Hey, folks, this story will only be up until the actual story pops up on Amazon. Once it’s on Amazon I’ll have to take this down.
So, read fast!
Chapter 1: Man on a Mission
Amidst Station, Julius Cluster
9 August 2284
Bláan Tullius rolls his eyes and looks over at his teammate who had just spoken. Shaking his head, he says, “G, there’s no getting out of this. We’ve got a job to do and there’s no one else to do it.”
Aurum Gearhart, or G, as his team oftentimes called him, shakes his head right back and says, “No, that’s not what I’m getting at! All I’m saying is that if we’re supposed to be doing everything around here, then we should get paid like we do!”
Tullius laughs at that, “We all know that we’d be gone by now if we were paid that much! There are a million greener pastures for people like us to move to besides here.”
“Oh, it ain’t all bad,” Carmella Toka cuts in at long last—she had stayed out of the conversation up until now, which wasn’t too uncommon for her to do. She motions around them and says with her sweet, drawling voice, “Nothin’ in the universe got a view like this.”
Tullius looks around and takes a few seconds to admire their surroundings. Sure, he had seen it all before, but that didn’t mean that it wasn’t worth taking in every so often.
The infinite expanse of blackened space stretches out unhindered in almost all directions. A few lone stars are visible, but most are hidden due to all the dust and light pollution from Amidst Station and all the activity around it.
The obvious exceptions to the unimpeded views of the galaxy are the station itself, the ships around it, and the uninhabited and unnamed world that the station is orbiting. Some people called the planet Amidst, after the station, but the official record still left it unnamed.
The station, a pillar—or, more accurately, several pillars—of civilization in the middle of nothing and somehow in the middle of everything all at the same time had long been a waypoint for travelers from all over the galaxy. The original builders had thought up the idea for a station made up of an interconnected web of pillars. They had done so with both design and utility in mind. It had been a stunning success and still was.
Amidst Station hardly showed its age thanks to the seemingly endless flow of riches that pass through the station. In addition to that, the guilds and the Dawn royals took special care to keep the station as presentable and welcoming as it could possibly be.
Of course, that was at the expense of the locals. While millions of people might pass through the station in any given year, the permanent population was much, much smaller than that. As such, those who lived here permanently always had to hold down at least a few jobs to keep things up to snuff. It wasn’t uncommon for a single person to have three or four jobs around the place.
What made people stick around and deal with the hard work was the pay. While it might not be enough to keep people from complaining on particularly rough days, it was easily twice the average when compared to the terrestrial counterparts who held similar jobs. In addition to that, pay always arrived early and there were countless benefits too.
Those benefits just required people to stay on the station if they wanted to enjoy them.
“As pretty as the view might be, I do get a little tired of the color orange while I’m out here,” Gearhart says after a few beats.
Thanks to the orange planet below, the orangish dust, and the yellow, orange, and red stars that made up the majority of the Julius Cluster, everything was awash with orange hues. The only escape that those who lived on Amidst Station had was if they made their way deeper into the station where the only light was artificial. The color didn’t bother Tullius, but there were plenty of people who grew tired of it that he knew.
“I happen to love it,” Carmella says with a content sigh, “Sure, my vote might not count, since orange is my fav’rite color, but I think it’s pretty. This the only place I been that had light like this; I think it’s pretty neat.”
“I’m just glad things aren’t all yellow,” Gearhart shrugs as best he can in his spacesuit, “I hate yellow.”
Tullius chuckles, “We know. You tell us every day.”
“It’s a bad color, what can I say?” Gearhart laughs.
“I’ll preten’ like I didn’t hear you say that!” Carmella says before she tosses a small bolt at Gearhart.
“Uh oh, you called out Carmella’s second favorite color! She’s going to kill you!” Tullius jokingly says as he makes a show of getting out of the way of the two.
“I thought we agreed that fightin’ to the death was a no-go anymore,” Carmella reminds Gearhart and Tullius teasingly before she turns back to her work.
“Pretty sure he only said that it wasn’t advised,” Gearhart points out matter-of-factly.
“Eh, close ‘nough,” Carmella says, a mischievous smirk in her voice. That said, Carmella’s cutting torch flashes to life once more and she starts heating up the area around the block of ice that was just one of the problems that they were currently working on.
Tullius follows Carmella’s lead, and he also gets back to work. They all had a lot more to do today than just fix this water reservoir that had frozen up and delayed a few dozen ships’ departures. Once they finished up here, there were some hull repairs that needed done, some inspections to do, and seemingly a million more monotonous tasks besides that. No matter how much they did, the work just kept piling up.
And that was just for the maintenance work that Tullius and his team were in charge of. They had plenty of other things to do for their other jobs around Amidst Station.
“There you are, you sneaky little puke,” Gearhart mutters under his breath.
“What was it?” Tullius asks, “Was it the heating element fuse like I said?”
“Close,” Gearhart answers, “It’s one of the wires leading up to it. Looks like it got cooked.”
“Awe, bummer,” Tullius frowns. Chuckling he adds, “Glad I didn’t bet on it.”
“But you did drag the replacemen’ all the way out here,” Carmella points out.
Tullius shrugs, “Better safe than sorry.”
“Least we brought everythin’ we’d need to fix ‘er up good,” Carmella says, “I hate takin’ extra trips back ‘n forward to get things we forgot.”
“Me too,” Tullius nods. Looking down at the wrist-mounted computer he had been using, he mutters, “Too bad this thing wasn’t right about what was broken yet again. I really need to get a new one or something.”
“It’s a poor craftsman who blames his tools,” Carmella chides.
Tullius shrugs and cedes, “I’ll accept that. We all know Gearhart’s the expert anyhows.”
“I’ll have to cut through a couple of things to get to the wire, so I’ll be a minute,” Gearhart announces, “We’ll have to replace the bolts that are supposed to hold this panel in place. They’re all sorts of stuck.”
Tullius nods and he watches as Gearhart pulls down the welding visor over his helmet’s primary one. Tullius looks away before Gearhart’s plasma cutter flashes to life. No, he didn’t need to do as much, since his visor was already tinted enough to prevent damage, but it was a good habit that he didn’t want to get out of. Going blind from watching a plasma cutter didn’t seem like something he’d be proud of sharing.
“I’ll be through my ice soon enough too,” Carmella sounds, “I’ll keep the heat on things until you’ve got it all back up and runnin’, G.”
“Copy that,” Gearhart mutters.
Feeling a little useless, Tullius decides to beat Gearhart to the punch and sorts through the bolts that they had brought out here. Assuming that the bolts might have cold welded themselves in place, Tullius also gets the tools he’d need to bore them out and replace the thread too.
Pointing as slyly as he can toward a ship that had just come into view, Tullius asks, “That look like a slaver ship to you two?”
Gearhart looks up from his toolbox and, a few seconds later, he answers, “Yes.”
“Carmella?” Tullius urges.
“It does,” Carmella answers with a sigh.
“I reckon we’re just about done doing maintenance for today then,” Tullius nods to himself, “Onto one of our more exciting jobs.”
“I ain’t sure if excitin’ is the word I’d use,” Carmella grunts.
Still watching the two apparent slaver ships, Tullius sighs and says, “Well, regardless what you’d call it, it looks like they’re heading toward our sector of the station too. We’re going to get involved no matter what now.”
“What poor souls you think they got this time?” Carmella asks, saddened.
Gearhart points at the ship that Tullius had already pointed out and then he points at its wingman, “Looks like there’s only two ships, so I’m willing to bet that they attacked some transport and took anyone and everyone they could off it.”
“You sayin’ that ‘cause they normally travel in bigger groups?” Carmella asks.
“Yes,” Gearhart answers, “I’d bet that their other ships look a bit too beat up to not draw attention, so they opted to leave them somewhere.”
“Which means they’ll have reinforcements if things get hot,” Carmella warns.
“Only if they can get the word out,” Tullius nods.
Carmella scoffs slightly before she says, “Station’s got plenty o’ guns to take care of itself should it get to that.”
