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Rose Rico checked the flashing red display to be sure their automated distress signal was running. She was at the helm of the Relevance, the powerful Fleet patrolship that her crew had hijacked from Archernar shipyard two decnights before. They had long ago crossed the border of the Domain, leaving the Procyon sector far behind.
Another Fleet patrolship was holding steady up ahead, sitting stubbornly on the mouth of the gravity slip leading into the Sol system. This slip was one of three ever-shifting doorways to Earth, the homeworld of pleasure slaves. The patrolship Fortitude clearly wasn't going to budge even for a sister Fleet ship flashing its distress signal.
Rose grinned at her crew on the sleek command deck. They were biting their nails at the sight of their ship bearing down on the Fortitude. The Relevance was a match in hardware, but the former pleasure slaves were panicked about going up against a trained Fleet crew.
"I don't know about this, Rose," Chad warned. The big Solian was at the auxiliary helm, backing her up in case she needed to concentrate on weapons. The systems on the patrolship were much more complex than the systems on the old freighter she used to command. Yet she could tell that everything was running smoothly by the hum of machinery in the air and the subtle vibrations of the deck plating. Her old freighter had usually felt loose at the seams, with hitches in the helm response and sudden episodes of deceleration. She felt much more secure in the powerful Relevance.
"We talked this out in conclave," Rose reminded them, as she secured her curly dark hair into a messy coil. "This is the only way to get in close enough to capture the Fortitude."
Stub's usually sunny expression was worried. "I don't know...the Qin are more than three hours behind us. That's awfully far away."
Rose rolled her eyes. She had picked Stub as her regular bed partner for his sense of fun. The negative attitude didn't suit him. "Three hours or three minutes, who cares? We crush them or we die."
"That's not exactly reassuring," Chad pointed out. "What if they've heard about Archernar shipyard? With the damage you did, it's bound to get talked about. There's already been too much buzz about the Qin battleship inside the Domain."
"We're way ahead of the rumors." Rose gestured to the gleaming silver-and-black displays of the terminals and the strong curves of the double-thick bulkheads. "Look at our ship! It's brand-new with the best of everything. Who could get here faster than us?"
Chad was verging on rebellion, which was typical. Yet Shard, seated at the comm, also looked uneasy. She was a curvaceous Solian-Yllia hybrid, not the type to fret over anything. Which was probably why Stub was so upset. The anxiety was contagious -- and annoying.
It was times like this that Rose missed Ash. The poor herme was safely back on the Qin battleship, receiving brain treatment to restore hir memory. For Rose it was a bitter thing that Ash wasn't by her side. Ash had helped her seize control of the cargoship Purpose. Rose knew that the old Ash would have loved the fact that she was taking her revolt into Sol. She could certainly use Ash's help right now, but she wouldn't let even her friend's absence stop her. Ash had told her to return to Earth: Rose was going to throw the Fleet out of Sol with or without hir.
"You can leave any time you want," she told her command crew. "There are lifepods for everyone, and the Qin will pick you up in a few hours. But you better jump now, because we'll be in weapons range soon."
No one moved as the stars silently passed in the imager. None of them would bail out; it was just opening-night jitters. Everyone would settle down as soon as they engaged the patrolship. Rose was looking forward to showing the Qin that Solians could kick butt along with the best of them.
The patrolship at the slip couldn't see the Endurance, which was still safely beyond scanner range. The Fleet captain must have detected the gravity burst from the battleship when it entered the pocket the day before. They probably thought a Fleet battleship was approaching and were scrubbing down their ship for inspection. The Fleet had a bad reputation for eating its own.
Rose had used their patrolship's security decoder to strip the anchored beacons in every gravity pocket on their way to Sol. She had gathered a lot of useful information, but there was nothing about their attack on Archernar shipyard or the hijacking of the Relevance. That was good because their ship's ID had already been triggered during their approach. The Fortitude's shields were raised and they were in a defensive posture at the slip as per procedure.
