“For God's sake!”, Itaki exclaimed, taking Rena's seat in the Viper's cockpit. “What's wrong?”, she asked, concerned about his displeasure. “We're almost out of fuel! We can't jump to the next sector! We're dead in space! Dead.”
“I told you to route for economy, keep an eye on the fuel gauge and I'd be right back from the toilet in a minute. Oh my God. This ship gets horrible mileage on a tank.”
A sly smile came over Rena's face, “Well, you did insist on the D rated frame shift drive, Sir. And told me to not bother buying a fuel scoop. You were 'in a hurry' ”, she said, making quotation marks in the air, for emphasis. Itaki shot her a nasty look. “Oh it's my fault now? The Fuel Rats don't even come out here, as far as I know”, he ranted.
“Um, Sir?”, Rena tried to calm him down. “We are so totally screwed, Rena! What are you smiling about?”
She put her hand over his and guided the stick to the left. The small ship dipped towards the orange star and the ship's pleasing voice said, “Fuel scooping.” Well, didn't he just feel like an ass right about then. “Sir, oh Master of my life, and Dangerous Pilot...”, she paused to feign gagging about that last title, “I bought a fuel scoop without your permission at the last station. You're welcome. You can whip me later.”
She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek and said, “The ship's getting hot.” He looked out the windshield, flipped the flight stick the other direction and the ship quickly veered away from the giant ball of fire, the reading on the HUD showing 78% heat. She walked off with a smug look on her face and it irritated him just a bit that she was probably becoming a better pilot than him. And she'd only been training in the cockpit for 3 months. Ugh, now he was going to have to apologize...to his slave. Yes, his slave.
Rena was an Imperial slave, born and bred. She knew exactly what was expected of her, her class, her position, her training. She knew how to serve and wanted to serve. She just didn't want to serve the haughty bores she'd been previously assigned to. All her life she'd been told that her ambition was best put to use by doing others' bidding but she had found a way to subtly put a twist on things. She had the natural ability to make others believe that her ideas were theirs. She didn't do this to manipulate people but just to level the playing field. Create a sense of fairness. And of course for self preservation.
As a young slave child Rena had had a run-in with a terrible disease. It infected her mind and soul. It had conflicted her because she knew what she was and was proud of what she was. But still the disease was there. The disease of knowledge. She'd accidently seen a piece of illegal Federation Propaganda. It explained why slavery was wrong and why all people should be free. Sure, she was versed in the orthodox Imperial belief. Slaves were cherished people. Loved. Owned. It was a beautiful thing. She felt that. She knew that. It was part of her core being.
But as of late she was feeling this slow burning suspicion that slavery was not as 'liberating' as the Empire had always claimed. And the Princess was spewing her 'vile hate' according to her Master, at that time. In his estimation, Princess Aisling Duval was just a bratty child who wanted change where no change was needed. Slavery was Good For The Empire, his oft-heard mantra, of which she'd memorized. But was it? Aisling didn't think so. Rena was beginning to have doubts.
She had a chance to give this topic more thought while she was traveling with her Master and sister slaves aboard a freighter destined for Achenar. They were all dressed in pretty white gowns that would probably be better classified as nighties and little wreaths of flowers on their heads. They were appropriately covered though during this relatively short ten jump flight. Rena peered into the mirror to check her makeup, seeing the faces of the other two girls as well, all of them doing last minute primping. They would be serving refreshments and fending off the inappropriate touches of the older male guests, most likely. Rena's skin was a nice light olive color, pretty, with high cheek bones, somewhere in her early thirties. The other two were pasty white girls a few years younger than her. They were sweet, loving, but shallow, in her opinion. Her family members, not something she could choose, really.
The captain of the ship was an older gentleman, and it was hard to tell if he was older than this ship or vice versa. Master had chartered this old tub at the last minute because the Courier was still getting a tune-up and the party was a spur of the moment thing. The captain had been announcing each jump just prior to that strange itchy feeling of the hyperspace drive coming upon them. Then of course this would be followed by a jolt.
Except, this time there was no announcement, just the jolt. Then another bigger jolt caused the ship to shimmy sideways and the girls screamed and scrambled to hold on to something that was bolted down. One of Rena's sister slaves ran into the adjoining room where Master was grooming his mustache. “Oh bother, Julie, what now? And why is this ship bouncing all over? I want to look good for the Countess!”, Master said, perturbed. He continued in vain to try to clip his mustache while the girl cowered at his feet.
