Pasha Hideko Colodor leaned back into his well-worn leather chair and pressed his fingertips together, smiling to himself in smug satisfaction. The day had gone very well indeed; already four hours out they were nearing the safety limit for Hawkwind drive and would soon be away from the law enforcement that still threatened to turn his pleasure into destruction.
He could see the subject of his pleasure in the large mural video screen on the wall opposite his desk; she roamed her cell with deliberate investigation, examining the details of the room in hopes of finding something that would let her go free. Pasha smiled; no such flaws or secret exits existed. Still he admired her fortitude to look.
The paradoxes of immortality amused Colodor even as he passed his thirtieth decade. The longer an individual lived, the more value the law placed on life. The knowledge and experience a person had amassed was deemed irreplaceable. And yet, those people on whom the most value was placed were the young, who supposedly had so much to offer and so much to gain.
And she was especially beautiful, this one, being so very young. Just holding her against her will was enough to bring an entire Pendorian fleet after him. He knew that before this was over the entire fleet would be looking for her. And possibly for him. Her black fur, with a barely visible white stripe down the center, had once been sleek and well-groomed, but a little rough mishandling by two of his crewmen had made it ruffled and disorganized. But the beauty of her lithe, youthful form still threatened to overwhelm him and he found his claws clenching and unclenching against the arms of his chair. She finally stopped searching, sitting on the bunk that occupied one end of the room and propping her chin up with her hand, sitting still.
He glanced down at the plastic holder that sat on his desk. Still the receptacle for his business cards, he had decided to place there the ID card his men had found in her purse so he could remind himself of the dangers he faced. The picture was truly her, and the complex of seals on the back confused him slightly, since there were Terran, Pendorian, and Traveller-Merchant marks on it. But the name! What a price the name was worth! What a value it would have to the religious crazies or the idle rich. A longtime trader in this kind of cargo, he knew people who would pay a pretty price for her, and he knew where to find them. He read the card again.
Mephitis Mephitis Elohim Shardik Satpulov Gabrielle.
"I'm telling you sir, we have every available man on the planet searching for your daughter. We will find her. But there are seven trans-orbital facilities on this world and people are lifting off and on Tunoda all the time. During the three hours between when you say you last saw your daughter and when you first reported her lost, three ships broke orbit and headed outbound. Since that time seven other vessels have broken orbit."
"I understand, Governor Legoull."
"Kidnapping is a rare crime, Captain. Kidnapping of Pendorians is positively unheard of. And your daughter is a special case, sir."
"I appreciate all that you're doing," he lied. "My wife is contacting her embassy now."
The imperial governor paled slightly. "Is that necessary, Captain?"
"She is my daughter, sir. And I will stop at nothing to retrieve her unharmed. Good day, Governor." David snapped at the comm display with his hand and the screen went blank. He immediately regretted the impulsive gesture, wishing he'd known better than to lose his temper.
Denni was frightened out of her mind. Ever since El had failed to show up in Lance's perceptual range three hours after she was supposed to return from a day of shopping, Denni had alternated between hysterical screaming and shocked silence. He had done all he could to hold her while she cried, but there had been a moment when he had fought with her to keep her from tearing the city apart with her bare hands or the ship's guns.
He sat in his office chair and seethed, feeling helpless. "Captain of a Pelcityran starship, rich, powerful, secure... a Pendorian wife, goddammit... how could I possibly ask for anything more?" he raged at the walls, picking up an authentic print copy of Code of Conduct for her Majesty's Naval Officers and threw it against the wall. "I could ask for the safety of my daughter!"
"Lance," he snapped, looking down at the desk. "According to the Governor ten ships have left in the past 24 hours. What do we know about those vessels?"
"I think I know which one we want. Four ships were free traders, two were imperial administration, one is a postal carrier. The other three were imperial scouts that use this world as the Base Port Of Call. Two of the free traders I would regard as insignificant. Neither has a single hint of impropriety, and you know the captain of one of them. Shusan Lig?"
"Shusan?" David nodded. Shusan would never have touched his daughter. "You said there were two that were clean. What about the others?"
"Both have Terran computer centers, in itself not always an indicator of piracy but almost all pirates use Terran machines. The Roadblock is under the command of Captain Williamette Osito. I have almost nothing in my memory blocks about Captain Osito or the Roadblock, but a visual record of the Roadblock leaving port suggests it is not a new vessel, nor is Osito a new Captain."
"Not impossible," Lance said.
"Difficult to get IP access with a forgery."
"But still, not impossible," Lance replied.
"You're right. He's suspicious. But you don't think he's our man?"
"No," Lance replied. "The Ice Mistress under the command of Pasha Hideko Colodor. Hideko is a Pendorian expatriate, an Uncia. The Ice Mistress is an older ship."
"A term of honor on Terra. Among pre-Wave-2 peoples of the Arabian tradition, it was generally associated with a ruling class. 'Pashas' often kept complex harem structures of women. Depending on locale, tradition and conditions, Pashas were either under the threat of death if they did not produce male progeny, or the Pasha was granted free reign to behave as he would towards his women and his subjects as he chose. Although the term 'Sultan' was sometimes applied to this second case it is considered less complimentary than 'Pasha.'" Lance was silent for a moment. "He's also been investigated before for MISFitting."
David tapped his fingers on his desk with frustration, considering a word he hadn't heard in a few years. Misfit. On the small spheres of dust most people called 'home,' scattered among the stars, the word 'misfit' was something of a compliment, a spike to the otherwise humdrum existences of gravity-bound lives. The courage to mis-fit was something many people craved and few achieved with any regularity.
Spacers were all, by definition, misfits. None of them wanted to live under a safety buffer of atmosphere and law; they preferred the dangers, rigors and wilds of outer space. The term had no meaning to them as ground-pounders knew it.
For them, MISFit was an element of the law they practiced, rather than a concept. A word that grew out of the four-letter acronym MISF. Merchant of Involuntary Sentient Flesh. Slaver.
A rumor was enough for him. "Tasha. We're going after the Ice Mistress. No bet that they're really headed for the planet their logged for. Lance, talk to Kurt. Find out what else is in range. Call Denni. We want her here in an hour."
"Will do, Captain. David?"
"I hope we're right."
"I hope so too."
