Hanako's Heart by Tomek Piorkowski - HTML preview

PLEASE NOTE: This is an HTML preview only and some elements such as links or page numbers may be incorrect.
Download the book in PDF, ePub, Kindle for a complete version.

Hanako's Heart
Book One of the Kilesa Trilogy By Tomek Piorkowski

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 South Africa License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.5/za/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, 171 Second Street, Suite 300, San Francisco, California, 94105, USA.

A copy of the licence is also available at the back of the novel, before the endnotes.

 

A note from the Author

This novel represents work done from late 2001 to late 2006, and I consider it, truth be told, an unfinished work. This is the eigth draft/revision of the text. Yet after working it over so many times over so many years, I have grown weary of it, and now I release it onto the internet as is, after a year of ignoring it. I hope that any avid reader of science fiction will enjoy it, if one is not put off by my frequents divings into surrealism (I have perhaps been too much influenced by Philip K. Dick in this sense). Also, I hope the reader will be forgiving of my many experiments in style, which perhaps make the novel uneven in its reading, and the ludicrous amount of references, some of which may come across as bizarre.

This work is released under a Creative Commons licence, and as such this work may be freely distributed provided no payment is asked. In the unlikely event that someone may want to make a derivative work (ie fan fiction), that someone is free to do so, again provided that no payment is asked for in its distribution. The Corporate Universe may still be fertile ground for many more stories.

Although this is the first part in a trilogy, it is unlikely that I shall ever write its sequels, as other projects have long since overcome my desire to work on this 'Kilesa' trilogy; however, the two sequels were meant to be sequels in the sense that they continued the underlying philosophical and moral discussion, rather than being actual continuations of the story. Thus in terms of story this novel is a complete whole.

I hope then, that five years of work has not been totally wasted, and that a few readers will find merit in this little science fiction novel.
October 2007

 

Part One - The Beating Core

 

"There are these three roots of unskilfulness. Greed as a root of unskilfulness, aversion as a root of unskilfulness, delusion as a root of unskilfulness."
- The Lord Buddha (The Pali Canon, Itivuttaka III.1)

 

The student must learn

It was only then that Smuggler Knight realised he was covered in blood. His breathing was deep but controlled, his heart beat fast but not heavily palpitating. Nevertheless, he felt that his mind was about to slide into panic. To stop this, Smuggler Knight deliberately decided to reground himself, to carefully reanalyse his situation starting from the most very basic assumptions :
1) What happened?
1-a) Smuggler Knight had walked into a trap.
1-b) Smuggler Knight had managed to fight his way out of it.
2) Where is this place?
2-a) Smuggler Knight was aboard a spacestation. He could feel the gentle, omnipresent throbbing, so typical of spacestations, that tapped the underside of his boots through the deck floor.
2-b) More specifically, Smuggler Knight was in a large and vacant storage room aboard this specific spacestation.
2-c) More importantly, Smuggler Knight was aboard a spacestation which fell under the jurisdiction of a Corporate vassal, the Shareholder Tang Yu-lin 1 . Said Shareholder will soon want Smuggler Knight dead.
3) Who is this person, standing here?
3-a) Smuggler Knight was someone who was to be very dead very soon if he did not get out of Shareholder Tang Yu-lin's territory extremely quickly.
3-b) Smuggler Knight had just killed four people, this being the reason for supposition 2-c and also 3-a
4) What now?
4-a) Smuggler Knight would first pray to his Ancestors for guidance. 4-b) Smuggler Knight would analyse his context, decide an action, and follow the action through.
Analysis of the context. Why is context so important? Without context, a moment of time has neither a past nor a future, it has neither an inheritance nor anything to bequeath. Without past or future, the present may as well not exist, the presence of the present moment is obliterated.
Analyse the context carefully. Where is this present moment coming from? Where shall this present moment go to?
It must be studied. It is important. With a careful study, the causality of reality is looked over, and the consequences of actions are hidden behind smoke. It is said that those who study according to a system are those most successful at those studies. One of the most common systems of study is to study the work in chronological order. We shall need to go to the beginning.

In the beginning ( a context )

Is there any true beginning to a story? Or a true ending? In truth, there are no beginnings and endings but merely one continuous narrative, cut at certain points for the sake of finiteness, yet still dependent on what came before and what shall come after. And thus this narrative begins long after an ending, but throughout this tale it shall be apparent that the history that ended so long ago permeates this one. And the events of this history shall, no doubt, influence another beginning, long after this history has ended. The history of one happening cannot happen in isolation of what preceded it or what shall follow it as a consequence. There is always a context.

So when does this history start? What number of calendar shall we assign to this beginning? What good are calendars? - every time some new prophet comes up, with his own fantastic version of an Almighty Divine, his followers promptly reset the calendar to zero, ensuring that time shall never ever grow too old in years. And as for years, shall we use Earth years? Earth has become an insignificant planet, good only for ones interested in buying slaves to work on factory planets and in finding Abrahamic prophets. There are now various years of more significant orbits.

But in this beginning there are in fact several calendars in use, by the various space faring groups, each with their own version of a year. Attempts at introducing a universal calendar have failed, since they invariably failed in adjusting to local needs. Yet one achievement was made, in that the various types of years now approximated one another in length.

Still, there was this vexing problem of when to pin the year zero. On Earth, this was solved by firmly placing the pin on the death or birth or life of religious figures; but in colonised space, in which religion multiplied and mutated into an uncountable number of forms, there are far too many holy men to choose from.

So, as in the days of the ancient, prophet-despising Hellenes, time was measured from the last significant political event, and in this narrative, that event occurred ten years ago: an ending, a zero-causing event. It was the siege and final fall of the nation of Old Italy to the Corporation.

Old Italy, so named because those people were proud of upholding ancient Italian traditions, had been the hegemon of the colonised galaxy. With defeat, the hegemony of a vast interstellar empire went to the leader of the Corporation, the Chief Executive Officer Czerwon 2. It was not only a changing of masters, but the spiritual forces governing the galaxy had changed. It was the victory of quantity over quality, of factory over workmanship, of capitalism over dignity.

Yet the Corporation, exhausted from the war against the Old Italians, was not strong enough to assert its control over the galaxy. Even though ten years have passed after the fall of Old Italy, Free Traders still hold out in their Zone, unfearing pirates sail the starscapes and various territories are controlled, not by the CEO Czerwon, but by nominal allies, warlords but referred to as the shareholders. There are many who prefer the new order, as well as many who preferred the old ways and are the Corporation's enemies - of course, the greatest numbers belong to the apathetic, as has always been the case throughout history.

We now have our zero, our context – the fall of Old Italy - the ending before our beginning; and out of this beginning shall arise a new ending. Ever as history goes on, calendars reset due to some occurrence or other, to new zeros. Such a resetting will occur in this narrative.

Now let's narrow the context, to a place aboard a spacestation in a territory under the control of Shareholder Tang Yu-lin, where an out of work smuggler is about to walk into a trap.
The swordfighting stance of the House of Knight

Smuggler Knight had been in many dangerous situations. He had made a name and reputation during the siege of Old Italy, where he had become a part of the Royal Italian navy, running through Corporate blockades. In those great old days, he had made quite a lot of money on various dangerous missions. But he never got himself into stupid situations.

With a quick indrawing breath, Smuggler Knight silently called upon his Ancestors. Smuggler Knight found himself caught in a situation as stupid, as it was dangerous.
He had been looking for work on a spacestation 3 on the outskirts of the Corporate empire. The station was within territory under the administration of a Corporate ally by the name of Shareholder Tang Yu-lin. It was an open secret that the Shareholder profited from lucrative trade in various illegal narcotic drugs, and Knight had thought that perhaps he could get a smuggling job or two amidst all the drug running. But smuggler work had momentarily dried up, and Knight had passed his name around so that if anyone was interested they would know who to call.
Unfortunately it just so happened that the son of the shareholder, known as Prince Tang, was fascinated by swordfighting. Swordfighting had experienced a revival back in the days of gun-shy space travellers - bullets used to be dangerous aboard gentle-hulled spaceships - but now was mostly carried on by its few remaining adherents for the sake of tradition. Prince Tang was even an avid student of the history of swordfighting and of the great swordfighters. Now one of the greatest of these men was Knight's greatgrandfather, also by name Smuggler Knight. This great-grandfather was perhaps the most famous swordsman of his time, and created his own style, the style of the House of Knight. Knight's great-grandfather's influence was so great that he also to some extent influenced the Smuggler's Code, of which every member of the Knight family swore to uphold as a code of honour and conduct, and which used to be upheld by all smugglers in general.
Raised in luxury and grown arrogant under the sheltering wing of his father's power, the impetuous Prince Tang longed to test his swordfighting abilities against a warrior of skill - as opposed to his servants, who generally lost to him because they were too frightened of the consequences of beating him. When word reached him that a smuggler called Knight had been going around looking for work, he immediately recognised the name. After sending his servants to investigate, they confirmed to the prince that the smuggler in question was a member of the House of Knight.
Soon after, Smuggler Knight, lured by the promise of a lucrative job, walked into a large, empty storage deck of the spacestation. Walked straight into a trap.
The deck was mostly empty except for a few large crates scattered about. The smuggler was walking towards the prince and was about to give a formal salute and polite greeting, when Knight realised something was not right.
"Honourable greetings," said the smuggler, trying to put warmth into his face and words.
"Hmph," replied the prince. He nudged his manservant, an elderly white-haired man who spoke for his master in a crackled voice, "The Most Wondrous Prince Tang , son of the Warlord and Shareholder Tang Yu-lin, wishes to challenge you to a formal duel." Knight's heart shot a jolt of alarm. He needed work, not bravado games.
"Prince Tang, forgive me, I must respectfully decline," said Knight, carefully toning his words to be somewhere in between 'respectful' and 'forceful'.
Knight heard chuckle sounds from behind. The prince had placed three thugs at the only exit. Prince Tang gave a snigger, something which made it clear that Knight had a good chance of not making it out alive without a fight.
This prince, Knight realised, was willing to duel to death for no better reason than a reckless whim. Formal dueling was a bloody and dangerous sport and either of them could get killed, something that the prince did not care about. So arrogant was the prince that he fancied that he could beat Smuggler Knight without much effort, although the prince had never fought a proper swordfight with someone of blade-skill and furthermore, the prince was not taught by any of the great swordmasters, or even a swordmaster of slight distinction.
In Knight's mind, a mixture of anger and also contempt arose in him, as he looked over Tang. Prince Tang was short and did not seem to have the body of a well conditioned fighter. Tang also looked only about fifteen years old, and the smuggler began to feel utmost contempt for this arrogant boy, the son of a corrupt drug dealing vassal man.
Knight straightened his back, let his shoulders loosen a little. Caught in the trap, he saw no way of escape. "Very well, Prince Tang," acquiesced Knight, "You shall have your duel."
Prince Tang made all three 4 of his armed guards leave the room and ordered them to wait outside the exit, behind a closed door. The prince was worried that one of them, out of overzealous concerned loyalty, would interfere in the fight - the last thing the prince wanted was for the satisfaction of conquest-victory to be snatched away by his slaves. Only the manservant, an elderly gentleman, stayed behind to act as referee. "For your benefit," the prince sneered, "in case you want to surrender, rather than die by my hand!"
Knight was astonished. This prince, this boy, obviously did not respect the killing power of a bladed weapon. And although Knight himself knew that he would never be the amazing swordsman his great-grandfather was, nevertheless Knight was well drilled in the stances and techniques of the House of Knight and he was a swordsman of merit. Did this child know what he was getting himself into?
"Have you ever fought before?" Knight asked.
"I have fought hundreds of times and I won every battle!" the prince exclaimed.
Knight was not convinced. The boy's body and face did not have any visible scars on it, although to be fair, Prince Tang was fully clothed, in the most expensive attire Knight had ever seen anyone wear to a fight. Knight's own face did not have any scars on it, but that was luck, and for every wound he missed on his face he received one somewhere else on his body.
Knight gave the old man his gun, then took off his coat, folded it and gave it to the 'referee' to put it, and his weapon, in an unobtrusive place. Knight unbuttoned and did the same with his shirt as the coat. As he did so, the many ugly scars that he had accumulated on his chest and arms could be seen.
The prince, his eyes wide, suddenly looked a bit taken aback. Knight gathered that, for the first time, Prince Tang had seen the marks of a warrior. Knight concluded that the prince himself never received a vicious wound, or even had his precious skin broken.
Nevertheless the prince regained his composure and at least the veneer of his former arrogance. Acting impatient, he ordered Knight to take up his blade to fight.
"You want to fight fully dressed?" inquired Knight. The prince was not taking his shirt off.
"I will fight any which way I want to!" the prince retorted.
The elder servant was slow with age, gathering up two swords from the floor, and the Prince kicked him downwards, shouting at his servant, "Hurry up!". The man sprawled onto the floor, then crawled up into a standing position, meekly gave the prince his sword and then held the sword Knight was to use, waiting for the smuggler to take it.
Knight took the blade and raised it up in salute towards the prince. Prince Tang, however, broke protocol by not saluting back and instead rushed into attack.
The surprise attack was clumsily executed and besides, Knight had twinged with the faint intuition that Tang would do something stupid like that. He parried the blow, grabbed Tang's arm and pulled, while stepping out of the way and watching prince being carried forward by inertia. Prince Tang went by so fast that he had no control over his body.
Reflexively, Knight brought his sword downwards to the ground then flicked it upwards into Tang. The blade ate off a chunk of the prince's neck.
The prince stumbled a step further before falling down in a gargling heap. Knight regretted his action - if he had taken a split-second more to think, he could have given a non-killing wound, or perhaps even disarmed the prince without harming him. Now he had killed the son of the feudal lord of the territory he was currently resident in. The prince's own free-willed foolishness that had sealed Tang's fate; but now Knight himself was in trouble.
Tang was gargling about, trying to scream but his torn larynx would not obey. Blood gushed about like vileness. The prince's face was distorted in pain and fear.
Knight did not stop moving after he had dealt the blow. He already knew what he had to do even while considering the consequences of what he did. In a series of fluid movements, Knight stepped towards the prince and brought his sword down, mercifully put an end to Tang's life.
The referee was stunned at seeing his master felled so quickly and with so little respect for the prince's inherent superiority. Before the old man could recover enough sense to call for help, Knight's sword had already withdrawn from the prince's body, a slight stream of blood followed the blade as it swung through the air; then the blade was at the man's throat, cold against his skin. "Do...not...utter...a...sound," said Knight, pausing between his carefully sounded words.
Knight was in survival mode and he had to escape. The elderly man at his sword's end was quiet and whimpering and scared. The armed guards were still waiting at the entrance. If he got past them, he would still have to make his way to his ship the Poet's Whim, get off the spacestation, and then escape this region of space before the shareholder realised that a smuggler had killed his son. Shareholder Tang Yu-lin was notorious for his cruelty and Knight did not wish to know what would happen to him if he fell into the warlord's hands.
The old man had strapped Knight's gun to his own hip, instead of placing it somewhere
- it was a way of making sure neither of the competitors could get to it during the fight (not that it was much of a fight). Knight undid the clasp, took the gun belt of the man. He pulled out the gun, and pointing it at the man, he clipped the gun belt upon himself.
The men outside still did not know what had happened. Knight remembered that there were three of them; he would have to act quickly and precisely.
Knight had an idea. As the old man recovered his wits, and stopped whimpering a bit, Knight commanded him, firstly, to keep his mouth shut. The man agreed, a bit dazed but with enough wits about him to recognise the significance of the gun pointed at his face. Luckily, the old man did not realise Knight was bluffing 5 , and he agreed to do what the smuggler said.
After telling the man what to do, Smuggler Knight walked away and leaned himself against the wall next to the entrance. There was a recess right next to the door into which Knight snugly fitted himself in. After a cue, the old man began to shout for help.
Evidently the guards were not of the exquisitely alert type, for it was only after a few loud shouts that they reacted. The door opened and a single head poked its way through. His eyes looked upon the old man, then moved on to see Prince Tang's body lying on the floor.
A moment of thought had to pass through the thug's head before he came to his startling conclusion. He cried out to the others.
The first thing they did was to hurry over to the prince's prone body - exactly what Knight wanted, as he aimed and fired his gun.
It was a bit dirty to shoot them in the back, although it was a dirty trick to have trapped the smuggler in the first place. The Smuggler's Code, too, had nothing to condemn this action - as long as your opponents were armed, they were fair targets.
Despite the quick and shaky aim, Knight's first shot manage to plunge itself into the back of the nearest foe. One fell down on the floor, two turned and pulled out their weapons from inside their jackets. Knight fired off two shots, one missed one hit, second man down. Third man fired at Knight. Knight dropped down, firing one two three, back and forth back and forth third man missed Knight. Knight hits third man. Third man down.
It was a short gun-battle. Knight suddenly remembered how loud the gun shots had been, ringing acoustic in the warehouse. His alarmed mind considered the possibility that others had heard. The old man, frightened, had immediately ran to take cover as the first shots rang out and disappeared among the empty crates.
The three guards were downed, and Knight was for the moment safe. As for the old man, Knight could do nothing - even if he found out where he was hiding, the Smuggler's Code forbid him to harm an unarmed man, and Knight was not going to break the Code lightly for fear of offending the spirits of his Ancestors 6 .
He cautiously checked if there were no more men waiting outside the storage bay, or if anyone had been around to hear what happened. No one.
Shareholder Tang Tzu would probably want the smuggler's impaled head brought before him for causing Prince Tang's death. Knight had to get out of the station, and out of this sector of space as quickly as possible. The smuggler would have to work his way through the more crowded areas of the station (hopefully the alarm would not be sounded before he was through) and get to the parking bay where his ship, the Poet's Whim, was stored. Then he'd push out at full speed for the border. But he would need to pay off the Whim's parking fees. Spaceship parking, like all convenient things, was not free. That needed money. Money Knight did not have.
The smuggler looked over to the prone bodies of the men he had just slain. Men carry wallets. Wallets have money. Smuggler needs money. Smuggler get wallets.
Knight cautiously walked over to the bodies. He knew that the thugs were shot to hell, but that didn't necessarily mean they were dead yet.
He crouched down near the nearest, the one he had first shot, in the back. The man had twisted around and was lying on that shot back in a pool of blood draining out of that shot back. One hand pointing gun at head, Knight's other hand searched pockets.
Problem : Man was not dead yet.
The thug suddenly returned to consciousness and with a shriek pulled his gun out. Knight shrieked too, startled delay before he pulled the trigger. Knight's gun made a hole in the thug's head. The newly hole-headed man fired off his own gun but never had time to aim, and the bullet flew past a arm's length away from its target. It hit the walls and clanged off the wall's metal then zipped up and down some more, kling klang klong it sang. Knight put his arms over his head and huddle and hoped that the crazy thing would avoid him. Finally he heard a cry of muffled augh!
Frenzied, Knight kicked at the bodies of the three thugs, then kicked at the body of Prince Tang, making sure they didn't grunt or otherwise indicate that they were still living. Satisfied that everyone was dead, he ran to where he thought the muffled cry had come from, his arms outstretched and his gun ready. He spun round an empty crate.
There was the old man, who had been hiding behind the crate. The bullet that had been fired earlier had bounced off the walls and right into his hiding place. A red hole in his shirt indicated where the bullet had gone in. The old man gurgled a red gurgle a bit, eyes blankly staring at the crate. A younger man would have lasted for a while still from that wound but this old man's physiological reserves were all deteriorated with age. Knight saw him tense his legs up a bit, then slacked into death's grace.
Life, and the miserable joke of human circumstances. A unintended bullet randomly flying killed this man's life. Ever the weak shall hide, and yet the context shall chase them. Though the weak run and run past innumerable stars, yet they are still the product of their environment, and that environment shall have power over them, its final vengeance and retribution. And as all human animals must adapt to their circumstances, they must change and alter, till the thing they are is no longer recognisable as human, but has either gone back to beast, or gone on to something better.
Do not think you can lock yourself into your house and keep the world a world's length away, for the world shall find you.
Knight's sympathetic nervous system was winding down, the smuggler's body sensing that the worst was past.
Then Knight suddenly realised he was covered in blood.
Flashback : The thug suddenly awaking and with a shriek, pulling his gun out. Knight's gun then made a hole in the thug's head. The man's head exploded like a pumpkin and blood and brain had been thrown all about, especially over Knight. At that time Knight's brain was so awashed with adrenaline 7 that the smuggler had not even consciously registered sensory information about it.
For a moment, he felt his heart rate speed back up and his mind about to slip back into panic. Fear : How was Knight going to get off the spacestation while covered in red-red blood?
Stop.
Knight regrounded himself, forced his psyche away from its fantastic imaginings and back to basic questions that plague humanity : What? Where? Who? Pulling his mind back to these basic issues, Knight could figure out what to do from there.
Luckily Knight had taken off his shirt and coat before the fight with Tang and had still not put it back on. His coat would be enough to cover the blood stains on his clothes and skin. The problem would be the smell of his frightened sweat and the brain and the blood and the gunpowder and whatever else; also there was blood that over his face. Either could give away what had happened.
Having finished analysing his context, Knight came up with a course of action.
First, money. Money makes the galaxy go round.
Knight quickly searched all the corpses, found some money chips, and one of the bodyguards had a money comm. A money comm was an access terminal to the Corporate banking system, which allowed a person to remotely manage his finances and also download money into his money chips. Unfortunately the comm was designed to activate only according to a complex recognition system of voice, body odour, skin texture, fingerprints, and numerous other systems that Knight, not being a hacker, knew little or nothing about. The comm, in Knight's present situation, was useless, except to check how much money was on the chips.
Relief, as Knight found that the chips had enough money to pay off his parking fees, with a little bit extra for any incidental bribes or expenses on his way off the station. Unfortunately he got a bit of sticky blood on his hands and on the chips while searching the bodies.
The smuggler looked around the warehouse, found his shirt and coat. Since there was no clean cloth anywhere, he used the shirt to wipe off the blood on his face, his hands and the chips. This stained the shirt, but after he put on the shirt he put his coat over that, effectively hiding the evidence. Knight hoped his face was clean.
He walked over to the exit to the warehouse, stood facing its closed door. He straightened out his clothes, hoping he looked presentable. He took in a deep breath, said a short prayer to his Ancestors, opened the door and stepped through.
It was quiet outside, no one around. Evidently the Prince had planned to kill Knight and then leave the smuggler's body, where it would be only found after some time. Things had worked out differently, but at least the smuggler knew he had a small margin of time.

Czerwon's valuation

Chief Executive Officer Czerwon was a man who, when he put his mind to it, could be far-sighted with regard to the future. It had been a skill of instrumental value in the rise of his Corporation, and in the fall of Old Italy. The CEO's life was dedicated to the pursuit of his own happiness and the expansion of his power through the Corporation, a great personal quest for what was 'more'. But Czerwon, mortal man foreseeing, could see that it was all for nothing if he was going to die and leave everything behind. And so, not long into his rise to power, Czerwon had put an incredible amount of money and the considerable talent of Corporate Research Division into making him: immortal.

