up in front of Stenner whose eyes widened, and his hands reflexively moved up to cover his own throat as Travis stepped towards him. "No..." he whimpered.

"Yessssss," hissed Travis.

*****

The back door quietly slid open. Travis, his face once more shrouded in his hood, took an urgent step through the exit into a murky alley that reeked of rotten food, presumably leftovers from the Bar's insalubrious snack counter. The door slid closed behind him, mercifully quietly.

It disappointed Travis, as he noticed a few crammed rubbish sacks piled up next to the fence, to see that some of them had date tags indicating that they were over two months old and still hadn't been cleared away by the local rubbish collectors. This was not untypical of Cynra of course, but he'd expected that joining the Federation would have sorted out these unhygienic little inadequacies - it was usually in the Federation's nature to be furiously strict about that.

He shrugged. It didn't matter to him really. Only Blake mattered. He idly chucked the blood-soaked top half of the broken bottle on top of the rubbish sacks. For some reason he noticed that the blood staining the jagged edges of the bottleneck had already dried out. With this inconsequential detail absorbing his attention, he entirely failed to notice the two dark figures stepping out of the shadows off to one side behind him.

Kane snaked an arm round Travis' neck and held a thick switchblade at his throat.

Travis froze, not scared, just surprised.

"Don't move," Kane snarled. "Don't even breathe. Or I'll splatter ya brains all over that wall." He took a firm handful of the fabric of Travis' hood and hauled it back to reveal the distorted face beneath. Kane chuckled triumphantly. "I knew you'd come out this way," he congratulated himself.

"I think you're right, Kane," conceded Royce as he clumsily patted Travis up and down, looking for concealed weapons. "It must be 'im."

Travis stayed motionless, quiet. This rather surprised Kane, who decided that he wanted to provoke a reaction from his prey. "We know who you are, mate," he said, nudging Travis in the ribs.

"Really?" growled Travis, so quietly that Kane and Royce could only just hear him. "Who am I?"

"You're money," blurted out Royce with the kind of indiscretion that is often born of too much drink and avarice. "That's what you are..."

"Shut up, Royce!" Kane scolded him. "We don't want everyone to hear. This is our find." He gave Travis another aggravating poke in the ribs. "You're Trevor aren't ya?"

Now never let it be said that Travis was driven by ego. Anger and devotion to duty were his key motivations in life. Since his dismissal from the service, in fact, it had been anger alone. Ego seldom came into it.

However, that is not to say that he did not possess an ego. He most certainly did, and while he usually considered personal insults to be a matter beneath his notice, he still had his limits. Worse still, if anyone dared to exceed those limits, the result could often be painful. In these more volatile days of his life, those limits had a habit of changing wildly, sometimes just depending on little things, like for instance, how well he had slept the previous night.

Under any circumstances, however, no matter how sweetly and respectfully you may have been treating him, and no matter how deeply and blissfully he may have been sleeping for the last few days, if you were to get his name wrong in his company, you were to exceed those limits by several thousand spacials.

Travis almost choked. "Trevor?!?"

"Yeah, Trevor," nodded Kane firmly, not to mention overconfidently. "The ex-Fed man. The one who got done for killin' all them people on that planet. Here, Royce," he added, "search him for some ID."

Travis rolled his single eye as Royce began clumsily and intrusively patting him up and down again. This was degrading in its own way, but nothing he couldn't stay calm about usually. But after the hideous indignity of these low-life nobodies daring to address him incorrectly, for them to then have the sheer impertinence to search him bodily...?

"What's this?" slurred Royce as he searched Travis' pockets. "No ID," he noted, pulling out some money chips. "He's got a fair few credits."

Kane's eyes lit up greedily. "Oh. Well, every little helps." He turned his attention back to Travis. "We're turnin' you in, Trev," he explained.

"Shit!" cried Royce suddenly as he caught sight of Travis' false hand and the lazeron control adorning one of the fingers. "Where'd you get a ring with a bloody great stone like that from?"

"My grandmother," answered Travis disingenuously.

"Is that right?" jeered Royce nastily. "Well, take it off. It's mine now."

Travis held out his hand, with the forefinger pointed directly at Royce's face. "You take it off," he offered darkly.

"Right," nodded Royce, recklessly grasping the stud on the lazeron, "I will." He gave the stud a sharp yank...

