It took seventeen jumps through hyperspace to get to Maia. My route took me back through the Aries Dark Region, where I’d found all the unidentified artifacts. There’s a preponderance of blue-white gas giants in the space approaching the Pleiades Nebula, so when my jumps started landing me in front of these glowing monsters I knew I was getting close.
I love the Pleiades. It was my first real trip out of civilised space, so it always brings back that sense of discovery. It’s also a staggeringly beautiful place. The Seven Sisters themselves – along with their blue-white parents – are beautiful enough against the backdrop of the greens and reds of the nebula, but the milky, greenish light in which they bathe their planets gives the region a feeling of other-worldliness.
As I sped toward the new station I remembered my first visit to Maia. It was the first black hole I ever saw – a terrifying, incomprehensible ball of terror to me then.
Obsidian Orbital loomed. It’s been built in the orbit of a bluish-green rocky planet, which made an ethereal backdrop as the Mule skimmed its surface. Then I was on the far side, the station gently spinning in front of me. It’s the kind of place Vex would live, I thought. Maybe I ought to tell him about it. He loves Orbis stations, and he’s looking for a new base further from Federation territory. This would definitely be further.
Where the hell is he, anyway? He’d been kept on by IPEC for some reason. He wouldn’t say much about it.
“Interdiction detected”.
What? The ship shook as the space-time tether took hold. The joystick suddenly lurched in my hand. Who the hell was trying to pull me out of supercruise, out here?
I grimly fought with the flight stick, angling desperately for the escape vector. The bulkheads creaked ominously. Beside me, Margot woke up with a start, wide eyed.
Sod it. I could outrun whoever this was. Probably a local security routine check. I powered down the thrusters, allowing the ship to be yanked into normal space. There was a boom as both ships decelerated sharply.
The comms panel beeped. ‘Hi Commander. Time for a quick scan? Hehe’. ‘Ammonia Jones’, the name read. Who the hell sniggers in writing, anyway?
Bugger! He’ll clock the bounties on my head in Federation space.
‘Hold on, pilot,’ I typed furiously. ‘Just a tourist.’
‘Whew! Quite the wanted tourist, aren’t we?’
Damn. I scanned the info on the comms panel. Apparently this guy was part of an outfit called the ‘Ant Hill Mob’ – how reassuring.
‘Look here, pilot,’ I hammered out. ‘I have a cat on board. Blowing me up would be very cruel.’
‘No way! Is your cat a wanted criminal too, Commander Souvarine?’
Nothing for it – he’s going to open fire, I thought. I deployed my hardpoints, bracing myself for laser fire raking my shields. Deep breath. A couple of shock mines might slow him down.
Nothing happened.
What was he waiting for? Who cares – I retracted hardpoints and boosted my engine, putting as much distance between he and I as I could.
‘Come with me, commander,’ finally popped up on the comms panel.
Odd. Why doesn’t he want to kill me any more?
‘What can I say? I just loves cats. Follow me back to the station.’
I glanced across as the cat. “Did you just save my life?” I asked, bemused. She began scratching a ragged ear with a hind leg in response. Something told me that that was probably not the case.
I followed Ammonia Jones back to Obsidian Orbital. Funny looking station – all squat and short, with a covered habitation ring. Why build it here? The thought had gently bounced around my cortex since leaving Candecama.
It was a hive of activity. Independent pilot vessels were pouring in and out of the docking window, and my sensors were pinging merrily with new contacts. A lot of the vessels were exploration craft, some not dissimilar to the Vortigaunt. I wondered what they were doing here. More UAs, perhaps?
I angled the Mule through the docking window and drifted gently towards the landing pad I’d been assigned. Ammonia Jones hovered near the entrance, his watchful eye no doubt upon me as my landing gear touched the metal.
‘Why are you called ‘Ammonia Jones’, anyway?’ I asked as he pivoted away.
‘My daddy was a biowaste trader, ha ha.’
With that he sped away, back into space. I powered down, unclipped myself from my flight chair and stood up, stretching.
“Guard the ship, cat. Kill anyone suspicious,” I muttered as I opened the cockpit doors. She blinked one bloodshot eye at me by way of reply.
Soon I was standing in some kind of office. It smelled of unwashed hi-vis jackets, as such places often do. Before me sat a grumpy, bearded man with a less-than-convincing eye patch. His image was no doubt completed by the acrid, stinking cigar emerging from the yellowed bristles.
“What’s with the paintwork, pilot?” He finally demanded.
“Stars and stripes. Flag of the Ancient Earth ideological precursor to the Federation. My little joke.”
An eyebrow raised.
“Bit ostentatious for a smuggler, ain’t it?”
I affected a wounded tone. “Me? I think you’ve got the wrong man.” Then, assessing my surroundings, added: “Besides. Who would bother to suspect a ship that obvious?”
How the hell would he know that? My mind began to tick.
I smiled slightly, hopeful. The man growled at me.
“Got some work. Work for someone like you. Maybe dangerous work. What do you think?”
“‘Danger’ is my middle name. Well, it’s not, it’s ‘Hector’, actually.”
He frowned. “Right… Anyway. Need a courier. How much cargo can you carry in that?”
He motioned to the window, where the Mule sat cooling on the pad.
“Twenty four tons.”
He nodded, chuffing away at his revolting cigar.
“Good. Good. I got me twenty four slaves what needs delivering.”
“Great. I love slaves.” My mind briefly flickered to a conversation very like this, in a room very like this, a long time ago; Vex standing by the door, arms obstinately folded. This was no time to be so picky.
“Great. I’ll have them loaded up on that rust bucket. You’re to take them to this station.” He motioned to a star chart.
“Sirius space,” I mused, peering at what lay at the tip of his jaundiced finger. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but they take a dim view of slavery there, do they not?”
He narrowed his eyes at me. “They do. What’s that to you?”
“Risk carries a premium.”
He smiled now. “A premium you shall have, commander.” He stood up, allowing me an eyeful of the barbaric-looking gun slung lazily on his belt. He rifled through some paperwork before announcing a figure.
“You’ll need to deliver them specific’ly to a certain high-up type. Got to be him. Here are the details.”
Odd. Dangerous gifts for a Sirius executive. I took the package and strode back to my ship.
Back in the flight seat, I glanced around the docking bay as I waited for the tractor beams to release us. Most of the vessels around me were affiliated with this Ant Hill Mob, whoever they were.
“Ship released”.
Good. I lifted the Mule a foot or so off the landing pad before opening voice comms with the control tower.
“One last thing, old boy. Could you send a message for me?”
There was a crackle as my bearded friend took the microphone.
“Can do. It’ll cost you, from here.”
“That’s fine. It’s for the Imperial Private Expeditionary Company – best it goes to Lucas Andinos at Horrocks Gateway in the Candecama system.”
Stop him,” I heard him mutter to someone else in the background. I carried on.
“Tell him: I might be deniable if caught, but twenty four slaves are harder to ignore. I imagine that would be hard to explain, in light of the non-aggression pact you’re supposed to have with Sirius. So unless you want the slaves to start getting chatty about who really sent them: I want to meet her.”
I hit engine boost as the comms spluttered. Margot and I were thrust back in our seats as the Mule shot through the docking window at three hundred metres per second. Within moments we’d cleared mass lock, and before the system security vessels patrolling the dock had time to turn to face us, we had shot into hyperspace.

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