Inflexible (fiction)

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Slave trading in the Devil's Triangle

Map of Sector 1 - showing the "Devil's Triangle" region in green
Makandal's picture of Retila

Inflexible by Stranger (2014, 2020)

Note that the descriptions of suns and planets are derived from the Strangers World suite of OXPs, with the Galactic Navy OXP added into the mix.

Chapter 1

The first sector of the Galaxy, the southeast quadrant. Community-colonized systems form a vast two-horned appendix in this region, far from the transgalactic highway linking the Old Worlds with the Pulsar Worlds. None of the three dozen systems in this galactic nook and cranny are to be found in the tourist guides "Famous Planets" or "One Hundred Wonders of the Galaxy That Must Be Seen". But you have almost certainly heard something about this corner of the Universe. The region owes its grim reputation to the Devil's Triangle, a group of three anarchist systems at the heart of the Appendix.

A group of ships lay adrift in the dim light of the almost unheated sun. Here, far beyond the outer limit of the habitable zone, the scanty remnant of heat of the central star would barely be enough to maintain a cold, rarefied atmosphere in an ice-free state, practically unsuitable for breathing. However, the only inhabited planet of the system, much closer to the sun, could hardly be called a hospitable world. A ball the color of a burnt brick, without a single mirror of an open reservoir. Only dull patches of greenery at the bottom of deep depressions, which were once seas, said that in the relatively recent geological past that the planet had known better times.

Retila was unlucky with its central luminary. A white star of spectral class F8V entered a period of instability and from time to time burst into violent bursts of solar activity. The colonists waited out such periods of a solar storm in shelters buried in the ground. However, even during periods of decline in solar activity, the planet's climate was too hot for walking and working in the open air. Not a very attractive world for tourism. And completely unsuitable for agriculture.

The main wealth of Retila was powerful deposits of polymetallic ores. Initially, miners worked in the mines on a rotational basis, but over time, permanent settlements arose on the planet around the city-forming enterprises - metallurgical and machine-building plants. However, it never came to the establishment of a strong central authority: just before the war with the Thargoids, a particularly powerful solar flare burned the electronic circuits of the beacons and the system was left to fend for itself. Against the backdrop of post-war chaos, mines, shipyards and factories migrated into the hands of crime bosses, and economic competition turned into open war without rules. The ninth-level industrial system, which once attracted talented engineers and ambitious managers, now appears in the register of the Commonwealth as anarchy.

Ships lying adrift far from the trade routes could hardly be mistaken for a merchant convoy, even by an inexperienced observer. Yes, a Python, accompanied by an escort of fighters, is a familiar picture in our turbulent times - but what would an ordinary huckster be doing in this wilderness? It is rare for a desperate merchant to dare to visit the anarchist system in search of a risky profit, and if he does stick his head into this death-trap, he will fly full steam ahead to the GalCop station, without turning from his path and not stopping anywhere en route.

An observer with minimal combat experience would have noticed that the composition of the group was unusually heterogeneous for a typical escort, but well balanced for predatory raids on trade routes. (Tight-fisted merchants usually prefer to hire the same type of inexpensive ships such as the Cobra Mark I or Sidewinder - such a group has enough firepower to drive away a lone pirate, and holds the formation well.) A strong and powerfully armed Python in the group was perfect for storing looted goods. It was covered by two high-speed Asps, a Cobra Rapier with a scoop for collecting trophies and a light Sidewinder. This last ship could, if necessary, act alone, sniffing out prey and directing the flock to the victim. Taking into account the above circumstances, an external observer would consider it a good idea to bypass the company at a good distance, if possible without attracting attention, and go on about his business. Or decide to attack the group at his own risk.

The pilot of the single Cobra Mark III, was in no hurry to choose either one or the other. Dropping the thrust of the engines to zero, he carefully examined the group, remaining outside the range of their scanners. Then he looked around his stern and side quadrants. And only after that he moved the joystick handle away from him. The Cobra purred predatorily and moved forwards.

Old space tramps are incorrigible romantics at heart. Pragmatic to the point of cynicism in business, whatever its kind, they put the fervour of fantasy into the names of their ships - pretentious, proud, and even just plain sentimental. Or sonorous, like the names of port taverns on ancient Earth. This Python was called "Breakfast in the Ruins". A name, which as a name says absolutely nothing about the occupation of its crew. The "gentlemen" on the bridge of the ship wore the usual gray-blue non-marking overalls, such as are worn by traders throughout the galaxy. Not, Giles Forbid!, a bandana and a holster with automatic pistols - what are we, children, right? Not all members of the Python's team were immaculately shaven, but everyone was sober – work is work. Only the contents of the ship's hold were not quite ordinary for a law-abiding merchant, and in truth, the Python's skipper was nervous. Six light-years to the east was the base of the Oresle Navy Command fleet, and in recent times the fleet has often raided neighboring systems. At one time, the fleet was created to repel the onslaught of the Thargoids, and GalCop's police force ensured the safety of trade routes and hunted smugglers. The old rules of the game are changing - the fleet is no longer so scrupulous in observing the principle of separation of areas of competence between thargoids and pirates. It would be better to deal with insects.

- "Your man is late for the rendezvous", the skipper said dryly, turning to the young man, who with a bored look had settled down in the free seat of the right-hand pilot. The young man was not a member of the team and, in principle, did not have the right to be on the bridge. And in general, this whip-most of all looked like a traveling salesman, concerned about selling housewives another model of a shitty food-blender with radically improved intelligence. Blender with intelligence, fuck. But the skipper of the "Breakfast in the Ruins" had lived long enough to develop a sense of danger. And something in the expression of the young man's blue eyes said that it was better not to harp on about bridge-rights. The skipper did not like the neighborhood of the fleet base and did not like his fellow traveler. And it's hard to say what worried him more.

- "This is not a cruise liner, skipper". The young man remarked condescendingly. "We are not talking about force majeure, at any time. An uncertain component of the business, don't you know it. Ten minutes - and anything above this comes with an increase in margin of ten percent, as we agreed".

The skipper took a deep breath. Exhaled. "Fifteen percent".

- "It seemed to me that we had agreed on everything in advance. Isn't that right? Of course, if in the future, you will find that the conditions did not suit you - well, it is your right".

- "Okay. But believe me, I know what I'm saying. It's not safe. Devilishly dangerous. Thirty minutes is exactly how long it will take GalCop's Vipers to get here. Consider the time for transshipment of goods. I wait twenty minutes. More than that, I can't, understand?

The young man shrugged his shoulders indifferently.

The skipper grimaced painfully, feeling the usual spasm in his stomach. "It's time to finish this job".

- "Contact at eight o'clock" - the navigator reported. - "Single ship, Yellow status. Approaching at a speed of two hundred and seventy".

– "Target data?" The skipper demanded.

- "Cobra Mark Three, intruder. It is registered under the name 'Atropos'".

- "That's him". The bored expression left the young man's face. "He was only a couple of minutes late. We have a lot of time left".

The skipper didn't think so. He was not going to stay in these parts for a second beyond what was necessary. "At my command - inch forwards and dump the cargo overboard".

– "The cargo is ready for unloading", the engineer confirmed.

On a Python, there can be no shift watches with such a small crew - and there can be no rigidly defined "ship's roles" as is customary in the navy. Everyone has to do what they do best. On this voyage they had set out with an incomplete roster and the skipper had to recall his old skills as a pilot and navigator in order to give the guys a break before hitting the dangerous sections of the route - at the end of unloading. - "Set the generators on 'maximum'. Move, guys!"

The Cobra Mark III slowly approached the group of ships and spat out a small tetrahedral container. Especially valuable cargo is usually transported in such sealed safes - jewelry, valuable documents and purified drugs. The Cobra pilot showed little interest in the contents of the container. After getting rid of his load, he took his place in the wake of Python. The pair of asps did not let him out of the sights. The Cobra pilot had every reason to believe that their guns were disarmed, and did not make sudden movements.

The Cobra Rapier moved forwards and picked up the load.

The Python slowly inched forwards. A line of cylindrical containers fell out of its belly like eggs from a spawning fish.

The pilot of the Cobra Mark III, smoothly made a small turn and shot towards the nearest container, scooping it. His automatic cargo handling system transferred the captured container from the magnetic trap to the hold, scanned its contents and placed it in the desired cell. It took five minutes to collect the cargo. After completing the gathering, the Cobra pilot opened the screen with the cargo manifest.

Humanoid slaves, twenty tons.

- "The goods are fine, guys", confirmed the pilot of the Cobra. "We are counting. Happily."

It seems incredible that the shameful practice of the ancient slave trade could be revived among the stars. And it is even more incredible that this curse was inflicted on the body of the Galactic Commonwealth, a voluntary association of worlds created for mutual assistance. Inherently, space is appallingly inhumane. Not hostile to life, not at all. Just indifferent to it. The universe, by and large, does not care about our poetic longings and ambitions. We ourselves determine what is good and what is evil.

And where does one draw the line beyond which rationality turns into promiscuity? The galactic commonwealth is not at all a friendly team of like-minded people, but a motley team, united somewhat by a common mercantile interest, somewhat by fear of a common enemy, somewhat skillfully woven by a network of political intrigues, somewhat by a finely tuned mechanism of checks and balances.

