"Unbelievable," David commented quietly, feeling the raw power of the Ohadi-Thoriso-Ohadi drive, commonly called for reasons David couldn't fathom the "Crowley" drive. The stars slid by, the ship passing them at the rate of 18 light years per day, almost twice as fast as anything else presently sailing.
"Sweet, isn't it?" Etta smiled. "Thoriso demonstrated how the temporal inequity worked, and Amanda immediately saw a way of resolving it. Trouble was, it would only work if the pseudovelocity of the object generating the field was moving with a greater order of power than previously used. We should all have such troubles." She grinned.
"It's a powerhog?"
"You don't want to know," Etta said. "We use annihilative black holes for our power source." David grimaced. Etta nodded. "There are parts of the ship that only the 'droids go to."
"I'll stick to Ohadi until something more behaved comes along," David grinned.
Etta nodded. "Most people will. This is a strictly milapp technology, we figure. Like right now."
David sighed. "So what do we figure we'll encounter when we get there?"
"Well, according to the data Kei got for us, the meeting place is a star known only by a catalog number, RB04555. It's pretty much a NIPNUP system. No Inhabitable Planet; No Usable Planet. Couple of rocks; mining it's pointless. The cost of transport much rules out anything except the most exotic of materials from such a backward zone, and there's really nothing there that people think of as exotic." She shrugged.
"NIP? Then where's the site?"
"Good question," Etta muttered. "I don't know where to begin. Probably the same way we did with the probe; look for fast neutrinos. It's probably a moved base or a mining station. According to Kei, when we get there we'll still have two weeks before the day of bidding. David, I hate to say this, but I have another reason for getting you away from the Rat's Success. I have orders to ensure that the site gets shut down permanently and that as many of the buyers are prosecuted as possible. I have to RSRD until the day of the bidding."
"WHAT!?" David cried. "Do you know what they could do to Gabrielle in that time? Do you have any idea? Etta!"
"David!" she said. "If we don't shut down the market, this will go on forever, risking the lives of people across the Universe. You're a member of the Merchanter's Guild, the Traveller's Guild, and a citizen of the lTP Accord. You know what I'm telling you is the truth. You know I would go in the second we got there if I could. But I can't. I'm sorry. Right now nearly forty ships from the Pendorian fleet are on their way to the site, ready to go into one-by-one and wait for the day of bidding. Listen to me." She rested her hand in his shoulder. "I know how you feel, David. If that were Cathra or Mella or any of my others down there, I would feel the way you do. But I still have my directives."
David hung his head quietly. "Etta. If one hair on her head is mussed, I'm going to kill every person there."
"I know, David. I'm counting on you to feel that way. By the way, we saved Dioche's slave. She was a real mess; he was really abusing her. She's only twenty-four, David, and Dioche had had her for four years. She's been a slave since she was twelve, David." Her teeth bared in a rictus of vicious anger. There was nothing more to be said.
"She's going to be okay, though?" David asked.
Etta nodded. "We'll pull her through. She'll be fine. I'm glad we spaced the bastard, though." Etta paused and examined David carefully. "Tell me something-- When we were on Battia II, did you ever learn how to drive Stark?"
David shook his head. "I was too busy being Captain."
"It's high time you learned. Come with me." She led him out of her office.
"Mrs. Elohim?" The voice broke Dennielle's reverie as she wandered through the garden of the Open Flight. She glanced up to see a tall, handsome melMephit standing over her. She put down the book she had been pretending to read. "Hi. My name's Donner Corwyn. I was a friend of your grandfather's, Aaden?"
Denni tried to smile gracefully and failed miserably. "Come, sit down." She patted the ground next to her and Donner accepted. "What brings you to the garden?"
"Actually," Donner admitted. "I asked Anton where you were. I wanted to meet you when I heard you had come on board."
"So, how did you know my Grandfather?"
"He and I were lovers, back around 800 or so. It was only for a short time, five years or so. He was very important to me. I was fifteen when we met."
Denni smiled outwardly. "It's a pleasure to meet you." Behind her ribcage, her heart began to pound with a desire she understood all too well. She hated that desire; it wasn't honest or natural or right.
"Mrs. Elohim? Are you okay?"
"What?" Denni replied. "Yes, yes, I'm okay," she lied. Stop this, she ordered herself. I'm married, I'm happily and wonderfully married to someone I love very much and I've never questioned that. My daughter is in the hands of people who are the enemies of life itself. I shouldn't be fighting an attraction to a handsome mel of my own species who I've just met!
"Are you sure?" Donner looked honestly concerned. "If you would rather be alone, I can always call on you later. It's a tough time for you right now, I understand."
"Yes," Denni replied with a deep breath. "Please, I came here for some time for myself. Thank you, Donner. I"m sorry."
"I understand. Anytime, ma'am," the tall melMeph said, rising and walking away slowly, backing away at first.
Denni remained where she was and trembled, wrapping her arms around herself and hoping the shaking would end soon.
David walked into the cabin moments after she had called him. She grabbed him tightly. "I need you to hold me," she whispered. "Please, David, don't ever let me go."
David wrapped his arms around his wife, confused, and held her close. "Denni? What is it?"
"I just... just need you, David. I need to be held."
David led her into the bedroom and laid her down on the bed, holding her close and covering her body with his. "Tell me what happened."
She gripped David in her arms. "I met... I met a melMeph named Donner this afternoon. He said he was an old friend of Aaden's and that he wanted to meet me. Nothing happened, David. Nothing Donner saw. But I feel... I don't know... dirty, David." She looked into his face, searching. "I got excited being next to him."
"Excited?" David asked. "You mean, sexually?"
"Uh-huh," Denni sighed. "I didn't know what to do. I told him to go away. Actually, he offered to leave because he thought I wanted to be alone. And I did, but I didn't! It didn't make any sense to me! David, help me... please..."
