Afli: Pu City
The return trip to Afli had been refreshingly uneventful and Fell From The Top(...) sat happily in its rented hanger being refuelled as I prepared myself for the awakening of my unexpected passenger. The effects of the sedative shot I had given her would be wearing off in the next couple of hours, and I was debating how to handle the moment when she regained consciousness. I had changed out of my combat flight suit into the casual outfit I had worn to the bar in Kappa Fornacis, reasoning that it was neutral enough to not look like an official uniform, nor the stylised apparel festooned with garish gang logos that a typical slaver would wear. I also left my dart gun locked away in my stateroom. I doubted she would find the presence of an armed man in her room comforting when she finally awoke.
Now that we were safely docked in a Coriolis station whose rotation provided a comfortable 0.75g of artificial gravity, I had removed the acceleration strapping holding her down on the bed and I left the door to the guest quarters open, conscious that she would feel safer if it was obvious that she was not trapped in the room. I also sat as far away as I could from the cot and the door, so if she did decide to run, the slave would not have to fight her way past me. Though that was only a small concession, given that I could not allow her to actually leave the ship until I had identified who she was and whether she had family I would be able to reunite her with. The Clipper's external airlocks would only open for me or Laure, so my passenger would need my consent to disembark. As I waited at the desk opposite the bed, I used the terminal to order the restocking of my cannon ammunition and began typing a mission report to send to Senator Torval, confirming Duke Theriault's demise.
I was about to transmit the text and gun camera footage to Zemina when I heard the first signs of life from the bed.
"Umpf." The blonde woman moaned softly as she struggled to turn beneath the covers, still groggy from the midazolam. Her eyelids flickered, letting me see the irises for the first time, which were a rich jade green. Semi-conscious, she lay on her side facing me as her eyes fought a battle to open, her pale eyelashes rising for less than half a second before falling back down. She tried again and again, the period of time her eyes stayed open gradually getting longer as the somatic effects of the drug wore off. She looked at me for half a second without really seeing, her thought processes not yet quite up to the same speed as the sensory signals coming from her optic nerves. I didn't move or speak, waiting for her inevitable reaction. The next time her eyes opened, they didn't close and she bolted upright in surprise, drawing the sheets defensively around her, screaming in abject terror. Echoing in the confined space of the stateroom, it was the most terrifying, gut-wrenching noise I had ever heard from the mouth of a human being, but I sat impassively, motionless, trying not to react and waited until she ran out of breath. I knew that the first few seconds would be crucial if I was to stand any chance of gaining her trust. She flinched when I raised my open palms to show her I was unarmed. I felt a rush of sympathy for her, and fury towards the scum that had abused her so badly that the mere sight of a raised hand provoked such a fearful response. The young blonde woman panted, rapidly gulping in her breaths, her eyes fixed on my face, shrinking away from me towards the bulkhead at the side of her cot.
"My name is Aemon." I spoke softly and evenly, keeping my open palms raised in supplication and maintained eye contact with her, hoping to forge a connection between us. "I know you must be scared. I would be too. I'm not going to touch you. I'm not going to hurt you. Can you understand me?"
The petrified woman trembled, her knuckles white and her long, slender fingers grasping the bed sheet like the taloned claws of a raptor clutching its prey. Only her panicked gasps for breath broke the silence as I waited for her response. Eventually she gave me a single, curt nod in reply.
"Good." I smiled in encouragement, but her breathing was still rapid, her fight or flight instinct still aroused. "Are you hurt? Are you in pain?"
A shake of the head.
"Do you remember how you got here?"
"Your pod was damaged after it was abandoned by the ship you were travelling on. If I hadn't brought it aboard, you would have died." I thought it would be best for now if I left out the finer details of why the pod had been dumped overboard in the first place. "I didn't want that to happen. So here you are. What's your name?"
Her voice was stuttered hesitantly with fear and was so quiet to be barely audible, but she spoke Basic fluently, with just the merest hint of a Slavic accent characteristic of the independent colonies coreward of the Old Worlds. "A-a-are y-you my n-new m-master?"
It was my turn to shake my head.
"No. I'm your new friend. The only slaves on this ship are free ones." I smiled again, turning over my wrists to show her my timepiece - the slave collar I now wore as a combat drug dispenser. The woman's green eyes widened when she recognised the pod-like device strapped to my arm, her hands instinctively reaching for her throat, only now realising that her own collar was gone.