That had been many years ago, even before the fall of Old Italy, even before the place and position of the Corporation could be guaranteed. But it had, at least for the CEO, been worthwhile for now he could reap the various fruits of what he had sowed. For instance, his eyes had been replaced.

His previous eyes, dark in colour, had become too old to see well anymore. He could have had corrective surgery, but that was not good enough. To Czerwon, surgery was a tacit acknowledgement of his mortalness, of the imperfection of himself. Instead, he resorted to the solution that had been devised many years ago by his Corporate Research Division. He had a pair of fresh, green eyes teleport-ripped out of a boy who had been genetically engineered for Czerwon's parts. Now he had a pair of young, teenage eyes, from brown iris to green iris.

Czerwon's body was a patchwork of replaced organs, organs taken from genetically engineered test tube children. The children would be grown, their organs harvested, then they were discarded. They were called genelings, and they were considered the property of Czerwon, Chief Executive Officer of the Corporation, since they had been specifically commissioned by and for him, built by his express orders. They were not human beings, but property.

In this way the CEO was kept in a state of perpetual youthfulness, but not only that, his body was at the same time enhanced by the genetic engineering of his body and his replacement organs. The genetic engineers not only designed the organs, but improved on nature's originals. Czerwon was stronger, his reflexes were faster and the metabolic reactions of his cells were more efficient and faster in recovery than that of an ordinary man. His craving for immortality, for that great 'more', had changed his body, its normal human constraints superceded.

Most of his organs had been replaced. His brain, of course, could not be replaced, but it was kept young by the pharmacological wonders dreamt up by his personal physician, the Doctor Fallsoul. Only one old organ still remained, and that was his heart. It had aged before its time, a victim of abuse. Czerwon's heart was an ash-covered dusty shell, nearing its destruction.

"I need a new heart," said CEO Czerwon to his sister, staring out across the expanse of space before him. He was aboard his magnificent flagship, a leviathan known as the Corporate Ship 'Red Claw'. This ship had the largest outer-space viewing room ever built for a spaceship. The transparent dome rounded up over Czerwon's head like a mock night sky.

To Thalia8, to whom the remark was addressed, the vista felt like a heavy, nearcrushing presence on her; she wondered if her brother felt the same. Of course not; Czerwon's presence had a conquering air, a force capable of holding up that entire sky like an Atlas, embracing it as his own, heedless of the burden.

"The doctor was gracious enough to inform me," said Thalia.

Czerwon turned to look at her, his new eyes raking into Thalia's mind, disturbing her memories of her brown-eyed brother and putting green colours on the orbs. Thalia wanted to shiver under the unnatural gaze, but suppressed this urge within herself. She maintained a grave expression on her face, which was accentuated by her black dress.

Czerwon's sight did not linger for long on his somber-clad sister, and turned back to the star-sky. "It is a year or two early, but the heart should be ready. We will be taking quite a scenic route there. The planet itself is apparently quite beautiful. I think you shall enjoy it."

Thalia thought to herself, that her brother's words seemed mildly like a threat, a warning to enjoy what beauty there was before he devoured it all. Everything must die for Czerwon. She sometimes felt that she was attending an unending funeral. She didn't let her thoughts shine through when she said, "It will be good to see some nature. This ship and the spacestation feel so metal-bound..."

"Where is your servant?" said the Chief Executive Officer, suddenly changing the subject.
"I gave Ansar9 some time off. There is not much to do on a ship like this. Everything is automatic." Some strands of black hair fell onto her face of sun-lacking ivory skin, unnaturally pale and dead. She took her hand and brushed it back underneath the black hood of her clothes.
"You are dangerously lenient, as usual..." There was a pause; Thalia knew her brother well enough to know that he was trying to find words to say something deep within him. It was not often that the lord Czerwon needed to express something from within his soul. "Perhaps, one day, you too will need some organ replacement..."
Thalia smiled. She was much younger than her brother, and still very much in youth. She also took care of her body, and her emotions, a bit better than her brother did. Czerwon's statement was more of an indication that he was scared of losing her, a real companion amidst the insects that normally surrounded and droned about him, scuttling around inside the corridors of the Red Claw. "That will not, I hope, be too soon," said Thalia.
Czerwon wondered if he had really detected a slight acid edge to his sister's words. He knew that she had a distaste for his methods. A bell-sound rang out suddenly – the doorbell.
"Open!" called Czerwon. The voice-recognition unclicked the heavy locked doors. The intruder on the other side still had to pull the massive doors apart, a vulnerable target to Czerwon's gun, which he held lightly where it was clasped to his hip.
The man who grunted the doors apart was Captain Rumsfeld, commander of the Red Claw. A vassal king of this huge ship-territory, thought Thalia, serving his emperor-liege.
Rumsfeld straightened his blue uniform after the door-shifting effort, and bowed to Thalia, then saluted Czerwon, puffing himself up and trying to sound suppliant yet dignified. Thalia remembered how once the captain had seemed more confident, before he had been defeated at the hands of Czerwon not long ago.
"Chief Executive Officer Czerwon, I am here as ordered." Rumsfeld's outstretched right-arm salute stayed in the air as he spoke. When he finished, the hand fell to his side. Thalia wondered how long the captain would be able to hold that arm up if ordered to a perpetual salute.
"Captain, the weapon systems have been fully loaded?"
"Yes, Chief Executive Officer, I am here to report that fact as you ordered me."
"I know what orders I gave you, captain. Release the ship from docking, and set course for the world of Forestglen." There was actually no need for Captain Rumsfeld to have come up all the way. Rumsfeld could have reported through the ship's communications systems. Czerwon simply wanted to flex his power over his vassal. Czerwon turned to Thalia. "I assume that you do not need anything from the spacestation?"
"No, brother; this station is absolutely dreary. I abhor it. I will be glad to get away." from the industrial stink of the air aboard and the unsun-like illumination and the lifeless sterile white corridors and rooms.
"Good. Captain, depart the Red Claw as quickly as possible. I have a new heart to acquire."

Navigation

Thalia returned to her room. Adjoining to it was a botaniarium, her own greenhouse with hydroponic lights. Always feeling slightly oppressed when in her brother's presence, she immediately came here, her sanctuary.

The garden had been installed by her brother, despite the technical difficulties. Thalia needed nature, green leaves, flowers and the song-throated birds she kept in the botaniarium, else she suffered a malady. Early on, her brother had noticed this, and Thalia had been too frightened of asking to leave her violent brother's side for 'greener' pastures; her brother had been gracious enough to give her this relief, a sort of silent compromise between his loneliness and her love of nature.

She took some nuts and fed them to her perched parrot, who gratefully acknowledged with a cry of "Principessa10!"
The doorbell rang in her adjoining quarters. As long as the button was pressed, the little bell rang. The rings came out in a certain order, a code : long, short, long, short. Opposites, almost changing into each other, becoming indistinguishable.
She took a little remote control from her pockets, and pressed the button responsible for unlocking the door. She did not bother using the intercom system to find out who it was (she would have had to leave the botaniarium to use the intercom) because the code within the bell rings told her it was her servant, Ansar.
"Principessa!" cried the parrot again.
"My Lady..."
Thalia did not turn to greet her servant, but said, "The silly parrot. Her name is Principessa, and all she does is cry it out loud for everyone to hear."
"Perhaps she is a vain egotist, My Lady."
Thalia turned to smile at the mature, balding gentleman standing in the doorway. She let her smile speak, then continued, "So, we are off to kill some innocent so that the guilty may live." Then she frowned. "Ansar! How many times have I told you, you don't need my permission to come in and sit down."
"Yes My Lady." Ansar stiffly strode over the gravel-covered floor and took a seat at the little garden set that centred the botaniarium. Thalia remained standing, thoughtful, in a straight-backed pose that made her look like an exquisitely beautiful ivory statue draped in black, like a work of art misplaced, displaced.
"Did you have any trouble finding out?" she asked.
"A little, My Lady, but please do not trouble yourself over my account." In order to prevent his Lady's inquiries over this little 'trouble', he immediately continued, taking out his note book, leafing through the pages, and saying, "The child was engineered by the genetic division eighteen years ago, specifically to fulfil a future need for the Chief Executive's heart..."
"My brother has always managed to be foresighted from time to time."
Ansar lifted his eyes to glance at her, then went on, "She was given to be raised by the folk of a planet called Forestglen. Population of about two hundred. An exceedingly healthy and fertile forest world..."
"So that the geneling will have a healthy environment for a healthy body."
This time Ansar's eyes didn't glance but stayed on the paper. "The people of Forestglen were given eighty four million Corporate dollars, and were promised a further eighty four million dollars once she was collected."
"Does the geneling have a name?" Thalia interrupted.
"Hanako, I believe…"
"What else did you find out about her?"
"…It seems there was some defect in her genetic code. A mistake. Apparently it only affected the personality."
"How?"
"The scientists were unsure, they guessed that it only made the personality more 'positive', in the sense of 'extrovert' or perhaps 'likeability'. Maybe they were just saying that to placate the Executive Officer's wrath at the possibility of having damaged goods."
"After all, what can be more precious than the production of a custom geneling, especially if it is for Czerwon himself? Anything more?"
"That was all I could find, My Lady."
"Ah well..."
"Principessa!" squawked the parrot. Having learnt only that one word, never having grasped something else, the bird was doomed to repeat-squawk it, over and over, unable to change the course of its direction. "Principessa!"
"Yes, you do fancy yourself a princess..." said Thalia, rubbing the parrot under its beak with her finger.
The bell rang suddenly. Ansar immediately stood up, and with Thalia's leave he went to open the door.
The white-bearded gentleman who entered was Doctor Fallsoul. Doctor Fallsoul visited Thalia every few days, regularly, in his desperate attempt to find intelligent conversation away from the economists and blank-minded personnel of the Red Claw. Thalia did not mind for the moment; he did not come so often as to irritate, and his conversation was a distraction from the humdrum of the ship. She did, however, detect an ulterior motive.
"Ah, Doctor Fallsoul, please come in and take a seat." She remained standing. She absentmindedly began to inspect her garden, touching leaves and flowers with the tips of her hands. "Ansar, won't you get the good doctor something to drink?"
"Certainly, My Lady. What would the good doctor like?"
"Just a glass of iced water, Ansar," the 'good doctor' said. He sat down. His eyes haunted around, hungry-looking about.
"Nothing alcoholic?" asked Thalia.
"No, I quit."
"My word, why?"
"I'm trying to cultivate a virtue, Lady Thalia."
"But you live in a den of sin, Doctor Fallsoul. There are only two places the goddess Virtue shuns : Hell, and the Red Claw."
"Yet, My Lady, I will try and tempt that goddess to my side."
"Using Lust to attain Virtue? Isn't that sinful?"
Doctor Fallsoul smiled a weak smile at Thalia's weak joke.
"The centre of power in the colonised galaxy is right here, the Red Claw. Where there is power there is corruption. The problem is," Doctor Fallsoul continued, "I think your definition of the places that Virtue shuns is limited..."
"Hush, doctor. I was merely playing word games. Unsatisfying philosophical babblebabble definitions were not what I was aiming at." Thalia wanted to shift the topic of conversation. Having just come back from visiting her brother, she didn't want to depress herself further. Philosophy, the opening of the eyes, to see the world for what it really was : not here in the botanarium, not here in her sanctuary. Escape a while. Clink-clink went the ice in the glass, as Ansar re-entered the botaniarium with icedwater in hand. He put it on the table. "Here you are, doctor."
"Thank you, Ansar."
The doctor drank a cool draught from the glass. His eyes on Thalia, black on a background of lush green, both the woman and the garden misplaced, under the protection of the bloody claws hungry. Profit(exploitation) and protection : mutual antagonists.
Thalia, her hand on her cheek, in turn regarded the doctor. She had first met him when he had entered Czerwon's service; talented, idealistic, dreamer, with spirit. His surname was an apt description for what happened to him.
"What other virtues do you wish to cultivate, good doctor?" Thalia asked, the image of the younger, charming, highsouled doctor in her mind. His hair had not been white then, his skin not so wrinkled. He had aged prematurely; now he looked more like a walking ghost.
The doctor shrugged, drank some water, stared into his glass. Pause.
"I... Let me speak, to you, Lady Thalia, from my heart. There is no one else I can speak to on this ship. Will you let me tell you my secret?"
"Of course Doctor Fallsoul. In all things you may have the highest confidence with me." Her smile nearly turned to a smirk. She wondered if her eyes really had glinted like frost like they had in her own imagination. Did she hide her lie well enough? "My Lady, once I thought I was a good person, then our CEO asked me to do things that... Well, were against the voice of my conscience. But I did them, not because I was forced, but out of choice. I have done so many horrors, that I am unable to tell you of them; they refuse to release themselves through my mouth." Doctor Fallsoul took an uncomfortable swallow of water. "Eventually I started enjoying the things. I admit it. I don't want to say this, but it is truth. It's like they became habitual, a part of me. But I want to be a good person..." Doctor Fallsoul looked at Thalia, "Am I good person, Lady Thalia? I'm trying, really hard..." Yearning, he looked like some spirit-being, unsubstantial, unable to grasp what it wanted, ephemeral hands touching matter, like a sieve holding water.
'This is a pathetic sight,' thought Thalia. Here was a man on the verge of baby tears. A man who had been destroyed on the inside, and it was partially, actually mostly, his own fault. Like a ship that sails into a storm, and sees its sails tear apart, losing control of its direction, so all it can do is to plunge forwards.
"I don't know, doctor," replied Thalia, "I think everyone must be their own judge. Or else defer that judgement to their gods. Ultimately, whatever we do, we must accept the consequences of our actions."
Doctor Fallsoul said nothing, staring and lost in thought. 'The consequences of our actions. The reactions to your actions. A traveller sets out in a direction, with the compass of his heart. If you get lost, on the wrong path, do you have the strength to break from that path?'
"Forgive me, Doctor Fallsoul, I seem to have disturbed you..."
The doctor suddenly remembered where he was, like a man waking from nightmare. "Ah, no, Lady Thalia, please do not apologise. I lost myself in a daydream, I should apologise to you, in fact."
"Tell me doctor," said Thalia, following the line of her thought, "What do you think of this heart business?"
"What do you mean, Lady Thalia?"
"I mean, how do you feel about ripping the heart from a young human being to put it in our Chief Executive Officer Czerwon."
The doctor opened his mouth to answer, but horror spun out its tail and wrapped it around his tongue. Images of all the previous genelings, screaming and in their death throes, suddenly washed over his mind's eye. The doctor found himself unable to say anything, although there was a shadow of a mute-scream, 'I want out! I want out!' It was he who had teleport-operated those genelings, and at times it seemed to him that he was the one who suffered from the procedures.
Thalia, attempting a guess at what the doctor was thinking, asked, "Why don't you resign?"
The doctor shook his head. "Money, where will I get money?" he said. But it was not the real reason. The truth was that he couldn't stop, it was as if he was being carried by the momentum of his actions. It had become his lifestyle, journeystyle. "So you'd rather sell your soul and live than remain true to yourself?"
Thalia had shoved a barb into the doctor. The doctor mumbled something about being late, and excused himself, rising quickly and near-running for the door, he left. As he stood up the glass on the table tilted and spilt the water. The water, too, was nearrunning; it reached the edge of the table and, it seemed willingly, fell to the ground to mix with the dirt.
"My Lady?" inquired Ansar.
"Never mind, Ansar. I seem to have upset him."
Ansar gave a short grunt, the meaning of which was too ambiguous for Thalia to interpret, and cleaned up the table.

Forestglen

Giggling, the girl ran through the meadow trying to catch the butterfly in her hands. She finally managed to cup the insect, only to immediately let it go again. The butterfly, disorientated, slowed down enough for the girl to gaze at the colourful wings.

She took in a deep breath, closed her sky-blue eyes, stretched out her arms, and let herself fall backwards. The soft, thick grass caught her in its green arms, her golden hair scattering11. The sun overhead began its drowsy afternoon beat. The girl turned onto her side and fell asleep.

This girl's name was Hanako12, beloved of the few inhabitants of Forestglen. She was like the kiss of a breeze; she had the ability of bringing happiness that made her the joy of Forestglen.

Eighteen years earlier Czerwon had swept over the planet like a dark angel. The inhabitants of Forestglen feared that he would annex their planet, convert it into one of his numerous industrial factory worlds. They were surprised when Czerwon's messengers came down to them, not with weapons and angry intentions, but with a little baby girl.

Czerwon told them, that if they accepted this child and raised her, they would receive eighty-four million Corporate dollars. One day, Czerwon continued, he would return for her, and they would receive a further eighty-four million13.

This injection of wealth was what the dying community needed. They accepted the offer, Czerwon departed, and they were left with the child. They gave the child to an old and childless couple, Demetria14 and her husband Abimelech15, who was chief of the Forestglen community. They named the baby girl Hanako.

At first, rumours abounded about the child. She was a bastard child of Czerwon's; she was a hostage or prisoner taken from one of his enemies; some tales got very bizarre. But Hanako grew up knowing nothing of the transaction. And as she turned from baby to girl, from girl to young woman, the Forestglen folk found in her a personality full of joy and kindness, gentle and caring. She loved everyone and everyone loved her.

Abimelech, however, was suspicious of Czerwon's motives. He used all possible means that he had on Forestglen to find out the nature of Hanako's origin. Although the planet was isolated, he eventually found out many stories about Czerwon. That was how he learnt of the genelings, and of Czerwon's surgical fountain of youth.

And now there was word : Czerwon was coming along with the Red Claw to collect what he had left to them so many years earlier. While Hanako was sleeping and dreaming of dancing butterflies, Abimelech called the men of Forestglen into a council. The men were cramped together in Abimelech's house. These men with their cracked hands and weatherbeaten faces, most of them farmers, by now all of them knew that the Claw was coming.

Abimelech told them what he thought and they, suspicious of Czerwon's motives, agreed with Abimelech that the Executive Officer was coming not to collect the girl, but to collect some organ. Taking turns, they spoke in many voices:

"Of all things on Forestglen, Hanako is one of the most precious." "We all love her. She never forgets about anyone. She makes everyone feel good about themselves."

"How can we call ourselves men, if we let them take her? A girl who loves nothing more than to run barefoot through meadows..." "We will not let them take her." Abimelech said, flatly, his bearded jaw set, his grey eyes steeled.

 

"No-one will argue with you on that, Abimelech." "But what can we do?"

 

"She must leave this planet. As long as she stays here she will be in danger." "It's easy to say she must leave, but where to? Abimelech?" "She must go to the nearest spacestation, Crosspoint. Hopefully there will be a smuggler there who will take her to safety," said Abimelech.

 

"We can't send her alone though..."

 

"My wife Demetria will go with her," Abimelech stated. "I will give her money to hire the smuggler."

 

"Let me contribute as well.

 

"Me too, I'll give money."

"All of us will."
"It's a risk," Abimelech interrupted, "But I want to take some of the money we still have left from the eighty-four million. It will put us further in debt to Czerwon, but Hanako will need the money..."

"You don't even have to ask, Abimelech. We all support you. Take as much as she will need."

 

"Five million16. That way, Hanako will have enough but it will still be a small enough margin to maybe make a deal with Czerwon."

 

"How far in debt are we with the Corporation, Abimelech?"

"Of the eighty-four million dollars, we spent only twenty-three17 million, mostly on the cutter18. We give Hanako five, we owe twenty-eight million."
"We might be able to scrape an extra million from our own funds and from pawning to the traders."

"And we can finally rely on our exports. If we're lucky, they'll start bringing in dollars from next year onward."

"I'm sure we can strike a bargain with Czerwon."
"We'll tell him that Hanako died in an accident. We'll tell him we'll pay him back for his loss."

"Are we agreed?"
Unanimous yes.
"Thank you," Abimelech tried to say, but it came out as a hoarse whisper. He felt

relieved that they had come out in support of Hanako, but he was full of worry as to what would be the result of their actions. Abimelech asked Demetria to go find Hanako, for she would have to leave as quickly as possible, for the Red Claw was due to arrive soon.

Demetria went looking for Hanako, with a basket on her arm. The sun was nearing its set. Demetria found Hanako, still asleep in the flowery meadow. The poor child had never known the meaning of danger, and it was now coming. Czerwon was bearing down on them, like in the ancient empires of exploitation when the colonialist hunters would go hunting with their guns.