Tullius and the others watch as the two ships slowly make their way to the docking bays and then lock into place. From this distance Tullius can’t make much of anything out but, thanks to his helmet’s zoom ability, he is able to watch as a handful of people disembark from the ship through the windows of a few of the passenger boarding bridges.
It always bothered Tullius how the station allowed for anyone and everyone to dock at Amidst Station. While he understood how it was necessary to keep the peace and keep the station from drawing the ire of too many bad people, the cons were always at the fore of his mind. There were the pirates, smugglers, criminal mercenaries, thieves, and—worst of all—the slavers. Their misdeeds all seemed to carry on like a sort of disease and even the best-behaved citizens would end up getting caught up in some ill-advised activities while the baddies were docked and even a short while after they’d leave.
In many ways, Tullius thought of it all as a disease. A disease made possible by inadequate laws, enforcement, and manpower. There just weren’t enough good guys in the galaxy to keep tabs on all the bad ones if what Tullius saw was any indication.
The problem was further compounded by Amidst Station’s proximity to the Coalition border. Thanks to Dawn edicts, Amidst Station security and other policing forces were unable to pursue those who made for the border. The Dawns were too afraid of the Coalition kicking up another war and getting people killed.
Meanwhile, crime festered and people died because of it.
Seemingly every day, Tullius heard news about some new band of marauders who were exploiting the lawless expanse along the border. The border was a place where people like Tullius couldn’t intervene and where the Coalition seemed all too happy to watch burn.
Tullius hated every second of it. It was the driving force behind his dislike for living on the station. However, he knew that he hadn’t left just yet because he knew that he was still making some sort of difference. While he wasn’t bringing down thousands of baddies by the hour, he was able to save more people than he could count.
He actually did keep count of the people that he directly saved. He tallied them up based on what he saved them from too. So far, freed slaves-to-be was the leading category at twelve thousand three hundred eighty-four for the year. Including all his time doing this, that number swelled close to a hundred thousand.
Knowing those numbers, Tullius knew he couldn’t ever turn his back on the station or his work. Not without a very, very convincing argument, at least.
“Well, no use in talking about things,” Tullius says suddenly, “Let’s get down there and poke our noses where we shouldn’t.”
Chapter 2: Sidetrack
Amidst Station, Julius Cluster
9 August 2284
“We’re checking out the ships stationed at stalls B-54 and B-68, Hanan,” Tullius tells his superior officer as soon as his shuttle docks and the airlocks pressurize.
“Think he’ll let us get to that before our maintenance work is done?” Gearhart asks.
Tullius removes his helmet and takes in a deep breath. While the air on the station was just as recirculated as the air in his spacesuit, something about not having his head confined as he breathed made it seem a lot fresher. After enjoying his breath, Tullius waits for Gearhart to remove his own helmet before he answers, “Yeah, I think so.”
Carmella is quick to add, “Hanan’s seen us do ‘nough that he knows we know what we’re doin’.”
“But we’ve got a lot of stuff to get done,” Gearhart reminds them, “I know none of it’s too pressing, but we did tell Ross that we’d—”
“High time y’all got back,” Hanan’s voice sounds over the radio, “Yeah, get to it. I figured those ships would look fishy to you.”
“Did they clear all the checks?” Tullius asks.
“They did,” Hanan answers.
“No issues whatsoever?”
“Were they acting weird, at least?”
“So, we technically have no reason to check.”
“None in their eyes, no. But I know you and your team have a nose for slavers.”
“More like we actually use our eyes and can figure out who’s a slaver or not,” Gearhart grumbles.
“Any weapons on board their ships?” Tullius asks Hanan.
“Quite a few, as you’d expect of anyone flying ‘round here,” Hanan answers.
Tullius frowns. He wished that there’d be a day that they found unarmed slavers. Unfortunately, that wasn’t too likely to happen anytime soon if things kept going like they were.
A few beats pass and Hanan advises, “Just remember all the protocols and remind the captains of the ships of the rules. We run security here and we’ve got the right to check anything and everything out.”
“Copy that,” Tullius nods.
“Stay safe, you all,” Hanan says before the feed goes dead.
Tullius nods slowly as he thinks. While Hanan always told everyone to stay safe like the caring old man that he was, something about this time seemed different. It was as if Hanan wasn’t saying something. It was like he had a sense of what was going on and didn’t want to say it. Shaking his head, Tullius reminds himself that he had a propensity to be paranoid when slavers were involved. The odds that Hanan was hiding something were slim to none.
“I’m hungry,” Gearhart complains, “We haven’t eaten since… I don’t know when.”
“The word you’re looking for is breakfast,” Tullius chuckles, “We’ll grab some food on our way to the guard shack.”
“So, we aren’t in a rush?” Carmella asks.
“No,” Tullius shakes his head. He stops to tap away on his computer and then, once that’s done, he finishes, “I’ve locked the two ships down. They won’t be flying out of here. I’ll get a few people to keep an eye on the ships too to make sure that nothing gets on or off the ship without us knowing.”
Carmella makes a face, “Seems awfully bold of the slavers to come ‘ere.”
“Maybe word hasn’t got out about us yet,” Tullius shrugs.
As much as he hoped that was the case, he couldn’t help but suspect that the true reason that the slavers continued routing traffic through Amidst Station was because they had enough ships getting through with their cargoes intact. Amidst Station was a big place and Tullius was one of the few people in charge of policing the station who actually had a vendetta against the slavers.
That thought always made Tullius a little queasy. To think that he was so close to these people who were losing their lives and their freedom filled him with a sense of guilt. It was like he was hearing their cries for help, and he was ignoring them. What furthered the pain he felt over it was the knowledge that he had the power to save them and yet they still ended up lost.
Tullius’s mind immediately flashes back to his wall of tally marks. Every tally was a name. A man, woman, or child. Every tally was a life. Tullius had trained his mind to always remember the wall whenever he felt discouraged or heartsick over the people he knew he had missed.
“You comin’, Tull?” Carmella asks from the door.
Tullius looks up at Carmella and he realizes that he had zoned out as he thought about the slavers and all of the people he had missed. Taking in another deep breath, he nods, “Yeah, let’s go.”
Chapter 3: Drive
Amidst Station, Julius Cluster
9 August 2284
“Easy for you to say, you’ve been places,” Tullius frowns, “G and I have just been stuck here our whole lives.”
“Well, there’s no one stoppin’ you from getting’ out ‘n seein’ the galaxy!” Carmella exclaims, “There are things t’ see, people t’ meet, and,” she shakes her teriyaki chicken kabob for her comrades to see, “and great food to taste! Food a hundred times better than this!”
“Them there fighting words,” Gearhart chuckles, “Teriyaki chicken is the best thing that has ever been and ever will be.”
“Says the kid who’s never been out there,” Carmella scoffs, “Just you wait ‘til you had duck cooked to perfection. Nex’ level stuff there.”
“I think one of the mining guild leaders has a duck pond, maybe we could give duck a try,” Tullius jokes.
“I’ll stick with this, thank you,” Gearhart says before he takes a bite of meat and chases it down with a mouthful of sticky rice from the small bowl in his other hand.
“Your loss,” Tullius shrugs with a playful grin on his face.
The group falls silent as they make their way through the food court and Tullius curiously eyes everyone and everything around them as he walks. They still had a little way to go before they reached what he and his team affectionately called the guard shack, so he didn’t have much else to do.
The guard shack wasn’t a shack, in fact, it was actually quite well-stocked and well-built. It had most everything Tullius thought he’d ever want or need in order to do his job. He knew that he’d be able to enjoy the place a lot more if he were able to exclusively do his policing job, but there would be a time for that in the future. For now, he’d keep on with the million responsibilities he had, and he’d keep doing them as best he could.
As he walks, Tullius mentally pans out and he pictures where he is in the station based on the view that he had had when he and his team spotted the slaver ships. The sector that they are in is on one of the outermost pillars of the station.