"What have you done to my collar?" Inexplicably, her voice carried an edge of anger as well as shock.
"Whatever's left of it is floating around a red dwarf a long way from here. You won't be needing it anymore." I reassured her, lowering my hands to rest them on my thighs. "What's your name? What should I call you?"
"Nothing!" The former slave burst into tears and threw herself face down onto the cot, sobbing as she pulled the covers around her head. "I'm nothing now."
"I'm sorry." I took off my watch and left it on the desk, belatedly understanding her reaction. It had been thoughtless of me to dispose of her slave collar when I had destroyed the damaged slave pod. It had been her only material possession and no doubt gave her as much a sense of identity as my own collar had during my time as Laure's slave. The fact that the kind of memories and associations she had with her collar must be unspeakably awful was beside the point. Even though I had meant well, I had unwittingly taken away the one thing that gave her a sense of self, even if that self was intolerably wretched. I knew better than to try to calm or comfort her. I would only do more damage if I remained in the room, so I left her to her internal grief, hoping that she would eventually calm down and be ready to talk more later. While it was doubtful that she'd forgive me in the short term, hunger and thirst would draw her out and force her to speak with me again. A meal of ship's rations would only be a small part of the reparations I would need to make for my unwitting crime against her, but it would certainly be a good start.
Minutes stretched into hours as I waited on the bridge, but I avoided entering her room to check on her, as I needed to make her want to come out from the relative safety and seclusion of her stateroom. It was almost twenty hours before her need for nourishment overrode her fear and anger.
"Master?" Her voice carried weakly down the main access corridor through the open hatch leading to the flight deck, where I sat in the commander's chair, watching ASTRA perform a routine maintenance diagnostic. I used the systems panel to activate the internal cameras and watch her first tentative steps as a free woman. I smiled when I noticed that she had accepted the offering of my timepiece as a surrogate replacement for her collar. The strap wasn't long enough for her to wear it around her neck, so she had it strapped to her right wrist, the pod looking massively oversized on her thin, bare forearm. She stroked the pod occasionally with her other hand, almost as if it were a reassuringly furry pet. "Master? Are you there?"
On the screen I saw her jerk nervously at the sound of my voice as I activated the intercom. "I'm on the bridge. Keep walking until you reach the end of the corridor. You can't miss it."
Hungry, thirsty and miserable, her steps were cautious and light, her eyes warily searching for hidden dangers. Her pretty face was distorted with terror, and I could almost read the thoughts churning behind her brow, wondering if I was luring her into a trap. She edged towards the flight deck, her sense of wonder gradually superseding her apprehension. I doubted that she had ever been given free access to a spaceship and certainly not one as refined and well-appointed as Fell From The Top(...). I deactivated the camera feed as she peeked around the open bulkhead hatch linking the flight deck to the rest of the ship. "Master?"
"Please, come in." I swivelled my seat to face her, giving her a welcoming smile. At ASTRA's request, I had returned the ship to the surface of the docking bay to allow the AI to calibrate the radar scanner using the flurry of incoming and outgoing traffic from the station. The view from the panoramic canopy left my guest awestruck. This wasn't the kind of vista that a slave more accustomed to travelling in a cramped cargo canister usually got to see. Captivated, she edged towards the window, amazed at just how busy the dock was, with ships of every size and configuration imaginable cruising in and out of the cavernous facility at the rate of ten ships per minute. "Quite a sight, isn't it?"
"Yes, master." She nodded, her mouth falling open as she tried to take it all in.
"I'm not your master." I reminded her. "You can call me Aemon."
"Yes, Master Aemon."
"No, just Aemon." I tried to keep the sound of irritation out of my voice. It would be a slow process to retrain her from making ingrained, subservient responses when I spoke to her. "You never did tell me your name. What is it?"
"Karina." I nodded to her in acknowledgement and stood slowly, not wanting to spook her. "How are you feeling now?"
"I'm hungry, Master Aemon."
"I am too. Let me show you where you can eat." I beckoned for her to follow me back into the access corridor. Karina waited until I was three steps ahead of her - well out of arm's reach - before walking behind me, anxiously stroking the timepiece on her wrist.