David cuddled up against her, holding her close. "It's okay, Denni. I understand." He nuzzled her neck softly. "Even though we're married, our monogamy is something of an accident," he said, kissing her. "Nobody was ever as close to being perfect as you are."
"David," she sighed, "That's not what I'm saying. I shouldn't be getting this way! My daughter could be dead... or worse, and I'm feeling sexy? What kind of logic is that?"
David rose up and looked down at his wife. "I don't know. Body logic? We haven't made love in nearly a month, Denni. Maybe it's time we did."
"David," she said, putting her hand on his. "That's only part of it. The other thing was... he was a Mephit."
David paused. "This isn't a... a racial thing?"
"No, nothing like that. No, I'm never going to turn you away because you're not a Mephit, or a Pendorian. No, it's different. David, it kept going through my mind that this... this Mephit could get me pregnant. I want another child. And I want one now. Please?"
David blinked, looking down at Denni. "You want... this melMeph's child?"
"No," Denni said, shaking her head vigorously. "Nonononononono. I want your child, David. Yours." She placed her hand on his chest and played with his fur gently. "I want a Neorat, David. I want your child, David. Please?"
David looked down at Denni, her eyes becoming wet and pooling with her tears. "Denni... who would carry it?"
"Me!" she said. "Me, I can. David, please... Rachel, my aunt, does it all the time, carrying species that aren't hers. Please, let me? We can do it. I want... Oh, David, I want you to make me pregnant properly. I want you make love to me, and I want your come to get inside me and make me as big as I was when I carried Ella. Please?"
David leaned over and kissed his wife's forehead. "We'll see what we can do. When?"
"I want it now, David!" She lunged and kissed his nose, a gesture he sometimes found annoying but smiled at now. "There are four Neorat women on board, I'm sure we could go to the doctor and have her make something up for us. Please, David? Before I go crazy waiting?"
"Okay, Denni. Okay. We'll do it. I promise. Tomorrow, we'll go to the doctor's and get it done. But... listen to me, Denni. I have bad news. You have to listen closely."
She swallowed. "Okay, I'm listening. I'm ready."
David explained to her what Etta had told him about her duties as an officer of a Fleet Vessel. When it was over, Denni nodded quietly. "I figured something like that was going to happen."
"It makes sense," Denni replied quietly. "It's natural for Pendor to want to get them all. I bet the orders come straight from Joshua with Ken's signature all over them."
David nodded, sighing. "Okay. We'll see the doctor tomorrow. Are you sure you're up to this?"
"Ask me in the morning, David. I'm not so sure I'll be so sure. But, right now, I still need you to hold me."
He smiled. "Okay, Denni." He held her close and wished her a good night.
Gabrielle paced her cell, little more than two meters in diameter and almost always under the glare of some sort of lamp. She felt somewhat guilty that, of all the people in this room, she should have a circle all to herself. Most of the circles held three or four people, sleeping bunched up with one another. The room was usually far too warm for the comfort of the captives at night, although in the day it was appreciably cooled. Once a day a flood of soapy water descended from the ceiling, to be followed by another steady, hard shower of clean water ten minutes later. The total shower lasted twenty minutes, and was followed by a strong blow of warm air that entered from one edge where ceiling met wall and left via another on the opposite wall along the floor.
Under other circumstances, Gabrielle would have welcomed it.
Still, her parents had taught her well how to care for herself, and she used the water to its best advantage. She reasoned that if she was to ever escape from this prison, the process was best served by her pleasing her captors until they made a mistake. She also didn't want something like a fell infection slowing her down when she finally had a chance.
One thing she was sure of was that her captives misjudged her abilities, and she determined to keep it that way. They didn't need to know that she could fly anything that plied air or vacuum. Or that, given half a chance, she could take apart almost anything on a starship and tell what it was, often putting it back together without error.
"Still feisty, my little skunk?"
"Spike," Gabrielle growled, startled. "What are you doing here?"
"Just checkin' up on my charge," the leering pirate answered. His jaw chewed on something. Gabrielle figured it was something mindturning. "Feeling better?"
"You killed Mabig. You knew he was gonna try and rape me, and you let him do it. And you knew what Pasha had planned for anyone who did!"
Spike looked surprised, but a smile spread across his stubbled chin. The greasy-looking blond hair had a habit of falling across his eyes and he kept pushing it back over his head. "Aye. He was a bastard who took to the cargo once too often. Never could abide by that myself, y'see." He walked out slowly, weaving among the circles of slaves, half of whom recognized him with glares of anger and pain. He sang softly to himself, "In many places/ everyone recognizes/ integrity, attitude, love..." as the door closed behind him.
The lyric, carried by a relatively simple tune, struck in Gabrielle's mind. It was so unlike the leering, vicious pirate to sing something so obvious and emotional. Had he meant something by it? She sang the lyric over in her mind again, trying to comprehend what he had meant by it.
She murmured it softly, "In many places..." Standard Anglic. The language of her father and his crew, and of many worlds in explored space. "Inmanyplaces..." The words ran together in her murmuring, some sounds standing out and others fading into the background. "Inmypl..."
She stared up at the door through which Spike had vanished. "In many places/ everyone recognizes/ integrity, attitude, love..." She said the word silently. What did it mean?
More importantly, was he someone to be trusted, or was he just playing another mean pirate's trick on her. What was he risking by just singing that song in such an obviously monitored place? She swore silently, not at all happy with the answers she was getting to questions she didn't know really how to answer at all.
In the passing darkness of the starship hold, she waited for the bidding to begin, even two weeks away.
"That should do it," Doctor Craicky said cheerily. "You've got two fully viable Norvegicus ova moving down your fallopian tubes, one a couple of hours behind the other." He shook his head. "I knew we had the technology to do this, but I never thought I'd actually perform the procedure myself someday. Well, Denni. You're now as fertile as a femNeorat ever gets. Funny how you don't look like one."