This pillar, like every other interconnected pillar that made up the station, wasn’t smooth and sleek anymore. When Amidst Station was first built it was beautiful and looked like an art piece. Now, all these years later, urban sprawl had given cause for additions to be built. As such, towers and spires rose from the various platforms that had grafted themselves onto the pillars. While there had been talk of adding new pillars to the station that were truer to the original designs, it was just too cheap and too easy to just build off of what was already here.
In many ways, Tullius thought the seemingly random additions just added to the station’s beauty. It showed the life that happened here. It showed that, despite the complaints of some, people wanted to live here. They wanted to set down roots, build things bigger, and stick around for the long run.
It made Tullius feel like his home wasn’t just a warren for criminals or a tiresome stopping-off point for travelers.
Amidst Station was home to all of those people. It wasn’t just a dead or dying station like so many others that had risen and fallen over the decades.
Nodding slowly, Tullius finishes thinking about where he was on the station and he tells his team in a near whisper, “The slavers are probably close by. This is the food court closest to their docking bays.”
“Way ahead of ya,” Carmella says. Motioning somewhere in front of them with her head, she says, “Nine slavers at one-thirty.”
Tullius looks to his one-thirty and, sure enough, there are some surly-looking people hunched over one of the tables. They are still a long way off, but he easily picks them out. There aren’t any people sitting at the tables nearest them and Tullius can’t help but suspect it was because the stench of evil could be picked up by all.
Tullius’s eyes narrow, but he is quick to take control of his face and put a neutral expression on it once more. He didn’t want them knowing that he was onto them. If they realized as much, then they might do something that would get people hurt. Tullius wasn’t about to let that happen.
Knowing that he would struggle to keep a neutral expression while looking at the slavers, Tullius changes gears and decides to listen in on conversations as he walks through the station.
The first conversation is between a wealthy-looking man and a scrappy-looking kid who’s got grime and dirt seemingly baked into his skin.
“I’m telling you, we gotta go all in on this play! I’ve never seen a space rock with so much in it!”
“What’s it assaying at, Graham? I’m not tossing cash in another one of your plays without seeing numbers.”
“But you’ve made money every time!”
“That’s not the game I’m in here for. I need to know returns and time frames.”
“Yep. And it’s a million ounces electrum easy.”
“How much of that is gold?”
“More than you’d expect. It’s…”
Tullius can’t hear the rest of that conversation because the prospector starts whispering, so he tunes into the next loudest conversation that’s along his route to the guard shack. This one is between two middle-aged men. One is wearing a flight suit and the other is wearing more casual attire.
“I don’t care the price, Hank. I need new emitters and I’m willing to pay. I don’t care if you rip them off of some wreck, I just need shields before I head back out there!”
“I’m telling you, there aren’t any extras anywhere around here. I’ve got easily a hundred on backorder and the first one gets here in four months. That’s with them expediting things!”
“Man, why is it always so hard getting things out here?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
“Is there really nothing you can do?”
“I can ask around. No promises.”
“Thank you, Hank. You’re a saint!”
The two men shake hands and part ways and Tullius shifts his attention to a hard-looking woman and a man who is clearly bored. Tullius can’t help but think they’re up to no good at first, but he quickly finds that those thoughts are unfounded.
“Think they got the funds?”
“Matilda, they wouldn’t tell us if they did or didn’t. We’ll find out.”
“But how are we supposed to know if they’re serious about buying it?”
“They flew all the way out here, didn’t they?”
“No one flies between planets to just look at buying something. They fly out, they buy. That’s how it always works.”
“Listen, girly, I’ve been in this business for ages. You’ve got yourself a good-looking rock and people pay for that sort of thing. You made out—if you had to fly out yourself you could have gotten into all sorts of trouble.”
“I can handle myself in a fight.”
“Ha, yeah right. One-on-one you might. But that’s not what the pirates do. They swarm you. There’s no getting out of there without them getting what they want if they find you.”
“Oh, it’s not that bad. I just flew out a month or so ago to the Solanis—”
“That’s not a dangerous route. Where your buyer’s coming from is dangerous. You’re lucky they even made it here.”
“And you’re really sure that they’re serious?”
“Matilda, as I said, I—there they are now!”
Tullius watches as a small entourage approaches the man and woman and he sees a few gilded family crests on a few outfits. Whatever the Matilda woman was selling, it had attracted the attention of a noble family.
Not wanting to draw the ire of the noble or their guards, Tullius shifts his gaze to the ground and continues walking. Remembering that he had yet to finish his food, he pulls off a piece of chicken with his teeth and gnaws contently on the flesh.
As Tullius walks, he can’t help but hear a few dozen other conversations. Some are from transporter crews, some are explorers, quite a few are travelers, and there are even more people that he can’t figure out just what they do.
It’s life. Lots and lots of life. He loves every second of it.
And then the slavers’ conversation comes within earshot.
“It’ll be easy. We finish fueling up, rendezvous with the others, and siphon off some of our go-go juice to them, and then it’s a dash back to Coalition Space.”
“Provided we don’t get intercepted, sure—”
“We won’t be. They never send out interceptors once you’re so far out. They aren’t allowed to. I’ve been working this area for years. We’ll make it.”
“There’s no way it’s that easy.”
“When we pull it off, you in for keeps?”
“Me and at least a hundred other people.”
“That’s what I like to hear.”
Carmella seems to pick up on the conversation and Tullius’s nerves and she gently whispers, “They ain’t said nothin’ incriminatin’ just yet.”
“And if they’re smart then they won’t, they know they’re in public,” Gearhart quickly adds, “Let’s not stick around. Let’s get in their ships, check things out, then get out. I don’t know about you two, but I don’t feel like getting shot today.”
Tullius takes in a deep breath and then nods at his team. That done, they all pick up the pace and pass the slavers without issue.
As they walk with renewed vigor, Tullius thinks about what Gearhart said about getting shot. While Tullius had no intention of getting shot again, he can’t help but think about just how badly he wanted to shoot some of the slavers. He wanted to be involved in the final part of what he was so good about putting into play. He wanted to be part of one of the firing squads that the slavers faced.
According to official records, news publications, and a small handful of friends that Tullius had that had an in, every single slaver that he had shipped out for judicial hearings ended up standing before the line. Not one had gotten off easy.
But that did little to sate Tullius.
There had been some shootouts with the few slavers that were brave enough to try and stand up against him. Their deaths didn’t sate Tullius either.
For some reason, no amount of death seemed to limit the rage that Tullius felt. He can’t figure out just why this was the case, but it was. The only thing that appeased him was adding tallies to his wall of the saved. It didn’t make sense how revenge did so little for him when doing good like that did.
Tullius chews at his lip as he thumbs in the key code to get into the guard shack. He strides in once the door opens and walks as quickly as he can through the hallway and past the other rooms until he gets to the locker area for personals. Once there, he sheds his toolbelt, gas canisters, air tank, and everything else that he had been using for the spacewalk and repair which he wouldn’t need for the raid.
“Tull,” Carmella breathes as she pulls up beside him.
“What?” Tullius asks as he stows his maintenance gear away for the time being. When he was done with the slavers he’d come back and then shuttle his gear over to the maintenance hall. It’d have to wait until then because lives were at stake.
Carmella sighs and then whispers, “It’s not goin’ t’ bring them back.”
Tullius nods, “I know.”
“You say ya know, but you don’t act it.”
“We worry for you, you know.”
“Been a hot minute since you joined G and I at church,”
This makes Tullius stop, and his frown deepens. He didn’t remember when the last time had been that he had made it. He didn’t remember what excuse he had had. Swallowing, he asks, “How long has it been?”
“Three,” Tullius continues frowning. It seemed odd to him that three weeks could feel like such a long period of time. It seemed exceptionally odd that he couldn’t remember that far back as well.
“Pastor’s been askin’ G and I ‘bout you. He’s worried.”
“I’m worried,” Tullius breathes. He isn’t quite sure what he was worried about, but there was something.
“You can’t save everyone, you know,”
“You can’t blame yourself for what happened.”
