Through a Glass, Darkly
by Michael J A Tyzuk
“Through a Glass, Darkly” began in issue 109.
Instead of stopping to fight them, which would have taken precious time and probably cost us a lot of lives, we just tore past them and kept running for our ships like bats out of hell. I turned and looked behind me and saw the slavers gathered together in a bunch, scratching their heads, confused as to why we didn’t want to play. Then they remembered what it was that we were running for, slapped their heads in unison for having been so stupid, and tore after us.
Of course, by that time it was too late. They were halfway to the landing zone by the time we got the last member of our party onto the last freighter and closed the hatch behind him.
I dove through the door to the cockpit of the Moonshadow, slipped into my chair, and started throwing switches. There wasn’t time for a preflight check, nor was there time for the traditional pre-launch checklist, but that was okay. We really didn’t need to. Long ago, Michelle and I had decided that freighters participating in ground excursions would never power down completely. They would leave their reactors hot so that in the event of an emergency the pilot simply had to switch the power flow from trickle to full and haul back on the stick and throttles.
I opened the power flow and raised the ship up on her repulsers, thankful that Michelle and I had thought of that little precaution. “Clench ’em if you got ’em!” I called out as I hauled the nose up and fired the engines, drove the ship up into the atmosphere for all she was worth. I called out a belated, “You guys might wanna strap in!” as I heard various thuds, moans and curses from my passengers in the main hold.
I glanced at the control board as we made our ascent through the atmosphere. There weren’t any red lights on the status panel, so the slavers hadn’t had the chance to sabotage the ship, thank God for that. On my scope I could see the contact traces of five other freighters following close behind me. That made me shudder a bit. We had gone down there with thirty.
One of my passengers stumbled in through the cockpit door and climbed into the copilot’s seat. Acheson, it was, the fellow who had tried to convince me of the necessity of retreat. He gave the board a quick look over, then turned to me. “I’ll signal the Chameleon, let them know that we’re coming.”
I nodded, not trusting myself to speak.
I couldn’t believe what I had just done. I had watched the woman I love get captured and carried off, and I had done nothing to stop it from happening. And not only had I done nothing to stop it from happening, but I had also tucked my tail between my legs and run like a frightened puppy dog. Some warrior you turned out to be, Martin. You just can’t do anything right, can you? It’s nothing short of a miracle that she’s stayed with you as long as she has. If you ever get her back you’ll be lucky if she ever wants to speak to you again.
Someone tapped me on the shoulder, shocking me out of my reverie. It was Acheson. “Signal from the Chameleon,” he said. “They’re under attack and we are being advised not to approach.”
I frowned. “Under attack?” I repeated. “No, that’s impossible.”
Acheson shrugged. “Well, they weren’t supposed to know that we were coming, but they still managed to stage one hell of an ambush in that compound,” he countered.
I was forced to admit that he did have a point. Dammit.
“Alright, there’s nothing for it then,” I said. “Let’s have a look at what we’re dealing with.”
“Long range sensor telemetry is on your number one screen,” Acheson said. “Remote sensor telemetry from the Chameleon is on your number three screen.”
I looked down at my screens. The readings were indeed there. It didn’t take long for me to see why Eric had signaled that we shouldn’t approach. The slavers had gathered together a motley collection of star fighters, some of them factory models, some of them constructed from bits and pieces of dozens of different kinds of ships, and had managed to form a tight sphere around the Chameleon and her escorts. Of course, Eric and his people were putting up one hell of a fight but it was still a losing proposition. Sooner or later, probably sooner, someone was going to make a mistake and that’s when some ships were going to die.
I think that’s when something snapped in my brain. I had just watched these low-down good-for-nothing no-account bastards walk off with the woman I loved, and I was going to be damned if I was going to allow them to take out the Chameleon. It just wasn’t going to happen, and that’s all there was to it.
I pulled the throttles back past the safety detents and brought the ships guns and targeting sensors on line. I entered in a course for the outer edge of the sphere. Sensors established a target lock in a matter of seconds and I pulled back on the triggers, emptying the forward torpedo tubes.
The slaver ships weren’t expecting the Chameleon to get any reinforcements, so the attention of their crews was focused sorely on the threat in front of them. They didn’t pay any attention to the threat behind them, the threat they didn’t even know was there, until it was too late.