Rose couldn't possibly pretend to be an Alpha-captain, so the deception was necessary. Kwort and Nip had unbalanced the power feeds and disconnected two transducer units to create the impression that their comm was off-line, which explained why they didn't respond to the Fortitude's repeated hails. Kwort Delta was a former Fleet bot tech, so he knew how to make it look real. Rose trusted Kwort, despite the fact that the little ridged-headed Deneb was a complete coward, because when things got dirty Kwort always came through.
To make their malfunctions look even more convincing, G'kaan's battleship had blasted a few scorch marks strategically across their hull. Even though G'kaan had done it to help them, Rose's fingers had itched to fire the missile-activation sequence right back at him. Now their port weapons hatches appeared to be twisted off, which left them conveniently open. Their comm unit sported a charred stripe, curling a section of the outer edge of the parabolic dish from the heat of the lasers. The damage optically distorted comm and scanner relays, making random bits break up in the imager, but Rose didn't care as long as it lulled the suspicions of the Fortitude.
"I'm receiving a message from the patrolship," Shard announced. The gorgeous woman was almost as good at the comm as she was in bed. Though her long, silver-white hair was held back and she wore a plain brown flightsuit, nothing could spoil her transcendent beauty. "They're demanding that we disengage shields and stand down for inspection since we've refused to answer their hails."
"Can't they see we're damaged and can't hear them?" Rose asked gleefully. "Make sure Kwort is ready with the transducers. We won't have much time if we need weapons."
Shard keyed her terminal, speaking into the comm link slung around her neck. Every motion was graceful. Stub's eyes lingered on Shard as she reported the bot tech's readiness, until Rose gave him a frown. She didn't care if Stub drooled over their resident sex queen, as long as he didn't do it while he was on duty.
"We're entering weapons range," Rose announced.
"The Fortitude is shifting," Shard warned. "They're on an intercept course."
Rose could see it with her navigational scanners. The Fortitude was advancing to keep them from getting near the gravity slip -- standard procedure for the Fleet, as Rose had learned from long hours of studying the database on board. She thought that the manuals made for some pretty dull reading, but now she was glad she had invested the time. Rose felt as if this ambush would be a piece of cake.
"Slowing to one-quarter power," Rose said. That was also according to procedure when approaching another Fleet ship. It would help put the captain of the Fortitude at ease. The subliminal thrumming of the engines eased as they slowed, which would give her more power when she activated the attractor. "Send the waveband message now."
"Aye, Captain," Shard agreed, triggering their prepared waveband message. The text claimed they had been attacked by a Qin battleship and needed to dock with the Fortitude to receive technical assistance.
Waveband took much longer, because the message was carried by ordinary EM waves, while the comm relayed instantly through the subspace grav field. Rose was no engineer, so she didn't know why the comm had a limited range while grav slips could transport them instantly across light-years. All she knew was how close they needed to get to use their attractor field on the Fortitude. Once the restraining energy was wrapped around that ship, with missiles aimed at such close range, the Fleet crew would have no choice but to surrender.
"They're arming weapons!" Shard exclaimed.
That was not standard procedure. "Weapons and shields on-line!" Rose's voice rang throughout the ship. She couldn't afford to risk her crew, not even to win another Fleet patrolship.
They were so close that Rose could see the missile hatches on the Fortitude begin to open. In response, her own weapons instantly blinked on-line, thanks to good old reliable Kwort.
"Firing port tubes!" Rose hit the buttons, firing missiles in rapid succession through the two open portals.
There was a breathless moment as the missiles streaked across the imager, while Stub worked frantically at ops to get their own defenses up.
The first salvo of missiles impacted against the shielded Fortitude and rocked it with a white-hot explosion. Rose spun the ship to fire both tubes on the starboard side. Reloading took time between each launch, so firing an alternating pattern gave maximum coverage. Again, straight out of the Fleet weapons manual.
"Our shields are up!" Stub sounded frazzled.
Rose finished a complete turn, firing the port missiles again. She had to trust the automated targeting scanner, since they couldn't see the patrolship behind the flashing rainbow arc of its shields.
Shard started to speak. "There's a hull breach in their aft section -- "
Rose skewed just in time, putting their burners between them and the doomed patrolship. The Fortitude blew up as direct impact on the exposed fuel cells spewed a fury of irradiated atoms into space.
