Itaki Musing #3
Itaki was intently watching the vid screen while they both sat at a table at the Frame Shift Dive bar at Shoening Base in Shu Babassi. 'Appropriately named dump', thought Rena as she went over a passenger manifest on the hand held datapad. She had declined drinking, eating...or even touching anything as they had earlier entered this fine establishment. Itaki told Rena it was a great place. Pfft. The atmosphere converter on this base most definitely had stopped producing oxygen years ago, she thought to herself and giggled out loud.
“What's that?”, Itaki's immersion was broken by the giggle. “Are you going to stare at Patience Davis all day or are we going to deliver these passengers?”, Rena asked in an irritated tone. Davis was the manager of the controlling corporation of Mukai Silo at Okuapang. There had been a string of murders in that Fed system and nobody was claiming responsibility. Just another boring news report by Galnet and massaged for maximum Federation negativity by the local Imperial propaganda specialists here at Shu.
Itaki said, “Yeah, we'll go in a minute. Just have some …. Patience...get it? Patience?” He cracked himself up with his own pun. Rena thought to herself: Itaki, airlock, freak accident. Then smiled inside.
The newscast was practically accusing Manager Davis of the murders even though the victims were Federation citizens and she had no motive anyway. She was spearheading the investigation and well, the news was often confusing to Rena. She knew the Empire was always correct, always right. But she also was now spending time in Federation space and the people there were pretty much … well, similar to Imperials. Master Itaki , well he seemed very a-political except with regards to Felicia Winters. There was strong loyalty there.
“Ok, babe, I'm about done soaking up all that Patience eye candy...let's hit the road”, Itaki said just to get a rise out of her. She responded with a finger-down-the-throat gesture and handed him the data pad. “They are all prepaid. They want to see a beacon floating near a planet. And they want you to narrate some touristy stuff in your 'Captain's Voice.' “
“Alright, get em loaded and ready to go. I'll be there in a minute. Gotta use the men's room.” Rena exited the smelly bar which was adjacent to the flight-line for convenience and stepped onto the Clipper. Shortly after, passengers began making their way slowly up the escalator to the ship where Rena would greet them. She wore a stewardess outfit with a patch, “Clipper Space Adventures” embroidered on it. She sighed. It paid the bills.
Itaki walked into the bar's restroom and noticed how this place was possibly not the most inviting location. Perhaps it was time to step up his game now. Have a little class. Maybe she could help him with that. She'd been raised by the upper crust of Imperial society. Even if she was only a slave she still knew the finer things in life. He was just a pilot that made it through life by the skin of his teeth. What did this woman even think of him? Why was she his crew? He shook his head and continued his business. A voice behind him said, “Frank Itaki, glad to find you. You're kind of slippery.” Frank zipped up and turned around to find three men all pointing guns at him. The one in the middle said, “I'm Bill Slater, with Empire Internal Security. I'll be arresting you today for treason against the Empire. Would you like to see the warrant documents?”
Itaki took a swing at Slater, but three stun beams knocked him to the floor. Itaki later woke up with a screaming pain in his side and looking around found himself in a jail cell. “You feds don't know how to fight”, said one of the guards seated at a desk outside the cell. “Well, three against one...you know”, Itaki countered...he was worried that Rena was going to wait for him to show up then come looking for him. Dammit, if they'd just left a minute sooner they would both be in space right now. He wished he had a comm device. He was going to get an implant soon. That's all there was to it. At least she could be flying right now. He was feeling fearful for her safety. Wow, what was that all about? He couldn't really verbalize what that feeling was.
There was a scuffle outside. Some woman was kicking and yelling and oh my God, it was Rena. She was biting a guard's hand while he shoved her in the cell next to Itaki. He yelled at the guard, “Get your hands off her!” Rena heard Frank's voice and felt the shock at seeing him there helpless. As the guard locked Rena's cell door Bill Slater walked in the room and said, “Hey, two for the price of one.”
“Why is he here?”, she demanded , pointing to Itaki. Slater said, “Treason. As for you, you are just a slave reported as 'Lost'. You'll be returned to Slave Rehab Facility 26, according to this document. Would you like to read the document?” Slater extended the data pad in her direction. She gave him a nasty look. She felt terrible for her Master. Treason was a death sentence. They should have stayed in Federation space.
Itaki's stomach squirmed at the Slave Rehab Facility designator. He had heard of those places. “Re-integrate, rehabilitate...” It meant torture. He was an idiot. He should have never brought her into his way of living.
Slater announced, “Get some sleep. The transport ship arrives in 16 hours.” Itaki knew he he'd never be able to get to sleep. He just kept whispering apologies to Rena most of the night. He woke up hours later and looked over to her cell and she was gone. He stood up and yelled for the guards , demanding to know where she was. Slater entered the room , bleary eyed from his nap, saying that she had been routed for a different flight to a new facility, not that it was any of his business. “We hit your girlfriend with a tranquilizer dart this time. She bit my guard pretty bad the first time we took her into custody. You slept right through it! You didn't get to say bye bye...Awwww. Anyway, her transport orders are all in this document. You wanna see the document?” Slater laughed as he walked away.
