Note: This story was dynamically reformatted for online reading convenience. CAUTION... CAUTION... CAUTION... CAUTION... CAUTION... STANDARD WARNING This story is of an erotic nature. I wouldn't dream of telling you what you can or can't read but if the law, in your part of the world, says you must not read this sort of fiction then please go read something that they'll let you. Don't break the laws, change them. CAUTION... CAUTION... CAUTION... CAUTION... CAUTION... --------------------------------------------------------------------------- ------ Colin of House Hadden A Story in The Raenil Universe by Duke of Ramus A Piece of my Imagination --------------------------------------------------------------------------- ------ Disclaimer This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental (C) 2008 Duke of Ramus. All rights reserved. ---oOo-- Editing I'd like to thank Mulligan and Steve T for their assistance in turning this into a better story than my initial effort, any errors remaining are of course mine. ---oOo--- Chapter 1 The hall was dark and whilst not forbidding, it wasn't homely either. It most resembled a gothic cathedral with its high vaulted ceiling and rows of pews. Where an altar would have been in a cathedral was a small stage where a lone man stood, looking out over the audience. The audience was clearly split into two parts. Covering the pews of the nave were nearly two hundred young men and women dressed in black. Around the sides and on the balcony above were another seven hundred people representing the parents and families of the students in black. "All rise!" The congregation rose as one at the order and the opening refrain of Giuseppe Verdi's grand march from Aida filled the auditorium. Down the central aisle, marching in time to the music came the Master of the Spacers' Guild followed by the Master of the College and alongside him the Master of the Scouts' and Explorers' Guild. Behind the three Masters came the numerous officers of the Guild and the tutors who had taught the graduating students in the Spacers' Guild's college. The grand robes worn by the Guild Master were in pointed contrast to the plain black coveralls of the nearly two hundred of the graduating classes currently standing on either side of the central aisle. As the last of the dignitaries found their proper places on the small stage at the head of the auditorium the music faded away. Amongst the gathered students one gave a sigh of relief that they wouldn't have to stand through all twelve minutes of the march and joined the rest of his classmates as they sat at a signal from the Master. "Spacers," declared the Master of Guild, "I congratulate you on the successful completion of your training." He was forced to pause as the audience burst into a spontaneous bout of cheering and whistling at his words. He let it run for a short time and then held his hand up for silence. "You are now able to go and find employment amongst the many space-faring enterprises that have allowed our Imperium to prosper and expand. You will find that you are welcome throughout space and will be welcomed as an equal in the brotherhood of spacers." A smattering of polite applause greeted this statement though no one present really believed the graduating students would be accepted until they'd fulfilled at least one cruise and started to pay off their tuition fees. As the audience settled down the Master of the Guild began his prepared speech, "In 2006, when the Raenil visited Earth, the idea of growing up to be a spacer, an astronaut as they were called back then, was a fanciful dream. They were considered 'the few' and had to undergo physical and mental training far in excess of anything we inflict on our students today." This was greeted by a few chuckles from the students. "Twenty years later and the human race had a need for the new profession of spacers as humanity then numbered some fifteen billion and occupied the twelve planets that the Raenil had identified for us. The Spacers' Guild was formed and it began training the future bearers of goods and people around the Human Imperium. Now, a century later, you are joining that Guild as full members, ready to continue the honours and traditions of that elite few from so long ago." Applause rang throughout the hall and the Master of Ceremonies called out, "Senior Class of twenty-one thirty, rise and come forward." As they'd been briefed to do the front two rows of student rose and made their way to the edge of the hall and lined up in order. "Wendy Miller," announced the Master of Ceremonies and a short girl with flame red hair and a blush to match ascended the short flight of stairs and crossed the stage to the Guild Master. After shaking his hand and receiving a scroll bound with a silver and black ribbon she crossed to the far side of the stage and returned to her seat. As she left the stage the Master of Ceremonies announced, "John Begood." <HR> On the dais the dignitary in the black robe turned to his neighbour, "How many have you graduated this year?" The man who wore a deep burgundy robe answered, "There are thirty-two present today and there are another five who are unable to attend the ceremony." "Not many considering that nearly four hundred started out four years ago, is it Master Killion?" replied the man in black. "No, it's not," admitted Master Killion, "but like last year we are graduating nearly two hundred others at the end of their third year." Completing the first three years of the course run by the Spacers' Guild qualified you to take any job on a spaceship without qualifying you for command. Only those who successfully completed all four years would ever command a spaceship. The man in black nodded, "How many of these do you think will make the grade?" he asked indicating the students who were starting to ascend the stage. Master Killion frowned, as the head of the college he should have answered 'all of them' but both he and his questioner knew that book learning was only part of what it took to command a spaceship. The truth was that most of these successful students would be found wanting when it came to that final step. Still wearing the frown he said, "Barring the usual mishaps at least four of them should make it, possibly as many as eight." He looked at the man in black and smiled, "They're a good batch, Fergus, and don't you go mocking them." Fergus Graham nodded, "Any of them good enough to be Scouts?" "Good enough for you, who knows?" replied Master Killion, "I know two of them are planning to go down that route." "Already?" asked Fergus in surprise. "Already," agreed Master Killion. "You know Angus Graham don't you? He's the oldest son of the Duke's second wife and he's already been promised all of the support of House Graham." Fergus shook his head slightly in disappointment. His cousin was always trying to get the Scouts' and Explorers' Guild to grant the family more prestige than it already had. Throwing his own son at it wouldn't make the Guild change its standards. Merit was the only thing that counted; well, maybe luck as well, admitted Fergus, but definitely not birth or wealth. They may give them the equipment but only an individual with skill and luck would make the discoveries and get back safely to claim the rewards and adulation that went with success. "And the other?" asked Fergus. "Colin Hadden," responded Master Killion, "He's a second son of Jason Hadden." It was Fergus' turn to frown, the name tickled the back of his mind but he couldn't bring the details to mind. Master Killion took pity on the baffled Master, "You've probably heard of his grandfather, Robert Hadden. He was the one who settled the planet Dundaff fifty years ago and kept it as his own." "Bobbie Hadden was his grandfather?" said Fergus in surprise: "I thought the family had become paupers or something when he didn't sell up." "It appears not," said Master Killion, "Young Hadden arrived four years ago with his grandfather's blessing and stated his intention to claim his rights to join the Guild." He glanced around the hall before continuing, "He's not had it easy, and being a member of a cadet family is not the easiest thing to carry, especially when it's attached to the decision his grandfather made." Amongst the Scouts' and Explorers' Guild it was normal to 'sell' the rights to anything that was discovered to one of the thirteen great houses, like House Graham or House Jacobs. The planets that had been discovered during the original exodus had, in the main remained unclaimed. To settle on a planet and try to establish your own house was not unheard of but so few had tried and succeeded that it was the considered the height of folly. That House Hadden could send a grandson forward after only fifty years spoke of resilience and fortitude. "How did he do?" asked Fergus. "All things considered he didn't fare too badly," admitted the Master. "His final score is in the high seventies, call it third or fourth on the class." He glanced up and then indicated the line of students passing before the Master of the Guild, "Fourth." The class had lined up in reverse order of their position in the graduating class and the last six were making their way now. The last in line carried a strong resemblance to both Fergus and the Duke. Angus Graham had finished top of the class. Second in the class was Sonia Hemmer, daughter of Admiral Hemmer, who just happened to be commander of House Graham's military fleet. Finishing third in the class and leading Sonia towards the stage was Justin Pyott. A dark skinned handsome lad who was more interested in women than spaceships and had only attended the course under dire threats from his father. He had no intention of going into any sort of space service but his innate intelligence had carried him towards the top of the class. Ahead of him in the line was a lad with fair-hair by the name of Colin Hadden. <HR> As the graduating class marched out of the hall into the bright sunshine of the Montrose summer Colin let out a yell of delight. He wasn't alone in his expression of joy as four years of hard work came to an end. A warden approached Colin and gently tapped him on the shoulder, "Sir, if you would." Colin stopped and the warden collected the remainder of his charges as they left the hall. Satisfied that he had the top four of the graduating class he announced, "Lady and Gentlemen, the Master requests that you attend him in the refectory." He glanced from one to the other and noted a hint of confusion. "My family..." began Justin. "Taken care of, Sir," declared the warden, "Your guests," he indicated all four graduates, "have been informed of where you will be and should be making their way there as we speak." "Come on, Jus," said Angus, "You know you can't refuse a Master, even if we've graduated," he added with a grin. "I wouldn't want to," declared Sonia as she fell in beside Justin. "If you'll follow me," said the warden who set off without waiting for an answer. The four graduates followed the warden around the hall passing groups of three-year students who'd found their families and started celebrating their success. Numerous family images were taken that day to adorn walls of houses all over the Imperium. The college on Montrose accepted students from all over the Imperium and House Graham had taken it upon itself to guarantee their safety whilst they were there. This had allowed House Graham to expand its influence throughout the Imperium without resorting to violence. As they followed the warden Colin asked Angus, "Why am I here? I can understand you three but I only finished fourth in the class." "No idea, Colin," said Angus, "but I doubt if it's going to be anything bad. Let's face it," he waved his scroll in the air, "we've passed and they can't take that away from us." Colin continued to worry as he followed the warden through the college's garden. As the group entered the refectory he spotted three men dressed in the robes of Masters waiting for them. The warden guided the four students towards the cluster of Masters and disappeared as soon as he'd caught the eye of Master Killion. "Gentlemen," said Master Killion, "allow me to present this year's class seniors: Angus Graham, Sonia Hemmer, Justin Pyott and Colin Hadden." Each of the students gave a short bow towards the Masters