The ship's gallery contained a small table able to seat two diners, a combination IR/microwave oven and a pair of waist high freezer and refrigeration units, set beneath a carbon composite worktop that doubled as a preparation area. In the corner was a stainless steel sink and water boiler unit, with a small dishwasher tucked underneath. Running around the room at chin height were an array of recessed storage cupboards containing cutlery, crockery and assorted dried foods, spices, seasonings, herbs and infusions. The kitchen was well stocked and could feed two crew members for up to three months without needing to be resupplied. I indicated for Karina to take a seat at the table and opened the refrigerator, rummaging through the neatly-stacked, vacuum-packed plastic pots to find us something to eat and drink.
I opened a two litre bottle of lightly carbonated mineral water and poured her a glass, setting it on the table in front of her before selecting two microwaveable portions of synthetic beef and dauphinoise potatoes. I left the bottle next to her as she guzzled down glass after glass to quench her thirst, emptying nearly three quarters of the bottle while I selected a bottle of beer as I waited for our meals to be cooked.
"I'm not sure what kind of food you're used to, but you should like this. Nutritious, but not too rich. You can help yourself anytime you like. There's plenty of food on board." I told Karina, as she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, nodding to show she understood. "You don't talk much, do you?"
Karina seemed to shrink away from me, as if I'd given her a slap across the face, and shook her head. The microwave signalled that the steaks were ready with a single, loud high-pitched beep.
"That's okay. Conversation gets in the way of eating anyway." I transferred the contents of the two plastic pots to cerulean-rimmed bone china plates and passed one to Karina, along with a silver-plated knife and fork. We ate in silence until Karina finished her plate, picking it up in both hands and licking away the last droplets of cream sauce clinging to the ceramic. I would have to speak with her at some point about her table manners, but knew now wasn't the time. I pointed at her empty plate with my fork, chuckling and sliding the half-portion of potatoes and the quarter of the steak still on my plate across the table to her. I hadn't actually been that hungry and had only made myself a meal to give me the opportunity to strike up a conversation with her. "That good, huh? You can finish mine. Though you might want to pace yourself. No sense in making yourself sick."
Karina looked at me in disbelief, waiting almost a minute to check that I wasn't tricking her, before summarily demolishing what was left on my plate. I watched her carefully as she ate. She probably hadn't been fed in a few days and the way she gulped at her water suggested that she was badly dehydrated as well. I fetched a second bottle of water and opened it for her, sipping from my beer as she drained yet another glass dry. Karina ate and drank like she feared it would be her last chance for sustenance. I suspected she thought I was laying an elaborate and cruel trap, allowing her to taste a hint of freedom before locking her away again in a slave pod. When her both the plates were empty, she looked into my eyes expectantly, confused and not knowing what was she was supposed to do next. It was obvious from her body language that the sensation of not being told exactly what, how and when to do something was utterly alien to her. She seemed bewildered by the possibility that she could actually decide what to do next. Nonplussed, she fell back on the deeply ingrained responses drilled into her as a totally subservient, unthinking slave. "What do you want me to do now, Master Aemon?"
"What do you want to do, Karina?" I turned the question back at her, to see how she would react.
"Whatever would make you happy, master." Her response was automatic, saying only what she thought I wanted to hear.
"Interesting. Do you want to know what would make me happy, Karina?"
"Yes, Master Aemon." Her voice trembled slightly in trepidation, imagining the worst.
"To get you back to your family and homeworld. Where are you from, originally? Which world and system?"
"I... I don't know." Karina looked down at her empty plate, avoiding my eyes.
"You don't remember?"
"N-no." The hesitation implied that she did, but that it was a painful memory she wanted to avoid.
"What about your parents? Do you remember anything about them? Anything that could help me find them?" I didn't want to push her too hard, as she might withdraw if she got overwhelmed by traumatic memories of when she was first taken by the slavers. "There must be people out there who care about you and miss you. I want to find them for you."
"Why?" Karina's head was still down, the question asked with a hint of belligerence.
"Why?" I echoed, confused by her quiet hostility. "Karina, look at me. My parents died when I was nine years old. I was a slave for fifteen years. A different kind of slave, to be sure, but my family and home was taken from me, too. There's only one person left who cares for me, and if I try and see her, there's a good chance that I'll be killed on the orders of the woman I'm being forced to work for. I might have money and this ship, but I'm not free to do what I want. I'm still a slave to circumstance and more powerful people. I just have the illusion of freedom. But if I could find your family and the people who care about you, you could be truly free. It would mean a lot to me if I could do that for you. All I need to know is who to look for."