She sat down next to Hanako, gently stirred her. Hanako didn't want to wake up, but finally sat up, rubbing her eyes, smiling at Demetria, "Hello mama."
Hanako's adoptive mother took out a sandwich from the basket. "Here Hanako, I brought you some food."
"Oh mama, thank you!" Hanako hugged her mother, took the sandwich and hungrily munched it.
"Hanako..."
"Mmfm?" Gulp.
"There is something I have to tell you..."
"Mmhm?" Bite. Swallow. Gulp.
"You have to leave Forestglen, Hanako."
Swallow. Stop. "What?"
"Hanako, you have to leave."
"I don't understand, mama. This is my home. I can't leave!"
"Hanako, you know you're adopted, and for some reason some very bad people who know you're alive are coming to Forestglen to get you. We must flee." She had forever neglected to tell the child what the girl didn't know – the transaction. Hanako had been raised on a fantasy, that one day a mysterious stranger had come, fleeing from bandits, a child wrapped in his arms. The stranger had begged the people of Forestglen to take the child, while the stranger himself flew on, ever pursued. It was this half-lie that Hanako took seriously as her own history.
The lie did manage to serve a purpose, though. It made it easier to convince Hanako that she was in danger. Demetria was able to get Hanako to accept the fact that she had to leave Forestglen.
Czerwon was a week away, so by the dim dawn of the next day Hanako was packed and had said good-bye to her friends, trying not to cry too much. She was unable to sleep her last night on her home planet, instead, she thought how sad it was to leave her home behind, but at the same time she felt excited. She had only been off-planet once in Forestglen's only cutter, been to orbit and back. She was too naive to fully appreciate the danger she was in; for her, it was almost like going on some grand adventure.
Demetria and Hanako were ready at dawn. Abimelech took his wife and adopted daughter to the large, concrete square that served as the launchpad for Forestglen's cutter. The pilot of the cutter was already there to take them into orbit. Abimelech had arranged for a tradership to pick the pair up once they got into orbit, to take them to Crosspoint.
The pilot was tinkering with something, his back turned to them. Hanako soft-stepped up to him, and tapped him on the shoulder. "Hello Sparky!"
Sparks was one year younger than Hanako, and also was perpetually infatuated with her. He was useless as a farm boy, couldn't master the concept of growing vegetables and milking cows, and preferred to spend his days whittling things out of wood and serving as a technician for what electronic machines were about. When the community had acquired the cutter, it was discovered that Sparks had a talent for piloting and ship mechanics. The lad had finally found a niche for himself.
Sparks turned to Hanako. He wanted to say something, but was unable to. So he smiled instead.
"Is everything ready, lad?" Abimelech asked.
"Yes sir. Just triple checking through the safety precautions. I suppose we should get the bags in first." Sparks and Abimelech took the ladies' bags and stored them in the back of the cutter.
Hanako watched them packing the things. She always liked the aesthetic lines of the ship; to her it looked almost like a big, friendly, yellow butterfly.
"Hanako?"
"Papa."
Abimelech took his daughter, held her for a few long moments. He kissed her on the head. "Take care of yourself, and your mother."
"Yes papa."
They let go and Sparks helped Hanako up into the cutter.
Now Abimelech was with his wife. "I hope to see you again soon, Demetria. I love you."
"I love you too, Abimelech. Don't you worry about me while I'm gone. Take care of Forestglen."
"Do you still remember how to operate the money-com?" asked Abimelech, referring to the small computer device that allowed access to bank and credit information.
"I'm sure I won't have problems with it, Abimelech. Don't worry so much."
One last hug, and Sparks was pulling up Demetria.
They strapped themselves in the cutter's three seats. Sparks closed and sealed the entrance hatch. Abimelech had walked off the concrete and gave Sparks a thumbs-up allclear from the edge of the launching pad.
"Everyone allright?" asked Sparks, checking to see that everyone was strapped in. "I suppose we're off then."
The ship whined and harumphed, and lifted into the air. Sparks hovered the cutter up about a hundred metres, then tilted the nose and throttled the cutter up through the atmosphere.
As the ship gained terrific speed, terrified Demetria clutched her heart and thought she might be getting a heart attack (she wasn't), while Hanako shrieked in delight. Sparks, concentrated, led the cutter skilfully through the atmosphere, a final whoosh! as they broke through.
Weightlessness took hold for a moment as they drifted in orbit. Some form of falsegravity return as the cutter accelerated to the big trader ship, which was sitting like a big ugly bug nearby, hovering in orbit. The little cutter flew in close to the ship, slowly and carefully entering the docking bay. The trader's tractor and guidance devices activated, and the cutter finally cut to a stop as electro-magnetic fields stabilised it. The docking doors closed behind them and the air vents belched out stale air to pressurise the bay.

Power

'Power. That is all that matters,' Rumsfeld thought, as he walked the corridors of the Red Claw, inspecting the workings of the huge vessel as he made his way back to the boardroom, the Red Claw's bridge.

Evolution is the survival of the fittest, and the surest way of showing you are fit is to assert your dominance and strength over others. Captain Rumsfeld had dedicated himself to this principle, and thinking that the best way of proving dominance is through killing, he had done away many people.

It had worked. His rivals he killed. Those superior to him he also killed, preferably. Though Rumsfeld did not know it, it was this relentless need to destroy which endeared him to Czerwon, for the CEO shared the same thinking in some ways. But whereas the CEO practised this in the spheres of economics and politics, for Rumsfeld this need was expressed in his daily life. Rumsfeld wanted power, and this savage desire permeated his every dealing, every thought, every breath.

The most powerful man in the galaxy, Rumsfeld knew, was the CEO Czerwon himself. And Rumsfeld's goal in life was to destroy this man, and in doing so to prove that he was stronger than Czerwon. The captain's life was dedicated to dominance.

But Czerwon had not become who he was without cunning and paranoia. He suspected what Rumsfeld, his protégé, wanted, and he gave it to him. Both of them were students of swordfighting, and aboard the Red Claw was an arena where occasional swordfights were held, as well the occasional feeding of a prisoner to the Mammon tiger19 that was kept aboard the Claw.

Czerwon offered Rumsfeld the chance the captain had always wanted - a one on one swordfight in the arena, with no restrictions; in essence, a chance to kill him. "Since you are so desperate to prove yourself against me, here is your chance," said the CEO.

Rumsfeld took up the blade and saluted, his heart trembling from anticipation of final victory-overcoming. But the blade fight that ensued did not last long. By then the CEO's body had already been changed and mutated by genetic engineering and organ replacements; Rumsfeld, mere mortal, was not fighting a body human. Czerwon easily bested Rumsfeld, disarmed him, and forced the captain to his knees.

Captain Rumsfeld, in what was the most painful moment of his life, had to beg for mercy. Chief Executive Officer Czerwon, inexplicably, gave it.
Rumsfeld returned to his duties as commander of the Red Claw. He was so humiliated that for a time the desires within him were stilled, and he was loyal and servile. But the hunger slowly came back, its empty belly growling through Rumsfeld's skull. The craving for power was too strong within him, and now this craving was combined with the desire for revenge. He wanted to destroy Czerwon.
He was not the only one aboard the Red Claw who had such animosity against the Chief Executive Officer. The emotional climate aboard the ship was such that soon after joining it, any new worker would find himself lost in the tide of general loathing, both for himself and for Czerwon. As flagship for the Corporate fleet the Red Claw was not a place that valued the human being, it was a place where your humanity would be slowly leeched out of you, till their was nothing left in your heart but a beastly growl.
Various officers had been half-seriously planning an overthrow of Czerwon for a long time, although their need to draw up plans, redraw the plans, then to throw away the old plans and draw up new ones, had come in the way of any real action. It came as a shock to them, in fact, when the captain of the Red Claw, who had for so long been considered Czerwon's most loyal henchman, approached them with the aim of finalising the plans and of personally leading the conspiracy.
But by then Czerwon had hired a band of mercenaries to function as a 'security' force aboard the Claw. Apparently the CEO suspected what was going on.
Captain Rumsfeld was surprised, not so much as by the creation of the security force, as by the choice of mercenary. For the mercenaries chosen had once been part of the Royal Guard of Old Italy, and were under the command of a Lieutenant Brasidas20. Although the captain had never met Brasidas until he came aboard the Red Claw, he had heard of him during the siege of Old Italy, when Rumsfeld had been planning to utterly annihilate the Royal Guard.
Rumsfeld had distinguished himself during that siege, especially by his excessive cruelty. None of the other siege commanders, who prided themselves on having some sort of military honour, could compare to then Commander Rumsfeld as he mercilessly slaughtered all who dared run the part of the blockade under his control. He involved himself personally, often flying his own dart21 against the various ships that attempted to break through. He killed many smugglers - he was dubbed 'the Smuggler's Bane' by the various people who either for profit or out of loyalty to the monarchy, ran the Corp blockades to deliver essential supplies to the Italian besieged.
There had been one smuggler, though, who had infuriated him by constantly escaping his grasp. The commander had made it his personal mission to destroy him and, apart from Czerwon, this smuggler had been the only man who had ever successfully contested Rumsfeld's dominance. This man had been called Smuggler Knight, and Rumsfeld had fought in a one-on-one dogfight against the smuggler in the last few days of the siege. The fight had ended in a stale-mate, and both of them, their weapons used up, had to limp away, vowing to end the fight in the future.
Rumsfeld had become so angry at his defeat that when the siege had changed into an all-out assault on the Italian homeworld, the Commander, learning of the smuggler's position, diverted himself from his main objectives, which included the Royal Palace, and attempted to chase the smuggler down. He lost the smuggler somewhere in the burning and still-shelled ruins of Troy, and by the time he returned to the assaulting the Palace the Royal Guard had been evacuated. If he had not diverted himself for the fruitless hunt, then Lieutenant Brasidas along with the Royal Guard he was part of, would have been pinned down by Rumsfeld's forces and trapped, and killed, in the Palace.
Now Rumsfeld was forced to co-operate with a man he once had the power to destroy he now had to pay for not having done so. Rumsfeld realised the presence of Brasidas and his mercenaries meant that any attempt to overthrow Czerwon (and to make himself CEO in the process) would meet armed resistance. It was no longer merely a conspiracy to assassinate Czerwon - now it had to be a full armed revolt.
But there were enough malcontents aboard the Red Claw, especially in its more neglected quarters, where the people performed less-important tasks and were otherwise forgotten. For the Red Claw was a vast ship and entire sub-societies formed in its more isolated decks. These were pallored people cramped in dark dingy little corridors who habitually cursed their overlord. Many of them did not join the Claw by choice, but were forced by whatever methods of compulsion the Corporate recruiters had used.
It was these people, united more by their hatred of Czerwon than out of love for Rumsfeld, who the captain had to rely on for his plans. Some of them, though, hated the captain of the Red Claw almost as much as they hated the Chief Executive Officer. Nevertheless, Rumsfeld continued to work in the shadows, to work for the one thing that mattered to him : power. He had been striving for it for too long, and had too much blood on his hands, to give up now.

Nameless friends/nameless enemies and other automatic mechanical animals

 

"Smuggler Knight!"

Those were the first kind words to meet Knight since the smuggler had boarded Spacestation Crosspoint. It was his old friend, the same that had recommended Crosspoint. It seemed that his friend had taken his own advice, and they had run into each other.

A smoke bar aboard the Spacestation Crosspoint. Knight and his friend were sharing a smoke (it was cheaper that way).
The friend had the mask put against his face, tightly covering over his nose and mouth, while the smoke flowed up through the tubes out the table. Inhaling the warm smoke, mildly irritating the inner linings of his lung bronchioli. Hold breath. He handed the mask over to Knight. Knight inhaled, while his friend ended his breath holding and let out a smoky exhalation into an exit tube. A big ugly bouncer roamed the smoke tables, making sure the various patrons exhaled properly, either into mask or tube. Fresh air was expensive aboard a spacestation and careless pollution was not appreciated.
His friend took up one of the drinks on the table and swallowed it into his dry throat. They had ordered stimulants to smoke, and Knight watched his friend's pupils dilating as the sympathetic neurons in his body were activated, pupils black and wide. Knight held his breath, closed his own eyes for a moment, feeling his heart beating a little bit faster, his body a little lighter. It made the smuggler giddy, but Knight could see his friend firing up, as if his increased intellectual activities were flexing themselves right into the muscles of the body.
"What is then, this force behind the wheel of history, the momentum - one side! - of this pendulum – other side!"
Knight suddenly realised how vivid the coloured tiles looked, clinging to the walls. Red against blue, green against yellow, not complementary but antagonistic. The colours clawed at each other, Knights eyes darted from one tile to its neighbour tile, the tiles swinging like pendulums. Then the bar was a pendulum weight moving from side to side, from one extreme to the next.
"Evidently," Knight thought aloud, "Our smoke has been contaminated with a hallucinogen."
Knight's friend suddenly burst into giggles. Then Knight laughed along. After some time, Knight asked, "What were we laughing about?"
"Something you said..."
"What did I say?"
Frown. "Don't know. Can't remember. Don't you remember?"
"No."
"Then we are condemned to remain in ignorance."
Knight, for some reason, found his friend's statement to be funny. He laughed.
"We are swept away, Knight," his friend continued, oblivious. "Swept away in a tide of ignorance, a social commonwealth of unthinking. We are sheep. Baaaaah. We do what other people do, lemmings. If someone is greedy, our herd-mind goes 'Look, he is one of our herd, we must copy.' Then we are greed. If someone is angry, we are anger. If someone is delusioned and illusioned, then we willingly go into delusion and illusion."
"Not me," interjected Knight. "I'm an individualist."
"No way man, you're just another type of sheep. A smuggler sheep, admittedly, but still a sheep. With mechanical instincts, dictated to you by some evolutionary herdadvantage. We unconsciously and subconsciously and consciously imitate one another, so that we become like each other, melding our individual existences into one great homogeneity. Our souls tend to be like other souls. So this thing called society, it is shaping us. Think of it! This huge morass of nameless friends and nameless enemies is right now attempting to alter who you really are."
The dimensional matrix of the bar began to oscillate and oscillate, until suddenly the fabric of space and time tore to reveal the interdimensional links between all worlds. A wolf strolled over to their table, and spoke to Knight, "That's some serious smoke, man, but I hope you know you're hallucinating."
"Didn't know animals can talk," exclaimed Knight, stupefied.
"Arrogant human flesh. What right have you to elevate yourself above me? You sweat, and breath and feel your heart palpitating just like I do. In what sense, then, do you separate yourself? When we were both six week embryos, did we look different, you and I? No, we looked the same, our own mothers would have had trouble discriminating us.22 Your physiology is so much like the rat's and the monkey's physiology, you even use them to test your medications and drugs and poisons on, yet that slight difference between their bodies and your body is enough for you to proclaim a separateness? You are not-animal, but they are? Yet you take the medication that has been tested on them? Hypocrite! I have a beating heart, you have a beating heart; dissect us and what differences do you find?"
Then both the wolf and Knight's friend rose into the air, facing the smuggler. Their limbs were tied to the sky as if strapped to a vivisection table. Twin scalpels materialised out of astral material. The scalpels then began to cut up the wolf and his friend by making an incision on the skin, starting just above the jugular notch and continuing down the midline, past the umbilicus and ending in the pubic area. Once this incision was complete the rib cages suddenly pulled apart, blossoming like the petals of a lotus flower, and they opened up completely to show all the contents of thorax and abdomen.
Their inner organs glistened with real-life sheen. The intestines were covered by a raggedy yellow membrane, globs of yellow hanging of it like scrambled eggs, the omentum. Bits of the intestine peeked through from under the omentum, like worms writhing under something. Stomachs pale pink, tucked in under the dark-coloured livers. And the lungs, inflating and deflating in a frightening organic way, like balloons.
Then, just as the rib cages had separated, so too the lungs moved away, unfolding like flower petals, as if a lotus flower within the lotus flower. As the purplepink lungs separated, from beneath them revealed itself a heart.
Beating and bright red. Both hearts, wolf's and man's, beat in unison, a harmonious rhythm. Like drums, loud ones, going lub dup lub dup.
And then Knight heard a voice call out, "Homo homini lupus!"23
The vision then dissipated, and Knight felt groggy. "What happened?" he asked.
"That was some trip," his friend retorted. Evidently he too had returned from some sore prophetic vision. The friend took up the mask, looking it over. "What was in that smoke?"
"Something we didn't pay for," said Knight.
His friend, still a bit intoxicated, burst into giggles. Then he managed to at least appear soberly, and said, "In the end we pay for everything. All has to be accounted for. Everything that comes for free has a price."
"And what is this everything?" Knight inquired.
"What we see, taste, smell, feel, hear and think24. That is everything. And we pay for it eventually, with our lives if need be. That's the coin we use to pay for this privilege of existing – our mortality."
"Do you think they'll ask us to pay for this smoke?" Knight asked.
"No," his friend said. "I think that the tube was just filled with left-over smoke from some previous customer. It just happened to hit us pretty hard. See any tail-biting snakes?"
"No, but I did see you being dissected next to a talking wolf." Knight only realised how ridiculous his sentence sounded after he had actually said it.
"Wild." His friend paused speaking, looked at the mask with a suspicious eye. Then he shrugged, cast off the suspicion in his eye, put the mask to his face, opened the valve, took a deep inhale.
A few moments later he exhaled into the mask, closed the valve, handed the mask over to Knight.
"I think I'll wait a while, I want to see if it'll hit you again like last time," grinned Knight, rubbing his fingers over thick dirty plastic of the mask.
"Doubt it. I think the two of us managed to breath in whatever was left of that stuff." Smoke exhaled between his teeth. The friend was silent for a moment, his eyes in thought. "I didn't see any talking wolves but I did see a vision. I saw the whole thing that happened to you back at Spacestation Beijing, or Peking or whatever its called. Call it Tang Yu land. So I saw you in Station Tang Yu land, I saw you chop that bastard prince's neck open, saw you scavenging for money, saw you walking about the station soaked in blood and stinking, running like some scared animal. Must have been extremely undignifying."
"It was," confirmed Knight. "Are you seeing any tail-biting snakes?
"The whole universe is a tail-biting snake, going around and round repeating itself forever. But if you're asking whether I'm on a trip, then no, I don't see any."
"Great," said Knight, and he took an inhalation of smoke while his friend went on.
"So I'm watching in full four dimensions, like I was some spirit, watching this indignity that a fellow member of the smuggling profession has to go through. And I was thinking, 'Oh man, what depths we have sunk to. This profession as it is has no glory left in it.'
"Knight, I have something to admit to you. I promised my father that as long as I was a smuggler I'd follow the Smuggler's Code. Except, I'm not much of a smuggler anymore. I got a job and it isn't smuggler work. I'm hauling mined ore for a small colony not far from here. I'm a shipper, Knight. There's no real honour in it, and it pays poorly, but it's good, steady work."
Knight was shocked. "You've become a shipper? You? The same man who ran the Corp blockade with me ten years ago?"
"I know, I know. It's awful. But I just can't compete. When you stick to a Code when no one else does, the odds are against you."
"But what about your Ancestors?"
"My venerable Ancestors will understand. I'm sure that the family history goes back to a time when there were no smugglers, and now it will have to go into a time with no smugglers as well. Things may change but the Ancestors are still there."
"Maybe you're right," conceded Knight, taking a smoke. "But I saw my venerable father die with my own eyes for what he believed. He was killed by some thugs who didn't care about the code, though this was even before Old Italy. The rot was setting in even then. Thing is, my venerable father gave his life for the Smuggler's Code. It would be disrespecting him to just give up on it when he made even greater sacrifices."
They sat then in silence, taking turns passing the mask to and fro, to finish up the smoke. They even took in the last part of the smoke, which contained the heaviest gases and was most irritating to the lung's lining. They both had a small coughing session after that.
Then they left the smoke bar and Knight accompanied his friend, who was going to leave to collect a new shipment of ore.
As they were about to part, they saluted each other in the traditional manner.
"Smuggler Knight," his friend said as parting words, "I admire you, in a way. I don't have the courage to keep at the Smuggler's Code like you. Your kind are a dying breed, and there are fewer and fewer of the old types of smugglers around. I wish you luck."
After his friend departed, Knight spent some time looking for work, but did not find any. Station Crosspoint was new and underpopulated but was gradually becoming more frequented by space travellers. Knight worried, though, that he wouldn't be able to get a job before he went flat out broke. After passing his name around, he decided to head back to his ship for some rest, once more acutely aware that the longer his ship was parked aboard the station the higher the parking fee would go. To complicate matters, his ship was very low on (expensive) fuel, so low as to be equivalent to empty. Knight was stranded on Station Crosspoint, without fuel to leave even if he had wanted to.
Smuggler Knight hoped he would get a job, soon.

The journey to Crosspoint (the present comes from a past going to a future)

A tradership's docking bay was usually rather small and the tiny cutter was cramped in the space, like a creature caught in a slow-enclosing net. Coming out of the exit hatches, there was not much room to maneuver as Hanako and Sparks helped Demetria got herself out of the cutter.

The owner and sole crewman of the tradership, Trader Statek25, had come to greet them as soon as they stepped out of the ship. Trader Statek was well known to the people of Forestglen, for he was the most regular of the traders who came to deal in goods with the small colony.

"Hello, Trader Statek," said Demetria.
"Greetings, traderman. Father Abimelech sends his regards," Sparks said. "You can send mine in turn, when you return planetside," said the traderman, with

smiles. "Let me help with your luggage."
"Oh thank you, traderman," exclaimed Demetria.
He took one of the bags that Sparks handed down to him, and Sparks himself came