There are worlds in the Commonwealth, the main wealth of which is the human resource. Oh, not in the sense of the immeasurable value of every human person that the democracies tirelessly preach. In these impoverished worlds, a single human life is worth almost nothing. Minerals must be mined, agricultural products must be grown, and rogues breed themselves. And they breed in abundance. There are worlds in which workers are in demand, not brains. The work of a miner in an asteroid mine does not require more sophisticated instincts than the labor of a worker in a termite mound, and the value of a single life is negligible. One working individual can always be replaced with exactly the same working individual as it wears out or dies - there would be a source of uninterrupted replenishment.

And there are other markets where cheap healthy human material is required - uncomplaining farm laborers and docile girlfriends for colonists in outlying worlds, cannon fodder for endless clan-wars in unstable systems, workers in the underground sex industry on galactic highways, donors of organs and biomaterial for the gerontocracy in well-to-do systems. Where there is demand, where there is supply, there will be a mechanism.

In truth, the skipper of "Breakfast in the Ruins" was not a complete scoundrel. People of his ilk do not like to be called pirates. They prefer to call themselves free traders. For the most part, this is the case, although on occasion this brotherhood does not disdain smuggling, or sometimes even something worse. But judge for yourself: is it possible in our times to live within the framework of what these bureaucrats from GalCop call the legal path? A step to the left, a step to the right - and you quickly realize how densely mined this path is. Becoming an outcast overnight, a target of legal bounty-hunting, is easy. A month ago, the skipper saw with his own eyes what happened to the huckster, who, by mistake, slammed a charge from his pulse fart into the station. Ten seconds later, the poor fellow was closely involved with three GalCop Vipers, and half a minute later his account in the GalCop database was sent to the archives with a laconic note "The ship is destroyed."

Yes, the skipper was well aware of what kind of goods were in the cryocontainers, but he preferred not to ask unnecessary questions. After all, it's just once... this year... and it was a crime to miss such an opportunity. They had said: "Old Man, it's up to you to take twenty tons of canned food on board and deliver them wherever you are told. What else you fill the hold with on the way is not our concern. And, mind you, we will not demand a penny from your profits, and as for the roof, do not load - everything will be the way. (Not too sure what is meant here!) Indeed, the flight to the Appendix turned out to be profitable, and the impressive escort had not been worth the money. But in truth, there was something about these short-haired guys that made one's blood run cold in one's veins. And when the escort picked up the young man and whizzed off, the skipper was relieved. The return trip was not short, but he thought with the selection of a relatively safe route, it should promise a good profit.

And the first step on the long road home was taken. After leaving the inhospitable Retila, "Breakfast in the Ruins" surfaced in the agrarian corporate Ququor. The system was famous for its original "Abouou" liqueur - it would sell well in the next port, industrial Raleen. The oppressive forebodings were dispelled, the heartburn finally let go, and life started to seem not such a bad thing. Especially if there were such cute trinkets in it as a snifter of brandy (quite a bit, two fingers worth, to 'relieve stress') and a fragrant cigar.

- "What was the name of the ship that picked up the order?" The skipper asked, puffing on his cigar. "It's a wonderful name, but I can't remember it".

- "Atropos" - replied the navigator. "We must pay tribute to this bastard - you can't deny that he has taste".

The navigator was the only one of the crew who had been honoured at one time to receive something similar to an education. Atropos was the oldest of the three classical Furies, she who cuts the thread of a man's life with scissors. Perhaps one of the poor fellows, whose path was crossed by this black ship, managed to appreciate the sinister humor in the end. The navigator would not find the situation so amusing if he knew that the thread of his own life had already been measured and the scissors had been brought in.

A couple of Fer-de-Lances emerged from the darkness and opened fire while on the move. The beams of military lasers struck the Python's protective field and pierced it. The lamps pouring cozy dim light from the ceiling and walls of the wardroom went out. Immediately, the dim scarlet light of combat mode came on. The bar counter was plunged into twilight. However, there was still no time and no one to slowly contemplate the lovingly selected collection of alcohol: the wardroom was empty. The skipper, following the navigator, ran to the mouth of the transition well and, with the usual push, sent his body flying towards the bridge. There was the turmoil of battle.

- "Everyone to the rescue, this is a civilian ship! We are attacked by pirates!" The pilot shouted over an open connection.

"The captain is on the bridge!" the navigator proclaimed. He was heard, but no one responded - now everyone had worries more important than subordination. The skipper took his seat. A quick glance at the scanner screen was enough for him to grasp the picture. And he didn't like the picture. After firing at the "Breakfast in the Ruins" on the aisle, a pair of aggressors dispersed with scissors. Now they were deployed for a second attack.

The skipper took the chewed, extinct cigar out of his mouth. - "Report on the status of the systems".

- "We've lost the fuel injectors" - said the engineer.

It's a bad thing, the skipper thought grimly. Without fuel injectors, "Breakfast in Ruins" turned into a lame duck. - "Jump status?".

— "Negative" - the navigator responded. "There is not enough fuel."

Generators in the bowels of the engine room whined, pumping energy into depleted shields. A Fer-de-Lance synchronously completed its turn and went on the attack. The skipper looked for the ashtray. Then he remembered that he himself had forbidden smoking on the bridge. And in disgust he threw the remains of the cigar on the deck.

- "Aim the missile at target number one".

- "Target number one is locked" - the pilot reported.

- "At my command: a rocket for the first target, fire the cannon at the second. Fire!"

The missile escaped from its pylon. A tongue of blue flame rushing towards its goal - and then disintegrated in sight with colourful but harmless fireworks. The high pitched shriek of the ECM pulse died away. The first Fer-de-Lance did not even dodge - the beam of its laser mercilessly stung the Python. The pilot caught the other Fer-de-Lance in his sights and pulled the trigger. That was the only thing he could do. The shot was accurate. Running into oncoming fire, the second Fer-de-Lance interrupted its attack with a sharp break in its trajectory and ignited its afterburners.

- "Missile launch! A second one has now fired!" - the engineer reported. "I engaged our ECM: we're running out of energy, but their blue flags on the scanner are still there.

- "Two hardheads in flight" the engineer announced grimly. "Impact in ten seconds".

Amongst civilians who have survived attacks by ECM Hardened Missiles, there is a definite opinion that it is useless to use electronic counter-measures against such a missile. This is not entirely true. Such a rocket can be defeated by a series of ECM pulses at a minimal distance. The technique is risky and quickly empties the energy banks without guaranteeing the result, so one shouldn't rely too much on it. The pilot took evasive action. "Breakfast in the Ruins" went into a defensive turn, placing the missiles astern. The slow-moving Python had no chance to get away from the missiles, but fleeing the rockets at full speed would reduce the damage when hitting the stern.

A pair of red flags on the scanner were gaining ground to launch a new attack, a pair of blue ones were rapidly approaching. Now the priority threat was the missiles. The engineer waited, keeping his finger on the ECM key. He let the missiles almost touch. The ECM emitter sent a stream of pulses. The front rocket exploded astern. The shock wave shook the "Breakfast in the Ruins". The second missile survived. The pilot pushed the throttle over to full speed. He tried to dodge the missile to evade the homing. An almost hopeless manoeuver on a clumsy Python. The rocket turned towards its target. Its proximity sensor reacted to the closeness of the Python's mass and activated at the defined distance. The explosion occurred at the level of the engine room. A concentrated burst of energy crushed the stern shielding and slammed down on the bare hull of the ship. The control panels lit up with a scattering of scarlet emergency lights.

- "Aft shield generators - failure. ECM is down. Hyperdrive is down." the engineer hurriedly listed.

The skipper, yet again in this short skirmish, looked at the scanner, hoping to see on it the purple flags of GalCop patrol ships. The miracle did not happen. The second Fer-de-Lance, damaged by cannon fire, was withdrawing from the fray. His chum went on the attack again.

The pilot turned the crippled "Breakfast in the Ruins" towards the enemy. The second Fer-de-Lance did not engage in a risky cannon duel. He fired two missiles from a distance, from a safe distance. And then he fell away.

Well, that's it. The skipper thought wearily.

He had never harbored illusions about reaching extreme old age. People of his occupation rarely live to see it. And they never wonder haphazardly when and how it will end. Another day lived, another flight survived - and then...

A blue spark flared. The rocket twisted along a helical line. The pilot opened fire in a desperate attempt to shoot down the missile. The tongue of blue flame slipped out of the crosshairs, traced around the sky and then struck the bow shields. A blinding flash. The islands of lights on the control panel faded, the shriek of the generator was cut off. The bridge was plunged into darkness. The second rocket rapidly covered the last kilometers. The blue glow of her exhaust striking their numbed faces.

The navigator was the first to come to his senses. He grabbed the handle between his legs and jerked it towards him. The straps pulled his body to the chair. An electromagnetic catapult pushed the chair into the open hatch of the escape pod. The steel diaphragm of the hatch closed, plasma knives cut off the connections between the capsule and the ship. The auxiliary engine puffed, leading the escape pod away from the doomed ship. "Breakfast in the Ruins" was dead, but the missile continued to hold the target. She missed the escape pod and hit the ship, turning it into a shaggy fire bush. No one except the navigator managed to leave the ship. But that didn't save him. A hail of red-hot debris fell on the hull of the escape pod. The tiny craft tumbled helplessly, spewing a misty jet of air from its torn side.