Denni grinned and hugged the melUncia warmly. "Thank you, Doctor. I appreciate it. And, do me a favor and give June my appreciation, would you? She did a lot for me."
"You can do that yourself," Craicky said, smiling. "Seeing as we're on a military op in the middle of Nowheressec, I doubt she's really going anywhere."
Denni nodded, jumping off the bench and standing up. "I don't feel any different."
"You will if you don't get pregnant. You'll have your first menstruation in years."
"I will if I do get pregnant, too, doc," Denni smiled. "Or did you forget about that?"
Craicky laughed. "Wouldn't know. Never been pregnant myself. Don't plan on it. Had a 'thirty hours in the life of a pre-labor patient' Reytape crammed into my head once, and vowed that I was happy being male."
Denni laughed in return and gave the doctor a sudden hug. "Thank you."
"Go get 'em," Craicky laughed.
"That's it, then," David said, looking over the charts.
"Yes," Commander Wyle said calmly. "It's some old starship that's been hardlanded onto an asteroid of sorts. It's never going anywhere again, but I imagine that, sans drives, it has some simply spectacular living space. There are probably interfaces to some underground facilities, 'underground' being a relative term on a rock that small."
David nodded. "It's a big ship."
"From all appearances, it appears to be a military blockade vessel of the Merrimack Class, a vessel that sailed around 500 or so. It was the largest military vessel class ever made by weight. It still moved around on Corrane drives, however."
"They must have been huge!" David said.
"Indeed. Enormous. But the Terran Government wanted something that made them comfortable in the presence of the new Pendorian Fleet. If you recall, that was just towards the beginning of one of Terra and Pendor's more tense times."
David nodded. "So what does this mean for us?"
"It means, my friend, that we have one hell of a bad time ahead of us. Even grounded as it is, that thing may still have one of the most awesome collections of firepower ever amassed."
"What if it doesn't?"
"If it doesn't, then we don't have a problem." Wyle grinned. David found the Han's grin comforting. "Besides, Captain, you and I are both perfectly aware of just how much firepower we're backing into this system. And, unlike the stealth Starks, stealth Shirows handle far more heat and light before they have to blaze like those comets we saw the Starks turn into. Don't worry. We'll get your little girl out of there."
David nodded. "Well, thank for your time, Wyle. I think I'll return to my cabin and get some rest. Etta has me on a crash training program in combat with Stark, and I'm surprised at just how cerebral piloting a suit of Stark is."
"It's definitely different," Wyle agreed. "It's a bit like trying to remember how we learned to walk."
"That's one way of putting it." He gave Wyle a half-salute, half-nod of his head and stepped out into the hallway, stretching as he did so. There was something about associating with people twice as tall as he that made him feel as if his spine were compressing on its own. He grinned at the silliness of that. And then smiled to remember the one time he'd almost been trampled by a Centaur. Shaking his head and dodging a Ssphynx coming the other way down the hall, he leaped onto the SDisk and teleported to the residential section.
The lights in his cabin burned low, barely illuminating the inside. He stepped in and the door closed behind him. And a pair of hands closed over his eyes. "David," Denni's voice whispered huskily in his ear. "Walk forward," she said. Grinning, he allowed her to lead him to the bed, where she told him to lie down on his belly.
"You're sure you want to do this?" he murmured softly as she straddled his thighs, rocking the bed back and forth as she did so.
"Do you, David? He, she, is going to be your child, too. Just as much as mine." She began slow, scratching motions against his shoulder blades. He gave a muffled sigh of acknowledgement and closed his eyes, resting his head against the pillow. She pressed deeper, stretching the ligaments and cartilage of his back slowly; he felt his body relax under her welcome and familiar touch. "I love you, David," she said.
"I love you too, Denni Satpulov. I always will." She held him close, pressing her chest against his back. He smiled to feel her breasts press against him; her soft bulk had always been one of his special pleasure about his wife. He touched her knee, tapping her. "Let me turn over, okay?"
She eased off of him long enough for him to push himself over onto his back. She leaned over and grinned down at him, reaching down to pull the velcro clasp of his white cotton pants loose. Together, the two of them put effort into pulling his pants off; he kicked, she tugged, and both of them giggled.
"Oh, David, are you sure you want to do this?"
"Like nothing I've wanted in a long time," he breathed softly, feeling the long, soft strands of fur on her neck tickling his nostrils. He buried his face in her throat, kissing and licking. She gasped and returned the favor. His hands roamed along her chest, touching her breasts; he teased her nipple with his fingertips, eliciting moans of pleasure and finally a soft squeal of pain as he pinched just a little too hard. "David!"
"Sorry," he said, easing his fingers over the nipple, trying to be soothing. His lust felt intense, and he thought part of that was just how... feminine... Denni seemed to be tonight. Her soft moans of pleasure and giggles when he tried to tickle her told him how aroused she was, just how wanton he was succeeding in making her.
She shuddered. "David," she whispered. "Don't... I don't need you to do anything special. I just want you inside me."
David rolled over and between her legs. "Yes," she said. "Like this." He reached down between her thighs and felt her moisture there; she felt more than ready to him. He slipped down, his erection still not full and erect. He stroked his partial hardness along her wetness, every stroke exciting him further; finally, without even meaning to except as part of the progress, he slipped into her.
She moaned softly. "Oh, yes, I want you." He supported himself on his elbows and knees; her legs hooked over his. He looked down at her. "Denni, I love you."
"I love you too, David. Now, please... "
He smiled and began stroking, his hips pressing against her thighs with every stroke. He could feel her hands holding him, grabbing him by the waist and pulling him in.
He kept his pace slow and steady. "Not too fast," he said, smiling down at her. "Not too fast at all."