as their names were announced. "This is Master Brown of the Montrose Spacers' Guild and Master Graham of the Scouts' and Explorers' Guild." "How does it feel to have finished the course?" asked Master Brown. "It's a joyous day," replied Angus with a grin. Sonia nodded her head in agreement and when Master Brown turned his attention to her she added, "It's been an interesting time but now we can do the job for real." "And that is what you want?" asked Master Brown. Nodding in confirmation she replied, "I'll be joining the House Navy when the next intake is called up, Sir." Master Brown caught the frown on Justin's face and turned to him, "You don't seem to be happy, Mr. Pyott?" "It's not a case of being happy, Sir," replied the young man, "It's just that I'm going to be having a fight with my father concerning my future." "He doesn't want you to go into space?" asked the Master in surprise. "No, Sir, I'm the one who doesn't want to go into space," declared Justin. "May I ask why you undertook this particular course then?" asked the Master sounding a trifle put out. "My father insisted," replied Justin, "and House Graham requires that those controlling interstellar shipping need to members of the Guild, whether they go into space or not." He looked from Master Brown to Master Killion and back again, "That's the only reason I attended. From here I plan on going to the Economics Guild and completing their course." Master Brown looked to the college Master, who was nodding. "You were aware of Mr. Pyott's intentions?" he asked. "Yes Sir, he's made no secret of the matter since he arrived," replied Master Killion. Master Brown raised his eyebrows and gave Master Killion a look that clearly said we would discuss this later. Master Graham stepped into the lengthening silence, "I understand that you plan on becoming a Scout, Mr. Hadden?" Colin looked across to the Master dressed in black and nodded, "That is my intention, Sir." "You have the necessary equipment or funding?" asked Master Graham. "I hope it is in place, Sir," replied Colin, "But I will know for sure when I return to Dundaff." "I see," replied Master Graham. "Will you be working out of Tagliana?" Like the Tortora space station to the galactic North, the Tagliana space station had been established to the galactic south of explored Imperial space and was built by all the Great Houses as a common place to trade and launch exploration missions from. As such, each House had a representative on the station and it was considered a neutral zone during the occasional House conflict. Colin nodded from under hooded eyes, it was never wise to reveal too much as a Scout but lying to a Master could cause even more trouble if the deceit ever came to light. "Drop in and see me there before you depart," said Master Graham, his softly worded request an order to any member of the Scouts' and Explorers' Guild. "Sir," agreed Colin without enthusiasm. "It has been a pleasure meeting you all," announced Master Brown, "but I see your guests have gathered so I'll let you go and meet them." A flurry of thank-you's greeted his statement and the four graduates happily headed for the safer waters of friends and family. <HR> Bill and Wendy greeted Colin by wrapping him up in a hug as though he'd been their son rather than just a lodger at their home. "I'm so proud of you," beamed Wendy as she released the young man. "You never told us you were doing so well." "Fourth," crowed Bill, "Your father is going to be so proud of you." "Not as proud as his grandfather," added Wendy as she gave Colin another hug. "It's just a shame they couldn't have been here for your graduation," she finished. "Credit's tight," admitted Colin finally free of Wendy's grasp, "it would have been a waste of funds to come here just for a party." "True," agreed Bill, "but we've got the ceremony recorded so you'll be able to show them everything when you get back." Bill Houseman had worked for Colin's grandfather many years ago and had offered to put up the young man in his home for the final two years of college. Bill Houseman had worked for Colin's grandfather many years ago and had offered to put up the young man in his home for the final two years of college. This was the period when the college no longer offered dormitory accommodation to the students. Bill had refused all of Colin's efforts to contribute towards his keep stating that the debt he owed the Hadden family couldn't be paid. To Colin's frustration he would never reveal just what the debt was or what he could do to mitigate it. The young man had made a promise to himself to investigate the matter once he was back home on Dundaff. "Colin, may I present my father, Admiral Hemmer" called Sonia as the two of them approached Colin's group. "Sir," responded Colin as he regarded the man who led the military fleet of House Graham. The tall, slender man reminded Colin of his daughter. They both had the same studious air and a sense of detachment from the buzz around them. "Sonia here tells me you're planning on being a Scout?" said the Admiral, his tone making it a question. "I hope to, Sir," responded Colin. "For the House?" asked the Admiral. "For House Hadden," replied Colin warily. "And who are they allied with?" pressed the Admiral. "We're sept to House Graham," responded Colin looking the Admiral in the eye. "But you are your own masters," pushed the Admiral, "Aren't you?" Colin felt his calm beginning to slip, "Our honour has never been questioned, Sir," he responded stiffly, his hand dropping to his hip. Fortunately for all it was not permitted to carry weapons within the college grounds. "And I for one would not do so," replied the Admiral. "That's just as well," said Angus from behind Colin. Colin jumped in surprise, as did Sonia. Neither of them had seen Angus approaching the group. Angus Graham may have been the son of a second wife but he stood high in House Graham and no one would willingly cross him. That he was normally an affable sort of fellow didn't mean that he didn't know how to use that power if the need arose. Admiral Hemmer knew the young man and his position in the House. Who had the greater say was a matter for debate and an issue that neither of them had tried to resolve. "You never know when I might need some help out there in the back of beyond," added Angus as he slipped his arm around the Admiral's daughter. "I may have to rely on Colin rather than your lovely daughter to save my scrawny neck." "Why, Angus," asked Sonia, "What makes you think I'd even try?" "Because you don't like to see people cry," replied Angus, "and my mother would flood the planet if her poor little boy was lost in space." The tension dissipated as everyone laughed at the young man's antics. The rest of the evening was enjoyable as the graduates slowly mixed with the guests before taking their leave of the college for a final time. <HR> Chapter 2 Colin followed Bill into the departure terminal with his single piece of hand luggage slung over his left shoulder. All of his other possessions had been packed up the night before and had been forwarded to the shipping company. Hopefully they should already have been loaded onto the ship for the journey home. Home! The planet Dundaff was home, the planet that he hadn't seen for over three years; the planet where his family had made their home fifty years ago at the urging of his grandfather. He'd decided long ago that his grandfather had made the right decision, even if it had made his home life a little more rustic than it would have been on Montrose. The way things were panning out at the moment his own grandchildren, if he had any, would have a much higher standard of living than he could have hoped for if the family hadn't made the move. "I'm glad Wendy agreed to stay at home," said Bill dragging Colin's thoughts away from his home world. "She'd have been in tears by now and making hell of a scene." Colin smiled in understanding, Wendy could get emotional and Bill had always found it embarrassing. Just like the time she'd bawled her eyes out at a barbecue when an injured bird had died in her hands. Everyone else had been pretty blasť about the event but Wendy was all for having a state funeral for the poor thing. "You know she thinks of you as the son we never had, don't you?" said Bill. "I, uhhh," began Colin before he ground to a halt. What do you say to a man who's effectively told you he considers you his son? "Oh don't worry," said Bill, "We both love the girls but Wendy always wanted a son and when you came to stay with us she adopted you." Robin and Hazel were two and four years older than Colin respectively and had been away at college for most of the time that he'd been staying with Bill and Wendy. The fact that they were away studying had been what freed up the space for him to stay in their small house. Hazel was training to be a doctor and had completed training on Montrose before moving on to Earth for advanced paediatric training. Robin had gone against all of her mother's wishes and had joined the military. After college on Montrose she'd completed the year long junior officer's course at the staff college back on Earth and was currently serving her first tour as an officer with the Imperial Marine Corps. That one daughter was trying to save lives whilst the other took them had always amused Colin when he thought about the two girls. That and the fact that he'd have had no problem taking either of them as a lover. Robin had come home after Staff College for a visit and her fit well-honed body was a sight worth seeing. Hazel had been around when the seventeen-year-old Colin had moved in to the family home and her soft, curvaceous body had fuelled his fantasies for many an evening. The two of them reached the departure gate and Colin handed over the chip containing his details and turned back to Bill. "Bill, thank you for all that you and Wendy have done for me," said Colin; "it's been..." "Oh forget all that," interrupted Bill as he wrapped his arms around the younger man. "Just take care of yourself and make sure that you stop by and see us whenever you're in this neck of the galaxy." Colin returned the hug and felt his eyes begin to water, Wendy wasn't the only one who could get emotional it seemed. "Sir, your flight is being called," said the reception bot, "If you would please make your way to the gate." Colin stepped back and offered his hand to Bill who grasped it firmly, "I'll see you around, Bill," he said. "Make us proud, Colin," said Bill, "and come back safe." "I will," agreed Colin as he hefted his bag into a more comfortable position and stepped through the gate and headed for the shuttlecraft that would carry him away from Montrose. <HR> The Peitho was a Canopus-class freighter that belonged to House Graham's merchant fleet. Along with her sister ship the Suadela she'd been modified to allow her to move people as well as freight and served the role of ferry to several out-world systems that House Graham dealt with. Primarily they were asteroid mining stations but there were a couple of moons and one other planet that had an agricultural settlement that provided fresh produce for the people of Montrose. The Peitho could, as in this case, make alterations to her normal routine to accommodate the needs of her passengers, at a price. The basic Canopus-class freighter was a common sight in most areas where humans had settled, whether as part of the Imperium or beyond its borders. It was a versatile ship that had quickly gained a reputation for robustness and sales had moved along briskly - most House shipyards had taken out licensing agreements to build the ship themselves leading to many different variations of the basic vessel. At one hundred and ten metres long, thirty-two metres wide and twenty-one metres high overall she tended to look a little slender when compared to many other ships but her engines were efficient and the load she could carry made her economical to run on short hops. For this journey she was carrying eighteen passengers, most of who would be leaving at their first stop, the mining station owned by Galaximine. The purser greeted each of the passengers at the shuttle hatch and checked their documentation chip against the ship's manifest. After checking in, each of the passengers was escorted to their cabins