down with the other.
"I'll take you to your quarters, ladies. Unfortunately, this is only a humble tradership,
and the quarters are rather minimal..."
"I'm sure they'll be fine, traderman."
"Your optimism is most gracious, Madam."
Trader Statek took them to their quarters. The quarters had six bunks, three on each
wall26. All except for the bottom two were folded up against the wall, the same style of
bunk that had been designed and in use for centuries, designs inherited from the past. "Hey, I thought spaceships had these bunkers that zwipped! out the wall when you
pressed a button!" exclaimed Hanako.
"Alas, I am unable to afford the zwip factor," Statek said. "Us poorer traders must run
our ships on economy, even if that means using traditional bunks instead of more modern
zwipping bunks." The traderman opened up a locker set into the far wall and set the bag
down, and then took the other bag from Sparks and set it down as well.
"The bathroom is the room immediately across the hallway," Statek continued. "No
trouble there. I can take you to see the rest of the ship, but I suppose lad Sparks here
needs to get back planetside before his mamma starts worrying."
Sparks grinned. "My mother doesn't need to worry about me."
"Ah, a-virgin-to-the-death lad?" Statek retorted. Sparks blushed.
The walk back to the docking bay suddenly thrust melancholy upon Hanako. She
realised that once Sparky left in the cutter she would have crossed the mark of no turningback; she may very well have cut herself loose from her home permanently, never to see
Forestglen again.
In the bay, Sparks noticed Hanako's clouded mood. "What's wrong, Hanako?" "Sparky, I'm never coming home again!"
"Don't say that Hanako. I'm sure that once this is all over you'll be back in Forestglen
like you had never left. Here..." Sparks took out something from a bag he had slung
around his shoulder, "this is for you."
Hanako took it in her graceful hands. It was a small, wooden statue of a house,
whittled away from some block of wood Sparks had found in his lonesome walks in the
forest.
"It's a typical home of Forestglen," Sparky explained. "So that you'll always have a
home away from home."
"Thank you, Sparky. This is the best present anyone has ever given me." Hanako
lightly kissed him on the cheek. Again Sparks blushed.
"Uh, well, I'd best get going," word-stumbled the boy. "Hanako, Demetria, good luck.
I know this whole business will turn out all right in the end. Traderman Statek, it was
good to see you again. I'll send Father Abimelech your regards."
"You do that lad."
"Then I'm off."
Sparks got into the cutter and sealed the hatchway. The traderman ushered the women
out of the docking bay. A rumble vadoomed through the hallways as the docking bay
locked and then depressurised itself.
"The viewing room is just down there..." the traderman began, but suddenly Hanako ran
down to where the trader had indicated.
"Hey!" called Statek, but Hanako didn't listen. "Well," said the traderman to Demetria,
"she's certainly spirited!"
"Oh yes she is," said Demetria, smiling.
Hanako ran down the corridor, hoping the traderman's vague direction and her own
sixth-sense feelings would lead her to the right place. Sure enough, one hatchway was
labeled, big and bright, VIEWING ROOM. Through the open doors she rushed, like one
who has ceased the chance to attempt an escape from a prison.
The room inside had transparent walls, with a magnificent viewpoint over the docking
bay exit. The cutter was leaving the bay and like some star-butterfly glided off, gently
tilting itself to enter the atmosphere of the planet. Although she knew that Sparky could
probably not see her, she waved good-bye to the butterfly, a tear on her cheek. When the cutter had disappeared into the skies of Forestglen, she ran out of the viewing
room, and down the hall, straight into Trader Statek and Demetria, who were coming up
to meet her. Hanako ran into mama's arms, buried herself in her Demetria' bosom and
cried.
"There, there, child, why are you crying? We'll be back soon enough," Demetria
soothed her adopted daughter.
"Come, Hanako, let me take you on a tour of the ship," Statek said, big grin on his face,
trying to cheer her up. "You've never been on a trader ship before?"
"No," Hanako sniffed.
"Well, you have missed a fantastic thing indeed! Let me take you on a journey of
discovery!"
Hanako laughed through her tears at the traderman's melodrama.
"There! Feel better already! A tradership will do that to you. 'Nothing better than a
tradership on a blue day,' I always say. Come, let me take you to the pilot deck. I'll
show you the cockpit."
Demetria, after her traumatic journey in the cutter, said she'd lie down a bit; in the
meanwhile Trader Statek took Hanako to the cockpit. The pilot's deck was small and
cramped, much like the rest of the trader ship, built for economy rather than luxury. The
traderman sat in one of the seats, told Hanako to sit next to him. He explained to her
what the mind-boggling assortment of dials and switches and displays all meant. He
activated the navigation programs, and as they entered the launch window, pulsed power
into the engines
The tradership struggle-heaved to one side. A sigh bounded through the vessel, then
the tradership dipped forward in the direction of Crosspoint.
It was going to take three days to reach Crosspoint. Time drifted a while. Uneventful
time passed with chatter and stargazing in the viewing room. Hanako spent much of her
days exploring the tradership, and got to know its every wall and corner. Occasionally
Trader Statek would explain the principles of navigation to her, how one had to plot
previous positions in order to find out the direction the ship was going in, to predict the
short and long term outcomes of one's trajectory. He also explained the concept of
spacestreams, where the fabric of space was tighter, which allowed spaceships to travel
fast down the streams, as if carried by momentum, like a stone rolling, downhill. The end
of the journey crept towards them slowly, inevitable-predictable, the resultant of their
efforts.
As they neared Crosspoint, Hanako was in the viewing room waiting for her first sight
of the station. Crosspoint was originally a derelict piece of space scrap. Its owner spent
the last of his life savings buying it and renovating it to a dubious standard. He towed it
to its present location, an empty place, that had as its one virtue close proximity to three
spacestreams and several small colonies.
Establishing the station in a such an area was a gamble, but it turned out to be a winner
for the aspiring entrepreneur. Although the spacestreams were not clog-ridden, the traffic
on them converged on the crossway between the three streams, the spaceships either
seeking supplies from the station or else, passing by on to another stream, they would
often stop for their rest and relaxation.
The station owner became rich, and earned enough to tow in a proper quality station.
But he was unable to part with the original station, it was too great in sentimental value. It is difficult to let go of what you cherish, especially if it is a material thing; it is strange, how many choose to love most the things which cannot love back. So instead of buying a new station the owner attempted to upgrade and build on to it. This resulted in one of the most bizarre creations in the colonised galaxy, a strange mishamash of new facilities tied to the ancient spine of the original station. Like some sort of an evolution, a birth of a
new species that still carried characteristics of the previous incarnation. With Crosspoint upgraded with the facilities required of its patrons, and the owner set
for a comfortable retirement, he and his crew became rather bored. One day an asteroid
was floating past, and someone got the crazy idea of hitching Crosspoint and the asteroid
together, burning some metal corridors into the asteroid to link it to Crosspoint, then
digging rooms in the asteroid as an expansion of the spacestation. The concept hinted
that it would be cheaper than expanding Crosspoint by towing in new parts, and would
require so much time and energy that they would be able to whip Boredom back to its
corner, and they would have something to tell their grandchildren about. The result made the most bizarre station in the galaxy into the most bizarre planetoid in
the galaxy. The effect was not unlike that of a giant metallic spider grasping a piece of
dirt of equal-like size. An evolving station which could not escape its past, embracing a
strange future.
The presence of the ever-enlarging station served in and of itself to attract more traffic
to the region. Crosspoint was unique, and since it was the only station in the area, both
pirates and traders docked there for supplies and repairs, and the hunters and hunted
could very well share a drink or two at one of Crosspoint's bars. The eccentric owner,
realising this, built up a station security force to prevent the thieves from stealing from
merchants in-station. This security force eventually expanded into a tiny star fleet,
sufficient enough to chase down errant pirates and parking-fee dodging traders, as well as
blowing up the rival station of any would-be competitor, a rather liberal interpretation of
competition laws. The triumph of the entrepreneurial spirit. The owner had gone from
nothing to everything, but still had too little to share.
So this was the metal spider that Hanako first saw, clutching tenaciously to its bit of
earth, greedy and unable to let go.
One of Crosspoint's fighter ships flew by them, the little dart leaving a trail of sparkling
gas. The dart made a fantastic view from where Hanako was. She waved to the pilot of
the dart, fancying that the pilot had waved back.

Production and destruction (King of the ant-hill)

As the trader ship docked at Crosspoint, the Red Claw was steadying in its orbit around Forestglen.
"Chief Executive Officer! We have searched the area and found no trace of the geneling." Captain Rumsfeld's voice crackled over the speakers of the boardroom. It was in the boardroom that the Red Claw was controlled, and that commands could be sent forth to any ship in the Corporate navy. Below, on the command floor, were lines of panels and screens where the CEO's employees kept watch on Corporate goings-on, while in the centre of this active hive was a circle of such panels where the crew of the Red Claw piloted and navigated the ship, as well as monitoring its systems. Over this work floor, loomed a rounded metal balcony, vaguely reminiscent of the oval shape of a shark's jaw. A huge coat-of-arms, Czerwon's company emblem, leered from this balcony; two blood-coloured claw-like hands grasping for a shimmering gold coin.
Thalia saw Czerwon, gripping his hands into knuckle-white on the rail of the hovering balcony. She could not see his face as she entered the boardroom, but she imagined twisting rage. Thalia had meant to stay in her room, feigning sickness, but when Ansar informed her of the disappearance of the girl she decided to come see for her own pleasure if perhaps the mighty Czerwon had, for once, been thwarted in his designs.
She stood on the wall-end of the balcony, waiting for her brother to turn from his position at the rail-end. She did not dare approach him herself, not with the volatile mood the CEO was experiencing.
"Captain Rumsfeld!" Czerwon boomed.
"Yes, Chief Executive Officer?" crackled the captain.
"I want an explanation, captain, and I want it from those rats themselves. Who is their leader?"
"A man by the name of Father Abimelech, Chief Executive Officer."
"Does the settlement have a means of transport to the Red Claw?"
"There is a cutter, yes, Chief Executive Officer."
"Is that the only means of stellar transportation they have?"
"Yes Chief Executive Officer."
"Then tell this 'father Abimelech' that he must come take this cutter and present himself before me aboard the Red Claw."
Thalia was puzzled at first at the insistence at taking the cutter. Then she surmised that her brother wanted to cut off the last form of escape from the settlement, under the ruse of a 'discussion'.
These poor folk, thought Thalia. They had earlier claimed that Hanako had died only a few days before in an unfortunate accident, and would attempt to repay Czerwon. If they had not been so naive, they would have realised the futility of such a plan. One could not make such deals with Czerwon, not after taking away something so precious from him.
"Lieutenant Brasidas, where are you?" called Czerwon to those below him.
"Chief Executive Officer!" A man in a black uniform on the lower deck saluted upwards to Czerwon.
"Lieutenant Brasidas, put the delegates under your personal protection when they dock, and bring them before me here."
"Yes Chief Executive Officer." Lieutenant Brasidas barked out some orders, then marched out of the boardroom, disappearing under the balcony, away from Czerwon's sight and malice.
Czerwon slowly turned away from his overlord's-view of the boardroom, and saw Thalia, still standing wall-end. "Sister, I thought you were ill."
"Brother, I am feeling better, and wanted to come see what this planet looked like. But I have heard that something wrong has happened?"
Czerwon nodded, a single efficient movement of his head. "The inhabitants claim that my geneling has died recently in an accident, and have cremated the body. I do not believe them."
"Why? Surely some sort of calamity had to befall one of your genelings eventually?"
"I do not believe them, Thalia," his voice becoming harsh, "because my spies informed me that the Forestglenners bury their dead. This is the first time I'm hearing of any cremation. Either my spies are in the wrong, or the Forestglenners are lying; and either way, there are people going to regret their subterfuge against me within the very near future."
'More bloodshed,' thought Thalia, 'Will this ever end?'
"A ship is leaving the atmosphere," intoned a disembodied voice from the boardroom intercom systems. "It's a cutter."
Czerwon turned back to brood over his minions of the lower deck. Below him, his worker ants worked hard and 'enthusiastically', aware of their master's gaze boring into the back of their necks. Even if one of them had nothing to do, they would pretend to be doing something, not slacking, anything to avoid the wrath of their master. The slaves of productivity. I once was human but now I am an ant.
"The cutter is turning to dock," said the intercom, "Docking bay is preparing to receive visitor."
Thalia had walked forward to stand nearby her brother's side, close enough to see the action of the lower deck, far enough to not feel her brother's overwhelming presence.
"Thalia," Czerwon asked, "How is your parrot?"
Always the same questions. "She is fine, brother, strong and healthy. I think she's finished growing."
Background : "The visitor has successfully docked. Docking bays are closing. Preparing to pressurise the bay."
"And your servant, Ansar? He never seems to be around. Or is he 'sick' too?"
"Ansar is busy running errands for me."
"Are you satisfied with his work?"
Again this damned question. "Of course, brother. You know that when I am dissatisfied with anything I always tell you." She only realised the irony of her statement after she had finished it.
"Good," said Czerwon. Thalia knew that if she ever wanted Ansar to be mutilated by the beasts in the arena then all she had to do was say that he had been slacking in cleaning her dishes. Czerwon seemed to expect even more from Thalia's servants than his own.
"Good," said Czerwon again, unable to think up of any extra small-talk. The conversation had ended.
'Once brother,' Thalia thought to herself, 'you must have had a soul, and that is the only reason I pity you.' They watched the people below, 'productive' and 'thriving', like neuronic sparks, a central nervous system, the centre of power of the colonised galaxy. Ants.
"Communications!" Czerwon called out, "Have Doctor Fallsoul come join me in the boardroom. Tell him to bring his 'methods of truth'."
A faint "Yes, Chief Executive Officer!" came from below. 'Methods of truth'. Perhaps torture was to be involved. Thalia wondered whether she should go or stay. She stayed. Perhaps she could learn a few lessons from Cruelty.
A few minutes further, Lieutenant Brasidas led four security officers into the boardroom, the officers flanking the two delegates.
Thalia moved further along the rail, away from her brother, making space. Brasidas raised his hand in salute, reporting and introducing the two 'delegates'. "Chief Executive Officer, this is Father Abimelech and his cutter-pilot."
Abimelech stood tall and straight, and met Czerwon's gaze. Sparks was not as sure of himself. He looked away from Czerwon and found in his vision Thalia. His first surprise-thought was the she was an ivory-white statue draped in black. Thalia gave the young boy a sympathetic smile, and Sparks gave a grateful beam back, and he felt Thalia's eyes comforting him, enough so that he too could look at Czerwon.
Brasidas lowered his hand, stood at attention. Brasidas and his men were once the mercenary guards for the royal family of Old Italy. Brasidas had led a part of that planet's resistance when Czerwon's Corporation swept down to destroy. Driven from the planet, he and his mercenaries roamed, searching for work. When the Red Claw needed an on-board security service, they were willing to act as officers aboard the massive ship, serving, out of circumstance, a master that they had once fought against.
Brasidas turned to Lady Thalia, smiled and gave a respectful of bow. Thalia had a few conversations with Brasidas and was always charmed by his manners, honed in the nowruined courts of Old Italy. It was he who came up with her pet parrot's name, a subtle insult at Czerwon, naming the CEO's gift for his sister after a title that lay among the palace rubble of Old Italy. She regretted that Brasidas had recently entered service aboard the ship : it could not be too long before Brasidas' soul would be caught up in corrupting rot that pervaded the corridors of the Red Claw.
Doctor Fallsoul entered the boardroom, carrying his black bag, and quietly stood by the wall, awaiting orders. He did not notice Thalia, he seemed to absorbed in something, some other world, obscure.
"Father Abimelech, welcome aboard the Red Claw." Czerwon's voice disturbed Thalia's train of thoughts.
"Chief Executive Officer Czerwon," began Abimelech, "the people of Forestglen deeply regret the loss of the child, Hanako, that you gave into our care. We are willing to pay back all of the money that we still have left, and to work off the rest or pay in instalments."
Czerwon's jaw shifted from side to side, his eyes never leaving Abimelech's.
"The child is dead?"
"Yes sir. Hanako was in..."
"I don't want to hear the sobbing-story of her death."
"...Oh, yes sir, Chief Executive Officer, sir." Abimelech immediately regretted his words as he spoke them, they showed too much hesitation, nervousness.
"You," said Czerwon to Abimelech, his green eyes locking into his grey, "are strong." Czerwon suddenly changed his line of sight towards Sparks. Sparks wanted to tremble at the cold , powerful gaze. "But you," Czerwon's lip curled at one side, "I think you are not as strong. Doctor Fallsoul!"
Doctor Fallsoul's eyes clicked back to the scene in front of him, from whatever realm they had been to. He walked forward, holding his bag so that it did not touch him. It was almost as if he was afraid of it. "Chief Executive Officer?" asked the doctor.
"Doctor, administer your truth serum to the boy."
"I must protest..." said Abimelech.
"Protest and die, Father Abimelech," commented Czerwon, pulling out his gun, loading it with an aggressive click.
Abimelech, himself unarmed, looked around seeking help. Brasidas' face seemed regretful but otherwise showed no sympathy. The other security officers were not about to step forward against their master, and their machine guns were lowered but ready to fire if necessary - no escape for the Forestglenners. Thalia still looked at them, her head tilted, her expression resigned to witnessing their fate.
Czerwon smiled. "Don't worry, Father Abimelech. If you are telling the truth you have nothing to worry about."
Thalia looked at her brother, knowing that even if Father Abimelech was telling the truth, Forestglen would be wiped out anyway.
Doctor Fallsoul put down his bag, bent down and opened, reached in and took out a metal dental syringe and a small vial. He opened the syringe up, and exposing the vial's small needle, inserted it into the dental syringe. He closed the syringe, then inserted a long needle into its end. He squirted a few drops out, then bent the needle slightly at the bevel, to aid the insertion.
Two of the officers had taken Sparks' arms and were holding him steady. Sparks wondered if he should struggle and try to run for it. Doctor Fallsoul took scissors and cut the sleeve of Sparks' shirt off, not bothering to ask Sparks to take it off. He pulled Sparks' arm, and clamped it down under his own left arm. He looked for the vein, and was about to put the needle in when Sparks resisted. The officers firmed their grip and a third grabbed Sparks from behind. Sparks was entering a wild panic and he would not desist, so the fourth officer stepped past the doctor and punched Sparks several times in the stomach, then smashed a fist into his face. Dazed and in pain, Sparks pacified down long enough for Doctor Fallsoul to administer the injection.
Abimelech had lunged towards Sparks when they began to beat him, but was caught from behind by Brasidas, who twisted Abimelech's arm into pain.
"Sorry Father Abimelech," Brasidas said, "But this is how things are aboard the Red Claw." He pulled Abimelech back from Sparks.
Doctor Fallsoul turned to Czerwon. "A minute or two, and he will start to be susceptible."
Czerwon smiled at the doctor. "Thank you, Doctor Fallsoul." He turned to Abimelech. "Forgive us, 'father', but I must make sure of the entrusted child's fate. But don't worry, what I am doing is merely a formality. Once the boy tells us the truth, the same 'truth' that you have given me, then you will be set free."
Czerwon's appearance of good humour as he said this terrified Abimelech even more than the words spoken.
"Doctor Fallsoul, would you care to measure out the space of a minute, or the space from now to 'susceptibility'."
"Of course, Chief Executive Officer." Doctor Fallsoul turned his head to stare at the watch on his wrist. Thalia sensed that the doctor cocooned himself into a little world with that a watch; for a minute, the doctor would be oblivious to anything else. In the world but unable to be of it.
Czerwon turned back to the overlord's view he had of the lower deck of the boardroom. "Navigations," he called out, "I want to know the likeliest destinations that someone were to take, from Forestglen, and fleeing from the Red Claw."
"As ordered, Chief Executive Officer!" A young man, leader of the navigational team, sent up a outstretched salute to the man commanding over them.
Sparks was beginning to feel dizzy and nauseous. A dull, pounding pain was starting in his head. The eyelid above his left eye was flickering uncontrollably. His vision was blurring.
Doctor Fallsoul looked up from his watch, and then at his patient. He visually assessed Sparky's clinical signs. "He's ready," he said, flatly and objectively. Then he stepped back and took his position near the room-exit.
"Good," said Czerwon. "Let him go."
Sparks heard the doctor and Czerwon speak, but was unsure whether the voices were real or not. The officers let Sparks go, and his legs collapsed beneath him. Sparks felt surprise somewhere in the back of his head, surprise that his legs had failed. He was disorientated, and couldn't quite remember where he was. He couldn't see anything, why was everything so hazy?
Czerwon walked over to Sparks. The boy was lying on his back, staring at the ceiling, eyes wide open, vision virtually shut. Czerwon stepped over Sparks, leaning himself into Sparks' field of sight.
A blurry object is over me, thought Sparks, it looks like it could be someone I know...
"Lad, this is Father Abimelech. Are you alright?"
The blur resolved itself into Abimelech.
"Father Abimelech," Sparks said, "what happened?"
"I'll tell you later lad, but first I must know – where is Hanako?"
"Father Abimelech, she's gone now."
"Yes, but where to? Answer me, boy, it's important!"
"But Father Abimelech, why are you asking me? You yourself recruited the tradership, you said good-bye to her when she left for Crosspoint. What has happened, Father Abimelech, have you lost your memory?"
Czerwon stood up straight. Abimelech looked with shock at him. How had he convinced Sparks that he was him? The realisation dawned on Abimelech : he was as good as lost. His only wish now was that Hanako get to safety, away from this madman.
"Navigation!" Czerwon cried, his voice so booming that it was thrown clearly to the level beneath the platform, "What is Crosspoint?" Sparks wondered why Father Abimelech was suddenly acting strangely again.
A short pause. "Chief Executive Officer, there is a spacestation called Crosspoint a few days journey from here. It is the only station in this region."
Czerwon bent back down over Sparks. "Lad, this is Father Abimelech, I have lost my memory. You must tell me, when did Hanako leave for Crosspoint?"
"Three days ago, Father Abimelech. I hope you get well soon. Hanako will be happy to see you again. She's so pretty..." Sparks mind was having difficulty using logic, and he was finding it hard to suppress the urge to vomit.
Czerwon straightened. He was taking deep breaths, anxious not to over-excite himself and tax his dying heart by making the pulse rate rise. So, as calmly as he could, careful not to let Rage take him over, he pointed his gun, pulled the trigger and shot Sparks in the head.
"No!" cried Abimelech, his voice drowned out by the booming howl of the gun. He tried to run forward, but Brasidas was still holding his arm. Abimelech struggled and the lieutenant hit the back of Abimelech's head with his fist, pacifying him.
"Abimelech," said the CEO, turning towards him, "I dislike it when people lie to me." "You animal! You won't get her! You won't kill her just to keep yourself alive!"
"I assume that means you won't reveal anymore information to me." He walked up to Abimelech, still struggling under the hold of Brasidas. Czerwon holstered his gun. "Abimelech, I want my heart. I paid for it, I have waited eighteen years for it, it is my property. You took my property away from me. It is only fair that I take from you what you took from me."
Czerwon pulled a long knife from the scabbard attached on his own left forearm. He then thrust the knife into Abimelech's chest, twisting the blade into Abimelech's beatingcore. The long blade slit out through the Forestglenner's back, and some blood came out and spurted onto Brasidas. Brasidas pulled back involuntarily, slightly repelled by the wet blood spots that sprinkled over his black uniform. Czerwon himself was near total overed in blood from the spray of the gaping wound as he pulled out the knife. Abimelech collapsed onto the ground, gasping a last dying.
Czerwon walked out to the edge of the platform once more. Those below looked up to see the blood-soaked god, his right hand stained with life-fluid of those who sinned against him, standing above his holy emblem of two red claws craving for gold. Thalia stood with her face impassive, trying to keep her emotions numb. It wouldn't do to start crying over the deaths of two strangers.
"Communications!" he hissed, preventing his voice from roaring by sheer force of will and by fear of heartbeat. "Link me up with planetside!"
"Chief Executive Officer?" said Captain Rumsfeld's disembodied voice.
"Captain Rumsfeld, set up a bombardment beacon there, then return with your men."
"I shall do that immediately, Chief Executive Officer!"
"You are going to bombard them?" asked Thalia, innocently.
"I will do more than bombard them, dear sister, I am going to utterly annihilate them."
The intercom spat, "Our military transports are leaving the atmosphere. We are preparing the docking bay."
"Weapons, do you track the beacon?"
"Yes, Chief Executive Officer!" exclaimed the man in charge of the Claw's weapons systems.
"I am in a hurry, send down ten of our heaviest warheads."
"Ten, Chief Executive Officer?" Anxious and puzzled look. 'Did I mishear?' thought the weapons officer.
"Is that too little, Weapons? Make it twenty!"
Brasidas cocked his eyebrow. He had never seen anyone order such a gross overkill, where one warhead would have been enough, and much cheaper.
Thalia noticed that Czerwon's arm, still holding the knife, was trembling.
"The bombardment beacon has been locked," talked the intercom, "Warheads will go down in ten seconds."
The weapons officer looked up at Czerwon, wondering if some last second reprieve will come out. The predatory look in the Chief Executive Officer's eyes convinced the man that it would not come.
The missiles flew down, twenty roaring Azraels, a pack of dogs of war scenting the beacon below. Screeching and whining, the doggy Azraels fell in metal rain, and killed the people of Forestglen, wiped their settlement into a crater.
Before it was over, Czerwon had already ordered the Red Claw to turn at all-speed to Crosspoint. He dismissed Brasidas, said good-bye to his sister, and asked the doctor to accompany him as he left the boardroom. Several brows furrowed at Czerwon's sudden turn of behaviour.
Czerwon walked down the corridor, the doctor behind him. Czerwon was finding it increasingly difficult to ignore the pain, and the more he tried the more his arm trembled in rage and agony.
He turned into the first room, pulled the doctor in, and locked the door.
The pain in his chest was roaring and crushing. "Doctor, do something," he said, clutching his chest with his bloodied hand. The knife clattered to the floor as he dropped it.
The doctor took out some medicine which he placed under the CEO's tongue.
"Why did you suffer it for so long?" Doctor Fallsoul asked.
"Are you a mad fool? Idiot! I cannot reveal weakness before my employed." The Chief Executive Officer spat out his words at the doctor, slight spray droplets of medicine and saliva, a threat if the man decided to reveal anything of his ailing beating-core.
As the pain subsided, Czerwon felt the change in the ship's engines hum under his feet, as the Red Claw set out for Crosspoint. The quarry had escaped, but the hunt was beginning.

