Chapter 4- The Moralist and The Prince

 

The three women entered Kayto’s office together, Asaga and Chigara taking in the sight of his quarters, impressed.

“Captain?” saluted Ava, ignoring Asaga and Chigara’s lack thereof with a frown.

“Come over here,” invited Kayto, gesturing at the seats at his desk.  “We may need to revise our plan to hit the pirate base.”  Pointing at the scans and intelligence from the Mining Union, Kayto let the three consult the new information for a moment before continuing.  “Looks like the pirates have been getting ready for our attack.  We’re not going to be able to catch these guys by surprise and it looks like they’re digging in for a fight.”

Ava bit her lip, pooling over several scans of the pirate base showing multiple high thermal signatures.  “This attack isn’t going to be easy, even with the help of our two Ryders.”  Gesturing, she pointed to several other scans.  “The pirate base is dug into one of the larger asteroids in the belt, looks like they’ve got multiple reinforced bulkheads and additional armoring; that facility can take a lot of pounding before cracking.  The asteroid belt also makes it a perfect place for an ambush; I’ll bet anything they’ve got Ryders and ships waiting to bounce us the moment we get into shooting range.”

“Don’t worry, Capt’n!” Asaga remained undaunted as ever.  “Those pirates are a bunch of stinkin’ cowards.  They’re used to picking on unarmed civilians and rag-tag freelancers.  They’re going to be shakin’ in their boots as soon as they see the Sunrider barreling straight towards them.”

“Very well armed cowards, Captain,” said Ava, crossing her arms at Asaga’s optimism.  “We should make sure Sunrider’s ready to take them on before we poke the hornet’s nest.  Chigara could probably help in that regard.”

Chigara nodded, having kept quiet until then, “Captain, I should be able to get your engineering bay and laboratories up and running within a day.  I’ll be able to use any ship funds you accrue to enhance your ship’s systems or those of the Ryders.”

Kayto nodded, pleased, “Thanks Chigara.  Then it’s just a matter of funding… I guess we’ll be doing a bit of freelancing ourselves then.”

“We’ve already got a potential contract,” offered Ava.  “Several Neutral Rim worlds in this area have offered a significant sum for the destruction of a PACT FTL communications spire in the next sector.  That spire is coordinating FTL communications for a substantial percentage of their fleet in most of the adjacent sectors.  Tactical data, deployment orders, everything gets routed through this spire.  If we were to take it down, it would slow down the PACT offensive, maybe even give some worlds a fighting chance.”

“I’m listening,” said Kayto, intrigued.

“Ordinarily, the spire would be protected by an entire fleet, but that’s where our luck turns,” Ava’s tone turned smug.  “Take a look at this…”

Calling up a news feed, Ava pushed the report under his nose.  “Ion Storm of the Century,” read Kayto aloud.

“The reserve fleet that was supposed to relieve the fleet guarding the spire was caught in the storm; they’ll be delayed by at least a day.  If we were to warp in now, that spire will have minimal defenses between the changing of the guard.  Captain, if we pull this off, we’ll slow the PACT advance down and collect a hefty reward,” finished Ava.

“Just a moment, Capt’n!  I got a job too!” cut in Asaga before Kayto could respond.  “There’s a whole network of some pretty nasty thugs who’ve been kidnapping girls and forcing them into the slave trade.  Word has it that some big trade’s going down between those thugs and a number of their clients from across the galaxy and my contacts got their hands on the coordinates where they’ll be meeting.  Capt’n, we’re talking hundreds of girls being sold into slavery at this trade alone!”

“These guys have anything to do with Cosette’s goons?” asked Kayto, revolted at the notion.

“Nah,” Asaga shook her head.  “Even they’ve got more class than this bunch.  At least Cosette’s people stick to murdering, thieving, and weapons smuggling.  I heard she likes to cut off some choice parts from any slave traders she comes across… Actually, she probably would have tried to at least harass them or something if we hadn’t scared her back to her nest,” said Asaga, almost guiltily.

“Human traffickers,” Ava shook her head in disgust.  “Human dignity doesn’t count for much out here, does it?”

“Listen,” Asaga continued, “If we warp to these coordinates in the Astral Expanse now, we can crash the sale and rescue those girls.  And if we get to rough up any of the buyers and sellers, that’ll just be icing on the cake.  We might even be able to shut the operation down for good!  My contact said the Tydarian government can’t do anything about the sale, but they’re willing to pay a pretty generous bounty on those sickos and for any of the girls we rescue.”

“Captain,” Ava protested, “as much as the trafficking of those girls pains our collective conscience, we’ve got a war to win against the PACT.  This opportunity for the operation against the communications spire won’t present itself again!”

“Well those slavers won’t stick around for a minute longer than they have to either!” retorted Asaga, “If we don’t go right away, we’ll miss our chance to take them down!  Sunrider’s the only ship with enough firepower to go in there and make things right; we can’t just abandon those girls!”