"Why are you doing this?" she screamed at the ceiling in frustration. Gabrielle didn't even know if anyone was listening, and she teetered on the mental verge of breaking down and crying. Nobody ever kidnapped a Pendorian, at least, nobody who lived afterwards. She hoped Mom and Dad weren't worried too much. The fleet would come rescue her. She felt sure of it.
The door opened. She looked up, stunned at the tall, feral feline shape that walked into the room. "Ah, my dear. I see you're still feisty. Yes, we heard your shout out here, have no concerns for that."
"Who....who are you?" Her kidnapper was a Pendorian. "Was" being an operative term here, because she knew that the moment anyone else knew of this Uncia's activities, his life ended.
"You will simply call me 'Captain,' or 'Sir.' You don't need to know my real name."
"I'll call you 'Prag,' then," she said.
The Uncia's eyes flashed with rage. Then he eased. "You're lucky you're so valuable to me. A Graffwhip would teach you a thing or two about respect, but the people I sell you to will want you intact."
"Absolutely, my dear. Why go through all this trouble to take you? No one in their right mind would try and ransom you; a ransom is far too easy to trace, and I get no benefit from being known as a kidnapper, especially not one who takes Pendorians. But as a slave, my dear, you have excellent potential. I know a few obscenely rich eccentrics who keep stables of androids in Pendrii shape for their own perverse amusements. I'm sure one or two of them would just adore having the real thing, to tie down, to take, and if they wish... to break. And you're so very pretty, my dear. What are you, thirteen, fourteen years old?"
"My great grandfather is Shardik himself. My grandfather is Aaden Satpulov. You can't keep me here!"
The Uncia reeled back. Then he smiled, and a cold chill roiled under Gabrielle's fur to see that smile. "You're really a child of Vatare' himself." He reached down and stroked her chin; she snapped at his hand to bite him, but he snatched his hand back before she could close on it. "Too precious. The bidding on you will simply nova." The human... Terran, Gabrielle said to herself. Obviously Terran. The Terran standing behind the Uncia grinned with obvious carelessness. The Uncia said, "Find some female from the regular cargo hold to keep her company. Someone small, and who speaks something she knows. She will be getting a check from the doctor shortly." He stepped forward menacingly, towering over the Terran. "Any man who touches her will get evacuated. Do you hear me, Spike?"
"Yes, sir," the Terran replied, turning slightly pale.
The Uncia turned around and grinned at Gabrielle. "Enjoy your stay, my dear. Depending on who buys you, these may be the happiest moments left of your life." He chuckled darkly as he swept out of the room, the Terran identified as "Spike" following him. The door closed behind them, leaving Gabrielle again alone.
"David, calm down," Ken replied over the interlink. "I know, you're upset."
"Upset? Ken, I've not yet begun to fucking be upset! My daughter is missing!"
"And getting hysterical won't do you any good. When we find the bastard who took El we can get hysterical then. I'll even put the damned lightknife into your hands and let you take his heart out yourself. Right now I want you to be directed. Calm. Think about El; what will do her the most good?"
"You know I am. Okay, I've contacted the Emperor." Ken rolled his eyes, and had the situation not been so grave David would have laughed as well. "I also contacted the United Nations of Unity, and they've agreed to help. David, if you're right about Pasha Hideko, we're not talking about a ransom here. He's going to try and make El disappear. And we can't make the catch without a clear line of guilt. There is a law, even among the stars."
"I don't care. If there's just a hint that he's harmed a single strand on the tip of her tail, I'll take him apart with my teeth."
"From a rat, that's quite a threat. How's Denni holding up?"
"She asked me to sedate her. She couldn't handle the pressure anymore, so I had Kurt give her something to help her sleep. I understand."
"I do too. You don't look so hot yourself, David. Take better care of yourself, huh?"
"Please do. Okay, the present supposition is that Hideko is heading for one of your favorite places-- Fahrenheit Station. The starship Open Flight will meet you there, unless you have a different destination?"
David shook his head. "Fahrenheit sounds about right. Straight into Nowheressec."
"David?" A new voice nudged Kennet away from the view screen.
"Take care of my daughter. We'll find El. But care for Denni, please."
"I will. Take care of yourselves." He glanced to his left. "Tasha! Prep for jump. One in ten thousand."
"Set. That's a little high, David. It only buys us five hours for a factor of risk."
"One in a hundred thousand, then. Let's go."
"See you at the family get together at the turn of the decade," David smiled. "With the whole family."
"I hear ya."
The door to her cabin opened, and Spike came in with another man following him. Everyone Gabrielle had met had been human, except for the Captain. "Come on, girl. Let's go see the doc."
Gabrielle recoiled into a corner of the cabin. "No!"
Spike reached out and grab her, a meaty hand landing on her shoulder. She clawed at him, but he wore thick work gloves and a jacket to protect him from whatever damage she could inflict. He was also strong, even for a plain Terran, and she quickly found herself with her arms bound overhead; both of her wrists fit in his one hand. "March!" he ordered.
She walked, sullen at the way his strength overpowered her. The other human followed behind them silently. He led her down the steel-plated walkways and turned at a door labeled "infirmary."
Inside, another human waited with his back turned. "Hey, Doc, got the Captain's special one for ya."
The "Doc" turned around slowly. "Put her on the tab... Holy Powers." He looked up at Spike after staring at the girl in his grip. "Spike, has Pasha lost his mind? This will get us all killed!"
"No reward without risk, Doc," the pirate leered. "She's quite a risk, huh?"
"Spike, Pendorians thor cities from orbit over kidnappings. This is dangerous."
"Hey, Doc, look... Do what the Pasha says. He says check her, you check her. Think about the money."
"On the table with her," Doc replied wearily. Spike hauled her up by her arms, and she squalled at the pain. He set her down on the table and, while he held her Doc fitted a thick collar around her neck. She recognized it and squalled in indignation. He activated the collar, and they both caught her as she slumped over.
"You two can't do this to me!" she screamed.
"Ah, but we can, dearie," Spike said, stroking her head roughly. She tried to bite him, but the muscles in her neck fired randomly and she missed badly with the lunge. From the shoulders down, she was completely immobile. She could feel the rest of her body, but she could only move her head. But she could clearly see and feel her legs, her arms, as she lay on the inclined table. She commanded them to move, and they lay there, wooden and useless. "Oooh!"