“Three weeks back?”
The memories flood back and Tullius suddenly remembers everything. He had missed church three weeks ago because they had a botched raid. He had led his team into a ship that they were told might be holding slaves and they didn’t find anyone or anything. Then, once that ship left, they began spacing people. There was a trail of floating dead following the ship’s route out. One person had been saved and Tullius had missed church to meet with them. They passed not too long after that.
It was clear that it was a message.
It was clear that people were going to continue dying if he intervened.
At least that was the message that Tullius knew he was supposed to get. Instead, he took it as a sign that he needed to double down. He devoted every hour of every day after that to trying to figure out what he missed and how he could avoid missing such a thing in the future. Thanks to that effort, he missed two more weeks of church.
“Tull?” Carmella sounds.
“Are you goin’ to be good?”
“You ain’t been yourself,”
“I haven’t,” Tullius agrees as he shakes his head.
“If you need anythin’, you know you’re good as family to my husband and me.”
“I know,” Tullius nods. A second passes and he adds, “I’ll be at church this Sunday.”
Carmella smiles, nods, and places a hand on Tullius’s shoulder reassuringly. Giving it a squeeze, she then slips away.
Tullius stands there without saying or thinking anything for a few beats. As he stands there, a few people file in and out, but Tullius doesn’t advert his gaze.
Instead, he stares at the half-empty locker before him. His flatlining brain seems incapable of wanting to do anything else.
A few more moments pass before a lone tear slips down and then drips off Tullius’s nose, thanks to his head being slightly inclined.
Snapping back to reality because of that, Tullius abruptly stands and wipes his face. Looking around, he confirms that no one had seen him. Clearing his throat, he then hums softly to ensure that his voice isn’t cracking from his stormy slew of emotions that are smashing up against each other inside his chest.
Satisfied that no one would know about how he felt, Tullius makes his way over to the men’s locker room where his gear for policing is stored. Once in there, he makes his way to his locker, opens it, gears up, and then he stops to kiss his fingers and then rub them across his wedding photo.
The photo is of his mother, father, brother, and newlywed wife.
Tullius was married for three weeks before the slavers took his wife from him. She had been out with his family without him, as per his mother’s request. His mother had insisted that any new woman in the family ought to learn how their family worked, and that was their little outing to put it to the test.
The slavers simply saw a lone, lightly armed transport and thought it would be an easy target.
It took a few weeks before Tullius was able to mostly put together what happened. He had yet to understand why it had, and it had been years.
“Waiting on you, boss,” Gearhart says from behind Tullius.
Tullius looks up from the photo of his family and then nods at Gearhart. He knew full well that there was a job for him to do in the here and now and he also knew that the job would provide him the respite that he needed.
Grabbing the last few things that he needed for the job to come, he leads the way out of the locker room, Gearhart in tow.
Gearhart follows silently for a few beats, but he starts talking once they’re out of the locker room, “You know, I was talking to one of my friends the past few weeks about starting up a new business.”
“What kind of business is that?” Tullius asks, all too happy to get his mind off of things, even if it’s only for a few short beats.
“Anything and everything metal. I think we’d start with simpler things and go on from there as we get the funds to expand.”
“I know we could use something like that all the way out here. Where would you get the materials to build with though?”
“We’ve already got that lined up. Been meeting with the salvagers who run in and around the sector. We’d also get scraps of useful metal from the repair teams here too.”
“Sounds like you’ve got everything thought out.”
“What do you have left to do?”
“Well… We need a place to set up shop.”
“And I was hoping we could rent out your family’s old warehouse, or something?”
Tullius nods slowly, slightly surprised that he hadn’t put things together that Gearhart might be bringing up the business for that reason.
The warehouse had sat unused ever since his family had been taken. It still held most of the goods that were in it when it all happened. The warehouse served as the cache for the family’s import-export business, one of the biggest ones on Amidst Station. When his family was taken, Tullius couldn’t bring himself to keep it going. It hurt a lot of people on the station, but Tullius assured himself that they could adapt.
“There’s no rush in giving me an answer,” Gearhart says after a few beats, “No pressure to say yes either. It just seemed like the easiest thing. If you don’t think—”
“Yes,” Tullius interrupts.
“Yes?” Gearhart cocks his head. It’s abundantly clear to Tullius that he’s getting excited about the proposition.
“I’ll let you use the warehouse. We can talk numbers later, but… I guess it’s just time.”
“Thank you! I… I know this must be hard…”
Tullius just nods, but he doesn’t say anything else to Gearhart. Instead, he looks over at where Carmella is waiting for them and asks, “You all set?”
Carmella nods, “Yeah, let’s get ‘er done.”
Chapter 4: Caught in the Middle
Amidst Station, Julius Cluster
9 August 2284
Tullius resists the urge to smirk as he and his team stride right on past a group of slavers that are clearly keeping an eye on their ship. He knew that the group was armed, some of the weapons they had looked quite threatening and dangerous, but Tullius knew enough to know that no idiot would fire on anyone in Amidst Station. Acts like that were swiftly and decisively answered and everyone knew it—even criminal factions.
Sure, this led to increased violence just outside of Amidst Station’s jurisdiction, since some people felt inclined to do evil seemingly just for the sake of it, but that was outside of Tullius’s control.
“Oi! Oi, you three!” a slaver calls out.
Tullius ignores them and he is sure that his team is doing the same. This wasn’t the first time they had marched straight into a slaver ship while ignoring anyone and everyone who tried to stop them. As Hanan had said earlier, they had the ultimate authority here. No one could stop Tullius and, if they tried, things wouldn’t end well for them.
“Stop!” the slaver goes on.
“What do they think they’re doing?”
“Get up! We gotta stop ‘em!”
“Keep it moving,” Tullius whispers over his team’s radio for just them to hear.
Someone behind Tullius racks their gun and, only at that, does Tullius stop. His team does the same, following his lead seamlessly.
He also slips his hand down to his sidearm which already has a round chambered.
“I thought that might get your attention,” the slaver that had been doing most of the talking spits.
“You should know better than to draw a weapon on station security,” Tullius says without turning. His hand still hovering over his weapon, he adds, “Put your gun away and we can pretend this never happened.”
“Station security? What are you doing here? We already went through your checks. We—”
“You can either put your gun away, or I can put you away. Your choice.”
“But what are you doing here? We already—”
“I don’t answer questions when I’m at gunpoint.”
“Fine! The gun’s away! Now, why are you—”
“Any and all users of Amidst Station’s docking facilities submit fully to the station’s laws and procedures. They are also subject to as many, or as few, inspections as the station security force deems necessary. You cannot oppose or resist inspection.”
“You cannot oppose or resist inspection.”
“We need to tell the captain,” a slaver whispers.
When the first slaver says nothing, Tullius continues toward the passenger boarding bridge.
The slavers say nothing else and Tullius opts against turning back to see what they might be doing. He wanted them to think that he was even more confident than he was. He wanted them scared and grasping at their severely limited options.
“Lock down the ship in docking stall B-68,” Tullius orders into his comm piece, “Get some quick response teams down at stall B-54 as well. The crew wasn’t too happy to see us, and we all know what that means.”
“Do you, or will you, need medical assistance down there?” the person manning the comms for the security feed asks.
“That’s likely,” Tullius affirms.
“Medical teams will be on standby at a safe distance.”
“Keep the response teams incognito for now. Let’s wait and see what happens. No need to jump the gun.”
“Copy that, sir.”
“We all know that you don’t make requests like this if you aren’t sure that we’ll have some issues,” Gearhart breathes over their radios.
“We don’t usually get guns drawn on us either,” Tullius responds.
“I reckon that makes ‘em look awfully guilty,” Carmella says.
Tullius nods and says, “I’m willing to bet that the folks we have stationed to observe thought so as well. They’ll be set for whatever happens.”
“Sounds like a safe bet,” Carmella sounds.
“Think they’ve got the slaves somewhere obvious or somewhere hidden?” Gearhart asks.