“Captain,” Ava’s eyes and voice were cold.  “This is a military vessel and we have a war to win.  Taking this communications spire down is clearly more important than arresting a bunch of low-life perverts.”

Kayto closed his eyes, thinking hard and weighing both options.  True, Ava’s plan was indeed a stroke of serendipity that had the potential to put a serious thorn in the PACT’s side for the foreseeable future, but Kayto wondered what their victory there would cost the hundreds of girls undoubtedly aboard the slave ships gathering in the Astral Expanse.  From what he had seen of the system, if the local authorities didn’t have the resources to protect their own shipping lanes, it was laughable to think they could mount a serious operation out in the adjacent sector.

“Captain, who knows how many lives might be saved if we took out that communications spire,” pressed Ava, mistaking his thought for indecision.

“That’s exactly right, Ava,” said Kayto gently.  “We don’t know how many lives can be saved if we take down that PACT spire.  But we do know how many lives will be lost if we don’t act on the information Asaga’s contact brought her.”

“Captain…” Ava’s tone wavered slightly, but she continued to look defiant.  “You’re too soft; saving those girls won’t win us the war.”

“No,” agreed Kayto.  “But if we lose our humanity to win this war, we’ll be no better than the PACT.  We’re the only help that’s coming for those girls and I won’t doom them to a life of misery and abuse at the hands of those slavers.  You have your orders, First Officer.  Make ready to disengage from dock and prepare our ship for warp to the Astral Expanse.”

Ava’s head dropped, hiding her face behind her bangs.  “Aye, Captain,” she said with a salute, barely suppressed anger choking her voice slightly.

“You two,” Kayto addressed Chigara and Asaga, “Do a systems check on your Ryders and make sure they’re one hundred percent.  We’re going to get hit hard by those goons; make sure you hit them back twice as hard.”

“Roger that, Capt’n!” whooped Asaga, giving him a salute.

Beside her, Chigara gave Ava a look of concern out of the corner of her eye, but broke into a cautious smile all the same as she raised her hand in a salute as well.

“Dismissed.”

******

As Chigara and Asaga left the office, Ava remained, feet planted firmly on the floor.

“Was there something else, Ava?” asked Kayto as the door closed.

“Permission to speak freely, Captain,” requested Ava stiffly.

“Always,” answered Kayto with a gesture.

“What the hell are you thinking Kayto!?” she demanded, angry red blotches rising on her cheeks.  “Stop a bunch of slavers over hitting the PACT back?  Are you out of your mind?  What about our mission!?”  Ava slammed a fist down on the desk.  “Damn it, I knew you were too soft!”

“Ava,” Kayto’s voice was quiet, gentle.  “I know exactly how you feel, but we have to do what’s right… the PACT will be there another day, but these girls won’t unless we intervene.”

“What about our duty?” Ava looked up at him, eyes moist with emotion.  “What about our duty to Cera?  Doesn’t their sacrifice mean anything to you?”

Kayto shook his head sadly, “Letting these women lose their dignity as human beings won’t bring the people we lost on Cera back.  We have a duty to protect civilians, whether they’re from Cera, Tydaria, or anywhere else in the galaxy.  We can’t just turn our backs because they’re not from our homeworld.”

Ava remained hunched over his desk, her chestnut hair hiding her face from view.  Walking to her side, Kayto made to put his hands on her shoulders.  “Ava…”

“DON’T!”

Kayto pulled his hands back as though burned, Ava’s voice a slap in his face.

Straightening, Ava’s eyes were steely and her jaw set.  “Permission to return to the CIC and chart a course to the Astral Expanse?” she asked with a stiff salute, staring dead ahead.

“Granted,” sighed Kayto as Ava turned on her heel and stormed out without waiting for an answer.

******

The Astral Expanse was a general term given to a vast region within the Neutral Rim.  Devoid of useful planets, the Expanse had been unclaimed by any emerging galactic or Neutral Rim powers.  Between the barren worlds and gas nebulae, however, many of the galaxy’s less savory elements had found a sanctuary.  Far from the prying eyes and hands of law enforcement, the Astral Expanse was a lawless frontier, even by the standards of the Neutral Rim.

“Prepare to transition to normal space,” ordered Kayto from his command station.  “Drop us out of warp inside the nebula here,” he specified, tapping a gas formation on the starmap.

“Aye, Captain,” answered Ava, nothing besides the merest hint of stiffness betraying their private conversation.  “Disengage warp on my mark… mark!”

Chewing the end of his stylus, Kayto watched the main screen activate as Sunrider arrived at the specified location just shy of the coordinates Asaga’s contact had provided.  Far away from any star system, the gas cloud was a cold, desolate place, lit with an even, ambient glow from the night sky all around.  The nearest stars bright like gems, the nebula was undeniably beautiful, serenading the bridge as delicate whorls of interstellar hydrogen and helium wafted aside in the wake of Sunrider’s arrival.  Within the nebula, any of the scanners pointed suspiciously in the direction of Sunrider’s arrival would be hard pressed to identify the vessel as military, potentially giving them the opportunity to do a few scans of their own before crashing the sale.