Smuggler Knight

With the trader ship docked at Crosspoint, Trader Statek prepared to disembark along with Hanako and Demetria. "I'll have to hurry," the traderman said, "Things haven't been as good lately and I can't afford the parking fees."

Demetria fumbled in her bag for the credit panel, so that she could offer the traderman some money, but he insisted, "You don't owe me anything. I don't know why you're running from the Corp, but any such fugitive is my friend. I've had too many run-ins with the Corp to have any love for those pigs. I will still help you find a smuggler to hire; save the money for that, Madam Demetria."

They had docked into one of many little compartments within the greater docking bay that was built into the side of the asteroid. The compartment had sealed and pressurised. An airlock opened out from the belly of the ship and a ladder descended down.

"I apologise, it isn't a very dignified method of getting out my ship," said the trader, referring to the ladder, "But the only other way is through the cargo bay doors, which will take too long to open up and close. Every minute counts, you know, with the parking fees."

Hanako climbed down with nimbleness, while Demetria had a bit of difficulty. Then down came the traderman, struggling with the bags. Hanako glanced about, noticed the parking fees scrawled in huge white letters on the walls, with hourly, daily and other various measures of time, prices next to them in Corporate dollars.

Hanako shouldered her bag and her mama's, insisting that she should carry the load. Trader Statek led them to the airlock that led out of the docking compartment, and into the station proper. Cameras dotted the area, and no could leave or enter the docking bay without being filmed. If anyone committed a crime aboard Station Crosspoint, they would have a hard time sneaking out.
Hanako's first impression was rather sour. They were in a network of long, dank corridors built into the asteroid and connecting all the compartments of the docking bay. The smell of dust was still in the silent air – the tunnels had only recently been dug. But as they came out of the tunnels, Hanako could hear music, at first soft. They came nearer, and the music became more jubilant and riotous.
At the tunnel exit they burst into a circus world. Bars, restaurants, brothels and entertainment centres, casinos, a little bit of everything that the lonely spaceman might need, were sprawled around haphazardly on multiple levels above and below. This part of the station was organised to a multi-level circular plan and one could stand by the railing and look up and down at the other levels.
Tradermen, smugglers, rogues, and the occasional adventurer were about. At one gambling venue, a crew-group gathered around a dice game, their red shirts and frolicsome coloured clothes made them look like tropical parrots. "Pirates," whispered the trader, "You can recognise them because they always wear something in the colour red. Stay away from them."
The traderman took them to one of several bars, the 'Prohibition.' "This is where the smugglers are supposed to hide," Trader Statek explained, standing under the big neon letters. To enter one went through some thick curtains. The light inside was dim and safe for shady dealings.
As they entered the bar, Hanako started retching. The air was tinged with smoke and it irritated her throat. "This is also a smoking establishment, that's why it stinks. Looks like their exhalation tubes aren't very airtight either," the traderman explained, indicating towards inhalation and exhalation masks that lay on the tables, with connecting tubes disappearing somewhere into floor. Through the tubes came various gases, and customers would hold a mask to their faces and open up the valve to breath in.
Some of the patrons stared at the threesome from behind the hubble-bubble masks, gently inhaling-exhaling. Some of them had their eyes glazed blood-shot red from the side effects of the narcotic they had chosen to breath in, while the others went for the less daring, more soothing or stimulating mixtures.
The single barman, a large, thick-jawed male, stood cleaning a glass with a dirty rag under some harsh neon light. The trader motioned for the two women to wait in a corner while he spoke with the barman. The drink-maker motioned with the glass to the back of the room.
The traderman came back to the women and asked them to wait for a moment, while he himself disappeared into the dimness in the general direction the barman had indicated.
About a minute later he came back. "Madame Demetria," he whispered, "You'll have to clinch the deal yourself. I'll stay here with Hanako." The trader told Demetria to which table she had to go to.
She moved through the smoky haze and walked towards the table she thought had been indicated. The man sitting at the table beckoned her to sit. He was holding a mask to his face, breathing in thick airs of hubbling smoke. He closed the valve at the mask and replaced on its stand on the table. His piercing green eyes looked at Demetria sceptically, his handsome face otherwise frozen into a neutral expression. The man licked the edges of his lips, where a little black tar had accumulated.
Smuggler Knight was tired after a long day of several botched deals, his head was in a zing from the smoke and he wasn't in the mood for much politeness so he impolitely began : "So, you need some smuggling done? Human traffic, if I heard correctly?"
"Please," coughed Demetria (the air was very dirty by Forestglen standards), "We are fleeing Czerwon. We need to be taken to a place of safety."
"Well, there are several places I could take you where the Corporate presence is not as significant..."
"I don't think you understand. I think Czerwon himself is after us."
"Right," said the smuggler, his tone disbelieving. "It always feels that way when the Corporation is after you. As I was saying, there are several places I could take you to, but it depends on the price you are willing to pay?" He stopped, waiting for a response from Demetria. He took up a glass and sipped the liquid inside.
Demetria wished that Abimelech had told her more about these things. She had five million dollars loaded into her money-com credit panel. Half of it, she decided. Surely the man would take them to the best of places for that price?
"Two and a half million corporate dollars."
The smuggler choked on his drink. He steadied himself and lowered the glass, while disbelief took over from surprise. He spoke, "Firstly, don't say amounts like that so loudly. The walls have ears here. Secondly, I'd like to see some confirmation of that amount."
He took out his own credit panel, and Demetria fumbled with her own, finally remembering how to transfer information between the panels.
As the information crossed his own panel, the smuggler's eyes widened.
"Lady, I follow the Smuggler's Code," said the smuggler, putting away his own panel. "And perhaps that is my downfall." He looked around in distaste at his surroundings. "I used to run the blockades around Old Italy. Back then smugglers were still expected to obey the Smuggler's Code. After the annihilation of the Italian monarchy, a new, lawless breed of smugglers arrived and drove me out of business, and a certain shareholder has a price on my head. Now I'm in this," he waved his hand about, "A once proud smuggler reduced to servicing backwaters.
"A lesser smuggler, the new-breed, would take you off to some half secret dump and leave you there. But for the money you're offering me, lady, there is only one destination." He leaned forward towards Demetria, his voice dropping nearer to a whisper. "There is only one place worth the price you wish to pay me, the only place that still holds out against the Corporation. The Free Trade Zone."
"I've heard of it, but I don't really know what it is..."
"A place where freedom is more precious than anything. A place where people are not the slaves of the Corporate system, where their way of life is not determined by someone else's profit margins. The Free Trade Zone may not have the military hardware of the Corporation, but they make up for it with spirited defenders. They are always taking refugees and that is the only place free of the Corporation." The smuggler paused for a moment. "If you wish to be taken some place else, I will do it, but I feel deeply that there is the only refuge worth the amount you wish to pay me, even though the journey there is most perilous. That is my opinion, grounded on the Smuggler's Code."
"I have no choice but to trust you, smuggler."
"You will not find that trust betrayed. Your man did a service by picking me out. Who will be coming?"
"Just me and my daughter."
Emotional relief at having found a job would have gone through Knight, except that the smuggler was so pumped on the stimulant he had just smoked that he was quite simply ready-to-go. Almost as an afterthought, he asked, "Do you wish to leave immediately?"
"Yes."
"Good." The smuggler finished his drink. He suddenly felt aware that he forgotten something important. Oh yes, "By the way, my name is Smuggler Knight."
"I am Demetria. My daughter is Hanako."
They got up from the table. Trader Statek and Hanako were waiting outside the 'Prohibition', leaning against a railing and watching some slightly drunk pirates singing on one of the lower levels. Hanako was still giving out little coughs here and there, but she was recovering from the smoke.
Ten minutes later they were in the tunnels leading to the docking ports. The trader took Demetria aside. "I've heard many good things about Smuggler Knight. He is known for his daring exploits during the siege of Old Italy, as well as being part of a long and respected family tradition of smuggling. It's a lucky thing he just happened to be here and that you've managed to hire him. I believe that he is for the most part trustworthy, but I worry that his principles may be a bit shaken due to hard times. Always be a little bit wary, then, and good luck, Madame Demetria."
"Are you sure you don't want compensation, Trader Statek?"
"No Madame Demetria. Just get yourself and Hanako to safety. Goodbye." He turned to Hanako "Goodbye Hanako."
Hanako jumped towards him and hugged him. "Goodbye Trader Statek! It was so nice meeting you!"
The traderman saluted Smuggler Knight, and the latter put his feet together and saluted back, fist on chest, happy to find someone who still obeyed to old protocols. All the while the cameras followed their movements. The trader sealed the airlock behind him and ran into his ship, desperate not to incur further parking fees. The smuggler took them to his own ship, parked in one of the extended visit docks, which worked out cheaper in the long run compared to the short stay docks.
It was built much like the square bug trader ship, but bigger. It's front was reinforced and it had much larger engines. Smuggler Knight helped them and their bags get aboard the ship, then said, "The journey will take several days. I'll show you to your rooms. I also need a fifty thousand dollar deposit."
"Pardon?" asked Demetria.
"I need to buy fuel for the journey. This expense is, of course, deductible from your final fee."
"Very well." Demetria took out the credit panel, and transferred fifty thousand over to Knight's money-com panel.
"Thank you, Lady Demetria." He took them to their room and went off to the cockpit, disguising some relief - his ship had been completely out of fuel and he had been completely out of credit, an extremely unprofessional state of affairs that he worried would embarrass him in front of his new clients.
The rooms were almost exactly the same as those aboard Statek's trader ship. Hanako wondered if the corridor-plan was the same, and rushed out to explore before Demetria could stop her. The floor-plan was similar, yet from the outside it didn't look like the same model of trader ship. Hanako made her way to the cockpit.
Smuggler Knight was ordering fuel and was opening the tank hatch for the station's automatic systems to charge his engines. Hanako startled him.
"Sorry," said Hanako.
"It's alright. We were in such a rush, I'm afraid we didn't get a proper chance to introduce ourselves. Lady Hanako, is it?"
"I-hm. And you're Knight?"
"Yes. Charmed to meet you. We'll be taking off soon."
"Trader Statek showed me how to fly his ship. These controls look similar. Why is this ship built like a trader ship when it doesn't look like it from outside?"
"Well, Lady Hanako, this ship was originally a trader ship. The front was built up so that it can ram orbital barricades, and the engines are much larger, built for speed and for landing and take-off from planets. There are also some weapon systems and evasion systems..."
"Weapons systems?"
"This is a smuggler ship, Lady Hanako. It isn't always the safest vocation."
"Does this ship have a name?"
Knight smiled. "Yes, my ship is called the 'Poet's Whim.'" The fuel indicator beeped. "Well, we are ready to go. Would you like to stay here for the take-off?"
"Here, of course!" replied Hanako.
Knight turned on the ship's intercom. "Lady Demetria, we are ready for take-off."
"Very good, Smuggler Knight," come Demetria' voice through the speaker. "Have you seen Hanako?"
"Mama! I'm here in the cockpit. Mr Knight is going to show me how to fly this ship."
"Alright dear, just don't get any ideas about taking over the controls."
"I won't mama."
"Strap yourselves in," said Knight. He turned off the intercom and activated the navigation systems. The docking compartment depressurised and the giant doors of the compartment opened up into the docking bay proper, through which ship entered and left the station. Hanako watched Knight pilot the ship, and felt the spaceport sliding away behind them, another milestone on her fugitive's journey. Hanako suddenly let out a sigh.
Knight glanced at her. He did not know the reason his passengers were fleeing the Corporation but for the money he was being paid he was willing not to ask, for the moment at least. He set the ship towards their destination, at an optimal speed.

The Red Claw at station Crosspoint

One of Crosspoint's dart ships was chasing down a trader who had run up a tab at the station facilities and had 'forgotten' to pay it, after hacking the computers in charge of the docking bays and thus fooling the computers into releasing him from the station without paying his debts. The dart suddenly turned off its course, abandoning its chase and headed back at speed for Crosspoint. The pilot jabbered with shock into his mouthpiece, trying to be coherent, trying to describe that the very Red Claw itself was bearing down on Crosspoint.

The commander-owner of Crosspoint tried unsuccessfully to contain the news within the control room of the station, but was unsuccessful and the information ran louder than gossip down the corridors of the spacestation. Pirates abandoned their rolling dice in mid-air. Entrances to bars like the 'Prohibition' were suddenly left with unfinished and unpaid-for drinks. Crew charged into the brothels, interrupting their ship-mate's hot passions for the higher prerogative of fleeing.

A huge proportion of the clientele of Crosspoint had, at some time, committed a crime against the Corporation, whether it was gunning down a Corporate transport, blockade running or tax evasion. These people now ran for their ships. Each individual thought that Czerwon was coming after them, especially and personally.

At first the commander-owner of the station tried to halt the exodus, and ordered the docking bay doors locked. He gave up when a pirate ship blew the doors away. Then he realised that Czerwon might be coming after him personally. Then he thought that Czerwon was definitely coming after him personally. In panic-rush he left station control to his second-in-command, and ran his bulky body to his own transport-ship.

The second-in-command calmed down what was left of the station's personnel. She cranked open the docking doors and let the exodus out unhindered. She ordered someone to fetch champagne and caviar from storage, to present to Czerwon's envoys as a gift. Then she ordered a dart to go forward with messages of greeting and welcome to Crosspoint, offering full co-operation, without charge, for anything the Red Claw might need. In this the new commander hoped to prevent the Red Claw from destroying Crosspoint simply because it was in the Claw's way (such an event had occurred before).

They did not know that Station Crosspoint was, at the moment, too valuable to destroy. Captain Rumsfeld boarded the station with some troops and accepted the champagne and caviar in Czerwon's name when he entered the command room, dismissing them with a nod. He demanded to see all records of incoming and outgoing ships. The commander nervously smiled at him and then she curtly ordered that access be granted, although this would damage the reputation of Crosspoint as a place where such details were up to then treated in strict confidentiality. Rumsfeld sat down at a computer panel which controlled access to camera footage files. Two bodyguards hovered near him. Some more troops, with heavy guns, were in the room, while the rest were searching Crosspoint.

Rumsfeld activated the computer searching system, and inputted descriptive information. Although he had never seen Hanako in his life, the Corp's genetic engineering division had given a complete description according to her gene-code, which they still had stored in their own data banks. From that data they conjectured a computer image picture of what Hanako would look like. Rumsfeld took out the picture from his uniform's pocket. He unfolded it, and place it down beside the footage viewscreen.

The computer whirled through the footage, looking for matches to the description it had received. A camera still came up. Rumsfeld hit the 'next' button. Another potential still on the screen. Rumsfeld hit the 'next' button.

The third time an image came up of a girl, an older woman, and a mature man. The girl was Hanako. "Got you," whispered Captain Rumsfeld, a smile crooked on his face. On another viewscreen information of time of arrival, on what ship, time leaving. He made the computer search for the footage of them leaving on the ship. However only the mature man [ name: Statek, Trader ] left. Either Hanako and the old woman had stayed on the station, or they had left on another ship.

Captain Rumsfeld made the computer search for a possible cross-index. It found Hanako, an old woman and a man leaving aboard a totally different ship.
The captain's eyes hovered over the man. He drew in a hissing breath. The computer showed [ name : Knight, ? ]. As he breathed out, he whispered, "Smuggler Knight, we meet again."
Rumsfeld grabbed a disk that had been lying about on a nearby desk, and saved the information on it. "I assume you don't mind me borrowing this?" Captain Rumsfeld asked the station-commander non-chalantly, taking out the disk and holding it for a moment in the air.
"Of course not, Captain Rumsfeld. Take whatever you need."
Captain Rumsfeld marched out, his soldiers falling in behind him. Soon afterwards the Corp military transports returned to the Red Claw, carrying all the Corp personnel. The Crosspoint staff breathed again, relief, as the Red Claw turned and moved away from Crosspoint, leaving the spacestation behind.
Not long after returning to the Claw, Captain Rumsfeld gave Chief Executive Officer Czerwon his report. "She arrived in a ship that had come from Forestglen, no name only a number registry. She then boarded a different ship with a smuggler known as Knight, wanted for smuggling and related crimes by several powers, including the Corporation. Recently, a large bounty was offered by a shareholder of the name Tang, although for exactly what crime hasn't been made clear."
"The name of the smuggler ship?"
"The 'Poet's Whim,' Chief Executive Officer."
"I never thought I'd be chasing a poet's whim," dryly commented Czerwon. "Order a search and capture for that other ship as well. Order the entire Corporate fleet put on alert for these two ships, and other possible carriers."
"Pardon, Chief Exec..."
"The entire fleet, captain."
Short pause. "Yes, Chief Executive Officer," acceding to this unprecedented order. The fleet was so vast that it generally was only necessary to put a part of it on alert.
"Good. Captain Rumsfeld, let us chase after whims."

The Adoration of Nature

It was time for dinner aboard the Poet's Whim. The dining hall of the ship was just large enough not to feel cramped. Knight brought out several trays of ship rations, wellheated. The food was heated with air that was vented past the ship's engines. The engines released a large amount of heat. Much of the heat dissipated uselessly into space, but space-farers being what they are, the rest was put to use - like heating food. Economical. Expense is the mother of Thrift.

Hanako was not impressed with the food. Sticking her spoon into the brownish goo, she screwed up her face, saying, "Eieew."
"This is good food," said Smuggler Knight, "It may not look or taste well but it stores for long periods and is nourishing for the body."
"This isn't Forestglen food at all," said Hanako.
"Now, Hanako," intervened Demetria, "You shouldn't criticise. In space things are done differently than planetside."
"I guess so," sighed Hanako. She took a healthy shovel of the food, closed her eyes, and gulped down. "Actually," she began, taking another shovel, "It doesn't taste that bad."
As they ate the rest of their dinner, Hanako suddenly exclaimed, "Mama, sing a song!"
"Hanako!" retorted Demetria.
"Please mama, please! I'll go get my guitar!" Hanako got up and ran off to her room, quickly coming back carrying a small four string27 guitar. She sat down, plucked a few strings in order to tune the instrument, then asked, "Mama, what are you going to sing?" Hanako's look indicated that she wasn't going to let Demetria get away without a song.
Demetria laughed. She was used to this sort of thing, since Hanako would often do this back on Forestglen. And as much as she would play modest and say she was too old, she really did enjoy singing. "Choose for me, Hanako," she said.
Hanako took in a breath, closed her eyes, and looked like she was mustering her concentration. With her delicate fingers she gently pressed down a chord, and started to strum and pluck the strings. What came out of the instrument was a calm tune with an undercurrent of joy.
At the appropriate time into the music, Demetria began to sing, in a voice stronger and more melodious than her age suggested she had :

"This is a song about Forestglen
The most beautiful place in anyone's ken
From the meadows the fragrant air will beckon While the elders sit with their pipes and reckon While shepherds nap to guard their fleece We pick fresh eggs from the chickens and the geese In the fields everyone works their very best Through the day, earning the night's rest

Though in fields we toil the day
In evening we go home and say :
'I'm back from doing my part,
Here is Home which warms my heart!'

This is a song about Forestglen
Home for a fox in his den
Little birds do their swinging and acrobatics high At night little beasts wink at stars in the sky All sorts of creatures, little and small
Up to those great and very tall
All the beautiful ones, go on and roam
All over green Forestglen, our home

Though in fields we toil the day
In evening we go home and say :
'I'm back from doing my part,
Here is Home which warms my heart!'

This is a Forestglen melody
Of a place that values harmony
Where Nature dances with a carefree style Where the tree's shade beckons to nap a while And where the blossoming flowers
Perfume many slow passing hours
But of all places that place is best
Wherever we can stop a while and rest

Though in fields we toil the day In evening we go home and say : 'I'm back from doing my part,
Here is Home which warms my heart!' "

All the time that Demetria sang, Smuggler Knight watched Hanako playing the guitar. Her dexterous fingers danced on the strings, and her beautiful face was in serene concentration. For the first time Knight noticed the delicate scent that Hanako's body gave off, it was sweet and ticklish, like the scent of a flower. The way she moved, elegant and refined, reminded him of the royal courts of Old Italy, so long ago.

The song finished, and Knight clapped, "Well done, Lady Hanako, and Lady Demetria." Hanako stood up and took a bow.

"That song reminds me so much of home," said Hanako, "I miss it so much already. The land is green and fragrant. This ship, not to be rude, but it is so drab compared with the countryside. It is only in the countryside that you can really feel free and human. I should know, because I learnt a poem in school that says so." Plucking the strings for a musical accompaniment, she recited :

"It is only under the shade of a tree That anyone can truly dance free
And only in the happy sunshine
That anyone can really feel fine
It is only by the bubbling stream
That you lose yourself in daydream And only with birdsong above
Can anyone truly fall in love
It is only out there in the plains
That we can forget our pains
And only on top of the highest green hill That a human's heart can have its fill For it is only in harmony with Nature That the human soul can enter its Rapture."

Hanako recited the poem with grace. Long forgotten emotions began to stir within Smuggler Knight, about a woman he had been with during the siege of Old Italy; but he forced himself out of the daydream brought on by the poetry and reluctantly pushed those pleasant emotions away. It was not a time for pleasant feelings, he was a Smuggler, he had a job to do, and that was what he had to concentrate on.

He finished his meal, then excused himself. He was going to the pilot's room to check the ship's course. But as he got up to go, Hanako quickly gulped down the last mouthfuls of food and then insisted that Knight teach her more about running a ship. Knight laughed, and though something inside him warned him that he was beginning to get emotionally involved, he agreed.

Part Two - Action

Dr Elizabeth Kübler-Ross studied and classified the human response to death. She described five stages : Shock, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance28. While not everyone goes through all stages or in the specific order, yet there is a sort of universalness to these stages which indicates that human coping abilities are somehow in-built, that we are born with them, and hold them in common. Regardless of our beliefs or culture, yet these same stages manifest like some internal programming that is activated when needed. Though they are modulated by our consciousness yet the basic themes remain the same, as if evolution has granted all human beings the basic mechanism whereby we adapt to the concept of death.

Snapping of jaws

 

"How did you become a smuggler?" Hanako asked.

Hanako and Knight were in the cockpit. On the viewscreen was the nearest planet, a green and blue fertile sphere with lifeless red rings banding around it in a hostile predatory way, like a snare around its prey.