"Don't worry," Doc said softly, trying to be calming. "I won't hurt you a bit." He waved a scanner over her body, taking careful measurements and readings. "She's amazingly healthy. Goddamn Pendorians."
"Hey, Doc, just check the vital parts, okay?"
"Spike," Doc replied, pointing an accusatory finger at the pirate. "You know the rules." Doc slowly stripped off loose-fitting cotton pants she was wearing, tossing them into a bin. With a pair of scissors he cut off the rest of her clothing until she was completely naked. He pulled her body towards him roughly, fitting her feet into stirrups. She cried softly, whimpering as she felt cold fingers and colder implements probing her sex, pulling her open and exposing her to the doctor. "She's not a virgin."
"Some boy's gotten to her already."
"No boy got to me!" Gabrielle shouted. "I did it myself!"
"Oh-hoh!" Spike chortled gleefully. "Got a spunky one here. Just keep talking, spunky skunk. Everything you say just drives your price up a little more."
"I'll have to tell Pasha she hasn't got a hymen."
Spike leered. "As if you couldn't grow her a new one. So long as she's clean."
The Doc nodded. "You can take her back to her cabin now. She's going to need food soon."
"I know," the pirate grinned, pulling her arms over her head and snapping the collar from around her neck. Control returned to her body in a painful rush of nervous spasms, and she kicked and tried to squirm free of the big pirate's grasp again. She failed. "I'm having Mabig take her her dinner."
Doc looked up. "Spike. If your plan goes wrong, it'll be you and not Mabig who's going to get evacuated."
"Nothin's gonna happen, Doc. Trust me." He led her out of the infirmary and back to her cabin.
"Hi," David said softly. Denni's eyes fluttered as she sagged back against her pillow, groaning. "Hey, are you okay?"
"I'm hung over," Denni said.
"We've never found a sedative that doesn't hang you up, Denni." He reached down and placed his small hand on her broad chest. "Do you feel up to resuming your duties?"
"No word on El?"
"We're taking a long shot and heading to Fahrenheit. We think that's where Pasha's headed. Lance and Dave agree on the assessment. Ken's sent a ship to meet us there."
"David... " Denni's eyes widened with fear.
"I know, hon. I know." He bent over and kissed his wife's cheek softly. "We'll find her."
She rose up and grasped him, hugging him tightly and breaking into tears again. David wrapped his arms around her and held her, waiting for her to stop crying again. "Find our little girl, David. Please."
"We will," he promised. "Denni, please... take a shower, get cleaned up, and join us on the bridge. We can't get anything done without you, you know that."
She smiled a small smile, her black eyes glittering in the indirect lighting of the Captain's cabin. She shifted slightly. "My tail was at a funny angle." She grinned sheepishly.
"We'll find her," David repeated.
She nodded jerkily. "I know. I believe you, and I believe Granfa. I just hate... not knowing."
David agreed. "Can I expect you on the bridge sometime soon?"
"Soon as I can."
"Good." He grinned, leaving her alone to pick herself out of bed and into the shower. He made his way along the maze of corridors and pathways until he reached the bridge, opening the door unceremoniously. "Kurt, what's the status?"
"Ack, you startled me." The Pendorian navigator turned back to give David a nod, then returned to his command board. "We're sixty-seven hours out of Fahrenheit. Pasha has a thirteen hour lead on us, and he's operating under a Hawkwind drive just as we are, but our cores are better than his." David nodded. "We're going to catch him, David."
"Unless he burns his cores."
"Why would he even think about doing that?"
"Because his cargo is worth the cost," David said. "There's only one reason to deal in slaves right now, Kurt, and that's for their taboo value. Denni has only three uses. She's going to be an art piece, a sex toy, or... " he shuddered. "Or Pasha knows a blood cult of mortality that would easily pay for her. I used to think those kinds of people existed only in movies. Now I know better." He sat down in his chair and, balling up his right hand into a fist, supported his chin, propping it up on his elbow. "I want my child back."
"We'll get her, David."
The door to her cell opened again, and the huge human who had escorted her and Spike to the Doc's walked in with a tray, grinning. Nobody was with him, and the door closed behind him as he walked in. "Ho, so you're Pasha's lovely prize, huh? I got a good look at you earlier." He placed the tray down on the bed. "I'd love to get a piece of you before some skeezer does."
"Go ahead and try," Gabrielle said defiantly.
The lumbering Terran reached for her, and she dodged out of the way. But his other arm came down and blocked her retreat, forcing her back onto the bed. "Come on," he growled menacingly. "Give it to Mabig, you Pendorian. Never had a Pendorian girl before." He reached up and pulled at the pullover tunic Spike had given to her to cover herself after the doctor's examination.
Gabrielle kicked at him, and he grabbed her legs instead and pulled them apart, exposing her to him. He pulled her closer, until her sex was centimeters from his groin. He reached for his zipper. "You're gonna like this, girlie. It's gonna be like nothin' you've ever had before, or'll ever have again."
He pulled out his erect penis, enormous in Gabrielle's eyes... and the door to the cabin opened. "Tsk tsk tsk." The voice, clearly that of the Uncia she had met before, chuckled softly. "Spike was right about you, Mabig. You can't be trusted with the cargo." Gabrielle squirmed free of the giant human's grasp, wedging herself further into the corner of the cell. "Take him."
Five humans reached in and grabbed Mabig, hauling him into the passageway outside Gabrielle's cell. Mabig fought violently, throwing the men off of him several times, but soon they had him on his knees, his wrists and his ankles cuffed together, then the two cuffs linked with a ziptie. "Grab his head," the Uncia directed. Two of the men reached for the human's head and held it in place while the Uncia grabbed his hair and, with his left hand, fitted something over the human's mouth. Mabig's eyes begged the captain, but no sounds came clearly from the muffled mask that now completely obscured his face from the bridge of his nose to form-fit about his chin. Straps all the way around his head held it tight to his face. "To the airlock." The five humans hauled the struggling and begging Mabig down the hallway a short distance.