“Captain, multiple ships detected,” announced Ava.  “Scanners are resolving now.  It looks like the slavers have one main mothership; scans indicate it’s a heavily modified Imperial battleship.  We’ve also got a number of other contacts; four ships I’m reading as destroyer hulls; they’ve also got multiple Ryders on patrol.”

Kayto eyed the tactical screen thoughtfully.  The four destroyers were likely the clients, purchasing slaves wholesale from the battleship, although judging from the way the ships had arrayed themselves, only a single destroyer had concluded negotiations, having docked with the battleship to effect a transfer of slaves and money.  It was impossible to tell which ships the Ryders were based out of, but, likely, the slavers were watching each other as closely as they were any possible intruders.  The whole set up was a well protected operation, but, if they were careful and crafty enough, Sunrider and her two Ryder escorts would probably have enough firepower to gain the upper hand… probably.  “Engines at half-power, bring us towards the slavers.  Get ready to launch our Ryders on my order; we’re only going to get one shot at this,” ordered Kayto.

“Captain, we’re being hailed,” reported Ava.

“Is the avatar ready?” asked Kayto; Ava nodded.  “Good, let’s chat then, shall we?  Respond on an open channel.”

The slavers’ representative materialized on the bridge, an uncouth looking man clinking with all the manner of expensively tasteless jewelry.  His face a study in suspicion, the man’s bulging, steroid fueled muscles rippled as he lugged a gigantic rifle one handed.  “Y’all had better give my boys a reason not to blow your ship out of the sky, shit-for-brains.  This ain’t the place to be doin’ any sightseein’.”

“Relax, ass hole,” said Kayto with a chuckle.  “We just heard you boys were selling some quality merchandise… the kind of merchandise that might fetch a high price with some of our clients, see?”  Smiling, Kayto could only imagine what the slavers were seeing and hearing on the other end.  His audio signal would be rearranged through a series of filters and modulators before being transmitted to the slavers, hopefully achieving a level of rudeness and lack of grammar that would impress even the lowest criminality.  As far as his visual avatar, he and Asaga had spent a good half hour pulling material from nearly one dozen of the ship’s worst pirate-related holodramas in the entertainment archives, creating a composite avatar that violated at least thirty copyrighted personalities and, most likely, a number of civil statutes regarding common decency.  The result was breathtaking, to say the least.

“Huh,” answered the slaver, greed in his eyes.  “Well, ya might have heard right… We might have some of the merchandise you’re looking for, if your money’s as good as your lip.  Got plenty of good stock in the cargo bays, fresh from Tydaria, Aslon, and a dozen other worlds.  You won’t find any better or mo’ obedient slaves anywhere in the galaxy, ha!  Two hundred credits a head.”

“Is that the same deal you’re giving those shits on the other ships?” sneered Kayto, as Ava passed him a holo containing the long range scans and images of the slaving ships.  “You got another thing comin’ if you think I’m as stupid as they are.”

“Hahaha, you know what man?  I like you,” laughed the slaver.  “Those other guys are still negotiating terms, but maybe I could do you for a friendly discount… hmm?  Hey… wait a minute… that’s no pirate ship…” the slaver’s eyes narrowed comically as he squinted at something on his end of the line, undoubtedly scans of the Sunrider, now that she had departed the nebula.

“Ah, we were getting along so well too,” smiled Kayto, keying his controls to deactivate the communication filters.  “This is Captain Kayto Shields of the Sunrider.  This is a bust; you and your clients are under arrest for the enslavement and trafficking of human beings.  Except the Mermaid’s Scale, thanks for the tip off, boys,” said Kayto, naming the client vessel docked to the slaver’s ship, which had its name stenciled obligingly on its hull.

“What?!  I knew those shit-heads couldn’t be trusted!  Blow ’em to hell!  Cut ’em to pieces; don’t let them get back on board with a single slave!” screamed the slaver.

“Captain; I’m detecting multiple weapons discharges,” reported Ava, surprised at how easily the slavers had been duped and turned on their own clients. “The destroyer’s breaking apart!”

“That simplifies things a little,” said Kayto smugly.  “Now for the hard part; Red Alert to all stations, all hands prepare for combat.  Ryders, you are green for launch!”

******

“WHOOO!!!” screamed Asaga, flipping a series of switches, opening the throttle on the Black Jack, and savoring the hard burn as she felt her body being crushed into her crash seat with the sudden acceleration.  The Ryder shot down the Sunrider’s launch tubes with almost reckless speed, the running lights in the tube turning into a solid band as the Black Jack achieved launch speed.

Moments later, the Ryder popped out of the launch tube, dropping out of the Sunrider and below her before vectoring “up” and shooting past her prow.  “This is Black Jack reporting,” said Asaga, “Arriving at designated coordinates and matching speed relative to Sunrider.”