"It'll happen, Denni," he reassured her, kissing her throat. "It has to happen... I'll make it happen for you. But at my own speed, love."
She groaned softly as he made love to her. She held him in a grip that felt firmer than usual. He wondered why he felt that way; was it the act, or the implication of what they were doing? It didn't matter.
David came with a quiet shout of release, pushing himself deep into her and holding himself there; Denni wrapped her legs around his thighs and held him tightly, keeping him inside her. "I want to be sure," she said.
He nodded. "I want to be sure, too." He lay on top of her, holding her, his head nestled between her breasts as his erection softened and slipped out of her. They nestled down, Etta lying on her back. She giggled softly. "Oh, David, I'm silly."
"What brought this observation on?" he asked.
"Just... just thinking that that melMeph could make me so hot when it's really just missing you that I was feeling." She tightened her grip on him momentarily. "You're the right person for my life, no matter what."
"As are you," he whispered. "As are you."
"Captain Elohim, please report to the Bridge."
David dressed hurriedly and ran. Reaching the bridge, he slowed down to a more controlled walk. Etta recognized him as he walked in. "Good, you're here."
"What's the deal?"
"Take a look," Etta said. The central pit where the command chairs usually sat had dropped down and a two-meter diameter globe depicting the solar system they orbited slowly stood in its place. "The green ones are naturally occurring satellites or other objects... comets, things like that. Only the ones big enough to hide a ship behind, really. The yellow are our ships, hovering nearby in one-to-one. The red ones you see popping in are the bad guys." She grinned. "We've recorded forty-six transients in the past nine hours; I get the feeling this is it, David."
He nodded. "Where's the destination?"
"See the green one here?" she pointed with a small hand-held bar that emitted a controlled-length beam. "The one with the slowly rotating red identification ring? That's it."
"How many transients in the past hour?"
"One," she smiled. "We're using this hour as a marker. Any ships that transient after this time, well, we'll have to deal with them later. But for now, this is it. When all ships in motion at this point arrive at the destination, it'll be time to make our move. And believe me, we'll move!" she grinned.
"Wonderful," David smiled.
"Do you want to go in, David? I'll trust you with a suit of Stark if you want to be part of the landing team."
"I can do that?"
"No," Etta said. "But I can't stop you from trying. Do you want to?"
"Good. Get a suit ready. You'll have to do that on your own, I'm afraid. But, hey, it's a small price to pay, right?"
He smiled. "By the way, Dennielle's pregnant," he said quietly when he stood next to her.
"Really?" Etta asked, surprised. "Congratulations. Can I ask who the father is?"
"No, I mean, who's the Y-donor?"
"I am, Etta," he grinned.
"Oh," she said. "That explains why my favorite sparring partner was in sickbay most of yesterday."
She nodded. "Congratulations, David. And good luck."
"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen of the galaxy. Now, as you well know, we have a special present on display in the center of the room. Her full name is Mephitis Mephitis Sapiens Elohim--" Pasha paused to let that name sink in. "Shardik-Satpulov-" Another pause. "Gabrielle!" The lights came on to blare on her circle, blinding her. "Stand up, Gaby, and let the good people see you."
"Pasha, when I get my hands on you I'll tear your throat out!"
"Tsk, tsk, tsk," the disembodied and amplified voice said behind the blinding lights. "Come, now, people. Initial voting has put the price on Gabrielle at one point four gigacredits. That's right. Gigacredits. So, do I hear a superior bid?"
"That's it," Etta said calmly. "Time to move in. Communications, send the signal."
"Attention all ships: Bombs away. I repeat, Bombs away!" the communications officer said loudly.
"Okay, people, look sharp. We're going to come out of one-to-one with a direct vector for the site. It's still a forty-five minute flight from transit to combat. Everybody look sharp."
David watched the sphere on the bridge; every yellow blip on the screen now appeared pointed in one direction, even though he knew that many were simply going to take up perimeter positions to prevent the slavers from escaping in their own vessels. Each had a corona of yellow to indicate they were still in hyperspace. "Transit in twenty seconds."
"Five. Four. Three. Two. One!" Within in the space of four seconds, every ship lost the corona; the forward viewscreen cleared; dead ahead, surrounded by a targeting circle of crisp green lines, lay the asteroid. "Okay, folks, we can start to expect incoming fire any second now."
"What are those?" David asked casually, pointing to three of the Pendorian vessels on the display that appeared to have become indistinct and hazy.
"That's the Young, the Porter, and the Leeds; they're missile carriers. What you're seeing is clouds of Thor missiles." Wyle smiled.
"Wow," David said, shivering. Thor missiles, among the deadliest weapons known to the Corridor; well-shielded from energy weapons and almost impossible to hit with kinetic weapons, the Thor missile was protected by the Ohadi Temporal Disunity effect from the damage it inflicted on enemy vessels. It could strike a target at nearly four percent of light speed and come out the other side unscathed. Each had a mind of its own and a power source to match; should one become lodged within a vessel it easily had the gravitics hardware to escape. Nobody wanted to face a cloud of Thors.
"Is it true they carry antimatter self-destruct mechanisms with them?"
Wyle blinked. "No, that's not true at all." She grinned. "Such a crude method of energy conversion. No, we cause one of the black hole power units to flip, becoming a white hole. It lasts for all of an attosecond. But that's all it needs."
David blinked, his jaw dropping open.
Wyle smiled. "Be grateful you're on our side." David nodded, smiling. "You'd better get suited up, Commander. You're going groundside. Meet up with your team down at airlock nineteen."
David bowed and ran off the bridge, still stunned by much of what he had heard. He dressed in his Stark and ran down to airlock nineteen. He was a little surprised by his partners. "You're going to be my team?"
Of course, Kei responded. Shasti and I are responsible for safely recovering the civilians from the area. You and our fourth partner will be covering us.