The blast of light was so sudden and so bright that Royce's last thought (only thought) was that someone at the local administration must have finally got around to getting the local street lights repaired. The lazeron bolt then reached his face, burned its way through, meeting minimal resistance, and then blew his brains out of the back of his head, all in the space of a few milliseconds. Royce didn't even live long enough to feel the initial jolt of pain, barely enough to begin a gasp of surprise, which in any case was swiftly arrested.

The now-faceless corpse tottered very briefly, then collapsed onto the floor of the alley.

"Royce!" cried Kane in shock, foolishly taking his eyes off Travis for an instant. In that instant, Travis was on him, spinning on his heel, grasping Kane by the throat and pushing him back into the fence. Then Travis spun him round, grabbing his right arm and bending it up behind his back, inflicting wrenching agony in Kane's shoulder. Travis then stepped onto the back of Kane's knee, forcing him to the floor, all the while keeping Kane's arm in the same excruciating position. Kane had of course dropped the switchblade at some point in all this, but it made little difference in any case - he was already well beaten.

He grunted several times, then cried out wretchedly, "Stop it! Ow! I-I've 'ad enough!" He gave one last growl of pain as Travis booted him up the back side and sent him crashing back into the fence. Kane slumped pathetically as Travis towered over him.

"Who sent you?" demanded Travis, his lazeron aimed at Kane.

Kane looked up at him and cowered. "Sent us?"

"Don't play the fool," hissed Travis impatiently. "Was it Servalan?"

"Servalan?" blinked Kane, genuinely amazed at such a suggestion. "No. It was... it was my..." He hesitated. Looking at what was left of Royce, and the expression on Travis' face, he decided that this was one venture best not to claim any credit for. "It was his idea," he lied, gesturing at Royce. "Royce's. He recognised you in the bar from the vis-plays." He made a pleading look of almost total contrition. "It weren't a put-up job, honest."

Travis considered this briefly. "No," he concluded. "If you were Servalan's people," he continued with a slight grunt, looking down at his prosthetic arm once more, "you'd have been better informed. And your dead friend here would have known about the weapon built into this hand." He looked down at Kane once more and took a menacing, contemptuous step closer. "You're just street scum aren't you?" he snarled through gritted teeth, like a wolf toying with a petrified sheep, and grabbed Kane by the scruff of the neck. "Street scum who fancied their chances at bounty hunting."

"Y-yeah!" squealed Kane hurriedly, trying completely without success to back away. "Yeah, we're... we're scum!" Kane didn't realise that all this squirming self-abuse, far from ingratiating himself with Travis, was merely arousing more of his contempt. "It weren't personal or nuthin'..." he promised, to which Travis responded by hurling him disgustedly onto the pile of rubbish sacks.

Kane grunted in a mixture of, on the one hand, pain and, on the other, sheer revulsion at the streaky pools of half-rotted sliminess that he had landed in.

He looked up, half-expecting (and very much hoping) to see Travis' back as he retreated down the alley. Instead he saw that Travis was aiming the weapon in his prosthetic arm straight at Kane, the expression on his face full of jeering derision.

Kane gulped, his terror now at its height. "Wh-what are you gonna do?" he managed to stammer.

Travis' lips curled into a feral snarl. "What do you think I'm gonna do?"

There was a moment during which time seemed to stand still, and yet which seemed to Kane's terrified senses to last for an agonising eternity. Then Travis fired.

*****

A moment later, Travis, his head hidden in his cloak once more, reached the mouth of the alley and furtively glanced from side to side and over his shoulder, making sure that no one was watching him or trying to follow him. There were a few people, mainly layabouts and drunks, wandering around paying him, and indeed each other, no mind. It was a little surprising that there was anybody here at all, as it would be the curfew soon, so most people should already have made their way home. But it didn't seem suspicious. So Travis pulled his cloak around himself a little more tightly, set off along the roadside and soon disappeared into the night.

Inside the alley behind him, there now lay two inert bodies. What was left of Royce was already starting to enter rigor mortis. Just off to one side lay Kane, battered and bloodied. However, after a few minutes he stirred very slightly. One of his eyes suddenly rolled open. The other one did not.

That was because, as he dimly began to realise after a few moments, he no longer had a second eye.

 

Chapter 3

 

The hatch to the Flight Deck suddenly opened. One of the mutoids spun her seat around and aimed her plasma rifle at the entrance, then lowered it again when she saw that it was just the Commander returning.

