Zaynah entered hostile territory. The very elements themselves assaulted her ship. Dust swirled, overwhelming the purifiers and oxygen generation systems. Strange energy fields hammered the hull. Worst of all, fiery meteors battered the small fighter’s shields.
Wielding a handheld fire suppressor, she tried to contain the dozens of smoldering fires without wiping out anymore of the ship’s systems. Fire suppression was off line, a demon-level inconvenience. Then a flashing blue light indicated shields were gone. Another blinking display informed her that life support registered seventy percent. Five percent less than the last time she checked. Not good.
Stinking demons! The lovely dragonfly fighter was hopelessly damaged. Suddenly, sadness threatened to overwhelm her. She wanted to weep for the ruined ship. The wreckage seemed doubly unfair on the craft’s maiden voyage and her first trek outside Dragon’s Fire--her home solar system. After nineteen years of dismal performance, she’d improved--growing stronger and faster. Now none of that mattered. She’d failed within sight of her goal.
The dark side of Ranin Seven loomed on the ship’s viewer.
The moon’s surface was a study in black. The only signs of life surly red landing lights. So different from the welcoming glow of the yellow safety beacons of Basilisk Prime’s tarmacs.
She pushed away the despair, before dark thoughts overwhelmed her, and coated another set of hissing and sparking connectors with the thick foam. The low-tech canister sputtered. Its steady stream of foam narrowed, and then quit with a sullen hiss. Smoke thickened around her much too quickly. The stench of burning syns stung her eyes and rasped her throat. Her ears rang from the spacecraft’s alarms. All of them worked too well. The high-pitched sirens blared constant warnings of yet another critical system failure.
Thanks to the Goddess, the main engines were still on line. Although without oxygen, warp power didn’t help all that much. Zaynah dropped the useless suppressor, tapping the thruster control to avoid another spray of small meteors. Without shields, even fist-sized rocks could puncture the craft’s hull. Then the whole ship lurched and shuddered.
Another meteor hit?
Not a meteor, unless they’d developed artificial intelligence capabilities. Her vessel had changed course. It was going down.
Thrusters weren’t responding. If it were simply a matter of losing engine power, then the ship would’ve been in freefall. This was a fast, but controlled, descent. Better than crashing. Maybe.
Something, or more likely someone, had a lock on her ship.
The moon loomed into view--black, rocky, and barren. There should be some evidence of the massive duranium mining operation, a biosphere, and life signs. None of those things was visible. Nothing registered on the ship’s sensors. Zaynah wasn’t a superstitious woman. But she’d been briefed on the losses in this sector. The area surrounding Ranin Seven had become the galaxy’s own black hole.
While in route to the moon, she’d received an update--yet another of Prado’s mining ships had dropped out of the info-web. Simply vanished. The most recent missing transport had been escorted by squadron of imperial fighters.
Way too many vessels vanished while on course for Ranin Seven for the losses to be attributed to the meteor storms. Stranger yet, no wreckage, not even the nearly indestructible automatic distress signal device every imperial craft carried had been recovered.
As her small fighter spiraled toward the moon, the sinking feeling in her stomach plummeted almost as fast as the ship. She was about to learn the fate of all those missing ships, but she wasn’t likely to survive long enough to share the answer.
Everyone knew that syn-people didn’t have souls. But just in case, she made the sign of the goddess as she strapped herself into the pilot’s seat. She reminded herself a d’skeku trooper’s wishes counted for nothing in imperial schemes. She and the dragonfly were an initial ploy. Her mission was to find and exploit an opening for the more powerful fighters coming.
Her imminent death signified nothing. If she failed to accomplish her mission--duty required her to take her own life as soon as possible.
Acceptance of fate’s decrees had never been her nature. The stubborn streak that kept her training for hundreds of hours without any improvement in her fitness scores kicked in now, filling her with fresh determination. By the emperor’s teeth, she would not dishonor her training. She would find that opening.
Or make one.
In the standard galactic year 4416
Aboard a Maldorean Slaver, nearing Krinegi space
Strong fingers tightened cruelly on Cassandra’s chin. She kept her eyes closed and fought the urge to jerk away, knowing anything other than total submission would earn her a jolt of excruciating pain. Pain she could not escape.
“Look at me, slave.”
The captain’s voice raised the fine hairs on her arms. The Maldorean officer enjoyed both screams and blood. He excelled at prolonging a session of torture. Slowly she raised her eyes to his bland grin. Despite his command, meeting his eyes was a punishable offense.
