The saga begins! Well, it already began in the bits of backstory we've written up so far, but this is the first bit of the main mass of it... and boy is it ever a mass! It just kept spooling out until we had over 13k words, and I'm not certain whether to be delighted or horrified. ;P
“I’m so pleased to finally meet you,” the blonde woman said in emphatic tones as she sat down, dimpling at Solo and Duo impartially. “I’ve wanted to thank you for saving Quatre ever since he told me the story, and of course I’m delighted that he’s now financing you. Piracy is such a terrible thing, and too many people just assume that someone else will take steps.”
“Wow.” Duo blinked at her. “You can make platitudes sound awesome, and deliver them with a straight face. How d’you do that?”
Relena blinked back at him, startled, and Quatre choked on a snicker beside her. “I told you they wouldn’t sit still for your blonde airhead act, love.”
“Yes, you did,” she admitted, smile broadening into something less polished and more sincere. “You can’t blame me for trying it, though, can you?”
“Nah,” Duo grinned, leaning back in his chair. “Gotta keep in practice with all your weapons, right?”
“Ooh, you understand!” she exclaimed, batting her eyelashes at him and briefly switching back into the ‘dewy-eyed innocent’ expression she’d started the conversation with. “I like him, Quatre. Can we keep him?”
Quatre was laughing too hard to answer, leaning on the table and reaching for his water glass. Solo lifted one eyebrow, face admirably straight even though Loki seemed to be coughing up a hairball beside him. “I thought you were keeping us. Buying us shiny toys and everything.”
“Toys? Keeping us? Don’t tell me we got adopted again,” Duo snickered. “And I’m not calling Q ‘daddy’, all right?”
“Not even ‘sugar daddy’?” Relena inquired sweetly, and Duo cracked up.
“Oh, man, you are totally not the person you play on the vids,” he gasped out, coughing to clear his voice. “Do they give out trophies for that? Best actress in a political role?”
“Unfortunately not,” she said dryly, pouring more water for Quatre. “If anyone figures out that it is an act, you’re automatically disqualified. I wouldn’t mind getting a nice shiny statue, though; when I’m forced to sit in the House of Lords and listen to someone droning on about a topic they patently do not understand, I could sit there with a smile on my face thinking about polishing it. Or hitting them with it.”
“Those things are nicely balanced for clubbing, aren’t they?” Solo mused.
“Yes,” Relena agreed, eyes narrowing. “I could get in such a nice swing at… ah… certain people who shall remain nameless. *ahem* Let’s not talk about politics. Do the new ships meet all your expectations?”
“Now there’s a subject change I like,” Duo grinned, raising his glass to her. “They’re gorgeous; I think Hilde is still patting her shiny new command console and drooling. We’ll have to do some tuning during the shakedown cruise, and there’s always something that turns out to need more than tuning, but everything I’ve been able to get my hands on so far is nine nines and shiny.”
“And by the time we’re done with the shakedown, he’ll have got his hands on everything else,” Solo added.
“What does your accountant think?” Quatre asked, winking at Shinigami. The dark treecat sat up in his high chair and waved the stalk of celery he was clutching, starting a long, involved series of ‘bleek’s and chittering noises. He finished with a satisfied purr, returning to chewing the stringy end of the stalk.
“That sounded positive,” Relena said uncertainly.
“It was,” Quatre assured her. “He’s happy with the build, especially since it was brought in under budget.”
“How do you know?”
“Uh…” He blinked, puzzled. “I just do?”
“He’s right,” Duo shrugged, leaning back in his chair again. “Q gets ‘cats. I’m surprised you’ve never been adopted yourself, dude.”
“And I don’t understand how you know, either,” she persisted, mock-frowning at him. “When most people talk to their treecats, it’s very obviously one-sided. You have actual conversations, complete with pauses for them to answer.”
“Uh.” Duo and Solo exchanged an odd, half-amused half-wary glance. “We just do?”
She sighed, eyeing all three of them tolerantly. “Well, I’m sure Loki and Shinigami would object if you were making up their side of it--”
Loki chirped smugly and nodded at her.
“--so I’m just going to accept it and move on. Are you sure you don’t have time to come down to Manticore and have an actual holiday? It seems a shame for you to just turn around and leave again after coming all the way from Silesia.”
The two captains exchanged another glance, and shook their heads in unison. “Sorry,” Solo replied, sounding genuinely apologetic. “We really do need to get going. There’s the shakedown phase on the way back, and then we have some Sweepers-specific mods to install--”
“Which Hauptman Yards are still trying to find out about,” Quatre muttered into his glass.
“--and then we can get out and about and start using these ships the way they’re intended to be used,” Solo finished, grinning coldly.
“Besides, no offence, but we’ve been living on stations and ships all our lives,” Duo added. “Being dirtside makes us twitchy.”
Relena blinked. “Twitchy? May I ask why? Most people I know who express a preference say they’re more comfortable on-planet, because there are fewer things that can go catastrophically wrong.”
“Yeah, that may be true, but try telling that to our instincts.” He rolled his eyes expressively. “To them, a wind means there’s a seal blown and we’re decompressing. Funny smells mean the scrubbers aren’t working. Temperature changes mean the environmental systems are completely down. Bugs mean holy crap, there’s an infestation in Hydroponics and we’re going to be eating ration paste for a month while we get it under control. Thunder means someone misjudged their thrust and rammed the station, and rain is just freaky weird. Atmospheric controls are not meant to have the humidity turned up that far, man.”
“Well, in that case I understand,” she said, a little sadly. “It seems like a shame, though.”
“You just want to introduce them to my sisters,” Quatre smirked.
Her sad expression dropped away like another mask, and she shot him a pointed look. “If you’d make them stop nagging me to find them dates, I wouldn’t have to try to shanghai every attractive man who comes within tractor range! My own brother won’t come home for holidays any more, and I didn’t even arrange all those ‘accidental meetings’ and ‘coincidental visits’!”
“Yeeeeah we really need to get going,” Duo said hastily, putting his glass down and starting to push his chair back.
“Sit!” Relena pointed at him imperiously. “You are staying for dinner, as planned! Quatre’s sisters are not on the station and they don’t even know you exist, so stop panicking.”
Still relaxed in his own seat, Solo picked up his glass and grinned as his brother reluctantly resettled himself at the table. “We didn’t know these sisters existed until now, either. Are they older or younger than you, Quatre?”
“Older,” the slender young lord said calmly. “All fifteen of them.”
Solo choked on his wine and sputtered helplessly as Loki helpfully thumped his back with one true-hand and a midlimb in counterpoint. Duo froze in mid-movement, eyes wide. “Fifteen?!”
“Fifteen,” Quatre confirmed.
“I thought you were the heir?”
“But they’re older?”
“Yes.” Quatre grimaced slightly. “The Winner barony is one of the few remaining Manticoran peerages that is still entailed in the male line. My parents held some… old-fashioned… beliefs about not modifying or sex-selecting offspring, and just kept conceiving naturally and tubing each foetus in turn until they came up with me. I’m fairly sure they relaxed those beliefs after fifteen girls, but Mother isn’t around to ask any more and Father would never admit it if it’s true.”
Duo stared at him incredulously. “Dude.”
“Yes.” He smiled faintly. “I’d break the entail in a heartbeat, but it requires a unanimous vote from all the current generation of potential heirs, and none of my sisters want to inherit.”
“They do, however, want to marry,” Relena chimed in dryly. “Or at least date. This desire does not appear to extend to finding their own partners. That seems to be my job.”
Solo coughed, wheezed, and finally found his voice again. “Why?!”
“That’s one of the other old-fashioned beliefs my parents held. Well, my mother,” Quatre corrected himself. “She passed it on to the older girls. Apparently, an extremely old-fashioned, restrictive, Anglo-centric belief, hailing from an area of Old Earth that we aren’t even descended from so Allah only knows why she picked it up, says that women shouldn’t marry before their elder sisters. Some of my sisters are interpreting that to mean that I -- not a woman, please note -- cannot marry before them -- again, note that the literal interpretation is ‘should’ not, not ‘can’ not -- and therefore it is my fiancée’s duty to find them partners before they will graciously allow us to tie the knot.”
“Your sisters are nuts,” Duo said bluntly.
“Only half a dozen of them,” Quatre said cheerfully. “I just ignore those ones. The rest are quite sane and rather nice, really.”
“They won’t let me ignore them,” Relena sighed.