"Who's our fourth partner?"
"I am," Etta said, dropping down the ladder at the end of the hallway. "Wyle is a better combat captain than I am, and I'm a better footsoldier than most of the people onboard. So here I am."
David shook his head at the seemingly chaotic Pendorian Chain of Command. "I guess what still stuns me is the need you all have to remember just who can do what, rather than who does what."
Etta nodded. "It makes for a less visible chain of command, but it puts the competent people in charge. And if he fucks up, it's still my career that takes the hit. Besides, we have AI's to do much of the dirty work for us. Okay, suit and power check."
David pulled the helmet on over his head and Etta slowly helped him latch it down to the solid breastplate of his suit. Made of a soft microscopic mail, when fitted properly to the breastplate and powered up, the helmet, like much of the suit, became a tough outer shell. Each link held onto the next with only small amounts of strength, enhanced by the most powerful of the four atomic forces: the electrical. But thousands of microscopic layers, each reinforced by the field of its neighbor, gave rise to incredible durability. Stark, it was rumored, could save you from a ten-kiloton explosion. With Shirow, David knew, that was no rumor.
The suit also supplied six hundred hours of continuous life support, magnified a user's strength, and had sensor capacities the likes of which some starships didn't equal. David understood now why some people became addicted to Stark and never came out. "Ready?" Etta asked.
David looked over. Staring at the featureless mirrored-black faceplate of Etta's own suit, he helped her power up her own suit. They left themselves tethered to the ship, conserving internal stores of power and life-support.
"Etta?" he asked.
"You said there was a mode where I could tell who was who in these things. How do I do that?"
"Call up the menu," she said. He issued the mental command, and the menu hovered in front of his face. "Okay, the sequence is Options, Displays, Personnel. You see that?"
"Yeah, they're labeled Normal, Label, Semi-Icon and Icon."
"Switch to Icon."
He gave the command. The Menu floated away. He looked over. Etta was standing opposite him, wearing civilian clothes rather than a suit of Stark. She grinned. "What do you think?"
"In Icon mode, the datafeed to your eyes is edited so that when you look at another suit of Stark, rather than see the suit, you see a synthesized image of the occupant. If you're looking at a suit you've not seen recently, it's a fast download of the icon, otherwise it's a stored icon that's replayed after an IFF. It's a scary mode, really. Look at yourself."
David looked down. It was as if he weren't wearing the suit at all. He could feel it surrounding him; his breathing was loud in his ears, and he could tell he was still inside the Stark helmet. Looking down, he could tell that his feet were four centimeters above the floor. But otherwise it was himself, dressed in his normal jumpsuit he wore while commanding the Rat's Success. He tried to touch his arm; the suit was in the way and he could feel that. But it looked like he was gripping his forearm. "Wow."
"You really do feel like you're some kind of superbeing," Etta said. "And it gets worse when you're around people who aren't wearing suits. You expect them to be able to do what you do. It's better if you switch to Semi-Icon."
David did as directed. Now Etta wore the suit again, but only from the neck down. "That's better," David said. "At least now I can tell who's suited and who isn't."
Probably for the best, Kei agreed with a grin.
"Drop in five minutes. All teams prepare. We're going for dust in four minutes, thirty seconds."
"Let's get ready. Get your rifle?"
David pulled the short, bull-pup configured rifle. Etta pointed and said, "Now remember. That thing is configured to not shoot at Pendorians. It recognizes us as non-mammalian and will not send a bullet downrange in that direction."
David blinked. "Pendorians aren't mammals?"
Etta smiled. "Nope. Well, yes and no. We have mammae, obviously. But we also have five-chambered hearts."
"Oh, right. I remember my wife telling me about that."
"The fifth chamber is just a muscle sheath; sort of a 'this space intentionally left blank' for the sleeping heart modules. The gun recognizes that. So you can't shoot anyone on the team, and you can't shoot your daughter. But there are probably dozens of other slaves in there, if we're right. We don't want a bloodbath, David. Be careful."
The ship rocked violently; David found himself thrown up against the wall, and smiled to realize he had barely felt it as his sight had gone crazy. "We're down! Go! Go! Go!"
The airlock popped open; David hadn't even been aware of when the air had evacuated. "Let's go!" Etta jumped out the airlock first, landing on the rock. "Six percent gravity," she grumbled. "I could get transorbital with just one kick. Okay, you people. There's our target."
Pendorian troops streamed out from the enormous vessel, landing in various places about the ship. David saw Stark, Shirow, and even a few ten-meter-tall suits of Wells in use. He shook his head. Unbelievable.
Gabrielle's eyes had just started adjusting to the light coming in when the alarms went off. "We are under attack! Abandon station! Abandon station! All crew to the gun emplacements! We repeat, we are under attack. At present we report approximately forty military vessels inbound."
Screams erupted around her and the shapes she had just begun to discern among the audience began running in random fashion, some bouncing off the shield wall that had been programmed to keep her in and them out. "Come on," a voice hissed in her ear.
"Come on, Gabrielle. We've got to get you out of here."
She backed up against the shield wall. "Who are you?"
"Marth Natterly. I work for the Imperial Government. We've been working on cracking this place for nearly a year. This was perfect. But my mission directive says I've got to save you especially. You were kidnapped in Imperial space and the Emperor wants to make sure you get out alive. We haven't got time! Come on!"
He reached out a hand and she took it; he gathered her up in his arms and ran for one of the exits. "Gabrielle!"
"Patch!" she screamed, recognizing the voice as Spike dove down a hallway.
"I've got a ship set aside. The Imperials won't shoot at it."
"Talk to me."
"I've got twelve... fifteen... forty transients inbound under Ohadi. We're looking at transients at the one thousand range, sir. Sixty transients! Eighty!"