Nobody prevented Gabrielle from leaving her cell to follow them, although the Uncia and several others noted her presence. She watched as they placed now-screaming Mabig into the airlock, and then closed the inner door, which was made of some transparent material. They left him there, struggling, with a pipe leading from a coupling within the airlock to a similar coupling on the faceplate of the mask that covered Mabig's head. Gabrielle swallowed. She had an idea of what was about to happen. "Do it," the Uncia said.
The Terran standing by the airlock controls nodded once, slowly, and then touched a button with his hand. Gabrielle heard a soft >thump< sound, and Mabig's body spasmed violently, seeming to cave in on itself. Then the sounds of bones crackling, a man's final screaming and bodily fluids gurgling managed to echo through the hallway. Gabrielle turned away, not wanting to see anymore. The rest of the ritual went on without a word from the crew. When it was over, two crewmen led her back to her cabin and closed the door.
Shivering with cold delight, Pasha left the scene of Mabig's execution feeling elevated. He loved how he felt just then, and he felt it so rarely; strong, excited, aroused. His erection was painfully demanding his attentions and he knew exactly how to give it what it, and he, wanted. He made his way down to the 'cargo hold.'
He keyed open the door that led to the long passageway where the cargo was kept in four separate rooms. He picked one room at random and threw open the door. It was officially 'night' on the ship and the lights were banked low. Despite this, several of the cargo were awake. Those that were recoiled as he entered, and he scanned them for something to his liking. He found what he sought.
She was tall, with strikingly pale skin and bright red hair. Here and there on her naked body he could see those small reddish-brown speckles some humans got after they were too long in the sun. She was surprisingly muscular for a human, something from this red-headed stock that he appreciated whenever he got his hands on one. "Come with me," he growled, grabbing her by the shoulder and not giving her much of a choice. She fought for a moment and then, resigned to her fate, followed him with her head bowed as he pulled her along the passageways of the ship to his cabin.
Inside, a four poster bed occupied the far left corner of the room, and in the right a tub just large enough for one person. "Bathe," he directed her, releasing her from his grip.
"Y...yes, yes sir."
"Good," he grinned maliciously. She felt the water in the tub, then slid into the water easily, picking up a washcloth that he left besides the the tub for occasions like this. She was soon scrubbing herself completely clean, then climbed out and toweled herself off. "How do I look, sir?" she asked.
"Lovely," he growled. "Kneel."
She knelt down on the ground before him as he sat on the bed. "Please me," he ordered. "Come and apply your mouth to me. Do so well and I will be kind to you."
She crawled forward as he spread his legs, unbinding his robe and letting her handle his sex. He growled with satisfaction as he watched her take all of his shaft down her throat, sucking on him with skill. He slowly stroked her hair as his excitement grew.
"Enough!" he roared, shoving her away violently. He reached down and closed his hand into a fist about her hair, pulling her onto the bed. She screamed as he pushed her down onto her stomach and straddled her. He looked down at his shaft rubbing against her buttocks, and with a snarl pushed down and jabbed against her anus, tearing his way into her. The girl screamed in pain as he battered her with his body. He tortured her with his force, his fingers grabbing her about the chest and his claws digging carelessly into the flesh of her breasts. Blood, her blood, seeped around his fingertips and the scent of it filled his nostrils as he approached his climax the only way he knew how, and as his lust blinded him completely he closed his jaws on the back of her neck and broke her spine. Every muscle in her body tightened spasmodically, heightening his pleasure as he shot his semen into her dying body.
Picking himself up from the bed, he clapped his hands together as if to wipe them off casually. He looked down at the dead girl, her hair splayed about on the bed in red whorls. He smiled. She was still beautiful, even in death. It was was good, he thought, to be a real Uncia.
He sighed quietly. Another one to clean up.
Time passed. How much she didn't know or even care. Thoughts of Mabig's death and the cold-bloodedness with which he was dispatched played in her mind over and over. She no longer felt safe and secure; the Fleet was only good if it knew where she was, and even she didn't know that. She was on the ship of someone named 'Pasha,' and she figured that was the Uncia who seemed to be giving orders to everyone.
She checked her food; it had long ago turned cold. She drank the soup anyway, and ate at the bread, her Pendorian heritage reminding her that she had to eat whether she liked it or not. The plastic pitcher of water she drained completely. As she was placing the pitcher back on the tray, the door to the cell opened again, and a human girl was pushed into her cell without a word. The door closed again.
Gabrielle regarded her without a word. She was tall, thin, with tightly curled black hair and medium-brown skin. She had a softly triangular face with uniformly off-white teeth and a broad, flat nose. Gabrielle thought her fascinating. "Hello?" Gabrielle tried.
"You speak Anglic?" the girl asked carefully.
"Yah," Gabrielle replied quickly. "My Dad taught it to me."
"You are a Pendorian!"
"Half-Pendorian," Gabrielle replied. "My father is a NeoRat."
The girl stared at her, looking for... what? Gabrielle returned the stare evenly. "What's your name?" she asked finally.
"Patch," the girl replied unsteadily. "Patchmanee."
Patch nodded. "Why... You must be his prize the crew was talking about. There are many more cargo down in the holds."
"Twenty, I think."
Gabrielle blinked. The idea that Pasha had twenty captives enslaved in the hold below was simply monstrous. "He is going to sell them?" Patch nodded slowly.
Gabrielle had long been aware of slavers; her father had been approached in the Free Empire several times with offers of "enormous profits," if only he would move some "live cargo." Father had always resisted those approaches easily, turning the offer down and, if he could, turning the offerer over to the authorities. But twenty...! Unbelievable that Pasha could have that many children in his holds. "How... how does he get them? Don't people watch their children?"
"Not all are children," Patch replied quickly. "But all are young, and all are poor, from Imperial colonies, like me. Their parents sometimes lose them and then the pirates take them. There is much screaming and crying, but the parents are given the right to try again when a child dies or goes missing."
"That's it?" Gabrielle hissed, turning her back on Patch. "You're just going to be... replaced?"
"Life is hard in some colonies. Not all people live to be a thousand, Ella, or even to be a hundred. That death comes early for some is part of accepting."
Gabrielle turned. "I don't accept anything, Patch. We're going to get out of here."
"How?" Patch said, pointing to the door. "They watch us. They lock us in. Nothing can save us. We are theirs until we die."