“I keep telling you, threaten them with a restraining order and they’ll shut up to avoid the scandal.”
“I can’t threaten your sisters with a restraining order!”
“Why not? I did.”
* * * * *
“Awright! Ready to move out?” Duo half-sang, stretching his legs out in front of his newer, shinier, bigger, comfier captain’s chair.
< < Yep, > > Solo replied laconically.
< < Been ready for an hour, > > Hilde chimed in. < < Slowpokes. > >
“Hey, you were invited to dinner!” Duo pointed out. “It was awesome, too.”
< < Lady Peacecraft had mine boxed up and sent to me, > > she said smugly. < < I got the noms without having to dress up and practice my manners. > >
“Your loss,” he shrugged. “Lady Relena’s pretty cool, and once we got past the bit about Quatre’s crazy relatives we had some fun conversation.”
< < The bit about the crazy sisters was fun, too, once we were sure they weren’t going to jump out of an airlock at us, > > Solo put in.
< < Say what? > >
“Tell you later. If we’re all good to go, let’s head out. What stupid name were you calling your ship again, Solo?”
< < It was christened and registered three months ago, bro, it’s a bit late to be snarky about it now. > >
“It’s never too late to be snarky, you know that! What was it again?” Duo asked, grinning broadly.
< < *sigh* Hellscream. > >
“Oh, yeah, that’s right, you named it after an asshole. I forgot.”
< < There’s more than one Hellscream. It’s not like I named it ‘Garrosh’. > >
“And yet you know exactly who I’m talking about.”
< < Duo, either cut the crap and get our departure clearance or I’m doing it myself, > > Hilde interrupted.
< < At least I’m not running a Blood Elf as my main, > > Solo muttered, barely audible. < < Has he broken a nail recently? > >
“He’s got a manicure kit built into his Gnomish Army Knife, dude, keep with the program.” Still grinning, Duo switched from the private intership link to a channel connecting to the station. “Hey there, Yard Control, this is the Deathscythe requesting an outbound course for a three-ship group, Deathscythe, Hellscream, and Forsaken, heading for the Junction. Got a nice plot for us? Over.”
< < Roger that, Deathscythe, > > the local area controller called back. < < We’ve got an immediate outbound window if you’re all ready to go, over. > >
“We were born ready, Control. Over.”
< < Good to know, Deathscythe, > > the controller laughed. < < Course plot sent; you’ll need to hand over to Junction Central to get your lane information. Over. > >
“Roger, Yard Control. So long, and thanks for all the shinies.”
< < So, did the magic smoke come out of any bits of your ship yet? > > Hilde sent as the three ships cruised into the Basilisk system.
“No,” Duo said, eyeing her image on the screen dubiously. “Not obviously, anyway. Is there a reason you’re asking?”
She grimaced. < < We’ve had to shut down a beta node; it developed a serious flutter when we reconfigured from sails to wedge. Early indications are that the tuner has blown. > >
< < Well, that’s what a shakedown cruise is for, > > Solo pointed out. < < The yard can’t test everything at full power. > >
< < I know! It’s just… a little bit of the shiny has come off my ship already, > > she pouted.
“Awwww. Never mind, Hilde, we’ll get you a nice new shiny tuner when we get to the Toolbox,” Duo soothed. “Or would you rather stop and swap it out now? We’ve got the spares, it won’t take long.”
< < Nah, I’ll wait, > > she told him, a little mollified. < < It won’t affect our accel, so we might as well stick to the schedule and fix everything that shows up at once. > >
“Gotcha. Keep an eye on the others in case it was a bad parts batch, though.”
< < Teach your grandmother to suck eggs, Maxwell. > >
Three systems later, Hilde was swearing as they dropped out of hyper. < < --damn substandard lowest bidder mass-produced shitty parts, I am gonna write Hauptmann Yards a letter and it is going to be nasty-- > >
“Ah, crap, not another one?” Duo asked.
< < Two this time! > > she raged. < < That makes five! > >
“Okay, we have officially reached the point where I tell you that we’re stopping and making repairs now,” he said seriously.
< < I’m not arguing, > > she growled. < < However. Could you both please check your beta tuner spares, and tell me what batch numbers they have? > >
“Ooh.” Duo winced theatrically as he started calling up the damage control parts database. “So it is a batch problem?”
< < Yup. They’re all from batch #375-PT104. And so are all the spare tuners on board the Forsaken. > >
< < Ouch, > > Solo said. < < Okay, we have three spare beta tuners from that batch, I’ve red-listed them. All the rest of our spares are from batch #375-PT099, and… all the beta tuners currently in use on Hellscream are from batches ending in 099 and 098. > >
“No 104s here,” Duo confirmed. “All 097 and 098. I guess we know what order Hauptmann stocked our spares in, hey?”
< < Yup. Most of our installed tuners are from batch 103 and they’re fine so far, > > Hilde sighed. < < And given that the Forsaken was the last one finished, we’re probably the first ship out of the yards to do a full-power run with the bad batch. > >
< < Guess so. Maybe they’ll give us a credit note or something for reporting the problem to them before they send out half a dozen custom yachts with the same tuners, > > Solo suggested.
< < If they don’t do something above and beyond replacing this shit at their own expense, I am gonna get rude-- > >
“Well, we’ve got the clean parts list, so I’ll send the tuners over now,” Duo interrupted. “D’you have any more installed from that batch? We should probably swap them now instead of waiting for them to fry next time you have to bring up the wedge.”
< < Two more, > > Hilde confirmed. < < That’d be peachy, thanks Duo. > >
“Not a problem. The sooner we get your nodes fixed, the sooner we can get home and you can send that letter,” he replied, eyeing the system display on the main screen.
With no inhabitable planets, no mining prospects, and a white dwarf primary that barely qualified as a star, the system they had stopped in didn’t even rate a proper name, just a catalogue number. The Hillman sector was one of the quieter parts of the Silesian Confederacy, and this was certainly a backwater among backwaters, Duo thought, listening with half his attention to his helmsman and communications officer coordinating the parts transfer with Hilde’s crew. Which of course made it the perfect place for a pirate ship to lurk, either hiding from notice or waiting for a merchant ship or two to bumble past, far from help.
He could feel Shinigami’s amusement in the back of his mind, edged like a smile barely hiding teeth, and grinned back. Well, we can hope.
“Hey, boss? I’ve got a hyper footprint, fairly close,” Solo’s communications officer said. “One ship… man, they’re taking their time reconfiguring to wedge,” he added after a pause, sounding mildly scornful. “Sloppy buggers. Oh, there they go. About our mass, looks like, maybe a little lighter… ooh.”
“‘Ooh’?” Solo inquired, looking up from his datapad and switching off the book he’d been reading to kill the time.
“Ooh indeed,” the comms officer gloated. “Military acceleration levels, but they don’t have a military transponder; they’re squawking ID for a civilian freighter registered in Jarmon, name of Pretty Pretty Princess.”
Loki made a sniggering noise from his comfortable spot draped across the back of Solo’s chair, and his human partner put one hand theatrically over his eyes. “Now that is just sad. Sad and wrong,” he said, struggling not to laugh out loud. “Raise Duo and Hilde, would you? Whisker lasers, just in case they’re smarter than they look so far.”
“Deathscythe’s already calling in. One sec… you’re on.”
< < Are you seeing what I’m seeing? > > Duo’s voice broke in, merry with suppressed laughter.
“If you’re seeing relief from boredom wrapped in the most embarrassing cover identity ever, I guess so,” Solo grinned. “Hilde? How long will it take you to raise your wedge? Can you raise it?”
< < Stall ‘em for forty minutes? We’ve got three nodes half disassembled with bits all over the floor in here, they’ve got to at least close up before we do any manoeuvres. I can bring up the wedge with just the alpha ring after that, it won’t even hurt our accel much. > >
< < We’ll put our wedges in the way if they start anything sooner than that, > > Duo assured her. < < If they’re doing standard pirate tactics, they’ll want to get in close before showing their hand. > >
“Which is just fine by me,” Solo put in, “seeing as how we’ve got no torpedoes in the magazines yet. We need ‘em to come in close if we wanna take ‘em on with lasers and grasers. Or did you forget that bit?”