The navigator screamed in piercing pain. He screamed until he choked on blood. Fingers convulsively scratched the top of the chair, trying to feel for the mask of the remLock, but the brain had already died. The fog thinned out, covering the motionless figure with crystals of frost.

Chapter 2

The Atropos pierced the hyperspace on the short legs of the Devil's Triangle and emerged in the Riraes system, at a distance of almost three light years from the Retila region.

Residents of the Riraes system were more lucky with their world than their neighbours on Retila. The Sun of the spectral class G0.5V gave just the right measure of heat to support the hydrosphere of the planet in a liquid state and not turn the land into a lifeless desert. And most importantly, the flow of ultraviolet solar radiation was too high for the prosperity of the agrarian economy, but relatively stable, without catastrophic storm flashes. Oceans covered most of the planets, the water in which, due to the abundant propagation of the plankton, cast a lilac tint. Almost all free land was occupied by cliffs of bizarre outlines. Stone pillars and arches were composed of monstrously solid rocks, and the local bulldozers were famous throughout the entire Commonwealth for their indestructible strength. There was a joke that these bulldozers were tanks repainted in civilian livery. Actually, this is how it had happened: having taken power to their hands, the local arms barons quickly established the export of weapons under the guise of construction equipment. The Cobra pilot was not up to the contemplation of purple oceans and jagged ridges. His gaze did not linger on the disk of the planet, but habitually moved between the surrounding space and the scanner.

A lone ship appeared on the right screen. The Cobra pilot caught it in the crosshairs of his sight and pressed the IRR ID toggle on his console. The transponder of the ship responded. It was a Renegade Viper. The Cobra pilot called out. The ships got closer.

- "Everything is fine?" - asked the Viper pilot.

- "Yes" - the Cobra pilot answered concisely.

The Viper pilot had been a cop once upon a time. Like many of his colleagues in this Giles-forsaken hole, he was not too scrupulous and did not disdain to replenish his personal pension fund through private donations - of course, purely voluntary - in exchange for a none-too pedantic execution of the letter of the law. Oh no, the cops themselves did not violate the law - they simply did not show excessive curiosity in suspicious goods and suspicious companies. Further more, having stepped on this path, it was difficult to resist taking a step beyond the line between non-interference and complicity. Access to the criminal database was guarded by anymore (Not too sure what is meant here!), as well as bypassing the defense, it was not difficult. When a suitable case turned up, the cop investigated it rather out of curiosity, but it was foolish to abandon new opportunities. The former cop had led a double game for quite some time, passing confidential information to his clientele, but his luck finally ended. A client, for whom he helped make certificates of a competitor, turned out to be a talkative boob, and some past divisions were more pulled more than just to dismiss with shame (Not too sure what is meant here!). Without waiting for his inevitable exposure, the cop had preferred to desert with his service Viper.

The former cop was required by the fair arts of intrigue to gain the trust of a new boss, but the result was worth it. However, now the renegade was nervous. The base of the naval fleet in the neighboring system was the usual risk factor, but this representative of the customer, whom he now met for the second time, was putting a strain on him. The renegade had traced this secretive bastard through his old channels - with zero results. Nothing but an impressive combat rating and a highly unconvincing story about the illegal import of cat skins into an Erbiti inhabited by Felinoids. People of such a class do not make such careless mistakes - or they do them intentionally. Well, he had to be patient. Someday he would be substituted. And then it would be possible to go to the customer directly.

The slaves in the hold of the cobra were not ordinary cheap cattle for working in the mines. A premium product, and since the customer went to pay for the costs of such a sophisticated logistics chain - this person has in abundance. Someone from important cones to Esgerean, for sure (Not too sure what is meant here!). A wealthy dictatorship of the tenth technological level, a powerful system. According to rumors, among the aristocracy there, there is a strong demand for educated servants.

In the cargo manifesto of cobra, the goods were already listed as the liquor Abouou from the Ququor. The acquisition, transportation and sale of alcohol in most systems does not require special permission, and thermostatic containers for its transportation are difficult to distinguish from cryocontiners for live goods during superficial inspections. A thorough inspection with the scanning of the cargo, of course, would reveal its true nature, but in the local lands, even at the main station, customs rarely bother to do their proper job on their own initiative - and the more dedicated ones learned about planned events and did not consider it shameful to use their knowledge to gain a share of the corresponding "interest".

Randev did not last long (Not too sure what is meant here!). Having approached the cobra and equalizing his speed, the Renegade Viper picked up a small container and dumped to the side (Not too sure what is meant here!). There was a microchip with a new encryption key in the container. These guys treated the protection of information much more professionally than his former colleagues did.

The ships parted outside the range of the scanner. The renegade opened the local map, chose the destination system and activated his Hyperdrive. He did not see where the cobra went. And if he had found out, perhaps he would have been pretty surprised. But in the end, everyone in this world does their own business to the best of their capability, no?

Zadies - from Stranger's Famous Planets Overhaul (FPO)

Chapter 3

Grace Wilson did not think about such terrible things as piracy and the slave trade. It’s not that she was impenetrably stupid or that she was soulless - just that these things lay far distant from her life experience. Zadies, where Grace was born and had lived thirty years of her conscious life, carries the boastful title of being the center of the first sector - in this system lies the headquarters of the galactic community, GalCop. Zadies cannot be counted amongst the flagship systems of technological progress, but this rich industrial system of the ninth level is located on the transgalactic highway, connecting the Old Worlds in the southwest of the first sector with the Pulsar Worlds in the northeast. Almost all major transport companies and travel agencies have their representative offices on Zadies. Business activity on the planet is concentrated within the huge, but quite tolerable "gigalropolis", which covers the inner sea - the pool of the ancient shock crater. Outside of this randomly built-up anthill, picturesque pastoral landscapes stretch outwards, over which the friendly stars beckoning one to come and visit shine down at night.

Grace was not a convinced homebody, but her travel experience was limited to tourist trips to the neighboring systems of Anarlaqu and Esusti, and those during a period of romantic relations with a former suitor. Grace had seen a live ocean with xeno-coral in Anarlaqu, but had had a chance to see the most famous forests of hundred-meter cacti of Esusti only from the air-conditioned saloon of a tourist flitter. The climate on Esusti was sultry and her boyfriend, like most tourists, had preferred to spend time in cool bars - and not on exhausting open-air walks. Since then, Grace had grown accustomed not to demand too much from life and sincerely appreciate every little thing. One of these trifles currently occupied a place of honour in her kitchen. The latest generation food-blender - with artificial intelligence. This snow-white handsome piece of equipment had come to her as a prize for winning a quiz. And not just any quiz for fans of a series. Grace was an educated girl and sometimes spent evenings reading historical literature. So the question had been, 'what was the name of the generation ship which had delivered the first colonists to the Lave', and it did not take her aback. But a blender was nothing in comparison with what had happened this morning. Grace again - once again - mentally recalled those moments. The girl's heart sank sweetly.

- “Grace Wilson, right?” - called out the young man. - "Surely." - "Do not worry, I ask only five minutes of your attention. And I'm sure you will not regret it."

Grace had no habit of making acquaintance with young people on the street, but the hall of the travel agency, where Grace looked to wander through the virtual realities of other worlds - was a safe place. And besides, the young blue-eyed man had a glorious friendly smile.

- “You have managed to intrigue me.” - Grace smiled favorably. “But still let's skip the introductions and get right down to business. So, where does this come from? I am surely not so popular that strangers recognize me on the street?” - “I will not test your patience, Grace. I represent the L'Ooreal Corporation. You know the name?”

The question was rhetorical. Can it be possible to find in the entire Galaxy a female creature with no knowledge about L'Ooreal - the empire of beauty? No, this is unthinkable. But what did they need from her? Really ...

- "Oh no, not network marketing" - answered the young man. “You are much more valuable, Grace. We invite you to visit the festival. Just say 'yes' - and a ticket for Xexedi will be in your hands.”

Grace shook her head in confusion.

Xexedi. Famous throughout the eight sectors, a futuristic city-world covering the entire planet. The world where representatives of all the reasonable races of the Commonwealth are visiting and working. The world where the future is born.

But this is impossible. No. It is insanely expensive.

- "The journey will not cost a credit to you" - the young man persuaded softly. - "The company takes on all the expenses. You are fabulously lucky, Grace. You will never have a second such chance."

The folder with booklets was in her hands.

- "I’ll tell you a secret: we had to resort to the ballot to choose the only person to receive the main prize" - the young man confidentially said. - "And now I see, the choice could not have been better. By the way, my name is Emil. I will wait for your call, Grace."

The vacation barely began, the troubles of the household could wait. Grace did not have close girlfriends, with whom it was possible to make a miserable about the emerging happiness. (Not too sure what is meant here!) It was possible to hit the road even now.

It turned out almost that way.

Emil kept his word - the company took over not only the expenses, but also the troubles. It is incomprehensible how they managed to organize everything in just part of a day. In the evening, Emil met her in the space-port.

“You have a light hand, Grace.” - said Emil. - "I have completed my business here and will provide company for you. I will not hide the truth: I am happy about this. I hope you do not mind."

Grace was not opposed. Why not pass the time on the road with a conversation?