"Wrong, Patch. I'm mine until I die. And I'll show them."
"Captain Elohim, so sorry that we had to meet under these circumstances."
"Captain Argent, my sentiments as well."
"Don't worry, David. We'll catch these prags." Etta Argent, captain of the Open Flight, poured him a large glass of tea. He accepted it.
"I just want my daughter back. Etta, you have no idea how weak I feel. It was supposed to be just another Imperial trip. No danger involved." He shook his head.
"It happens, David. We're here several hours before The Ice Mistress is scheduled to leave hyperspace, and we'll be here when she does. Unless he's obscenely lucky, we'll catch him."
"What about the other ship?"
"The Roadblock?" She leaned over and consulted her charts. "It headed deeper into Imperial Space. We've got someone following it right now. Unless Captain Osito does something stupid, we'll have him checked out in a few minutes. You might want to know this, though. Captain Osito is Sori Verre."
"The art thief?"
"One and the same. We finally tracked down his identity through a ranged analysis of the photos Lance gave us."
"Not bad." A small chill ran up his spine. "Slaves are sometimes kept as art objects."
"Not Verre. He's not that kind of art thief. He's never been a MISFitter, and as far as I'm willing to bet, it's way out of his line of work. We'll know one way or the other soon, though."
David nodded. "Captain?"
"We've just had a starship transit from hyperdrive. It came out real close to the system. From the mass and characteristics, it's the Ice Mistress."
"Damn," Etta swore. "He's early. He must be burning core."
"If his cargo is worth it, Etta, he can afford it."
Etta nodded. "To the bridge. I'll give you a station so you can call the Success from here."
David nodded. "I appreciate that." They ran for the SDisk, and David had trouble withholding a smile, remembering the days when he was Captain of a Pendorian Fleet Vessel a dozen years ago. He cursed quietly. El had been conceived on the voyage home from that trip.
"Take station five, David. Ensign, give it up. Okay, folks, it's rus-and-ruddy time. All power banked?"
"We're down, captain. Using strictly impulsives for maneuvering, and we're head-on to the Ice Mistress."
"Good," Etta smiled. "Let them get as close as they want to Fahrenheit station. Let them get docked. Then we'll snag 'em."
Pasha turned in slight annoyance. "What is it?"
"You might want to have a look at this. Main screen?"
"It had better be worth it." He nodded. The screen blanked and was replaced with a high-resolution picture of Fahrenheit Station, hovering over the gas giant it mined for raw materials. "Fifth ship from the left sir. Pointer."
"Yes, yes, I see it. What is it?"
"That's a Pendorian Gernsback-class starship sir. There's only one of those floating around outside lPTU space, sir, and that's the Rat's Success."
Pasha stared at the screen. "David Elohim," he sighed softly. "I've got your daughter?" he said. "I didn't even know you had one. And you raced me here to say hello, didn't you? Tell me, did you call your friends? Probably." He rolled his hand into a fist and punched the comm button on his command chair. "Engineering."
"Do we have enough fuel to make a ninety-six light year jump?"
"Easily, sir. But we're taking a risk with the hyperdrive cores, sir. Some of them threatened to melt the last time."
"We can afford to replace them. Get ready."
"Comm," he ordered next.
"Coded message, directed beacon. Prepare to drop. Standard package. You know where to get the stats. And make sure you mention we've got a particularly juicy one here."
"Yes, sir!" Comm replied. "Five minutes to compose the last."
"Navigation, I need a heading of..." he consulted his memory and his charts. "Best possible course out of the gravity well."
"Plot laid in."
"Continue on present course." Pasha watched the clock tensely. Right on schedule Comm called in. "Package ready, sir."
"Weapons. Drop beacon."
Nothing notable happened. Weapons announced, "Beacon dropped."
"Navigation, turn us around. Now. Full-bore the fusions."
"Aye, sir." The starfield on the main screen swung around, although nobody on the ship felt anything.
"Damn. What happened?" She hit her PADD. "Nav, give chase. Full speed. Engineering!"
"You'll have full power, Captain. And maybe a little extra."
The Open Flight lit up, every little source of acceleration blazing as she gave chase to The Ice Maiden. Etta exploded angrily, "It's him. It's got to be him! How did he see us?"
"He didn't," Dave growled softly. "He didn't see you at all, Etta. We forgot one very important detail." He pointed at his display, not dissimilar to the one Pasha had been staring at moments before. "There's only one ship out here that looks like that."
Etta nodded tersely. "Damn."
"Another ship on the screen. Radiating like it was eating black holes for breakfast." He put it again on the main screen. "It's a Pendorian Fleet Vessel, Shatner Class."
"So you did call your friends, David," Pasha mused. "What are the odds of it catching us?"
"Unlikely, sir. We're going to reach the one to ten thousand mark in forty minutes. That ship will still be almost four light-minutes behind us when we make transit."
"Thank you," Pasha growled appreciatively, leaning back in his chair.
"We're not going to catch them. Not if they're willing to go at ten thousand."
"What about guns? Anything on this ship faster than the ship itself?"
"Not that we can aim with any accuracy. We could fill the space around them with energy weapon fire. But we want to take him out with accuracy, David. Your daughter's on that ship."
David nodded. "I know."
"Sensors, I want every last piece of data on that ship that you can give me. If someone flushes a toilet I want to know. We have to know where they're headed."
David sat in his chair, eyeing the star-chart with a mixture of frustration and anger. "What were they doing here, if not for R&R."
Etta shook her head. "I have only one guess. A message drop. Their course out system suggests that they're going to fly a light year or so and then recalculate their course. We have no idea where they're going." She leaned forward, her hands clasped together. "Maybe they were dropping off information. Anton?"
The AI replied, "We recorded no transmissions from the enemy vessel. There is, however, a peculiar behavior pattern to the vessel at one point."
"This is a linear graph of the ship's power curve versus acceleration just prior to it's turning around and fleeing the star system. I want to draw your attention to this." On the screen, several multiples of magnification of an otherwise flat line showed a tiny increase in acceleration just moments before the engines cut out. David examined it carefully. "A glitch? A pre-maneuver power burst?"
"It's several seconds before the ship does any actual maneuvering, suggesting something else. A loss of mass."
"He dropped something?" David asked. "What?"