The tiny bit of respect Itaki probably didn't really have for Slater evaporated and he feared for her. “Girlfriend? She wasn't his girlfriend.” Itaki wasn't sure what she was. It was complicated. He had to find her though.
“Yes, princess, the leg irons won't hurt after you break em in... “, the large imperial guard chuckled as he chained Rena to a post with many other slaves. The guard was a large slovenly brute probably a few IQ points short of 50 by her estimation. The room was dank, dark and clanked of metal walls and chains. About 20 slaves were chained to rusty vertical posts. While everyone tried to find their own piece of floor to sit on, people ended up sitting on other people. It was digusting. This was the Empire. Her Empire. In that moment, reality sucked her remaining loyalty to the crown out of a philsophical airlock. She was a nobody now. Tears fell and she had nowhere to turn for safety. Fate had her guided to ...somewhere …
“Rehab Facility 18, the flight should last approximately 10 hours”, she realized the intercom system had been activated. The pilot was making an announcement. “Once again I'd like to thank you all for flying Slaver Travel.” There was laughing in the cockpit, “Thank you for giving your all. “ More laughing then the intercom fell silent. One of the slaves cried out, “Not Rehab 18! Nooooo! I can't do 18!” He started slamming his head against the pole so a slaver tased him to unconsciousness. The woman who was half sitting on Rena just said, “18” over and over and over for a while, her body rocking back and forth, hysterical panic on her face. “What doesn't kill ya makes ya stronger,” yelled an old woman who then cackled insanely. A male slave looked at Rena with a serious expression and articulated, “They don't have a good...ummm...success rate..over there.”
“Help me, Frank. Please”, she whispered, eyes closed , terrified to her core.
“Federal, get up”, a soft spoken older male's voice said. Itaki opened his eyes. A distinguished man in his 60s stared at him for a moment. The man wore an Imperial Navy uniform with many medals and a gaggle of pins and insignia that didn't mean a whole lot to Frank. “Yes, you. Your jailer here says you are scheduled to go to Achenar for trial.” Itaki sighed and just gave the man a look.
“I'm not really a jailer, sir,”, Slater interjected. “I'm Internal Security and I have his travel docket right here. Would you like to see the documents?” Frank and the uniformed man both gave Slater a raised eyebrow look.
“I know, Slater. I'm General Leonard Roach. I run this base, you idiot.” “Pleasure, General”, Itaki said, “So what do you want? I'm sort of busy with my future death sentence and all.”
Roach pressed a button on the remote and Itaki's cell door clicked open. Slater pulled his weapon to the ready but Roach told him to lower it. “There's been a change in plans, Slater. I'm taking charge of this prisoner. There are new orders and you aren't privy to them.”
“This is highly irregular, sir. I have the docket right here. Would you like to see the document?” While Slater was arguing with Roach, Itaki cold cocked Slater, knocking him out. “That guy's annoying as hell”, Frank said rubbing his sore right fist.
Roach stood, arms crossed, silent while Itaki dispatched Slater. “So, you're not upset about my punching your jailer. Interesting. What are these new orders of yours? What do you want, Roach?”
Fidgeting slightly, he said, “Asylum.”
The giant hatch opened and sunlight poured in , along with dust and a new flavor of air. 'The dreaded Rehab 18', thought Rena. What was this going to look like, she wondered. Her stomach tied up in knots, the slavers unhooked them from the poles and prodded them off the ship toward a holding pen as if they were cattle. There were murmurs from the crowd. A cautioned excitement was growing. Slaves were saying, “This ain't 18” and “Hey, not 18!” They marched a few hundred yards into a pen with a wire fence. A slaver demonstrated it was an electric fence by pushing a slave into it causing him to convulse violently. It was painful to watch.The area was mountainous and semi-forested. Various camps had fires burning or smoldering for quite a ways in the distance. There were hundreds of slaves being held here.
Her heart was heavy. The view robbed one's spirit. This was not the Empire she had known. “This isn't my Empire”, she half whispered to herself. The helpful slave heard her and replied, “This isn't 18. This isn't Empire, period.”
“Where are we then. Who 'are' these people?”
“I don't know.” Nobody knew.
“Asylum”, Itaki repeated. “I want to defect from the Empire and bring my years of Imperial knowledge to the Federation”, Roach reflected.
“I have participated in many unwholesome operations, wars , and activities for which I have regret. I have gained a conscience , if you will. The Empire is corrupt through and through and I cannot do a thing to stop it … well, other than defecting.”
“Anyone can claim that. Why should I believe you? Why should I help you?”