“This is Liberty,” chimed in Chigara with a good deal less chest pounding.  “I’m arriving at my coordinates; activating shield arrays now.”

On the main screen, Kayto watched as the Liberty’s rear thrusters dimmed.  The blue Ryder was a good deal more slender than the Black Jack, lacking its heavy armor plating, however, the similarities between the two Ryders’ heads and torsos paid homage to their common creator.  The Ryder’s left armature had been fitted with a full body shield, testifying to the Ryder’s more defensive role, while the right armature mounted a double barreled laser rifle; nowhere near as powerful as the Sunrider’s Trinity laser banks or the Black Jack’s shoulder mounted laser cannons, but a versatile weapon all the same in the right hands.  Liberty’s most distinguishing features were the two large, round shield arrays mounted on its back, projecting a powerful protective field on friendlies within its range and defending against long range laser strikes.  Also, mounted on the small of its back, the Liberty’s other distinguishing feature were a series of automated repair drones which were arranged on their launch pad like a skirt, fanning out behind the Liberty.  Capable of launching independently and drawing energy from Liberty’s fusion reactor, the drones were capable of making emergency hull repairs and carrying out other essential repair functions, even in the middle of combat.

Kayto watched with interest as the Liberty’s shield arrays fanned out slightly before pulsing with energy, broadcasting its shielding to the Black Jack and Sunrider.

“Captain, multiple Ryder signatures inbound; I’m reading Imperial surplus Ryders; five infantry class, two bomber class.  Looks like the three destroyers are maneuvering to intercept vectors too,” reported Ava.

“What about the slave ship?” asked Kayto.  Although arresting the clients was also one of the Sunrider’s objectives, the rescue of the slaves and capture of the battleship was the primary goal of the entire operation.

“She’s powering up her engines; looks like they were just drifting here.  It’ll be more than a few minutes before she’s ready to go anywhere; a fully loaded ship like her moves and handles like a space whale,” answered Ava.

“Let’s make it count then,” said Kayto. “Liberty; give Black Jack an uplink to your targeting computers; coordinate with Sunrider.  We’re going to take out that lead Ryder with our long range lasers,” he said, tapping the tactical screen in front of him and indicating the infantry Ryder at the head of the slaver formation.  “Fire Trinity laser banks!”

Laser light lanced from the Sunrider, followed moments later by similar discharges from the Black Jack’s smaller cannons, knifing through the night sky and signaling the start to the firefight.  The slaver Ryder banked hard, engines pushed to the maximum as it arced in a tight parabola.  Multiple beams of laser light sliced through the unshielded Ryder, melting the machine and cutting it apart, sending ragged chunks of its skeleton spinning as they came loose during the extreme maneuvers.  Unable to compensate, the Ryder’s damaged frame spluttered, venting atmosphere, before drifting dead in space.

“Multiple missile volleys inbound, brace for impact,” called out Ava as the bomber Ryders let loose with their entire stock of missiles.  Flak cannons reverberated as Sunrider opened fire on the oncoming salvos.

“I got ’em,” called Asaga, gunning the Black Jack forward.  Dodging nimbly, the Ryder screamed past two missiles, flak cannons firing and nailing two others before the remnants of the salvo impacted onto Black Jack’s armored frame.

Sunrider pitched forward gently, rumbling with the impact of the first two missiles.  “Missile impacts confirmed,” reported Ava, “minor damage to armor, no hull breaches.”

“I’m alright too,” called in Asaga, as her Ryder shrugged off the missile blasts.  “Black Jack’s holding strong.”

On the main screen, Kayto eyed the four remaining infantry class Ryders as they streaked past the bombers, burning angrily towards the Sunrider and her two Ryders, clearly intent on overwhelming their lines by force in an impressive show of bravado.  With gambler’s confidence, all of the Ryders dumped their full energy output into engine power, leaving none to fire their weapons with, banking that Sunrider and her escorts would be unable to take all four of them out and taking the chance against their fellow pilots.   It’ll take more than just luck, thought Kayto as he smiled grimly, quickly tapping orders into the tactical screen.

“Get ready to light them up Black Jack,” directed Kayto, designating two of the inbound Ryders as targets for the Black Jack and two for the Sunrider.  “Chigara, activate your electronic warfare suites and get ready to subvert their flak cannons on my signal.”

“Roger that!” answered both Ryder pilots, the Black Jack gunning forward to meet the oncoming Ryders.

“Fire the Saviors!” ordered Kayto, targeting the infantry Ryder closest to the Sunrider.  Although the Ryders were maneuverable targets capable of dodging heavy kinetic shots at range, the closed distance gap had significantly increased the odds of success for Sunrider’s targeting computers and gunners.  Combined with the Ryder’s complete lack of armor, even a glancing hit from a Savior slug would almost certainly spell doom for the Ryder.