“With how nervous they were, I’d guess somewhere that’s not too hidden. Remember that they did pass initial inspection though. It shouldn’t be too obvious.”
“That means the poor souls didn’t show on thermals,” Carmella concludes.
“And that they aren’t in the main living areas,” Tullius adds, “That means that the slavers have them hidden somewhere. We just have to figure out where…”
Tullius marches across the pressurized bridge to where the slaver ship is. He stops at the end just long enough to tap in the override code to open the door to the ship’s airlock. Luckily any and every ship that docked with the station had to submit to accepting such override codes. Of course, most crews weren’t aware that this was something that happened, but that was on them. It was a nice ace up Tullius’s sleeve when dealing with sketchy folks.
The airlock door grinds open and, upon seeing the filth inside, Tullius is immediately thankful for his respirator’s filters.
Inside the airlock is a thick film of something greasy. Algae, fungi, and mold are also immediately evident. It seemed that the slavers must have been somewhere exceedingly humid for quite some time and that they hadn’t taken the time to clean things up.
“Hey! How’d you—” a slaver shouts from behind them.
Tullius finally spins around and shouts, “Back up! This is an official investigation! Leave or be detained. This is your final warning.”
The slaver’s hands shoot up and they back away slowly, “Okay, okay! I’m sorry. I’ll—”
“Leave now,” Tullius repeats one of his previous orders.
“Get the captain!” a slaver calls out from beyond the boarding bridge.
“Tell the others we might need some help!” another slaver sounds, this one speaking a lot quieter but still loud enough for Tullius’s helmet’s microphones to pick up. The slaver goes on to say, “No, not just the others on station, the rest of the fleet too!”
So, there are more of them, Tullius thinks to himself, both amused and intrigued. He can’t help but wonder just how many other slavers there were. He also finds himself hoping that the slavers would respond to their friends’ cries for help and show up in force. If they did, then that meant more slaves could be freed.
“This is all sorts of nasty,” Carmella shudders.
“I’m willing to bet the inspectors thought the same thing and skipped out on a thorough inspection,” Gearhart says.
Tullius nods, “I’m inclined to agree with you.”
Stepping into the filthy airlock, Tullius opens the door on the other side and sees that the inside of the ship is just as dirty as the airlock had been.
“Who lives like this?” Carmella breathes.
“Pigs,” Tullius answers, seemingly unfazed. He isn’t entirely sure how he felt about all of this, it was the dirtiest he had ever seen a ship, after all. However, it seemed to match the narrative that Tullius told himself about all slavers. They were, at least to him, nothing but pigs.
Tullius scans his wrist-mounted computer and goes through the data that he had on the ship that they are currently in. According to the data, the ship is fifty years old and, seemingly in a past life, it had been a transporter for a food company.
Hoping he could get the slavers on something simple and easy, Tullius scans the ship’s VIN, which is displayed on a nearby placard. He compares it against the data the slavers had provided and sighs when it checks out. Of course, there were other such easy things for him to check besides this, but he figured those would likely check out as well.
“Where do we start, Tull?” Carmella asks.
Tullius shrugs, “If I were a slaver, I’d want to get the slaves put away as soon as I could. I wouldn’t walk them through my whole ship.”
“So, they’re close,” Gearhart surmises.
“They’re either up here or they’re down near the loading ramp,” Tullius answers with a nod, “I’m willing to bet they’re down below.”
“That might jus’ explain why the first group didn’t see nothin’ too,” Carmella says, “Probably wanted in and out as quick as they could.”
Tullius frowns, but he doesn’t say anything. It irritated him to think that anyone would skimp on their job, especially when lives were at stake. What made it worse was how he and his team gave so much to their work. The thought that anyone else didn’t care that much always irked him.
Not wanting to dwell on that too long and risk getting too worked up, Tullius turns and starts off toward the hall to their right. If the ship hadn’t had any major renovations done to it, he’d wind up at a stairwell that would take him down to the ship’s loading area.
Tullius always preferred taking the stairs because he knew that most preferred the lifts. As such, the inspection teams would have already checked that out and likely ignored the stairs. The slavers knew as much as well, so they oftentimes stored contraband in the stairwell and in its nooks and crannies. It was just one of the many, many places that Tullius had narrowed down as a hotspot for finding goodies that people didn’t want found.
“Sounds like you’re making friends down there, Tullius,” Hanan’s voice sounds over the radio.
Tullius opens the door to the stairwell and steps in. Looking up and down as far as he can, he confirms that there aren’t any slavers around. He starts down the stairs before he answers Hanan, “What did they do?”
“We’ve… overheard quite a few messages that they’ve sent out to some friends.”
“And they sound like they’re hiding something big.”
“Will their friends attack the station?”
“That’s what we’re afraid of up here.”
“You’re not calling me off, are you?”
“I know it’d be pointless if I did. You’d ignore the order.”
“Are you alerting the station’s security teams?”
“I think there might be slaves on those other ships,”
“I was afraid that might be the case.”
“We’ll need boarding crews to check every ship—”
“I already brought up the issue and I was told by my higher-ups that they won’t risk our people for that unless they are certain that there are slaves that need saving. You and your team need to find your evidence ASAP or whatever slaves are on the other ships will be space dust.”
“How much time do we have?”
“I don’t know. Could be a few minutes, could be a few hours. Either way, we need to know what’s on that ship you’re on in time to prep boarding teams. If we can’t get those teams mobilized, then it’s space dust for whatever slaves may or may not be there.”
“I can dispatch a few extra teams to help check the ships,”
“If we’re on a tight schedule, then I can use all the help I can get.”
“I’ll get the other teams mobilized.”
The feed goes dead and Tullius looks at his team. He can see their anxious expressions through their masks, and he can’t help but feel just as worried as them.
Lives were on the line if they didn’t find what they needed in very short order.
Swallowing, Tullius says, “Normally I’d say split up so we can cover more ground, but there’s no knowing what these slavers have waiting for us here. Let’s make the most of the time we got.”
“Yes, sir,” Gearhart and Carmella say in unison.
Spurred on by their newfound tight schedule, Tullius starts taking three stairs at a time instead of his usual two. After rounding the second landing, he burst into the loading area on the ship that they are in.
“Alright, so it looks like the inspection crew briefly used thermals down here, but there’s no guarantee they checked everything,” Tullius says as he looks over the inspection report. Nodding at Gearhart, he orders, “I want you to check everything. Crates, vents, walls, try to find me something.”
“You’ve got it, sir,” Gearhart says before splitting off and using his thermal scanner on anything and everything that he can find.
Looking around the cargo area around the loading bay, Tullius orders, “Carmella, see if you can hear anything. Tapping, breathing, people talking, maybe we’ll get lucky.”
“You got it,” Carmella says.
Tullius waits for Carmella to leave and get to her own work, and he watches his team as they work for a few beats. As he watches them, he eyes the room, hoping for any sort of sign that might lead him to what he wanted to find. He watches as Gearhart bends over to scan a crate more closely and then as Carmella hooks up some leads to a nearby wall in order to listen in for any signs of life aboard the ship.
That’s when Tullius gets an idea.
Tullius’s eyes immediately drop to his feet and, sure enough, he can see some tracks in the greasy grime and filth that covered the entire ship. While it isn’t too terribly easy to do amidst all the other tracks on the floor, he eventually picks out the sets of prints that lead to Gearhart and Carmella.
Feeling like he is onto something, Tullius races over to the ship’s ramp. Once there, he scans it as closely as he can. A sense of desperation washes over him as he looks over all the prints that must have been left over a few years.
That’s when he spots something.
A smaller set of prints.
Not just any prints, but small prints that had to belong to a human.
A human child.
“I don’t recall seeing any kids coming off this ship,” Tullius mutters to himself. He walks from one end of the closed ramp to the other looking for a matching set of tracks that lead in the other direction. Seeing none, he races back over to the stairs and searches there. Again, he sees nothing, so he makes his way over to every door that he can see.
However, there are no discernable traces of those prints leaving the room as far as Tullius can tell.