by a member of the crew. "This way, Sir," requested a fembot dressed as a maid, who, it appeared, had been assigned as Colin's guide. Colin smiled as he followed the undulating posterior of the robot and briefly wondered if she was available for anything more than maid service. Looking at the body the bot was fitted with gave him the impression that she was a modified sex model rather than the more mundane household model. Having just finished college, at which he'd practically abstained from any sort of sexual by-play, he was now starting to feel the return of all of the hormone driven urges that a nineteen-year-old in the prime of his life would feel. The maid ushered him through a cabin door that carried the number two on it and proceeded to show him around the cabin, including the refresher cubicle. "My name is Marion, Sir," said the bot before she indicated the screen on a desk that had been crammed into one corner of the cabin. "There is a list of the services that housekeeping provides to passengers available on the terminal. Just call if there is anything I can do for you," she finished with a smile. With that she turned and left leaving Colin to unpack his bag in what was to be his home for the next two weeks. Scanning the computer revealed that the maid bots were indeed available for personal services and Colin grinned as he booked Marion for an evening's entertainment on the night before his journey's end. The information available on the terminal included a plan of the ship areas that the passengers were permitted to visit; they included an in-board lounge, a dining room and, surprisingly, a viewing lounge above and behind the ship's bridge. He contemplated asking for permission to visit the bridge itself but decided he would have enough of that sort of thing when he had his own ship. Satisfied that everything was packed away Colin headed for the lounge hoping to meet his fellow passengers before the ship broke orbit. Leaving the cabin he nearly ran into another of the maid bots, the only difference between her and Marion was the shade of brown used for their hair, in all other details they appeared identical. "I'm sorry, Sir," apologised the bot though it had been Colin who had been in her way. "Forget it," Colin replied, "I was just heading for the lounge." "I'm Mary," replied the bot, "Allow me show you the way." Without waiting for a reply the bot headed off and Colin once again found he was following the delightfully swaying posterior of a robot. "Here you are, Sir," responded the maid, "If you need anything else please give me a call." "Thank you, Mary," replied Colin as he entered a well-appointed lounge. He glanced around and smiled approvingly at the Old World charm of the room. Considering it was on a modern spaceship it had been done out to look like the pictures he'd seen of the steamships of Earth. There was wood panelling to shoulder height all around the room. Half a dozen crystal chandeliers suspended equidistantly around the room provided lighting. In one corner of the room was a bar with another maid bot stood behind it casually cleaning a glass. As no other passengers were present Colin crossed the plush dark carpet to the bar. "Hello Sir, I'm Mindy," said the robot by way of an introduction, "How can I be of service." Colin suppressed his immediate thought and asked "Do you carry any alcohol free beers?" instead. "We have Bulldog Bitter and Eiskan Pils, Sir," responded Mindy as she set down the glass she'd been cleaning. "I'll have an Eiskan please," ordered Colin, "Put it on cabin two's tab." The bot turned away and Colin took his time to admire the view she presented. Someone associated with the spaceline appeared to have obtained a job lot of fembots and had pressed them into service as maids on their ships. Given that they were being used to offer sexual services to passengers as well as carry out routine domestic work implied that someone had gone to the trouble and expense of updating a basic sex bot's programming to include domestic duty sub-routines. The bot before him was somewhat shorter than his one hundred and eighty-three centimetres say about one hundred and sixty centimetres and on looks alone he'd guess she massed somewhere between fifty-five and sixty kilograms. With the modern composites that were being used in bot construction they were on the upper end of acceptable weight scales for a human so sixty would be about right. Being based on a sex model bot she had an ample bust, at least a 'C' cup, and everything else, coloration, attitude, etcetera was designed to titillate the male of the species. There were male models of the sex-bot for women but Colin had never knowingly met one. The only difference between Mindy and Marion was again hair colour with Mindy's actually being a shade darker than Marion's. "There you are, Sir," declared Mindy placing a half-litre frosted glass of amber liquid before him. "Thank you," said Colin retrieving the beer and taking a sip. His 'Ahhh' of appreciation was all that needed to be said. As he set the glass back on the bar two more passengers entered the lounge. The two gentlemen looked like clones of each other dressed as they were in grey business suits. They glanced around and headed for the furthest corner from the bar, one of them indicating that he wanted serving. Before they were seated Mindy was out from behind the bar and crossing the room with the same sensuous wiggle that her sisters had already demonstrated. Her ten centimetre high heels were sinking into the plush pile of the carpet but didn't affect her ability to move smoothly. As Colin drank his beer he watched the other passengers arrive, none of them approached or greeted him as they entered the lounge. They settled down into four distinct groups though they all appeared to be dressed the same, only Colin stood out in his casual attire. The bot wasn't an AI and couldn't handle much in the way of conversation and in the end Colin was glad when the announcement was made that the ship was breaking orbit. He used that as an excuse to return to his cabin and relax until lunchtime. The dining room was laid out with tables set for groups of four and for couples. As Colin entered the room the purser stepped out from behind his small desk and escorted him to a table set for two and handed him the menu. "The maid will be with you shortly to take your order, Sir," he purred gently before returning to his position at the door. Having a menu surprised Colin, as the last time he'd travelled had been on one of his family's ships and food was dished up onto a hotplate and you helped yourself with little or no choice. College had been the same sort of thing if you ate in the refectory. He looked the menu over and discovered it was fairly ordinary produce despite the fancy writing used to describe it. Another of the maid-bots arrived at his elbow to take his order; this one introduced herself as Millicent. For once he decided to forgo his healthy eating and opted for the steak and fries, washed down with another alcohol free Pils. The food was acceptable but as he'd expected nothing spectacular, he was surprised to hear a couple of the other passengers moaning about the food they'd been served. Shaking his head in amusement he finished his beer off and left the table. The rest of the week was the same, apart from an occasional 'good morning' or 'good afternoon' the only human he spoke to was the purser and that wasn't much in the way of a conversation. Finally hanging in orbit alongside their first port of call Colin was happy to see all but two of his fellow passengers disembark. Now he could hope that the remaining two would at least pass some time with him. <HR> Colin was surprised and frustrated to discover that things didn't change; the remaining pair of passengers still ignored him whenever they were together. He returned to his cabin after another silent dinner but was able to ignore the frustration he was feeling. Anticipation bubbled through him, suppressing any other thoughts. Tonight was the night that he'd booked a session with Marion. As soon as he returned to his cabin he stripped down and headed for the shower. Anticipation, it turned out was a great stimulus and he found he needed to beat off in the shower to relieve the pressure. Being young, fit and horny he had no worries about it affecting his performance later in the evening. Out of the shower he dried off and pulled one of the white towelling bathrobes out of the closet and settled down on the edge of the bed to wait. He didn't have to wait long before a tap on the door announced the arrival of his guest. "Enter," he called. The door opened silently to reveal Marion, a Marion who hadn't changed out of the maid's uniform she normally wore but looked infinitely more alluring. Whether it was a change of make up or the way she posed just inside the door was impossible to say but Colin felt himself becoming erect as he sat there looking at her. "What would you like me to do, Sir?" she asked in a soft voice. A list of things that would provide immediate gratification passed through Colin's mind as he licked his lips. The final thought was how excited he'd become as he'd anticipated this evening and that's what guided his words. "Excite me," he said just as softly as Marion did. Marion paused, her eyes taking on a glazed look and then they returned, smouldering with desire. "Gladly," she responded and started to undulate, her whole body starting to writhe before him as she took a small step forwarded. Her hips rolled and her left leg came forward, wrapping itself around her body and landing a shoe length in front of her right. Her hands started to slide over her dress, caressing her body as she continued to move undulate. Her eyes filled with lustful intent never left his face. As her right leg repeated the performance of her left and she moved a step closer Colin licked his dry lips. Marion raised her hands to her neck and slipped them under her hair, she fluttered her eyelashes at Colin and smiled. Her hands came forward and her dress was suddenly loose. Marion rolled her shoulders and the dress began to descend, revealing the olive skinned beauty of her body. The constant movement of her body seemed to drive the dress downwards, first revealing a black lacy bra that enhanced rather than covered her pert breasts. As the dress dropped to the floor her black lacy knickers were revealed, barely covering a smooth pussy. Marion raised her left leg and moved closer to Colin, leaving her dress lying on the floor behind her. Almost within touching distance she raised her hands to the front fastening of her bra and paused, smiling shyly she asked, "Shall I?" Colin croaked, "Please," in response. Bending forward Marion released the catch but held the bra in place and fluttered her eyelashes again. Colin swallowed once more and dropped his eyes to Marion's chest, begging without saying a word. He caught a hint of a grin from the maid as she slowly opened her arms, taking the delicate bra away from her body. She finished up with her arms held out behind her, the straps resting on her wrists and her chest pushed forward for Colin's inspection. Stiff brown nipples that just begged to be sucked surmounted the delicate olive mounds of her breasts. Colin heard a groan and it took him a moment to realise that he was the one who'd made the sound. Sinking to her knees before him, Marion's position now invited Colin to open his legs. He complied without a murmur and as his legs moved his erection popped free and waved a hello of its own. "Oh yes," murmured Marion as she dipped her head forward and gently kissed the glistening head of Colin's prick. Deep in the back of his mind Colin thanked the stars that he'd had a wank in the shower, otherwise Marion would be getting a facial right about now. As it was he groaned again as her delicate tongue proceeded to run all over the delicate surface of his prick. Colin allowed his body to drop back onto the bed and just let the feelings flow over him. The sensations as she took his throbbing prick into her mouth were exquisite and only got more so as she began to fellate him. Her lips and tongue stroking and teasing with delicate ease, her hair gently fondling his body as her lips reached the base of his erection. And then she