A voice over the ship intercom said, “Ummm, sorry about the errr...turbulence...well.... we're under attack!” The captain's voice was not reassuring and the passengers continued bouncing around their quarters for another five minutes or so until Rena got the impression that they were entering the atmosphere of a planet. She managed to look out a port hole and saw red mesas appear and a colorful sky...the captain made another announcement, “Sorry folks but I think we're going to be boarded. If you have a suicide tablet, now might be a good time to take it.”
Rena looked into Master's room and saw Julie and Renee both on the floor crying with their arms clamped around Master, his face ashen and frozen in panic. Rena needed to do something, now! But didn't know what, so she ran down a corridor towards the cockpit holding onto door handles and equipment while the ship was being pounded with weapons fire.
She made it to the cockpit as the ship touched down on this desert planet. The Captain yelled into the radio, “Ok ok! The ship's on the ground. You have what you want. I'll get off and walk away! It's all yours.” Rena grabbed him by the arm and told him, “You're not giving up ! They aren't coming on board!” She said it like it was a fact. He said, “I'm just a freighter captain, honey...”, trailing off into fear.
Rena started blockading the airlock with furniture and other heavy equipment she could find. The Captain bellowed, “STOP! I'm not hanging around for these pirates. I'm jumping ship! Move that crap NOW!” Rena swung at him with a piece of steel pipe she found on the floor. He backed up and then took a look out the windshield for the pirates. A tiny hole went through the glass, puncturing the captain's eye and exiting the back of his head as a much larger bloody hole. His body slumped to the floor. The captain had flown his last flight. Rena witnessed it and almost started crying (or vomiting) but forced the emotions down while she wiggled the pipe into the airlock handle so the door wouldn't open.
She ran back down the corridor to check on the girls and Master. She knocked the pill bottle out of Julie's hand and yelled at them both. “We survive! We survive today! No arguments.” The crying girls nodded while Master was still paralyzed with fear. What a lousy excuse for a man, Rena thought to herself.
To hell with him, she dragged the girls back towards the cockpit and told them to lie down and be quiet. She scurried the rest of the way to the cockpit, found the headset and started calling for help. “Mayday, Mayday, Help ! This is uhhh, passenger flight ...shit I don't know....three imperial slave women are about to be kidnapped by pirates on some rotten planet with red mesas...ANYONE COPY??!! HELP!! HELP RIGHT NOW!!!”
She continued on the radio for another minute or so before hearing pounding at the airlock door..she kept repeating her radio message over and over, changing channels and pushing buttons that looked like comms stuff. The pounding got more intense and she could hear the pirates talking...They had managed to pry the door part way open and were trying to dislodge the bar she'd jammed in there.
They talked through the crack. “Open the door, little miss. Open it now. The boss doesn't like to wait. He also doesn't like causing any more damage than necessary. This IS profit, after all.” Rena motioned for the girls to not make a sound. “Hang on ok, sorry, everyone's dead except me. I think the airlock's broken. You shot us, you know”, she said, condescendingly. She covered her mouth and shut up. Being a smart ass was always getting her in trouble.
A meaner gravelly voice said, “There ain't no damage on this side. Open the door, bitch or we'll blast it open!” She kept stalling them with more excuses, she claimed she didnt know how to work it, the system was dead, whatever story she could think of. She grabbed the girls and motioned for them to hide. She hid too, armed with another metal rod she found.
The airlock breached, the door blowing in against a bulkhead and two thugs immediately disarmed Rena and dragged all three girls in their not-so-pristine nighties outside onto a hard dry playa. It was a hot day. The thug boss was standing there as the henchmen brought Rena before him. She saw the pirates' ship parked a few hundred yards behind him.
“YOU made me blow that door?”, he asked.
“It was all my doing, Sir. Those girls didn't do anything. They are innocent. Punish me. Only me.”, she pleaded, looking down to the ground. The boss ripped her nighty down in front and looked her exposed body over a bit while she covered herself.
“Well, I didn't expect to find three beauties like you on this garbage scow so that's a plus.” He made a sound like a chuckle. “On the other hand now I have to get that airlock fixed because of you.” He backhanded her, knocking her on her back. Rena felt pain and her lip started bleeding. “Maybe I should just....”