< < I forgot nothing, > > Duo said haughtily. < < I may have failed to bring it to mind immediately, but I didn’t forget. > >
< < There’s something else you might have failed to bring to mind, > > Hilde cut in. < < We’ve only got standard spares on board. All the specialty stuff is waiting for us at the Toolbox, along with the missiles. > >
< < So? > >
< < So, we’ve got no spare false hull plates, > > she explained patiently. < < And even if we had them on board, we don’t have any worksuits to install them with. Once we blow our plates to uncover our weaponry, we can’t go back under cover for the rest of the trip -- and our planned route takes us through the sector capital, and they will send a picket cruiser to look us over. > >
< < …Okay, I did forget that part, > > Duo admitted. < < Thoughts? > >
“We’re still taking them on if they try us,” Solo said definitely.
< < Hell yeah! > >
< < Duh. > >
“So running away without blowing the plates is not an option,” he continued. “The only reason we’ve been system-hopping the way we have is to check our navigational systems, and I for one haven’t found any problems. Have you?”
< < Nope, > > Duo shrugged, and Hilde shook her head.
“Then it’s simple. If we don’t take any significant damage in the fight, we just recalculate our route home to go all the way in hyper, without dropping out into realspace at all. If one of the ships takes enough damage to make that a bad idea, then we can reconsider… but I don’t think that’s likely.”
< < Sounds like a plan, > > Hilde agreed.
< < Done, > > Duo nodded. < < Now we just have to wait for them to come to the party. > >
Andreas Lopez leaned back in his seat, gazing happily at the plum prize displayed on the main screen. “I cannot believe our luck,” he almost crooned, tucking his hands behind his head and relaxing completely. “Three merchies, and one of them has a drive failure, so all three of them are sitting at rest -- inside the hyper limit! They can’t even try to run!”
“Sir,” his exec put in, “we’re not supposed to be hunting--”
“Yes, yes, I know,” Lopez snapped, waving one hand dismissively. “Do the standard scans, check for pickets and patrols and pass on the signal and all that first, of course! But once that’s taken care of, there’s nothing to stop us picking up this little tidbit. In fact, you could argue that we should, just to eliminate witnesses!”
“Yes, sir,” the officer said in a colourless voice, and Lopez resettled himself, annoyed at the puncturing of his good mood.
“Hail the merchies,” he snapped, flicking his fingers at his comms officer. “Give them some nice friendly chit-chat, find out what’s going on and reassure them that we’re nothing to worry about.”
< < You’d better talk to them, > > Duo sent, snickering. < < Hilde’s busy kicking her repair squads into high gear, and you know I’m not gonna manage anything even close to a poker face. > >
“No kidding,” Solo told him, rolling his eyes. “All right, but you owe me one. Put ‘em on my console screen, Bryan; no need for the rest of you to have to play patsy. Just don’t laugh out loud within pickup range.”
“Gotcha,” his comms officer said, flicking switches, and Solo’s console screen blinked as a new window opened, showing a neatly-groomed woman wearing tidy blue civilian shipknits.
< < Hello there, > > she said, smile colouring her voice but not reaching her eyes. < < This is the Pretty Pretty Princess, calling-- uh, the Hellscream? Is that right? > >
“That’s us,” Solo said easily, smiling back.
< < You’ve got kind of odd names, > > she pointed out after a few seconds of transmission delay. < < Hellscream, Forsaken, and-- how do you pronounce that last one? > >
“Lor’themar,” Solo supplied, mentally snickering at the false transponder data Duo had chosen for the trip. A lot of pirates had heard about the Deathscythe; his and Hilde’s new ships were still anonymous enough to go by their real data. “They’re all game references. I don’t suppose you play World of Warcraft?”
< < I’m afraid not. I think I’ve heard of it, though; is it fun? > >
“Yeah, but you don’t want me to spend three hours singing its praises to you,” he grinned. “Are you just passing through?”
< < We’re on charter, yes. It looks like your friend is having some drive trouble, though. Need a hand? > >
“Nah, they’re just tweaking some nodes,” he shrugged. “More time-consuming than anything, we’re going to be stuck in place for a while. Nothing to worry about, really.”
This time, the smile did reach her eyes. < < Oh, that’s good to hear. This isn’t a nice system to run into problems in. > >
“You’re right there,” he told her, feeling his own smile widen. “Well, we won’t keep you. Have a good trip!”
< < You too, > > she said sunnily, and in the moment before her transmission cut out he thought he saw her lips curl with contempt.
“Well, they think we’re sitting here all fat and happy,” he said after checking to make sure his own transmission had ended.
“Yup,” Bryan agreed. “And they just did something odd.”
“Flared their wedge strength type odd. They didn’t change acceleration or heading or anything, just… revved it up for a second.”
“Signalling?” Solo guessed. “That sort of flare would be detectable a long way out-system, and even into the lower hyper bands. If they’ve got friends on the way in, this could get sticky.”
“I dunno about that,” Bryan snorted. “Even without missiles, we’ve got a heavier weapon load than any pirate I ever heard of, and there’s three of us.”
“But there might be half a dozen of them,” Solo pointed out, then shrugged. “Oh well, we’ll find out. What’s their heading?”
“Cutting across the system parallel to the ecliptic, if you can call it an ecliptic when you’ve only got a couple of cinders and some dust to measure it by,” the nav officer told him, putting a diagram up on the main screen. “They’re going to pass well within laser and graser range, in-system of us; I’m guessing they chose that heading because it looks like they’re going towards the Tumult sector’s closest trading centres, and a stereotypical pirate course would put them out-system of us to box us in. If they do have friends on the way,” he finished, looking at the course plot with satisfaction, “they’re not waiting for them.”
“Even if we were really merchants, we’d have to be suspicious by now,” Duo pointed out, rolling his eyes. “They’ve got to be pulling the lowest acceleration ever seen in this system. It wouldn’t be plausible as their normal operating speed even if we hadn’t seen ‘em boosting way harder when they first hypered in.”
< < Ah, but we’re supposed to be fat, happy, and stupid, > > Solo replied. < < Didn’t you know that all pirates are handsome, dashing ne’er-do-wells with brilliant minds, cruelly wounded and driven to a life of derring-do by an uncaring society, and all merchant shippers are overweight sloppy idiots? Haven’t you seen the vids? > >
“Damn, I’d better start eating more junk food in that case, or I’ll blow our cover just by being this shape.”
< < Finished! > > Hilde crowed in triumph as her com window opened. < < And we’ve only got two beta nodes that’re still down. The twerps can start the party any time now. What’s keeping them? > >
“Best as I can figure, they don’t want to blow past us at a high relative velocity and then have to decelerate and come back,” Duo shrugged. “So instead they’re crawling along like the universe’s first hyper-capable snail.”
< < We could always start it ourselves… > >
“Impatient much? Let ‘em get in range, sheesh!”
< < I bet I can make them get into range faster, > > she grinned.
< < How? > > Solo asked, one eyebrow lifting.
< < All I’ve gotta do is bring up the wedge. If they think we’re about to get away, they’ve just about got to declare themselves, or else give up on us. > >
“And since they’ve already gone to the trouble of pussyfooting halfway across the system to reach us, that’s not likely,” Duo agreed. “Do it.”
“The third ship just brought up their wedge,” Lopez’s executive officer pointed out in his annoyingly flat, emotionless voice. “Looks like they finished tweaking their nodes.”
“I can see that, Bowman,” Lopez snarled. “Kick up our acceleration, and get that captain on the com.”
< < Hey there, Princess, > > the long-haired blond said cheerfully, popping up on screen. < < What’s up? > >
“Yeah, you know how we were talking before? About how this is a bad system to run into trouble?” the comms officer drawled. “So sorry for the inconvenience, but either you strike your wedges and stand by to be boarded, or we start shooting.”
< < Seriously? You’re pirates? With that ship name? > > the Hellscream’s captain scoffed.
“Ever heard of an alias? Yes, seriously,” she answered. “Now strike your wedges and--”
“Gunnery, fire a warning shot,” Lopez snapped impatiently. “You, whatever your name is, is this convincing enough?”
A single torpedo flashed out from the pirate ship’s chase tube, streaking ahead and exploding harmlessly some distance from the three civilian ships. On screen, the Hellscream’s captain leaned to one side, apparently studying a display.
< < Yeah, that’s a torpedo all right, > > he eventually admitted. < < Huh. Give us a minute, will ya? > >
The screen went blank as his transmission cut out, leaving both Lopez and the comms officer staring open-mouthed.
“Give him a-- Who does he think he’s dealing with?!” Lopez sputtered after a long moment. “Get him back!”