swallowed! It was more than he could bear, without any effort on his part his semen came bubbling out of his prick like cheerleaders from a tunnel. Joyous sounds filled the room as Colin pulsed time and again into Marion's willing mouth; her throat continuing to welcome each of the rapidly diminishing pulses as though it was pure nectar. As Colin finished his orgasm Marion cleaned his sensitive prick with her mouth and rocked back on her heels and looked on as he recovered. He rose onto his elbow and smiled in a very relaxed manner. The two of them stayed in that position until Colin had gathered his thoughts and enough energy to proceed. He patted the bed beside him, "Come here and give me a cuddle," he ordered, "As soon as I've recovered we'll begin again." Marion smiled in response and rose to her feet and clad in just heels and knickers slid onto the bed beside Colin. Colin lay back and snaked an arm around the maid, pulling her in close as he closed his eyes. The night was just beginning... <HR> Colin opened his eyes and stretched before dropping back down onto the pillows. It took a moment to realise that he was alone and a frown crossed his face. He'd had an exhausting but spectacular night and it would have been nice to wake up with Marion's firm body cuddled next to his but you couldn't have everything. She'd been his for a night and that was all, by now she'd be back at work as a maid with no more thought for his feelings than any other robot. Shrugging in resignation he rolled over and headed for the shower, after last night he needed one more than usual. By the time he'd finished getting dressed all of the romantic thoughts about the previous night had been washed away, it had been good sexually but you didn't marry a robot. Breakfast proved to be just as silent as all the other meals he'd taken on this journey. As he finished his coffee the purser approached his table. "Mr. Hadden, we'll be reaching Dundaff orbit in a couple of hours," he said. "Please be ready to depart at that time." "I will be," replied Colin realising that it wasn't just the passengers on this vessel that were distant, the crew was no better. Two hours later Colin was sitting in a shuttle with his bag in hand ready to depart. The purser had scanned his documents and debited his account before wishing him a safe descent. The shuttle was just waiting for clearance from the bridge before it took its single passenger home. When it happened the transfer from space was smooth and uneventful, Colin felt his weight increase back to what used to be considered normal and was now heavier than he was used to. The shuttle door slid open and Colin was quick to exit the craft and make his way down the short boarding tube. Exiting the tube he presented his document chip to the attendant at the desk, which was the closest Dundaff had to a customs procedure. A loud scream dragged his attention away from the attendant and towards a young woman who was charging across the arrival concourse towards him. Colin looked puzzled for the briefest of moments before realising that the approaching woman was his little sister. Alison had been a precocious twelve the last time he'd seen her with no shape to her, the girl charging towards him was a full bodied sixteen year old that you had no chance of mistaking for a male. She jumped into his arms and crushed her ample bosom to his chest and yelled, "You're home. Oh, I'm so glad you're back." "I'm glad, too," he replied as he disengaged from her grasp and lowered her to her feet. He looked her up and down and was rewarded when she cocked her hip forward and pulled her shoulders back. "So, what do you think?" she asked. "Pretty good, Sis," he replied and then grinned. "How's dad doing at keeping the boys away?" She grinned back, "He's doing his best but mom and Aunt Annie are running interference for me." The two of them had always had a good rapport and Colin was pleased to see that it was still there. "Come on," said Alison taking his hand. "Alan's waiting outside to take us home." <HR> Chapter 3 "Colin," called the beaming father as the young man stepped from the car, "Welcome home." "Hi, Dad," Colin responded as he turned to offer his hand to his sister. The sudden view down the front of her loose fitting top stopped him in his tracks. When she smiled and gave him a wink he blushed profusely and stepped back, his arm dropping to his side. Alison finished climbing out unaided; giggling at the effect she'd had on her older brother. Not noticing his son's discomfort Jason Hadden crossed the loose shale drive and hugged his son to him. "God, I've missed you," he whispered into Colin's ear. "I missed you too, Dad," the young man replied. "How was the journey?" asked Jason as he released his boy, "not too difficult I hope." "Boring really," said Colin, "It's as though I was diseased or something." Jason frowned at Colin's response, "In what way?" he asked. Colin thought for a moment and then explained, "No one on the ship spoke to me," he said. "At meal times or in the lounge afterwards, it was as though I didn't exist. The crew were polite enough but there was no interaction between us." "Did you have any problems in college?" pressed his father. "None at all," said Colin frowning, "Is there a problem?" "Not a problem," said Jason as he led the way into the house, "but we've been picking up a bit of an attitude from certain people." "House Graham?" asked Colin. "It's mainly people from Montrose," admitted Jason, "but nothing from anyone close to the House." "Angus was fine with me," said Colin and then he remembered the Admiral Hemmer's attitude at the graduation reception. "You know, Dad," he said, "there was one incident. It was at the reception, after we'd graduated, Admiral Hemmer, you know the House fleet commander, he was a bit off with me but Angus intervened before it got out of hand." Jason stopped walking abruptly, "What did he say?" Colin thought for a moment, "He asked what I was going to do now that I'd graduated. I said I was going to be a scout and he asked if that was for the House. When I said it was for our House he got a little shirty. He asked who we were allied to and then made some snide comment about being our own masters." Colin shrugged, "Angus butted in then and said something about not questioning Hadden honour and the whole thing got pushed to one side." Jason frowned whilst nodding, "That's pretty much what our people have been reporting. Nothing overt, just a lot of little digs and innuendoes." "I hope there's not going to be any trouble," said Colin. "So do I," responded Jason, "especially as I'm hoping to send Alison," he waved towards his daughter, "to the college on Montrose." Colin turned to his sister; "You're going to become a spacer?" "Sure am," she replied from behind a beaming smile. Colin gave her a light punch on the shoulder, "Good for you," he said. "If you need anything drop me a line and I'll try to help." "Thanks," said Alison, "but I don't think I'll need it." Colin gave her a grin, "Just wait and see," he said. "The offer's there if you need it." "If you two have finished," said Jason, "There are a couple of ladies in here who are desperate to meet the returning hero." Alison gave Colin a gentle shove in the direction of a couple of open doors and followed him into the main hall of the house. "Colin!" called two women in unison from the far end of the hall. He strode towards them, his arms outstretched. "Mom! Auntie Annie!" He was engulfed in the embrace of his mother and his father's second wife and returned their hugs with one of his own. His mother had tears in her eyes when he was released and Colin had the feeling that things were likely to get a little tearful if he wasn't careful. Help came from an unexpected quarter. "Well, boy, haven't you got a word for an old man?" Colin spun around, "Gramps!" Sitting in one of the armchairs was a man who looked about eighty but still had the family resemblance shared by Jason and Colin. One of the unfortunate things about Raenil medical technology was that it didn't work on everyone and Robert Hadden was one of the unfortunate few. Whilst Jason who was forty-two years old could have passed as Colin's brother, Bobbie Hadden looked all of his seventy-five years and then some. That fact was one of the major drivers for his decision to settle on Dundaff and establish his own house; he wanted a legacy to be remembered by. His age was also why he'd handed over governing the planet to his only son. "I couldn't miss my grandson's homecoming now could I?" said the old man. Colin crossed the room and sank to his knees, his grandfather looked older than he had done when he'd gone away to college, a lot older. Without looking around for confirmation he wondered if there was something amiss that he hadn't been told about. "Gramps, you didn't need to come here to see me, I'd have gladly come to you," said Colin as he held Bobbie's hand. "Oh piffle," said Bobbie, "I wouldn't have missed this for the world." He glanced around the assembled family, "and besides, it gives me a chance to give you your graduation gift before all the others get to present theirs." "Gramps, there's no need..." "Quiet!" snapped his grandfather in a firm voice. "This is something I always planned to do and, after hearing what your plans for the future involve, I see no need to delay my gift." "Plans, future?" said Colin looking confused. "I'm giving you the 'Red Rose,'" said Bobbie. The Red Rose was the ship that Bobbie Hadden had been using when he set about settling Dundaff. It was a scout ship, admittedly on old scout ship but it was still a vessel Colin could use to begin his career. <HR> Colin looked around and was greeted by a sea of happy looking faces with the exception of his mother. "That's not the only gift," said his mother, "but we weren't planning on telling you about them until you'd at least had a chance to unpack," she finished giving Bobbie a bemused look. Bobbie just grinned back, happy that he'd been able to get one over on the rest of his family. "It's too late for that," said his father with a grin. "I suppose it is," agreed his mother, "So why don't you tell Colin what you've done for him, dear?" she said with a smile. Jason nodded and turned his attention to his son. "I've had the Rose checked over," he said, "and we've made a few alterations to her at the same time." He nodded towards his father, "Dad had been keeping her pretty much up to date even if he hasn't been using her and I've just completed that process." Jason dropped into a convenient armchair and began, "As you know Colin, the Rose started out as one of the original Sirius-class freighters. That was before your grandfather had her modified to use as a scout ship. Her overall dimensions haven't changed, but she's a much better ship than the basic freighter in many ways and despite her age she's still a good ship to have under you. "What we've done is retrofitted a fusion reactor from an old corvette," he grinned, "so you've got enough power for a ship twice the size of the Rose. The engines have been overhauled and the old girl is now good for 70, maybe 75 zeks." He frowned at his son, "You're not going to be out running any fighters but it should be fast enough to keep you out of reach for most of the things that can cause trouble out there." Jason glanced across to his second wife, Annette and smiled, "Your Aunt was able to persuade her family to part with a few weapon upgrades for your grandfather's ship as well. Now she's equipped with two bow-mounted one hundred and five-millimetre particle beams instead of the original seventy-fives. Also she's fitted with four twenty-millimetre rail guns on the upper hull, which have enough depression in the mounts so you could find them useful against ground targets if the need arises." Jason nodded towards his father, "The forward arc missile launcher with its eight round magazine and the salvo missile pack to take care of anything sneaking up behind you which your grandfather fitted are all still there and are tied in properly to the fire control systems." Colin's eyes were wide as he listened to his father; this was more than he'd ever hoped for. "Whilst we were removing the reactor from that old corvette we also took the shield generator and the full sensor suite." Jason