Wyle cursed. "All ships, prepare for defensive maneuvers. We're looking at incoming vessels of unknown origin. Look sharp people!"
"Incoming from all angles."
"Give me a globe. Anton, pick a color."
"On." The globe came to life in the center of the bridge again, this time the new vessels covered in purple. They really were coming in from all angles of the hemisphere that describe the one thousand odds marker. "Guesses, Mr. Knelty."
Gabrielle found herself being carried by this immensely strong human down hallways packed with screaming people running apparently without thought. "There," Spike breathed. "That's the ship we're looking for." He dove again through the crowd and through an airlock. The door closed behind him and she felt the latches pull the airlock in tight. "Stay here," he said. "I've got to check out the ship. We'll be outbound in two minutes."
Gabrielle sit down, nodding. She took a deep breath, suddenly relaxed from all the stress. She was free! Was it true? Was she really going to be free?
Something tickled in the back of her mind, something that was carried to her by her nose. She took another deep breath. She recognized the smell. "Spike!"
An upright storage cabinet burst open, and a man wearing combat armor stepped out, brandishing a Chandri Laser. Spike barely managed to rise from his chair when the laser cut him down mercilessly. "Lovely weapon," the voice said.
The human turned to look down at her. Her eyes terrified, she could feel herself receding from this... this creature. The world went dark.
"Shasti, get this door open!" Etta ordered.
The Pamthreat-shaped 'roid attacked the door panel. David didn't even want to guess at what hardware Shasti used to achieve its goals, but the outer door to the airlock opened. "In, all of us."
They piled into the airlock and it closed behind them. The inner door was not closed with more than a switch, and Etta threw it. "Okay, we're in. Hello, Command. This is Argent. We're inside."
"Ack, Argent. We've got a sit. Incoming maybe-hostiles."
"Let's go!" David said. They stepped out into a hallway.
"Hostile vessels, identify yourselves."
"This is Commander Rajavi Ehman of His Majesty's Imperial Navy. Who the Hell is this?"
"This is Captain Wyle Dancing of the Pendorian Navy." Wyle decided not to toss in the official 'ad hoc' that was part of the name. "We are here to retrieve a Pendorian National."
"And we're here to stop a slave trade!"
"We plan on accomplishing that as a secondary objective," Wyle said. "We're on the same side. We are on scene. I have command. Do you accept?"
There was a pause. "Immediately." Wyle's eyebrows went up. Captain Ehman knew his job. She admired that. "What is your command, Captain Wyle?"
How convenient. This little four-man vessel was outfitted with cryo, a microfusion Hawkwind-four drive, and, best of all, a fully legal Imperial transponder. Pasha Colodor always was an idiot, and it only took people fifty years to see past his Pendorian facade and see the fool underneath. But to have a spy in his vessel!
Oh well. Pasha would be dead soon. Or, if not, the Pendorians would be making him wish he were.
"My God," David swore softly as they reached the slave-holding pen. He crossed the room to one of the circles, only to be stopped by the force-field that held the subjects in. Etta and the Pamthreats fanned out carefully. "You! Where's my daughter?"
"Who?" the young femHuman said, blinking up at the black-shaped humanoid robot before her.
"Gabrielle! My daughter!"
"David Elohim!" a voice shouted behind her in a strangely clipped accent. "Elohim!"
David turned to face the voice; a young girl with brown skin faced him. "You know who I am?"
"Gabrielle spoke much about you. I am Patch, we are friends!"
"Where is Ella?"
"Spike took her! He was one of Pasha's pirates! They go through that door!" She pointed. David glanced up at the ceiling where the pinpoint projectors for the forcefields were installed; he aimed with his rifle and fired. "Etta! I'm going after Gabrielle and the pirate!"
"Kei. Go with him."
"Don't shoot!" the commo shouted. "That's one of ours!"
"We show it as a new transient outbound from the station," Anton pointed out evenly.
"Acknowledged. We have people on the station. Repeat, we have people inside the operation. That one shows an accurate transponder code."
"Understood," Anton replied. He called it to the attention of a tactical operator and informed Wyle of the presence of spies within the facility.
If there was one thing David was ever thankful for, it was marrying a skunk. His sniffer circuit went berserk, identifying a Pendorian Mephit scent tag in the direction he was running. He charged down the hallway when suddenly the signal it stopped. "Ella!" he shouted. He backed up, figuring that the pirate had turned down a doorway.
David! Kei stood at one doorway. Here! It's a ship's lock.
David checked it, his heart racing. "NO!" he screamed. "It's gone! She's gone, they've still got her!" He slammed his hand against the airlock door.
DAVID! If you punch a hole in that door you'll kill those people in this section who are unprotected.
David stopped and glanced back and forth. "There is nobody between the two bulkheads I see."
It's the principle of the thing.
David glared at Kei, then nodded. "Come on, let's get back to Etta."
They turned to leave when a loud >Spang!< rang off of David's head. He turned and recognized the unsuited Uncia standing at the end of the hall. "You!"
"You... you ringbound idiots!" Pasha walked towards them.
"Where's my daughter?"
"How should I know? She's still in the slave pens with the rest of them, you idiot." He fired another bullet at David; it ricocheted off the armor harmlessly.
"No, she's not," David growled, his voice filled with menace.
"Oh, well," Pasha giggled, firing again. "Then she isn't."
He doesn't know, Kei informed David quietly. And he's quickly losing his mind.
"You took her," David said.
"Of course," Pasha replied, firing again. This one hit Kei's helmet, then bounced off David before coming to a halt somewhere in the metalwork of the hallway. "Wouldn't you? She's very beautiful."
Something within David snapped. He snarled and pulled up his rifle, aiming at Pasha. He pulled the trigger... and nothing happened.
Pasha giggled insanely. "I'm losing it all," he said dreamily. "Aw, is your gun empty? Mine isn't." He fired again. "It doesn't seem to bother you, though."