For one weightless moment, Rose felt as if she were salvaging back on Spacepost T-3. But she was stuck to her chair by the microgravity field. Then her magnificent ship bucked underneath her as the stars spun in the imager. Through the semitransparent image, she could see Stub and Shard trying to hang on to their terminals.
Shaking her head and nursing a bit tongue, Rose got her bearings. The Fortitude was nothing but expanding wreckage floating dangerously in front of the gravity slip. It would make a nice obstacle course for any other ships that approached the slip.
"We did it!" Stub stood up and raised both arms into the air, crying out again, "We did it!"
After a stunned moment, the others joined in, jumping up and down and hugging each other as Chad shouted out in relief. Sounds from the slaves they had saved from Archernar shipyard came from deeper within the ship.
Rose kicked back in her chair with a smug grin on her face. It was about time they learned to never doubt her!
As Captain G'kaan neared the Centauri-Sol slip, he regretted the loss of life on board the Fleet patrolship. But it was Rose's decision whether to take the Fortitude intact or destroy it. He only wished there were less blood-thirsty satisfaction in her description of the ambush. He had not taken the point because the Fortitude could have identified them by scanner and escaped through the gravity slip to warn the intrasolar patrols that a Qin battleship was attacking Sol.
"After you." Rose gestured toward the grav slip, grinning through the imager.
The approach to the gravity slip was cluttered with debris, but G'kaan set his course. "Please hold back and allow us to clear the area on the other side," he told Rose sternly.
"Yeah, sure," Rose drawled, as she closed the channel.
His ops corpsman, L'pash, glared at the now-empty imager. "Who does she think she is?"
M'ke at the comm answered for him, "Rose thinks she is the liberator of her people."
"She isn't going to back down without a fight," G'kaan agreed. At least Rose was not fanatical like S'jen, his former Qin mate. S'jen would have already jumped through the slip and tried to single-handedly overpower any ship on the other side, regardless of whether that was the optimum course of action. G'kaan was determined to make smarter choices during the next impending lust. L'pash had amply proven she was ready and waiting for him.
G'kaan engaged thrusters on his enormous battleship, gracefully diving around the debris at the speed of the gravitational constant. He prepared himself for the disorientation of being transported four light-years away. As the Endurance entered the slip, they blinked out of existence in that part of space and were instantly brought to the pocket just outside the Sol system, more than three billion miles away from the primary sun. It looked like any other bright star in the field, nearly indistinguishable from the rest.
"Powering up the converter." G'kaan tried to ignore the light-headedness he always felt after traveling through a slip.
"Patrolship dead to starboard!" M'ke announced, relaying the coordinates.
The patrolship hesitated, as if its crew was caught by surprise. Clearly the Endurance wasn't Fleet. The patrolship sped away.
After decades of piloting, G'kaan's reflexes obeyed at a thought. His systems were already running hot and they began to gain on the patrolship.
"It's the Devotion," M'ke informed them, reading the ID. "According to the files Rose gave us, it's one of the three patrolships assigned to guard the Sol system."
"Attractor beam ready," L'pash eagerly put in. Her eyes sparkled, and a jaunty, white hourglass blaze marked her dainty nose. "Shields at maximum."
"They're targeting us with their missiles." M'ke sounded exactly the same as usual, as if he had seen it before. G'kaan once again thanked the foresight of his grandfather who had anticipated his need for an elder, experienced advisor. M'ke had been by his side since he first gained command of an Armada warship.
G'kaan stretched his lips to reveal his cuspar fangs. "We've got them!"
The Devotion fired a round of six missiles. They were so close that his point defense lasers could hardly react in time, destroying only two. The other four missiles impacted against their shields, shaking the Endurance.
G'kaan ignored it. They could handle every one of the patrolship's missiles with their immense shield generators.
The patrolship frantically discharged another six missiles. The explosions jolted the battleship, but G'kaan stayed on course.
"Systems are holding," L'pash declared steadily.
"Closing to intercept." G'kaan increased speed, maneuvering up and over the patrolship, cutting it off.
The patrolship tried to turn away, swinging wide as it reversed course.
The tricky part was in L'pash's hands. She cast the attractor field, trying to get exactly the right angle to capture the patrolship. But it slipped off, deflected by a sudden shift. Biting her lip in concentration, L'pash adjusted the angle and tried again. "I've got a lock!" she exclaimed.