Six loud reports sounded through the ship as the Saviors came to life, the massive recoil of the kinetic drivers absorbing into the ship’s mass.  On the main screen, a hole suddenly blossomed in the Ryder’s torso as one of the slugs smashed head on into the Ryder before continuing straight through and out the machine’s backside, sending a blast of severed mechanical parts, hull debris, and flash freezing gas out the other side.  Completely gutted, the Ryder twitched for a moment before going dark, drifting with the momentum imparted by the impact.

Simultaneously, Black Jack met its first foe head on, streaking on an intercept vector in a deadly game of chicken.  Almost simultaneously, the two pilots let loose with their assault weapons, spent shell casings trailing after their Ryders like metal vapor.  While Black Jack’s armor plates allowed it to plow through the hailstorm of bullets with little more than scratches and dents, the pirate Ryder was not nearly so lucky, shuddering with impacts as a hundred holes opened up along its thin hull.  Swerving at the last second, Black Jack dodged the lifeless and riddled corpse of the slaver Ryder, its pilot probably killed by one of the countless slugs that had penetrated the hull.

“Chigara, now!  Take out the remaining Ryder’s flak cannons!” ordered Kayto.

“Scrambling their systems now,” replied Chigara, voice cool, the sound of keystrokes filling her channel.

“Missiles away!” Asaga said happily, punching the Black Jack’s controls with triumph.

“Hell Dart missile pods launched,” Ava confirmed.

Without their targeting computers for the flak cannons, the two remaining Ryders were easy prey for the volley of missiles launched towards them.  Hopelessly dodging, the Ryder pilots did not even have the chance to eject before being swallowed up by the explosions, their Ryder hulls shattering and vaporizing under the unforgiving weight of Sunrider’s and Black Jack’s missile attack.

“Infantry Ryders neutralized,” said Ava, grudgingly impressed.  “Bombers coming around on full burn, destroyers entering weapons range.”

“Evasive action!” barked Kayto, “Watch that fire!”

The lead pirate destroyer let loose with lasers at maximum range, unexpectedly targeting the Black Jack rather than the larger and less maneuverable Sunrider.

“Whoa!  Close one,” laughed Asaga, jerking her controls and putting Black Jack into an evasive roll, tumbling away from the laser fire.  “Good thing those guys are near-sighted!”

“Engines to half-forward, bring us about to coordinates eight five by zero zero by two seven,” ordered Kayto.  “Arm and fire Trinities on lead destroyer; Liberty, give us targeting uplink!  Black Jack, concentrate forward fire on lead destroyer as well.”

Together, Sunrider and Black Jack closed the gap with the slaver vessels, ignoring the bombers which had spent their primary munitions stock at the opening of the fight, with Liberty bringing up the rear.  Blue laser light flickered, cutting into the lead destroyer’s hull.  Although atmosphere and fire erupted from the ship’s hull as their lasers found their mark, the ship continued to limp forward.

Apparently having taken exception to the Black Jack, all three pirate destroyers opened fire with their spinal mounted deck guns, throwing volley after volley of kinetic slugs towards Asaga’s Ryder.

Asaga gritted her teeth, fighting the acceleration as Black Jack’s emergency evasion protocols kicked in, trying to dodge the kinetic slugs.  The entire Ryder shook like something possessed as two or three slugs found range, striking Black Jack’s armored hull with shocking force.  Red lights erupted through Asaga’s cockpit as numerous warning signs pulsed in sync with a whining alarm.  “Damn it, I’m hit!” shouted Asaga, struggling to bring the reeling Ryder under control.  Shuddering, the Black Jack fought it’s uneven spin, righting itself and recovering from the assault.  “Switching to auxiliary systems and back-up thrusters… I’m OK, but Black Jack’s main weapons are offline,” she reported.

“Cover the Black Jack,” ordered Kayto as the Sunrider pulled ahead of the damaged Ryder.  “Fire Saviors at destroyer two and target the damaged ship with our assault guns!”

Still receiving targeting uplink from the Liberty, Sunrider’s Saviors sent their devastating kinetic payloads hurtling straight for their target, each shell landing on target with punishing effect.  Simultaneously, the lateral assault guns opened fire on the previously crippled destroyer, their smaller caliber rounds exploiting the vessel’s damaged armor and hull, tearing the ship apart with a thousand cuts.

“Liberty, moving to assist,” Chigara’s voice betrayed a crack of concern.  “Deploying repair drones to Black Jack, now.”

The blue repair drones blasted off Liberty’s back, streaking towards the damaged Black Jack.  Two of the drones latched onto hardspots on the Ryder’s frame, stabilizing the tumbling Ryder as the other drones applied emergency epoxies to hull breaches and bypassed damaged electronics.

“Power’s back on,” confirmed Asaga happily, “Firing long range lasers!”

The shoulder mounted cannon’s discharging with deadly light, Black Jack’s lasers speared the destroyer still reeling from Sunrider’s Savior impacts.  No sooner had the repair drones jetted back to the Liberty, the destroyer’s reactor chained from catastrophic damage to containment inflicted by the Black Jack, obliterating the ship.