David's thoughts raced for a second. He ordered a camera sweep to his left, where he had made a dent in the airlock door. With his scanners, he found the weakest point and aimed for it with his thoughts. In the armor sheathing his right arm millions of tiny linkages slowly bunched up, following the motion of his biceps and bones as he dropped the rifle; in the low gravity of the station it began to fall to the floor in very slow motion. He slowly made other tactical decisions.
"Oh, well," Pasha said, aiming his pistol and pulling the trigger. It made a clicking sound. "Now I'm out of bullets, too. Aw..."
David's left hand whipped out with the speed of thought, seizing a solid metal bulkhead; his right hand followed the sequence he had given it, curling into a fist and slamming into the weak spot of the door precisely as determined, carried by the forceful release of the powered armor; he continued with the carry through motion until he was buried through the door up to his elbow. It made a rather effective seal. He turned to watch the bulkheads rapidly drop into place. Then he smiled at Pasha. "Goodbye, pirate." He pulled his arm free.
Pasha's face recovered from its apparently deranged state to stare in horror as the air in the rather spacious gangway slowly gassed out into the vacuum of space through the ten-centimeter hole. "No!" Pasha screamed. "You can't!"
"I did," David smiled as Pasha gasped for air. "Funny, isn't it, how the immanent threat of death tends to focus the mind?"
"You..." Pasha gasped. His throat didn't make any sound after that, but David clearly made out the word "can't."
David watched until blood began to flow from around Pasha's eyes. "Come on, Kei. We've got to find another airlock into this place now."
For the first time since meeting her, Kei made an audible sound. A snort. That door down there. We can find access to the next door through there.
That thing is going to stink up the ship. He should throw it out. There was easily enough reserve air in the tanks to support an airlock cycling. He pulled the cargo out of the airlock where it had gone catatonic on him, tossing the garbage in it's place. He closed the door and hit the CYCLE command. The garbage shifted slightly.
A technician at station aboard the Pendorian cruiser Sterling noticed something odd about the already weird little Imperial shuttlecraft heading away from the battle. "R-Thor, R-Thor. Commo, we have a hotspot dropping away from imperial vessel 89."
"R-Thor on its way."
Marth came to consciousness just in time to realize that the outer door to the airlock was opening. He scrabbled for something, anything, to hold onto. He failed; he was swept away from the shuttlecraft and out into space.
The cold attacked him first; he clamped a hand over his eyes, one of the most liquid parts of the body exposed to the outside. Other survival mechanisms for vacuum came to mind and he began to exhale, slowly, out of his nose, controlling the rate at which his chest decompressed. He began counting backwards from thirty. 29... 28... 27... 26...
Not all Thor missiles are weapons. S-class Thor missiles, for instance, are sensor packages. D-class Thor missiles are also sensor packages, but they're designed to last forever, substituting some performance and a significant amount of sensor range for durability. R-class Thor missiles are designed for rescue operations.
Four Thor missiles closed in on the hotspot called from the Sterling. Three R-class and one S-class, they scanned the space behind the rapidly accelerating shuttlecraft. They found their target, and one R-class was nominated transmitter. It started flying towards the target at 71,000 meters per second; at precisely the right moment, it fired an attitude thruster so that it headed towards the target laterally rather than head on. Anyone with eyes fast enough to watch would have seen the R-class missile rear up like a giant hand to slap the human target. A light blazed around the impact site, and then faded.
"We have positive on retrieval!" the commo officer shouted. "We have a male human. Contact the imperials and get identification on this guy!"
"Bloodthirsty short-lived prags," one of the technicians said to another. "They just pitch each other out of airlocks. They're no better than the pirates."
They were getting close. He didn't feel comfortable with that. He decided that the one to five hundred mark was safe enough. It was a risk, but life wasn't worth much without risk. If he made it, his employer would pay well. If he didn't, he would never know. He felt secure with that knowledge.
He reprogrammed the computer to make the jump at the 1:500 mark. It was out of his hands. He would cross that mark in four minutes. He placed the cargo in one of the four cryo tubes, then lay down in the second. And he waited for sleep to take him.
"Pendorian vessel! That vessel we reported as one of ours is officially in enemy hands! Repeat. Enemy hands. We have nothing that can catch it before it reaches the one thousand mark. Can you reply?"
"Do it," Wyle ordered.
"Sir, we recovered someone from that ship. They tossed him out an airlock."
"Do we have him?"
"Yes sir. He was captured by R-Thor. The Satori was nominated."
"How is he?"
"Doctor says it isn't great. Lots of decompression, plus an intense laser wound of some sort."
"Will he survive?"
"This is a Pendorian operation, sir," the technician replied.
Wyle chuckled. "So it is, so it is."
Fifteen Thor missiles flew towards the target shuttlecraft with orders to disable but under no circumstances destroy. They flew dispassionately, at the limits of their capacity and no further. They closed within fifteen kilometers. The AI taking tactical responsibility calculated that if the ship was going at 1:1000 the missile would reach easily. The ship left at 1:500.
"Dammit!" Wyle cursed, her tail stiffening behind in her in frustration. "Track it now, sensors. Put C-Thors out if you need."
"Already done sir, four gone. "
"Sir! The Satori confirms that the pickup is Marth Natterly of the Imperial Intelligence Service. Colonel Natterly also confirms that Gabrielle Satpulov is onboard that shuttlecraft."
Rubbing the back of her neck in frustration, Wyle scanned for battle tactical information. The fifty Pendorian vessels (and the eighty Imperials, she had to remind herself) in space around her were more than a match for the seventy vessels that had tried to escape. One by one a Thor had disabled each ship, ensuring that the owners weren't going anywhere. Twelve of the vessels had self-destructed. Several others had reported suicides on board. She wasn't surprised.