For his part, Travis scarcely noticed, but closed the hatch behind him and re-took his place in the command seat. "Let's go," was all he had to say. But then, why waste any more words on mutoids?

"What course shall I lay in, Commander?" asked the mutoid who was (still) troubled by a shortage of blood serum.

"Set a course for Disentastra, Sector Six," ordered Travis, settling back.

The take-off was smooth, the ship taking just moments to break the atmosphere and cross into space. Travis felt a tiny bit annoyed about that - it meant the mutoids had left him with nothing to get angry about on this occasion. Never mind, he told himself, they were bound to give him plenty of other opportunities in the future.

"Speed?" asked the mutoid pilot.

No point wasting time. "Time Distort Ten."

"Speed Time Distort Ten," echoed the pilot, punching buttons, flicking switches and pulling levers on the panel in front of her, "computed and confirmed."

The rogue Pursuit ship accelerated away at full speed, leaving Cynra far behind it.

"What information do we have on Disentastra?" asked Travis.

One of the mutoids consulted the mainframe. "Although it is an independent Earth colony," she summarised, "and outside Federation borders, they do have many trade links with Federated worlds, and therefore have wish to present themselves as an ally." She switched the mainframe back off and resumed monitoring duty.

Travis mulled this over. A dangerous policy, all things considered. "I doubt Docholli would want to stay there for long," he commented dryly. Safe enough to assume, therefore, that he hadn't? Probably. "When we arrive," he instructed, shaping his words as carefully as he could to make sure that there was no possibility of the mutoids misunderstanding him, "do a computer scan of the passenger rosters of all the registered space flights that have taken off from Disentastra in the last two weeks. Check and see if there is any passenger listed under the name of Kline or Masterson."

"Yes Commander," said the hungry mutoid obediently. "However, if I am to perform that duty efficiently, I will need to recharge my level of blood serum. Now."

Did the poor little vampire sound a touch desperate? Travis looked amused. "Low is it?"

"My performance ability is already being impaired."

"Good," said Travis unkindly.

Now the mutoid genuinely did sound, well, if not actually distressed, then certainly confused. "If my function is affected to any..." she began stridently.

"I'm aware of what happens," Travis cut her off impatiently.

"Then I do not understand," protested the mutoid, somewhat pitifully.

Travis looked away for a moment, as though there was something he wanted to say and he was weighing up whether it was a good idea. It seemed it was.

"I know of your previous identity," he explained, sitting forward, "before your bionic rebuild."

The mutoid's expression did not seem to change. She did not move, she did not flex so much as a muscle. And yet somehow it looked as though she was backing away nervously, as though she were trying to evade.

"I am sorry if this has caused you any distress, Commander," she answered formally. "But I can assure you that all memory of my previous existence was erased from my mind during the modification process."

Travis hid a slight smirk. Distress? Him? Was she being serious? Well of course she was, she was a mutoid, she couldn't be capable of sarcasm. But no matter, this was hardly the point. "That's what I've been told," he replied smugly. "But I've also been led to understand that although the Federation can put blocks on the past, they can't actually erase it." He paused, purely for effect. "Deep down inside, the memory of who you once were still remains."

Again, without the slightest movement, without the slightest flicker of her expression, the mutoid managed to give the inescapable impression of retreating into herself. "You are mistaken, Commander," she assured Travis. "All memory is erased."

"Well," murmured Travis craftily, "once I've injected you with one of our interrogation drugs, we'll see exactly how much you do recall. You see, I want you to remember someone for me."

The mutoid, again without making any discernible movement, suddenly gave an air of defeat. "These measures are not required, Commander," she said.

"Really? Why not?"

"I do recall."

This statement came as a surprise to Travis. He looked at the mutoid suspiciously for a moment, then shook his head. "I don't believe you."

"Then ask me a question," suggested the mutoid. Was there now something else in her tone that Travis hadn't expected to hear - challenging? Defiance even?

"Tell me who you were," Travis ordered evenly.

"My name was Valisha," answered the mutoid tonelessly.

So far, so accurate. Travis was reluctantly impressed. Maybe this half-living mockery of a human was telling the truth. "Tell me about your family," he commanded, this time a little more gently.

"I had two children," explained Valisha. "My husband was a surgeon. His name was..."