The miracles of the day were endless. Grace turned to join a long queue for the passenger's registration consoles. And then to wait for the announcement of the start of boarding for the orbital shuttle, which would deliver them to the liner - it would probably be a Yellow Arrow. The usual terminal bustle is exciting, but tiring. However, Emil confidently went to the VIP passenger zone.

The formalities took away the minimum of time. The employee behind the counter was too well-trained to show even a hint of interest or surprise - nothing but polite attention.

Grace stepped over the threshold of the terminal - and almost gasped. On the field stood a silver ship with a hospitably lowered lift. The girl furtively glanced at her fellow traveler. Young, perfectly built, charming - why not a hereditary prince, a future owner of the corporation?

What a delightful dream, and how detailed!

Hey, Grace said to herself, believe me - this is not a dream! Don't you deserve a little fairy tale?

- "Will we fly directly there? Not on the 'Yellow Line'?"

- “You guessed, Grace.” - Emil gallantly supported her arm on the ladder. - "We are heading along the shortest and safest path. I hope you are not disappointed?"

The Trident Executive Shuttle soared into the night sky. A scattering of the lights of the gigalropolis on the view screen was replaced by the inky darkness of the sea. The girl’s heart was beating anxiously.

No. This was unrealistic.

Grace felt like a little frightened girl, not ready for change. She wanted to return home, to the usual loneliness.

The scoreboard (Not too sure what is meant here!) in the cabin went out - the Trident was entering into orbit. Emil went to the bar’s rack and took out a bottle of champagne. Then he was next to Grace.

- "It’s scary to leave the house, I know. But believe me, Grace - only by looking from an angle can you can fully evaluate what you possessed."

Their glasses touched with a ringing sound.

The wine washed away the alarm, but fatigue came in its place. Grace tried to carry on a carefree conversation, but she was could not do so for a long time.

- “Excuse me, Emil.” So much all at once for this day. "I'm just curling up with exhaustion."

- "Oh, of course. Let me take you to the cabin" - Her companion responded cordially.

From the threshold, Grace noted modesty, with surprise. Not that cheap, not at all, but somehow ...

Bezliko. (Not too sure what is meant here!)

As a hotel room where the servant carefully selects all sorts of traces of the stay of the former guests. (Not too sure what is meant here!)

Or how...

“I suppose Grace, you are unlikely to forget this day.” - Emil remarked behind her. “This is the end of your former life.” The world outside of Zadies is not quite the same as you supposed from the holostim programmes of GNN. Welcome to reality.

Cold metal touched her neck.

Chapter 4

A shameful narcotic Morok. (Not too sure what is meant here!) And the smouldering feeling that emptiness, complete oblivion would not be worse that the new reality.

She was not allowed to appreciate this new reality. And they did not allow her to slip into the final nothingness. Not at all out of pity. Pity, mercy, compassion - whatever one calls it, but these concepts are applicable to the living being. And Grace was now a product. Valuable goods, to be carefully delivered to the customer in good condition.

A long haul. Very long. And most of this path Grace spent in the twilight zone between unconsciousness and half -reaches.

In anarchist Erbiti, inhabited by felinoids, Grace was moved from the glamorous trident to a humdrum python, hastily equipped for transporting humanoid lifeforms. The most dangerous section of the route for the slave trader was the narrow neck connecting the appendix with the rest of Sector One. The trading routes in this section are pulled out into two nodal points - two systems closely located at a distance of 0.8 of a light year: democratic Teesdi inhabited by humanoid colonists, and the confederation of Zainlabi, inhabited by warlike yellow insects. Grace was relatively lucky - the ship's medic was conscientious about his duties and carefully monitored the condition of the living goods. She was absolutely unlucky - a customs official on board the GalCop station in the orbit of Zainlabi, a representative of the local life, did not show curiosity as to the load of the ship. Not that the native was a xenophobe - the psychological outlook of the local culture simply blanked out any interest. At Zainlabi, torn by endless clan clashes, which GalCop officials correctly designated as an unpredictable civil war (simply put: there would be a total massacre, utter genocide of the surviving larvae from a crushed hostile anthill - the legitimate handiwork of the winner), why should a member of a warm-blooded species be treated otherwise?. The life of an individual is nothing outside society, no?

Communist Tiraor, inhabited by blue fat insects, was also alien to treasuring the unique value of a personality: communism is an ideal ideology for social insects. Then there was Edzaon - a feudal system inhabited by yellow, bony lobsters. Omara is a kind of insects of the underwater world (Not too sure what is meant here!). Having won the evolutionary battle with the cephalopods and established themselves with the status of the "crown of creation", the Edzaons lobsters rally around the strong royal power, their society cemented by a caste pyramid. In finding out about the fate of Grace, an influential Edzaons, a "claw of claws", would not even twitch in defense of a rootless warm-blooded stranger. Well, then...

Chapter 5

“Just amazing carelessness.” - a typical gray-haired man shook his head reproachfully. “How so, my dear? Throw everything up and escape from the house for the first tempting bait that you saw? You are really no longer sixteen?”

From the sidelines it might seem that the hassled father was rebuking a bouncing daughter. The typical man was dressed in a discreet, but a very expensive three-piece suit and in any decent company could easily be a member of the board of a successful corporation. He did not at all resemble the leader of a criminal syndicate, whose tentacles stretched out beyond the borders of the appendix into the civilized worlds to the north.

Grace vaguely perceived the world. The narcotic fog was dispelled, but she was still stunned and suppressed. The curtains in her brain still restrained the pressure of an unbearable new reality. Itching skin, as if covered with dried disgusting mucus. She wanted to wash herself and fall into a saving dream. And wake up with a sigh of relief in a bright new world.

But this was not a dream.

The man was patient and condescending. His leisurely, carefully measured words seeped through her protective barrier.

- “And you didn’t even bother to look at your ticket, right? You had no idea where you were actually flying to? Xexeti, darling. Xexeti.” the man repeated clearly.

- "Have you ever heard of such a place? No? One is not at all surprised. Not the best place to live, believe me. In truth, Xexeti is another hole. A poor anarchist system. Red frogs live there. They are trying to grow something, but the climate there is unhealthy. This is because of the volcanoes. Acid rains burn everything. Slaves in the fields do not live for a long time, especially visitors. You would not like it there. After all, a city's young lady is not accustomed to heavy work. So I have other considerations for your employment."

Grace held her breath. As if she was afraid of a careless exhalation blowing out the sacred light of hope. This is madness, but suddenly ...

- "I will not hide it, I became acquainted with the recommendations of your previous employer. Not quite an above-board procedure, but it doesn’t matter. And it seems you are lucky. Your professional skills are very much in demand. You can’t imagine, Grace, how hard it is to run a business without an intelligent secretary. And in these parts to meet an educated person is such a rarity. I need an intelligent secretary. And loyal. I hope I put it clearly enough.

He came close. Strong fingers grabbed Grace's chin. She saw the man's eyes. The light of hope died. “That was no casual stroll to come here, dear. It was a one-way trip. You are now dead for that world. No-one there will ever look for you. And the sooner you understand this, the better.”

The man removed his hand. - "So be an obedient girl, agreed?" Grace nodded dutifully.

Chapter 6

It had been a long time ago. Almost six months ago. Yes, almost six months. But what's the difference? Time did not matter here. There was still nothing to do with it.

She diligently performed her duties. Diligently conducted business correspondence with the clientele. Creatively worked on the image of the company. She inseparably accompanied the boss on business trips and patiently pleased him in moments of leisure. Fortunately, the ruler of the slave-trade empire was not endowed with rich sexual fantasies. Perhaps in his best years her master and lord had compared a lack of imagination with healthy animal energy, but those best times were clearly far behind. Grace's former friend from that sort of life had had experience of intimate relations with an important person from the board of a large corporation. And perhaps in other circumstances it would have been amusing to confidentially exchange details, in no case intended for the ears of men. Especially men who ... well, of course.

Well, Grace honestly tried to convince herself that everything could have turned out to be much worse. And at times she almost succeeded. She reconciled herself to her lot, just as she had reconciled with loneliness before.

She did not have a rich father who could raise a ransom for her, and then pay for an assassin who could pick off a slave-trader anywhere, in any smelly hole of all the eight sectors. She did not have a man who would dare hunt after her in these murderous lands. There had never been. And I would have been - I would never let go alone on this crazy journey. She had been a nameless cog in her corporation, and she has long been annoying to the costs of unscheduled circumstances, but without much damage was replaced by another cog. And they closed the matter. (Not too sure what is meant here!)

It was madness to dream of fleeing this dark world.

So it was better to think about more realistic matters.


This whip-hand was afraid to paw the property of his boss. But did not miss the chance for a heart-to-heart conversation.

“Are you offended, Grace?” - he once said, it seemed as if by accident. “Well, think for yourself, have you ever been truly free in your own world? Have you ever heard of how a woman has to make her career?" He paused, meaningfully.

“He is a great man, Grace. One of those elect few who really rule the world. Being next to him is a great honor. And a great responsibility. He is extremely important. He only allows a few close to himself. And those who did not justify his trust - well, you know, I do not envy them."


Chapter 7

Mr. King - Only those few who were allowed to see the boss were allowed to see the slave. Nobody knew his genuine name. He himself was so much part of his current guise that he did not feel the slightest sentimental attachment to his previous identity.