“Because if you dont help me you will be on your way to Achenar to face trial and subsequent execution.”
“And if I 'do' help you? Then what? I get a bullet between the eyes for the trouble?”
Ignoring Itaki's sarcasm he replied,“I just need a pilot and a ship. I have a contact who is arranging for my departure from this station. They are getting the paperwork set up and arranging for my short 'visit' somewhere.”
Itaki sighed and said, “When do we go?”
He appeared barely 21 years of age, by Rena's appraisal, and much too articulate and spirited to be a slave of the lower castes. She had an intuition that was usually right. “I'm Rena”, she said. He introduced himself as Sellis, rejected slave on the open market, general labor experienced.
She said, “You're not open market. I doubt you've worked a day of real labor in your life.”
With a shocked look he stammered, not knowing for sure what to say. “Well, I am”, he finally said.
“I don't know why you're here, but you're not a slave”, she said, smiling at him, her eyes attempting to pull the truth from this young man.
“These people here are slaves. Or more precisely, bottom of the barrel people with nowhere to go, no hope, no spirit. Look at their faces. They are dead inside. You and I are far from that”, Rena explained.
“It's really sad”, Sellis agreed. “The princess wants to help them. Give them hope.”
“So she claims. I don't see her doing anything about it. Not one damn thing.”, Rena said flatly.
“The Princess DOES care!”, he said with a little too much passion.
“A slave wouldn't say that. A slave wouldn't care”, she said, with a sly smile.
“A reject wouldn't be talking politics with me either”, he said with some confidence, “most likely”, he added.
“I was a High Caste slave with the House of Blakeshire until an unfortunate turn of events, apparently I was placed on a missing slave's list and someone somewhere decided I was not worth rehab when they located me”, Rena explained.
“I work with Aisling Duval's special committee on slavery corruption. I'm on a mission here. Well, was, at least.”, Sellis admitted.
“So you're being monitored?”
“Like I said earlier, I have no idea where we are. The ship we were on must have been hijacked prior to launch. My teammates know where I was supposed to be headed. Had the whole place mapped out. I was going to spend a couple weeks gathering data after which they would extract me. And later Aisling's troops would shut it down. But I doubt anyone knows where I'm at now.”
“Great plan”, she said sarcastically. “Well, maybe it's time to change those mission parameters, eh?”, Rena said, beginning to think on her feet again.
“Parameters?”, he queried.
“Shush. See that hut over there? The razor wire is only a couple feet above it. What say we climb up on that barrel next to it, and take a leap over it from the roof?”,she said, conspiratorially.
“And the three guards?”, he asked.
“Ummmm, still thinking about that....”, she said.
What they didn't notice was the guard that was walking up behind them. “Boss needs woman”, was the simple phrase of the large, slow, lumbering man. He kicked Sellis in the head because he was in the way , then grabbed Rena by the hair and dragged her toward the hut. Rena yelled, kicked and screamed, feeling the pain.
Sellis felt helpless as his eyes met hers...he wished he could help. He wasn't in much of a position to be helpful at the moment, being tangled up in his own fear.
General Roach had a suitcase load of classified data chips concerning many Empire affairs which he felt would make a nice gift to the Federation. He'd been feeding them to his Federation contact one by one for months to make his intentions clear.
The stars moved swiftly by the port hole as Roach kept his weapon handy. They had tied and gagged Slater and thrown him in a cargo box to get him loaded onto the ship without incident. A deed needed to be done but Itaki wasn't going to be doing it. Roach knew it was too dangerous to leave Slater's body hanging around the Security Office at Shoening Base and he really hadn't had a body-hiding-contingency plan at that moment. And of course the first person they'd want to notify upon finding a body would be Roach and well, he needed some time to put a few light years between him and that hell hole. So they left a note, “Quick trip to the outpost, be back at 5ish. - Slater.”
Itaki was feverishly digging through Slater's datapad as he piloted the ship towards Baruai Shi where they were to meet with Roach's contact. As soon as he found the name of where Rena was to be taken he'd be rerouting the ship subtley in that direction with or without Roach's blessing. After all, Roach could not fly the ship.
Itaki's alternate plan was to get support from the Federal contact at Baruai Shi. Two Feds are better than one, he thought to himself. Roach couldn't really balk much about the small delay for a rescue mission.
The comms panel blinked an incoming message. It was Felicia Winters on a Federal Common Encryption channel. Itaki punched it up. Felicia's face resolved on the screen and she said, 'Whatcha doin?'
“Trying to find Rena. She was abducted. Well, supposed to be taken to slave rehab camp God knows where. I have a datapad but can't find the docket info. Oh yeah, I'm also dropping off some General who wants to defect.”
“General?”, Winters asked.
“Yes, Roach. Larry Roach, Lawrence Roach, I forget. He's in the passenger cabin with a prisoner”, Itaki said matter of factly.