"My father was a smuggler, and his father, and so on. It is very much an ancestral tradition."
"So were you always a lone smuggler?"
"Not all the time. I had a few partners."
"Tell me about them."
"No, most of them aren't worth talking about. But one..."
"Yes? Go on!" said Hanako, insistently.
"She was a noblewoman from Old Italy, the Contessa Rhea Silvia29. She couldn't sit by while her people starved, so she ended getting involved smuggling, during the siege of Old Italy. We ended up working together, smuggling supplies and weapons, crisscrossing the barrier lines and nearly getting killed several times."
"What happened to her?"
"After Old Italy was overrun, we stayed together for a while. She got a group of refugees together, bought a ship with what was left of her inheritance, and started pirating. She mainly focused her pirating activities on Corporate ships, of course – revenge for Old Italy. I stayed with her a while, but then I decided to go. I'm a smuggler, not a pirate."
"You say that with regret."
"You are astute, Lady Hanako."
"So, tell me what I'm being so astute about?"
"Me and the Contessa were attached, Lady Hanako. But it doesn't matter now, all things must end to give way to new things. We realised that the road we shared had ended, and that our paths diverged. The circumstances had become different."
"Did you ever see her again?"
"Yes, a few times. It's amazing what a small place the colonised galaxy is. The last I saw her was at the Closed Fist, a space junkyard, we both were scavenging for parts."
"What did you say to her?"
"Lady Hanako, stop with your questions. You have made me feel melancholy."
"Sorry."
Quiet in the pilot's room. Knight brooded into the empty space past the viewport. Hanako looked at him wondering about his past, wanting to ask questions but too considerate to cross the line the smuggler had drawn.
Smuggler Knight sighed. "You should get some sleep, Lady Hanako."
"I'm bored of sleeping. That's all there is to do on this ship. Besides, mama is sleeping and she snores loudly, but don't tell her I said that."
"If you're not feeling tired, how about we play a game?"
"All right, what would you like to play?"
"I was thinking of chess."
"Ok, but which rules? I know three."
"You know the classic chess, I hope?"
"'Course!"
Knight pressed a button on one of the computer displays. The display changed from a non-essential system status screen to a game menu. Soon a chess board displayed on the screen.
"You can be white," Knight said.
But as they made their first moves, a Corporate ship received orders to go into full alert status. Several patrols of darts were sent out to scout out the surrounding area. Knight knew that there was a Corporate battleship nearby but his flight plan had assumed that the ship would not be on full alert status, with tentacles of patrols. He hadn't reckoned on how desperate the Corp was to find his cargo.
The passive radar on Knight's ship flickered into life, catching Knight's attention.
"Something's up," Knight said, turning off the chess, "We can finish the game later."
"What's wrong?"
"Probably nothing, usually even a passing trader ship actives the passive radar. Could be pirates though."
But the passive radar picked up more and more active search signals. Someone was making a radar sweep through the area with several ships, methodically and carefully scanning the area. "Scavenger fleet?" thought Knight, trying to puzzle it out. Scavengers were traders who collected space junk to use or sell.
Whoever was sweeping the area was going to find them. Knight had no choice but to turn the passive radar for a moment to active, to find out who he was dealing with.
At least eight Corporate darts.
Knight quickly switched the radar off. His heart leapt. The nearby Corporate ship was on full alert and he could not fathom why; this was a quiet area, little political or economic instability. What reason could there be for it to be on full alert?
The darts sensed the Poet's Whim momentary radar signature. Their wing commander sent a message, "Unidentified trader ship, you are to stop immediately. Your ship will be boarded and searched. If everything is found in order you will be allowed to go. If you attempt to resist or evade we will be forced to destroy you."
"Oh no," whispered Hanako, terrified.
"Strap yourself into the chair," said Knight, flicking the red alert button, clicking the strap belts closed over himself.
'The darts think I'm a trader ship, good,' Knight thought, 'I could stop but that is far too risky. My radar's off and they haven't got my identity signature so I've got a few moment of invisibility. I have to run.'
Knight pushed his engines to full power, streaming towards the blue planet. He hoped to lose them either in the outer atmosphere or, preferably, in the gas of the ring. Hopefully the darts were only on a training exercise and didn't feel like chasing.
The last hope was dashed when the wing commander angrily ordered him to stop immediately and display his position. These Corp pilots were not going to give up as easily had Knight hoped.
Knight kept the ship running silent, hoping to slip out unseen through the ring of darts.
"Ship Poet's Whim. This is your final warning. We have you on our radar."
Knight was shocked. Although it was illegal not to do so, the Poet's Whim had not been registered with the Corporation (it would have been counter-productive for a smuggler). They could have only have identified his registry number, they could only have put the number and the name together if they were specifically looking for his ship, out of the millions of unregistered trader ships that roamed the Corporate empire. Knight looked at Hanako, her face a shade paler. Knight had underestimated how far the Corporation would go for his human freight.
Discovered, Knight gave up the pretence of silent running; he activated radar and weapons system, power surging through the empty electric veins of his ship. At the same time Knight activated a pre-recorded message to try and befuddle the darts – "This is the trader ship Distant Hope, we are unarmed. We are at the moment experiencing technical difficulties. Could you please re-transmit your previous message?"
On his radar, Knight saw the darts hesitate, then they surged toward him.
His fingers hovered around the defensive mechanisms. He was going to activate it at the last minute, a bluff to the darts. If the darts didn't know he had defence, then their offensive systems wouldn't be primed to compensate for such things.
His warning systems glared out 'LOCK' in red letters, the display flashing while it sensed several missiles locking onto the ship.
His hands slammed on the controls, defensive systems surged in power (emitting audible signals through space that could be picked up by suitable weapon sensors - the darts would be able to compensate for the next attack). The shipboard computers let out a blast of static to confuse the guidance systems aboard the missiles; Knight released several canisters of chaff through the ship's weapons vents, and fired off flares into several directions. Knight pulled the ship into such a deep turning-dive that the computer in charged of gravitational systems was befuddled, and for a moment of overcompensation it felt like they were being pull-crushed into their seats.
The missiles missed, losing their lock on the Whim and shooting for the chaff and flares, detonating harmlessly away from the Poet's Whim in bright orange blossoms. But that kind of easy evasion worked only once. The darts would now configure their onboard systems to compensate, to decipher the signals roaring through space out of the Whim's computers and nullify the Whim's defenses.
The Poet's Whim was full-throttled towards the red ring of the nearby planet. Knight for a moment pondered about the possibility of dogfighting, dismissed it after calculating the odds against him.
"Poet's Whim, this is your final chance to surre..." The rest of the message was lost as Knight ordered his ship to pump noise into communications channels, to prevent missile computers from perhaps hijacking the channels to home in on the ship.
The defensive panels seemed to leap up as more missiles locks were displayed. This time Knight knew that the attacking locks were counteracting his protective measures.
Nevertheless, the noise over his systems continued blaring, and Knight released more chaff and flares, pulling his ship up for a moment, then diving in a circular roll. The first few missiles were fooled and missed, but several were luckier.
The ship shook and a powerful blast-noise bellowed through the ship, the ringing from the walls and floor lasting long after impact. Three hits in succession shook the ship so hard that it was flung from its course. Knight struggled with the ships controls, forcing it on a steady course to the red ring. The ship had been damaged badly and several systems were no longer displayed on the status panels before him. To Knight's dismay these included several defense mechanisms. His heavily armoured engines had sustained minimal damage but damage to several of the vents may have caused hot air to spit out of the Whim, making the ship bright-lit to heat seeking missiles.
In the hope of delaying the next attack, Knight had his computers lock on to his pursuers, and released his own barrage of missiles. He doubted the missiles would hit the darts. They did however, have the effect he had intended : the darts scattered and blasted out chaff and flares, momentarily taking the Poet's Whim out of the hunt-thought of the pilots.
Some of the darts released missiles just before Knight's counter attack, and some of these struck a nasty blast across some exposed heat vents, though the missiles had not managed to direct hit. The thundering transmitted down the vents echoed into a roar through the ship. For a moment of alarm, Knight thought that the Poet's Whim was going to crack in two. This disintegration did not happen but Knight did not think his ship could take many more blasts. His instincts told him to wheel the ship around so that the armoured front faced the darts, but they were too close to the red ring. The gases of the red ring could mask a large object, and the only way to navigate was by moving forward, exposing the frontal ship sensors.
Then Knight realised it didn't matter, because he was practically on top of the ring. Plunging into the gas, Knight corrected the course to now fly along the curve of the ring. The darts behind fired a last volley of missiles but these were confused by the cosmic garbage in the ring, reflecting signals and flinging sensor information into a thousand directions. The Poet's Whim was also pulling away from the darts with its superior speed, and would soon be out of reach even of missile range.
Space junk or asteroid chunks could be lurking in the ring, hiding from radar and sensors behind the ions and metals in the ring's atmosphere, and could at any moment emerge from the red mist. Knight carefully supervised the coarse of the Poet's Whim through the gas belt. Even so, planetary rings were notorious for often being death-traps.
But the ring was obliging in its ease to ride. When Knight thought that the Whim had managed enough distance from its pursuers, he steered out of the ring and at full speed headed back for its original course. He switched off the defensive measures and other systems, pushing the ship to be as radio silent as possible.
He leaned back, bathed in the red glow of priority system-status reports and took a deep steadying breath. He turned to look at Hanako, who had been sitting in the co-pilots seat during the whole battle. Her face was a sickly white, her blue eyes wide. She was trembling.
Knight undid his seat straps, went over to Hanako and unclicked hers. "It's alright," Knight said, trying to comfort the still-trembling girl. She leaned forward to be hugged by Knight. He kept one arm around her shoulders, while the other reached to turn on the intercom. His fingers found the switch and flicked it on.
"Lady Demetria?" he asked, but the intercom spat static. "The intra-communications system must have been damaged," thought Knight out loud.
At Knight's words a flicker of something other than sheer terror flitted across Hanako's eyes. She suddenly buried herself into Knight's shoulder and began to cry, her body shivering.
"It's alright Lady Hanako, you're safe now. Come, let's find Lady Demetria." Knight put his free arm under Hanako's legs and lifted her up. Taking a last glance to make sure the ship's autopilot course was properly set, he left the cockpit and headed for the passenger quarters.
Knight hoped that Demetria had heeded his instructions, that in a red alert the best thing to do was to stay in your room and strap yourself into a bunk. He was relieved to find Demetria lying in her bed, calmly strapped in.
"Mama!" Hanako cried. She leapt out of Knight's arms and embraced her mother.
Knight let them hold each other for a few moments, then he said, sternly, "Lady Demetria, the Corporation is hunting us down. They already know my ship's name, and the next time we are ambushed as we have just been, they will know a lot more about me than they did this time." Knight waved his hands about. "This was a relatively new ship, completely anonymous to the Corporation. Now it's data signatures are in every little Corporate dart fighter. I did not expect this amount of danger." His eyebrows furrowed. "Lady Demetria, I absolutely must know the reason you two are fleeing the Corporation. The more I know the greater the chance that we will survive."
Demetria wanted to, but the secret of Hanako's past was too terrible for her to reveal. "I can't tell you, Smuggler Knight..."
"Lady Demetria! We were almost killed a few minutes ago. Another missile and this ship could very will shatter into pieces – you heard how the plates shuddered when we were hit. I don't want to die and you don't want to die so it is best that I know."
Demetria simply shook her head. Hanako looked from one to the other, unsure.
Smuggler Knight closed his eyes for a moment, opened them with a cold glance at Demetria. "Lady Demetria, I can't force you. But I urge you to reconsider. Every decision I make is flawed and risky until I know what you did against the Corporation to warrant them trying to hunt you down so hard. In the meantime, we are heading for the nearest spacestation. This crate is heavily damaged and is leaking fuel. I'll need some more money to repair the ship there. Then we'll go back on course for the Free Trade Zone. And thank you, Lady Demetria."
"Smuggler Knight?"
"Thank you that you followed my instructions and strapped yourself into the bunk when the red alert hit. It would have been dangerous to have wandered about the ship." With that Knight turned and left.
"Mama, why won't you tell him?"
"I can't, dear child, I can't," Demetria said, her eyes filling with water. She couldn't bear to speak the truth in front of her adopted daughter, for Hanako's sake, and that is why she had kept silent.

Events aboard the Red Claw

Czerwon was furious at how grossly his commands had been misinterpreted. Captain Rumsfeld himself had delivered the news of the combat engagement with the Poet's Whim, entering a conference room and interrupting a meeting between the CEO and his accountants. The wing commander had expressed regret that he was unable to destroy the ship. Czerwon flew into a rage – the last thing he wanted was for the ship to be destroyed, and the wing commander was lucky that he had not succeeded in this. As the CEO roared his heart suddenly moaned in anguish, and Czerwon forced himself to calm down. He had to focus on his goal - Hanako's heart. If he did not the beating core in his own chest could fail him.
At Rumsfeld's entrance Czerwon had ended the meeting within which he was engaged, curtly dismissing his accountants, who resided in several dark corners of the Claw. Czerwon was unwilling to have his delegates work anywhere where they could not be under his constant scrutiny, so he forced them to live with him aboard the Claw.
An adjoining room to the meeting hall was a small command centre, a direct link to the boardroom and its facilities. It was built so that he could send immediate orders when he was away from the boardroom; the nerve center itself was twenty minutes away through the maze of corridors crisscrossing the ship.
A communication was waiting for him – a Corporate ship in another sector had captured the original trader-ship that had ferried Hanako and Demetria to Crosspoint. The ship commander stated that there was nothing aboard the ship, and the solitary trader refused to offer any information on the fugitives.
"I doubt that he knows anything useful," Czerwon said. "Kill him." The commander was hesitant. "Is there a problem?" Czerwon asked.
"No, Chief Executive Officer," said the commander, "None at all."
"Good." Czerwon impatiently terminated the communication and started a new one, which would send his 'clarification' of his orders throughout the Corporate fleet. The Red Claw was put on a new course, now it was on its way to where the battle had been, in hot pursuit for the damaged, perhaps disabled, smuggler ship.
It did not take long for Ansar to learn of these new events. Acting as a spy for Thalia, he rushed to her with the news.
Thalia was in her heart glad. Her feelings were for the fugitives, although she doubted that they would escape Czerwon in the end. She had remembered the last one, the boy who replaced the Chief Executive Officer's eyes. The screams so disconcerted the staff that Czerwon ordered that for the next operation the victim would be sealed in a soundproof cage. Doctor Fallsoul had handled all the machinery : to activate it, a great lever had to be pulled. Thalia remembered the expression, the satisfaction in Fallsoul's face as the boy cried, gaping holes in his eye sockets. The doctor had for so long inflicted suffering that now he couldn't stand to be revolted by it anymore. It was as if to be stable his mind had to operate according to new parameters.
"What will they do now?" Thalia asked.
"They were hit several times," Ansar said, "They will probably have to stop for repairs. If the damage is serious enough they will have to dock in a station..."
"...Where they will be quickly found, assuming the Corporate intelligence service is up to the task."
"With the state of alert, My Lady, I would imagine they are."
"Thank you, Ansar. How you always manage to stay so informed, I haven't the faintest idea."
"It would be best that it remain that way, My Lady."
"Yes, I know... What was the dear Captain Rumsfeld's reaction to all this?"
"Rumsfeld was the first to hear of it and delivered the news personally to Czerwon. That is all I know of the event, my Lady, but I stumbled upon some information, or rather an ambiguous remark."
"Go on."
"I do not wish to state this as a concrete fact, but it may be that Captain Rumsfeld is planning a coup."
Thalia thought the she should have been surprised, but for some reason she wasn't. Aboard the Red Claw there was an arena, where gladiatorial games where held. Czerwon was a lover of blade fighting and was an expert swordsman. In the time when his heart had been healthy, Czerwon had a duel with Rumsfeld, ostensibly to put the latter in his place. Thalia remembered the agony of the man, on his knees and clutching a wound, his body glistening with sweat, while Czerwon stood triumphantly above him his sword glinting in the boiling light shining into the arena.
Rumsfeld had from then seemed to be ever more subservient to the Chief Executive Officer, but Thalia had seen this possible plot of overthrow in the glint of the defeated man's eyes while he knelt humbled on the cold metal floors of the arena.
Did Czerwon not sense the ambition of his officers? Perhaps he did, mused Thalia, and he let Rumsfeld stay because he himself wanted a confrontation, he wanted to defeat Rumsfeld in a coup attempt and to personally cut a blade through his life-force, or perhaps throw Rumsfeld to the mercy of the Mammon tiger kept in the bowels of the Red Claw.
Years ago, before finally deciding on his coat-of-arms of the two red claws, Czerwon had toyed with the idea of having a stylised Mammon tiger as his emblem. In Thalia's mind, the Mammon tiger still remained the symbol and embodiment of the Corporation's ideals.
Thalia had seen the Mammon tiger twice, and each time the powerful crush-jaw creature terrified her. She had turned away when Czerwon had thrown in some criminal to the arena at the mercy of the beast. The second time was when she saw the animal being fed in its dank and dark holding cell. The creature bore in resemblance to its earthly ancestors only in its ferociousness - its tiny red eyes, its bloodshine-black coat, it's big, gaping bright-white teeth were the things that most stuck out in her mind when she pictured it. It was a dangerous creature. Even when full and well-fed, the creature would try for the kill simply for the sake of the shedding of blood.
It had an ever-present hungry look in its eyes, the same glint that she occasionally saw in Doctor Fallsoul pupils when the man looked at her. It was uncomfortable, the doctor's eyes on her, which was why Thalia had become increasingly unpleasant in her attitude to the doctor. The doctor seemed to hunger for her, in the bestial sense but also, it seemed, for more. The doctor wanted Thalia's soul, because his own had suffocated to death, just as it had with most of the denizens of the Red Claw. She now avoided him, treated him coldly, but although she now kept him at a distance, it seemed that the doctor's desire for her increased in direct proportion. Whenever Fallsoul did not walk about with his distracted, inner-viewing thoughts, Thalia would dread having to look him in the eyes. They seemed like an empty vacuum, into which her own soul, if the man had his way, would disperse into.
He had been a decent man, before entering Czerwon's service. But now he was a follower of a godhead with two red claws, who in turn was accompanied by that dog ever by his side, the possibly rebellious Captain Rumsfeld. This was the kind of company one had aboard the confines of the Claw.
"Ansar, keep abreast of these rumours. If a coup is being planned, I do not want to become caught in the middle of it."
"Of course, my Lady."
"And get me something to drink. I'll be in the garden." Thalia went into the garden, the only place where she felt any respite from the intrigues and the events that occurred aboard the Red Claw

Revelations

The wounded Poet's Whim, leaking fuel into a long hazy white tail behind it, reached a run-down spacestation. Knight didn't want to dock there but he had no choice in the matter - repairs and fuel were now issues that absolutely had to be sorted out.

This station was far seedier and sinister than the its more noble cousins like Crosspoint. It was like many countless stations, sisters-in-spirit, spawned like mushrooms, thriving maggots in space. As much as Crosspoint was near to the ideal of the capitalist system, so this station was on the opposite extremity; nevertheless both of them were children of the same philosophy.

Parking was cheap but areas of the station were horrendously rundown and in bad need of maintenance. Music blared half-staticked out of worn speakers from the casinos and brothels. Shops were full of cheap goods of low quality, the merchants were slit-smiled with eyes sparkling for an opportunity to scam their clientele. Restaurants served overpriced under-nutritious food, saturated in oil and with chemical taste. Factory-shops belched out smoke pollution into some corridors, and in various places the sewage systems were broken and urine and faeces slopped around in stagnant smellpools. People lived aboard this station, it was their world, but no one cared that this environment had been made horrendous. What mattered was to make money, dishonestly or semi-honestly, did not matter. There is no peace in such a place.

There were no individual parking bays, and each ship had to share space in one of the large docking bays. Unlike Crosspoint, where guns were forbidden aboard ship, there was much less of law and regulation aboard this station. Pirates walked with heavy rifles slung on their shoulders. As a ship docked, various armed guards would approach, each looking for business as a bodyguard or as a parking attendant for the duration of the incomer's stay. Supposedly these services were voluntary, but parked ships were easy targets for vandals (often the disgruntled guards) and for many tradermen forced to dock here, walking without an escort was tantamount to suicide.

Knight had to leave the ship, and visit some of the station shops for parts. He would take Hanako and Demetria with him, safe under his eye – this would also allow sensitive alarm and anti-theft systems to be activated, which would otherwise have only been possible if the two women had laid absolutely still in the passenger rooms. He also hired a guard to protect his ship, but even so, guards could be bribed and theft was not uncommon aboard these types of station; it was at best a supplementary measure.

He warned the two women to stay as near to him as possible, for there were dangers in straying. Any one of many black fates could befall an unarmed woman who wandered alone through those virtue-blind corridors. For their personal protection, Knight did not hire a bodyguard but strapped a gun to his chest, covering it with the loose folds of his coat.

But events were developing that Knight did not expect. Having calculated the most likely places where a damaged ship would take refuge, Captain Rumsfeld dispatched several high-speed Corporate ships with troop contingents. He himself commanded the one that was sent to the most likeliest of these spots – the very station aboard which where Hanako, Knight and Demetria.

Knight took the trio from shop to shop, looking for used or preferably new ship parts, often holding the women's hands to make sure they were close. The jargon that he spoke with the shopkeepers was incomprehensible to the two women, although Hanako was excited at feeling part of a dank underworld she had only previously experienced in works of fiction; Demetria herself felt rather worried and paranoid amid so many bristling guns.

An hour and more had gone past, and Knight was becoming frustrated in his search. He still needed several parts. They walked through the decks, holding hands, under the suspicious tense scrutinies of rogues and would-be thieves, accosted here and there by prostitutes, who were always in pairs or threes holding each others' hands – the custom wherever lone work was too dangerous.

But their reception was positively warm compared to the cold, distrusting and sometimes even belligerent looks that the Corporate men received, led by Rumsfeld. The blue uniformed men fanned out through the station, looking to confirm by sight whether or not the fugitives were aboard the station (for unlike Crosspoint, which kept meticulous easy-to-refer-to records, the recording of such information aboard a station like this was very unwelcome, and sometimes fatal).

Nearby the sprawling and packed station casino Knight sensed the change in the atmosphere around him, and looking down the corridor he saw the blue-clad men, instantly recognising their threat.

He took hold of the women's hands.
"What's wrong?" asked Hanako, noticing Knight's change of mood.
"I think we've been found," he said, leading them down the corridor away from the

Corp men. He turned to look over his shoulder.
Knight saw, to his dismay, that the Corp men had spotted them, where pointing at them, following them, discussing them - it seemed that they were not close enough for positive identification, and were a bit unsure.

Desperate to separate themselves from their hunters, Knight turned into the entrance of the beat thumping casino, with loud music and louder patrons. They forced their way through; Knight was in the middle, gripping tightly the hands of his charges to make sure they were not going to become lost.