The patrolship seemed to surge forward, then swung back as the attractor field killed their momentum. Under the field, the patrolship's converter cycled off-line causing them to lose all mobility. Now they were under the Endurance's control.
"Hail them," G'kaan ordered.
There was a long wait. No doubt the Fleet captain was trying to figure out something heroic to do that would save his ship and crew.
"Send the following message." G'kaan narrowed his eyes, thinking of the useful information he had gleaned about Fleet psychology from the Relevance's database. Rose had acquired a treasure beyond compare when she had captured that patrolship. "I am Captain G'kaan of the Qin battleship Endurance. You have nothing to save but yourselves. Evacuate to your lifepods or we will begin immediate decompression of your ship."
To back up his threat, G'kaan carefully targeted the command deck and sent a low-level laser bolt directly into the hull. The patrolship shuddered in their grasp.
A blackened crater in the polytanium plating showed how close he had come to piercing the hull. A slightly harder strike would neatly punch through the unshielded plating even though it was armored.
"One lifepod has ejected," M'ke announced.
"There go another two," L'pash pointed.
M'ke scanned the lifepods as they popped off. "They're full of Fleet officers."
"Good." G'kaan glanced back at a smiling R'yeb, his second. "Are you ready to take command of your new ship, Captain R'yeb?"
It was Armada tradition for the second to receive a promotion in the field in order to command a war prize. Even though the practice hadn't been carried out in nearly a century, G'kaan knew that Chief Commander T'ment would confirm R'yeb's rank of captain. G'kaan's only regret was losing the services of one of the best corpsmen in the Armada. But he couldn't let that hold R'yeb back from what she had rightfully earned during their campaign against the Domain. In fact, he had alerted R'yeb to the possibility so she could study the Fleet manuals Rose had downloaded for them.
R'yeb's smoky brown skin showed her proud heritage in one of the earliest spacefaring clans. "Aye, Captain!"
R'yeb left the command deck while G'kaan carefully docked with the Devotion. When the Relevance came through the grav slip, Rose sent her congratulations.
G'kaan had agreed to help Rose liberate Earth because no other blow against the Domain would be as devastating as an invasion of Sol. Even if G'kaan could destroy Canopus Regional Headquarters, that wouldn't reverberate throughout the Domain the way shutting down their supply of raw pleasure slaves would. The Alpha regents wouldn't stand for it, and battleships destined to savage Qin would be diverted to Sol. G'kaan would buy time for the clans to prepare to defend their territory against the Fleet.
Yet G'kaan wasn't thinking only about Qin. He took pride in freeing the Solian people and righting the terrible wrong Qin had done to them so long ago. Since G'kaan's mother had been Solian, that made it personal for him. He had barely known her, because she had died when he was a young child, but he liked to think she would be glad to see her son fighting for Solian freedom.
Nip couldn't believe they were actually in Sol. Rose had done it again! She had led them out of the Domain, and was bringing them home to Earth.
Nip was at the helm of the Relevance, but he wasn't alone. The command deck was crowded with Solians who longed to see Earth. None of them, except for native Rose, had ever been there, but they all felt the same way. They were coming home.
It took more than a full day to get to the planet from the gravity pocket on the outer edge of the Sol system. They had downloaded the latest Fleet navigational charts from the beacons inside the Domain. Luckily, Relevance had the right codes in its processors to access the data for Sol. At the moment there weren't any intrasolar slips to Earth close to their grav pocket, so they blasted through the system on a straight run. The only planet they passed near was Neptune, which looked like a bright lime disc hanging against the stars.
Rose and the senior crew returned to the command deck as they neared Earth. Nip gratefully gave up his post to the captain. He didn't want to be in command if the Fleet counterattacked. Instead, he stood against a bulkhead, trying to keep out of the way. The deck was packed with crew members who, like Nip, weren't going to miss their arrival at Earth. Nip had gone through too much to get here: partial dismemberment and near death. He was then cast away on a derelict space station, forced to hide out as a renegade slave before he finally got a chance to help his friends escape slavery again.