“They’re not answering.”
“I don’t give a shit if they’re not answering! Tell them if they don’t strike their wedges now, we’ll blow them to kingdom come!”
“They’re doing something,” Bowman announced, tapping keys to refine a scan. “Jettisoning cargo, maybe? There’s… debris…” His voice slowed and stopped, and his one visible eye narrowed.
“Gunnery, fire another--”
Alarms buzzed on the gunnery console, and the officer yelped in dismay. “They’re hitting us with targeting systems, radar and lidar-- they’ve got targeting systems? They’re armed?!”
“They just raised sidewalls!” somebody else shouted.
< < Hey there, Pretty Pretty Pirate Pricks, > > the blond man said cheerfully, reappearing on-screen. < < So sorry for the inconvenience, but like you said before, either you strike your wedge and surrender or we blow you full of holes. There’s three of us, there’s one of you, and I guarantee we’re faster and nastier than your incompetent asses. If you don’t believe me, consider this: My name is Solo Ramirez y Maxwell, and I think you’ve probably heard of my brother and I. > >
“Ramirez y Maxwell?” Lopez stuttered, staggered by the speed at which the tables had turned on him. “Wait-- I don’t--”
“Solo and Duo Ramirez y Maxwell,” Bowman told him, gazing calmly at the main screen. His hands had left his controls, dropping uselessly into his lap. “Co-captains of the Deathscythe.”
“Deathscythe… but, uh, that’s not…”
< < Ever heard of an alias? > > Solo grinned.
The three ships were spreading out, angling away from each other and moving to bracket the pirate ship at accelerations it couldn’t match. Gathering his wits, Lopez made a ‘cut’ gesture at his comms officer and turned to snarl at the helmsman.
“Flare the wedge,” he ordered. “Send the abort signal! Tell the other ships to stand off!”
“Don’t,” Bowman said, voice cold. There was a flechette gun in his hand now, aimed halfway between the captain and the helmsman. “Strike the wedge.”
“What the hell do you think you’re--”
The gun twitched to the right and spat a short burst, three darts, that slapped Lopez out of his chair and against the bulkhead with a sharp *hiss-crack*; then it swung back, aimed between the helmsman and the comms officer now.
“Strike the wedge,” Bowman repeated, almost gently. “And open the channel again.”
“Their wedge is down,” Cheng-yi reported, hunched tensely over his console.
“Aw man, you mean we don’t get to shoot them even once?” Duo mock-pouted.
“Guess not,” his comms officer commiserated. “They’re hailing us.”
“Stick ‘em up on screen.”
The com window that opened showed a slender man with mid-brown hair styled in a smooth fall that hid one of his green eyes, aiming a nasty little flechette gun at someone off-screen.
< < Hello there, > > he said calmly. < < We surrender. > >
“I just bet you do,” Duo grinned, leaning forwards. “Where’s the other guy? The one who was ordering warning shots and all that?”
< < I’m afraid Captain Lopez is permanently indisposed. > >
“Who indisposed him? You?”
< < Yes. > >
“Huh.” Duo studied the quiet-voiced man, frowning slightly as he tried to reconcile his actions with the many other pirates he’d encountered since he and Solo began their personal crusade. “So. I gather you’re planning to come quietly?”
< < Oh, yes, > > the man agreed. < < And quickly, please. I have some information that you need. > >
“Oh really? Do you also have a reason why I should believe a single damn thing you say, mister pirate?”
< < Yes. > > The green-eyed man smiled faintly. < < Reason one, I’ve locked down all the ship’s weapons and controls, so that nobody on board can shoot at you or run away. You have a clear field to come in and take over. Reason two, I can back up all my information with data from the computers. And reason three… I’m not actually a pirate. > >
The flechette gun stayed rock-steady as he raised his free hand to his mouth and poked two fingers inside, prodding at his tongue. After a moment he winced slightly and pulled his hand away, holding a thin sheet of something opaque and flesh-coloured; then he turned his head fully towards the com pickup and stuck out his tongue, displaying smeared-looking black lines and dots like a blurred bar code.
< < Oh fuck, > > somebody whimpered. < < Audubon Ballroom. We’re screwed. > >
* * * * *
Genetic slavery might be technically outlawed in virtually every star nation, but in practice many governments either actively participated in the slave trade or looked the other way as it went on around them. In Silesia, it was almost expected. Not all of the ‘customers’ were prosperous enough to deal directly with Mesa and the huge Manpower conglomerate, but smaller corporations bought and re-sold ‘designer’ slaves across all the sectors.
The larger star nations with stakes in the Silesian confederacy -- Manticore, Haven, and the Andermani Empire -- did their best to quash the trade, but they were often hamstrung by the treaties under which they operated. Slavers they captured usually had to be handed over to local governments for trial, and it wasn’t uncommon for one set to be encountered again soon after they’d been ‘sentenced’ and ‘imprisoned’, in a new ship and back at their old trade. As a result, what the slavers really feared wasn’t being captured by a warship; it was being found by the Audubon Ballroom.
Made up of escaped and freed slaves, the Ballroom were -- again, technically -- terrorists. The governments who ignored the slave trade opposed them; the governments who genuinely worked against it tended to find reasons not to arrest Ballroom agents. The display of a barcoded tongue was both their identification, and a combined threat and insult to anyone involved in the trade.
* * * * *
“Okay, we’ve got the full pirate crew disarmed and under lock and key in their own cargo hold,” Solo reported, checking his notes. “Mystery dude here was telling the truth about having the whole ship on lockdown; half of them were stuck in isolated compartments, trying to get the doors to open. A few had personal sidearms, but the worst damage anyone took was a minor suit puncture, and since we were operating in atmosphere they didn’t even decompress. We got to the bridge with him opening doors for us along the way, and I have never seen a pirate so happy to be captured as that bridge crew. They were shitting themselves. Anyway, he gave us the codes to take over, and the Pretty Pretty Prick is all ours now.”
< < Sweet, > > Duo said over the com, eyeing the ‘mystery dude’ now standing next to Solo’s console. < < Explanations now? Are you really from the Audubon Ballroom? I thought those bar codes were supposed to be neater. > >
“My father was a genetic slave,” the green-eyed man said calmly. “My mother was a Marine on the ship that freed him. The barcoding breaks down pretty fast if you don’t have somebody tweaking it in utero.”
< < Right. So what’s this fantastically important information you have for us? > >
“The Princess was the lead scout of a two-ship team escorting a slave ship to Breslau. Lopez didn’t manage to warn them off, so the slaver and its remaining escort should be arriving in-system in less than two hours. There are five hundred slaves on board, and if the crew think they’re in danger of being captured they’ll space them all to get rid of the evidence.”
Solo, Duo, and Hilde all stared at him. He stared back.
< < …Well, shit, > > Hilde said eventually. < < This is gonna take some strategy. > >
Duo sat back in his chair, feeling the comforting weight of Shinigami’s true-hand on one shoulder as the treecat snuggled close. “Damn,” he said mildly. “Okay, first of all, what’s your name? We can’t keep calling you ‘Mystery Dude’, and ‘Audubon Dude’ is just as bad.”
< < Trowa Barton. > >
“Trowa, huh. So you say you’ve got all the computer data and so on… can you give us a general idea of where these other ships are gonna come out of hyper?”
< < I can give you a fairly precise set of coordinates, yes. > >
“Cool. And how fast on the eject button are those assholes likely to be?” Duo persisted, thinking fast. “I mean, is it gonna be ‘well shit, there’s an armed ship we weren’t expecting, buh-bye’, or will they actually think about it for a few minutes?”
Trowa cocked his head, eyeing Duo thoughtfully. < < Most likely option two. The slaves represent a major investment for the seller, and the transport crew get a cut; they won’t get rid of them as long as they think they’ve got a chance to escape. They will make sure to eject them before another ship gets close enough to get visual scan records of them doing it, though. > >
“In that case,” Duo said, starting to grin nastily, “I think I have an idea.”
An hour and a half later, the three Q-ships were as ready as they were ever going to be. The Pretty Pretty Princess, or whatever warped version of her name she was being called now, had been sent to hide in-system, with a skeleton crew of Sweepers on board to pilot her and keep her old crew contained. The Deathscythe, Forsaken, and Hellscream were all positioned on the hyper boundary, spaced out around the area of space the slave ship and escorting pirate were expected to appear in, drifting silently with their wedges down and all their active systems quiet. Since the main plan was Duo’s, and he was going to be doing all the talking, Trowa had transferred over to the Deathscythe to wait with him.