Desperately, the remaining destroyer let loose with another salvo from its deck gun as the two bomber Ryders locked weapons, on stand-by to exploit any damage to the Black Jack or Sunrider’s armor.  Likely jittery and poorly trained, the pirate destroyer’s gunner aimed for the Black Jack once again, missing by a long-shot.

“Let’s finish this up,” barked Kayto, “All weapons, focus on the remaining destroyer!”

“Saviors firing!” Ava confirmed.  “Multiple impacts; she’s all yours Black Jack!”

Black Jack opened fire with her pulse lasers, a rapid fire beam weapon grafted onto its left armature.  The spray of laser fire consisted of individually weak pulses, however, the sheer number of energy “projectiles” made for an impressive damage versus power consumption ratio for targets without adequate shielding or armor.

On screen, the final pirate destroyer succumbed to their weapons fire, listing pathetically as multiple escape pods blasted from its crippled hull.  Having lost their base ships and dry on missiles, the two remaining bomber Ryders began pouring machine gun fire into the Sunrider futilely.  Without any warp capabilities, the Ryders were essentially stuck and their pilots knew it.  Asaga turned her pulse lasers on one of the bombers, dousing it with laser fire and slagging the bomber’s armor.

“Oh, this is the part I hate,” came Chigara’s pained voice as she thumbed her weapon controls.  Firing from the rear, Liberty added her own laser fire to the fight, pumping away with its laser rifle at maximum recharge rate and blowing away what was left of the damaged Ryder.

“I guess surrender’s not an option for this guy,” remarked Kayto with a grim smile as the remaining Ryder reloaded and continued blazing away with its guns.  “Take him out before he scuffs up our paint job.”

Sunrider’s Trinity lasers flickered with deadly light, joined by laser fire from the Black Jack.  At that range, neither weapon could possibly miss and the final Ryder disappeared in a brilliant flash.

“Captain!  The remaining slaver ship is attempting to flee!” cried Ava as the main screen switched to the large slaver battleship, its engines redlining in an attempt to flee the destruction.  “What the hell…?”  she muttered as the lumbering ship’s cargo bay opened.  Half a dozen rectangular modules drifted out of the ship’s cargo bay, drifting in the wake of the ship.

“Captain!” Ava’s voice was panicked, “I’m reading life signatures inside those modules!  Almost four hundred in total!”  Clearly, in a desperate attempt to shed mass to reduce the drive spin needed to warp, the slavers had elected to eject their cargo.

Kayto’s fists balled in horror; the slavers’ callous disregard for human life was galling to the extreme.  Packed like animals inside the cargo modules, Kayto estimated the slaves had no more than five minutes of air before they asphyxiated.  More than that, a single stray projectile could penetrate the module’s paper thin hull, killing the slaves as the module explosively decompressed.

“Liberty, Black Jack, secure those modules ASAP!” he barked, “Vector them towards the Sunrider as fast as you can!  Open our hanger bay doors for emergency landing and deploy electromagnetic brakes!  Alert the crew to receive wounded and pressurize our bay as soon as the last module’s in.  I want those prisoners out of those boxes as soon as possible!”

“Don’t let them get away, Capt’n!” yelled Asaga through gritted teeth as Liberty and Black Jack jetted towards the modules at maximum speed.

“Give me full power to engines!  All ahead flank speed!”

Sunrider jumped forward, it’s hanger bay opening along the ship’s axis, swallowing the modules Black Jack and Liberty pushed towards her like a snake gobbling up eggs.  As they hurtled into Sunrider’s hanger deck, the magnetic grapplers ordinarily used to decelerate damaged Ryders would catch the modules and drag them into the waiting hanger bays.  Although the  sudden acceleration and deceleration would be uncomfortable in the extreme for the slaves inside, broken bones and bruises were a small price to pay against asphyxiation by any stretch of imagination.

“Give me a firing solution for that ship as soon as we get a clear shot,” ordered Kayto, steel in his voice.  Gripping his command chair’s armrest tightly, he waited with bated breath, heart pounding in his throat.  At this point, it was a race between the slavers’ warp drive, spinning faster with each passing second, against the recovery effort of his own ship.

“Last module is clear!” yelled Ava.

“Fire!  All weapons fire!”

Sunrider’s Saviors bellowed as her Trinity laser banks lanced out furiously, drawing every last available  drop of power out of the ship’s main reactor.  Targeting the slaver ship’s engines, the weapons impacted with deadly force, sending the ship spinning, engines flickering hopelessly against the damage.  Kayto collapsed into his chair, exhausted; the slavers would never be able to jump after sustaining that kind of damage.  Dead in the water, with fires on almost every deck, the slavers began to abandon their vessel, blasting off from the wrecked hull into the cold of the Astral Expanse.

Sighing, Ava crumpled beside him as well, the adrenaline leaving her system as abruptly as Kayto’s.  “Captain… I’m detecting multiple distress beacons requesting aid from the pirate life boats,” she said, somewhat languidly.  “I guess at least some of them survived.  What are your orders?”