“You got somethin’, boss?” Carmella asks.
Tullius nods once, “I might…”
“I’m thinking I might too,” Carmella says, “I’m hearing breathing. It’s faint, but it’s there.”
“Any guesses on how many people you hear?” Tullius asks.
Carmella shakes her head.
Tullius nods and then shifts his eyes to his wrist-mounted computer. He flips through the passenger and crew manifests and, as he suspected, there are no children on it.
“What do you have?” Gearhart asks, “I’ve got nothing on my end.”
“They have a kid,” Tullius answers, his heart sinking at the thought. It was one kind of monster who kidnapped and enslaved an adult. The people who did the same to kids were an entirely different breed.
A breed that Tullius held nothing but abhorrence for.
While Tullius thought that every slaver should die for their sins, he thought that those who targeted children were deserving of months of torture leading up to a bloody death. It seemed like the only thing anyone could do when faced with such a horrid misdeed.
“Tull, how can you be sure?” Carmella asks.
“The tracks,” Tullius answers, “There are tracks of a kid.”
“Tracks!” Gearhart exclaims, “That’s it! We’ll follow the tracks! All we need to do is—”
“I’m way ahead of you,” Tullius interrupts, “As far as I can tell, they’re in here. There’s got to be a secret compartment or something.”
“That I can work with!” Gearhart exclaims excitedly.
“Carmella, I need you to help me follow the tracks,” Tullius orders.
“What about me?” Gearhart asks.
“I need you to fly a drone and take a look at this ship from the outside.”
“The outside? But—”
“There’s a chance the slavers tacked some sort of holding area to the ship. I need you to look for it. Pull up the specs of what the ship looks like usually and look for differences.”
“On it, sir,”
With all of that said, Tullius makes his way back over to the ramp. He walks over to where he had spotted the tracks and begins looking over them again.
However, he spots something else this time. There are several prints left by bare feet. His brow furrowed, Tullius tries to think of a reason why someone would willingly walk into a ship like this with bare feet. However, he can’t think of one. Instead, the only thing that he can think about is how so many of the slaves that he had freed to date had been barefoot. The slavers used that as a tactic to ensure that running away would be harder for them to do.
“See these?” Tullius asks Carmella once she is near. He’s pointing between the bare feet and the child’s tracks.
“I do,” Carmella nods.
“You track the bare feet, I’ll track the kid,” Tullius says.
“Copy,” Carmella says back.
That done, Tullius lowers himself to a squat and traces the child’s tracks with his gloved finger. His eyes involuntarily snap to the next print and then the next, but he loses the trail after that. The cargo area appears to be rather heavily trafficked, so some avenues of travel completely blot out the kid’s prints.
“I’ll save you, little one,” Tullius whispers to himself.
Tullius shifts gears and gets on his hands and knees. Following the trajectory of the prints that he could see, he skips over the trafficked area that obscured the tracks and quickly spots them on the other end. The tracks are faint, but he can make them out.
Tullius follows the tracks for a few more minutes before his head bumps into a crate.
Looking up, Tullius can see that he is at the base of a large stack of crates.
He also sees that the tracks disappear under them.
Reasoning that this meant one of two things, Tullius stands and then races around to the other end of the stack. Once there, he drops back to his knees and looks for any trace of the child’s prints. Seeing none, he circles around the line of crates in search of any sign.
But there are none.
“Carmella, where are you with your tracks?” Tullius calls out.
“Lost ‘em,” Carmella answers.
“I think we’ve found our culprit then,” Tullius mutters. Standing, he looks over to where Gearhart is, “G, you got anything?”
“Maybe, I’m not sure.”
Tullius gnaws on his lip and walks over to Gearhart. Pulling up alongside the man, he looks at the feed from the inspection drone. A second passes before he asks, “What’s the holdup then?”
“These little… nodes? They aren’t on the original specs. They look like they’re supposed to be auxiliary tanks for fuel or air, maybe, but I’m willing to bet that’s not what you’re thinking.”
“You’d be right,”
“Think they really shoved people in those things?”
“You and I both know that it wouldn’t be the first time slavers have done something like that.”
“How are we supposed to get them out of there?”
“I’ll call up Hanan,” Tullius answers. Taking a few steps toward the stairwell that they had entered through, he goes on to order, “G, Carmella, try and move those crates out of the way. See if we can find an entrance or something.”
“You got it,” Carmella sounds.
“Hanan, we think we’ve got something,” Tullius says into his radio.
“We’ve got a few somethings of our own too,” Hanan responds, “I was about to call you up myself.”
“Good timing. Alright, so—”
“You’ve got a couple people heading your way. They ain’t too happy and I’m willing to bet that they’re going to try to stop you.”
“What about the other guards that we had?”
“They pushed on by them and the guards let it happen because the area isn’t clear yet. They didn’t want any civilians getting killed.”
“How many are coming?”
“Just two, but the rest of them are ready and rearing to go just outside of the ship.”
“How long for the other teams to get here?”
“They’re being held up by the slavers at the other ship. You’re on your own for now.”
“We think we’ve found the people the slavers took, but we can’t get to them just yet. I was hoping we could get hangar access in order to be safe. Think—”
“Listen, I’d love to play it safe, but that’s the other thing. We have some ships incoming, and they aren’t responding to our hails. I’m willing to bet it’s the other slavers.”
“Which means my team and I have to get to the slaves right now and prove they’re here if we’re going to keep everyone on the other ships alive…”
“Looks like it,”
“How much time we have?”
“Twenty to twenty-three minutes before we scramble our fighters.”
“Which means we have maybe five minutes to find the slaves if we want the station’s fighters to just incapacitate the hostiles instead of killing them, right?”
“That’s the case.”
“Can they just incapacitate and give us time to figure out what to do from there?”
“You and I both know that the slavers would start killing slaves if we did that. They’d know that they’d be better off with a ship full of dead people because dead people don’t talk.”
“Copy, Tullius out,” Tullius kills the feed before Hanan can say anything else and he grabs a lockout bar from his pack. He fixes the bar to the stairwell door and turns on the electromagnets in order to ensure that no one would be opening it any time soon. Giving the door a few tugs and then checking the magnets, Tullius assures himself that he’s safe from that line of attack.
Racing toward the lift bank, Tullius does his best to try and come up with some way to stop the hostiles from coming in through there. As he does so, he begins thinking about how the hostiles might not be coming down here at all. There was a good chance that they might be trying to open the ramp and just space him and his team instead of fighting them directly.
Slowing to a brisk walk, Tullius pulls up the ship’s feeds which he is able to access because of the digital handshake between the station and the ship.
That’s when he sees it.
One of the slaver goons is in a lift heading down to him.
The other is in the bridge frantically working at a computer.
“What kind of progress you two have?!” Tullius shouts at his team.
“Almost… there!” Gearhart says between stained grunts.
“We’re about to have company and we’re down to the wire here!” Tullius warns them, “Get it moved!”
Tullius is about to contact Hanan again, but he is stopped when the lift in front of him has its doors open.
“Contact! Contact!” Tullius shouts for his team to hear and, as he does so, he reaches down to his sidearm with one hand while diving forward onto his belly. He worms his way forward just enough to be concealed behind a section of bracing that juts out of the ground between him and the slaver.
By the time that Tullius has his sidearm pulled out and at the ready, the slaver is firing wildly, and bullets are pinging off of seemingly every surface.
“G! Go save Tull!” Carmella says over their radios.
“Negative! Get those people out of there! That’s our priority!” Tullius shouts back over their radios. He doesn’t wait for a response, instead, he takes in a deep breath. Holding it for a few beats, he then lets it out and he rises just far enough to peer over the bracing that he is behind.
The slaver takes immediate note of him and focuses his fire on Tullius once more.
Automatic rifle with a drum magazine, Tullius thinks to himself as he pulls up a mental image of what he had seen as he peeked. Narrowing his eyes, he adds, No sidearm as far as I could see. No armor either.