gave a slight shrug, "It may not be state of the art but it's going to better than anything else that's available out here. The only thing we couldn't manage was to get the military hyperdrive out of the damn thing and into the Rose, it was just too old and too big - so you'll have to be satisfied with a class two hyperdrive, I'm afraid." Colin was nodding, two-light years an hour was more than enough for anyone. "The real beauty of the Rose is the stealth system," said Jason, "that is state of the art and it should enable you to slide past anything that isn't purposely looking for you. It will be good enough to avoid civilian grade sensor sweeps at anything above the five thousand-metre range if you're just creeping along. Obviously, if you go any faster then there's a greater chance of being seen." "Of course," agreed Colin. "So when do we get to see her?" asked Alison into the relative silence that followed her father's description of Colin's new ship. "Tomorrow," said Sophia firmly, "and there'll be no more talk of gifts and spaceships until this evening," she waved her finger menacingly at Bobbie Hadden, "after dinner." Bobbie grinned at his daughter-in-law before agreeing with her, "Yes, dear." She switched her gaze to Colin, "And we're not going anywhere near the spaceport until tomorrow." Colin nodded, but the look in his eye let everyone know where he'd rather be. <HR> Dinner had turned into a rambunctious family affair with Colin being given a seat at the end of the table where all eyes could see him. The meal had been hearty and full of Colin's personal favourite dishes, including the traditional Scottish haggis that he hadn't had for over three years. As the family sat around sipping port Colin's mother nodded to the robot butler. The domestic bot slipped silently out of the room and returned moments later with a silver case. Carrying the case he took a position behind Colin and waited for his cue. "Colin," called his mother, "your grandfather stole a march on us by giving you his present early." She smiled at the old man, "now it's my turn." As she finished speaking the butler cleared the decanter off the table with one hand and placed the case before the young man with the other. "You will be going into dangerous places and this is to help keep you safe when you do," said his mother as Colin eased the case open. Inside the case was a set of dark blue body armour; of the type used by police SWAT teams on the large House worlds. Whilst it couldn't compete with the latest in military body armour it was an excellent defensive shield against the sort of hoodlums that he was likely to run into. As he ran his fingers over the smooth surface of the vest his fingers encountered a textured area. Lifting the vest from the case he found a beautifully rendered image of a red rose. He glanced towards his mother and smiled, "Thank you," he said softly. "There will be another half-a-dozen sets for you to take with you for your crew," said Sophia. "Go on, put it on," called Alison. Colin rose to his feet and slipped the Kevlar and ceramic vest over his head. His brother, Fraser stood and helped him tighten the side straps until it was a snug fit. Inside the case, now that the vest was out of the way, Colin could see a matching helmet. "The helmet contains an encrypted, frequency agile radio that is tied into the other sets and the ship's AI," explained Sophia as Colin picked up the helmet. "Fraser and I clubbed together to get you matching jumpsuits to go with the armour," added Alison and then continued mischievously, "you and your crew will look so handsome dressed in them." Colin blushed but his father stepped in before he could say anything. "They may make him look handsome," said Colin's father, "but they serve a practical purpose as well. They're made out of ballistic cloth and are proof against things like knives, broken bottles and other sharp objects. They're also fireproof and water resistant which may not be as important but it could prove to be useful." Colin flashed a grin towards his older brother, "How much say did you have in their design?" "Not a lot," Fraser said with a grin, "You know how bossy she can be." Alison stuck her tongue out at her two brothers and then giggled. Annie nodded towards the butler, who again slipped out of the room to retrieve another case. As he returned Annie began speaking, "When I persuaded my family to upgrade the weapons on the Rose I also had them send me a few other things." She waved to the butler who stepped forward and offered Colin a second silver case. "This is for you, love. Use them well." The robot butler removed the first case, clearing a space for Colin and the new case. Opening the case he was greeted by three weapons held in position by grey foam. He wasn't familiar with the two pistols even though he could tell they were Glocks but the largest weapon there was very familiar friend, a Heckler and Kock MP5. He lifted it from the case and Annie smiled, "That was always a favourite of mine," she said. "It's the ten millimetre version, as are the two Glock pistols." Colin ran his hands over the weapon in an almost sensual manner. His father coughed softly, "The pistols are Glock models twenty and twenty-nine. They use the same ten-millimetre ammunition that that particular model of the MP5 does. The model twenty is the standard side arm and the twenty-nine is described as a compact. It's still pretty hefty but you should be able to carry it comfortably in the shoulder rig whenever you leave the Rose." "I've given you six of each, Colin," said Annie. "Your grandfather and father were fairly adamant about having the same calibre ammunition for all the weapons you take." Her smile passed over the two older men who both returned her look with one of stubbornness. "The Rose has been fitted with the equipment to allow you to produce reloads for the ten millimetre ammunition if you need to but there is a plentiful supply already aboard." Colin carefully lowered the MP5 to the dining table and reached for the two Glocks. "The model twenty carries fifteen rounds in the magazine," said Jason, "the model twenty-nine has to make do with ten rounds. Both of them operate the same way as the model seventeen's that you are used to, so you won't have to relearn anything. Just remember, keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to fire." His father shrugged, "That's good advice with any gun." "There's a selection of magazines, sights, slings and cleaning kits in the second layer of the case," said Annie. Colin nodded in understanding as he held the two pistols, the twenty felt bigger than the seventeen he was used to but not overly large. As his father had said the twenty-nine was not a small pistol and he wasn't sure he'd be carrying it all the time. Glancing around the room he decided that now was not the time to voice that opinion. Robert Hadden looked at his grandson and chuckled, "If you ever need it, I've left my old rifle in the ship's armoury." "The PSG?" asked Colin in surprise. "Yes," replied Robert, "It's just too heavy for me nowadays." Jason was shaking his head, "I've never understood why you two enjoy shooting that thing, it's a monster." The PSG was a Heckler and Kock semi-automatic sniper rifle and at anything under a hundred-metre range it was a liability, beyond that it came into its own. Its manufacturers claimed it was good for one minute of accuracy out of the box and it had proved to be the case. Both Colin and his grandfather took particular joy in punching neat holes into a target six hundred metres away, time after time. "It may be a monster, Dad, but if you hit something with it, it's not going to get up and come back at you," replied Colin. "I don't suppose it is," admitted Jason, "but are you ever likely to need it?" "It's better to have it available and not need it," answered Robert, "than find you need it and it's back here." "You can't argue with that logic, Dad," said Alison. "No, you can't," agreed Jason. He waved towards the cases, "Let the butler take those to your room for now Colin and we'll retire to the lounge for a few drinks." <HR> Colin opened his eyes and stretched, the sun shone through the blinds to let him know it was going to be another wonderful day. Outside his bedroom door he could hear a certain amount of hustle and bustle and frowned as he tried to discern what was going on. The high-pitched voice of his sister gave him his first clue. "It's getting late," she said, "shouldn't we be getting him up?" There was the murmur of a reply and then he heard Alison again, "I know it was a long journey but he said he didn't do much." "Be quiet," he heard his mother snap and grinned to himself. He'd better get out of bed before his sister ignored his mother and came in and dragged the covers off of him. He chuckled softly as he rose, naked and made his way to the bathroom, he was as desperate to see his ship as Alison appeared to be. Ten minutes later he strolled into the kitchen area and greeted those there. Sophia smiled at her son and asked, "Did you have a good night's sleep? Do you want anything to eat?" "I slept like a log," replied Colin, "and I'd love some toast and a mug of coffee if I can get one." "You know where the coffee is," said Sophia before she turned to Merry. "Three brown toast for Colin, Merry." Colin smiled as he remembered how he'd named the domestic bot as Merry Maid when she'd first been delivered. He glanced at her and noted that the manufacturer's had made her quite chunky, especially when compared with fembots he'd seen on the way home. Merry was also an order of magnitude dumber than those bots had been, which gave an idea of her age and cost. "Are you ready to go?" asked Alison. "As soon as I've had a coffee," replied Colin glancing at his sister. "Who's coming with us?" "Dad is waiting for a call, he'll meet us at the pad. Gramps should already be there," she grinned, "I bet he's saying goodbye to Rosie and telling her to look out for you." Rosie was the name of the ship's AI and she'd been Gramps friend and guardian when he'd been an explorer. Colin smiled softly, "He's going to miss her." "But she'll be looking after you," said his mother, "which will keep your grandfather happy." Colin ate the toast that Merry had placed before him and finished off his coffee, aware that Alison was watching him the whole time. "Is there a problem, Sis?" he asked. "No," she declared, "It's just that I'm probably not going to see you for a long time. I'll be in college and you'll be out there," she waved her arm skywards, "making a name for yourself." She gave him a sheepish grin, "I guess I just want to go with you." "Sorry, Sis," said Colin, "Maybe after you've finished college." He stood up and started walking towards the door, "You are coming?" he asked before nipping out of the door quickly. Alison scrambled after her brother, pursued by an admonishment to be careful from their mother. Jason was waiting for the two of them alongside an interface shuttle when they arrived at the planets only spaceport. Colin looked around the port and took the time to compare it with his previous impressions. The place was getting bigger and busier, it would take years before it could compete with even one of Montrose's ports but it was getting there. "How many people have we got now?" he asked as he stepped into the shuttle. "We've just gone through the hundred thousand mark," replied his father. "About forty thousand of them are here in Landfall, the rest are scattered over the continent. The community at Bounty Bay is big enough to be classed as a town now and I'm told that your sailing boat is still there." Colin grinned at that reminder of his original intention to be an explorer on the planet. That idea hadn't lasted long after his grandfather had shown him the images he'd taken when he'd carried out an orbital survey of the planet, there were really no unexplored places still to find. "Annie wants us to open up the next continent for agricultural use but I'm not sure if there's a big enough market to make it worthwhile," continued Jason. "It would also mean a tougher job for our security people." "Why?" asked Alison. "At the moment they only have to monitor this continent and with the numbers they've got they can manage that fairly easily," said Jason, "If