“Think they’ll be on time?” Duo asked idly, kicking his feet up onto his console and watching the empty starscape on the main screen.
“I assume so,” Trowa said from his borrowed seat nearby. “The Princess always moved on to scout the next system before the Dirge and Guppy hypered in, but the Guppy’s captain has a reputation for punctuality.”
“Man, talk about a ridiculous set of ship names,” Duo snorted. Trowa raised an eyebrow at him, but didn’t otherwise comment.
“How’d you end up on board, anyway?” the long-haired captain asked after a pause. “I hadn’t exactly pictured the Audubon Ballroom as planting agents on random pirate ships, just on spec.”
“First, if I could ask…” Trowa’s voice trailed off for a moment, then he shrugged and turned to look straight at Duo. “While I do appreciate it, why are you all trusting me so fast?”
“Treecats,” Duo grinned, jerking one thumb at Shinigami, sprawled in his usual place across the back of his chair. The dark-furred ‘cat was suited up in his custom atmosphere suit, but didn’t have the helmet locked down yet; he blinked at Trowa, then yawned, displaying impressive fangs. “If you’d been lying, you’d have found out that they can do a damn good imitation of a buzzsaw.”
“Huh.” Trowa returned Shinigami’s gaze calmly, then smiled faintly at the treecat and turned back to Duo. “It wasn’t so random. We knew that the Princess and Dirge were regularly hired to escort slavers from a couple of the smaller trading companies, but our contact couldn’t get any information on the deliveries. I started out with a good fake background, worked my way up on a ship that has friendly relations with these two, then manufactured a couple of personality conflicts to explain my need to leave and transferred ships. Lopez was a little short on officers and had a tendency to demote people for disagreeing with him, so getting to be his executive officer didn’t take too long.”
“How long did all of that take you?”
Trowa’s shrug was almost imperceptible, shoulders moving only a few millimetres. “Nearly eight years.”
Duo winced. “Ouch. That’s a lotta work. Do we need to apologise for messing up your inside job?”
The smile was a little more obvious this time, nearly a smirk, and the Ballroom agent pulled a data chip out of one pocket. “No. With this--” he waved the chip “--I have all the past customer records from the deliveries the Princess escorted, plus a lot of useful financial data… and if I can get on board the Guppy during the transfer, I have a chance to get records from all their other deliveries.”
“We’d better make sure the transfer works then, hadn’t we?” Duo grinned.
There was a short pause, and then Duo sighed, letting his head drop back and arms dangle. “You know, if this was a vid show or a book or something, us finishing our conversation would be the signal for the bad guys to show up. Dramatic timing, that’s what this universe needs!”
“I’d settle for the ability to fast-forward through the boring bits,” Trowa replied, smile widening fractionally. “Starting with about five years’ worth of undercover work. There are too many people out there saying things like ‘at least it can’t get any worse’ and ‘what could possibly go wrong’ for me to be comfortable with dramatic timing in real life.”
“Ooh, good point,” Duo agreed. “Oh well. In the absence of a universal remote control with a fast-forward button… d’you play World of Warcraft?”
During delivery runs, the moment when the Dirge dropped out of hyper to enter a new system was simultaneously tense and boring. Boring, because they’d done it a thousand times before and the Pretty Pretty Princess had already sent the signal that meant there was nothing out of the ordinary waiting for them. Tense, because there was always the possibility that their scout had missed something.
I bet Lopez only feels the ‘boring’ part, the captain thought, eyes flicking from one readout to the next as the ship gradually picked up speed, heading in-system, and his crew members confirmed the initial scan results. No active emissions, no ship wedges showing up on the gravity scans, nothing to show that the Princess had messed up this time. He’s getting careless… escort runs aren’t exciting enough for him any more. Well, screw exciting; I want to live to get paid. I want to live to retire. A couple more runs and I’ll have enough saved to buy myself an annuity and a nice little estate… Schmitt keeps saying he’ll give me a discount if I buy the slaves to staff it through him--
Alarms went off on the tactical console, and a single red ship icon blinked into view on the main screen, frighteningly close. “Active emissions!” the tac officer blurted, hands flashing over his keyboard. “Targeting lidar-- weapons powering up--!”
We don’t have our sidewalls up yet! “Roll ship eighty degrees port!” the captain yelled, a heartbeat after the helmsman had started the manoeuvre on his own initiative. “Signal to Guppy, reverse course--”
Two more ship icons blinked onto the screen around the Dirge. One was positioned ‘up’ relative to the pirate ship’s new orientation, direct fire blocked by the roof of the Dirge’s wedge. The final ship--
“Skew ninety degrees down! They’re right behind--” He paled as he realised that would give the second ship a perfect shot, and corrected himself. “No, sixty degrees down! Sixty!”
The helmsman hesitated for a second, processing the amended order, and Forsaken’s lasers and grasers fired from only a few thousand kilometres away. It was practically point-blank by the standards of space battles, straight up the rear opening of the Dirge’s wedge in a perfect up-the-kilt broadside.
Robert Schmitt, captain of the Guppy, stared open-mouthed for a few precious seconds at the expanding fireball that was all that was left of his escort before swallowing hard and starting to bark orders.
“Reverse course, full emergency acceleration! Get us back over the hyper limit! And get IDs on those ships, if they’re pirates we can negotiate!” Even as he said it, though, he knew it was a futile hope. Pirates didn’t blow ships out of space before robbing them, which meant that his opponents were almost certainly some sort of military.
Hopefully some sort of military. He knew people in almost every sector of Silesian space, and he knew people who knew other people. Higher-ranked people. Military, he could wriggle out of--
“We’re being hailed,” his comms officer announced.
< < Hey there, Guppy, > > a hard voice said as the com window opened. A long-haired man was lounging in a station chair, cheek resting on one fist, legs sprawled casually and dark blue eyes glaring into the pickup. Behind him, some sort of dark-furred predator stretched and yawned. < < That was your warning. Strike your wedge and turn your cargo over to us, and we’ll let you keep your ship and leave unmolested. This is a one-time offer. Do anything else, and we will blast you out of existence the way we did your escort. If we see any indication that you’ve decompressed your holds or jettisoned your cargo, you’re all dead. > >
Schmitt swallowed again, automatically trying to bluff. “I don’t know what you’re--”
The young man -- he looked young, at least, which meant he could be anywhere from thirty to ninety T-years old in real life -- leaned forward, lips skinning back from his teeth in a humourless grin. < < You’re currently using the name Robert Schmitt. Your real name is Rupert Schmidt, > > he said, precisely enunciating the difference between alias and reality. < < You’ve been employed by HBT Transport for the past forty-five years. They’re a shell corporation, a cover for slave runners who buy their wares from Manpower at a discount and resell them in small groups or individually. Your current cargo is five hundred and twelve genetic slaves bound for sale on Breslau, and their lives are the only things standing between you and a face full of photons. Drop. Your. Wedge. Now! > >
“…How do I know you won’t just shoot us afterwards?” Schmitt/Schmidt asked weakly. He knows everything! He’s got the manifest! He knows my name!
< < My name is Duo Ramirez y Maxwell. This ship is the Deathscythe. If you know anything about me, you know that I keep my word, though admittedly I’m usually promising to hunt some asshole down, > > the young man said, almost amiably. < < You have my word that if you hand over your cargo, unharmed, we will let you go. You also have my word that if you don’t hand over your cargo, you’ll fry. And if you’re not sure whether or not I’ll keep that promise, > > he went on, waving one hand in a beckoning motion to one side of the screen, < < maybe you’ll believe this dude. > >
A tall, athletically slender man stepped into view, and Schmitt/Schmidt’s head snapped up, eyes narrowing in anger. “Bowman!” he began angrily. “You--”
‘Bowman’s expression didn’t change as he stuck out his tongue, and the slaver captain shrank back in his chair. “Oh, shit.”
< < Oh, yeah, > > Ramirez y Maxwell agreed, grinning nastily. < < The only thing he wants more than you dead is your cargo, alive and unharmed. If you give him option B, I promise to convince him to leave option A out. Do we have a deal? > >
“…You’ve got a deal,” Schmitt/Schmidt almost whispered. “Strike the wedge.”
