Friday, 8 March 2013

The Raven Tree

Carmilla walked away from the Last Gate with a smile. So unusual that a way of dealing with her troublesome slaves had been found. The trip to Suroken would not take long and once there it would be easy to pick up the replacement stock. Plus some of the new strains of tea that had come from the gallente estates. And, she had a guest for dinner at the estate. All in all, a most interesting evening.

As the sound of her heels clicking down the walkway passed a figure detatched itself from the darkness of the wall and started to follow her, slowly and carefully.

By the time she had reached the hanger bay and got the crew back onboard the hour was nearly up. Then the door chimed and slid open. A small sebeistor woman clad in a long coat and pulling a wheeled case walked in and looked around. Carmilla walked over to her and embraced her with a smile.
"Janessa, I'm so glad you came!"
"Well, when it comes to exploring and bouncing from system to system and seeing new sights, I'm game. Although...."
She looked up at the battered prowler and shook her head slowly.
"What is that? It looks like a piece of..."
"I know what it looks like. But she's fast and she cloaks and carries a lot of small cargo. That, and I built her myself."
"No way! That's soo cool."
"Come on, one of the crew will show you where your bunk is. I'll join you after we lift off."
Carm detailed a crewman to escort her in and then waited. A figure slipped in through the open door and up to her. Clad in black she stood before Carmilla then bowed.
"Nothing following her or you Mistress. All is clear, at least from this end."
"Yeah, but it's out there I'm worrying about. Never mind, send a message to the estate, get them ready for my arrival. Let them know that the executions will cease as soon as I get back and prepare 3000 slaves for transport."
"As you wish, Mistress."
She closed her eyes and breathed in deeply for a moment, and then let it out is a quick bark of laughter and headed back to the ship.

The trip to the estate was uneventful, the cloaking transport slipping past several gate camps and landing on a quiet, out of the way planet. The plateau they landed on was surrounded on all sides by sweeping plains interspread by winding rivers and leading to a great ocean. Janessa walked over to the edge and leant against the raillings and looked out across the plain.
"Do you like the view?"
Jan didn't turn around, too busy looking at everything she could. The way the clouds seemed to roll, the passage of the great birds that filled the sky and the great estate spread out before them.
"It's magnificent. Do you own this?"
"I lease it from the local warlord. I do him some favours, mostly cooking actually."
Jan turned her head but saw the woman before her was being serious.
"Yeah, he loves khanid food but just can't get the ambience right."
"And you can?"
"Yeah.. it's a gift. Come on, I'm dying for a drink."

Carmilla showed Janessa around the estate from the back of a large hoverpad, flying over the fields towards the river. The fields below stretched into the distance, interrupted every now and then by pillars of rock or large stands of trees. When they turned around she saw the house. It was perched on the side of the plateau, partially wrapping around it, looking like a snake on an old stump. Right infront of it there stood an old tree, bent and crooked as if blow by constant wind.
"It's a mixture of my house, the facilties for sorting the tea out, and the quarters for the work force."
"You mean... your slaves?"
"Yes, most of them are slaves. But there are a load who are simply indentured criminals, the Warlord helps with those."
"But how do you keep them under control?"
"Fear of death?"
"Nah, more like fear of the future."
"I dont..."
"Fear that if they don't do as I instruct them they won't have much of one."
Janessa sniffed with disdain. The hoverpad stopped infront of the house in the lee of the crooked tree and they departed, walking slowly towards the house.
"I suppose you use vitoxin on them?"
Carm sighed and shook her head. She noticed her girls approaching and smiled softly.
"Only on the worst ones. The habitual offenders. I prefer, actually, to use blue pill on them."
Janessa snorted.
"Would it surprise you to know that I was once like them?"
"I dont believe it."
"It's true. Raised on a plantation, like this one, but with Amarri overseers. Raised as livestock, treated as such. It's a long story, and one I'll tell you if you wish. But.. I was born free, raised a slave, and now I'm a Holder. And now, I have more slaves than I know what to do with, but with that the problems of keeping them."
"If you've been a slave.. then how can you keep them?"

Carmilla stopped and sat under the tree. High up in it's branches several ravens watched them. She kept quite for a while as her girls approached and took a bottle of wine from a basket and two glasses. Before long they had laid a small cloth and covered it with morsels of food and drink. Carm popped one in her mouth and sat down, Orchid holding her glass.
"You can ask that question to a hundred different holders and get a hundred different answers. During my time as a slave, both forced and free will I've seen sights that would make you turn pale and run screaming. This here, and my other estates are nothing compared to some. Yeah, the Empress talks about slavery, but she rules the Empire, she doesn't run it. Slaves do. Both Amarr and Khanid... it's more widespread than anything thinks, and more so than the usual Matari hotheads know with their punitive raids and hunting down of slavers. Here, they are well fed, not drugged too much, and yes they have to work a full day. But it's better than the alternative."
"Rubbish. The alternative is freedom."
"Aaah, and there you have it Janessa my dear. In all your travels have you actually seen freedom? In Gallente space, yes, most likely, as they have the most insidious form of slavery. In Caldari space, it's being a minion to a corporation, a wage slave. The veneer of freedom under the chains of oppression. They did it well, the people believe they are free, but are too bovine to see the truth of it. Amarr space, freedom comes with genetics. If you are not of the blood, pardon the old raider pun, you are fit to be a slave. And the Minmatar...."
She sipped her wine and looked over at Rose, kneeling next to Janessa
"The Matari set you free and let you rot. They have little in the way of helping you out after they free you, so you are left to your own devices. Which often leads to the slums, and from there the gangs, or the brothels, or worse. There is a hidden subculture where they wear the chrome, they yearn for it. Freedom? The only freedom is to be encased in an egg, planeted into a starship. There you are free. Free to go anywhere, do anything, kill anyone.... because everyone who is a capsuleer has a chance.... "
She stopped and sighed. Again she was talking on and on. The things that had been on her mind, coming to the surface and being spouted.
"In the end, it's because I have the power and the wealth to afford it. Doesn't make it right. But then who said life was fair. You know the most important thing I have learnt in my life? Rebellion cannot go unpunished. Ever!"