“Space, ’em Capt’n!” voted Asaga on the comms, her voice ragged with stress and relief.  “Give ’em the same they tried to give to those slaves!”

“Asaga…” Chigara’s voice was restraining, “Shouldn’t we hand them over to the authorities on Tydaria instead?”

“Tydaria’s justice system will take years to prosecute the case,” pointed out Ava.  “We shouldn’t just kill them, but we don’t have to rescue them either.  It would be simpler to just leave them to their fates out here.  Nobody’s going to miss a pack of rats like this.”

“Black Jack, Liberty,” ordered Kayto.  “Do a flyby of the battleship and make sure there are no additional slaves aboard.”  Turning to Ava, he saw her fingers hover over her controls, clearly contemplating squelching the distress beacons from the lifeboats.  “When you’re done with the flyby, begin search and rescue operations and retrieve those lifeboats.  Ava, alert security and have them lock the pirates and slavers in the brig.  We’ll hand them over to the Tydarians once we make dock.”

“Aye, Captain,” sighed Ava, slightly disappointed.  “I’ll have the marines handle the prisoner transfers and guard the brig twenty four seven.”

“But Capt’n!” protested Asaga, “Those guys could bribe their way out or something!  They’re too dangerous to let live!”

“That’s enough, Asaga,” said Kayto firmly.  “I’m in no mood for any more bloodshed today.  Those slavers are human beings too and, now that they’ve surrendered, we have an obligation to rescue them and surrender them to the law.  I didn’t come out here to turn into the same kind of monster these men are.  We’ll just have to hope that justice will be served by the authorities instead of at the barrel of our guns.”

“Oh, all right, all right,” conceded Asaga ungraciously, grumbling.  “You’re right… we’re better than that.”

Chigara’s avatar’s face split into a smile.  “Thank you, Captain.  Asaga gets overexcited sometimes… I’m glad you kept her on the right path.”

“You bet, Sunrider out,” said Kayto, killing the comm channel with the two Ryders.  “Come on, Ava,” he said, motioning for his First Officer to join him.  “Let’s see what the situation in the hanger bay is.”

******

Sunrider’s hanger deck was abuzz with activity as the crew scrambled to provide assistance to the captives they had pulled aboard.  Just about every cutting and welding tool on the ship had been brought down as the crew quickly cut holes for ventilation into the modules after confirming that no one was immediately on the other side with hand held scanners.  Kayto and Ava watched with bated breath two crew members cut through the locks that kept the module sealed and hauled the bulkhead open.

“Holy Ryuvia…” gagged Ava as the stench of unwashed flesh and human excrement slammed into them like a solid wall.

Gesturing for a hand torch, Kayto shone a shaft of light into the slave module, illuminating a series of cells into which the slaves had been packed so tightly there wasn’t even room to sit.  Fearful eyes stared back at him before dropping to the ground, avoiding any eye contact as the captives tried to shy away from the bright light.  The entire module was silent save for a quiet moaning and the sound of weeping, a pure, primal expression of human suffering that set the crew’s filings on edge.  Although the slavers had been primarily interested in abducting women, Kayto could see that a good third of the slaves were also men or children.  Dressed in ragged and tattered remnants of whatever they’d been tossed aboard in, the entire scene was study in human misery and depersonalization.

Throat dry, Kayto swallowed the revulsion in his gut, addressing the rescued slaves and recording on his bracelet at the same time.  “My name is Kayto Shields; I’m Captain of the Sunrider, which you are now aboard.  You are safe; step back from the bars and be patient while my crew cuts you out.  We are prepared to offer first aid and humanitarian assistance.  Remain calm, follow directions, and let us know if you are hurt.”  Turning towards the crew, he gestured as they hurried into the dank, dark confines of the module with their cutting tools, sparks flying as they got to work on the bars.  “Ava, have the crew play that message to all the modules as soon as they cut the bulkheads open.”

“Aye, Sir,” Ava sounded nauseous, face pale as she stared at the inhuman conditions inside the slave module.

Before long, dozens of the rescued captives began to leave the modules, clinging together and blinking in the harsh lighting of the hanger bay, lead by crew to one of the other bays designated for temporary holding of the refugees until they would reach Tydaria.  There, additional crew did their best to distribute emergency, foil wrapped rations and hot beverages, walking up and down the aisles of stunned captives with first aid kits and the like.

As Kayto drifted off to oversee the distribution of food, water, and medicine to the freed captives, Ava remained rooted at the first module, watching the crew wrestle with the locked compartments within.

“Th-thank y-you!” sobbed a woman just about her age, suddenly throwing herself down in front of Ava, clawing at the hem of her uniform, as yet another batch of captives passed.  Ava’s eyes widened in shock as the woman dissolved into a weeping mess, clutching her skirt as though she were drowning.  “Y-you have no idea what they did!  What they would have done!” she screamed, eyes wild.