“You shouldn’t have poked your nose where it didn’t belong!” the slaver calls out menacingly. There is a brief respite in shooting, but then the shooting resumes.
That mag can’t hold anything over a hundred rounds and this guy’s definitely burned through over half of that, Tullius reasons to himself. Deciding he needed to encourage the slaver to empty the mag sooner rather than later, Tullius rolls a short way away from where he had peeked up from. Steeling himself, he peeks up once more. This time he lets off three shots before he ducks back down.
Tullius isn’t certain, but he is pretty confident that one of his shots hit the slaver in the leg. While that wasn’t his intention—he mostly wanted to just shoot at the man—he can’t help but feel like he had tipped the odds further in his favor.
In response, the slaver opens fire with everything he has.
And then, seconds later, there is silence.
Knowing this meant that the slaver was out of ammo and was likely reloading, Tullius pushes up with his arms as hard as he can and gets to his feet. As he does so he swings his gun-wielding arm up and lets off a few sporadic shots at the lift where the slaver had ducked back into.
Fairly certain that the slaver wasn’t about to risk it, Tullius takes a few steps ahead before dashing behind the nearest bit of cover.
Dropping his spent magazine, he slams a full one home and continues approaching the slaver.
Why hasn’t he popped back out? Surely, he’s replaced his mag by now… Tullius wonders to himself. By now he’s just two meters from the lift’s open doors.
Before Tullius’s thought process can proceed any further, the slaver’s hand flashes around the corner, and a small cylinder leaves it.
It skitters toward Tullius, and he already knew what it was.
Without skipping a beat, Tullius summons every bit of training that he had ever gotten from playing soccer as a kid and he kicks the grenade back into the lift.
Tullius feels like congratulating himself for making a goal, but he knew better than to do as much right now.
Diving to his right, Tullius crashes behind a stack of crates just in time for the grenade’s blast to knock the topmost crate off the pile and on top of him.
“Everyone alright?” Tullius asks over his radio without moving.
“Yes, are you?” Carmella says.
“I’m fine, now I just need to get the other guy,” Tullius answers. He grunts as he pushes the crate off of himself and then rises to his feet. Walking over to the lift, he looks in and sees that it is torn to shreds. The slaver is even worse off. Nodding, Tullius continues to his team, “There’s a guy in the bridge that I think is trying to space us. The station’s tech should override him, but I’m not taking any chances. I’m heading up there.”
“Should we still get these people out if that’s a risk?” Gearhart asks.
“The biggest risk is for whoever else the slavers took,” Tullius shakes his head, “We need to prove there are innocent people here now. Any progress on that?”
“We’ve got a lock on the ground, so I’m willing to say yes,” Gearhart answers, “Just trying to get through it right now.”
“Cut it,” Tullius answers, “We don’t have time.”
“Almost got it picked…” Gearhart murmurs.
Tullius jogs over to the stairwell, suddenly aware that his hip had been hurt by the crate falling on him. He can’t help but feel thankful for his armor because he knew it could have been a lot worse otherwise.
Disengaging his lockout bar, Tullius steps through the door and charges up the stairs. He tucks the bar back into its place on his belt as he runs and then he pulls his sidearm back out once more. He knew he’d be needing it.
Looking down at his wrist-mounted computer, Tullius sees that the slaver in the bridge is still busy at the computers. The man is a lot more frantic now, which Tullius took as a sign that the man knew he was coming. Tullius sighs as he continues looking at the feed on his computer because he can see that the computer had been damaged in the fall or from the crate. He’d need another one and that just made more work for him.
Tullius rounds the final landing, and he stops just before the door to the level that the bridge is on. Checking his computer once more, he confirms that he and his team only had a minute or so to find out if the slavers had anyone on board.
Tullius momentarily wants to ask his team about their progress, but he opts against it. He knew that they’d need to focus if they were going to get the job done in time.
Tullius closes his eyes, takes in a few slow breaths, and then he eases the door before him open.
Tullius steps through the door slowly. When nothing happens, he emerges the rest of the way and looks around. He sighs with relief when he realizes that the slaver must have not heard him.
Not wanting to ruin his advantage, Tullius does his best to walk quietly and quickly. It’s difficult, thanks to his heavy armor and boots, but he can’t help but think that this beat nothing.
In a few seconds, Tullius is at the door to the bridge.
The door is open, so Tullius peers in.
Sure enough, the slaver is still hard at work on the computers. Tullius can see that the man isn’t making any progress and he feels a sense of relief wash over him.
He also sees that the man has two sidearms laid out in front of him.
Weighing his options quickly, Tullius pulls out his sidearm and then steps into the room. Leveling his gun at the slaver’s chest, he shouts, “Hands! Show me your hands! Don’t make me kill you like your friend did.”
The slaver’s hands shoot up right away and Tullius is thankful that he caught the man by surprise. If he hadn’t, then things might have ended a little differently.
“You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into…” the slaver glares at Tullius.
Tullius stares back at the man and he tries to remember where he saw the man before. A few seconds pass before he realizes that this was the slaver that had been talking so much in the food court not too long ago.
Tullius reaches down to his hip and pulls out some restraints. Tossing them to the slaver, he orders, “Back away from the computer and put these on.”
The slaver doesn’t catch them. Instead, he lets them fall to the ground. He doesn’t move back from the desk either.
Tullius continues staring at the man and he realizes that this was all part of some sort of game that he was playing. He can tell that the slaver is trying to pull something, but he can’t tell what.
Tullius’s eyes rove the bridge in search of any sort of trap, but he sees nothing. He is careful to not take his attention off the slaver as he does so as well.
Approaching the slaver, Tullius keeps his gun raised.
“It’s not too late for you to walk,” the slaver warns.
“It’s not too late for you to take a step back,” Tullius fires in return.
The slaver does as Tullius requested this time, but he doesn’t step too far away from the guns.
“All the way back!” Tullius shouts this time. Motioning toward the viewports at the front of the bridge he adds, “All the way over there now. I don’t like your attitude or whatever game you’re playing.”
“Fine, fine,” The slaver makes a show of walking away from the guns, “It’ll all be over soon enough anyway.”
Tullius looks the man over and ensures that he isn’t wearing any sort of communication device. Seeing that he isn’t, Tullius quickly taunts him, “Too late for what, the rest of your friends to get here on their ships? We already know about that and have mobilized teams for that. They won’t be a problem for long.”
The slaver says nothing, but Tullius can tell by their body language that they aren’t too happy to hear the news. Hoping that the slaver was distracted enough by the report, Tullius grabs another one of his restraints and clips it onto one of the man’s wrists.
“We got them!” Gearhart shouts over the radio, “They’re all here!”
This catches Tullius by surprise, and he quickly checks his computer for the time. They are just a few seconds behind schedule. His heart racing, Tullius thinks, Maybe there’s still time? Maybe Hanan was able to buy us a few more seconds?
Gearhart goes on to report, “We already told Hanan, they’ve got the boarding teams preparing right now. They’re cutting it close, but there’s a good chance that we should be able to save everybody.”
Before Tullius can say anything, the slaver pushes off of the wall that Tullius had him up against. The sudden move sends Tullius to the ground.
Not about to go down without a fight, Tullius kicks the man’s legs out from beneath him. He can feel the crunch as some bones break in the slaver’s legs.
“I ain’t goin’ down that easy!” the slaver seethes.
Tullius smirks slightly, happy that he’d be able to inflict a lot more pain on this slaver than he had been able to do to the last one.
“Why don’t you take off that helmet? Fight me like a man?” the slaver challenges as he moves his injured leg away from Tullius. He rises to his feet and Tullius can tell that the man is doing everything he can to keep his weight off the other leg.
Tullius, still on the ground, suppresses the urge to laugh at the man. If I’m in a fight for my life, I’m not about to make it fair, Tullius thinks as he rises to his own feet.
“Too afraid to fight fair?” the slaver scoffs, “Fine!”
Tullius is about to reach for the knife at his hip, since the slaver is far too close to shoot at, but the slaver jumps toward the desk with the guns on it before he can.