She threw her glass, the sound of the breaking sharp in the dying sunlight, the ravens flapping their wings and calling out. Standing up she stretched and held out her hand to Janessa, who took it, cautiously.
"I promised that woman in the bar that I'd give her 1500 slaves. I don't particuly care what she does with them. She can have the ringleaders and their families. And however many else make up the numbers. Then I'll drop you off and you can continue your journey."
"Have I done something wrong? You seem.. different."
"Your expression says it all my dear. Not everyone likes what I am. And I can't blame you. I'm cruel and harsh because that is the nature of the beast. I'll leave you in the tender care of Rose, she will look after you while you are here."
"Carmilla... I..."
Janessa looked at her host as she walked away into the fields, the geisha Orchid following behind her. She turned to Rose and bit her finger softly.
"I didn't mean..."
"It's okay, Janessa was it?"
"She is not used to having guests such as you. I think she sees something of what she once was in you."
"Have I offended her?"
"No more than most people do. She has tough skin, the Mistress, but she's also human. I think people forget that the more they know of her."
"But how can she do what she does? I mean.. keep slaves?"
Rose laughed and slipped her arm into Janessa's and led her into the house.
"My dear, you have to understand her and her family to really know why she does what she does. Her sister is a pirate, her father is a Tribal Shaman, her mother a genocidal psycopath. She's spent more years as a slave than as a free woman, tortured by the Serpentis, taught by the Blood Raiders and had her heart broken twice."
"That... sounds awful."
"No, that's just Carmilla. She used to say that a bottle of quaffe and a bath and everything will be allright."
"Used to?"
"Yeah, now she said a cup of tea and a bath. This is your room, I'll call you for dinner this evening, unless you wish to remain in your quarters."
"What will happen tomorrow?"
"Well, as I understand it she is taking her transport and 3,000 slaves into Suroken and delivering them to some woman she met at a bar."
"Yes. We already loaded them up into the bays. Instructions were fowarded to us while you were enroute. Untill dinner?"
"Yes.. thank you."

Janessa walked slowly around the room she was in, her mind full of strange thoughts. The revelations of her host, and about her host led her to believe she was with a manwoman. Unfortuantely, she also believed there was a large streak of sanity in her. But, without access to interbus she was stranded here until she was given a lift. She thought again about the numbers of slaves, at the bar she had specifically said fifteen hundred, and yet they had loaded up three thousand! As soon as she was back in Empire space, the better. Things out here were just a little... scary.

Just before dinner Rose returned, carrying with her a long gossamer dress of pale pink silk and the appropriate accessories. Jan looked at the dress with awe and ran her fingers over it.
"My god Rose, it's beautiful!"
"It's yours. For dinner, and a gift."
"But I can't accept it, it must be worth a fortune!"
"You can and you will. Now, lets get you dressed. No need to be coy, unless you dont want help changing."
"Yes, my dear?"
"You are a slave.. aren't you?"
"Yes. I'm one of Carmilla's personal slaves, and one of the few close friends she has that she can trust."
"Why? Why do you let her do that? Own you?"
"Because.... just because... I wouldn't expect you to understand, and I certainly won't tell you the reasons me and the girls stay with her. Perhaps she'll tell you about our home, and what we do. Then maybe.. you'll understand. But until then... just because."

Carmilla and the slave overseer were deep in conversation when Janessa and Rose walked in. Both of them looked up.
"My dear, you look stunning. If you'll forgive me two moments. So, once we're gone, you know what to do. Ten, to remind them, half and half."
"It will be as you wish, my lady."
The overseer bowed low and departed, leaving Carmilla to walk over to Janessa and embrace her.
"You make me look drab at my own table, that hasn't been done for a while. I sense Rose picked this one out for you? I hope so, because you look divine. Now come, sit. Eat!"

For the next couple of hours they sat and talked, eating and drinking as each course was brought in. Both were served by Rose and Orchid, while a third geisha sat on a raised dias playing a musical instrument. As the night wore on they moved into the main rooms and sat on large comfy sofas and kept talking until they both simply fell asleep infront of the roaring fire and the dancing moonlight.

In the morning Janessa was taken to her room to change and escorted by Rose to the landing pad. The great battered transport was before them and they waited. It wasn't long before Carmilla turned up, followed by Orchid and Whisper and two other slaves. One male, one female.
"Jan my dear. I hope you had a wonderful evening?"
"I did, thank you, I dont know how I can thank you."
"You can do that easily by accepting a gift from me. Choose carefully as it will have consequences."
"What gift?"
Carmilla clapped her hand and the two slaves walked foward and knelt before Janessa.
She looked up, startled and almost flew back.
"What? I can't!"
"You can. Which ever one you choose lives and is your slave. What you do with them after that is up to you."
"And.. the other one?"
"Goes back to the fields."
"I can't choose... I can't own a slave, I wouldn't... I don't."
Carmilla's voice took on a cold tone as she ran her finger under the female slaves chin.
"Look. She is gallente, about twenty years old. She is obedient and well trained. No addictions, no implants, no scars on her body. She can cook, clean, and serve as you need. This one, he is brutor. A bit of a brute, as dumb as anything, but trained to protect. He is scarred, but then he fights and he is good at it. Too good. He's a disruptive influence, but he has promised to be good. Choose."
"What if I don't choose either one?"
"Then I'll kill them both and be upset you didn't take my gift to you."
"You'd kill them, just because I couldn't choose?"
Jan looked over to Rose who smiled at her.
"I'll take them both. If it saves their lives."
Carmilla tapped her chin with her finger and nodded.
"Done," she said as she pulled the papers out of her jacket pocket, "I bet Rose that you'd take them both."
"You guessed?"
"Yes. I'd have done the same once."
The group walked into the transport and took their places in the lounge as it took off. For a moment Janessa thought she could hear screams, but just assumed it was the old ship leaving the atmosphere and heading into orbit.
"You are a strange woman Carmilla. You give away three thousand slaves to a woman in a bar and
give me two...."
"Oh I'm not giving away three thousand, only fifteen hundred."
"But I thought...."
"Rebellion must not go unpunished. Fifteen hundred will be delivered. Alive."