Things moved fairly quickly after that. The three Q-ships had a pinnace and a cargo shuttle each, and all of them were pressed into service to bring the Guppy’s live cargo to safety. The Princess was already on its way back to take its share of the load, but things were still going to be tight; the Q-ships might look like merchanters externally, but in reality ninety percent of their cargo space was taken up by munitions stores and spare parts, and the Sweepers were understandably reluctant to let a flood of complete strangers into their living quarters.
Captain Maxwell-- Duo-- promised to deliver them all to somewhere safe, as quickly as possible, Trowa told himself. He was sitting next to the airlock in Deathscythe’s pinnace, biting one thumbnail as he watched the Guppy’s side swell in the forward viewscreen. He trusted my information… now I need to trust him. Them. All of them, he amended, changing the focus of his gaze to study the men and women sharing the pinnace with him in their reflections on the screen without seeming to look at them. They seem sincere…
A familiar face swam into focus behind him, and if he hadn’t been so used to concealing his emotions he would have jumped.
“You don’t look nervous,” Duo said casually, planting crossed arms on the back of Trowa’s seat and leaning over them, “but I think you are. We’ll get it done, don’t worry.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Pffft, like I was gonna stay out of the action! This is my plan, y’know, I’m gonna see it through and make sure you get back safe to the ’Scythe,” Duo snorted. “That asshole recognised you, so if you get spotted on board without backup you could be in deep shit.”
Trowa turned to look directly at him, and raised one eyebrow as he realised Duo had changed into the same plain, insignia-less grey shipknits he was wearing, similar to what the slaves would have been issued and the best camouflage they’d been able to devise on short notice. “…I don't think I’ll need the help,” he said eventually, “but I do appreciate it. Thank you.”
< < We’re about to dock, > > the pilot said over the intercom. < < If you’ve taken off your restraints, put ‘em back on until we’re stable. That means you, Duo. > >
“They know you so well,” Trowa murmured, turning back to the screen to watch the docking as Duo sat back with a grumble and buckled his straps.
The half-dozen Sweepers who’d volunteered for transport duty on the pinnace were wearing heavy-duty construction spacesuits; they were unpowered, but equivalent to light armour, and the laser cutters they were hefting were probably more threatening than actual weapons would have been. Flechette guns wouldn’t go straight through a bulkhead and depressurise a compartment, for one thing. Trowa hoped they all had the sense to aim towards the centre of the ship instead of outwards, if it came to a fight.
“The cutters are all detuned,” Duo muttered in his ear, barely audible over the clanks and thumps of the pinnace’s airlock latching into the ship’s grapples. “Broader focus and lower power. They won’t go through a wall on those settings, but they’ll take out anyone who isn’t in some sort of armour.”
How did he know I was worrying about that? Just a good guess? the Ballroom agent wondered, then dismissed the question as the warning light above the airlock flashed green.
The Sweepers stood first, lining up in front of the airlock and blocking Trowa and Duo from outside view; they moved over to the bulkhead beside the airlock door and waited for the right opportunity. The viewscreen flickered and changed to a helmet camera feed, and Trowa felt Duo shift impatiently beside him as the airlock opened to show the Guppy’s cargo hold.
There were maybe two hundred slaves already there, huddled against the far wall and watching the airlock -- and the bigger cargo airlock -- with expressions of suppressed fear and despair. They swayed backwards as the personnel airlock opened to admit the Deathscythe’s crew members, and a soft noise rose above the background sounds of feet on the deck, a low hopeless moan made up of scores of gasps and whimpers.
Bastards, Trowa thought, fists clenching for a moment before he got himself back under control. They didn’t even let them know what was happening-- let them think they were being spaced--
Duo’s hand touched his arm, patted his shoulder. “They’ll get theirs,” he whispered. “We’ve got their data, and we’re Sweepers; we can scan this ship in ways they don’t even know exist. Hell, we can bug this ship in ways they don’t know how to look for! They’ll make a few cosmetic modifications and change the transponder codes, and they’ll head out again thinking they’re anonymous, but any Sweeper ship that comes near them will know who they are. And then they’ll tell us,” he hissed, voice darkening. “We’ll find them again. We’ll get them when they’re running empty. No hostages to threaten. And like I told that asshole,” he went on quietly, dark eyes staring up at Trowa as the Ballroom agent turned to look at him, “this was a one-time offer. We won’t let them go next time.”
“Why do you care?” Trowa found himself asking, not sure why. “Why do you care this much?”
Duo’s expression was uncharacteristically serious as he answered. “We hate pirates. Slavers are just pirates who buy their victims instead of hunting them down.”
“Listen up, ladies and gentlemen!” the lead Sweeper bellowed, raising her faceplate. “We are not slavers. We are Sweepers, and this is a rescue. The calmer you are and the more you cooperate, the faster we can get you off this heap of junk!”
“Go Lexie,” Duo snickered, mercurial expression switching back to amusement. “She was the first Sweeper to sign up when we started hunting. Awesome lady.”
“Please line up and count off in groups of ten!” Lexie continued as the other Sweepers fanned out along the outer bulkhead, warily watching for threats. “This pinnace can carry ninety of you. There will be more shuttles. We will take you all. We promise.”
Bewildered and frightened, but used to obeying orders, the slaves shuffled forwards and began to arrange themselves into groups. Here and there, two or three of them held hands and clung together, determined to not be separated, grabbing friends to fill out their ten-count.
“What are you planning to do with them?” Trowa asked quietly, watching the screen. The Sweeper with the helmet camera was slowly panning back and forth across the crowd, pausing as his line of sight crossed each of the doors that led out of the hold.
“Dude, I have no fucking idea,” Duo admitted. “I was planning on taking them all with us to the Toolbox -- that’s our home base -- then ask you for suggestions. And them, of course,” he added, starting to crouch as the first groups tentatively approached the airlock. “At least some of them will have ideas on where they want to go.”
“Sounds good to me,” Trowa murmured. He combed his hair roughly backwards with both hands, parting it in the middle and letting it fall loosely on both sides, looking quite different to the way he had with half his face hidden behind one smooth wing.
“Move to the back of the cabin, sit down, and strap in,” Lexie was repeating as the slaves moved forward. “Twenty, thirty… move to the back of the cabin, sit down, and strap in.”
“Spotted a target?” Duo asked.
“Inventory terminal on the other side of the hold,” Trowa nodded, tucking his hair behind his ears. “It should have the accesses I need.”
The first slaves entered, looking around with frightened eyes, and checked for a moment as they saw Trowa and Duo. Duo waved, grinning, and Trowa lifted one finger to his lips in a ‘shhh’ gesture, then stuck out his tongue.
“Audubon Ballroom,” somebody whispered, and the slaves’ eyes widened.
Trowa stepped forwards, ducking slightly to keep his head below the average height of the slaves, and they parted to let him pass. “Audubon Ballroom,” the whisper ran down the line. “Ballroom. Let him through. Audubon Ballroom.” Duo followed, and the slaves flowed around them, hiding their movement, looking away or towards the airlock.
“Fifty, sixty,” Lexie counted as they passed, not reacting, though Trowa saw her eyes flick towards them and then away. “Move to the back of the cabin…”
They slid into the main crowd, and the whisper went with them. “Audubon Ballroom,” in hushed tones, rippling out to the edges of the crowd of slaves and then fading into silence. A few of the younger slaves, barely more than children, looked directly at them as they passed, but others turned away and nudged the starers, trading warning glances and faint shakes of the head. More whispers rose, “don’t look at them” and “keep your head down” -- and a slightly louder whisper from a stunningly beautiful young woman who looked straight past them.
“Wait a second,” she whispered, lips barely moving. “They’re bringing another rack in.”
They paused, turning around to face the airlock as if they were waiting their turn to line up, and the slaves shuffled around them, closing in and hiding their slightly too pale shipknits from view. A doorseal hissed behind them, then opened with a puff of air as pressures equalised, and the crowd eddied forwards as more slaves stumbled into the hold. The whispers started again as the door slammed.
“We’re being rescued.”
“Those two are Audubon Ballroom, don’t stare--”
Lexie’s voice rose behind them as they reached the inventory terminal. “Okay! This pinnace is full! There will be another shuttle at this airlock in a few minutes; it can take one hundred and ten of you! Please line up and count off so that you are ready to move as soon as it arrives!” She paused for a moment, then went on. “We are rescuing all of you. We promise. We will keep sending shuttles until you are all safe aboard! Make sure nobody gets left behind!”