“LEONARD ROACH!?”, Winters screamed, her face contorting wildy.
Itaki's eyes widened, “You know him?”
“Frank, DON'T TRUST THAT GUY! I guarantee he doesn't want to defect. He is playin' you big time. Seriously, I mean it. He is a menace.”
“Well, he has a suitcase of data chips with Empire secrets on it that he says he's going to turn over to the Federation as soon as we arrive at Baruai Shi.”
Winters tapped her chin thoughtfully and said, “I still don't like it. I don't like HIM. You be damned careful now, Itaki. Upload that data pad and I'll see if I can pull Rena's delivery order. Chop chop!”, she made a chopping gesture with her hands.
“Ok, I will. Thanks. Itaki out”. Jesus. Nice turn of events. What if Roach was an Empire hitman and his 'contact' was the potential victim? Really too late now as he turned the ship on final approach to Moon 5A. As the Clipper set down on a remote part of the moon, the comm panel beeped again. It was Winters. “Sorry, Frank nothing on that pad about Rena.”
“Thanks.”, Itaki said cutting her off in her goodbye pleasantries. He grabbed his weapon and stormed down the corridor in a fury. Roach was dragging Slater towards the airlock when Itaki yelled, “WAIT!” He has something I want.
“Where did they take Rena?”, he demanded from Slater. He yanked the gag away from his mouth. “I got something you need?”, Slater laughed at Itaki.
'That's right. It's all in this document right here.” Itaki holstered his weapon and said, “Want to see the document?” Boom, he punched slater in the head. And again and again. It's all right here in the document. Itaki wailed on Slater punching him over and over again. “WHERE IS SHE!?”
“I will beat you to DEATH, Slater!”
“Well, you're going to anyway..”, Slater barely managed.
“And then I will find your wife, children, friends, relatives...”
“18”, Slater said.
“She was scheduled for Rehab Facility 18,” Slater said.
“We don't have time for this”, Roach said.
Itaki was on the comms in a flash requesting coordinates for Facility 18. Winters said she would get back to him. Roach might have had that information but his data chips were a random conglomeration. This contact possibly could help also.
Roach and Itaki deployed the SRV with Slater bound and gagged in the back seat and headed out to a small compound. The vehicle was bouncing all over the place but they were greeted by a building with an open door. As they entered, the door closed automatically and the small warehouse room pressurized.
While the two men unloaded Roach's luggage, several Federation uniformed personnel appeared to greet them. One was Patience Davis of Mukai Silo in Okuapang. Itaki wasn't really prepared to see her in person. This was Roach's contact?
Roach chuckled and said, “I thought you were doing a murder investigation.”
“I thought you were running Shoening Base”, Patience said with a gentle smile. Roach handed the suitcase of data chips to one of the Fed personnel saying, “So how long before we get to Rhea?”
Patience produced a handgun and said, “You mean Achenar? With your treasonous friend there?”
The Federal associates all pointed weapons at the two men who were bewildered for a moment. Itaki was trying to put two and two together. Apparently Patience had lost confidence in the Federation or else had none to begin with. Maybe the Empire bought her off.
“I'd shoot you right now, if it was up to me, Roach”, Patience said with extreme prejudice.
“Patience, Patience. What happened? You're my friend. I've given you a ton of Empire intel.” The general was incredulous.
“ Roach, you fool. You betray the Empire!”
Definitely an Empire fruitcake, thought Itaki. They were outnumbered and now disarmed. It was becoming surreal.
“We're all going to Achenar and we need a pilot. Our last one had some Federal sympathy. I fixed that problem”, Patience said, patting her gun. Itaki got a sick feeling and figured he knew who was responsible for the homicides on Okuapang. He had to warn Felicia, somehow. The Federation had a spy.
“MOVE!”, she yelled. The physical attraction he once had for her in the newscast faded away. She was a bit of a bitch, he thought to himself. More of a psycho than Roach, though? He realized he had no handy allies. God this was complicating his search for Rena. He was going to space them all the first chance he had.
Itaki and Roach SRVed back to the Clipper ship at gunpoint. Slater was useless to Davis' plans so she abandoned him at the compound, still tied up... she turned off the atmosphere generator on the way out.
The Boss was a swarthy man in his 50s, with multiple scars on his face, he looked like he'd had a rough life. “Get busy”, he grunted, pointing down below. His 'desk' was made of several planks of wood resting on two rusted barrels. Under the desk was, well something she could have gone without seeing. She felt fear and anger at this current situation, but mostly anger. Self preservation began to take hold as she climbed under the desk, madly grasping at different ideas to avoid this mess. “Get busy!”, the Boss exclaimed again. “Uhh, yes, ummm, Master”, she replied, noticing how the board had been hastily sawed, leaving a spur. It came loose fairly easily and quickly so she jammed it into a most effective place. As she pushed and twisted it, it splintered causing even more injury. The Boss backed out of his chair, howling in pain and scrambling to get his gun unholstered.