anything appears anywhere else on the planet it is unauthorised and can be dealt with promptly. If we open up that continent we'll have to establish overwatch on developments and it'll be easier for squatters to slip through." "Wouldn't it be worthwhile opening up the continent and letting whoever in," said Alison. "They could look after themselves and we'd just get the taxes." "Letting anyone in could include pirates and slavers," said Jason with a scowl. "I doubt if they'd be willing to acknowledge that this planet was ours and pay our taxes." He shrugged, "It's one of the problems with the way things have developed over the last hundred years or so. The Great Houses may have something approaching nice, law-abiding planets, but the rest of us live in a modern Wild West." He glanced at his children; "The secret for us is to keep a firm grip of what we've got. As long as we do that only a properly planned invasion can take it away from us. Pirates and the like may attack us but they'll get a bloody nose and they know it." Colin frowned, "Are you worried about being attacked?" he asked remembering the way he'd been questioned about the attitude that House Graham. Did his father think that the Major House was going to step on them? "No," replied his father, "I doubt if we'll be attacked, it would be too expensive in terms of equipment and manpower, but there are other ways to bring a minor house to heel." "And you think that the Graham's are going to try that?" probed Colin again. "I don't think so and neither does Annie," said Jason, "but too many people have let us know that they are getting an attitude when they have to deal with House Graham. How high this is coming from is a guess but if what you told me concerning the Admiral is right then it's from a long way up in the House hierarchy." Jason fell silent for a moment. "In the end it doesn't really matter as there is very little we can do to influence things. The military might we've got doesn't amount to much in galactic terms but it's enough to keep us relatively safe. Our security people are equipped to the best of our ability but really they're just policemen not soldiers. The four corvettes we've got are sufficient to ensure that our system is left alone but not enough to worry one of the major houses." He smiled at his children, "But enough about possible problems," he said pointing towards a view screen, "there's the Rose." Colin and Alison spun around and looked at the screen. The ship was hanging on the side of Orbital One, the only fixed station in orbit around Dundaff. Colin swept his gaze over the sleek lines of the fifty-five metre long Sirius class vessel and grinned, soon she'd be all his. <HR> The shuttle approached Orbital One, the colony's only space station. Having a station was essential to allow the larger freighters a place to unload cargo and deal with local customs. The docking and disembarking procedure was as quick as you'd expect when the Master of the house was aboard the docking vessel. Crossing the small station to the boarding tube for the Red Rose was accomplished in the shortest possible time, Alison and Colin barely restraining themselves from sprinting. Jason grinned as Colin led them aboard his father's old ship. At one stage he'd considered going off and exploring but when his father had started to weaken he'd been required to step in and take over the reins of running the planet. It was a challenge that he found as exhilarating as it was worrying. He didn't begrudge his youngest son the opportunity to take off and see what he could find. That didn't mean he was going to let him go off half cocked; he'd already made significant arrangements to ensure that Colin would have the best that the house could provide. Entering the ship they were greeted by Robert Hadden in a powered wheelchair, with a beautiful redhead stood next to him. "Welcome aboard, Captain," said Robert and the woman alongside him bowed her head. "Gramps," said Colin and then inclined his head, "Rosie," he acknowledged the AI. "Captain," she responded. Colin frowned at his grandfather, "Have you changed Rosie's personality?" "Not at all," replied Robert, "I just told her she had to be on her best behaviour until I left." "Paah," hissed Rosie, "I'm always well-behaved," she said. "It's this old goat who causes all the trouble." "That's all right then," said Colin, relieved that the woman he'd always known hadn't been neutered. He glanced around the compartment and asked, "What's left to do?" "Apart from formally changing the registration over to you," replied Robert, "she's ready to go." "As ready as possible without a crew," said Rosie. "Have you given that matter any thought?" as Jason. "I'd planned on going to Tagliana first of all and seeing what was available," said Colin. "We can make that trip with just the two of us." "That's true," said Robert, "but I think you'd be safer with a bit of help." "A full crew would be what, six, seven people?" asked Jason. "Communications, sensors, navigation, engineering, weapons and command," reeled off Rosie. "You can pair several of the functions up to reduce the numbers of people involved. In a fight the minimum I'd like would be one person for sensors and navigation, with another for weapons. The Captain then runs the command and communications functions with engineering under my control." "That's the way I ran it," said Robert, giving his son a significant look. "And it's the way Colin will do it," said Jason. He turned to Rosie, "Call the girls, Rosie." "Girls?" queried Colin realising that he had been set up. "Don't panic, bro," said Alison, "You're going to like this." Colin looked from Alison to his father and back again, "I am?" Before anyone could answer a door opened and two redheads sauntered into the room. Rosie made the introductions, "The bimbo with the long hair is Adele and she's an expert with the weapons. The other bitch is Zara and she can spot a black rat a mile away with our sensors." "Thanks, Sis," replied the two women together. "Bots!" gasped Colin. "More than that," said Robert, "they're fully fledged AI units that have been around the block. Both of them are older than your father and more experienced than all of us put together." He grinned at Colin who stood there open-mouthed. "They started life as bodyguard units for the Imperial family and when I helped them out once Imperial security offered me their services for as long as I wanted." His grin deepened, "I just never got round to letting them go." "Are they trustworthy?" asked Colin suspiciously. "Yes," declared Robert. "They could have dropped me in it on more than one occasion and they haven't." He shrugged, "Providing you've no intention of setting yourself up against the Imperium you'll have nothing to fear from them." "Well, nothing much," added his sister which caused Colin to blush. "Pack it in, small fry," said Adele, "that's our Captain you're talking about." "Yeah," added Zara, "he's ours now." She turned smouldering green eyes on a flustered young man, "and you know how we protect what's ours!" Alison threw up her hands, "I do," she said, "and that's why I'm so worried." Everyone apart from Colin had a chuckle at that. He was struggling to come to terms with what he'd just been given. If what his grandfather had said was true then each of these two bots was worth more than his ship, sold together he could have bought a frigate and a crew to go with it. With tears in his eyes he knelt down and hugged his grandfather, "Thanks, Gramps." Robert patted his grandson's back and said softly, "You just take care out there, my boy, and I'll be happy." Colin rose to his feet and cast a glance at his sister, "You know these two ladies?" he asked. "Oh, yes," she replied, "as soon as Gramps and Dad decided to give you the Rose I've been involved. These 'lovely ladies' as you call them, have been looking out for me whenever I'm up here." Colin turned his attention back to his grandfather, "How is it that I've never met them before?" "They've been here most of the time," said Robert, "but when anyone else was on the Rose they stayed at my place." He gave his grandson a serious look, "They're still secret as far as anyone else is concerned and, because of that, I tried to keep them out of the public eye as much as possible. You'd probably do well to stick to that." Colin found himself nodding in unison with three redheads. "Shall we go for a ride?" asked Jason changing the subject. A chorus of approval greeted his question. "We'll just do a quick dash around the system and then you can drop us old men off back here," he smiled at his children. "Then you and Alison can go and have some fun with Rosie and the girls for a few days," he finished. <HR> A week later Colin entered the house with his arm around his sister, both of them were chuckling at something. "Welcome back," said Fraser to the happy pair, "I take it things went well?" "It's brilliant," replied Colin enthusiastically. "When are you planning on leaving?" Fraser asked. "Tomorrow," said Colin, "If I don't, I'll end up hanging around and getting into trouble." "That's what I thought you'd say," said Fraser, "go through to the lounge and wait there, there's something I need to get." He walked off leaving Colin and Alison staring after his retreating back. "Got any ideas what that's all about?" asked Colin. "Not this time," replied his sister with a shrug. "Then we'd better do as he asked," said Colin walking towards the lounge door. They didn't have to wait long for Fraser to return and when he did Yana, his personal slave accompanied him. The longhaired woman looked as confused as Colin and Alison as she followed the house's oldest son into the lounge. Fraser didn't beat about the bush; he just took Yana's hand and placed it into Colin's. "She's yours," he said simply, "I don't need her anymore." Everyone in the room, with the exception of Fraser was stunned at his words. "Why?" gasped Colin, barely ahead of a similar question from Yana. Fraser ignored Colin and turned his attention on Yana. "Yana, you've been with me all my life, first as my nanny when I was a little boy." Fraser squeezed her hand in Colin's, "And since I've been out of short trousers you've been my friend, my confidant, but now it's time for us to go on with our lives." He sighed, "I couldn't sell you, that would be too much for me to deal with, but I do need to move on and part of that is separating us." He indicated his younger brother, "Colin is leaving tomorrow and by giving you to him I achieve both of my aims. You are still with the family and you are away from me." Yana ran, Fraser looked towards his sister who sighed, "I'll see to her," she said. Fraser turned his eyes to Colin, who noticed the unshed tears that made them glisten, "Look after her, little brother, she means more to me than I could ever tell her." Colin nodded in partial understanding. His own personal slave had been moved on when he'd gone away to college. Fraser had been home educated so the break had never needed to be made. Now, at twenty-one and heir to the house Fraser needed to move forward. "I'm not sure how she'll fare," Colin began. "She'll be an asset," said Fraser quickly, "For the last year she's been learning a lot of things that would be useful to you. She can operate your ship's galley and manage all the hydroponics and reclamation systems." Fraser flushed a little, "She's also pretty accomplished in the sack, if you push her." "Push her!" exclaimed Colin; "I'm not into forcing slaves." Fraser held up his hands to placate his brother, "Not force," he said, "but she responds better if you work to overcome her reluctance." Colin looked puzzled, which caused Fraser to sigh. "She's a submissive," he explained, "if you say please and thank you she does as she's told but without enthusiasm. Give her commands firmly, with the threat of chastisement and she becomes a willing accomplice." Colin's eyebrows shot up, "I thought only sex-bots did that sort of thing?" "Not really, the idea for that came from real women," said Fraser. "Hummm," said Colin, "This could be really interesting." "Take it easy," snapped Fraser, "You're to treat her well or I'll make you pay." "Oh, I will," said Colin, "but I'll make sure we both enjoy ourselves as well." Fraser went red and turned