ICZ IC-U B3-1: Deep Space
Fell From The Top (...) smashed out of the witchspace conduit back into normality with the characteristic thudding of its frame shift drive as the superconducting field generators span down into standby mode, dumping their excess heat to avoid a quench that would damage the emitters. The flight deck was bathed in the light of the red dwarf four light seconds off my port nacelle. The intensity of the starlight would have been blinding without the polarising canopy, but was comparatively feeble compared to the luminosity of the blue giant I had grown used to in my adoptive home system of Beta-1 Tucanae. I detected Duke Theriault's Panther Clipper visually even before my radar scanner picked up a signal from the heavy cargo ship. Its functional, boxy silhouette was easy to spot against the photosphere of the star, an unnaturally regular shape cast against the organic broiling gases being whipped up from the surface of the star by immense magnetic forces. A quick check of the comms board showed that the Panther had already activated its distress beacon. The Duke would have associates in nearby systems that would be waiting for his arrival. It would not be long before his absence would be noted and people would start looking for him. The clock was ticking.
"ASTRA, full power to engines." I brought my Imperial Clipper about onto an intercept course and deployed my weapon hardpoints as I engaged the afterburners. I resisted the temptation to open a channel to the sabotaged ship and taunt the despicable slave trader, opting instead for a rapid, silent approach. It was unlikely that Theriault would be anticipating anyone to arrive to help so soon, just a few minutes after the failure of his navigation computer. If I was lucky, by the time he detected my ship, it would already be too late for him to fend off my first attack. To save power and reduce heat generation so close to the star, the Duke had switched off his ship's shield generator, a mistake that under the circumstances was as understandable as it was foolish. I smiled, mentally preparing myself to make sure that his mistake would be a fatal one.
I adjusted my intercept vector to bring me in behind the stricken cargo vessel, hoping that I could breach the Panther's fuel lines on my first pass and cause a feedback spike that would disable its power plant. I boosted again, covering the space between us at over 400 metres per second. I was within ten kilometres of the Duke's ship when the radio call came.
"Unidentified ship! I don't know where you've come from, but I'm glad you're here!" Duke Theriault's thin, reedy voice was edged with panic. This was no battle-hardened combat veteran. Theriault's rank was hereditary and his status came purely from the success of his commercial ventures. His wealth and position had isolated him from the true, unforgiving nature of life outside of the secure, safe star systems he frequented. "My nav 'puter has completely fritzed out. I came out of frame shift and the console died. I can't get it to respond. You've got to help me."
I maintained radio silence, cursing under my breath as the manoeuvring thrusters of the Panther Clipper flared, rotating the nose of the ship towards mine, taking the fuel lines out of my line of sight. At this angle, I wouldn't be able to disable the ship on the first pass. "ASTRA, flight assist off."
I waited until I was within 1500 metres of the Panther Clipper before opening fire with all weapons. The heavy uranium-tipped cannon rounds crashed into the unshielded hull, disabling two of the cargo ship's vernier thrusters. The twin beam lasers on my starboard wing raked down the humped spine of the vessel as I pulled my control stick back sharply to keep my weapons tracking my quarry as I let Fell From The Top (...)'s momentum carry my ship past the Panther Clipper to drift in behind the cargo vessel's huge engines.
"No! Stop! What are you doing? Stop!" Duke Theriault cried out, in utter confusion, only belatedly engaging the throttle to start an evasive manoeuvre.
"ASTRA, full power to weapons. Target the fuel lines." For a moment I worried that it was too easy, as I emptied the capacitors of my beam lasers, leaving red hot scars of destruction that seared across the aft of the larger Clipper, cutting off the frame shift drive from the ship's power distribution grid. The Panther's thrusters flickered and died, leaving the vessel adrift as I poured ten cannon rounds into the thick armour covering the power plant.
"Please, stop! What do you want? I'll do anything!" Theriault pleaded, realising it was now too late to even activate his defensive turrets and fight back. "I can pay you. I'll double however much they're giving you! I don't have much cargo on board right now, but it's yours."