Rena pushed herself back out from under the table, seeing the Boss trying to stop the bleeding and fumbling for his gun. She lunged at him as he unholstered the weapon and got a grip on it. He was much stronger than her … she was losing this battle … the muzzle was turning towards her now.
The door slammed hard during the scuffle. The Boss soon found himself fighting with two slaves. Sellis had appeared and was punching the Boss rather ineffectually. The door opened once more and a guard saw two slaves trying to beat on The Boss who was bleeding from...well, he was bleeding. He pointed his rifle at Sellis. Rena said, “Look out!” As the guard pulled his trigger Sellis leapt to the side, the bullet drilling right through the chest of the Boss, knocking him back against the wall.
The guard, wide eyed in horror at shooting his superior, hesitated... then noticed Sellis had dove behind some crates. He aimed his gun at the crates and opened fire. The fourth shot produced a scream. The last shot … dropped the guard, dead. Rena had been able to easily take the Boss' gun from his hand after the guard shot him.
Rena pushed down the bile in her stomach.. no time for emotions right now, she thought. Rushing to Sellis, he was already getting up...and was bleeding a few inches above the kneecap. “My God, are you alright?! Of course you're not alright.” She was mother-henning him while he was moving to take the dead guard's rifle. They both climbed out the back window, up to the roof and jumped over the very low hanging concertina wire. Two guards who had heard the weapons fire were running towards Rena and Sellis from the far end of the compound. There were several camps in the vicinity but off to the north was a forested area. They ran that way. Sellis' leg hurt like hell but it was manageable.
Enroute to Achenar, Itaki piloted the ship under the watchful eye of Patience Davis' henchmen. Itaki considered that Roach may not be all that terrible now that Patience was bringing him to Empire justice. Maybe Felicia was just being overprotective. After all, Roach was a general of the opposing faction. Then again he'd been feeding Imperial secrets to what he thought was legit Federation personnel. It was too much for his brain. Davis was a proven enemy of the Federation. Roach, it was debatable.
Itaki turned to the man pointing a gun at him and said, “I need a valid permit authorization to enter Achenar. I assume Roach has one.”
“I'll get the number from him. You stay here. Don't do anything funny.” Itaki gave the guard his innocent look, “Flying is serious business.” As the guard walked off, Itaki typed some text that appeared on a small screen.
A short while later Roach and two guards entered the cockpit. “He said he had to authorize via fingerprint,” the guard told Itaki.
“Right, fingerprint or retina scan. Roach, look at the scanner here. I haven't got all day”, Itaki ordered. Roach was bewildered by the retina scan reference. “Just put your head right head in front of the scanner, you idiot. God how did you make General?” Roach leaned down and looked at the small screen that Itaki had previously entered text onto and read the short simple message. Itaki let him have a few seconds at the screen then said, “Ok, I got it. Now get out of my cockpit, you filthy Imperial.” The guard backhanded Itaki and told him to calm down, then one guard walked Roach back to a passenger cabin where Davis was busy talking on comms to some unknown person. She looked up, pointed her gun at Roach and asked, “Do we have Achenar permit clearance?” He nodded to the affirmative. “Good”, she said, then kept on talking on her communication device.
Davis was in a heated argument on comms when she happened to look up at Roach. He had strapped himself into the harness. That was odd, she thought to herself. Why would he do that. Her subconscious began reaching to find her own harness, not fully aware... General Roach looked at his timepiece then quietly watched Patience Davis slam into a bulkhead.
Itaki had taken a quick detour, directing the ship at a nearby planet... at 50 times the speed of light. The Clipper's supercruise system detected imminent impact and slammed on the brakes. Those who were not strapped in didn't fare too well. He did a nice right roll after stopping to make sure everyone was mixed well.
Itaki helped Roach unhook the seatbelt harness and they rounded up Davis and her crew , stuffing them all into an escape pod. Roach hit the 'flush' button, watching the pod float away from the ship.
Roach laid down for a few minutes after the ordeal. He was getting too old for this. His stomach was not designed for space flight, or high G instant braking. Itaki was back on comms with Felicia. “Yes, we have the coordinates for Facility 18, Frank , but...”
“But what?”, Itaki demanded.
“My source says the ship got hijacked … We don't know where it is now. All I have is the last known coordinates. And well, that was 15 hours ago. I'm sorry, babe”, Felicia related, with a sad face. She uploaded the coordinates to him anyway.
“You still have the General?”, she queried. “Yes, he's throwing up around here, somewhere.”
Felicia got an intense look on her aging face, “Be careful, Frank. No, wait. Put Roach on comms, now!”