"Magnifying image of Earth," Shard announced in her sultry voice. For a moment, Nip was distracted by visions of sexual delight with Shard. His daydream was halted as a gasp rose when their home planet appeared in the imager.
A vast blue orb with swirls of pure white hung in the imager, glinting with light. Nip could even see the thin coating of atmosphere blurring the edges and thought that it seemed too fragile for the towering sky Rose had described. But that jewel-toned blue was exactly right. It was more intensely blue than anything he'd ever seen. He felt tears coming to his eyes.
The others kept staring at Rose as if unable to believe, even at this moment, that she had brought them to Earth. Only Chad was the voice of doom, as usual. He kept reminding them that two more patrolships were somewhere inside Sol. Rose finally had to threaten to kick him off the command deck. Chad shot daggers at her for a while after that, but everyone was too engrossed by the sight of Earth to care.
Nip was going home. He didn't care that he had never been to Earth. He could feel it in his bones that this was where he belonged. He only wished that Trace could be with them. After all the risks they had taken together, she deserved to be here, too. Not for the first time, Nip regretted that he hadn't urged Trace to come along. But he had been so excited about seeing Shard and Chad that he hadn't really thought about what was happening. Then Trace was gone with the Solace, and he didn't have a chance for a proper good-bye. It was too bad, but Trace was in love with Gandre Li, not him.
It made Nip feel better to know that he was doing something good for Trace, as well as for every other pleasure slave still stuck in the Domain. He was helping Rose take back Sol. He wasn't much when it came to brains or brawn, but he knew that he could run the helm of this ship. He didn't care about the danger. He would do it for them.
"The Devotion and Relevance are pulling up," M'ke announced.
G'kaan checked his navigational scanners. To the port, the Relevance stopped at their predesignated coordinates, letting the battleship move ahead. He hadn't heard from Rose during their inward journey, because they had agreed to maintain comm silence. Scanners had picked up no sign of the other patrolships. Perhaps they had seen the Qin battleship and were fleeing back to Canopus Regional Headquarters to fetch reinforcements. His crew would be particularly vulnerable in a few decnights when their lust hit. But M'ke agreed they had to take this opportunity to distract the Fleet from Qin. If necessary, they could retreat from Sol and travel into deep space outside the grav pocket where they would be safe during their lust.
R'yeb pulled up the Devotion near Rose's ship. R'yeb's patrolship was dragging the cache of lifepods that served as self-contained jail cells for the Fleet crew, complete with waste facilities and food packs. At the first sign of trouble, she had orders to detach the pods.
"Entering weapons range of Earth's moon," M'ke announced.
M'ke had performed a scan of the extensive Fleet base situated on the shadow meridian of the large moon. The base was heavily shielded, because the moon's orbit exposed it to the full glare of the sun. Most of the base was buried deep under the basalt rock shield, which was pocked with craters. The laser array was positioned near the moonbase, while an automated laser platform orbited Earth opposite the moon. Both arrays had their mighty cannon muzzles trained on space. Between the two lasers, the Fleet could take out any raider foolish enough to approach Earth.
G'kaan sent in eight long-range missiles, but the lasers on the moonbase expertly destroyed every one. His battleship rapidly closed the distance.
"We're being targeted!" M'ke warned.
Though their shields were at maximum, the moonbase's lasers were more powerful than Fleet missiles. They used solar power, which was in abundant supply, to fuel their multi-head beams.
The lurid purple lasers leapt from the rotating heads. G'kaan maneuvered to deflect the strikes off his shields into space. The Endurance vibrated as if riding over rough terrain.
"Firing lasers," G'kaan announced.
Streaks of ruby red fire slashed into the laser array. Purple bolts tried to respond, but were cut off by their sustained fire.
G'kaan switched to their secondary lasers before the primary heads overloaded. He hit the laser array on the moonbase again, sustaining the beam.
Although the moonbase was used to repelling raiders with their missiles and short-range lasers, they had not been designed to withstand an attack by a battleship. The only other battleships in this arm of the galaxy belonged to the Kund, and they were over a thousand light-years away. After word of this got out, every senior Alpha in the neighboring regions would scream for a weapons upgrade. Yet any stationary weapon was inherently vulnerable to a powerful battleship.