away, "Just be careful," he tossed over his shoulder as he headed for his own room. <HR> Chapter 4 The night before Colin had sent Yana to her own bed with instructions to be ready to leave in the morning, he hadn't wished to get involved in any histrionics with the slave. Now Yana was stood in the hall waiting for her new master to bid farewell to the rest of his family. Her eyes were filled with tears as she looked upon her old master who, was lined up with the rest of the Hadden family. Like Colin she was dressed in the blue jumpsuit that was the uniform for the crew of the Red Rose. The only major difference between her uniform and Colin's was that her new master was carrying a weapon. Colin had already bade farewell to his mother and Annie before he moved down the line and approached his father. "I know you've already been given a lot of gifts Colin, but I've got one final item for you," he said and drew his arm from behind his back. "This is the silver dirk and it came from Earth when the family left home. It's one of a pair and the silver one was always given to the second son of the house." In his hand was something akin to a small sword; the whole thing was nearly half a metre long from the top of the pommel to the tip of the scabbard. As Colin took it from his hand, Jason continued, "The dirk was the traditional backup weapon of the Highlander and was a symbol of his honour. Oaths of fealty were sworn on its blade and if the oath was broken, so was the dirk." Colin rotated the weapon in his hands, smoothly extracting the three hundred millimetre long blade from its scabbard and admired the highly polished steel blade. Inset into the double-edged weapon were three deep grooves or blood channels that allowed it to be withdrawn easily from a body. "The words around the pommel are in Gaelic, the old language of Scotland. It declares 'Daondan Airbhinneach' which means 'Always Honourable' as a rough translation," said Jason. "The other dirk, the golden one is for Fraser and it will be presented to him when he takes his seat on the house council at the end of the year." Fraser hissed; he'd no idea that he would be formally joining the council so soon. The detail of the family dirk passed him by in the sudden rush of joy that his maturity had been recognised. Across the room Yana too felt that surge of joy but it was tinged with sadness as she realised that setting her aside may have been one of the things his father had been waiting for. Colin returned the blade to its sheath and addressed his father, "Thank you," he said seriously, "It'll have a place of honour on my ship and I'll endeavour to live up to the motto." "That's all I can ask," replied his father just as seriously. "I'd better be going," said Colin. Before he could leave his sister threw her arms around him and hugged him fiercely, "Take care," she whispered. "I will," he promised and gave her a kiss on the cheek. "Now let me go or we'll be doing all of this again tomorrow." Colin and Yana left the family home and were transported to the spaceport where a shuttle waited to ferry them to Orbital One and the waiting scout ship Red Rose. <HR> Colin strode through the hatch that had moved out of his way at his command with Yana a pace or two behind him. He made his way to the bridge where Adele, Zara and Rosie greeted him. The three of them were in the same blue jumpsuits that he wore though, like Yana they were not armed. For some reason that detail was the first thing that Colin focused on. "Why aren't you armed?" he asked, "I know Aunt Annie sent up sufficient weapons for us all." "You haven't given us permission to carry arms, Captain," replied Adele. "As bots we cannot go armed unless specifically instructed to do so by our owner," said Zara with a sweet smile, "and in case you've forgotten that's you, Captain." "OK," replied Colin with a grin, "you have my permission to carry guns." "Noted," responded Rosie and a holstered pistol appeared on her holographically generated hip. "I'll get them," sang Zara as she headed for the hatch. Spotting Yana she stopped, "Does Yana need a weapon, Captain?" "You know, Yana?" asked Colin in surprise. "Of course we do, Captain," replied Adele, "she's been here several times to learn about the ship's systems." Colin turned to his slave, "Have you been trained in the use of pistols?" "Yes, Sir," she replied. "Right," said Colin and then paused in thought for just a moment. "First things first, all of you address me as Colin whilst we're on board the Rose, when we're anywhere else call me Captain. You can all carry sidearms at all times if you so desire though I've no intention of carrying mine when we're out in space." "I take it you know where the galley is, Yana?" he asked switching subjects. "Yes," she replied. "Right, dump your stuff in one of the cabins and see if you can rustle up a pot of coffee," he glanced around the bridge but couldn't think of anything that needed doing there at that moment. "We'll all meet you in the living area and discuss what I have planned." He switched his gaze to Zara, "Bring the sidearms there." Zara nodded and slipped out of the hatch in the direction of the armoury. Yana backed out slowly and disappeared in the direction of the galley. Colin turned to the AI, "Rosie, are we ready to depart?" "All systems are in the green", she replied, "All stores are topped off and a flight plan for Tagliana has been filed with Orbital One's flight controllers, all they need is a departure time. In other words we're ready to rock." Colin nodded and then indicated the hatch, "Shall we?" he asked Adele. Chuckling the redhead led Colin off the bridge. As they entered the open living area Rosie reappeared, "So, where are we going?" she asked. Colin dropped into a convenient armchair before answering, "Wait until the rest get here," he said. "Boo," responded Rosie with a pout. They didn't have to wait long before Zara appeared carrying two of the holstered Glock model twenty's, a similar weapon already graced her hip. Adele had only just finished strapping on her weapon when Yana arrived carrying a tray of cups and a fresh brewed pot of coffee. After everyone had helped themselves to a coffee they found a place to sit and waited for Colin to begin. He in turn was looking over his crew with mild amusement. The bots were sipping the same drink as he was, something they didn't need but was an ability built into bots to make them seem more human. They'd be able to dispose of the unneeded and undigested product at their leisure. Rosie was going through the same actions with a holographically generated cup of hot beverage. "OK, enough of my musings," said Colin to ensure he had the women's attention. "Our first port of call will be Tagliana, where we will check in with the guild office and see if there is anything pressing we need to get involved in. If there's nothing there I intend to head for Tor and then out into the wild blue yonder." "Tor!" gasped Yana when she heard the name. Tor was a wild place but it was also the last planet with anything resembling an organised existence in human space, beyond it there was only the unexplored. The real problem from Yana's perspective was what Tor did to generate credit. It was a slave centre, a place where slaves could be bought and sold with little in the way of checking to see if a person really was a slave. Once a person had been registered there as a slave it became a fact and no amount of money or family pressure could change that fact. It was rumoured, but never proven, that Tor ran a fleet of slavers, small ships that would attack the unwary and steal away the passengers and crew, selling them into a life of servitude. Whether it was true or not that the ships existed, it was well known that many well-to-do families and their kin's kidnappers had exchanged items on the planet and no kidnappers had ever been bought to justice after such an event. "No, Yana," responded Colin, "I'm not planning on selling you, it's just a step in our journey. Though there is one thing I'll have to do when we get to Tagliana and that's have your change of ownership recorded. It's all right on Dundaff but I'll need to update the Imperial database and I can do that on the station." He gave her a smile, "You might want to think about how you want to be marked," he said indicating the clan mark on the centre of her forehead. "I was thinking of replacing that with a small red rose with the number two at its centre. If you want it to be positioned somewhere else you'd better let me know before we get there." Yana nodded but remained silent. Slaves were required by law to be collared, marked and registered. The mark could be specific to an individual or an organisation, often a house mark. The collar was not only a legal requirement it had a practical aspect as well. It had to be fitted with a homing beacon and a secure locking mechanism and, although not a legal requirement, there were some that were fitted with a small explosive charge that could be triggered remotely. Not a pleasant thought for a slave who was unhappy with her lot. He took a sip of his coffee before he continued, "What I'm going to be looking for is ore deposits, preferably heavy metals. When we find them we will claim them and sell the rights on to the highest bidder." "You'll not be keeping them for your house?" asked Adele in surprise. "Not unless they are truly spectacular," replied Colin. "We haven't got the resources or manpower to go off exploiting far off deposits." He shrugged, "If it's something spectacular I'll deal with it at the time, probably by filing a general claim for the whole system without giving out details and letting Dad deal with the recovery requirements in due course." "That's fine," said Zara, "and I take it you've no intention of getting involved in anything vaguely suspicious?" "Nothing at all," said Colin. "I want nothing to do with trouble in any form. If I can get back to Dundaff without firing a weapon I'll be one happy bunny." "That's good," announced Rosie, "I hate it when my paint work gets damaged." "And not just the paint work," added Adele. "Well I'm delicate and gentle," said Colin, "and I've no intention of giving anyone a chance to put holes in my skin that aren't already there." Colin drained the last of his coffee and looked at the four women, "Everyone finished?" Receiving an affirmative reply he nodded, "Then let's get on our way." "Aye-aye, Captain," responded Rosie before she disappeared. <HR> After two very busy weeks the scout vessel Red Rose approached the Tagliana space station. Her House Hadden registration was checked against Imperial records and after finding that she was a legitimate vessel with the right to be there, docking instructions were passed to the ship. Colin was not surprised to find that he and his ship were instructed to dock at one of the most distant ports from the hub. "All secured," reported Rosie as the docking tube sealed and pressurised. "Switch to station keeping," ordered Colin. "Powering down," replied Rosie and a couple of minutes later she added, "That's it, we're officially here." Zara chuckled from her position at the sensor station, "As though even you could miss an entire space station." "It's not missing that's hard," replied Rosie looking very aloof, "It's hitting it just hard enough to stick without breaking anything." "Thank you anyway," said Colin. "Now I've got to go and report in. While I'm gone see if you can dig out anything worth knowing from the stations databases." "Will do," said Rosie. "And tell Yana to meet me at the docking tube," said Colin. "Shall we go ladies?" he asked addressing the two bots. "Let's," replied Zara as she and Adele got to their feet. "Secure the ship after we've gone," said Colin and received a sniff from Rosie in response. As though she'd do anything else she seemed to be saying. Colin let it go and headed for the docking tube, dropping his hand momentarily to his hip to check that his Glock was there. The walk through the station took a good twenty minutes with Colin in the lead and the two bots flanking him, Yana, as was befitting a slave bought up the rear. The group's arrival at the Scouts' Guild was barely commented on as similar groups moved in and out of the building regularly. Most of these scouts operated within the confines