As the prowler left the atmosphere, the air in the aft cargo hold, carrying fifteen hundred of the rebellious slaves trickled out until it was replaced by vaacum. In the other cargo hold, the howls of anger from the slaves who had watched their loved ones die was carried through to the earpiece in Carmilla's ear. She smiled, it was not a pleasant smile.

In front of her estate, the estate overseer selected ten slaves, five men and five women. He gave a speech that Carmilla had prepared, letting the surviving five hundred slaves know that they had been spared, but these ten would be executed. The ten wailed and swore and fought, while the rest just watched. They knew the creed of the estate. Rebellion does not go unpunished. Before long the ravens returned to the tree and the ten hanging corpses. Those who were spared looked at the Raven Tree, as they had done before, and were glad that they obeyed and one by one returned to the fields.

As soon as the ship landed at the station in Haatomo Janessa left it along with her two slaves. The papers in her bag were all legal for all space except Matari. She was still coming to terms with it, unsure what to do with them. Carmilla came with her and the ship departed almost as soon as it was able. At the portal into the station Carm stopped and called to her.
"I dont know how you think of me, and quite frankly, I dont care. But I enjoyed your company and I hope we will meet again. Your slaves, you can do what you wish with them If you free them there are offices here that will help you with them. If you choose to keep them.. well, I don't choose slaves poorly when it comes to looking after people."
She watched her for a moment and then smiled and walked away. Jan turned around to her to slaves and started to shake and cry. Both slaves pulled her into their arms and held her. They didnt' say anything, it wasn't necessary.

Several hours later the prowler landed at the designated station in Suroken. Saede Riordan was waiting at the docking bay and watched with amusement as the two geisha walked over to her and bowed. In the distance automatic systems removed the two large containers from the prowler and laid them side by side. It was but a moments work for the systems to spray the logo of the Alexylva Paradox.
"Madam Riordan. As representatives of the Lady Carmilla we are delivering to you fifteen hundred live slaves. The formalities of transfer have already been pushed through."
"You deliver them as livestock. You disgust me!"
"I will inform my Mistress that you think of her so. Good day, ma'am."
The two geisha bowed and headed to the exit. Just as Saede's men reached the first container and opened it....

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Have you seen my daughter?

".... Have you seen my daughter? She was last...."

Jita. There is no place like it for loosing yourself. Neon signs cast their sickly glow on the bustle of people who walk through the streets, fly the skies and try to live there. No matter if it's one of the cities, or mining colonies, or gargantuan stations in orbit, the garish advertisments are always playing, always luring. Jita. There is no place like it for people being chewed up and spat out. It's a meatgrinder. And of all the places in Jita one place is the worst, everyone knows it as 4-4. The Caldari Navy Assembly Plant.

"...seen in the Jita system. Her name is...."

Most of the time in this place, the sound of the assembly plant is drowned out by the ships coming and going. Everything from freighters to battleships to transports. Each bringing it's cargo of human cattle. Meat for the meatgrinder, money for the pushers, pleasure for the whores, and innocents for those who trade in such things. Everyone wants to come to Jita to make a living. Those who want to make it big in the 3-dtv's and the movies go else where. This place is for sharks, and the minnows that feed them.

".... Justine Greya, she is 5ft 5 and has blonde hair...."

The bars and restaurants are constantly filled, though on certain levels the locals don't visit them. Tourist prices, easily afforded by the capsuleers and their minions, or those who come to make money. Anything goes in the lower levels, there is no vice, no debauchery that cannot be entertained. No virtue left untouched. Where screams in dark corridors could be a trap, or a treachery. No one knows, and no one cares. This is Jita, where life is worth the last few isk you have in your bag.

"... and blue eyes. She was last seen there on the third day of the month of despair...."

But for me, I always come here. Down just before the lower levels there is a wall, known as the Wall of Messages, to others known as the Wall of Tears. This is where the missing people are posted by those who have enough care to want to find them. Hundreds of cards cover the wall, each one with it's own message, be it written with an attached picture, or a holo-card with a micro-projector, ususally in a female voice, the loving mother, or worried sister. The faces of the innocent are here, the voices are strained, a truly sad site.

"... working in the Field of Dreams Cafe on the 4th Level. If you know where my daughter is a reward will be...."

I come here for a different reason. For tonight, I am a predator, a hunter of flesh. And this one will do me fine. Justine Greya. I pick the card from the wall and listen to it. It is the same as the rest, just a better quality. A good picture of the girl, with luck a good idea of where she was. Most likely a dectective had traced her this far, but they never get further. That they know the last cafe she worked at indicates she spent serious money finding her. Which only makes what is coming next the sweeter. I scan the wall for others, three come up interesting. With luck, maybe.

The Field of Dreams Cafe was like any number of lower level places. Dingy neon lights lit up the plastic tables and chairs. Behind a grubby worktop a heavy set caldari works a grill and a few tired waitresses totter around on shoes far too high, in clothes far too revealing. The only dreams here are broken ones. It doesn't take long for the grill man to recognise the girl, and with a combination of my low cut top and the money stuffed between my bossom he remembers quickly and his touch lingers long after I have left. Cold stares from the waitresses are ignored, they are damaged goods and not worthy of my time.