"There's no-one. They're dead. They're all dead." Karina's reply was a whisper and tears began to form in the corners of her eyes.
"I'm sorry. What happened?"
"They came from the sky. Bad men with knives and guns." Karina talked slowly, her voice emotionally detached from the memories as she recalled them, even as the tears began to run down her cheeks. "I tried to hide with Mummy, as Daddy had told me to. We heard the screams as the bad men broke into the habitat. We didn't make a sound, but they found us. Daddy was on the floor, blood all over his belly, and they made Mummy kneel in front of him. One of the bad men grabbed her hair and tried to use her mouth on him, as Daddy watched, but she bit him instead. The bad man got angry and shot her through the head. They left Daddy and everyone else who tried to fight them behind to die. Then they took me onto their ship, with the other children."
"Bastards." I snarled through gritted teeth. It was a story I'd heard before. Similar tales of slavers abducting whole villages in remote, independent colonies were fairly common. There had been reports on GalNet of two such incidents in the last year. The only thing the slavers left behind in the wake of the attacks were piles of corpses - the people who had fought and died trying to protect their families and homes - yet people still chose to live in these low security settlements. "When was this? How old were you?"
"I can't remember." Karina looked away, wiping her face with a dry napkin to soak up her tears.
"Your parents would have had to have moved there from another world. I could have your DNA cross-checked against missing persons reports associated with mass abductions - your grandparents or other relatives might be looking for you." I suggested. Karina shrugged her shoulders, as if she didn't think that there was much hope. "We should at least try."
"Yes, Master Aemon." Karina replied. I suspected she was agreeing just to shut me up.
"ASTRA can show you how to take a cheek swab for the DNA sample on the terminal in your room. And you might as well try and get some more rest. Once we start moving again, it could be a long trip."
"Sorry to interrupt, my lord." ASTRA interjected over the intercom, her breezy cadence not in the least contrite. "You have an incoming call from Governor Torval."
"I'll take it in my quarters, ASTRA." I was careful not to stand too quickly, so that Karina would have time to realise that the message from the ship AI wasn't some convoluted subterfuge to disguise an assault. She flinched anyway, but managed to suppress her instinct to recoil defensively away from unexpected movement. "Feel free to make yourself more to eat if you're still hungry. Just remember to put everything away in the dishwasher when you're done."
"Why does the ship call you 'my lord'?"
"Ah. ASTRA, you're setting a bad example for Karina." I admonished the AI, as I made my way to the door. "It's because of my rank in the Imperial Navy. But you don't need to worry about titles. Just call me Aemon."
I left Karina in the galley and retreated to the seclusion of my stateroom, locking the hatch behind me before taking a seat at the terminal. I received Laure's videocall, glad to see and hear from my wife, even if we were separated by over a hundred light years.
"Hello, Aemon." Laure's image flickered into life on the screen. This time her hair was a striking platinum blonde and she was wearing a sheer white lace dress that left very little to the imagination. "I hear your first assignment for Zemina went well."
"Better than expected. A Panther Clipper's a tough ship, but it didn't have much of a pilot. By the time Theriault realised I wasn't there to help him, it was too late."
"I'm not surprised. He bought his way through the Academy. Barely passed basic flight training. Used his family's wealth and status to jump straight from a Sidewinder into a Panther. His father gave him the rank. Never had to earn anything in his life. The thought that someone would attack him probably never occurred to him."
"Well, if he'd kept better company and not gotten involved with slavers, he'd still be breathing. I don't think too many people are going to miss him."
"Has Zemina sent you another assignment yet?"
"No, she's keeping me on standby for now. I'm staying put in Afli until I get word. Not that I need to worry about the docking fees. She wasn't kidding when she said that working for her would pay well. I got 750k for dealing with Theriault."
"Another few missions like that and I'd consider running the blockade at Adams and joining you on some independent agricultural world on the rim." Laure's smile faded. "It's not fair, Zemina keeping us apart like this."
"I don't like it either, but until I can prove to her I'm loyal to the Empire, we're just going to have to put up with it." I frowned myself, anticipating how Laure would respond to my next question. "In the meantime, I need a favour."
"Why do I sense that I'm not going to like this?" Laure narrowed her eyes in suspicion, trying to read my face.
"Theriault was carrying cargo when I intercepted him. Just before I destroyed his ship, he dumped some of it."