Tullius’s hand flashes forward and he grabs the slaver’s belt. The man’s momentum causes Tullius to spin slightly before he loses his balance.
Both men hit the ground once more.
The slaver is the first to recover this time, and he makes the most of his head start.
But, instead of going for the guns on the desk, he grabs Tullius’s knife.
Tullius struggles, trying to rip his knife back from the slaver’s hands, but the slaver quickly overpowers him. The fact that his suit’s gloves are metal and lack the grip that flesh had made things even harder for him.
Happy with his victory, the slaver levels the knife with Tullius’s throat. Grinning coldly, he asks, “Any last words before I drag you down right beside me?”
Tullius reminds himself that his suit was made for close-quarters combat, and he tries his best to think that his neck was adequately protected.
The slaver’s evil grin deepens, and he says, “Nothing to say? Oh, too bad. You were so talkative before.”
The slaver withdraws the blade ever so slightly as he talks, and Tullius takes the opportunity to bat the knife away with one arm as he grabs his sidearm with the other. Fortunately for him, the sidearm had been out of reach for the slaver in their earlier scuffle.
Tullius bucks himself off the ground and wrestles the slaver to the ground, keeping his weapon trained on the man as he did so.
That’s when he feels the pressure on his gut.
The slaver smiles proudly as his eyes flash between Tullius’s face and his gut.
Tullius looks down.
Sure enough, the knife is buried down there.
But I don’t feel like I’ve been stabbed… Tullius thinks, confused.
Not about to press his luck, Tullius lowers his aim and lets off two rounds into the slaver’s chest.
His job now done, Tullius pushes himself off the slaver and scoots away on his butt until he feels like he’s at a safe enough distance.
The slaver, meanwhile, is laying there more or less still as he wheezes. They stare up at the ceiling without saying or doing anything.
Satisfied that the slaver wasn’t about to do anything else, Tullius looks down at his gut. The knife is still there, but it’s loosely hanging out of the hole that it had made.
The first thing that he makes note of is the lack of blood.
He then realizes that the knife had only pierced one of the pouches on his suit.
Not wanting to risk pulling the blade out only to discover that the blade had gone further, Tullius opens the pack up to investigate.
The first thing he sees is that the pack that had taken the hit was the one that he kept one of the pictures of his wife in. It was a photo from one of their first dates. He had taken her up to where one of Amidst Station’s scenic areas were and the photo was of her splashing around in the pool at the base of a waterfall.
Tullius pulls the photo out and lays it on the ground beside himself as he continues looking. There’s a new hole in the photo, but he doesn’t dwell on that.
Investigating further, Tullius finds that the knife hadn’t harmed him, and he lets out a long, peaceful sigh. Pulling the blade out of the pouch it had pierced, he tosses it a short distance away.
“Hey…” the slaver garbles, “I… know her.”
Tullius briefly wonders if the man is hallucinating, but, when he looks over at the man, he sees that he is looking at the photo.
Tullius isn’t sure what to say. A slew of emotions rush through him all at once. He wonders if the slaver was an old friend of his wife that had somehow gone off the rails. He wonders if they might be related. However, the primary thing that he can think about is how the slaver said they had been working this section of space for years back in the food court.
“Who’s she…” the slaver coughs and some blood comes up, “Who’s she to you?”
Tullius doesn’t answer. He isn’t sure if this is some sort of sick joke that the slaver is trying to crack before they die or what.
“I’ll—” the slaver coughs, “tell you where she is. I was—I remember I was—” another cough and then some wheezing, “on the crew that took her in a few years back.”
Tullius’s pulse quickens. While he had long suspected that she had been enslaved, he had told himself that she had died early on. The thought of her being dead was a lot easier for him to cope with than imagining her in bondage.
“One condition,” the slaver retches some blood up on the floor, “Let me die looking at the stars.”
Tullius nods. If this was what it took to find out what happened to his wife and where she was, then he’d do it. This was a lot simpler than anything else that he had either done or considered doing to get to the bottom of things.
“Good, now move me,” the slaver requests. The venom in their earlier tone is gone now. All Tullius can hear from them now is their pain and fear.
“Tell me about the girl first,” Tullius shakes his head, “Then, and only then, will I move you.”
The slaver spits and they let out a rasping sigh. Nodding once, he says, “We took her to—” he coughs “—to Coalition space. She was—” another cough “—too good to sell through the normal channels. We sold her to some Coalition general, or governor, or something.”
“And where are they now?” Tullius demands when the slaver doesn’t talk fast enough.
“Allegra,” the slaver gasps.
“What’s their name?”
“I—I don’t know for sure…”
“That’s not good enough! I need names—”
“I can’t tell you what I don’t know!” the slaver shouts. His head drops back and Tullius can see that the strain had just about done him in. A second passes and the slaver whispers, “Please…”
Tullius considers leaving the man to die, but he reminds himself that he had made a deal. He rises to his feet and positions himself over the slaver. Grabbing the man by his armpits, he drags him over to a chair, which he clumsily gets the man into.
The slaver doesn’t make a sound, even though Tullius is certain that the whole maneuver was quite painful.
Tullius feels bad for the pain he had caused the dying man after their deal, but he reminds himself that the man was nothing more than a slaver. What made things even worse was the fact that he admitted to taking Tullius’s wife.
“Give me the photo,” the slaver gulps.
Tullius’s eyes flash to the photo of his wife.
The woman he loved.
The woman he lost.
The woman who he had just learned may still be alive.
“Please,” the slaver whimpers.
“No,” Tullius shakes his head before he walks over to grab the photo.
“Please…” the slaver repeats in a weak whisper.
Tullius scowls and considers ignoring the man. However, some part of him can’t help but see the man’s humanity as well. There is just a hint of mercy that is shining through the clouds of hate in his mind.
Tullius extends the photo toward the slaver. When the man doesn’t move to grab it, he reaches down, lifts one of the man’s hands, and then puts the piece of paper into it.
The slaver nods ever so slightly and their eyes drop to the photo.
Tullius, feeling like the man needed some privacy, backs away a few steps.
That’s when he hears the slaver whisper, “Forgive me…”
A short while passes and the slaver’s laborious breathing stops. His body goes limp, but his hand is still holding onto the photo.
Tullius approaches, gently pries the man’s hand open, and retrieves the photo. He holds it loosely in his hand as he studies it once more.
Tullius’s mind is awash with newfound questions, Could she really still be alive? Could she still be on Allegra? What are the odds of it all? Why hasn’t she reached out in some way? She’s smart, surely she could have—
“Tull!” Carmella shouts from the door to the bridge.
Tullius looks over at her but says nothing.
“You’re acting like this was your first kill, what’s up?” Carmella asks as she approaches.
Tullius can’t find the words, or the will, to speak. Instead, he offers up the photo of his wife to Carmella.
“What’s this? Oh—” Carmella’s head cocks. She studies it and says, “I’m sorry he wrecked your picture. We can print off ‘nother one, ya know. It ain’t—”
“He said he was with the crew that took her,” Tullius interrupts.
Carmella freezes momentarily. A beat passes before she says, “He could have been lyin’ you know.”
Tullius shakes his head, “He wasn’t.”
“You think she’s still ou’ there?”
“I did, despite my best efforts… Now I know.”
“He said she’s on Allegra.”
“Somewhere in Coalition Space,” Tullius answers, not too sure where the planet was—if it even was a planet. If he hadn’t seen what he had, he’d think the place might not exist. But he knew for a fact that it did. He knew the man’s story had to be true. It wasn’t just hope, he knew there was more to it.
He also knew that he’d do anything in his power to now find her.
He had his first real clue in years, and he wasn’t about to let it go to waste.
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The Story Continues,
Read on to see what happens to Patrick Fahy-Connor, his team, and all of Allegra!
The war is anything but over.
Join me as we see what befalls the world!
If you’d like to save some cash, buying the omnibus of each season can be a good call! The omnibus versions include ten books in one.