“I think that was aimed at us,” Duo muttered, crouching down at the terminal next to Trowa. Slaves shuffled behind them again, clumping up to hide them from view.
“I think you’re right,” Trowa agreed, pulling a flat case the size of a playing card out of the breast of his shipknits. Wires and connecters spooled out as he tugged one side of it open, and he plugged them into the terminal’s chip slot.
“Nice setup,” Duo complimented him, eyeing the tiny display on the miniature tablet. “Guess we might not have to use mine,” he added, pulling a slightly larger case out of his own shipknits.
“You never know,” Trowa shrugged, thumb-typing commands onto the cramped input surface. “If this one is going to work at all, it’ll do it in about ten minutes. Give it… twelve, say? and if I’m not getting anywhere, we’ll try yours.”
“Do you have any weapons?” another voice asked quietly.
Trowa shot one quick glance over his shoulder, then continued typing; Duo turned to consider the speaker. It was the same female slave who’d warned them to pause while more slaves were driven into the hold, looking away from them as she watched the groups patiently lining up by the airlock. Her hair was in a braid even longer than Duo’s, a glossy golden rope trailing down her back nearly to her knees.
“We might have something,” Duo said cautiously. “Why?”
“They’re bringing the racks in by distance order,” she told them, voice almost inaudible but perfectly clear. “Closest to the hold first. Rack H should be next.” She paused, flicking a glance towards them and then away, a brief glimpse of ice blue eyes under strange feathery eyebrows. “There’s a collaborator in that rack, if they haven’t taken care of him already. Do you have a weapon I can borrow? I can manage without, but it might get noisy.”
“Um.” Duo boggled at her for a moment, then turned helplessly towards Trowa. “Tro? Thoughts?”
Not looking up from his screen, Trowa shrugged. “Knife any use to you?”
“Give her a knife.”
“If you say so, man,” Duo said doubtfully, sliding a thin blade out of his sleeve. The young woman took it without looking at him and vanished into the crowd with barely a ripple to show where she passed.
“Problem?” Trowa asked, voice pitched for Duo’s ears only.
“That is one scary lady, Tro, knife or no knife!” he hissed back, rolling his eyes. Trowa stifled a laugh, and kept typing.
Half an hour later, Duo’s homemade hacking setup was plugged into the chip slot and he was swearing quietly over the display. Trowa’s tablet had stripped the navigational system of all its information relating to past voyages, then choked on the more highly secured files that held client and financial data; Duo’s setup was chewing its way through the protections, but it was taking time. Possibly too much time.
“The second-to-last shuttle is loading now,” the blonde slave woman murmured, wandering ‘idly’ back past them. “We’re going to have to move.”
Duo ignored her, tapping icons and typing commands seemingly at random. Trowa was fairly sure some of what he was typing in was swear words, but they produced results, so he didn’t mention it. The slaves camouflaging them were sitting and standing around them in apparently idle groups, but there were no more being forced into the hold and repeated shuttle runs had thinned their numbers to the point where it was beginning to look odd for them to concentrate against that wall.
“Duo?” Trowa asked quietly, trying not to break his concentration.
“Nearly done,” Duo muttered, not pausing. “I-- ha! Suck on that, shitheads!”
“I think that’s a good sign,” Trowa said blandly, looking back at the woman.
“Downloading now,” Duo told him, turning the screen so he could see the scrolling file names. “Gonna take three more minutes if the progress bar can be believed, but it always lies. Call it five, then I’m unplugging even if it’s not finished.”
The blonde woman stared at him, expression unreadable, then seemed to come to some decision. “Will those files help?”
“Huh?” Distracted at last, Duo blinked up at her. “Help how?”
“Help stop all this,” she explained, gesture taking in the slave ship’s walls and the listening slaves clustered around them. He snorted.
“Lady, if these files are what we hope they are, a lot of the people doing ‘all this’ are gonna be screwed,” he told her, grinning nastily. “Massively screwed. Epically screwed, even.”
She nodded, ice-blue eyes cold. “Don’t unplug. We’ll stall,” she said shortly, and slid away towards the airlock where the next groups of slaves were lining up.
Duo watched her go, eyebrows at odd angles, then looked at Trowa. “Should we worry?”
“…Maybe,” Trowa agreed, eyes serious, then looked up at the slaves around them. Most were still pretending to watch the loading, but they were starting to glance back over their shoulders at the two strangers hiding in their midst. “Get ready to move,” he said quietly. “Pick your groups now so you can line up quickly once we’re done.”
“Okay,” one young man muttered, trading looks with his friends. “We’ll put you in our group and go in the middle, all right?”
“Thanks.” Trowa nodded to him, then turned back to Duo. “How’s that progress bar going?”
“Still chugging along--” Duo cut off as shouts and screams broke out among the groups already lined up. The slaves surrounding them were standing up, craning their necks to see, but if he ducked to squint past their legs he could see confused movement, somebody swinging punches, and a long golden braid whipping from side to side as its owner dodged. “Well, that’s one way to stall, I guess,” he muttered, hunching over the screen again and watching the progress bar inch across.
“What’s the holdup?” Solo asked, keeping his expression hard to hide any trace of worry. The current shuttle was late loading, and that left the Hellscream’s pinnace in a holding position, waiting its turn. Everything had gone smoothly so far, loads of slaves transferred efficiently and quickly to the three Q-ships and their newly captured prize, but having something go wrong made him feel like the other shoe was going to drop… especially since he knew where Duo was and what he was doing.
He didn’t have to go himself! he raged inwardly, waiting for the slaver captain’s reply. He didn’t have to send anyone! Barton’s from the Ballroom, people like that don’t need backup. And he couldn’t take Shini with him, so if anything happens I won’t know--
< < It’s not our fault! > > Schmitt insisted, visibly sweating. < < We got all the cargo into the hold, and that’s the end of our involvement as far as I’m concerned. Some of them are fighting and it’s up to your people to sort it out; none of us are going to go in there now, there’s no telling what they’ll do! > >
“Interesting how you avoid saying the word ‘slave’,” Solo said dryly, and watched the man flush dark red. “Whatever. Switch off, Bryan,” he added, and his comms officer cut the connection.
“We gonna do anything?” Bryan asked, and Solo lifted his hands in a helpless gesture. Behind him, Loki crooned gently and pressed his chin against his shoulder.
“I don’t see that we can do anything,” he admitted. “We can’t get the shuttle on a secure connection, can we?”
The comms officer chewed his lip and wiggled one flattened hand in a ‘maybe’ gesture. “Yes and no,” he said slowly. “We can scramble it, but we don’t know how good the bad guys’ decryption software is, and we can’t prevent them from overhearing us. Even a whisker laser won’t do the trick; a docked shuttle is way too small a target to hit without the ship it’s docked to being able to receive it as well.”
“About what I figured,” Solo sighed, letting his head drop back to nestle into Loki’s warm fur. “And we never thought a situation like this would come up, so we don’t have super secret spy code words or anything like that to use. What sort of code word could you use to mean ‘has my brother screwed up his infiltration mission’, anyway?”
“Done,” Duo whispered, yanking the connectors out of the chip slot and stuffing everything back into his shipknits. “Let’s get out of here before Rapunzel decides she needs to knife someone for a better diversion.”
The slaves who had already lined up had used the ‘distraction’ fight as an excuse to back away, pushing into the group still standing against the wall and thickening the camouflage around Trowa and Duo; now they surged forwards again, separating the combatants and pushing the blonde woman back. The group that had designated themselves as camouflage for the two interlopers pressed in around them, moving into the centre of the slaves waiting for the last flight, and one of them reached out and pulled the woman into their midst. She was breathing hard, eyes bright and lips curled in an excited smile, with a few wisps of hair escaping to stick to her cheeks and a bruise developing along her jaw.
“That was fun,” she announced brightly, and the young man who’d grabbed her snorted.
“Did he hurt you, Cat?”
“Of course not.”
“Fine. Did you hurt him?” he asked, rolling his eyes.
“Maybe.” ‘Cat’ cocked her head to one side, considering. “I’m pretty sure I cracked some of his ribs.”
“Well, we’ve got medical personnel on board,” Duo said dryly, keeping his head down. “Did he at least know why you were fighting?”
“Of course not!” She sniffed. “He’s stock standard V-line, he’s no good at acting.”