There was the sound of a desperate hammering of fingers on keys as Theriault prepared to abandon his cargo. A glance at the combat scanner told me that the Panther's hull integrity was down to just 23%. One more volley would completely destroy the ship. As my beam lasers recharged, I decided now was the time to break radio silence. "It's not about what I want, Duke."
"Who are you? Who sent you?" Theriault's demands were edged with undisguised terror. The ID scrambler on my ship originally installed by Agent Zeta meant that he had no clue as to who I was, nor what my possible motive could be for what he no doubt considered to be an unprovoked assault. I eased my ship back from the Panther, acutely aware that when the cargo hauler's power plant ruptured, the energy contained within would reduce the ship to cloud of supersonic shrapnel. Even fully shielded, I didn't want to get caught too close to the blast. "Tell me!"
"Senator Torval sends her regards. Have fun in hell, slave-scummer." I spat into radio mic with utter contempt. I depressed the primary and secondary triggers on my flight controller just as Theriault began to dump his cargo. Three cargo canisters were ejected from the Panther before the concerted fire of my beam lasers and cannons reduced the Panther to glowing scrap. Theriault's scream over the radio was mercifully short. Two of the cargo canisters were destroyed in the blast and the third was sent spinning away towards the red dwarf by a fragment of the Panther Clipper's mangled hull. One end of the cargo canister was punctured by the sharp metal shard and I could see gas leaking from the cylinder, freezing almost instantaneously into ruby-coloured crystals. I sat up straighter in my chair, a horrid feeling sinking in my gut. "ASTRA, target that container."
The targeting scan confirmed my fear. The cargo pod contained slaves. Slaves that were now rapidly losing oxygen to the vacuum of space. Even worse, the manifest on the cargo showed that the pod did not contain Imperial Slaves, which were protected by law in the Empire, but illegal slaves, procured from Independent or Federation space. It was a capital crime in most Imperial systems to be caught in possession of non-sanctioned slaves. The sensible thing to do would be to leave the cargo pod alone and report the mission success back to Senator Torval. But as I watched the cargo cylinder leak atmosphere into space and fall helplessly towards the star, my conscience wouldn't let me sit still, watch and do nothing.
"ASTRA, are there any life signs coming from that canister?"
"Yes, my lord. Just one."
"How long until the pod loses atmospheric pressure?"
"The pod appears to be divided into two sections, my lord. Only one has been breached."
"So whoever's alive in there is in the intact half?"
"Correct, my lord. The life support system appears stable and has enough power to remain functional for another six hours. Unfortunately, the trajectory of the cargo pod will take it into the star's corona in the next ten minutes." ASTRA replied. I closed my eyes and swallowed hard, knowing that I was about to do something really stupid. But I couldn't not act, not when it meant that whoever was unlucky enough to be inside that pod would be cooked alive by the star's radiation.
"ASTRA, activate the cargo scoop." It had been a few years since I'd had to retrieve a cargo pod from deep space, but my Clipper was fast enough and nimble enough to match relative velocities with the tumbling metal cylinder within a minute. I nudged the ship closer and closer to the canister slowly until I heard the clanking echoes through the hull from the scoop system process the pod and align it into one of the ship's cargo racks. Anxious not to be seen in the vicinity of Theriault's wrecked ship, I engaged Fell From The Top(...)'s frame shift drive to supercruise away from the star deep into the solar system, at least 200 light seconds away from the nearest planetary bodies, before dropping back into real-space. Leaving ASTRA with instructions to alert me immediately if any radar contacts appeared, I left the ship stationary and running silent to avoid detection. With the shields and engines on standby mode, I would have a few hours before the heat build-up within the ship would need to be vented. I hoped this would give me enough time to see to the occupant of the slave canister and dump the incriminating cargo pod. I stopped by my quarters to retrieve my dart gun, replacing the clip of high-powered anti-personnel flechettes with non-lethal tranquiliser darts. Without knowing what kind of condition my new passenger was in, or what kind of reception they might give me, it was prudent to be armed and ready to defend myself.