"Maryatt," interjected Travis. "I know." He let this thought hang in the air for just a brief moment. In so far as it was possible for a mutoid to do so, she appeared surprised to hear this. Travis felt a rare, strange poignancy, and not being the sort to dwell on that sort of sentiment too far, he decided to continue. "Why were you selected for mutoid conversion?"

The mutoid paused while her electronically-refitted brain tried to extract the correct information from her memory. "Maryatt deserted the Federation," she said finally. "He was never found. In the case of all deserters their immediate family are sold into slavery. It was while in a concentration camp on a frontier planet that I was chosen for modification."

As Travis heard all this, he felt another unexpected twist of poignancy. It really was an unusual feeling for him - the brutal military training he'd received since his teens had knocked all foolish sentiments out of him. And yet, ridiculous as it sounded, Travis could have sworn that he was almost feeling sorry for the mutoid. But then, when he thought about it, was it so ridiculous? After all, whether or not he wanted to admit it to himself, wasn't that really the whole reason why he was having this conversation in the first place? That and...

"Why did you tell me earlier that you couldn't remember who you were?" he asked curiously.

"We are aware that many unmodifieds find us disturbing, Commander," explained Valisha, displaying so little passion for the subject that she might as well have been quoting from a dictionary, "and there is also a very vocal opposition to mutoid conversion within the Federation itself. Therefore we are programmed to avoid and deflect all questions about our former selves that may arise."

"Even if it's from a superior officer?"

"Yes."

"So," continued Travis, wondering if he was sounding ridiculously obtuse, "why aren't you obeying your programming now?"

"Because you are threatening to render me inoperable," said Valisha.

"And self-preservation in this case," concluded Travis, finishing the logic for himself, "is a higher priority."

"Yes, Commander."

"Of course," murmured Travis a little resignedly. What a pointless exercise.

"But I think you are mistaken in the belief that you knew me," Valisha pointed out. "I have no recollection that we ever met during my former life."

Travis smiled to himself. Mutoids may not have been entirely human in a conventional sense, but they still had familiar human failings, specifically the capacity to leap to conclusions. "We didn't," he answered bluntly. "But I've met your husband." The bitterest memory of his life, the one that had tortured him every day since, flashed across his mind's eye. "He was the man who saved my life, when I was shot by Blake." Another bitter thought forced its way into the conversation. "I think that's why you were put on board. As Servalan's little joke." It would have been just like the Supreme Commander after all, he thought resentfully. That was the whole point of course - Servalan was just using the mutoid to taunt Travis, to remind him of how he had complied with the betrayal of Maryatt, and to remind him of the consequences it had had for Maryatt's family.

Travis knew what Servalan was trying to do of course, but it didn't make it any less true. He had once accused the Federation of being run by hypocrites. Valisha was the living, or rather half-living, proof that he was right - but also that Travis himself was the greatest of all such hypocrites. For he, who felt betrayed by the Federation, had himself betrayed the man who had saved his life.

It was a betrayal that Travis felt compelled to speak of now, although from what he had heard, he was beginning to doubt that it would make a blind bit of difference. "I suppose there's no point in telling you that your husband wasn't a deserter." It was worded as a statement, voiced as a question.

"No, Commander," Valisha replied. She did just about understand the concept of emotional attachment, she did have vague memories of such things, but she no longer had any memory of what it was actually like. "I have no emotional links with the past at all," she explained. "Memory is only retained because selective removal without dysfunction and side-effects proved impossible. What is removed, however, is our capacity for emotion. This has been achieved through physical surgery to the frontal lobes of the brain, and so is a process that cannot be reversed."

Travis shook his head and let out a world-weary sigh. "I see," he muttered quietly. "Sometimes I really don't know why I bother."

"May I now replenish my blood serum level?" asked the mutoid, almost sounding hopeful.

"Go ahead," shrugged Travis. His purpose was achieved, albeit not in the way he had envisaged, and as it was clear that this woman really wasn't Valisha in any way that mattered after all, it no longer seemed to matter to him in the same way. "But," he added as a warning afterthought, "make sure that supply of synthetic lasts. Because when it's gone, you won't be taking any blood out of me." Enough of this, he thought, sitting back in his seat and stretching his arms out the full length of the armrests. "How long before we reach our destination?" he called out more loudly.

"Fifteen hours, Commander," called out the pilot.