In the lowest level there is a connection to the warehouse district. Given that the lower down the levels are the least likely that security will be seen. Down there it makes null sec look like a concord function. Every corner has it's group of thugs, no one walks the corridors unless they are armed or important. Or often, both.  Gang colours mark the areas, scrawls on the walls indicate territory. I dont need gang colours to come down here, I am known, as are my girls. Occasionally a new gang tries something and we leave them in the dirt of the floor, bleeding or worse. The next time they are more understanding. It's the natural way of things down here.

I spend some time talking with a bouncer on a snuff-club. I show him the picture and he nods. She was here, two days before. Taken to the Zhang Tao as tribute by the Ghost Shelf gang along with a handfull of other girls. I tipped him the usual amount and kissed his cheek, I always had a soft spot for the bouncers.

By the time I had gotten to the Zhang Tao an auction was underway. I paid over the odds to get in and took my chair before the runway, my girls beside me. Several here who knew me acknowledged me with a bow or a wave or a simple nod. Others ignored me, their minds on the stage. As was I. 

They brought the girls forward. Each of them would, if they were lucky, have a spot on the Wall of Tears. I recognise Justine, third in the row. Frightened, beaten, probably abused. Her clothes are rags, but they have cleaned her face up. Chains on her wrists link to a heavy belt, linking her front and back to the next girls. In all there were seven in this lot. I bid on them all, and again, paid over the odds. But I can afford it.

In the cells at the back I look over the girls and stop before Justine, opening the card before her and letting her see and hear it.

"My name is Constance Greya, Regional Manager of Production for Quaffe in the Heimatar Region. Have you seen my daughter, her name is Justine Greya, she is 5ft 5 and has blonde hair and blue eyes. She was last seen there on the third day of the month of despair in the Caldari Navy Assembly Plant. She was known to have been  working in the Field of Dreams Cafe on the 4th level in the level known as Manifs Haven. If you know where my daughter is a reward will be given for her safe return. Contact and verification details are on the reverse of the card. My name is Constance Greya, Regional...."

I let her listen to it as it cycled through. The tears in her eyes looked to be tears of joy, she had been found and rescued. I let her believe it for a while. Clothes were given to them all and they were cleaned up. Then they were rechained. Most of them started crying again, but Justine did not. She did not belive there was any danger, her mother had sent someone to find her. 

I always enjoy watching them as they realise... that no one is coming to save them. As they reached my docking bay and they were hearded aboard I went to the docking supervisor. His usual stipend was paid direct and we took off, just another transport amongst the many that come and go. I stood before all of them in the large suite they were in and two of the crew followed me in. Big brutors. I seperated Justine from them and slipped a collar around her neck and linked her to the wall by a length of chain. Then I tore up the card infront of her eyes. The tears welled up and I laughed at her then told the others what their positions would be on this ship. And that as long as the dear Justine refused to accept her new place, they would pleasure the crew night and day. They screamed, pleaded, begged. But Justine refused to accept it. Refused for three hours until she broke down.

I paid over the odds. But I am a sucker for sebiestors. And I always like to surprise my crew with such treats.

Beyond the Darkness

Under the glare of the red giant abyssal forces were unleashed. The alien sleepers fought the almost equally alien forces of the grand architect, Sansha. Hundreds of ships faced each other, entire wings of battleships, the great hulking forms of the Sansha motherships facing off against sleeper dreadnoughts. From the interdicted planet they were fighting over it must have looked as if the very sky was on fire.

It was certainly a marvel to watch for the crew of the pilgrim sitting above the battle. Deep within his pod the capsuleer was observing everything and was scared. The amount of forces arrayed would swat the cruiser and not even notice. But, he was not in command, that was up to the smuggler on the bridge. Desiua watched with fascinated horror when he finally noticed his second calling him.
"Desiua, we have Mason on the line. Wants to know what's happening."
"Tell him to warp to my beacon within ten and he can see for himself. And tell him to keep the rest on the otherside of the hole and out of the way. If either of these...."
He chuckled to himself as he thought about what he was going to say.
"Forget that, it's not like either of these are going to use the wormhole. Just tell Mason not to decloak us when he brings his brick in. If we play this right... we'll be set up for life."
Desiua went back to watching the battle.

An hour later it was all over. The sleepers were destroyed utterly, but the cost to the Sansha was ferocious, less than twenty survived. From the bridge of his Panther, Wrathfull, Mason, the second in command of the smugglers watched and calculated. Eleven nightmares and a handful of support craft survived and were checking their wrecks for survivors and examining the wrecks of the dreadnoughts. It was doable. But it had to be quick.
"This is Mason to the fleet. I'm taking control of the engagement. All forces in this system hold until the heavies come in. Blue wing upon my order enter the 'hole and warp to my beacon at your optimals. Support I am the primary, keep me alive. Once we have engaged I want all cruiser and frigate squads to hold down the nightmares. We dont want anything leaving."
The confirmations came through fast and furious. He tapped out the commands to the pilot and the panther began to orientate towards the nearest Nightmare and accelearated. The pilot counted down the range to target.
"Blue wing....", the panthers collision alarm sounded and the cloak shimmered and closed. The gunners moved smoothly into their routines and moments later the first of the four barreled repeating artillery began unleashing at the nightmare. "Warp to my beacon. We have engaged the Sansha!"