A few knowledgeable people vaguely hinted that the foundations of "Mr. King" had been laid down during the war with the Thargoids. According to rumors, Mr. King was either a naval quartermaster, or he was a member of the GalCop commission supplying the local self-defense forces. No one knew the details. What is important is that the entrepreneurial Mr. King was at the right time in the right place. The war opened an extensive opportunity for applying one's initiative: no one really traced the flow of weapons and equipment, which the Commonwealth generously sent to the needs of the war with the Thargoids. And how much of it was written off as combat losses during the war - the directors of the largest corporations in their sweetest dreams could not dream of such a dynamic capital turnover.

The Thargoids left, but the world in the appendix ruined by the war did not recreate itself. The wily Mr. King established his wide supply of the warring factions, using old connections. It’s just amazing how much these idiots were sure that they were monitoring the situation (which idiots?).

Business in anarchist systems is profitable but dangerous. The former business partners of Mr. King left his inclement world one by one, and none of his current ones dared to recall the times when this dominant criminal authority was only an entrepreneurial rogue. It took a lot of time, but Mr. King was patient and kept his ambitions secret. The stream of events that promoted it into a thin layer of real -influential figures, an outsider would have been an occasion by the game of chance. (Not too sure what is meant here!) Only particularly trusted performers were allowed to know some necessary fragments of the genuine picture, and nothing more.

The trade in military equipment in unstable systems is very profitable - especially if you have a direct access to the right people and control the supply channels. A prudent businessman, however, never puts all eggs in one basket. By the time that GalCop and the Navy, jointly, imposed a relative order on the arms market, the entrepreneurial Mr. King found a new promising market. In fact, he created it.

The ancient craft of the slave trade - alas, this once venerable occupation has become the destiny of the marginal peoples. Of course, slaves in the poor agrarian worlds are still very cheap. Sometimes fantastically cheap. In a successful situation, you can purchase humanoid slaves in a poor agrarian world at the mere price of food and sell in an industrial system at the price of alcohol. The rulers of the poor agrarian worlds willingly strike out to improve their financial affairs, periodically arranging raids on near-identical poor neighbors. Rudnikov owners (Not too sure what is meant here!) constantly need cheap labor and sometimes finance their own hunting expeditions, but in general, the trade in cheap slaves is troublesome and unsafe. And not profitable enough to pay for the risk. Those of the slave traders who have the mind to survive in unstable worlds and do not spend the rest of their lives in the correctional institutions of GalCop, over time, open a more profitable and respectable business.

Free citizens of developed worlds - oh, this is a completely different matter. These are expensive pieces of goods. Mr. King's agents worked to individual orders for them. They delivered technical personnel to the worlds dominated by aggressive regimes, superior servants for their aristocracies, stylish girls for their elites.

As a rule, Mr. King’s customers preferred anonymity and went to him through intermediaries. The more extreme trade orders - and sometimes very interesting orders - were no exception. The client expressed a desire to acquire slaves from the developed worlds wholesale and did not skimp on a suitable fee. Mr. King had his own thoughts about where the goods went. And in general, Mr. King's conclusion coincided with the assumptions of the renegade. But unlike the renegade, Mr. King had indirect data that reinforced his assumptions.

The time will come, and the client will firmly bite on the hook. And then neatly measured doses of private information will become a reliable guarantee of a more predictable relationship. In the meantime ...

Mr. King experienced the excitement of a predator, tracking large game. You need to verify every step to the smallest detail. And any annoying accident can frighten off luck. This seems to be the one that happened with the undermanned python.

Chapter 8

Mr. King's company had its own security service. And now the security chief tried to explain to his boss what had happened to the "Breakfast in the Ruins." - "It does not seem that these guys were interested in the load." - the chief of security noted sullenly. - "They did not stay on the battlefield for a single extra second. They destroyed the ship and the crew and immediately left. This is how killers usually work. Someone specifically targeted this python."

- "Who?" - Mr. King asked abruptly.

- "Not yet known. If this is a message, then under any message there should be a signature of the sender. None of the field commanders in the Maesin and Xexeti systems took responsibility for this act. And there is good reason to believe that none of them are involved in the death of Python." So far, the chief of security has stepped on relatively firm ground. The possibility of involvement in the death of the Python by militants from Maesin and Xexeti systems was very unlikely for three reasons, and any of them separately was enough.

Firstly, the leaders of armed groups in anarchist systems are well aware that anonymous violence is an pointless consumption of resources. An act of violence is a political statement, a PR action, a step towards real authority.

Secondly, anarchist systems are worlds where it is difficult to do something devilish like that and still maintain anonymity. Any port tavern is teeming with snitches, ready for a lousy hundred credits to sell their mother's mother. But here there is silence.

And thirdly, the security chief was perfectly aware of the balance of power on the playing field. None of the leaders of the local crime was strong enough to dare to openly challenge his boss.

- "The strangers who did it," - continued the chief of security. - "Were perhaps scouting from the outside world, not from inside our appendix. It will be difficult to find them, but we will do it. But another thing is important now. Someone else brought them in. One of ours."

- "Who?" - repeated Mr. King.

The security chief took a breath. His firm ground now ended, and any wrong step was fraught with deadly threat.

- "I would first check the renegade. You want to say that he was introduced?”

- "No, boss. I think he came to us of his own free will. And, also, of his own will, he will move to a new boss who will pay more. But he is not used to changing his bosses."

Mr. King's gaze was impenetrable, like an eternal night in the core of a dusty cloud.

- "The guardian of the Labyrinth is hungry. This is bad."

The chief of security was numb. An ice stream of sweat ran down between his shoulder blades.

- "OK. Renegade". - Mr. King agreed. His face was still. Nothing expressed anything. - "You can go."

The chief of security rose with difficulty. He was a large man. He was a full-fledged combat trainer and had devoted time to maintaining his physique. But now he felt squeezed, as after an exhausting march.

Mr. King's unblinking gaze rested on his back.

This is not to say that the chief of security had sophisticated analytical intelligence. Despite this, he coped well with his duties. Pragmatic ingenuity, life experience and a bullying grip - these were enough to resolve the problem situations in the boss's business as they appeared. In addition, the Chief of Security had enough sense to be content with his position without trying to claiming real power. Loyalty and diligence are a valuable combination of qualities. Nevertheless, Mr. King never missed the opportunity to additionally stimulate them both. Let them be afraid, as long as they respected him.

- "Name." - demanded Mr. King after him. - "I want to know the name of this nit. And I hope I will not have to wait too long."

Chapter 9

Mr. King was a very wealthy person. So wealthy that it was not difficult for him to acquire real estate in the most prestigious areas of the appendix and, if desired, it would not be difficult to acquire real estate outside it. Mr. King visited his many mansions infrequently and not for long - mainly for meetings with especially important customers. In his free time from business negotiations, Mr. King preferred to stay at the bottom of an atmosphere, but in space.

The asteroid in one of the systems of the devilish triangle had once served as a refuge of an old pirate who had retired from his affairs. The current owner of the asteroid needed not just an asylum. Mr. King turned the asteroid into a headquarters. He had no illusions regarding the safety of his person. The former competitors and business partners of Mr. King turned their villas into fortresses; it didn't help them too much. The residence of Mr. King was protected not by weapons batteries and a powerful defence shield (although the asteroid had both), but by being lost in a dense asteroid field, with a network of detectors and its own self-defence fleet. No one could penetrate Mr. King's residence unnoticed. The two-kilometer asteroid had spacious docks, barracks, warehouses, apartments. The heart of the fortress was a naval power plant, obtained by Mr. King from a written-off carrier of the Behemoth class.

And there was also a maze.

The creator of the Labyrinth had been a psychotic and a misanthrope. Mr. King had considered him funny. Alas, the crazy engineer had imagined himself the ruler of the world and tried to stand on a par with Mr. King. It was so funny that the creator of the Labyrinth became acquainted with his own creation personally, in action. Since then, Labyrinth has repeatedly performed a good service.

The sentenced would come to his senses in a scarcely-lit face-to-toe chamber, tightly cut off from the surrounding world. He was free to stay in his closet while the air in it remained suitable for breathing. Or choose at random one of three ways to find himself in yet another cell, indistinguishable from that just abandoned, where he could again expect inevitable suffocation. Sometimes there might be a meagre portion of water or food. And sometimes - a deadly trap. The traps were different. The crazy creator of the Labyrinth had given free rein to his imagination, designing the diaphragms that are disguised behind false panels, separating the chambers from the vacuum of the surrounding space, or razor-sharpened cocked blades, or smoothly-triggered arrow shafts. The death of the sentenced was unexpected, spectacular and instructive. Mr. King regularly arranged collective viewings of the video recordings of the fate of the current apostate, to strengthen the spirit of corporate loyalty.

Sometimes the sentenced was lucky enough and escaped all these traps. The surviving finalist of the competition was then awaited by the main prize - a meeting with the guardian of the Labyrinth. Mr. King viewed such episodes in a close circle of especially entrusted persons.

What in essence is our life, Mr. King reasoned in moments of frankness, if not a maze?