Frozen, Ava rigidly stared at the woman’s welts and scars, her mind completely blank, stunned beyond words.  Slowly, she bent her knees and reached out, wordlessly stroking the other woman’s filthy hair.  The captive flinched horribly at first, but accepted her touch, sobbing even harder at the show of compassion.  Still unable to speak, Ava gently helped her up before half-shepherding and half-carrying the woman away from the prison module and towards what comfort and help the Sunrider could offer her; tears tracking down her own face.

******

Kayto collapsed into his office chair, exhausted, his uniform stinking of sweat and the inhuman conditions the rescued slaves had been kept in.  “Accept call, Sophita Brooks,” he sighed wearily as their Mining Union contact materialized, immaculate and sterile as ever in stark contrast with Kayto.  Inwardly immensely grateful nobody had figured out how to transmit smells via FTL communications, Kayto arched his eyebrow, inviting Sophita to explain her call.

“Congratulations, Captain.  That was quite the coup today,” Sophita said, offering a tight smile.  “Dozens of the galaxy’s most notorious slavers under lock and key, hundreds of abductees and victims of coercion rescued, and quite a few pirate ships and Ryders sunk.  I don’t think I need to tell you that the Mining Union is impressed with your work; you’ll find that we’ve transferred our standard rates to your account with a small bonus for the rescue of the captives.”

“I thought the Tydarian government was paying for this job,” frowned Kayto.

Sophita waved a hand dismissively.  “Practically speaking, we’re really the same entity.  That’s, of course, entirely off the record.”

Kayto shrugged, Tydarian politics not really a point of interest for him at the present.  “What’s going to happen to the captives once we return to Tydaria.  Sunrider’s not equipped or staffed to deal with the situation much longer; some of the refugees are in need of serious medical attention.  We’re also going to need to transfer their custody to a more appropriate agency.”

“That won’t be a problem, Captain,” Sophita straightened a nonexistent wrinkle on her suit.  “I’ve already alerted our local assets.  You’ll receive coordinates once you’ve returned to Tydaria for a habitat we’re preparing as a refugee camp.  You have my word that the Mining Union will see to their needs responsibly.”

“What’s in it for a corporation?”

“The public loves a good story, plenty of goodwill to be had,” answered Sophita pragmatically.  “The Mining Union shells out a few credits for shelter, food, water, medical supplies, and counseling; in return, we get an immediate PR boost from playing the philanthropist role.  I can tell you it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than buying air time on holovision.  Also, once those refugees get back on their feet, they’ll want jobs, jobs the Mining Union can provide.  Nothing inspires corporate loyalty like gratitude.  It’s a win-win scenario for every party involved.”

Kayto breathed out, lacing his fingers behind his head as he kicked his chair back, his relief tempered by cynicism and corporate suspicion.  “You guys find a way to profit from just about anything huh?”

“Will and money, Captain,” Sophita’s smile was cold.  “Plus the Mining Union isn’t as heartless a corporation as most people would like to think.  Not completely anyways.”

“Good to know,” chuckled Kayto, “Thanks for calling; tell your people we’ll be back to Tydaria in less than a day.”

“We’ll be waiting for you,” nodded Sophita.  “Good hunting on your next mission, Captain.”

Winking off, the FTL transponder went dark.  Unbuttoning the collar of his uniform, Kayto longingly contemplated a shower before his door chime interrupted the thought.

“Captain.”  Ava entered and saluted, equally disheveled, her uniform as grubby as his own.  “A moment of your time, if you don’t mind.”

“We’re off duty now, Ava,” said Kayto, kicking out a chair for her.  “No more ‘Captain,’ no more saluting.”

“Yes, S- Kayto,” she said, awkwardly settling into the offered chair and avoiding eye contact.  “I… I just wanted to apologize for before…”

Kayto tilted his chair back again, closing his eyes before opening them and staring a the ceiling.  “There’s nothing to apologize for, Ava.  It’s your job to keep me on track and make sure we’ve discussed all the options on the table.”

“Even so… Well… I’m just glad we did what we did, Kayto.”  Ava’s eyes shone slightly, “If we had listened to me… those people would have…” she trailed off, shuddering.

“We’ll never know what could have been or would have been.  That’s why we came out here in the first place,” pointed out Kayto.  “All we can do is take care of the people in front of us.  We look out for each other first, and, somehow, we’ll find a way back home.”

Ava smiled for once.  “Thanks, Kayto…  I’m… I’m sorry about before.”

“You already said that,” he frowned.

“No.” Ava’s smile changed subtly, conflict entering into her features for a moment.  “I’m sorry about everything I said, everything.”

Kayto nodded, unsure what to make of the statement, but the moment passed and Ava’s cool exterior descended once more.

“Of course, just because you were right this time doesn’t mean you’ll always be right,” she said, half jokingly with crossed arms.  “Next time we make a decision like this, you’re still going to get full blast of my mind; we’ve still got a war against the PACT to win.”

“I’m counting on it, Ava,” agreed Kayto as she got up to leave.  “I’m counting on you.”

CHAPTER 5 >>>>>>>