Captain Taylo of the Pendorian Military Vessel Jiinas crossed the bridge and reviewed the tactical data he, too, was receiving. "Captain Wyle," he said, "Request permission to initiate a retrieval."
"Granted," the verbal request came back just as quickly. Taylo nodded. "Osek, you know where the C-Thors are. Get ready to make pursuit. Estimate time to contact."
"Aye, sir," the Tindal Navigator said smartly. Taylo almost never sat down, but prowled his bridge, pointing to displays and patting the people under his command on the back when they deserved. His people liked him. "Sir," Osek reported, "Transit in nineteen minutes, post-C contact eight minutes later."
"Engage. Engineering, are you listening?"
"Yes, Captain. We're about to try a C-retrieve. Have you ever done this before?"
"No. Have you?"
"No, sir. It's only been tried twice before. Both times were successful."
"It's still not an easy operation, by any stretch of the imagination. Misa, are you ready?"
"Of course, Captain," the sweet-voiced AI replied evenly. The tactical display on the screen showed the transit-limit as a rapidly approaching circle display. "One in ten thousand," Osek said. "Engaging hyperspace drive."
The screen cleared, replaced by a mathematical graph of ship's position. The only objects on the screen were the Jiinas and the transit-limit. Eventually even that fell away. "Larger scale," Taylo ordered, his tail curling slowly in anticipation, then releasing. "Okay, people. There's our enemy vessel."
The graph split into displays, labelled simply R-X, R-Y, and R-Z. "According to the C-Thors, one of which is in contact with the enemy vessel, that's where she is relative to us. Okay, Mr. Osek. Bring us in very slowly."
The numbers slowly descended, approaching zero. Taylo wondered again why there were no units of measurement on the absolute displays. He knew it was related to the nature of hyperspace, but still it made him uncomfortable. Slowly the numbers descended.
"We're getting interference with the hyperdrive shell," engineering called back. "It's not going to hold much longer."
"Get a Stark team to the ranged SDisk," Taylo said to his security officer. "And keep it fully powered until I say otherwise."
"Right away, sir," the femUncia replied calmly.
"Okay, Mr. Osek. When the hyperdrive field collapses, I want you to open those fusion drives as full as they'll go and get us into realspace range for the SDisk before that bastard has had a single flicker on his theta wave monitor."
"I'll make it so," Osek replied calmly.
Engineering called up. "We're definitely within each other's fields, Captain, and the numbers are good for the other vessel's given dimensions. I'm dropping... now!"
The screen cleared, becoming a starfield background with tactical data overlaid. "Osek!"
"Enemy vessel within six thousand meters, sir!"
"Sensors! Find me a hole for the security team!" The Jiinas came fully to life as it sped back towards the shuttlecraft it had been tracking.
"Got one, sir, thanks to the C-Thor!"
"Go, go, go!" Taylo shouted.
"Rotation, and release!" the security officer shouted even as the lights on the bridge dimmed slightly.
Taylo waited, pawing at the carpeted floor of the bridge with his forefeet. He watched as the Jiinas came to rest less than a hundred meters from the target vessel. "Jiinas, this is the away team, Dar reporting. We have Gabrielle Elohim. She's fine."
"And the buyer?"
"Oh, we have him too sir. As you ordered, his theta waves haven't even flickered yet."
Taylo smiled. "A good operation, people. Okay, pack it up and let's get ready to take it back to that ugly little star. Engineering, I don't think we have a bay that will hold the shuttlecraft, so put a Huffman Beacon on it and we'll come back for it later. I'm sure the folks back in Intelligence have a use for it somewhere."
"Daddy!" Gabrielle shouted as she ran down the hallway.
"Ella!" he replied, scooping her up in his arms and holding her close to him. "Oh, it's good to see you again! Are you okay?"
"I'm fine now, Daddy. I knew you'd save me." She threw her arms around him and held him close, and David grasped her just as tightly, swearing to himself that he would never let her go. "I knew you'd come."
"And I did, too. Mom's on her way down now."
"Ella!" the expected shout came a moment ago. Wyle and Etta stood off to one side, Taylo with them.
"When can I go home?" Gabrielle asked.
"Just as soon as we get to Fahrenheit, sweetheart. Just as soon as we get out of here." David hugged his daughter tightly. "Very soon now."
After a few minutes, David walked over to Etta and Wyle. "How can I thank you?"
"This is part of the job, David," Etta said, pointing to Dennielle and Gabrielle. "That's thanks enough. By the way, we now know who her buyer is. Kemper Al-Pourreine."
"The planetary industrialist?"
Etta nodded. "One and the same. Once his hired thug was cracked out of cryo we got the whole thing from him. That wasn't easy, either; the thug was brainwiped and preprogrammed. It was only that he knew where he was supposed to take Gabrielle and the assumption on the buyer's part that we wouldn't know that Kemper Al-Pourreine used a certain star system as an illegal storage and clearinghouse that confirms it for us."
"So what are we going to do now?"
"Well, 'we' are not going to do anything now. You are going back to your ship and your life, probably with a Shasti-model if you want it. We could subset it off Lance if you want."
"I would like that," David said appreciatively. "What's going to happen to Kemper Al-Pourreine?"
"Nothing, immediately. That shuttlecraft isn't expected for another ten months at its destination; that's why it had cryogenic tanks. We expect, though, that Joshua will have something adequately nasty for Kemper Al-Pourreine when it comes down to it."
David nodded. He turned to Taylo and shook the Ssphynx's hand. "I'm pleased to have been of service," Taylo responded.
David looked at the three of them, shook his head again and said "Thanks again for returning my daughter to me, all of you." Then he turned slowly and walked towards the SDisk to rejoin his family and, as Etta had suggested, resume the life he had left off far too long ago. And, he reflected with a smile, he was going to have to tell Ella that she was about to become a sister.