The great hulk of the panther swept past the nightmare, the continous broadside cutting it in half, shell after shell ripping into the spiked armoured hull. Slowly the other great spiked battleships turned, their lasers slamming into the shields of the panther. It was maneauvering away from the stricken vessel when its reactors went critical, slamming into the side of the panther, it's shields evaporating and sending alarm bells all over the the bridge. From his own bridge Desiua watched with horror, and snapped out orders.
"Where are the logi's?"
"Still in warp... there are.. damn.. about a minute out!"
"Sir, Mason'll never survive that long against all this...."
"Strap in everyone! Sian, as soon as we decloak I want those drones out, and if necessary cut the cords and drop some ecm, might not work, but worth a try. Kyle, up to you which ones you drain, but I want them empty! Mia, scram and web what you can...."
He flipped on the comms as he strapped himself into the command chair.
"Desiua to recon fleet, we have to run interfereance to buy Mason some time. Follow us in and if you can take a few hits, run cover for the panther."
The confirmations ran over the channel and the recon surged forward, arcing over the damaged panther and into the oncoming fire from the Nightmares. As she crested the battleship the cloak dropped and the drones screamed towards the Sansha. All around the bridge targetting data was being called out, targets nominated. He felt the thrum through the deck as the warp disruptors were fired up and the whine as the drive systems were pushed beyond their specifications. On the scanner he could see the other ships decloaking, two more pilgrims, an arazu and a falcon.

On the bridge of the Panther Mason and the surviving bridge crew struggled valiently. The exploding Nightmare had crippled the port side and left it wide open to the Sansha. Heavy beams were lancing into the gaping wounds and overwhelming the repair system. Reports from across the ship were coming in, lists of casualties and damages increasing with each volley. Wiping the blood from his face he watched as the recons attacked.
"Dessie you beautiful bastard! Con, how long til out reinforcements are in?"
"They should be here! But we can't raise them, out systems are shot!"
"Give me power to the engines, turn this bitch towards the enemy! If we can't target then get the gunners to shoot manually!"
Trailing a stream of debris and venting gas the panther turned towards the sansha. Those guns that could fire did, their aim wildly inaccurate, but enough to show them they were still in the fight.

The Logistics wing dropped out of warp, miles away from the battle but still within range of the Nightmares. Orders over the comms were garbled, but the logi's were veterans and they knew what to do. Not all combat victories from from killing, and right now the Panther needed their skill.

Onboard the Panther Mason noticed the sheilds slowly raising, but also the onboard systems were telling him the armour was no longer in danger. All across the ships the fires were coming under control, slowly, bit by bit despite the continous incoming fire she was being rebuilt.

The Pilgrim danced in between the great spiked battleships, dodging fire from it's own fleet as much as the Sansha. They were being destroyed, but not quickly enough. These surviving ships looked to be veterans, pocked and scarred by countless engagements. But survival in the backwaters of the wormhole systems makes a man realise that there is nothing that cannot be achieved if the will is there. As it is, this is a lesson the Sansha knew too. The cruisers changed targets and shot straight at him, three phantasms, their paths winding and changing as they targetted and pressed the recon.
"Damn! They got us. Get us out of here!"
"Where? It's a spiked forest of death here!"
Desiua powered up the scanner and looked for a safe haven as the ship jerked under the impacts. The planet was close, and around it the formidable planetary defences. But, he noticed, there was a gap. One of the satellites had been impacted by debris, a large part of a sleeper battleship and damaged. There was a way in, assuming the....
"Sian, take a look at this. Those planetary defences, what's wrong with them?"
She looked for a moment then turned back to her screen.
"They are facing the planet. All of them. Probably why the Sansha won their fight with the sleepers."
"Scan the hole in sector seven. I want to know if they can track us if we go in. They must still be active as I'm reading power spikes on them...."
"No. There is an area we can slip through if we needed, but only cloaked. Their baseline scanners have had us targetted, it's faint but I swear I have laser targetting trace in the upper bands. If we didn't have these sensors I wouldn't have picked it up."
"Swing back to the fleet, get us out far enough that we are not targetted. Once the salvage op beings we'll head in cloaked. From the look of it, the battle is almost over, we just need to stay alive. Fly over Masons Panther, Let him take them out."

The rest of the battle took but a few minutes. The overwhelming firepower of the smuggler band, combined with their logistical support meant they took no losses, and only cosmetic damage. When the system had been scanned and a small fleet stationed outside the wormhole entrance the salvage began. The orca and noctii came in and began to clear the field. As the salvaged modules began being collated Mason and Desiua turned their attention to the defence grid.
"Look, I'm much smaller, I can get in, scan the planet and out before the defences lock on to me."
"Yeah, but I'm faster and better defended. Even if they manage to lock me, which they won't, I'll be out. If there is anything on the planet surface we'll need a larger ship to pick up the goodies."
"There is also the problem about the scans from this side of the grid. They are being blocked. We can't see what is beyond, can't hear anything. There could be a small fleet there and we wouldn't be able to see or hear it. It's a perfect trap."
"No, what is perfect is that this ancient trap the sleepers set up netted us a small fortune. We're already into the billions and we're not even at the planet. I'm going to risk it."
Desiua slammed his hand on the console, anger on his face.
"Damn it Mason, I'm in command!"
Mason simply smiled and cut the feed. As he looked out the viewscreen he saw the Panther align to the grids gap and cloak.