"I don't know. But I suggest we take a look at where he was when the drop occurred."
"It's the only option we have," David sighed.
"You didn't tell me you were David Elohim's little girl," Pasha said with cool satisfaction. "What a pleasure it is to have you, Gabrielle. You're the rarest commodity in the universe, my dear, and you're going to fetch me a very big price."
"Don't touch me," Gabrielle said, backing up into a corner. Patch stood behind her, gripping her shoulders.
"I don't have to," Pasha growled softly. "You see, we're headed to a little planetoid in Nowheressec that very few people know about. There, we're going to sell you to the highest bidder. And I have in mind someone very rich to be your ultimate buyer. In the meantime, you're my guest. You very presence makes that little slut's life one step better than those down in the cargo hold. Enjoy it while you can."
"My Father is going to kill you!" Gabrielle snarled.
"We just passed your father's ship at Fahrenheit. He didn't even move."
"I don't believe you!"
"I could show you the record, but there are no displays in here. Oh, well, na coi," he smirked. It was the first time Gabrielle had heard Pasha actually speak in Quen. "Don't fret a single strand, dear. We know exactly where you're going, and we know exactly what's going to happen to you when we get there." He swept out of the room, the door closing behind him.
"Why does he keep coming in here?" Patch asked. "He never came down to the cargo holds like that."
Gabrielle sighed softly. "He wants to see his prize. It's like an art treasure; he's the only one in the Universe with one. I hate this!" She seized a plastic water jug and threw it against the wall; it rebounded, both jug and wall undamaged.
"Do you really think your father will come to rescue us?"
"Oh, Patch, I hope so," Gabrielle said, sitting on the bunk with her knees folded up to her chest and her arms wrapped around them. "I really hope so."
Eighteen hours since the departure of The Ice Mistress, David leaned back in his chair on the command deck and said "Sometimes, luck favors the heroes. Commander Wyle, I have a fast neutrino source."
"At the navigator's station."
"Call Captain Argent to the bridge. Navigator, lay in those coordinates. Hazardous electronics crew on full alert; this thing could be wired to blow at approach."
Etta was on the bridge as the ship approached the source of the neutrinos, a small semi-cylindrical object that was far too smooth to be natural, above and beyond the fact that very few natural objects emitted fast neutrinos. And most of those were stars. "HE? Are you there?"
"Right here, Captain." On the main screen, the two people assigned to make the assault on the beacon had completed suiting up and were waiting in one of the larger airlocks. Their suits were black as deepest space, absorbing radiation across the spectrum. At present, both suits were attached by tethers that bled the absorbed radiation away as electricity; once free, it would be stored within the suit backpacks as heat. They had a lifetime of less than an hour. Both crewfen were humanoid, small of stature, and agile. Mustela Martens, David knew, were the people most suited for this job. It was also one of the most dangerous jobs space had to offer. Both were telepaths.
"Good luck. Go for it."
The two crewfen stepped out of the airlock and walked along the surface of the ship's skin until they had clear line of sight with the object. Their internal computers were using assumptions to gauge where they were relative to their target; that no radiation leaked out of these suits also prevented a great deal of radiation from getting in. Long range sensors were generally useless. Most of their data was coming in through their tethers.
The computers made more assumptions about the amount of power it would take to reach the assumed location of the assumed target. On the viewscreen, David watched as they bent their legs and jumped. The tethers reached to nearly their limit, and then the two Martens vanished off their screens. It would take them twenty minutes just to get to the beacon.
Time ticked by. David cursed his affection for coffee; right now it was only making him more nervous and jittery. He hated the sensation of uselessness that overcame him. He wanted to be doing something right now.
Something butted against his left thigh, and he looked down to see a blue-black feline face staring back at him. "Hiya, Niaro."
"The two HE's should have just arrived in the beacon's locale. We'll know very soon if they're going to make it," the Pamthreat replied.
David nodded. "It's just that I don't like waiting."
"There isn't much we can do except wait. We're really too close as it is."
Etta was starting to pace the bridge, David noted. "That's the problem with circular bridges," Niaro said quietly, address both Etta and David. "It gives the Captain room to pace in."
Etta grinned sheepishly. "I know. I've known that for a long time. But they still build expansive bridges in the round."
"It's tradition," David said, shrugging. "I prefer the catwalk and cockpit design myself."
"Yes, I noticed that," Niaro said. "Both of your ships had that."
"It keeps the crew on their jobs," he said.
"Captain!" The sensor watch officer was pointing at the main screen. "I have two intense IR sources at the target."
"Eddervil, I have a medical emergency," the voice came over the bridge speakers. "Target disarmed... help."
"Get the shuttle out there," Etta barked. "Crack those suits if you have to!"
This time David felt the soft ringing sound of a shuttle being launched with emergency rails. "Engineering, I want that beacon in shuttlebay one as soon as possible. Sickbay, prepare to receive casualties."
"Come on, David. Let's see what we've fished out of the water." Etta led David and Niaro to the SDisk. "Wyle, you have the bridge."
"The beacon is a standard directed-beam communications beacon favored by military and espionage outfits for private communications. It is, predictably, somewhat antiquated, and easily broken by AIs with access to quantum cryptography methods. The message is rather explicit, and appears to be standardized."
"What does it say?" Etta asked.
"There is an express manifest of twenty four data records, each one divided into several fields. Assuming this is a slave-trader vessel, I can only guess that they are categorizations of the cargo for the purpose of sale."
"Twenty four people!" Etta hissed. "Unbelievable. There's nothing you can do to tell us what these fields mean?"
"I can make educated guesses. The data is easily divisible by four but not by eight bits, which confused me at first. I believe the first four-bit field is a three-bit racial code and a one-bit gender code. The rest appears to be height, weight, perhaps some additional data that may be race or gender specific considerations of appearance or health. If we find the person who's responsible for receiving this data, we'll know how to decode it properly."
Anton paused. "It's the last part that really gets me. It's explicit and to the point. David, please sit down."
David did as the AI requested. "Okay, Anton, what does it say."
"'Special: We have one for the most daring out there. A Pendorian Mephit Girl, no older than fourteen years. She is--' and then they include that data trail, with the first three bits at zero-zero-zero and some later data at zero as well. It goes on. 'A child of Vatare' Shardik himself. Alert--' and then a 128 bit field that I assume breaks down into numerical codes for some special buyers."