Itaki complied, walking down the corridor and bringing him back. “General Roach?”, she asked. He nodded. “This is Felicia Winters, Federation Shadow President. I expect your full cooperation with Itaki. He has something to take care of before I'll even consider your request. I'm sure you can help him somehow. You double-cross me and I guarantee you'll be floating in space without a helmet.”
“I'm well aware who you are, Madame President. You have my cooperation”, General Roach declared.
“I'll brainstorm some ideas, Frank”, she said.
“Yeah, I know. Itaki out.” He felt beaten down. No solutions. This went beyond piloting and well, he wasn't much good at anything else. Rena was slipping away from him.
“Dammit!”, Itaki cursed, slamming his fist on the flight console. “It's been too long. I could have scanned down the wake of her ship for only two or three hours at best.” He put his head in his hands, unable to think. He was afraid for her life.
“Three hours best for what? Scanning? Scanning what?”, Roach inquired.
“The wake scan. You can scan a ship's frame shift signature to trace its destination. You know, track it down. But the signal dissipates after a couple hours. A wake scanner is useless after that.”
“Maybe a Federation scanner only lasts 3 hours. I know Empire Navy ships can track up to 18 hours”, Roach bragged.
“No way”, Itaki countered.
“I saw it demonstrated 6 months ago. Some brainiac engineer tracked multiple ship signatures across multiple systems. The technology is a prototype. You can't just buy one at the market”, Roach said. “But I could get one. I know people.”
Itaki punched up Rena's last known coordinates prior to being hijacked. He showed Roach. “That's only 3 jumps from Shu Babassi”, Roach said. “Maybe there's a chance.”
“Yes but we're too far away, General”, Itaki pointed out. “We're 5 hours away from Shu.”
General Roach thoughtfully tugged on his chin, then said, “I might be able to pull some strings. Open a comm channel. I have a unique private encryption code. Someone at Shu owes me a favor.” He smiled at Itaki as the screen resolved into the face of an Imperial Officer.
“Yes, General. I'm launching a wing as we speak”, said the officer.
“Great. Thank you. Contact me when you have something. Praise to the Emperor!”
The officer rolled his eyes, “Yeah, right, Sir.”
Roach smiled, pressing the comm disconnect button.
“That's all I can do, Itaki. And my officer might need asylum too, after this. ”
“Thanks, I appreciate it. I think the Feds can take one more Imperial under their wing”, Itaki smiled. I'm setting a course for Shu, though. We're not just going to sit here and do nothing.”
They'd been running for a while now and it didn't seem that anyone was really chasing them anymore so they sat down. Sellis' leg was a bloody mess and Rena didnt know how to help him. It wasn't like a projectile weapon where you could just pull out a slug, it was an energy weapon that randomly cauterized what blood vessels it happened to hit. Vessels that needed to be supplying blood to the rest of his leg. It was looking bad.
It was evening now and visibility was nil. They had one rifle, one handgun , no flashlight, and the only clothes they had on were simple one piece brown gowns. A ghastly color, Rena thought to herself when she was first forced to wear it. It was quiet in this mountainous area. Trees were sparse and there wasn't really anywhere to hide. She heard an odd buzzing noise to the south and turned but it was gone. She lifted her handgun and gestured for Sellis to remain quiet. Dust on the ground began kicking up around them, Rena was not sure what really was going on.
They appeared on personal hovercraft. Guards, pirates, mercenaries, whatever they called themselves at the slave camp on this rock. A small transport craft lowered from the sky to the ground while the hovercraft solders kept Rena and Sellis at gunpoint. One of them shot the ground in front of Rena making her drop her gun. Sellis willingly released his weapon and raised his hands.
After securing Rena and Sellis in the transport craft, the pilot announced on the radio that they would be enroute back to the camp in a few minutes. He had to pee. The hovercraft warriors acknowledged and took off , whooping it up like the mostly drunken and toothless people they were.
The transport pilot engaged the thruster then felt a crunch. The ship wasn't moving. He gave it maximum thrust and it still was not moving. And what was that crunch? Rena felt the crunch as well. She and Sellis were locked in a tiny metal cell, more like a coffin with air holes. Sellis was losing consciousness. “Stay with me, Sellis”, she said, trying to keep him coherent.
The transport captain powered down the thrusters and opened the hatch, thinking maybe one of the large trees fell on the ship, pinning it down. What he saw were Imperial Navy personnel with guns trained on him. And an Imperial Cutter squashing his ship to the ground.
Navy personnel took the transport pilot into custody and the Cutter relocated a ways away. Navy people walked Rena and Sellis to the ship, then waited. Rena was exhausted so could have cared less at that point what was next as long as she was away from the pirates.
A pretty young woman with blue hair came down the ramp to greet them, along with several camera personnel, attendants and aides. “Sellis, I'm glad we found you!”, the blue-haired woman said, primping and taking a selfie with her data pad. Sellis saw the woman and immediately lowered himself to one knee saying, “Your Highness.” Then he passed out.