Half a second after I fired off my salvo the other five freighters followed suit, firing torpedoes of their own. A couple of them missed, detonated harmlessly in front of their targets. The rest were right on the money and most of an entire squadron of slaver fighters vanished in a flash of light and a ball of fire.
Eric isn’t any fool, and he knows an opportunity when he sees one. He drove the Chameleon through the hole we had made at flank speed, dragging her escorts along behind her. The fighters struggled to regroup and follow, and we took advantage of that confusion to take up escort positions.
“Coordinates for hyperspace jump coming in,” Acheson reported.
“Key them in,” I commanded. “Now!”
Acheson’s hands flew over the controls. “Jump plotted and laid in. Chameleon signals jump when ready.”
“Hang on,” I said as I eased off on the throttles and threw the series of switches that engaged the hyperdrive, allowing us to escape to the safety of hyperspace.
* * *
We came out of hyperspace in a ragged bunch, formed up around the Chameleon and waited for docking instructions. Those ships which had sustained the most damage or were carrying wounded were given berths on the hangar deck, while the rest of us moored ourselves to the docking ports that studded the port and starboard sides of our beloved carrier.
I powered down the Moonshadow when I finished the docking, took my place in line behind my passengers. I stepped through the airlock and onto the deck of the Chameleon, made my way forward to the bridge.
As I walked through the door I saw Eric and one of the bridge crew spraying extinguisher foam on one of the small electrical fires that were scattered through the apartment. Eric saw me and strode over to me, his face covered with grime and soot. “What the hell happened back there?” he demanded. Then he started to look concerned. “Where’s Michelle?”
I tried to answer but I couldn’t. I opened my mouth but no words came out. Then my eyes started to sting and my vision started to blur, and I just couldn’t keep myself up on my feet any more. As I sank down to the deck I saw Eric drop into his captains chair with his hand over his mouth. “Oh my God,” he whispered.
* * *
The trip back to Xanadu took eight days.
It was probably amongst the most productive eight days of my life, as well as the darkest. I worked with the crew of the Chameleon to repair the damage that the ship incurred during the fight with the pirates, and when I wasn't doing that I was coordinating repair efforts for the surviving freighters in our little flotilla. Doing all that work was good for me in that it kept me from thinking too much, so it kept me from blaming myself.
I kept telling myself that I should have seen the ambush coming. After all, the signs were all there, you just had to know where to look. Of course I can say that now because hindsight is 20/20, but at the time I hadn't seen a blessed thing, and because of that failure I had been forced to stand mute and watch as Michelle was taken from me, brutally and savagely. It's not the kind of thing that someone tends to forget.
Even after eight days I was still feeling as if the noblest parts of myself, the parts that I had denied for all those years before I met her, had been ripped away, left behind on that godforsaken rock of a planet. In the back of my mind I wondered if I would ever get them back, but I already knew the answer to that one. You're damn straight I was going to get it back. I was going to get it all back. And God help whoever was dumb enough to stand in my way.
From the moment we made our jump to hyperspace I was thirsty for blood, spoiling for a fight. The crew of the Chameleon recognized this, they had seen it before, and tended to give me a wide berth, as did the other freighter captains. I was fine with that; I wasn't really interested in having anything to do with them anyway.
About the only person who had the stones to associate himself with me during that return trip was Eric. It only made sense, really. Eric and I had been partners for damn near thirty five years at this point. We had both experienced and weathered the worst that the other could give. It made for a very comfortable friendship, an aspect of our relationship which we tended to downplay by actively insulting each other at every opportunity.
What can I say? It's a testosterone thing.
Of course, the only thing that doing all that work really accomplished was to keep me from figuring out something very important; I needed to figure out how I was going to tell Percy what had happened.
Percy had known Michelle for a lot longer than I had, had been partners with her husband long before they ever got married. Percy had never told me that he was going to make my life a living, breathing hell if anything ever happened to her, but he didn't have to. I could see it in his eyes, and that was a storm that I just was not willing to weather, not unless I had no other choice.
This time I had no other choice. I was going to have to face the fire, and I was going to have to do it alone.
We came out of hyperspace and maneuvered for Xanadu orbit. Eric contacted traffic control and made arrangements to dock the Chameleon in one of Percy's private moorings. The rest of us took our respective ships down to the surface, grounded in the hangars that Percy had set aside long ago specifically for our use.
I secured the Moonshadow and left the hangar, made my way across the city until I stood before the front door of The Flight Line, Percy's bar. It took me a long moment to gather my courage around me and step into that bar, but eventually I did it.