"Oh, no. Please tell me you didn't pick it up."
"Laure, I didn't have a choice. There were life signs from the pod. I couldn't just leave. They would have been fried by the radiation from the star in minutes."
"Aemon, you idiot!" Laure threw her hands into the air, despairing. "Why didn't you dock in Empire space and turn them over to the authorities?"
"I would have, but it wasn't a pod of Imperial Slaves."
"Aemon." I hadn't heard such a fierce disapproval in Laure's voice since I'd been a teenager. "Are you telling me that you've got a pod of unsanctioned slaves on your ship?"
"Of course not!" I snapped back defensively. "The pod was badly damaged in the explosion of Theriault's ship. There was only one survivor. Once I stabilised her, I dumped the pod and vaporised it."
"Her?!" Laure cried. The pitch of her voice could have shattered glass.
"Relax, Laure. She's not my type."
"Oh, right." Laure scoffed. "Because we both know how well you can resist a damsel in distress. Remember that incident with 'Michiko'?"
"You're never going to let me forget that, are you?"
"Not in this lifetime, buster."
"So she set up that incident in the bar. How was I to know that she was role-playing?"
"Perhaps the way she was wrapping her thighs around the hips of a total stranger, within quarter of an hour, in a cheap rented suite... maybe that might have tipped you off?" Laure pouted, her tone jealous, yet ironic.
"I just assumed she was very grateful." I rolled my eyes. The episode had occurred nearly twelve years ago in a notorious fleet bar on Cemiess, but Laure still took a perverse pleasure in reminding me about it, every chance she got.
"Well, your new passenger had better keep her 'gratitude' to herself." Laure warned. "Because if you fuck her, Zemina wanting to kill you will be the least of your problems!"
"Laure... don't be like that. Karina's harmless. I haven't been able to get her to talk much, but she told me about the slaver attack that killed her parents. I should have a DNA sample for you in the next few hours. Can you try and trace her family for me? And she'll need a cover identity set up for her in the meantime."
"Can't you just give her a few thousand credits and turn her loose?" Laure sounded reluctant to go to the trouble, even though I knew she had the authority to do it in minutes.
"No. She wouldn't last five minutes on her own. She must have been taken when she was very young. She'd be back in a slave collar or dead by the end of the day."
"You and your damned conscience." Laure shook her head, a wry smile on her face. Even though she resented the inconvenience of my request, Laure still respected and shared my moral principles. It was one of the reasons we made such a good couple. "I'll see what I can do."
"Thanks, Laure. I owe you one." I suppressed a sharp pang of longing as I watched her glance down at her keyboard and start typing in my data request, the redirection of her gaze drawing my own attention below the neckline of her dress. It had been too long since we had last been together and the uncertainty hanging over our future together, thanks to Zemina's enmity towards our marriage, was starting to take its toll. I would have given anything just to have been able to smell her perfume at that moment.
"What'll you do with her in the meantime?" Laure asked, still looking down at her terminal as she typed.
"I don't need a slave, but I could use a co-pilot. Flying the Clipper solo is much more demanding than the Courier. Having someone to run the power systems and nav console for me in the middle of a firefight would be useful."
"Provided that you can trust her not to turn off the shields once the missiles start flying. If she was enslaved early, she probably has PTSD. She might not react well under stress."
"Point. Maybe I should get her to observe first to see how she copes."
"I wouldn't even let her on the bridge. She's a liability. Imagine if she freaks out when you're in combat."
"I think I can deal with that. I gave her my watch, because she missed her collar. I'll just swap out the Glide capsules for a tranquiliser."
"It's your call, Aemon. But I'd keep her tucked away nice and safe in a cabin until we find some family member to take care of her. Once I've got the DNA sample, I'll get my people to track down the colony she was abducted from. Then it should be pretty easy to ID her parents." Laure finished tapping on her keyboard and looked back up at the camera on the top of her terminal's screen. "The false ID's ready. Transmitting now."
"Karina Dementyeva? Nice. Very subtle." I sighed, exasperated by the dark sense of humour in Laure's choice of surname for Karina's cover ID.
"What?" Laure suppressed a smile, her face a picture of bemused innocence. "That wasn't my first option, believe me..."
"I don't want to know."
"You really don't." Laure laughed. "I'll let you know when I have anything on the family. Stay safe out there, Aemon."
"I will. Love you."
"I love you, too. I'll be in touch."