From the bridge of his Panther Mason sat down and gave his orders. Who was Desiua to tell him what to do? The rewards for this place were immense, they would all go down in history for the find. The smugglers who defeated the sansha and the sleepers. And he was commanding, the main glory would be his.
"Passing the grid now. No action detected, no scanning detected."
Mason laughed and leant back in his chair.
"See, far too cautious. I wonder sometimes how Desiua became leader of our group. He lacks the killer instinct."
His bridge crew knew better than to disagree with him, and the capsuleer simply laughed in her pod. The sensors spread over the ship were alert and receptive. But even to her, there was something wrong. A feeling deep within her ghost which made her want to turn around and leave this place. The space beyond, felt... evil, cold and dark. Again, she checked the battleships sensor arrays, cursing the lack of several necessary high band scanners, lost in the fight, but she mused, they were never used. And so, the ship and it's crew passed beyond and headed to the planet.
"Mason! We have wreckage, lots of ships. Three, ten... fifteen... by the rings, it's like an entire fleet here."
"Any of them broadcasting?"
He looked around the crew, most of them were deep in concentration at their posts.
"Amy, what can you see?"
Until we come out of cloak I'm blind to my long distance scanners. 
If we drop it for a moment we can sample the signals and cloak before we're locked
"Okay, do that."

Desiua pulled the recon back until all the screens confirmed he was not being targetted by the grid anymore. Then he pulled back even further and cloaked. At high speed he ran the hole in the grid and vectored off to miss the Panther and pulled far enough away from the grid that he was sure the scanners wouldn't pick him up.
"Decloak, passive scan only. Let me know if they have us."
The red sun gleamed over the hull of the pilgrim as it appeared like a whisp into the system, still powering foward towards the planet.
I have the Wrathfull on scan. And about three hundred other ships. There are a considerable amount of signals coming from the ships. At this time I'd have to say they are derelict. But we are not being scanned by anything that I can verify.
But they have a track on the Wrathfull. I can see the laser track in the upper bands. Very faint. Almost missed it. If we hadn't seen it before, we wouldn't have.
"Don't inform him. He seems to know what he is doing. Let him know we are here and keep us distant from him and the grid."
He walked over to the view screen and looked out. The planet was close now. On the darkside there were no lights, and from the initial scans, no signs of an advanced civilisation. For all intents and purposes the planet was dead. A shiver ran through him as the ship passed into the shadow of the planet, for a moment the sun flared, and he thought he saw.....
"Someone get me a drink. Take us in, we need to see if this place is worth bringing any other recons in."

The two ships moved closer and began active scanning of the derelicts. There were hundreds, most of them alien beyond design, though automatic systems were still visible on some, tracking them. What was more disturbing were the signals. Most were simple audio, but some had video feed, and others were more esoteric. All had one understandable meaning. Go no further or you will be lost. Desiua, ever the cautious calculated his options, while Mason made their decision for them.
"We've located what seems to be the only structure on the planet and there is a faint signal coming from there. Most likely an escape pod from this group of ships. I'm going down with a landing party. Keep an eye open up here."
"Mason, I have a bad feeling about this place. It feels wrong, we need to leave while we can."
"Desiua, when we get back to base we're going to have a little talk about who is going to lead this group. I'm putting you on notice, we have no faith in you. There is wealth beyond all our dreams here. And I want my share! Mason out!"
Are you going with him?
"We all are. Select a landing area outside of the complex he's found. If I dont, the gods alone know what trouble he'll get into."
You might be closer than you think. Be careful.
Desiua frowned at the capsuleers cryptic remarks but shrugged and sent out the orders for his ground team to set up.

The air on the planet was cold and bitter as they walked towards the complex. Ash and sand seemed to cover the floor, as if a great fire had swept over everything. Petrified and stunted trees looked bent over, as if subject to a strong wind, though none was apparent. High up the great sun was a cloud covered orb, too far away to warm the planet through the murky clouds that churned the sky. Desiua, wrapped up in a large heavy duster lit a cigarette and handed a bag to one of his companions.
"Come on, Mason is already at the entrance."
"I dont like the feel of this place. It's unnatural."
He looked at the complex as they approached. The walls were old, ancient beyond reckoning. Individual blocks looked as large as shuttles, the whole wall dwarfed many of the structures he'd seen.
"I know. Think of the payday. We should all come out of this rich."
"Aye, if we come out at all."

Meeting Mason at the entrance he ran his hand over the exposed stone of the gateway. It was pitted with age, scarred and in some places damaged on purpose that he could see. But above all it was old. Walking through he had the feeling of entering a forbidden place, a forbidden era even. While Mason and his crew chattered and illuminated the walls and defaced statues that were beyond Desiua just looked and kept silent. As he walked slowly he could feel the ground crunching underneath his boots and looked down. Tiny fragments of bone littered the floor and he knelt down, brushing aside the dust and debris and picking up a small coin. The gold gleamed, but contained a blasphemous image, and had script in an unfamiliar tongue. Pocketing it he turned to his crew and saw the hesitation on their faces.
"Come on lads, whatever was here has long since died. This is a tomb, nothing more. With luck there will be something to loot. So keep your eyes open, we want to get the good stuff before Mason does, else he'll be running the show. And here, there is gold. If I found some, you can!"

He flicked the coin to one of the crew and laughed as he showed it to the guys around. There was laughter at that and the crew bustled forwards, their misgivings about the place. Gold was something they could believe in. Further in the main structure beyond the gate house was a large pyramid, a gargantuan door in the side of it was open, and by the time they got there, several of Masons men were already coming out, the looks on their faces of pure terror.
"Don't go in there, Captain! Such evil works, we must leave!"
He slapped the man on the shoulder, noticing he was Amarrian.
"Stay out here then, or guard the ships."
The amarrian grabbed Desiua by the arms and looked at him, his eyes turning upwards until only the whites remained. His voices changed, to a guttereal drawl, his breathing in between each word haggard and dragging.
"Leave this place. All who enter will die in darkness or be torn asunder by the hound who guards. You have been warned!"
The man shuddered and slumped to the floor. His two companions who had come out with him picked him up and ran back towards their ship.
"I have a bad feeling about this."
"We still going in, Captain?"
He laughed and walked past the great stone pillars either side of the door, barely glimpsing the carved heiroglyphs that covered them.
"I do not run from the tortured screams of the Amarr. Never have done, never will."