One of the other pirates said, “Boss, there's a lot of starboard damage, but we can paint over it easy enough. I killed some other guy in there too, probably one of these girls' Master or somethin.”
“Ok, said the boss, “load these bitches up in our ship and you can follow us in that tub till we get home. Let's get off this lousy planet. Pluggin' up my sinuses.” Rena felt a twinge of emotion from hearing the fate of her Master. Just a twinge though.
They all saw a flash of light and hit the ground as multiple pulse lasers turned what was left of the freighter into a mangled mess of scrap metal. The ship noisily buzzed them at high speed then did a sweet one hundred eighty degree roll and a high G climb. Rena grabbed the girls' hands and hastened them towards an outcropping of rocks to take cover. They ran as fast as they could.
More blasting was happening now as the pirates were standing up to chase down the girls. It was an Imperial Clipper overhead and it was laying down heavy pulse fire on the pirates' Python a ways away. The boss said, “We'll get those girls in a minute. To the SHIP. I'm gonna KILL that guy!”
The Clipper's pilot, with a grin, could see the pirates running to save their ship while the girls ran the other way. Good, he thought. He shoved the throttle to 100 %, hit the boosters and climbed to orbital cruise altitude. This Clipper was a little wonky to get used to and it sure as hell wasn't a Federal Assault Ship, but he could probably learn to like it.
Rena and the other girls rested against a pile of rocks as they watched the Python rise off the ground and with a loud howl head in the direction the Clipper went. She thought about her dead Master in the burning wreckage. It was no way to die, even if she thought he'd been a wuss. Human life had value. She wrapped her arms around her sister slaves and said, “Right now, we survive.” Renee asked, “What if the pirates come back?” Rena stood her ground, “We survive, right now” and looked Renee in the eyes with a fierceness of purpose.
Rena kept her arms around her sisters and told them to close their eyes when the dust storm kicked up and turned their skin, hair and gowns a dirt color. This wasn't exactly a vacation spot and smoke from the nearby burning wreckage was filling her nostrils. At least they were alive … for the moment. The future was uncertain. She didn't understand what was going on with the Clipper's attack. Maybe it was a case of pirates hating pirates.
After a short while, she heard it coming in from the East so Rena tried finding better cover for the girls but things to hide behind were lacking in this particular area. It was a big white ship approaching. That Clipper. She watched as it landed, the dust from the playa taking a while to clear. It was a man wearing a gray casual shirt and non-descript blue trousers. Light colored skin, mid forties, he waved them over...with his rifle.
Rena didn't know whether to move or not so the man jogged over, stopped in front of her and said, “Those pirates are 60 seconds out. You can stay here or go with me. I'll get you to safety if I can, but we have to go now.” She decided it was time to do something so said, “Ok.” They both grabbed the other two girls and ran with them to the Clipper and climbed aboard.
The pilot lifted off, retracted the landing gear and boosted for maximum altitude. While checking his instruments Rena walked into the cockpit area and said, “Hey, thank you”, mostly to get a feeling as to what his real intentions might be. She couldn't trust anyone at this point.
“Sure thing, I heard someone put out a crazy sounding distress call so I thought I'd check it out”, he said. “That was me”, Rena half smiled.
He'd been talking to her chest, she noticed so she said, “I'm up here, you know.” “Oh, yeah. Well, you're down there too. Her torn gown wasn't covering much anymore. Sorry, ummm, grab that shirt over there. “ He pointed towards a dirty, greasy shirt laying in a pile. Not too many homey touches had been done inside this ship. She looked around. It was a bit of a disaster.
“Itaki. Frank Itaki”, he extended his hand. She was buttoning up the disgusting shirt while shaking his hand. “I'm Rena from the House of ….well, what does it matter... my slave sisters are Julie and Renee.”
“Pleasure”, he said, as the ship established supercruise. “Just call me Itaki. Everyone else does. What happened down there? The usual pirating thing? I just took a stab at what to do. God, these pulse lasers obliterated that freighter of yours. The Python was a lot better shielded so , well...”
“My Master was on the freighter...”, she said quietly. “Oh, man, so sorry. I just assumed you were all out by then and...” He felt like crap.
“No, it wasn't your fault, the pirates killed him before you arrived.” A wave of relief came over him.