Sellis was whispering to a blond woman in her twenties, “How did you find us?”
“I had a beacon tab implanted in you night before last. I'm not losing my honey, just because you're reckless and have no common sense”, she said, smiling and ruffling his hair. Rena walked over to them, now looking better, cleaned up, in a white top and green trousers.
Sellis said, “Tilliana, this is Rena. Rena, Tilliana.” She's the director of our slavery expose' committee under the watchful eye of Princess Duval. They shook hands, “A pleasure”, Rena said, seeing Aisling Duval in an adjacent cabin doing a video interview talking about the evils of slavery.
“This camp is incredible”, Tilliana said, her eyes lighting up. “We wouldn't have found it without your tracking beacon. Our analysts have determined that this isn't even a slave camp. They actually eat people here. The slaves are food.”
Rena felt sick.
“Disgusting! How did they 'determine' that”, asked Sellis. “Well...I won't go into that, but Aisling, I mean, the Princess...is positively ecstatic. It's more ammunition for our human rights cause”, Tilliana said, happily.
Human rights. Federation people used that term frequently. Rena didn't understand the concept but nevertheless tried hard to wrap her head around it.
Rena could see a navy officer trying to get Aisling's attention while she blabbed at the camera, smiling and generally acting important. He was tapping his timepiece and she was waving him away. She loved the spotlight. She'd gone clothes shopping especially for an important news piece like this, making sure there was ample cleavage exposed as she looked important.
Rena poked her head into the corridor between the rooms and saw something small and dark rolling her way. It didn't look appropriate. An officer yelled, “GRENADE!” then dove on it, sacrificing his life right there on the spot. People screamed and Aisling got a concerned look on her face when the cameraman collapsed. Laser fire filled the corridor and Rena could now see Aisling standing by herself in a room full of navy corpses, screaming like a twit.
The firefight slowed so Rena dove across the corridor as low to the floor as she could and grabbed the poor terrified Princess and also an assault rifle. She found another rifle and shoved it into Aisling's hands saying, “When you see a bad guy, aim and pull the trigger. Or else we're gonna be their dinner tonite.” Aisling nodded, her eye make-up running with her tears.
Rena found another dead soldier and took his rifle and hand gun, arming both Tilliana and Sellis. “Can you run”, Rena asked him. He nodded affirmative. The corridor was strangely empty as they tip toed towards the exit ramp. Rena could smell smoke. The ship was burning. As the four of them exited the ship they saw several navy soldiers fending off the attack. The ship was now unusable. The front end had been mangled by explosives. There were not very many Imperials left defending them , either. Maybe three total. They'd won this battle. But Rena remembered seeing a lot of camps. There would be more. They'd be back.
“Negative on the wake scan, General. Not one signal. Sorry. I'm sure something will turn up”, the face on the comm screen said.
“Thanks, Bob”, Roach said.
The screen went blank. Itaki was out of options. In a defeated tone he said, “I guess I'll take you to Rhea, then?”
“I'm sorry, Frank”, the General consoled him. “I'm not in a hurry. If you have another idea to find her, let's do it.”
The comm panel lit up again. It was Felicia. Itaki looked at her on the screen. “She's gone, Felicia. I failed her.” A tear fell down his face.
“I'm really sorry, Frank and well, I hate to ask you for help right now but an important Imperial military ambassador is overdue after a recon visit to a possible rogue slaver world. It's about 3 jumps from you”, Winters said.
“We can take a look. Do you think Rena's there?”, he asked, hoping.
“It's roughly in the time frame of her events...and distance...it's possible. Really, I don't know. Check it out, Frank. We do nice things for the Empire...sometimes.” She smiled and the screen faded.
Itaki set the coordinates and made three jumps to the correct system, supercruising toward the destination that was three thousand light seconds away. He would scour every inch of the planet if he had to.
His voice comms opened on a Federal Navy encrypted voice channel. “India Tango Alpha, Three Seven Five, this is Alpha Leader, how copy?”
“Alpha Leader, you're five by five, so uhhh, what's up?”, Itaki replied.
“Fox Whiskey dispatched our wing to help you check out that slaver world. We'll go in and raise some hell if you like?”, the radio crackled.
“There's supposed to be civilians down there, one in particular I'm looking for..”
“Yes, the ambassador. I heard”, said Alpha Leader.
“Not just the ambassador. Verify all targets, ok?”
Itaki and the Federal wing of Fer De Lances dropped out of planetary glide mode and into atmospheric flight in the vicinity of the camps. “Shit, she could be anywhere”, he complained to Roach.
Roach was watching the scanner intently in the co-pilot's seat. Frank gave him the 5 minute tour of which blip meant what on the HUD.
“India Tango, Alpha Three, I have an emergency beacon for a Cutter about 20 clicks to the southwest. I'm enroute.”