“Thank you for that,” Trowa said seriously, nodding to her. “I won’t know for sure until we can analyse the files we got, but I think we managed to download enough to be very useful.”
“Good,” she replied, eyes suddenly cold. “I might have had to hurt you otherwise.”
Duo eyed her nervously, shuffling away half a step, but Trowa just watched her calmly. “You could try,” he said, then held up a hand as her eyes lit up again. “Later. We don’t need to stall any more right now.”
“Okay, this shuttle is full!” one of the suited Sweepers declared, raising his voice to reach the back of the shrunken crowd. “A pinnace will dock in a few minutes, it will have room for all the rest of you. A couple of us are going to stay here to make sure you’re ready to go when it arrives,” he finished, pointedly looking straight at ‘Cat’ as he said that; she snickered under her breath, lowering her eyes demurely.
They waited in near-silence as the shuttle uncoupled and left; one of the two remaining Sweepers stayed near the airlock, laser cutter at the ready as she watched the doors on the other side of the hold, while the second walked along the waiting line, counting groups. After a moment he walked back, stopping at each group to count how many were in each. At the head of the line he paused to confer with his shipmate, then started back again, slower.
“--five, six, seven--”
“Wassup, Marco?” Duo asked, voice low but pitched to carry. The Sweeper managed not to do a visible double-take, and paused by their group, pretending to scan the empty hold.
“We’re short one,” he said under his breath. “All the earlier trips took multiples of ten, and we should have ninety-four left; ninety-two slaves, and you two. There’s only ninety-three. One’s missing.”
“Ah. That.” Duo rubbed his nose, eyeing ‘Cat’, who was smiling sweetly at nothing. “Nobody’s missing. I’m not sure exactly where he is, but he’s not missing.”
“Do we need to wait for him to get back or something?” Marco asked nervously. “’Cause I don’t really wanna hang around, y’know?”
“Nope. Dude is dead.”
“Oooookay then,” Marco said, slightly wide-eyed, and walked stiffly off to the end of the line.
“At least, I assume he’s dead,” Duo said to ‘Cat’. Her smile widened. “Where’d you put him?”
“Maintenance hatch,” she said blandly, indicating one corner of the hold with a slight movement of her chin. “Sealed nice and tight. They won’t find him until the next optics check cycle, which isn’t due for about a month.”
“Yeeeeuch,” he said, quietly but fervently, and her smile broadened even further.
“Aw man,” Duo said as soon as they boarded the pinnace for the last slave transfer. “I’m gonna get yelled at.”
“Why?” Trowa asked.
Duo jerked one thumb at the name and numbers emblazoned on the front bulkhead of the cabin. “This is the Hellscream’s pinnace, which means we’re going to my brother’s ship. He didn’t know I was going with you, but I bet he found out about five minutes after we boarded. He is not gonna be happy with me.” He snickered, clearly unrepentant. “It won’t last.”
“Brother?” ‘Cat’ asked sharply.
“Yup!” He flopped comfortably into a seat in the middle of one row, leaning back and ignoring the restraints. “Solo and Duo Ramirez y Maxwell-- man, I’m doing a lot of introductions today. My brother’s Solo, I’m Duo. Pleased to meet you.”
“So you’re not Audubon Ballroom,” she said, standing stiffly in the aisle.
“He is,” Duo clarified, pointing to Trowa as the agent sat next to him and started finger-combing his hair back into place. “We run a Q-ship, pirate hunting. Well, three Q-ships now, we’re starting our own little fleet,” he grinned. “We caught this pirate, and it turned out that Trowa was on board undercover, and he told us about the slave ship on the way, and, well. There you go. It’s not like we could just sail off and leave you guys once we knew about you.”
“…I guess that’s okay then,” she said, sitting down next to Trowa and buckling in.
“Hey, just because I’m not from the Ballroom doesn’t mean I’m not a good guy, Cat,” he protested. “That is your name, right? Cat?”
“My designation is C dash twenty-five A slash nineteen dash two slash six,” she said mechanically, and stuck out her tongue. The black lines of the bar code were stark against her flesh, much neater than Trowa’s corrupted inherited pattern. “I get called Cat sometimes.”
“…Ooookay,” Duo said warily. “Do you want to be called Cat?”
She looked blankly at him, seeming confused for the first time since they’d met. “I don’t understand. What’s that got to do with it?”
“Everything, now,” he shrugged, stretching his legs out. “You’re free. You can do what you want, and part of that involves picking what name you want to be called. I’m not going to call you by a bunch of numbers, because you’re a person, not a-- a spare part, or something like that,” he went on, remembering the faulty batch of tuners. “If you want to be called Cat, I’ll call you Cat. If you want to use a different name, I’ll call you that.”
The other slaves were listening intently as the last Sweepers filed on board and closed the hatch. The blonde slave woman -- ex-slave, now -- frowned slightly, biting her lip. “I don’t know yet,” she said after a pause. “I think… I’d like ‘Cat’ to be part of my name, but not all of it. It’ll do for now.”
“Cool. There are a lot of names and surnames that start with ‘cat’ or have it in there somewhere,” Duo said easily, buckling in as one of the Sweepers gave him a pointed look. “Catriona, or Catherine, or Ducati, or, um, Cato… hell, we’ll get you a book if you want.”
“I’ll think about it,” she said, and turned to Trowa in an obvious attempt to change the subject. “What line are you?”
“My mother is unmodified, from Erewhon,” he said easily. “My father is K-line. He took the name Trevor Barton -- Trevor, after a helpful officer on the ship who freed him, and Barton after a fictional archer he read about.”
“What do the lines mean?” Duo asked curiously. “That guy Cat was fighting was V-line, what’s that about?”
“V-line are designed as combat specialists,” Trowa explained. “K-line are personal servants and entertainers, acrobats and so on. C-line are sex slaves.”
Duo’s eyes widened and he looked back at Cat, who hadn’t apparently reacted.
“They’re also supposed to be the most submissive line,” Trowa added dryly, “but it’s fairly obvious that Mesa and Manpower haven’t got that part of the genetic design even close to right. A fairly high percentage of Audubon Ballroom action team members started out in a C-line batch, and at least half of them ran away and found us by themselves instead of being rescued by someone else.”
At that, Cat’s mouth curved up in a quiet, smug smile, and Duo swallowed hard, blinking to get his expression back under control. “Gotcha.”
“Where are we going?” Cat asked, still smiling to herself. “A Ballroom base? I’d be… interested in talking to someone there.”
I just bet you would, Duo thought. All the slaves seemed to be watching their conversation now, some openly, most surreptitiously, and he raised his voice slightly to carry. “We’re going to a Sweepers base, actually. From there, we can get transport to wherever you want to go -- Manticore, Haven, Andermani Empire, Beowulf, heck, we can call in someone official from the Solarian League if you want to move there, though they move slow as molasses and you’ll probably end up staying with us for a few months while they decide how to handle the request. I dunno where Trowa’s going after this, but hell, our main corporation is based around salvage and transport, so we can work it out. If you want to stay put for a while and think about it first, or stay put long-term even, we’re expanding and could probably find you a job with us,” he shrugged. You generally, as in all you ex-slaves, he added silently to himself, watching her. Not you personally, I hope, because holy crap are you one worrying person to have around, Cat-lady. And I am not going to say that out loud.
“I might be sticking around for a while, if you have space and facilities for one ex-undercover agent to take a break while my superiors decide what to do with me next,” Trowa sighed, slumping down in his seat and relaxing for the first time since Duo had seen him on screen, holding a gun on his supposed shipmates. “I have a lot of back pay coming to me, so I can definitely afford a proper holiday.”
“Dude, after this I don’t think any Sweeper’s going to take your money,” Duo told him, scrunching down comfortably and stretching his legs out as he watched the front viewscreen; on it, the Guppy was turning towards the hyper limit and accelerating frantically, gravity wedge distorting her outlines into a multicoloured smear. “Thanks to you, we captured one ship without firing a shot, took out a second without getting shot at, and pulled off what’s probably the neatest rescue ever. We’ve got bragging material for years now! You can have a free proper holiday, we’ll lose messages for you if they decide on your next mission too soon and you want to delay going back to work, and if you want to come on a few pirate-punching missions just to keep your hand in you’ll be welcome on the Deathscythe any time.”
“…I think I’d like that,” Trowa said, sounding a little surprised, and closed his eyes. By the time they docked with the Hellscream, he was sound asleep.
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