Percy was on duty behind the bar, and it was sufficiently early in the day that there were only a few people present. Percy looked up from his terminal screen as I stepped into the bar and sat down on one of the bar stools. He frowned when he saw the look on my face. “What happened?” he asked.
Well, there really isn't any good way to break this kind of news, so I decided that the best thing to do was to just come out and say it. “The pirate base was a trap,” I said. “They ambushed us. Michelle and I were separated during the fight. They captured her and there wasn't a damn thing that I could do to stop them.”
“Oh, hell,” Percy breathed.
* * *
Percy called his evening bartender in early. When she arrived he took me into his office in the back, sat me down in his guest chair. “It was supposed to be an easy strike,” he said. “You go in, you tear the place to shreds, you come back out again.”
I leaned back in the chair. “Well, it wasn’t that easy,” I countered. “Percy, they knew we were coming, they had to. Who did you get the intelligence about that base from?”
Percy tapped at his terminal keyboard for a moment. “Donovan sent that report in,” he said.
“Donovan?” I repeated. “Isn’t he the fellow that gave us that information about the Helena twenty years ago?”
“That’s the one,” Percy confirmed. “Good, solid agent. His data has never steered me wrong before.”
“Have you heard from him since he sent that last report?” I wondered.
Percy shook his head. “No, he hasn’t reported in.”
I grimaced as the obvious conclusion stumbled into my brain. “Percy, I don’t think that you’re going to hear from him.”
“You think he was compromised,” Percy said. Both of us knew it wasn’t a question.
“That’s exactly what I think happened,” I said. “Is there some kind of connection between this group and the incident with the Helena?”
“No, there isn’t,” Percy answered.
“Then you’re not digging hard enough,” I snapped. “Dammit, Percy, they targeted her deliberately, and they took her right in front of me. There has to be a reason for it; I can feel it in my bones.”
Percy cocked his head. “I said that there was no connection between this group and the incident with the Helena,” he qualified, “I did not say that there wasn’t another connection.”
“Well, don’t just sit on it. Spit it out, man!”
“The group you went up against at that base is the same group that Monty and I rescued Michelle from forty years ago.”
The temperature in the room seemed to drop at least ten degrees. I managed not to shiver. “Michelle was a slave?” I whispered.
Percy nodded. “A concubine, actually,” he said. “Monty and I never dealt with slaves, not when we could avoid it. But you know as well as I do that sometimes this business gets so tough that you find yourself doing things that you would never think of otherwise, just to make ends meet. Monty and I were in that position more often than I care to think about. One day this fellow approaches us in a cantina on Melkor and offers us fifty thousand credits to make a run for him. He tells us where to make the pickup, where to drop it off, and the only condition is that we keep our curiosity to ourselves and don’t ask any questions.
“We knew from experience that those kind of charters more often than not involve either slaves or weapons, but we really needed the fifty thousand. So we took the charter. This time it was slaves, all of them were female and wearing these really filmy, flimsy harem garments. And, just to make sure we didn’t get any ideas about sampling the merchandise, they came complete with their own guard, a big beefy type who went by the name of Digger.
“Digger’s job was to make sure that Monty and I didn’t take advantage of the presence of so many very beautiful, very nubile young girls, but the way he saw things that didn’t mean that he couldn’t take the odd taste here and there.
“The diagnostics for the starboard engine were showing some odd kind of flutter, and engine repair is usually a two-man job, so when Monty said he was going back to check it out I volunteered to go with him.” Percy took a deep breath before he continued. “We passed by the reactor room and heard some kind of noise. We peeked in and found Digger with one of the concubines. He was groping her under her shirt with his right hand while his left hand was trying to get through the waist band of her pants. It was obvious that she wanted nothing to do with Digger, and it was equally obvious that Digger knew it and just didn’t care. What he wanted was right in front of him, and he was going to take it whether she wanted to give it or not.
“Monty and I came through the door, pulled Digger off of the concubine, and threw him into the corner, told him that if he didn’t want us to feed him to the airlock then he would be well advised to keep his hands off the merchandise. Digger told us that if that was the way we felt about it then he was just going to have to kill us and take the ship for himself. Monty and I told him to take his best shot. Thirty seconds later Digger was dead, and I was in the cockpit altering our course.”
To be continued...
Copyright © 2004 by Michael J A Tyzuk