I entered the cargo bay with trepidation, but kept my dart gun holstered, activating the compartment's lights. From the vantage point of the cockpit, the slave pod had looked in bad shape, following the collision with the debris from the Panther. Up close, it was much worse, It was a miracle that both sections of the pod had not been breached, with one end practically shredded by the razor-sharp hull fragments that had hit the canister. The remains of the slave that had been in the damaged section of the pod were unidentifiable. Dismembered limbs were scattered around the perforated chamber, leaking droplets of dark crimson blood, which clumped together through surface tension on the end of the ragged stumps. I had to turn away when I saw that the dead slave's torso had practically been sheared in half by the large shard of hull plating that had pierced the integrity of the pod.
Remarkably, the other section was entirely unscathed. I glanced through the tiny window on the door and the occupant appeared intact, but unconscious. Next to the control for the door, set behind a glass cover was a ceramic card, about as wide and as long as my thumb. I recognised it instantly. It was the control chip for the control collar worn by the slave inside the compartment. I smashed the glass with the butt of my dart gun, retrieved the chip and opened the door. Sprawled face down, floating just over the floor was a pale-skinned, blonde woman of average height and a slim build. It was difficult to tell in the poor light inside the compartment, but she appeared to be in her early or mid-twenties and she was quite insensate. I could see a sharp contusion on her left temple, where she had struck her head on the wall as the cargo canister had spun wildly after the collision with the hull fragment. She was clothed only in a thin, simple white cotton dress that was badly stained and ripped across her shoulders and lower back. Bile rose in my throat when I realised that she had been very recently whipped. Some of the blood-stains still appeared damp. Fastened tightly around her long, slender neck was her control collar. I saw from the design that it contained an explosive charge. Furious, I deactivated the collar with the command chip and threw both of them to the floor of the pod. They ricocheted from the dull metal and bobbed unsteadily in the air at random, bouncing in different directions.
The young woman did not stir or react when I picked her up and carried her out of the pod, setting her down on the sleeping cot in the ship's guest quarters. I only had basic first aid supplies on the ship, but they would be more than adequate to treat the wounds on her back and reduce the swelling on her temple. Not wanting to take the risk of having her wake up while I was giving her first aid, I decided that it would be best to sedate her. I gave her a dose of midazolam sufficient to keep her under for six hours. This would be plenty of time to get back to Afli and wake her in a safe, controlled environment, rather than out in the middle of nowhere, where the ship might be discovered by pirates or worse. I used a pair of medical shears to cut off the woman's ruined dress, becoming angry again when I saw the network of wafer-thin scars and fresh cuts where she had been flogged with a microfibre whip to punish her for disobedience. I treated the cuts with a regenerative stem cell serum and carefully covered the wounds with self-cleaning, antiseptic bandages. I placed another medpatch over the contusion on her temple to reduce the swelling and heal the bruising. By the time we arrived back at Pu City, the only physical pain she would be suffering would be a headache akin to a moderate hangover. As for what kind of mental state she would be in, I would have to wait and see.
With her slave's dress in bloody rags, I was glad that I hadn't gotten around to clearing out Agent Zeta's wardrobe. The woman was roughly the same height and build as my mother's clone had been, so I retrieved a satin nightshirt for her to wear until we made it back to port. It was only as I dressed her that I noticed the slave's whip injuries were only across her back. Anger rose in me again when I realised why. She was young, pretty and physically attractive. It didn't take much imagination to understand why the flogging she had received only deformed the part of her body that would be unseen when she was lying on her back. I secured her into the cot with the bedcovers and four strands of acceleration strapping, so that she would not be injured on the return journey to Afli. I turned off the ceiling light and returned to the flight deck, securing from silent running and reactivating all the ship's systems. It took less than a minute for me to dump the slave pod and vaporise it with my beam lasers, leaving no evidence behind that it had ever been there. Once the frame shift drive finished charging, I had ASTRA plot a jump back to the Afli system and with a flicker of pseudo-motion and a flash of light, we were gone.