Chapter 10

Alicia Deldago, a native of the feudal system of Arraesso in the western spur of the appendix, perceived the problem of slave trade with due solemnity. That in itself there was nothing out of the ordinary. The gender stereotypes in a feudal society are no less a gesture than the portraits lining the manor's staircase. The duty of a man from a noble family is to increase the glory of the ancestors with his personal courage and take a worthy place in that long gallery of portraits for the edification of the youth. The destiny of women is that of the elegant arts, piety, charity. Alicia, in the world of characters, was too energetic in nature to be content with charitable balls and collecting donations in favour of the poor. And in the world of the mind, she was inclined to the idea that Lord Giles was more pleased with proper actions than with pious prayers. And there were personal reasons for her hatred of merchants of "living goods". The late husband of Alicia, Viscount Fernando Deldago, had been a man of old-fashioned views. He naively believed that he was obliged to protect his subjects, since they regularly payed taxes for the maintenance of his personal guard unit. And he turned out to be one of the few who dared to stand in the way of a man known in the appendix under the ominous name of "Asteria". Fernando was a brave man and an experienced fighter. Alas, he died not on the battlefield, but was meanly killed from ambush when he personally went to negotiate the rescue of his ally from captivity. Alicia did not sit secure in her mourning weeds, as expected of an inconsolable widow. Instead, she collected their surviving warriors and offered her services to the Galactic Fleet.

The jurisdiction of GalCop does not apply to the worlds that are part of the Commonwealth as such - the local authorities are instead engaged with this. One of the priority functions of GalCop is to protect the life and property of those traveling in open space. In addition to rescue operations, GalCop is also engaged in various activities - from servicing beacons and radiation hazard forecasts to the certification of small private fleets, from approval of standards and navigation rules to the supervision of compliance with laws.

The Galactic Fleet was originally created to protect the Commonwealth from an external threat. In addition to the squadrons and air groups on a permanent personnel basis, there are also squadrons formed from reservists - experienced civil pilots, their combat skills not inferior to the military personnel who take part in the actions of the fleet.

Alicia Deldago, with her warriors, began her career as the commander of a reserve squadron, but very quickly established herself and eagerly switched to personnel service at the headquarters of the tenth operational connection of the Galactic Fleet with the base in the Oresle system.

The clear separation of the zones of competence between the patrol compounds of GalCop, the fleet and the local self-defense forces of the troubled times, had existed back in the past. All police patrol ships are armed; During military conflicts or invasions of Thargoids, the police take part in combat patrols along with the fleet. However, even in peacetime, the main source of the threat of human life in space is the malicious will of another person. And so the fleet now sometimes has to perform police functions.

- "The situation has become intolerable" - said Alicia. - "I will not tire of repeating: armed violence in space has gained an organized form. If we do not take measures, the pirates will take the trade routes under their full control and will dictate their conditions. We could be saying goodbye to the Commonwealth as a Union of Free Worlds. Why should a merchant pay taxes for the maintenance of the GalCop bureaucracy if he is forced to travel at his own peril and risk and defend himself on his own?

“We must avoid these matters of politics, lady.” - Commodore Raynold Finch grimaced. - "But you have the right to open fire to defeat anyone who will not obey your order to submit to an inspection. What powers do you still need to fulfill your duties?"

Commodore Finch was middle-aged, and a conscientious servant of the Commonwealth who, to the best of his strength, tried to do everything entrusted to the commander of the tenth operational connection. Unfortunately, the efforts of the fleet to restore order in the appendix had recently yielded unimpressive results. Commodore Finch was increasingly thinking about imminent retirement, and not without pleasure. Alicia was an intelligent and ambitious operative, so let her take care of all this shit. And old Finch will move to a calm agrarian planet as far as possible from this damn appendix. Naval pensions are enough for a small house somewhere on the coast, and what else does a veteran need?

- "I stopped a week ago to inspect the seas in the Riraes system. The hold was loaded with assault rifles. These toys are available to anyone with a license - the local laws allow citizens of Riraes to freely acquire and hold ethnic weapons. The bastard smiled in my face, knowing that without a legal excuse I would not dare to touch him with as much as finger. Look on the occasion in space disorder and weapons shops on the same Riraes or retail. (Not too sure what is meant here!) From what you can find there, with some engineering skills, you can make anything up to a Quirium cascading bomb."

- "Lady Alicia, I understand no worse than you the tactical advantages of the terrorist over the lawyer. I hope you do not propose to arrest a person on the grounds that you did not like his face?"

- Our oriental neighbors have a useful experience. At one time, even before the war with the Thargoids, a group of marginalists seized power in the systems of the southeastern quadrant and tried to depart from the Commonwealth, declaring independence as the "Pirate Republic of Tortuga". The pirates terrorized the southeastern quadrant for seven years, sometimes even raiding the trading routes of the region, Tortuga, until the special forces from the Aleusqu| system took up with them. The problem did not cease to exist, but was localized. They reluctantly recall this undeclared war, because these scumbags organized a very colorful coalition - there were lobster, amphibians and insects, and they seemed to have the status of ethnic minorities, but we are not xenophobic, right? (Not too sure what precisely is meant here!) There is a more recent example in the north, where the separatists from the Cebetelaian system tore up a trade alliance with the communist systems of Beor and Anerbe. Relations with communist regimes is a sore question for The Commonwealth Administration, and these two communist systems control the trade route to the Pulsar Worlds. It is not surprising that in the news of the GNN the Bug-Eyed lizards from Cebetela became patriots conducting a just struggle for independence. It turned out, however, that these bitches are not controlled by children. I do not claim that GalCop was involved in the operation. I do not say that they decided to correct their marriage surgically. But the fact that key figures disappeared from the board and the problem then resolved itself is a fact. (Not too sure what is meant here either!)

Unedited from here: “I caught the course of your thoughts.” - dryly remarked Commodore Finch. - And who, in your opinion, is behind the current ones? - the "gentlemen of good fortune" who operate in the appendix skill can be divided into three groups. Let's start with the looters such as the bully from the Bibe system, who was killed last week. Marauders act alone or small gangs, because they are pathologically incapable of social behavior. These marauders do not recognize any authority or code of conduct - even if we are talking about the code of their own criminal environment. Such subjects are dangerous for any social structure, but in a strong civil society they are isolated as frantic animals. - "Emotional, but true." - agreed Finch. - "Let's move on to the next group of representatives of the venerable ancient profession." - "Local armed groups. Formally, these are the forces of self-defence, in practice - the private squads of local weapons barons, constantly engaged in interchangeable showdowns. These thugs are not averse to infringing on the rights of a visiting merchant and they hide their illegal trade in forbidden goods. But, oddly enough, there is also benefit from them. Their field commanders generally comply with a certain code, and sometimes even perform a good service for all of us, freeing the worlds from especially odious characters. Without such sanitary activity, this delightful corner of the Ooniverse would have plunged into the abyss of chaos, because the clowns representing our local systems in the Council of the Commonwealth are complete incompetents." Commodore Finch grinned. Alicia usually skillfully broadcast the truths that are obvious to every military man, from a grizzled veterans to a green recruit, in the resourceful tongue of politicians, where things are not customarily called by their proper names. But now she was not so shy with her expressions. - "Trading guilds. A certain shadow trade union, or even a pirate international - call it what you want." - continued Alicia. - Formally, the guild was based on the war as an alternative to the official cargo system constructed by the regulations. The guild members exchanged commercial information and together distributed contracts for the transportation of goods. During the heyday of the guild during the war, they even had their own fleet from the armed shopping ships and conducted their own escort. After the war, the trading guild was involved in a number of scandals associated with illegal supplies of weapons and strategic materials in the system -covered system. As a result, the guild fell under the ban and switched to an illegal position. The guild does not have a managing center, there is no leading vertical - it is a loose but tenacious mycelium that gradually covered the entire space of the first sector. Fortunately, for the most part, free merchants are people of a pragmatic character of character, not fanatical militants. Clearly define the legal field, set the mutually acceptable rules of the game and guarantee their mutual execution - and most free merchants will play according to the rules. According to civilized rules, not gangsters. - Excellent analysis. You put all the players in this meadow - in any case, all we know about. But our problem is not in them, right? - There is another force. - said Alicia. - This is a radical fraction that prefers tough solutions. Here are the classic definition of piracy to them fully applicable. We know almost nothing about the figure that is at the head of this organization. But whoever he was, he turned out to be a tough and decisive leader. There are rumors that local governments - or those who are behind them - in the face of a new threat preferred to forget the old ranges and entered into an unspoken agreement on the division of spheres of influence. Even if so, they were late. He does not consider himself connected by any agreements. He harshly displaces all competitors from his territory. And believe me, Reynold - he will not be limited to control over the appendix. He needs the whole first sector, and over time - the whole community, and over time he will take his strength if there is no one who dares to interfere with him! Alicia almost shouted the last phrase. - This is "Asteria", right? Finch asked softly. - Yes. - answered Alicia. She pulled herself together. The voice sounded smooth and Distracted. - Here is not just a family story. Asteria is gaining strength. He is looking for new markets and invades them, regardless of anyone. Now it is difficult to distinguish frostbroof-marauds from an Asterius militant. Perhaps this is no longer a matter: Asteria crossed the border, which could be hoped to agree on the rules of the game. It hides in the depths of the appendix, somewhere in the asteroid fields of the devilish triangle. He is inaccessible. Let be. If we begin to chop the tentacle of the octopus, this will not finish the head, but it will be painful. Perhaps he will have to appear from the shadow to restore control of the situation. But even if this does not happen, we will intercept the initiative. - What do you specifically offer? - Kill looters on the spot. Just as they treat their victims. This was done in all the warring armies at all times. Finch sighed. Realizing the unreality of plans for decisive eradication of piracy by force, the leadership of the Commonwealth actually converted to solve the problem of the private pilots themselves, giving them the right to destroy any goals with criminal status. Any - and no one delved into whether the crime recorded on the pilot was destroyed within the framework of forced self -defense and whether he was a frostbitten bandit who buried his karma with numerous robberies or simply an unclean crook who did not disdain to earn money on what he would turn up. Moreover, Ghalkop secretly encouraged this independent activity, subtracting points from the criminal status of a hunter in exchange for the destruction of other crime. Such a morally ambiguous policy of weeding the garden as a whole worked as a whole. But what Alisia proposed far went beyond the scope of the secretly established rules. The use of the power of the Galactic Fleet to declare war without officially adopted resolutions - O, politicians, lawyers and human rights activists of all stripes will be furious. - Alicia, are you aware of what will follow the announcement of your plan? - Yes, sir. My resignation. Probably yours, too, if you cannot prove that you were not dedicated to the plan. - In this case, I should be fired for incompetence. The Finch grinned. - So the result is one. But these are trifles. Acting trifles in comparison with what will happen if Asterius finds out who declared war on him. You're right. This is a scumbag. He will do everything possible to get to you. - I have an advantage. There are so many men who want his death in the world. And I'm just a weak stupid woman. I am out of suspicion. “I am madly glad that you decided to play on our side, lady.” - Finch objected politely. - In truth, I would love to hang this bastard Without unnecessary formalities. But how to lure it out of the den to spend it in an open field? Combing the asteroid fields at the science is a bad venture. - To begin with, we will get a tail with his tail. It is enough that the looters will die. Rumors diverge quickly. Many will think. He will begin to lose clientele and reputation, and this is adversely for business. - Means war? - War. But the fleet is still aside. Formally, this is not our job. - And to whom are you going to order this work? Special forces? Or local Branch Ghalkop? Finch's lips trembled with the last word in a barely noticeable squeamish grin. - No. It is best to cope with the work one who knows her firsthand. Reynold Finch rose, his face took an official expression. “I signed your report with a request for a vacation, Lady Alisia.” I wish you successfully To relax and wait for you in the service in four weeks. Thank you, Reynold. - Alicia thought warmly. - Today you showed understanding debt that goes far beyond the framework of direct duties.