Travis stretched again and let out another exhausted sigh. He was suddenly feeling very fatigued. "I'm going to get some sleep," he announced quietly. "If there's any problems, wake me." He settled into his chair as comfortably as he could when a nasty thought struck him - he remembered the nightmare he'd had the previous day. "Anyone know where I put my dream suppressants?" he asked urgently.

*****

Hours passed while Pursuit Four continued its lonely voyage across the inky wastes of the cosmos. But before Travis knew it, the trip was over.

"Orbit now established, Commander," announced the pilot mutoid, "at two thousand spacials."

The journey to Disentastra had been free of incident, and Travis had woken up to find himself feeling fresher and more at ease than he had done since... well, he couldn't remember when. In fact, he could almost say that he was feeling quite cheerful. That was probably born of the new sense of purpose he'd found. But that purpose, he had to remember, would only bear fruit if he found Docholli, and he hadn't done that yet.

"Good!" he nodded approvingly, getting to his feet. "Valisha," he then snapped, "have you had any luck with the Departure manifest?"

"Yes," Valisha confirmed. "Computer scan has found a passenger listed under the name of Kline, who will be leaving on the Bari in exactly three hours, forty three minutes."

Ah yes, thought Travis, the Bari. He'd once had to attack and board that old passenger cruiser as part of a purge of anti-Federation spies from the United Planets of Teal. A sturdy enough ship up to a point, but also very tacky - it was blatantly obvious that the crew put drugs in the passengers' food so that they never noticed how violently the engines could play up whenever the ship went above Time Distort Three.

"Where's he going?" asked Travis eagerly. Now that he had picked up the scent, nothing would stop him following the trail to its conclusion.

"Freedom City, Commander," answered Valisha.

That was all the confirmation Travis needed. "Good!!" he almost whooped. "That's got to be Docholli," he added more quietly, but with certainty. "How long will it take before the Bari arrives at Freedom City?" he demanded.

Valisha punched in some calculations on the computer, which gave a prompt read-out. "Travelling at approved speed of Time Distort Five," read Valisha, "the Bari should achieve planet fall in approximately two hundred and forty hours."

Travis thought fast how best to approach this. "Can you..." he paused. Yes. "...reserve me a place on the same flight as Docholli?" That was hopeful. With Travis' luck they'd probably find the flight had been booked out for days.

Valisha thus had a pleasant surprise for him when the next read-out came through. "Yes."

Travis didn't waste a second with looking surprised. "Do it!" he snapped. "Then after you've dropped me off, set course for Freedom City." He stopped and thought about that command. It was too incomplete, the mutoids were bound to do something indiscreet. "But whatever you do," he added, "don't follow the Bari. Take another route. Travel at Time Distort..." He paused again to consider. Oh, anything would do, he decided, as long as it was quicker than the Bari. "...Nine," he concluded. "I want you to be there ahead of me."

"What do we do when we arrive?" asked Valisha.

"Nothing," growled Travis firmly. "Just find a place to land where you aren't going to be detected. And then wait for orders." He was about to set off when he stopped as he realised that there was something else he should add. "Also, be prepared to wait a long time. This may take some months."

Valisha nodded and returned attention to the mainframe while Travis gathered his cloak and got ready to leave. Suddenly a thought seemed to occur to the mutoid and she turned back to look at Travis again. "Commander?" she began, "If we capture Docholli before he boards the Bari then we can interrogate him here..."

Travis turned and looked at her sharply, then held up his artificial palm. "STOP!"

The mutoid immediately fell silent, once again showing signs of confusion.

"Docholli," explained Travis quietly, fiercely, "must not be harmed in any way. Because sooner, or later, he's going to lead me to Blake."

Apparently this did not compute with Valisha. "Docholli knows Blake?" she asked, clearly believing this to be unlikely.

"No," said Travis. "But Blake is going to have to find Docholli. Soon." It looked like Valisha was about to ask why, but Travis spared her the bother. "Because Blake's also after Federation Central Control, and Docholli is the only clue to its location."

"So," Valisha finished, suddenly understanding, "you are going to stay with Docholli until Blake arrives."

"Yes," confirmed Travis.

"And then what will you do with Blake?" asked Valisha.

To Travis this question, even coming from a mutoid, seemed unbelievably obtuse. He looked at her pityingly for a moment, and then decided to answer anyway - it was an answer that gave him pleasure, after all.

"Kill the bastard."

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