David hissed, his fingers gripping the slick material of the conference room chair. He finally released the chair. "They've got my little girl."
"Anton, is there any evidence that the beacon had released its message?"
"No, Captain. It is scheduled to do so twelve hours from now."
Etta punched buttons on her station at the conference table. "Engineering, I need the Ramar ready to go as soon as you can manage."
"Make it so. Come on, David. We're going to find your little girl. Can your ship take a forty-ton shuttlecraft?"
"Easily," David said.
"Call them. They're to expect a large party." She counted in her head quietly. "Twelve security officers, you, me, and four Pamthreats."
David nodded. "Party of eighteen."
"And then meet me in Shuttlebay One again."
"Three four-man security teams," Etta explained. "All fully Stark sevened out. The two martens are fine, by the way," as she piloted the Shuttlecraft towards Fahrenheit. "One's going to be a couple of days recovering from overheat, but she'll pull through with nothing but bad memories. You know Niaro and Fari, I think. These two are Kei and Shasti."
David blinked, looking down at Kei. "How do you do?" he said.
I'm fine, thanks, the Pamthreat replied telepathically. Over two meters in length from nose to haunches, the black big-cat sat down on her four rear legs folded back and looked around the cabin casually.
"Am I supposed to think back at you?" David asked.
It's considered rude if you do. I'm sorry, I'm just very used to talking this way.
"Understood," David replied. "You're named after some sort of legend, aren't you? Is Shasti your sister? Or do I have my mythology confused?" David glanced over at the fourth Pamthreat, who despite the feminine name was the largest he had ever seen, nearing three meters in length, if that was possible.
You're half-right. I'm supposed to have a sister according to the legend, but Shasti is not her. She's merely a friend. And she doesn't speak at all.
David nodded. "I'm grateful for you coming along."
Kei turned her head to one side, looking thoughtful. Nobody has ever gotten away with kidnapping a Pendorian, and nobody is going to start now. I want this prag as much as you do. Maybe more. I know it's your daughter, David, but you have to consider that when my sister was alive, I had a different name. You see, David-- Kei looked up at David and smiled. People once called me Karri.
David gaped, then recovered, saying, "We both want him."
"We're ready, Captain. My people have moved through the station in full Stark... great camouflage that stuff is capable of."
"I have the acquiescence of the station command," Etta replied calmly. "He was most helpful."
Denni grinned. Extortion and bribery, more the former than the latter, is what she would prefer to call Etta's "acquiescence." Still, it had worked. The commander would stay out of the way as long as the Pendorians didn't damage Fahrenheit station.
"The message will hit Fahrenheit station right around now."
"It's on the target board, Etta," Lance replied.
Second crawled. So much of space combat is sensory work, just waiting for the right moment. Finally, though, Kei announced, I've got him. Human. He's on a ship attached to the second ring.
She and Shasti left the bridge and headed out into the base, while Etta radioed her security teams and told them where on the second ring Kei and Shasti were headed. David glanced over Etta's shoulder and was surprised to see himself a precise map of the station with a direct and accurate pointer to the Pamthreat's location.
"Captain?" a voice came over the radio that David didn't recognize. It sounded slightly flat and hollow.
"Yes, Shasti, what is it?"
"We are approaching the vessel. Kei insists it is a small newscoll's ship titled Post-Intelligence. Here come the security officers."
"Captain, we are assembled outside the Post-Intelligence. What are your orders?"
"Take prisoners," Etta said quietly.
Down on Ring Level Two, Lt. Ngyen, a tall melSatryl who's favorite weapon was a sword, gestured with a pistol to his partner to put on a helmet and follow him to the airlock coupling. Kei stayed in the station, but Shasti followed them. Ngyen toggled the intercom.
"Yeah, who's this?"
"Station security. We need to discuss something with the Captain of this vessel. Could you come to the airlock, sir?"
"Eh?" Silence. Ngyen waited. "Sure, sure. Give me a second."
More than a second passed when Ngyen heard the roar of fusion drives echoing through the station. The radiation counter on his suit went berserk. "He's trying to take off!" They ran for the airlock and escaped into the station, the door closing behind them. "Where's Shasti?" the ensign Ngyen had paired with asked. Ngyen looked around in panic. "I don't know! Didn't she leave the airlock?"
Ngyen glanced back in horror at the airlock door, now slammed shut. The Post-Intelligence was pulling away from Fahrenheit without regard for the residents, splashing hot exhaust all over the outside shell. If it hadn't been for his suit, Ngyen would have been more worried. As it was, the unprotected residents were going to be taking radiation treatments for months.
"Captain! The Post-"
"We know, Lieutenant. It's not a problem."
"But, but, Shasti-"
"I know, Lieutenant."
In the evacuated airlock the Pamthreat looked around, scanning her surroundings. With a jump, she leaped onto the door of the Post- Intelligence, affixing herself to the material of the ship easily. She walked up the side of the accelerating ship, holding on. She knew that her present mode of ambulance would bring her to the attention of the ship's crew pretty quickly. It didn't matter. She walked up onto the upper deck of the vessel, still scanning rapidly; motion to her left indicated an antipersonnel weapons pod. She stared at it hard and it broke free of its mounting in a yellowish haze of melting metal. Another pod moved and the same effect. A third motion; she registered that as a sensor and ignored it.
Her senses expanded to encompass as much of the ship as possible, and slowly she catalogued the insides of the vessel The Post-Intelligence. She found the spot she was looking for, typically well-protected, and walked until she was almost immediately over it. She stared down at the metal plating, feeling the plates within her body shift to protect her vital components from the intense radiation she was about to generate. Circuits went off-line, power to some sections went dead. A timer on the fusion plant was set, and her eyes began to glow.
The metal at her feet began to glow, pulsing with hot white intensity. The stream of particles emanating from her eyes became visible just from interacting with the particles of interstellar hydrogen and vaporized aluminum and titanium floating away. The drilling effect became more and more pronounced as the beam became brighter and brighter, digging deeper into the power core of the Post-Intelligence.