Chapter 11

This private conversation took place almost three months ago, and since then much has happened. Changing the naval uniform to a stylish road suit, Alicia went to visit the birth estate on Arraesso. But not by a relatively safe way along the northern border of the appendix, but in the shortest way, through retilah. The act is not so extravagant, given that her personal courier courier was equipped with everything necessary for survival in dangerous systems, and Alicia herself had adequate combat experience. In the system, retail Alisia visited the Bar "Kankan Lobis". Of course, the institution is not one of those where it was worth looking for a noble lady, but in such places you can find people who are ready to take up the risky work of the hunter for large game. The visit was productive. People who responded to her ad of them looked quite competent. They later turned out to be like that. It was possible to go out to the asteria due to chance. Ernest Stat, a programmer from the Ksezar system, purchased a ticket to the Gerega system in the SeraGya tourist company - upon his statement, with the aim of safari on a local spotted wolf. It is possible, however, that Mr. Stat was dying to meet in a private setting with a potential employer. Having appeared for registration in the spaceport, the meticulous programmer discovered that in his ticket the Gertheet system is north-east of Xezar, and not to Gerega to the north-west, and sued the travel agency. The leadership of the Seraspis chose to hush up the scandal by paying a large penalty without disputes. This story attracted the attention of GNN only for the evening, and even then since the day turned out to be indistinguishable for bright events. Alicia, however, immediately recalled the recent sensational story with a doctor, missing a Soter missing during a lecture tour on the border of the North-West Castrant. The places there are unsafe for navigation and colleagues of the ascending luminaries of nanosurgery wrote off his disappearance to the tragic combination of circumstances. It turned out, however, that the charter flight, on the board of which the doctor flew out, was not at all to Soter, but to Sotile, north from the accumulation of Xessi. The missing on the routes only the first sector during the year goes on thousands, and it is extremely rare to find out about their fate to find out something definite. But now Alicia has caught a common motive in a series of outwardly unrelated incidents. The man went on a flight and disappeared without a trace. Local authorities willingly went to Cooperation with a galkop, but there were no results. It is not surprising - a person disappeared not at all where they tried to look for him. Sifting the Ghalkop archives, Alicia tracked dozens of such episodes - each of them itself could be attributed to the blind game of the chance, but their array crystallized into the inexorable evidence of the evil human will. Alicia scolded the web of the web - carefully, trying not to disturb the deadline for its creator. He, in the center of the web, was vigilant. Companies like the notorious Serapis were established and liquidated, ships changed the owners and ports of the postscript. Having reached the cut end of the thread, Alicia patiently took up the next one. None of the threads led directly to the center of the web, but in the aggregate they outlined the field of influence, as magnetized grains of iron sawdust draw power lines of the magnetic field. And the center of this field was a devilish triangle.

Chapter 12

It was possible to go out to the asteria due to chance. Ernest Stat, a programmer from the Ksezar system, purchased a ticket to the Gerega system in the Seraspis tourist company - upon his statement, with the aim of safari on a local spotted wolf. It is possible, however, that Mr. Stat was dying to meet in a private setting with a potential employer. Having appeared for registration in the spaceport, the meticulous programmer discovered that in his ticket the Gertheet system is north-east of Xezar, and not to Gerega to the north-west, and sued the travel agency. The leadership of the Seraspis chose to hush up the scandal by paying a large penalty without disputes. This story attracted the attention of GNN only for the evening, and even then since the day turned out to be indistinguishable for bright events. Alicia, however, immediately recalled the recent sensational story with a doctor, missing a Soter missing during a lecture tour on the border of the North-West Castrant. The places there are unsafe for navigation and colleagues of the ascending luminaries of nanosurgery wrote off his disappearance to the tragic combination of circumstances. It turned out, however, that the charter flight, on the board of which the doctor flew out, was not at all to Soter, but to Sotile, north from the accumulation of Xessi. The missing on the routes only the first sector during the year goes on thousands, and it is extremely rare to find out about their fate to find out something definite. But now Alicia has caught a common motive in a series of outwardly unrelated incidents. The man went on a flight and disappeared without a trace. Local authorities willingly went to Cooperation with a galkop, but there were no results. It is not surprising - a person disappeared not at all where they tried to look for him. Sifting the Ghalkop archives, Alicia tracked dozens of such episodes - each of them itself could be attributed to the blind game of the chance, but their array crystallized into the inexorable evidence of the evil human will. Alicia scolded the web of the web - carefully, trying not to disturb the deadline for its creator. He, in the center of the web, was vigilant. Companies like the notorious Serapis were established and liquidated, ships changed the owners and ports of the postscript. Having reached the cut end of the thread, Alicia patiently took up the next one. None of the threads led directly to the center of the web, but in the aggregate they outlined the field of influence, as magnetized grains of iron sawdust draw power lines of the magnetic field. And the center of this field was a devilish triangle.

Chapter 13

- You know, Lady Alicia, people are damn sloppically addressing information, even if we are talking about their safety. - said Sebastian Sanchez. Sebastian wore a dandy beard, his well -groomed hands and the taste of the selected suit eloquently spoke of the high social status of the owner. This pamper of fate in appearance resolutely could not have anything in common with asocial cybergics. Few knew that Sebastian was a brilliant specialist in electronic intelligence and cryptoanalysis. He was the best of all whom Alicia could find, and she did not skimp on the strength and means. - You were absolutely right about the "Serapis". - continued Sebastian. -A typical cover company. Shortly before the liquidation, they placed an order in the printing house on Ininby. Nothing remarkable - ordinary tourist booklets. But then it was worth looking at the sources. On carriers, pieces of private information sometimes remain. Sometimes even draft letters not intended for sending. Do you know what Steganogram is? - Yes. - answered Alicia. - A encrypted message that looks like a common text. Or a picture. - In general, yes. Sebastian opened the layout of the booklet and turned off the visible layers of the image. Then he turned on the invisible layer. Alicia leaned forward. It was a letter. Call for help. - It is written by hand on the tablet and converted into curves. - Commented Sebastian. - They wrote in a hurry, but thought it out in advance. Smartly invented. Safety filters check files on symbol lines. And there are no characters and there is not even a picture. Only crooked. Alicia re-read the letter again, slowly. Now I got you, bastard. - Is that really she? - Presumably yes. I made inquiries. She studied at designer. She knew how to handle layout and graphic design programs. She could write this letter. And it seems that she could tell a lot about our friend. I would give a lot to establish a connection with it. Yes, that would be a fantastic success. - Me too. But she is not a professional agent, Sebastian. And she is in danger. First of all - we must pull it out of there. - And dozens of others. - recalled Sebastian. - They are also in danger. This is so, Alicia silently agreed. Welcome to the cruel world of intelligence. In a world where any figure in the game, even the most valuable, is exchanged without pity for a positional advantage or tactical initiative if they consider it appropriate. - She's in danger. - repeated Alicia. “No one should know her by name.” Even here. - It was decided. Let's call her ... - Ariadne. - Smart girl. And brave. I hope we can pull it out.