“Oh”, he said. “Well, I can take you to Achenar if you like, you'll be safe there. This area isn't the best neighborhood, really. Pirate activity is increasing so it's suicide to fly anything unarmed out here. Not your fault really ...”
“It was Master's fault. He was an idiot”, Rena said, without emotion. It was true. He didn't know much about space travel and had made a horrible assumption regarding their safety. “Achenar's fine....we're grateful for your help”, she added. She felt a bit more at ease with this Itaki flying. Hopefully he wasn't going to sell her and the other girls to the highest bidder somewhere.
A loud impact to the port thruster shield area alerted them to the pirates' return. “Damn, they must have been silent running for a while”, Itaki said. “I've been watching the sensors religiously.” Itaki rolled out the other direction and dropped chaff. He yelled, “Aquarius, flight assist off” and the ship's female computer voice responded, allowing the ship's inertia to keep it travelling in the same direction while he pitched up. The large ship creaked and groaned. It didnt like flipping over and didn't want to do it very fast.
The pirates countered his maneuver by dropping a heat sink and pitching up. Itaki finished turning the ship over and locked the the heat signature, blowing it to pieces....that was too easy....and, well it didn't look like a Python. The heat sink hand off had fooled his sensors. They were sensor invisible somewhere now. “Flight assist On and boost, Aquarius.” Aquarius complied with the request, the ship taking some time to come to a stop as the boosters lit up. The ship started moving forward once again when a missile slammed into the ship taking out another ring of the Clipper's shields.
Rena said, “What can I do? Can I help?” The pirates weren't on sensors. Where were they? Wait, they were on his six. Shit. He never had been very good with that inertial flip trick. Three more missiles and heavy beam laser fire took out Itaki's shields altogether and his hull integrity numbers started plummeting. He did a few rolls and reverse boost to buy some time. The Python zoomed by in front of them.
“Rana, Rena , whatever your name is, get back to the heat sink ejector bay!”
“Yes, Mas...uhhh...yes, ok.” She left the girls and ran down the hall looking for the ejector bay, found the door and went inside. She pressed a comm button. “I'm here, now what?” He heard her voice in his headset. “Ok I want you to open up Heat Sink Launcher 1's door.”
“It's open”, she said. The ship took a few more shots and Aquarius announced multiple ship modules beginning to malfunction.
“Alright, there's a crate with a yellow symbol on it. Open it. Take that dark green cube and shove it in the Launcher 1 slot.”
The day just didn't seem to be getting better. Her heart skipped a beat when she saw what it was. “I know what that symbol is, Itaki. Thank's a lot.”
“Don't worry, it's sealed. I've used 'em in the past. Totally safe. Either that or ...”
Yes, she knew. Rena picked up the cube and pushed it into the heat sink launcher slot and closed the door. “It's in. I'm probably dead now, you know.” She fought back a few tears.
“I won't let you die”, Itaki said flatly. “I won't let any of us die. Promise.” Itaki said, “Aquarius, Heat Sink #1 Launch, please.” Aquarius responded. Rena heard the launcher send the little green box into space. Itaki assigned 4 pips to engines and 2 to shields, ordered Aquarius to boost the ship, give max power to thrusters and prepared to engage frame shift drive. The Clipper was at 23% hull integrity. 22%. 20%.
He also pressed another button on a handheld remote that he'd removed from a green metal container.
The Clipper was traveling at 300+ KPS as the pirate Python beared down on them. But as they pursued Itaki they were unaware of the cold green cube with one flashing LED on it … that hit their windshield. Itaki pressed the button on his remote and about a nanosecond later the anti-ship fusion bomb disintegrated the pirate ship into a million bite sized pieces. The fireball increased exponentially at the same time the Python's mass lock on Itaki's ship disappeared. The frame shift drive's warp bubble engulfed the Clipper, stealing it away from normal space and the massive bright orange nuclear flame.
Rena woke up in a clean white room with what looked and sounded like medical equipment clicking and beeping. She was in a hospital bed plugged into hoses and monitors. A man and woman were talking. She recognized one voice.
The female said, “Itaki, you dumbass, you shoulda high waked. There's no mass lock effect then.”
“Sorry, it was only my first nuke, Felicia. I was a little stressed. I'm not a pro like you”, Itaki said with a tonuge-in-cheek defensiveness.