Minutes later, he was not so sure. The corridor he walked down was spotless, no trace of dust or debris, nothing. Bas-relief images on the walls made his mind reel and he felt in his holster for his pistol. Scenes of great debauchery, of fighting and of rituals covered the walls. Strange beings, oft with tentacles or more arms than man, or winged covered them. It looked like a story was being told, but the more he looked, the more he wished he could have listened to the amarrian and just turned around. And then, he noticed something and stooped to pick it up.
"Tash, come here. What do you make of this?"
He handed the item over to her and she rolled it around in her hand.
"It's a slave beta!"
"I found it here, in this crack in the floor. I almost missed it."
"Well I suppose it's a fair bet that the Sansha landed, I didn't remember seeing any in orbit, but they might have tried to escape and been shot down."
"Yeah, but that doesn't explain how it managed to get here. Look, get a few of the guys to hang back and explore the floors, the corners. Go with them, and keep it quiet."
"You got it Cap'n."
"And Tash, weapons out. If there are Sansha troops here, the won't be friendly."

The sloping corridor entered a large domed room and he found Mason there, with several of his crew, their weapons out and facing towards them. Others of his crew were looking through several chests just inside the corridor.
"Mason, what's with the weapons... oh."
As he walked up to stand besinde Mason he looked and saw what they were all looking at. A tall man was seated on what looked like a suitcase.
"Who the devil is that?"
"I didn't think he was one of yours. He must have been here...."
"Maybe. Or some sort of sleeper?"
The figure coughed and raised his head. Circular smoked glasses spectacles looked out over an aquiline nose and a thin lipped smile.
"If I may, gentlemen?"
Desiua took a step forward and looked at the man. His dress was archaic, strange, and yet familiar. Trousers, a shirt and jacket. Several rings on his fingers, a long cane with a sculpted head lay across his knees, along with the paperback book he was presumably reading.
"You know our language?"
"Yes. I learnt it many years ago. May I assume you are here to rescue me? I have been stuck here for some time."
"How long?"
"Seems.. uh huh.... like an eternity. Those who came before you were not so friendly, so I kept out of their way. You I see, are more.. trusting. Even with those weapons pointing at me."
Desiua spun and glared at Mason.
"Weapons down. Remember, I'm in charge here."
"Then you take care of him. Come on Lads, spread out. Search everything. Leave our guest to the boss."
Mason pushed passed him and dissapeared into a deeper corridor. Desiua returned his gaze to the man and walked towards him. Behind him he heard his crew walk in and start looking around, Tash organising them.
"So, what is your name, stranger? And how came you to be here?"
"Oh I came exploring, like you did and found this place. Are those defenses still up? No, they must be down for such a large amount of you to come in. My name, is Legion."
"That's a strange name."
"On the contrary, I have many names, but I prefer this one. Your friend seems to be rather angry? I think he is expecting to find something. Treasure?"
"Yes. I take it he won't find it?"
"There is only knowledge here, no treasure."
"To the right people, knowldge is worth more than money, it is power."
"Aaaah, you are right. Perhaps then you might want to get to the end of that corridor before your friend does? He may find more... knowledge than he is capable of?"
"Let him. How did you get here?"
"My ship is probably still in orbit, along with those others who came here and were stranded."
"Why yes, that's why the... I think you call them, the sleepers put the defence grid around the planet."
"A trap?"
"No no. To stop the knowledge from escaping. Makes you wonder, doesn't it. What the sleepers, those magnificent people.. .feared enough to blockade and entire planet."
"Yes.. unfortunately it does. Tash, what have you found?"
He pulled his com out and spoke into it.
"You won't believe it, but we've found a lot of slave and other sansha implants."
"Any remains?"
The man giggled behind his hand.
"None, just implants, some metal scrap that looks to be medical steel. Dessie, it looks like a lot of sansha died here and they were... absorbed by something. I can't think of any reason why we have the remains we have. There are even teeth fillings and buttons, all from the same alloy I think."
"Have you found anything else?"
"Yes, and you need to see it. Alone."

The remains were so old it had been mummified by conditions in the room. Four armed, and standing way over seven feet tall, clad in nothing except a kilt made of platinum strips and a bandola of the same material. Signs of corrosion indicated where other, lesser materials had long since gone. Two of it's arms clasped a large five pointed star to it's chest, the other two held a container. It's face was that of a nightmare.
"I found a lot more of the strips and bandoliers it was wearing, and other bits I can't understand, scattered all over the room. There are scratch marks in the walls in places, like if one of these was trying to burrow through the walls away from something."
"But everything else has gone. Absorbed or dissolved...."
"Like the Sansha?"
"Yes. Pack up, we're leaving. Now!"
"What about Mason?"
Desiua thought for a moment.
"Fuck Mason."

The crew ran past him, their bags loaded down with what they had picked up, as he stopped before the man on the suitcase.
"I dont trust you, Legion."
"I don't blame you. I wouldn't either. But it seems you are smarter than those who went further."
"If I was smart, I'd have listened to the Amarrian when he warned me about entering this place."
He turned his head and sniffed. A strange smell was at the edge of his senses, and a repeating, almost laughing sound was at the edge of his hearing, coming from one of the passages leading deeper into the temple. 
"If you are lucky, Mason will give you a lift out. I have the safety of my people to think of."
The man bowed his head and smiled.
"We are all pawns to the elder gods. You might want to keep that trinket close by. It may save you. Or it may not."
Desiua held up the soapstone star and looked at it. Holding it close, he did feel unaccountably safer. And he noticed the man twitched at it.
"Farewell, Legion. If you have money, you may be able to buy your way onto Mason's ship. But be wary of him. He's more of a pirate than I am."
"You warn me of your companion, and yet leave me to his mercy. You really are smart. Good day to you, Desiua Quintus Maria."
 Desiua nodded to him curtly and left, following his men. It was only as he reached the top of the corridor, and walked out onto the courtyard and looked up at the churning clouds that he realised, he hadn't told the man his name. When they reached the gateway they stopped. Three bodies lay in their path, the Amarrian and his two companions. They had been torn to pieces.