Chapter 14

Ariadne's thread led to Esgerean. The chief of the State Security Committee showed a complete understanding of the situation and expressed his readiness for secret cooperation. The key figures of the established network of transported live goods were isolated without noise, a couple of illegible politicians who covered their business received an unambiguous proposal to cooperate in a new undertaking. The dummy company was organized quickly and almost without interference. From the outside, everything looked like an ordinary struggle for the places of a hearty feeder. The generous receipts to the anonymous accounts of influential figures reinforced this impression. The slaves, whom the resellers managed to transport outside the system, could only sympathize - these poor fellows would be provided to their fate until the active phase of the operation would end. The remaining slaves in the system were secretly arranged relatively human conditions, the information was carefully pulled out of them. I managed to find out very much. Ariadne’s letter was still the most complete and reliable source of critical information.

- I think it's time to move on to the active phase of the operation. - said Alicia. “Are you sure your person was not turned over?” - asked Commodore Finch. - No. I am not sure. We are serious. But you can no longer pull. Otherwise, Asterius feels something wrong and will hide again. - Well. Let's start. You seem to burn out with impatience to get into the fields again? - My fighters sat in the barracks. It will be useful for them to be made up.

Following the "breakfast in the ruins" all the same, in the Cukur system, two more pirate ships were killed. Gastrolets from the anarchist system of Mesin visited the CUKUOR in a regular robber raid and stumbled upon a ruthless rebuff. Python and escort Saizder were destroyed almost instantly, the rest of the ships in a panic left an inhospitable system. Mr. King considered his patrimony and visiting guesters in the system did not tolerate the CUKUOR lying in the node of the trade routes, leading to the western horn of the appendix. And yet he was pretty angry that someone dares to arrange a showdown in his diocese without demand. - It seems that local security services decided to put things in order in the system. - said the chief of secularity. Without this, you will have to deal with this, Mr. King decided. Events in the CUKUOR system have not yet affected his business, but the carriers have become worried. No one dared to refuse Mr. King directly, however, the owner of the reproached Python discussed longer than usual from the vicissitudes of fate, hinting at an additional fee for risk. The supply of a new batch of living goods, however, was organized almost without delay.

Chapter 15

The transfer of goods was assigned, as the last time, in the system, retired. This time, the brigade of Mr. King was replenished with a Renegade Viper. The renegade did not feel much desire to participate in the field operation, undergoing dangers along with ordinary fighters, and even more so personally responsible for her success, but did not dare to argue with Mr. King. Atropos appeared this time a minute per minute. Having exchanged signals with the buyer of the goods, Python dumped his cargo overboard. And at that moment, purple brands invaded the scanner field. And then they turned into purple.

- Goals - AASPA, two missiles, salvo! - Alicia ordered her operator weapon systems. Two noiseless missiles came off the pylons and rushed to the goals. The ASPs dispersed, evading the missiles. Both led by Alicia brought down a cannon fire on the cobra Rapira. The pirate sparkled from the hits and turned into a ball of fire. In an instant, having lost the advantage of the fire power, the pirate group crumbled. The Renegat Viper darted to the side. Cobra Mark three slipped behind him. A couple of Aspov, getting rid of missiles, closed the system and tried to go into a counterattack. Alicia was nailed, holding on the reach of Python's radiation gun, and snapped with fire, driving away Aspov from Python. The second link of naval fighters appeared on the battlefield. This decided the outcome of the battle. The ASPs moved away and dived into an open wormhole one after another. Python, using the bustle, ducked into his wormhole. Saviner, not equipped with a hyperdrave, was sticking after, but ran into a barrage fire and dumped away. Nobody pursued him. - Griffin - Puma, pursue Python. - reported the commander of the second link. - Puma - to the griffin, set aside. - Alicia responded. - I pick up the load, cover. The battlefield is empty. Blue bubbles of open wormholes went out one after another. “Good hunting, guys.” - Alicia approved her fighters. The pilots responded with a friendly combat cry. Well. She made her move today. The war is declared. Now the move is an asteria.

Fifteen seconds of the reference before opening the wormhole stretched for the renegade endlessly. If the usual captive pirate was expected to stay in a correctional institution, and then a hopelessly dull balance of life in some settlement cut off from the world, then the Renegat was afraid to even imagine what former colleagues could do with it. Finally, the Renegade Viper ducked into a saving funnel, but the panic did not let go. Emerging from the neck of the tunnel, the renegade immediately switched to the aft review. It seems like no one followed and ... The heart was finished, the breath was interrupted. The bright annular wave of the indignant space scattered, pushing another ship to the surface. The Renegat saw only a dark narrow silhouette, but he guessed the pursuer. It was "Atropos". The renegade hesitated. He was scared more than ever. It is terrible to return and report to Mr. King about the failure of the operation and the catastrophic defeat. It is scary to be alone with this scumbag. I wanted to slip away, take refuge alone, lay down somewhere in a secluded hole. Remove everything from the accounts, change the mask and get as far away from the damn appendix as possible. But maybe it will be safer to hold together for some time, since it was not unnoticed by unnoticed. He was made to slow down. The next second, he realized that the troubles had just begun. Cobra turned on the weapon guidance regime. The renegade in a panic turned on the fast and the Furious. The flight only delayed the inevitable reprisal - the cobra was tenacious on the tail, gradually reducing the distance. The beam of a military laser hit the forwards shield of the renegade. The renegade shied to the side. Garing the moment, he caught the pursuer into the aft sight and launched the rocket. The Cobra pilot did not even bother to perform a classic evasion maneuver - without stopping the chase, he simply completed the barrel, missing the rocket along the axis of the screw trajectory. Having completed the maneuver, he shot again. The blow fell on the aft shield and burned it. The renegade pulled the pen towards himself in a desperate attempt to turn on to the pursuer and cover himself with a nasal shield. The new series of strokes shook Viper. The renegade painfully felt the Viper breaks up into pieces. The pilot "Atropos" reduced the move and picked up a rescue capsule with a renegade. Then he picked up the fragments of the metal. Having taken away all the visible traces of the incident, he introduced the undercamed code into the astrocompass and headed for the wasteland on the external outskirts of the system.

Chapter 16

Emptiness. Gloom and silence. And then a sharp, blinding light. The renegade twitched. He lay back, reliably fixed with belts. Like a laboratory animal. - Tell me where you were in a hurry, friend. - sounded a voice, impersonal by Skrambler. - What kind of urgent divisions? - Who you are? Renegate croaked. - It doesn't matter. It is now important who you are. Mr. King must now be asked this question. Will you tell us or to him? The choice is yours. - No. - Renegate shouted in a panic. - You do not understand. He will kill me if he finds out. - So what? You will die anyway. Or are you going to live forever? If so, then in vain. Your life was meaningless. And the choice is how to complete it, you also have a poor one. The ears were laid, as in the fall to the bottom of the atmosphere. The renegade swallowed. - What are you doing? He whispered with despair. - For what? - Life is generally a meaningless thing. - said an impersonal voice. - And already In open space and even more so. You make some plans, intrigue, get your ties, make a career. And then the air suddenly disappears somewhere. And suddenly it turns out that none of this, by and large, is necessary for life. The renegade sobbed. - However, no. - continued the impersonal voice. - Shock decompression is unpleasant, but quickly. That's when you breathe nitrogen under pressure, and then this nitrogen boils in your body - a completely different matter. Perhaps even you will live for some time after we complete the conversation. But it is unlikely that such a life will delight you. - No. No need. I can be useful. Listen, I can be useful. He spoke hastily. He had something to tell. The Renegat carefully collected incriminating evidence for former colleagues and on the collapses of the shadow economy of the appendix. Most of his archives were prudently hidden in bank safes. The banks were respectable and zealously observed the secret of deposits. They will not kill him. Otherwise, they do not care about this information. The interrogation lasted a long time. An impersonal voice did not give a renegade for a second of respite. Finally he was left alone. The light turned off. Again, darkness and silence. Man and Felinoid in the next compartment silently listened to the record. - Well, these scum these little people. - Felinoid commented in disgust. - Sorry, friend, nothing personal. “We are not predators, unlike you.” - the man answered. - We do not have an innate code of honor. We twist as we can survive. Felinoid snorted in his mustache. - I take this creature with me. - announced the man. - The premium is grateful. - answered Felinoid. - I will continue to provide service on occasion. But I hope not such a plan. “I infrequently turned to you with such requests.” - remarked the man. Felinoid agreed silently. The man from time to time turned to him for Information that cannot be obtained in a legal way, and always gently paid without unnecessary disputes. This time was no exception. But Felinoid did not feel the usual pleasure from a successful deal. He was a hacker, not a torture affair. If his will, he would simply crush the vile creature as a slug. Felinoid took a man to the dock. Having again taken aboard the prisoner, Atropos left the Hackers base, lost in an extensive asteroid field. After making sure that there were no other ships nearby, the Atropos pilot set up a long-term navigation system and launched a countdown before jumping into a wormhole.

Translator's note

Based on Stranger's pdf of Непреклонная - the above is down to the halfway break of p.26 (of 59). Translated using Google Translate and then edited to make more sense (I hope!). See Language for links to the Russian download.


  • See also Hermit for Stranger's other piece about asteroid mining in the Usanat system