“Copy that, Alpha Three. Ditto” Frank banked the ship to the right and boosted the ship towards the new destination. A growing plume of smoke made itself known as Itaki flew over it. It was the Cutter alright. Alpha Three set up a grid search pattern with the rest of the wing. It was becoming daylight on this hemisphere.
After grid searching for an hour, Itaki just hovered in the area of the smoldering Cutter. To the west he noticed movement, so he aimed the ship in the general direction and maxxed pips to his shields. Roach said , “I have four blips to the west.”
“Alpha Leader to all fighters, stand by we have a contact.”
“VERIFY VERIFY VERIFY”, Itaki yelled into the radio.
Somewhere behind Itaki's ship a missile whizzed into his shields, taking out half of a ring of his shields. “Shit!”, he swore.
“We have active fire! I repeat active fire!”, Alpha Leader buzzed on the radio.
“Verify targets!”, Itaki said, taking another missle shot on his six. One shield ring gone.
“My God, it's Rena!”, he yelled with joy. Holy hell, as well as Aisling Duval. He'd recognize that blue-haired freak anywhere.
“We have friendlies on foot on my 12 oclock. Friendlies in front of the Clipper. Hold your fire. Hold your fire!”
There were three women practically dragging one man towards the Clipper.
“Someone take out that asshole on my six. I'm deboarding”, Itaki yelled on the radio.
“Alpha Two copy, I'm on it.”
Frank lowered the gang plank and ran down to the four refugees. There was small arms fire ensuing and the remaining three Federal ships were firing large multicannon rounds tearing up the slavers.
Rena yelled, “Frank!!!!” when she saw him.
He helped them all board the ship, then squeezed Rena tight, tears streaming down his face. She hugged him tight.
Ground to air missiles were slamming all the ships now and Roach was yelling that they needed to get the hell out of there NOW!
Itaki climbed back into the cockpit and boosted out as his last shield ring disappeared.
The datapad came to life and it was Felicia's smiling face. On her personal encrypted channel. Rena closed the curtain by the window of their suite at Carter's Inheritance while Frank sat on a couch. It was a romantic hotspot on LP Draconis and they were both enjoying themselves on this little vacation.
“Felicia, some privacy, maybe? Please?”, Itaki begged, tongue in cheek. Rena snuggled in beside him and said, “Yes, Madame President, my Master needs private time with me.” She giggled.
“You need more Federal brainwashing, I see. We don't use the term, 'Master', here..Madame...maybe”, Felicia said waggling her hand ambiguously. They all laughed.
“Well, I hope Roach gives you something useful”, said Itaki.
“Oh, he has....”, Felicia said, slyly. As she spoke General Roach walked into camera view behind Felicia, putting his arms around her and giving her a kiss on the cheek.
Frank just about shit. “Oh my God!”, exclaimed Rena, covering her mouth in amazement.
“This is just between you and me, Frank...well, and Rena, of course. Leonard and I fell in love a while back and, well I'm tired of my loved ones up and disappearing...by assassination.”
Leonard Roach raised an eyebrow at the word 'assassination.'
“So if nobody knows about us, then nobody will be interested in taking him away from me.”
“Holy cow, Felicia. So what was all that stuff about him being scary and evil?”, Frank asked.
“Cover, Frank. I was transmitting those 'be careful' messages on common Fed encryption. The kind that Patience Davis would be listening to...the little bitch. I needed to make sure that nobody suspected any collusion. Politics are precarious, Frank. Never run for office.”, she smiled. “Lenny is a good man, aren't you?” He pretended to strangle her as a joke.
“So you knew about Patience being a spy?”
“She isn't a spy, really. She's Imperial. I think. She's a confusing and conflicted woman, but yes, Lenny and I and others suspected she was up to no good...well, for the Federation, at least. My honey and I kinda set her up to test her allegience”, said Winters. “We have her in custody, by the way.”
“Oh ok...oh hey, you should have seen your honey there just about flip out when he saw the Princess board the Clipper. It was comical. He was so afraid she'd know he was defecting or recognize him or report back and have him ...well, you know. I put a hat and sunglasses on him and made him work in the engine room on the way back”, Itaki laughed.
“I really doubt Aisling knows much of , or has interest in anything that isn't expressly Aisling related. I know for a fact she'd never take a selfie with me”, Felicia joked. “But that incident on the planet really shook her up. I'm sure she has that cannibal camp shut down by now. That's her crusade, anyway.”
“I think some good things came out of this ordeal, Frank. People hate governments, but you know, governments are just people. Sometimes we all need to work together, even if we wear uniforms that conflict with each other. You did a good job out there. You both did. That woman you have there is a commando! Stay away from the dive bars, ya hear?” The data pad disconnected the call.
Rena leaned over and kissed Frank on the lips. He realized he loved her.