Although the trio made an unlikely grouping among the pirates and brigands within the casino, they Corp men who tried to follow them were even more unlikely. The jovial crowd suddenly became agitated, loudly telling the Corp men to get lost and blocking the way in. The fact that the Corporates were outnumbered prevented them from shooting through; the fact the Corporation could annihilate the station within an hour for an 'incident' prevented the pirates from shooting the Corp men where they stood. Frustrated at the standoff, the Corp men notified Captain Rumsfeld through their communication sets that they suspected the fugitives were aboard the station.

The casino was built in a bizarre way, winding around almost the whole of the station like veins and arteries, with easy access from the docking stations to suck in many wouldbe customers. Knight led them out of one of many exits from the casino, planning his route in his head to, hopefully, reach an area empty of Corp men.

They came out to an alley, opposite an entrance to a bad restaurant. A drunk man, passed-out and forgotten, was lying on the floor in a puddle of his urine. There were only a few mercenary guards, a motley crew who had been pushed out of their territories by the better armed and better organised guards who now worked their former patches. These armed men stood in the doorway of the restaurant, stuck lingering near a minor casino entrance, hoping that the occasional persons who came out and in may ask for their services.

They looked at Knight hopefully. Knight toyed with the idea of hiring some of them, but decided against it. It would be too obvious, when what they needed was to sneak off the station. Besides, the mercenaries looked like a bunch of amateurs, and would probably end up being liabilities or even turncoats.

Not knowing what to expect, Knight quickly let go of Hanako to undo the clasp that held his gun to his chest. He quickly returned his hand to Hanako's, feeling the weight of his gun shift slightly, ready for drawing in an emergency. It was a good precaution, because as he led them up the alley, a lone Corp man turned in.

Before the soldier could react, Knight had already drawn his gun. The mercenaries immediately jumped within the doors of the restaurant and casino, loading their guns, some of them pointed at Knight, the others at the Corp man. The soldier, a half-striped novice, green with lack of training and on his first mission, did not properly weigh the risks when entering an alley aboard a pirate station, and certainly was not prepared to react fast enough to Knight.

The bullets hissed softly as they singed through the silencer barrel of Knight's gun, thumping through the body of the flailing soldier. The man dropped with soft clunking sound.

For a wild moment Knight worried that one of the women would scream in panic, giving themselves away; Luck had it that both were too stunned by the event. The mercenaries, although they still pointed some barrels towards Knight, looked more relaxed. They saw no need to interfere with the death of a Corp man, and no need to shoot civilians unnecessarily (their reputation was poor enough - if they did such a thing and the news broke out, they would probably never find clientele again).

Knight peered around the corner at the end of the alley. There were plenty of ruffians but no Corporates. He needed somewhere they could hide for a few minutes, so he could talk to Demetria. They ran out the alley. His eyes quick-scanned every person they passed, his paranoia lit high. He saw a promising entrance and ducked in, taking the women into a bar which had private, closed kiosks. It was actually an establishment where one could bring a prostitute one had hired. Knight ordered a kiosk and they sat down in a closed, dark and cramped space; there was a slight smell of semen from those who had used the kiosk before them.

"Lady Demetria, we are going to die," Knight said, "because I do not know why the Corporation is after us. I don't know who I can bribe, who I can run to for help, how determined they are to find us."

They sat there for a moment in the dim light, in silence. Demetria said nothing.

"Lady Demetria, you must tell what you have done to make the Corporation so determined to find you."
"We haven't done anything, smuggler Knight."
"Then why did I just have to kill a man?" Knight exclaimed, anger tingeing his words.
"Smuggler Knight!" Demetria suddenly cried, then calmed. "We didn't do anything," she continued, "they're after Hanako. I don't quite understand it, but they're after some organ of hers."
"Organ?"
"Mama," Hanako said, "I don't understand."
"My daughter, I'm sorry, you're a geneling."
The word took several moments to register in Knight's mind. He looked at Hanako, his thoughts murmuring and processing. "A geneling?" he said, softly to himself. This changed everything. Knight had heard the stories, of how the CEO harvested his youth. He had thought that Demetria was exaggerating when she had said Czerwon himself was after them, but it was true, the CEO himself was hunting them down.
"That means the Red Claw isn't far away," the smuggler continued, his eyes widening in terror.
"Mama, I'm not a geneling, am I?"
Knight didn't give the conversation time to go its course. "We have to run," said Knight standing up and grabbing their hands. His mind kept on whirring, like a machine operating according to a program, instincts rising. They had to get away from the station. The best way would be to run for their ship. The Poet's Whim was still too damaged to go any sort of long distance but for their immediate survival they had to go now and worry about repairs later.
The conversation in the corridors was angrier. The patrons of the station resented the presence of the Corporation, and expressed this in edgy near-violent manners. Several people tried to pick a fight with Knight; Knight simply ignored them, leading on Hanako and Demetria by their hands.
The Corp men aboard the station felt the change in mood and had also become tense. They uneasily patrolled the corridors, looking for the fugitives while trying to avoid looking the underworlders in the eyes.
Knight wound the trio inbetween groups of people, trying to lose themselves in the crowd. He saw several blue uniforms. He thought he recognised one.
Captain Rumsfeld.
Knight had encountered the man before, many times, in his days as a blockade-runner during the siege of Old Italy. Then-Commander Rumsfeld had been in charge of a part of the siege, and was known for the harsh pounding of his iron fist. The bloodshed he raised opened doors to promotion, to the very side of Czerwon himself.
Rumsfeld spotted Knight as well. He had sought the smuggler and many others like him around the barricades of Old Italy, and immediately recognised his old foe.
"Smuggler Knight! Halt!" Rumsfeld cried.
"Go to hell," Knight muttered under his breath, leading the women away. It was too dangerous for the Corp men to fire at them, surrounded as they were with pirate guns, and for the moment Knight had to keep it that way.
Rumsfeld tried to give chase, and somehow the crowds of the corridor melted from the front of him, long enough for him to start running. Knight picked up his speed as well. "Run!" he cried to the women.
Suddenly he felt a hand slip from his grip. He looked over his shoulder to see Demetria fallen, hands and knees on the ground. She had tripped.
Rumsfeld was already upon her. He drew his gun and pointed it at Demetria. There was a very short moment of hesitation, as Rumsfeld decided : this target is expendable. Pull trigger.
Demetria stared down the barrel, an expression of horror on her face.
The sound of the gun clapped over the mouths of everyone present. Silence chased after the echo of the gun retort. Guns were loaded. For now the pirates didn't see the point of starting a fight because of the death of an old woman.
The only sound to disturb this blood-tranquility was the sound of Hanako's scream.
"Mama!"
Rumsfeld set his gun from kill-bullet to paralysis-dart, took aim and fired at Hanako.
Knight saw this and at the last moment pulled Hanako away.
The dart, filled with a paralysing drug, hit a pirate who had been standing a short distance behind Hanako.
The shot didn't kill him but his comrades thought he had been hit with a normal bullet. They pulled their weapons and fired.
Within a few seconds there was absolute mayhem as everyone shot at anything. The firefight spread like flame on oil, and soon the entire station was in chaos.
Knight pulled Hanako into a corner and covered her, while his back was exposed to the spit of the guns. Blasts pierced the roar-cries of the combatants, knife-cuts and fierce challenges hung in the air.
The moment there seemed to be a momentary lull in the fighting, Knight stood up, took Hanako's hand and led her away.
Several times he had to push her against the wall and cocoon-held her there tightly while a gun-battle erupted near them. Hanako had switched off, and mind-numbed followed Knight and allowed herself to be pushed and shoved by him as was needed for her safety. It was almost as if she was unaware of what was happening around her.
Knight finally managed to lead them to the docking bay, but the violent brawling had reached here too. Several of the parking-guards were on the ground clutching their wounds. A medical ship, the first one to respond, had just arrived in and landed in the bay. The medical personnel ran from the hospital ship towards the wounded, and bending down, first asked for money before they gave medical care. Those who could not afford the nurses had to tend for themselves (or simply die), while those who could were taken aboard the hospital ship for treatment. The gun-battlers were careful not to hit the nurses as they ported the casualties – attacks on medical personnel caused the nurses to inflict price hikes.
At the far end of the docking bay there was fierce firefighting. The Corp troops had fled to the docking bay and were trying to get to their troop carrier.
Knight did not want the risk of being shot at by some pot-shot pirates. He grabbed Hanako by the hand and they ran for some medics, who were putting a wounded shipguard on a stretcher. Knight's plan was to use the sacred medical personnel as a shield from the bullets. The nurses were unhappy with Knight and Hanako but were in too much of a hurry to argue – the faster the nurses went, the more money they earned. Knight and Hanako went alongside them as they carried a wounded man on a stretcher.
It was luck that had it that Knight's ship was nearby the hospital craft. A short run, a quick deactivation of the security systems, and they were inside.
Knight started up the take-off systems. The ship heaved itself into the air, and hovered through the docking bay, right over the heads of Rumsfeld and his men. The Whim left the docking bay through the exit tunnel, and the air lock behind them automatically sealed. The exit side opened up for their escape.
But although the Corp men had been left behind, a pirate gang had taken the initiative and was sitting outside the exits to the docking bays, waiting to take out ships fleeing the anarchy within.
Unable to turn back, his radar warning systems screaming at him not to go forward, Knight had a moment of unsureness. His weapons systems had been depleted in the previous skirmish with the darts, so he couldn't fight his way out. Perhaps, though, there was a way to mix-up the weapons sensors of the would-be trappers.
Knight fired one of his last missiles out of his ship's tail. The rearward-missile hit at the sealing hatch for the air lock, bursting it into the inner side. A huge gulp of air rushed out, and Knight kicked in his ignition forward. The huge amount of scrap following the air-tide behind the Poet's Whim managed to muddle up the pirate's weapons systems for those precious seconds that he needed. The Poet's Whim streaked forward past the firing pirate ships, whose weapons aimed for pieces of scrap and were far off their intended victim; the Whim quickly put space between them and itself. The pirates decided not to take chase with the battered and damaged Poet's Whim; there were probably more lucrative ships coming out anyway.
Inside the station, there was a powerful roar as air escaped from the docking bay through the now-blown air-hatch. The emergency systems that would have sealed the breach failed due to lack of maintenance. The medical personnel managed to lock themselves into their hospital ship in time. Some unlucky ones were pulled by the force of outrushing air and flew helplessly into space. Rumsfeld and his men took the opportunity to struggle into their carrier and seal themselves in, while many of the marauding gangs were trapped in the new vacuum.
Rumsfeld's navigation crew told him that a ship, probably the Poet's Whim, had flown past them. Rumsfeld ordered that they immediately pursue. They flew out of the docking bay and were caught by surprise by the pirate ships outside.

Laments

 

In the viewing room of the Poet's Whim.

Before her was a little wooden house, the one Sparky had given her. She was crying, crying. Something in her pendulumed between helpless anger and despair.
Knight came to sit by her. His mind searched within for a way to console her.
"I'm sorry," said Knight. "I blame myself for what happened."
"Don't." mumbled Hanako. "Everyone tried to tell me what an evil place the universe is. I listened but I never understood. Now I know. My mama didn't die because of you, but because of those other people."
A momentary pause. Knight tried to think of what to say.
"I lost my father," he said, finally. "I remember that day, like it was an hour ago. I was fifteen. We were running a supply of weapons along with another smuggler. But the smuggler turned on us and led us straight into an ambush." Knight took in a deep breath. "My father's last words, over the communications link, 'Obey the code, son, obey the code!' The code's pretty much dead now, among smugglers, but I still follow it. It's like my father is still alive as long as I follow the code, and if I stop then I'll lose him forever."
"What was he like?" she asked, gently turning around the little house, balancing it in her hands.
"Stern, honourable, kind..."
"I want to go home," said Hanako, suddenly changing the subject.
"They'll be waiting for you there."
"Who?"
"The Corp."
"I don't care."
"Then your mother's death will have been in vain."
Hanako buried her face in Knight's shoulder and started sobbing.
"Your mother would have wanted you to go on, to get to safety. And I am bound by the code to help you. You have to go on, get away from Czerwon."
"I'm not even human!" she suddenly cried out. "I'm a… I'm a… geneling? What is that, geneling?" Hanako rolled the word in her mouth, probing it with her tongue.
"An artificially created human."
"I thought as much… What do they want with me?"
"Only the Corporation makes them. I've only heard rumours, but apparently Czerwon breeds them to replace his organs. He just keeps replacing his organs and in that way he keeps himself young."
"Geneling. And all my life I thought I was human…"
"Hanako, I don't think that whether the fact that you're a geneling or not makes you human. It's what is in your heart that makes you human, and from what I've seen of it, you're more human than most of us."
"Tell me about him… Your father. Tell me how he died… Please."
Knight sighed. "If it will make you feel better about your loss, I will share the story of my loss. I will tell you the story of the death of my father, whose name - like mine - was also Smuggler Knight." And Knight began to tell his story, and it was almost as if he was taken back in time, to vividly relive his past.

When Knight was still very young, his father came to him, and said, "Son Knight, you know how important it is to honour our Ancestors. One way of doing this is to learn what they themselves used to learn. Son Knight, it is now time for you to learn the great sword techniques invented by our Ancestors. I will teach you how to fight with the sword, just as my father taught me. But as you learn, remember, you are not merely training to fight; rather, you are fulfilling a religious obligation. Before you can embark on this training, you must be willing to dedicate your training to my father's father, your great-grandfather, who created the style of fighting which I shall transmit to you."

And so Son Knight bowed his head in prayer, and said, "Oh venerable Ancestor, greatgrandfather Knight, I wish to learn your way of sword fighting. I wish to do this firstly, to honour you, great-grandfather, and secondly, to honour the House of Knight, and thirdly, I wish to do this as a sign of self-respect, as a member of the House of Knight. Please let your spirit be with me as I train, so that I may faithfully reproduce your skills and styles. I dedicate my training to you, venerable Ancestor; may you likewise encourage and guide me."

And so Smuggler Knight taught his son how to fight according to the ways of the House of Knight. Every training session began with a prayer ceremony dedicated to the Ancestors, asking for guidance and wisdom. After every session, there was another prayer ceremony, thanking the Ancestors for their guidance during the training.

Along with the rules of sword combat, Son Knight also had to learn the rules of the accompanying systems of honour and behaviour, the Smuggler's Code.
"Remember, my son," said Smuggler Knight, "that the Smuggler's Code, which was in part formulated by our venerable Ancestors, is also considered as sacred, for in obeying the code you are obeying your Ancestors, and by breaking the code you offend the Ancestors."
Son Knight bowed his head in acknowledgement of his father's words. The Ancestors expected the same of you what they expected of themselves. There was no obligation for the Ancestors to help you, except for the blood-bond of family Honour; in the same way, the bond had to reciprocated. Honour was to be upheld. It was a religious duty. Son Knight swore to obey the Smuggler's Code. The past is the present.
Smuggler Knight then showed his son a computer disk, and said, "Son Knight, if anything should ever happen to me, and I become lost to you in this physical plane, then you must access this disk."
Time went past, and while Son Knight was growing up so too was the Corporation gaining power. The Chief Executive Officer of the Corp, Czerwon, was ruthlessly pursuing dominance and profit-gain. As Czerwon's power grew, so did the influence of his philosophy, pervading and corrupting the old ways of doing things.
Smuggler Knight had joined with another smuggler to carry contraband cargo. It was this other smuggler who had suggested the route and what cargo to carry. Son Knight was flying a dart escorting his father's ship. The Smuggler's Code forbade treachery when two smugglers had to work together.
But this other smuggler was one of the new type, those who did not follow any codes. Suddenly various pirate ships appeared around them. The smuggler turned on Smuggler Knight and all the ships suddenly attacked him - the ship had no chance against them. Son Knight tried to defend his father in the dart but he was overwhelmed.
"Get out, Son Knight!" cried his father, "Get out!"
"Father, I cannot leave you!"
"Obey me, Son Knight! Obey me, Obey the Code!"
The pirates decided the situation for them. Son Knight knew that if he stayed he would die. The dart was on the verge of disintegrating from the intense enemy fire. If they had wanted to the pirates could have killed him. His father would probably be alright - after all, the pirates wanted to capture the ship and its cargo, and the reason Son Knight's dart had not been destroyed was probably so that he could live to ransom his father back from the greedy ones.
But as Son Knight fled, he heard his father say, "I'll be damned by my Ancestors if I let this cargo fall to those who break the Smuggler's Code!"
So it was that Smuggler Knight, rather than surrender to a dishonest rogue, destroyed himself, his ship, and his cargo, taking most of the pirates with him. For Smuggler Knight was part of the old ways where men were death-bind tied to Honour; but the moral laws that were the undercurrent of the galaxy had changed, and Smuggler Knight refused to be part of it.
Son Knight had lost his father. For a long time he sat still and quite. Then he started crymoaning, "Father! I'm only fifteen, how could you leave me?" Then Son Knight remembered that his father had given him a disk, which he was to access if anything happened.
On the disk was a video recording, the last will and testament of his father. Through his eyes, filled as they were with tear-water, Son Knight could barely see the image displayed. In heart-pain he fell on his knees, and put his one hand on the monitor to touch his dear father. Son Knight tried to restrain his sobs, to be quiet, to force himself to listen to audio of the recording.
The recorded image of Son Knight's father spoke, "My son, if you are watching this, then that means I am no longer in a physical form. Unfortunately, you will not be able to see me, because you are still mostly part of the material planes. You cannot see me the same way a man born blind cannot see the sun, or a man born deaf cannot hear distant thunder30. But I want you to know, my son, that although you may be experiencing great sorrow, that wherever you are, I am with you, and that wherever you go, and whenever you are in danger, I will be there. Although I will not be able to be seen by you, and I will not be able to talk to you, me and all your other Ancestors will be at your side, ready to guide you and give you strength.
"My son, it pains me to know that I will not be able to talk to you, but at least if you ever need to talk to me, you can just pray and I will hear you, and I promise you that I will do everything that I can for you. If you are ever in doubt of this, just look in your heart and you will know that I am guiding you.
"Although you may feel alone right now, there is no need to feel so, for I am there, and will always be there.
"Son Knight, now that I am gone my title must pass on to you, my son. From now on call yourself Smuggler Knight. Remember to keep our traditions and to obey the code. I've taught you everything you need to know, don't doubt yourself. Remember that you have access to all our bank accounts, there's enough money in there to start from scratch if need be. But if you are ever in need remember that your Ancestors are always be by your side. Keep well, my son."
That was the end of the message. No longer Son, Smuggler Knight got up from his knees. Materially and physically he seemed alone.
Yet suddenly Knight could feel that his father's spirit was near him, and he knew his Ancestors were there. He called on his father and the rest of his Ancestors, asking for guidance : for now he had to start off a new life, as a Smuggler Knight of the House of Knight.

Knight recounted his memories as best he could to Hanako, until he finished. There was a quite moment, then Knight said, "I have to go pilot the ship. Would you like to come with me?"

"No, I'd like to be alone for a while."
"All right. Call me if you need anything."
Hanako alone. With one hand she clutched Sparky's little house to her breast, the other

she pressed on the observation window, trying to push through the transparent material to touch the stars, to touch home. Tears.

While she cried, Captain Rumsfeld, battleshaken and pridelost, had to tell Czerwon that the pursued had escaped. Czerwon roared with anger. He was angry, because within himself he could feel his heart failing him. He was panicking, because within himself he could feel his heart rejecting him, the pain in his chest crushing in its intensity. The CEO knew there he did not have much time left to capture Hanako.

Thalia, too, was not as overjoyed at the news as might be supposed. She was worried of the things Czerwon might do if driven to desperation. It could lead to even more destruction than was necessary.

But perhaps the only one who had a true understanding of what was happening, was Doctor Fallsoul. He was in the holding cages of the Red Claw, watching the Mammon tiger being fed. The tiger buried its teeth into rich, juicy flesh, staining its claws red. To the doctor, it seemed that the Mammon tiger was eating them all.

Angel's Hope

Angel's Hope was a rich life-world, green and oxygen-full. It had been terraformed by a no-longer existing political entity which had needed extra space (an extra planet) for its citizens. That entity was destroyed soon after the fall of Old Italy, when the Corp asserted its dominance. There were still hopes of the planet being colonised until this was forbidden by the Corporation, who forbade settling Angel's Hope and many, many other planets. The reason for this was their proximity to the Free Trade Zone; colonies would have made the Corp defenses pregnable, vulnerable. It was better for the Corp to have a wasteland completely under its control than settlements tempted by the rebels so nearby.

The Poet's Whim, battered and weary, entered the orbit of Angel's Hope, although neither Knight nor Hanako knew what the planet's name was. Although the Poet's Whim was originally a trader ship (trader ships were generally unable to land planetside), the modifications that had turned it into a smuggler ship allowed it to safely enter and exit an atmosphere. Knight wanted to land the Poet's Whim, to repump the oxygen supply and to try and repair the ship. Also, one little smuggler ship on an entire lifeworld would be hard to spot, perhaps taking the heat of their trail for at least a while.