Rena saw her talking. God, it was that demon Felicia Winters, the Shadow President of the Federation. And Itaki was just standing there talking to her like she was a human being or something. It was incredible and surreal.
“Hey, she's awake”, Itaki told Felicia. “I want you to meet her. Rena, Felicia. Felicia, Rena.”
The two women exchange faux pleasantries then Rena looked at Itaki and asked, “I was exposed to radiation, right?”
The evil Federation woman said, “Yes, dear, you were, but Itaki contacted me immediately after the uhhh, detonation and we set up this rehab facility here at the outpost. I got the medical unit set up right away.”
“But there's no cure for radiation...is there?”, Rena half asked.
“Nonsense! Oh, well, normally not for slaves, I suppose. The Empire doesn't like to give its slaves a whole lot of information”, Felicia said. “Knowledge is verboten.”
“You've been here three days, Rena. The ill effects have been reversed. Fusion radiation half life is like 24 hours anyway”, Itaki reassured her.
“Yes, sure Itaki, if you can get treatment in the first few hours. But no worries. Everything's fine. You saved everyone's butt, Rena”, Felicia congratulated her. “Seems like he's always getting into some sort of trouble.”
“Are we on Achenar?”, Rena wanted to know.
“Oh my God no, child”, Felicia smiled. “I'd be shot on site.”
Itaki started laughing. “No we're on a small outpost along the Empire/Federation border. Don't worry, we're all safe. Ok?” Rena felt like this man had a genuine concern for her well being. He explained that he and the other slave girls had been released a day or so earlier and the girls were relaxing in a luxurious Fed accomodation.
Felicia leaned over and whispered in Rena's ear, “I think this dork kinda likes you”, pointing with her thumb over at Itaki. “He's been concerned about you since we kicked him out of his hospital bed.” Rena smiled then fell back asleep.
A couple days later.
Itaki was grunting while trying to fit a large pipe into a slot. The Clipper had taken serious damage but Felicia paid to have it rebuilt...pretty much from the ground up. She'd also given him a tongue lashing about wanting to fly an Imperial bird at all. He told her he needed to expand his horizons. Whatever.
The maintenance technician on the deck below yelled up to him that that pipe was was in place so Itaki clapped the dust off his hands and noticed someone standing in the airlock.
“Well, we are looking much better, aren't we?”, he said, pleasantly.
“Substantially.” Rena smiled. Itaki preferred the cleaned up version, the beautiful olive skin. She was wearing a much more conservative long gown with a big floppy hat.
“So what's next for the Rena Life Journey?”
“I don't know, but I owe you my freedom. It's weird to say that and I'm not even sure what freedom means or even if it's a good thing. But the federation people here keep saying it is.” Rena was still figuring things out.
“You'll find freedom opens up many new doors that were closed before”, Itaki waxed philosophical.
“It's sorta scary though. How do I even act? What do I do? I guess there's people on Rhea that will help me integrate into Federation society. But, Empire is in my bones. I dont know if I can make the change or even if I should try.”
He put his hands on her shoulders, gently. And it felt really good. “I'm here for you, Rena.” He turned to close up an electrical panel. “And I'm flying to Rhea in a few hours. Wanna go?”
“You need a crew?”, she asked.
“I try to keep my crew small, actually. Usually none. But you, well you have special nuclear skills I might need.” She rolled her eyes and smiled. “Oh, hey what are your sisters in slavery doing?”, Itaki asked.
“My sisters”, she said with emphasis, “are moving to some Federation planet. I doubt I'll ever see them again. There weren't really blood relatives anyway.” Itaki smiled.
“So, grab your suitcases, Ma'am.” That title unnerved her for a second.
“Ok...” She almost said, “Master.” This was going to be fun (and weird), she thought. And she wasn't really even sure what fun was. Or if she'd ever had any. But she was going to have some now.
Itaki walked into the cockpit, put on his headset and dialed in a comm channel. “Hi, Derek, yeah, this is Itaki.”
“Yeah what's up buddy?”, Derek's voice on the radio queried.
“Derek, you know all those pick up and delivery contracts I have?”
“No, Itaki! Come on ! I'm trying to run a business here! Goddammit!”
“They're all gonna expire in a few hours. I'm not running em.”
“You have a girlfriend or something, Frank?! Is that what's going on? You lame ass ….“, Derek prattled on and on about responsibility and such until Itaki closed the channel.