“Still some fight in you, good. You’ll bring me a pretty price.” He paused and stroked her collar with a single finger. “Besides with your collar’s connection embedded, I can track you anywhere in the known universe.”
He handed her collar’s controller to the man behind him, yanked her upright, and shoved her roughly toward the waiting man, who also wore the syn-metal collar. “Clean her and see to her wounds.”
She stumbled bumping into the male slave and instantly went rigid from her collar’s zap of pain. The loathsome slave collar around her neck had been soldered in place with its transmitter embedded into her spinal column. This allowed whoever held the controller to fire pulses of excruciating pain directly into her central nervous system.
He waited impassively for her to stop twitching before he spoke. “Follow me.”
Still shaky from the light zap, weak, and naked, she tottered after her new handler.
Three years of slavery had left her thin and wary, but not completely broken. She tried to shake off the lingering effects of last jolt from her collar to make sense of what was happening. “Where are we going?”
Without turning his head, he whispered, “Keep silent or I’ll have to zap you again, and then we’ll both suffer.”
She followed his advice as a bewildering series of handlers passed her, and her controller, from one station to the next. A fast blessedly warm sanitizer cycle, medi-scan eval, and then a lavish handful of expensive nanobots were applied to her skin. While the invisible robots worked to repair her injuries and groomed her from head to toe, a replicator whirred to life. Soon a tall warm drink waited. An aroma of sweet hot chocolate wafted from the steaming container.
Her nose inhaled the tempting smell and her mouth watered. Seconds passed and no one claimed the tempting beverage. From the edge of her vision she watched the handlers drift by, escorting other slaves and paying her no mind. The bots continued grooming. Gradually her pasty neglected skin took on a healthy glow. The only scars she still bore were invisible.
Temptation overcame caution and she snatched the drink. The first small sips of hot chocolate, the real thing--not a syn version, were sheer heaven. A savory nutrition bar appeared and she barely hesitated before munching down the entire treat in greedy mouthfuls. Another hot chocolate appeared. No obvious side effects appeared from the first drink. Hunger and thirst took over. She gulped down the steaming chocolate and ate the delicious bars until her shrunken stomach bulged and she was sated and sleepy.
Unknown hours later, she woke on a different spacecraft. One slave among a hundred or more, all of them naked except for their collars, all of them seemed content, and all of them had been polished to high gloss.
By the time they docked at a space station and Cassandra was hustled into a shuttlecraft she felt tentatively optimistic. There had to be a way to remove the collar, because the captain was right that was the only way she’d ever be truly free. The other slaves both male and female wore reflections of her own nervous smile. Something big was happening, there were fewer handlers than she’d ever seen. After three years in captivity, if they landed, then for the first time escape was a real possibility. The trip to the planet’s surface passed in a blur of flickering hope.
She joined the line leaving the craft. The exit parted to allow only one of them to leave before it then resealed. When her turn came, she stepped through the hatchway into a syn-metal corridor just as a Krinegi rounded the corner. The frightening female’s dark chitin surface was as effective as the finest armor. She closed the distance between them and used her sharp pincers to cuff Cassandra’s upper arm. A controller dangled from a lanyard around the Krinegi’s shiny black neck.
Cassandra couldn’t read the etching, but her stomach tightened with the certainty the device accessed her collar. Although the Krinegi couldn’t work the delicate controls without a droid, unless things had changed drastically during her time on the Maldorean slaver, bots were easily acquired for a meager few space credits, so that wasn’t enough of barrier to offer any comfort.
Faced with the hard black shelled reality of her new keeper, the faint chance of escape she’d dared to dream of crashed and died.
The razor edge of the female’s pincers drew blood. Cassandra clamped her teeth and remained quiet. She’d heard the female Krinegi were almost as touchy as their notoriously bad-tempered males and she knew an angry guard could cause a terrifying amount of pain.
A series of angry buzzes and harsh clicks erupted from the female’s open mandible. A heartbeat later, the device implanted in her thorax translated the noises to, “Disgusting thin- skinned humanoid.”
Although Cassandra had been scoured and groomed thoroughly, memories of the last three years of depravity and constant torture flooded her with self-loathing. Disgusting summed up her own feelings much too accurately.
Her escort stopped at a replicator and applied a dressing to Cassandra’s oozing wound, topping the bandage with a syn-metal clamp-on armlet. She inspected the temporary repair, nodded to herself, and gripped the armlet firmly with her pincer.