Outgunned, the laser array on the moon overloaded and sent feedback into the power generator. G'kaan cursed under his breath as the power generator also exploded, taking out a chunk of the moon along with it. The array was concealed behind a blooming cloud of debris. It began to drift toward the moonbase.
"Unfortunate," he muttered. They had hoped to be able to repair the laser array to use it for their own defense.
"The orbital laser platform is still intact," L'pash hastily reminded him.
"We didn't expect to take the moon without some damage," M'ke agreed.
G'kaan wasn't ready to declare victory yet. According to Rose's Fleet database, nearly one hundred personnel were stationed on that moonbase. "Order the combat teams to the pinnaces."
The hand-to-hand laser combat in the moonbase reminded G'kaan of the bloody battles on board the Fleet mining stations that he had helped liberate. But here the upper ranks were in no mood to sacrifice themselves. They surrendered in harried groups to the Qin combat teams, who moved efficiently through the sprawling underground complex.
The moonbase offered plenty of hiding places for people who refused to surrender. The levels meshed at odd angles, since the base had been built up over millennia of use. Even the maps they had downloaded from the control center covered only the first few levels. G'kaan, like the other Qin, knew the long, bloody history of this base. It would be difficult to search every part of its ever-deepening layers. The danger of escaped Fleet personnel was enough for G'kaan to order the moonbase off-limits to the Solians.
When it became apparent that the situation was under control in the vicinity of the control center, G'kaan brought Rose down to the moonbase. L'pash was irritated by that, though she didn't protest. G'kaan knew they would need help freeing the abducted Solians who were being held in the warehouse.
Rose arrived at the moonbase with Chad and Clay. She didn't like Chad, but he had been trained by G'kaan and was good at seeing things she missed, much as she hated to admit it. Though Clay was mute, he was as steady and reliable as a rock. He had been the first to support her plans of escape from Archernar shipyard.
When they walked into the long room with rows of tables, Rose felt as if she were about to blow up. The arched ceiling was exactly as she remembered, supported by beams that looked like molded green plastic. It stank to high heaven from the waste that had been expelled in the Solians' panic when they realized they had been abducted. Rose had never smelled anything quite so foul, despite the fact that the galaxy was a pretty disgusting place. It made her lungs seize, and she couldn't draw a breath.
"Are you sick?" G'kaan asked in concern.
"I remember it like it was yesterday." Rose looked at the straps that were used to hold down the people during the inductions. "Where are the handlers?"
"The combat teams took the base personnel to one of the supply warehouses," G'kaan replied. "It's the only place big enough to hold them all."
Rose walked through the door into the adjacent bay, followed by Clay and an uncharacteristically silent Chad. Inside the huge bay were two stacks of transparent slave cubes. One stack was empty. The other one had a naked Solian inside each of the clear boxes. There were at least a hundred abductees.
"They're frightened," G'kaan said.
Rose stared up at the cubes. Their shouts and cries were muffled, echoing weirdly through the air tubes. Their mouths moved and they reached out with their hands, banging against the clear walls to get out. Some were huddled into a corner, trying to hide themselves.
"These poor people!" Chad exclaimed. "We have to get them out."
"What do we do with them all?" G'kaan asked.
"They'll be our shock troops," Rose said. The others didn't seem to understand. "Nobody on Earth knows that Solians are used as pleasure slaves, except for the underground. These people can tell everyone what they've seen."
"There could be underground members in these cubes," Chad realized.
Rose nodded. "We'll give them all datarods with pictures of this base, including these cubes, so everyone on Earth can see what the Domain is doing to us."
"We've already got images of this stack," G'kaan agreed. "And there are logs in the database of the handlers doing the inductions and injecting the translators."
Clay let out a low whistle that was easy for everyone to interpret. Rose grinned at him. "You're right. That should scare the hell out of them!"
"Then let's get these people out of the cubes." G'kaan showed his fangs. "We'll load the base personnel and the Fleet crew from the Devotion into them once we're done."
Rose thought that was too good for them, but it would do for now. "Strip them first. That will show them how it feels to be a slave."
Copyright © 2005 by Susan Wright