They landed in a lushy green valley. The moment the exit hatch opened a fresh breeze of life-world air blew in, scented with flowers.
Knight climbed down to the ground first, and turned to help Hanako down. "What's wrong, Hanako?" he asked, noticing the strange look on her face.
"This place, it reminds me so much of home," she said.
For several days, Knight made what repairs he could to the starship. In the middle of some work, Knight was surprised by his communications systems picking up the trader frequency. The traders used a special frequency to communicate news to each other in packets. These packets were thrown from ship to ship, and as each ship received the packet it would rebroadcast it out again for other ships to pick up, passing the messages along – sometimes a ship would receive the same news packet several times. This nonstructured network was the premier source of information among the tradespeople, free of Corporate censorship and sometimes accurate.
At first Knight was glad to have received the news packet. Usually he would have rebroadcast it so that any tradership in range could catch it, but that would have been detectable if any Corp ship was nearby. Knight's mood changed to consternation, though as the information decoded on an output screen as text.
He went out of the ship, his hands still oily from repairwork. "Hanako!" he cried, but there was no answer. She had probably gone exploring. He stepped off the ship and onto the grass. Hanako's explorations into the vicinity had trampled down several pathways into the grass, and Knight traced the path of one of them, following his intuition. Choosing the pathway; some would have followed their instincts, some their logic, some would have simply bludgeoned forth on any-or-so path; but any of these 'choices' are just following a habitual way of thinking. Human consciousness is subservient to the creature of habit within us.
He found Hanako sitting by a river under the shade of a yellow-leafed tree. The tree didn't look very healthy; all the vegetation around was green and beautiful, but this specific tree looked like it was slowly dying. Closer inspection showed that the tree was being strangled by a clinging vine. One person's happiness is another person's pain; there is always something that has to be sacrificed, both in our environment, and in ourselves. There is no gain without cost.
Knight crouched down by the water and cleaned his hands of the oil-gunk that clung to the spaces inbetween his fingers. For the first time the purity of the water had been soiled by someone else's civilisation. The hunger of others prevents our own satiation; how can one be surprised at the imbalance in the world?
"Hanako, there has been some news of your homeworld."
"Yes?" Hanako asked, her face with a blank expression. She could not muster up much curiosity. For much of the past few days she spent her time in an emotional torpor, trying to slowly work her way out of the emotional limbo she found herself in.
"It has been destroyed. Corporate work apparently. A passing trader ship tried to make contact with Forestglen only to find it in ruins. There weren't any survivors."
"I though as much." In Hanako's hands was the little house Sparky had given her. The gift seemed to have been received a century ago. "I think I know what that man, Czerwon, is like. We had a story about him, on Forestglen.
"There once was a beast, whose stomach was never full. He was always hungry, and just ate and ate. He ate the trees and the deer that ran through them. He ate the fishes and the birds. He ate the flowers and the bees.
"In the end the beast had consumed everything, and there was no more life except him in the world, but for once it felt satiated. It sat down on his haunches, and put a satisfied paw on its swollen belly.
"But now that it's hunger was satisfied, he had nothing to do. He had annihilated the entire planet's life. And the beast died of loneliness.
"That is Czerwon, the hungry beast, the incarnation of greed, who is unhappy until he has consumed all; and when he has consumed all, he will find that he will have destroyed himself.
"I feel exhausted, Knight. I don't feel like running. Czerwon is too hungry to ever stop looking for me, no matter where I hide."
Knight then said, "Whenever you stumble, Hanako, I will pick you up and we will keep on running. We will run to the Free Trade Zone, and if we can't hide there we will run further, past the outer rims, into deeper space.
"I cannot leave you, Hanako, not now. I don't think you understand how important you are to Czerwon. If he is this desperate to find that means he is dying. Czerwon is a brutal and greedy man who has destroyed so many, now simply by keeping yourself alive you may destroy him."
"I don't want revenge."
"This isn't just about revenge, Hanako. Forestglen is dead, but it is not the first colony to have been wiped out, and, unless Czerwon is stopped, it will not be the last."
"How can you be so sure he won't be replaced by someone as bloodthirsty?"
"I can't be sure. Perhaps someone just as hideous as Czerwon will rise up and claw the CEO's place for himself. But there are all sorts of people resisting the Corp; perhaps someone from among them, someone with honour and restraint, will come up and make this galaxy sane once more."
Hanako thought about this for a moment, in silence. Then she said, "You want to avenge yourself on Czerwon for the death of your father."
Knight, after a pause, answered, "Yes." He wanted to add, but that's not my only reason for wanting to help you.
Hanako stood up. "I cannot allow the deaths of my family to be in vain. They all died for me, so that I may live."
"So you will go on?" asked Knight.
"If you will take me, Knight. You are my last friend. I don't know how to repay you. My mama had all the money and it was all left behind on that dreadful station."
"This isn't about payment anymore, Hanako. This is too big for something so petty."
Hanako plucked a bright flower, warm like hope, from the ground and gave it to Knight. "Perhaps, then, this might suffice for now."
The Poet's Whim had been repaired all that she could be, which wasn't enough for longhaul. Despite this, Knight knew they had to leave Angel's Hope. There was nothing more he could do for his ship and he knew that despite being alone on this planet it would only be a matter of time before the Corp would detect their presence. Out in space, even if they could only short-haul, perhaps they may reach a friendly station or ship, and they could repair the Whim enough to be able to complete the last leg of the journey.
And so, having rested, the Poet's Whim reentered the sky she had come from.

Rhea Silvia

The ship's engines were working only at minimal thrust to save fuel. A thin streamlet of the fuel streamed out as a tail behind the Poet's Whim from the damaged tank, though not as much as before as Knight had managed to plug the hole somewhat. They had been drifting in the vague direction of the Free Trade Zone, with occasional bursts of the engine to maintain the Poet's Whim on course. The Whim drifted down a spacestream, like boats on a river carried away by the water, the stream of their actions.

"Where are we?" Hanako asked, staring out of the cockpit window at the unfamiliar starscape. The old constellations of Forestglen were by now unrecognisable.
"The frontier. Behind us is Corporate space. Ahead of us, the Free Trade Zone. The area we are in is disputed territory. Here, Free Trader ships, Corporate battlecruisers, pirates, traders and refugee carriers roam."
"Refugees?"
"You are not the only one trying to escape the Corporation. Apparently refugee shipping is becoming quite a business among some of the pirates in this area."
"What are they running away from?"
"Financial exploitation, mostly. After the fall of Old Italy, the Corp's last real challenger, the Corporation started to slowly squeeze people dry, increasing the price of living while reducing the quality of life, maximising its own profit at other people's cost. Those who try to fight the system are marginalised or destroyed, so many of them prefer to flee."
"Do many of them make it?"
Hanako's question was interrupted by buzzing from the communications systems. The ship was receiving a message.
"What is it?" Hanako asked.
Knight frowned. "It's a recognition code. If you know the answer to the code, you unscramble it and throw it back." Knight hissed in a deep breath. "I know this one - it's an Old Italy code!" His eyes widened. "There's only one person I know of that would use this particular code."
Knight punched several keys on the panel, his mind dusting off the counter-code from long-unused memories. A strong surge of sentimental emotion swept through him, his hand shivered slightly as he broadcast his return message.
They waited for several minutes, but nothing happened. "What is supposed to happen?" Hanako wondered.
"There's supposed to be another communication. This is beginning to worry me."
"A trap?" Hanako intuited.
"Possibly, but we must not panic just yet."
The screens blipped.
"Another code," Knight explained, "This would be standard procedure. Two codes in case one was captured. I recognise this one as well." He hesitated for a moment. "I know two replies to this one. The standard Old Italian counter-code, and another one…"
"Which one will you use?"
Knight's heart started to beat harder. His thoughts raced : 'Could it be her?'
Knight entered the second code, which had once been his own personal counter-key during the blockade of Old Italy.
Whoever had sent the codes did not reply to Knight's counter-code, almost as if giving a stunned silence. Then a woman's voice crackled over.
"Smuggler Knight?" the voice asked. Knight recognised the commanding, educated tones.
"Contessa Rhea Silvia?" Knight replied.
"Knight! What are you doing here?" the Contessa asked.
"Doing what I do best."
"Which would be smuggling. Where are you?"
"Dead in space. The Whim has been badly damaged."
"You're still flying that piece of scrap? Mia Déa31, I still remember how you almost got me killed in that thing. How bad is it?"
"Firstly, it's not the Smuggler's Whim I flew during the siege, I'm now flying the Poet's Whim, and secondly, we are fine in most respects except propulsion."
"We will come fetch you ad alta velocità32 anyway. Keep broadcasting your message beacon at five minute intervals. E per amor del cielo33, use the coded frequency, the Corp ships are all over the place. There is a price on your head, Knight."
"I've always had a price on my head, Contessa."
"Not one this high, Smuggler. Be glad I found you and not some other scum. It will be good to meet you again."
"I look forward to seeing you as well."
"Which shall be soon enough. Send word if something unplanned happens. Venezia di Notte out."
The little light that indicated incoming frequencies blinked out, and there was quiet again.
"Who was that?" Hanako asked.
"That, Lady Hanako, was the Contessa Rhea Silvia, self-styled pirate queen of the 'Venezia di Notte,' a vicious little battleship."
"Was she the one you once told me about? The woman you ran the Old Italian blockades with?"
"The same. It's a miracle how we always manage to run into each other. I should have known she'd end up pirating these waters. She owed me quite a few favours and now she has the chance to repay them."
"Venezia di Notte. That is Italian?"
"Yes. 'Venice by Night,' I think. "
The lights of the control panels flickered on and off in the darkened cabin, illuminating the features of Hanako's face. "Knight, are we safe now?" she asked.
"No Hanako, we still have a bit to go till we get over the border. But the Contessa will repair our ship, and with that we'll be able to move on. For now, though, we can experience a momentary peace."
It did not take long for the Venezia di Notte to reach them. The battleship, several times larger than the Poet's Whim, loomed beside the smuggler ship, and opened up docking bay doors. Knight guided the Whim into the docking bay.
This was one of the smaller docking bays on the battleship, though large enough to take in a trader ship. It was a capture bay for the pirates; usually, the battleship would fly alongside a trader and maneuver itself so that the capture bay slid over the trader. The trader ship would find itself trapped within the very belly of the ship.
The bay doors closed behind them and the air locks opened up to repressurise the bay. As soon as the pressure allowed, Knight swung open the hatch and lowered the ladder. He offered for Hanako to go first. "No, I'm scared, you go first," she said.
So Knight climbed down the ladder, with Hanako following. The feet clanged on the hard metal floor, echoing in the dimensions of the capture bay.
As they were climbing down the ladder, out of a side air-lock came four figures. Two of them, wearing red uniforms, took up guard position on either side of the entrance. The other two walked forward to the ship.
The leader was a tall, elegant and beautiful woman, dark-haired, the slender fingers of her one hand gently draped over the gun strapped to her side. Even without the gun, one might think, she would have the aura of a commander. She wore a black uniform with two crossed swords emblazoned over the upper left pocket. Black was the colour worn by the Old Italian militaries, soldiers, sombre clad students of the arts of death and of hopeful victories.
Beside her, and shorter than her, was a man. His eyes sparked with suppressed emotion and much intelligence. His uniform was also black. The insignia over his left pocket was that of a cup and a book, the cup above the book, triumphant antecedent.
The pair halted their walk just as Knight and Hanako had reached the bottom of the ladder. Knight clicked his heels together, placed his fist on his chest, bowed.
"It is an honour to see you once again, Contessa."
"Vecchio amico34, you insult me by using the formalities." The Contessa stepped forward and embraced Knight, holding him by the shoulders and kissing his cheeks. "It has been a long time."
"Not so long, Rhea. Remember the Closed Fist?"
"For you, perhaps, time flows by more quickly. I remember Closed Fist junkyard quite clearly, Knight." Rhea Silvia turned to Hanako. "And who is this?"
"May I present Lady Hanako."
"Lady Hanako, welcome aboard the Venezia di Notte. I will extend every comfort I have available for you."
"Thank you, Contessa," said Hanako, unsure if some sort of formal social-ritual was supposed to accompany the words.
Evidently, the lack of any ritual mattered not. The Contessa immediately continued, introducing the man beside her, "This is Fabricius35, my second-in-command, and I trust him with my life. If you need anything, you have only to ask him. Fabricius will also see to the repair of your ship. Finally," Rhea smiled at Knight, "I have a way of repaying you for Troy."
"I never asked for repayment…"
"Quiet, Smuggler Knight, I don't need your false modesty. You saved my life at Troy, and now, by conjunction of fate and chance, I have saved yours. For you see, Smuggler Knight, you were drifting towards a Corporate ship. Their numbers have suddenly increased recently and they all seem to be looking for a poet's whim. Their sudden interest in poetry didn't make sense until we found you." She turned towards her companion, "Fabricius, see to the repair of their ship."
Fabricius put his fist on his chest, and bowed, "Neither Alcinous nor Dido36 shall provide the weary traveller with a ship so well repaired as this one shall be, mia Contessa37."
"Carry on, Fabricius. As for you two," she said, speaking specifically to Knight while glancing at Hanako, "You are coming with me to explain yourselves."
Later, they were seated within the captain's cabin. A small garden filled the one side of the room, the one wall, slanted, had large viewing portals opening out into the vista of the frontier.
A red-uniformed woman had brought in a large jug filled with rose-coloured liquid, and placed it on the little square table in the room, along with three glasses. The Contessa dismissed the woman, and poured the wine into the glasses herself, then placed them by Hanako and then Knight. Her movements, as she did this, were elegant and refined.
"You'll find that this isn't the most exquisite of wines, but hunting hasn't been particular bountiful lately and this is the best we have." She leaned closer to the smuggler. "Now, Knight, it is time to explain yourself. The bounty on your head is enough to buy a planet. Czerwon himself, it seems, has an interest in you. What have you done to earn such animosity?"
"I will tell you everything, Contessa…"
"Don't call me by my title, Knight. Could it really have been that long?"
Knight smiled. "Rhea."
"That's better."
"I will tell you everything, Rhea, because I trust you with my very life."
Knight began to relate of events, from Crosspoint and the events following. But Hanako was unable to bear listening to the story of her mother and she ran out of the room, through a small, adjoining corridor. The corridor opened up to another viewing room, this one with a much smaller viewing port but with a large, green-bursting garden. The air and humidity were higher and the air was scented with fresh-blooming flowers. A reading couch sat in the garden in such a way as to receive a comforting light. Hanako lay down on this couch, and unable to bear herself, she wept.
Knight got up and went after her, but upon seeing her, Hanako motioned that she wanted to be alone. So he left her to mourn, closed the door and returned to the table where the Contessa tapped her glass with controlled impatience.
Knight continued his story, talking about their near escapes. The Contessa's eyes widened when the truth of Hanako's origin was disclosed.
"Now, only now, does it make sense," Rhea Silvia spoke. "Within the geneling is the very thing that will keep Czerwon alive. The organs are made to match for his genetic make-up; they are the key. Perhaps it is her liver, or her lungs, does it matter? The point is, that without them Czerwon is lost. Knight, kill the girl, then lay low with us aboard the Venezia di Notte."
"I cannot do that!" cried Knight.
"Listen to me! If she dies so does Czerwon; it will only be a matter of time. Then we are free of the Corporation."
"I want Czerwon dead as much as you do, but I will not do that by taking an innocent one along with the guilty one."
"Then I will do it!" The Contessa stood up, her hand to her gun.
"No!" Knight leapt up, stood next to the Contessa.
"You…" Knight whispered, "How could you think of such a thing? On Old Italy, you always upheld a strict code of honour…"
She turned away. "Old Italy is gone, Knight."
"Does that mean honour is dead too, Rhea?"
"Perhaps."
"Maybe you are willing to forsake your code, Rhea Silvia, but I am unwilling to forsake mine. The Smuggler's Code, on which I swore by my father's death, binds me to accomplish the task I was hired for. Yes, if Hanako is gone so will be Czerwon, but your way is not the way…"
"There is more to this than what you say Knight," Rhea interrupted, looking him in the eyes. "I knew you too well, and I know you still; our life together, and our love together, has given me that. There is another reason why you are willing to risk your life, to risk even the future of humankind, for no reward.
"You love her, Knight. I see it. The way you look at her, is the way you once looked at me. In a way that hurts, because we were together. It was not so long ago, when we loved each other.
"I remember that day, in Troy, when Old Italy fell to the Corporation. I remember the guns, screams and the blood, freely flowing. I remember pain, fear and the smell of the burning bodies. I stood among corpses beneath a sky exploding with fire.
"It was the hopeless hour, and there seemed to be nothing but the killing and the killing. We were isolated and defeated and like animals we looked on in fear, for we were in a hell world where everything we knew and thought before became irrelevant. It seemed that was nothing left for us but to cradle ourselves and wail.
"And into that world you came, Knight. Into the world of blood and rata-tat-tat. And inbetween the blood and the fire, you found me and those few who had survived alongside. And then I knew that the one thing that can redeem us and save us when we are plunged into such inhuman worlds is Love. It can elevate us when we are afraid like animals or in pain like demons. And our love, Knight, in the midst of a famine it could make us content, and in the midst of conflict we would find our peace. Which is why we could not be together, Knight.
"Because, my dear Knight, although you took me away in the Smuggler's Whim, flying inbetween the columns of smoke that stood over Troy, yet some part of me still remains there. I can still smell the fire-dust that hung in the air. I still feel that fight-instinct that pulsed through my body." Pause.
Then she continued, "The Corporation destroyed my home and my people. And as long as they remain unavenged I must keep fighting back. It is as if I can't live without being part of the ongoing battle. Until that battle is over I cannot embrace peace.
"That is why I had to leave you, Knight. You made me feel at peace. You made me feel there was no need to fight. It was Love, and it was making me human, when what I wanted was to be angry and wild and hunting my enemies.
"If it was not for Czerwon and his bloody hand, I would have given into the emotion. But I was under the shadow of that bloody hand and I saw that bloody hand shake the earth and the bloody hand made the sky howl with thunder. And I felt something in me shriek, to strike back at that thing, to destroy the beast as it destroyed. I could not rest until this inner purpose was fulfilled."
"Contessa..." Knight tried to speak.
"The codes are dead," she interjected. "No one follows them anymore, except you, my dear Knight. And I admire you for that, as foolish as your stubbornness is. For you, my dear, I shall follow the old code. It is the human thing to do.
"No harm will come to Hanako. I will fix your ship, and you will attempt to reach the Free Trade Zone. But remember, the fate of the galaxy rests upon her, and you. If you fail, and the Czerwon captures his prey, then we will remain under the Corporate oppressor, our vengeance denied, the battle on-going. There are so few men of honour left, Knight. Get her there safely, my dear, and let nothing happen to you. But enough.
"You are my guests and I am throwing a feast in your honour. You will be shown your quarters and then you may wander the ship as you wish. If you will excuse me now." She called for the guard who stood at the door, and told her to take Knight and Hanako to their quarters.
Hanako had fallen asleep, and would not be roused, so Knight carried her to her room, following the red-uniformed woman. The woman opened the door to Hanako's quarters so that Knight could enter. He laid her down gently on the bunk-bed, trying to make her as comfortable as possible.
Hanako shuffled from her sleep. She opened her eyes and looked at the smuggler.
"Knight, I had a dream."
"And what did you dream about, Hanako?"
"I dreamt about my mother, and our home, back on Forestglen. Papa was just coming back from a hard day at the fields. I ran to him and leapt into his arms, and he carried me all the way back. And everyone was happy. I feel such a tiring heaviness upon me, Knight, I cannot explain. It is sorrowful, yet not sorrow; painful, yet not pain. It is like there is an emptiness inside me."
"Sleep, Hanako, and dream some more. And when the soul's healer, Time, has passed, you won't feel so tired, so empty."
"I believe you, Knight…" She turned round and closed her eyes.
He went out of the quarters. "Your room is the one next to this one," he was informed by the red-uniformed. "You have access to most of the ship. You will be called once the dinner-feast is ready. I shall have to go now."
"Thank you, then," said the smuggler.
The guard walked away, leaving him alone in the passage. He sat down in front of Hanako's door, and checked his gun. His hand rested on the gun while he leaned his head back on the cold passageway wall. But Knight had overestimated his strength. Having pushed himself so hard the past few days, he nodded off to sleep, despite having resolved himself to guard duty.
It was not the Contessa he mistrusted, but rather her crew, of which he knew little. He thought that perhaps one of them might attempt something on Hanako, especially if they learnt the truth about her. Besides this, he was answering an inner need to devote himself to this task.
"Knight!"
Knight awoke with a start. It was Hanako. She was on her haunches and gently shaking the smuggler awake. His worry in the Contessa's crew was misplaced. He felt a bit silly, especially at having fallen asleep. His neck hurt from the uncomfortable position he had been in.
"Come on, sleepy head," said Hanako, "They've invited us for dinner."
The red-uniformed woman, the same who had escorted them to their rooms, had arrived to lead them to the dining hall. A few minutes later, they were sitting at the small captain's table on a raised platform overlooking the several long tables below where the rest of the crew sat, in their red uniforms. Along the walls of the large hall were tapestries with emblems of the old noble houses of Old Italy, and various musical instruments hung on the walls.
The Contessa arrived at the far end of the room, flanked by Fabricius. The crew, who were just settling down at the tables, loudly cheered for their captain as she walked past them towards her own table.
"Ah, there you are," she said as she arrived at the table. "I hope you have had a chance to rest. Please sit as my guests of honour." She sat down at the head of the table, and motioned for Hanako and Knight to sit at either side of her. Fabricius sat at the opposite end of the table.
A hush filled the room. The Contessa closed her eyes and made the sign of the cup her right hand, starting at the right shoulder, moved down then up in a curve to the left shoulder, and then starting from the middle of the curve, the hand went down to about the level of the umbilicus. Then with a clear, loud voice that echoed through the silent hall, Rhea prayed, "Ave Maria, gratia plena, benedicta tu in mulierbus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui. Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostrae.38 Amen."
"Amen!" cried the crew, and shortly after the food and wine was served.
"It is merely the standard ration. Unspectacular but filling and satisfying," said the Contessa, referring to the food. "Normally wine is not served, but with you two here I have made it a special occasion."
" 'So they put forth their hands to the good cheer that lay before them,' as the poet said39," remarked Fabricius.
"Which poet?" Hanako asked.
"Homer, Lady Hanako. He lived on ancient Mother-earth."
"You seem very knowledgeable, Sir Fabricius," said Hanako.
"My Lady, 'I know very little, and I comprehend much less'," Fabricius replied.
"Come now, dear Hanako," interrupted the Contessa, "Let the man eat."
"Rhea, do you know when my ship will be repaired?" Knight asked.
"Fabricius?" said Rhea, bouncing the question to her second.
"It will take all of tomorrow and by the morning after it should be done, mia Contessa. We have all the necessary parts."
"Buono40. You see," Rhea turned to Knight, "Occasionally we are short of parts, especially if we had a rough battle somewhere."
"I am willing to pay for the repairs…"
"Do not insult me, Smuggler. I am still in a good mood. You do not wish to tip the balance, é chiaro41?"
"Do not be angry, Rhea. It's just I know these waters haven't been very giving lately."
The Contessa sighed. "You know, Knight, I miss my family's farmlands. I remember the harvest season, when I was a little girl, and running through the fields, everywhere was the small of the harvest. And the grapes, what grapes!, that we use to grow. They made some of the finest wines of Old Italy.
"But that's all gone now. My hearth and home now belong in this ship, my living is not from fresh produce but from the produce stolen from other people. To rephrase, we steal from the thieves, the damned Corporation. And the wine is atrocious."
"May Czerwon and his dogs rot in hell," commented Fabricius, raising his glass.
"I will drink to that," exclaimed Rhea.
"So will I," said Knight.
"And I," said Hanako, wearily.
They clinked their glasses together, drank, and ate, and talked. But Hanako did not have much appetite, nor was she much in the mood for conversation.
After a few minutes, Rhea, whose memories of Old Italy melancholically weighed down on her, said to her second-in-command, "Fabricius, will you sing? You sing so well."
"For you, mia Contessa, I shall sing."
Fabricius took a quick drink of wine, put down his cup, and stood up, getting up on the table and facing the pirate throng. When the pirates saw Fabricius, they started cheering him. Fabicius cleared his throat, and with a clear voice sang,