Back on board the recon they sorted out the treasure while the ship took off. Hundreds of implants of various sorts, all Sansha, all worth a fortune. Several smaller five pointed stars, enough of the platinum equipment to fit at least twenty of the alien creatures, and a small chest of strange cut gemstones. Desiua ordered a full sweep of the entire ship as they settled into orbit to make sure there were no surprises onboard. And he waited. Cloaked. For Mason to return.

When he did, about an hour later he knew that what he had feared had happened. When he opened the communications channel with him, the stranded stranger was there beside him.
"Mason. I see you have a guest."
"And I see you left early. Where are you? I can't see you."
"Oh I'm here, just watching. What did you find?"
Mason's eyes gleamed and he grinned a most evil grin.
"I found knowldge. Come, let me share it with you. Lower your cloak and come and join me here."
"Mason. Whatever you found, get rid of it. It's evil!"
"Oh well, Desiua, If you don't want to share in my knowldge, I'm sure there are others."
The connection died. He checked the sensors and saw the Panther leave orbit and head to the hole in the defence grid.
"They'll detect him. And he won't even know it."
"Just stay cloaked. I have a bad feeling about this."
"But he's one of our captains, your second in command."
"And why did he not ask about his crew who were slaughtered outside the gate?"
Tash bit her lip.
"If our places were reveresed, wouldn't you have asked?"
"Yes. And Mason was always one to look after his crew....."
"Once we get through the grid, warn the fleet. Take us in slow."

It took a while to reach the gate, and when they finally reached it they halted. Naturally there was no way of knowing if the panther was nearby, or if she'd already gone through.
"Okay, take us in....."
"Wait... the satellites are turning!"
"Tash, do they have us?"
"Negative, I think."
"Don't think, be sure!"
A high powered laser blasted out from the nearest satellite. The panthers cloak failed as a blossoming cloud of superheated metal vented from the ships midsection. Other satellites were turning as the panther pushed her engines and flew towards the gap. Laser lances blasted out, cutting great gouges into the ship, explosions wracking her intenal structure, sending the entire ship spinning. But, she was spinning towards the hole. As soon as she passed beyond, escape pods began firing. From the count before the ship exploded, only seven were launched, and of those, only three escaped the blast.

The recon passed through a few moments later and looked out into a scene of horror. Their fleet was gone. The remains of it, burning, smashed and scattered dotted the wrecks they were salvaging when the mothership had arrived. Without their leader, the battle was short and very one sided. Desiua and Tash watched helplessly as the pods were tractored into the belly of one of Sansha's greatest creations.
"What now?"
"Now, Tash... we run. And we can only pray that Mason and his knowledge perished."

On the deck of the motherships hanger, troops surrounded the escape pods. Already they had dragged the screaming occupants out of two of them and on to processing. At the third one they encountered something strange. A tall man sitting on a large suitcase, looking at them with a smile and a man standing behind him.
"Oh look Mason, it seems as if we are to be guests of the Sansha. How exciting!"
Mason just looked on with a glazed expression.

Desiua rubbed his eyes and yawned, looking at the two men before him.
"And with that we escaped the system. We were still cloaked and managed to slip past the mothership. By the time we had jumped through the wormhole the first crew member was dead. Some of the crew heard a scream and found him in a foetal position, a look of shock on his face that was primal. He'd died of shock the doctor said. Several hours it took us to get out of the wormhole system and get back to high sec. By then the crew were paniced, even our capsuleer was freaked. They assumed it was my fault and they booted me and Tash off at a mining platform we used. They kept the gems, but all the implants they loaded into a bag an gave it to us, along with a few other bits and that star. The star kept back whatever it was that killed Tash. It came out of the walls and tore her apart, some kind of spectral wolf or hound. I'll miss her. Then I talked to my usual fence and started selling the implants and... got caught by a newly installed scanner. The rest, you know."
Colonel Lientus and the Fleet Commander looked up. The story they had heard was fantastic to say the least.
"You really expect us to believe this. Hidden wormholes, ancient temples, demonic creatures?"
"Yes. Because someone else does believe it, hence why I'm subject to an incinreration order. And now I've told you, I'm not entirely sure that you won't be a target too."
"Because you've seen the star. It's a relic from an older time. It will keep you safe."
Lientus got up and walked over to the table, picking up the soapstone star. It felt heavy in his hands, but as soon as he held it he heard the sound, a distant running of feet, like an animal. And as he looked up he realised, it was very dark in the room.
"What's wrong with the damn lighting?"

The hound appeared out of the corner of the wall and slammed into Desiua, it's teeth tearing into his throat. Staggering back, covered in blood from the severed through the Fleet Commander reached for his weapon, the guards in the room, temporarily shocked but were reacting. Lientus, stood still, clutching the star and watched. In a moment, it was over. Desiua lay dead, the Fleet Commander and the guards were looking around, stunned as the lights seemed to return to their brightness as if a great malignant shadow had moved.
"What happened? Lientus? Lientus?"
He turned to the Fleet Commander, still clutching the icon and then slipped it into his coat.
"Nothing of this gets out. When the Inquisitor returns bring him here. Explain it all to him."
"Where are you going?"
"To check on sightings of Sansha Motherships. If there is a chance that Mason and Legion survived, I want to find out."
"Lientus... you can't take that with you. It's evidence."
"Maybe so... but I feel safer with it. I'll return it."

To Be Continued....