Unnoticed, a suited man shape emerged from the airlock Shasti had occupied moments before, armed with a heavy laser rifle. He took aim at the unmoving Pamthreat and fired. The laser bounced harmlessly off the felroids's reflective skin, hidden under the layer of artificial fur. He fired again, and again, carefully aiming for the feet, the head, anywhere there might be a soft spot. He continued firing until his engines died. Cursing, he retreated into the ship.
Hard-coded instructions on chips made with technology a millennia old gave orders to circuits with the knowledge of how to read physical data transcribed on optical records. The cube scanned by six lasers wrote back information into the more sensitive memory zones of the security feldroid. Examining her work, she looked down at the hole. Adequate for her requirements, she registered that she had been shot several times with an energy weapon, none of which had done much beyond cosmetic damage.
"Captain Argent, this is Shasti Seccor."
David smiled up at his wife. Etta keyed a button at the station. "Go ahead, Shasti."
"The Post-Intelligence isn't going to be going anywhere soon. Its drives are defunct. I was fired upon by an unknown source while I was firing my main weapon, but no damage was done."
"Good enough. We were worried about you."
"I await your retrieval."
Etta nodded. She said, "David, if you would be so kind?"
"Of course, Etta. Denni, it's your shift."
"Mr. Duran?" Denni barked across the bridge. "Advise Fahrenheit station that we will be taking flight as soon as possible. Please see to it that the security team from Open Flight is on board before we depart."
"My team is completely on board, minus Shasti, of course."
"We're free of the couplings, Captain."
"Best possible speed, Kurt," Denni replied. The Rat's Success headed on an intercept course for the Post-Intelligence, while Etta directed the Open Flight to the same course of action.
An hour later, the Post-Intelligence was sitting in the Pendorian Fleet Vessel's open hold, her guns having been systematically dismantled by Shasti during the wait. "We know you're in there, Dioche. We also know that you're the only person on board, according to your manifest. Our sensors indicate that there are two humans on board. Now, I recommend you both come out of there or I'm going to send a team in after you." Etta smiled to herself. She turned to David and said, "We have to hope he's immortal enough to not commit suicide. But I don't think we're going to have much problem."
They didn't wait long. The airlock opened up and one figure crawled out, a tall, thin human with a pale brown mustache and goatee. David thought he looked gaunt and underfed. "Okay, okay!" the human shouted. "I give up!"
"Security, take him. Now that the door is opened, send a detail to examine the inside of that vessel. Find the other human."
The security team hauled the human over to where Etta and Denni stood, watching the proceedings with amusement, but also with anger. Etta smiled a dark and evil smile. "Okay, Dioche. Where's the meeting taking place?"
"Meeting? What meeting?"
"The meeting that's taking place at two eighteen by thirteen, ninety-six light years from Fahrenheit," Kei replied. "That meeting."
Dioche looked stunned, then finally broke. "Okay, okay, I'll tell. I'll tell!" He started babbling; Etta found his narrative alternately disgusting and fascinating; so fascinating, in fact, that she failed to notice the medical team that had entered the hold until they were running past her on their way out, a femKatckin on their stretcher.
"Captain and Mrs. Elohim, would you like to accompany the Open Flight on a short jaunt?"
David smiled. "We have Ohadi drive, Captain Argent. We appreciate the offer."
"Ohadi, yes," Etta said casually. "But you don't have Crowley."
David's eyebrow lifted, his tail whipping into a question mark. "Crowley?"
"How does a factor of ten catch your attention?"
Denni interjected, "Absolutely I want to go with you people!"
"I guess that's it," David said.
"Security!" Etta barked. "Please escort this man to holding cell thirty-three." She glanced across the hold where airlock thirty-three was clearly la bled as such. Even Dioche recognized it for what it was as the security detail hauled him towards it. Screaming, he was thrown into it and the inner door closed behind him. He explored the final frontier without benefit of life support.
Pasha was simply ecstatic. He had even foregone his usual intake of stimulants for fear of bouncing off walls and hurting himself. Half of the people he had hoped would come had arrived early, and already he had offers for the little Mephit that exceeded 200 Meu. In most cases, agents of the purchasers rather than the purchasers themselves had come, but that was of no consequence to Pasha. He smiled to note that many of the agents' behavior suggested an 'at all costs' attitude towards buying the girl.
Turning out the light in his office, he made his way down to the coupling and out into Gustateron Station, once one of the largest starships to ever sail through space, now reduced to a supporting role as a pirate's space station in Nowheressec. Finding one of the working monorails, he boarded and took it to the auction room, where slaves gathered by the various shippers had been brought to be sold.
Long one of the few who dealt only in slaves, of the one hundred and fifty here he was personally responsible for but a small fraction of them these days. But still, what he brought had quality. And in the center of the darkened room, under a blare of spotlights, Gabrielle Elohim slept quietly in the red ring painted on the floor that defined her cage. He stepped into the ring and knelt down, brushing her fur back with his hand. She stirred restlessly, moaning in her sleep. He found her innocence and vulnerability almost irresistible. His hand slipped down along her body, caressing the curve of her youthful buttocks.
Pain seared his thigh and he reared back, screaming, tumbling out of the ring. "Damn you, bitch!" he snarled, looking into the ring where Gabrielle knelt on hands and knees, blood dripping from her jaws. She spat, and a gory mass of his own flesh bounced along the floor towards him. She stood up and leaned against the pinpoint force fields that held her in the ring. "I'll kill you myself if my father doesn't do it."
"Your father," Pasha sneered, holding his leg where she had torn out what he perceived as a huge chunk of his thigh. "Your father is never going to find you. Do you see those slaves? They muster maybe fifty, sixty thousand Exchange Units each. I've sold nearly a thousand, and they each disappeared from a colony somewhere. Nobody's ever caught me before or yet. You, my dear, are already worth two hundred mega EUs. Do you know how much protection I can buy with that?"
"Not enough!" Gabrielle yelled.
"We'll see," he replied. "We'll see, Gabrielle Shardik."
"Better see to that scratch," she smirked. "I might be rabid."
Pasha grinned at that quietly. "You're a fighter. I'll make sure they hear about this. The bidding will simply get even more frenzied. You don't understand, do you? We have six days left before the last of the bidders get here, and you're already worth a quarter billion creds. Things can only get better from here." He limped out slowly. "Enjoy your stay."