of Imperial space, a space that was bordered by the twelve planets identified by the Raenil and much of which still needed to be properly explored. "Welcome, Scout," greeted the bot manning the reception desk. "If you will swipe your ID through the scanner your presence will be recorded and any messages will be forwarded." Colin did as instructed and was surprised to note two messages were waiting for him. "Accommodation is available within the hall if you require it," continued the bot. "No, thank you," replied Colin, "but I will need directions to the slave registration offices." "The data can be printed or uploaded to one of your bots," responded the receptionist. "I'll take the hard copy," said Colin, not wanting to interface his two bots with the station. "Yana, wait here for the instructions and then join us in that booth," said Colin, pointing off to a free corner. "Yes, Captain," replied Yana with just the right amount of subservience. "Come on, girls," said Colin as he headed in the direction he'd indicated, "let's find out who wants to talk to me." Dropping into a seat Colin swiped his ID through the scanner and called up his messages. The first was from Angus, inviting him for a drink if he arrived before he departed. The second was a reminder from Master Graham to visit him before he set off. Colin raised an eyebrow as he listened to both messages in surprise. Not so much the one from the Master but the one from Angus was totally unexpected. Colin sent off a request to meet the Master, at his convenience and was invited over that same afternoon. Contemplating the message from Angus, Colin mused. The two of them had been acquaintances when he was on Montrose, his position in house Hadden had ensured that he had been required to attend several functions as his father's representative. In the same way that Angus had been required to make an appearance. As the two of them had been in the same college they'd often ended up travelling together. Being in the same class had also required a certain amount of interaction but Colin would never have considered Angus to be a friend. "I wonder if he's free tonight," murmured Colin before sending off a message to his fellow scout. Yana approached the three of them clutching a piece of paper. "Grab a seat," instructed Colin and waited for her to sit. "Now, have you given the slave mark any thought?" "The centre of the forehead is perfectly acceptable," she replied softly. "Not around the navel, like Logan's slave Zena?" asked Colin referring to the most successful scout of recent times. "No, Sir," said Yana. "Or how about around your left nipple, so that the mark is over your heart," suggested Colin with a smirk. "Sir!" exclaimed Yana as her face began to turn bright red. "You are aware, Captain," said Adele, "that a slave mark has to be visible at all times?" "Yes," replied Colin raising an eyebrow in query. "Well that would mean that Yana would have to display her breasts at all times," replied Adele. "And I'm not sure if I'd like the competition," added Zara cupping her own medium-sized breasts. "I suppose that is a point," conceded Colin glancing at Yana, who was studying the table before her. The slave may have been nearly forty but she looked no older than Adele or Zara. Her long mousy brown hair hung straight down framing her face and, if pulled forward, would have covered her ample breasts. "It would also reduce the effectiveness of the jumpsuit," pointed out Adele. "OK, I'll accept your advice," said Colin, "We'll stick the mark in the traditional position." Yana let out a deep breath but said nothing. Colin chuckled and Yana lifted her eyes, "I'd never do anything nasty to you, Yana." "Oh but you have to," said Adele, "otherwise she may forget her position and end up being punished by some other free person." Colin scowled but Yana nodded. "You agree?" asked Colin in surprise. "I, like all of your family's slaves are treated very well," said Yana, "but not all free people accept that that is the right way to treat a slave. Away from the house I will need to be reminded of my station." She gave a shy smile, "If you can do it in a public place it may even keep others from trying to take advantage of my seeming freedom." Colin glanced towards the two bots and caught them both nodding in agreement. He also remembered what his brother had said about Yana's sexual preferences and fought down a blush. "So you all think that I should be a firm master when we are away from the ship?" he asked. A chorus of affirmatives surprised him, especially as Yana's had been the loudest. "I'll think about it," said Colin, "but in the meantime we need to get your transfer noted." He picked up the paper with the directions printed on it and was surprised that it was only three lines. It seems that the slave registration centre was only a block from the Scout's headquarters. "Let's go," he instructed and the group moved out in the same manner that they'd arrived in. The group quickly made their way along the street and into the slave registration office, where they were greeted by a woman with a large flower design on her forehead. "How may I help you, Sir?" she asked Colin "I wish to change this slave's registration details," said Colin. "If you have her papers it will only take a moment, Sir," said the woman said with a quick glance at Yana. After reading the papers she consulted her computer terminal and after a couple of moments looked up, "You wish to change her mark from the House Hadden mark?" "I do," said Colin. "We'll get that done first and then get the new pictures taken," said the woman. The woman pressed a button on her desk and within moments another woman; this one in a very flimsy gown approached the desk. "Mary will take you through to the theatre," said the woman behind the counter. The new slave gave a short nod and then led the party along a white corridor until she came to a set of white doors. "If you'll go in here, Sir, I'll wait until you've finished." "Yana," said Colin opening the door and waving her through. He glanced to the two bots and nodded towards a couple of chairs in the corridor, "Will you wait here?" "Aye-aye, Captain," responded the pair together. Colin stepped through the door after Yana and found himself in a sterile white room with a padded table at its centre. A disembodied voice greeted them, "Please position the slave on the table such that the area to be marked is uppermost and clear of clothing." Colin waved towards the table and Yana carefully climbed on to it, lying on her back. A screen lit up and Colin crossed towards it. "Please indicate your chosen mark or have the preferred image uploaded." Colin inserted his own chip that carried the design he'd decided on. "Mark the position for the image on the scan provided." An image of Yana on the table appeared and Colin indicated the forehead, guiding the imaging software until the rose image was as small as was legally allowed. "Do you wish for the current mark to be neutralised?" asked the voice. Colin hit the 'yes' button in response. Yana suddenly found that she was unable to move and a beam of yellow light began removing the laser engraved image that was already on her forehead. It did this by simply over colouring the image with colours that matched her skin tones. The red rose that Colin had picked as his mark was next applied by a red laser but Yana felt very little as a local anaesthetic had removed any feelings from her forehead. "Completed," announced the voice and Yana found she was able to move again. Colin crossed to his slave and inspected the mark; it was a superbly detailed rose no bigger than his thumbnail with the Roman numeral for two at its centre. He held out his hand to Yana and assisted her from the table. "Let's go," he said softly leading her towards the doors. Mary was standing there waiting for them as they came out of the theatre. She waited until she caught Colin's eye and then said, "This way, Sir." Adele and Zara rose as Colin moved off and followed along. It was only a short walk until they were guided into a photographic studio. Here a young man crossed the room to greet them, "Captain Hadden, welcome," he said offering Colin his hand. After they'd shaken hands the young man explained, "We need to take a picture of you, as the master, then one of the slave for the official record." He pointed towards a plain white backdrop, "If you would take a position just there, I'll get your picture taken." As Colin crossed to the indicated position the young man turned to Yana, "You, strip," he instructed. Colin was about to say something but Yana just peeled off the jumpsuit she'd been wearing so Colin shrugged and turned to face the camera. After a couple of clicks the young man thanked Colin and waved Yana forward. "Front first," he said, "then turn through ninety degrees until we've taken both sides and a rear view." Yana nodded once and stood perfectly still until the young man instructed her to turn. "Finished," announced the young man before he turned to Colin. "If you go back to the front desk they'll have a couple more questions for you and then require a thumb print. Once that's been done she's officially yours." After thanking the young man Colin and the girls made their way back to the reception desk. The same slave who'd greeted them was waiting for them as they returned. "Captain Hadden, just a couple of questions and the transfer of ownership will be completed." She indicated Yana, "Is the slave permitted to carry or operate weapons of any description?" "She is," said Colin, "Do you need a description of what is permissible?" "No, the fact that she can use weapons is sufficient," said the woman. "Do you wish us to send our invoice to your ship?" "No, I'll pay now," said Colin. "Very well," said the woman, "If you'll press your thumb here," she indicated a marked area on an official page, "and here," a second impression was taken. "The slave is now yours," she announced. "Thank you," said Colin before taking Yana's hand. "Come on. Let's get back to the ship." <HR> "Colin, you've received a reply from Angus Graham," reported Rosie on their return to the ship. "He suggests that you meet at Clementine's tonight as he is planning on leaving tomorrow morning." Colin thought for a moment but couldn't come up with anything else he needed to do. "Send him an acknowledgement," he instructed. "Done," replied Rosie. "Did you find anything interesting while we were away?" he asked. "Nothing important," she replied. "I've updated our space charts and checked out the areas you indicated that you were interested in and no one has filed a flight plan in that direction." That didn't really mean a lot as more than one flight plan had been falsified, especially by scouts that were seeking to gain an advantage over their fellow explorers. "OK, we'll leave tomorrow morning. File our flight plan with that departure time," he ordered. Colin turned to the rest of his crew, "Get yourselves organised and then relax. I've got to see Master Graham this afternoon and I'll be meeting Angus this evening." "Do you need us to accompany you?" asked Zara. "Not this time," said Colin, "I shouldn't have any problems on this station." Zara frowned but remained silent, as did Adele and Yana. Colin headed for his room to relax for an hour or so before he had to meet the Master of his Guild. A couple of hours later and Colin was waiting in an anteroom in the Scouts' Guild. His quiet musings were interrupted by the return of the young man who acted as the Master's aide. "If you'll come with me, Captain," he said when he saw Colin was looking at him. "The Master will see you now." The office Colin was taken to was large and well-appointed, the only sign of clutter was in a large vestibule that appeared to be a library of some sort. Master Graham rose from behind his desk as Colin entered and offered the young man his hand. "I'm glad you remembered my invitation," he said completely ignoring the fact that he had sent a reminder. Colin grinned "As though I was likely to forget a Master's 'invitation.'" he replied. "We're not the ogres that you think," said Master Graham, "We just seem like it when you're going through the necessary training to become members of the guild." Colin nodded in understanding, "And now?" he asked. "Now I'm just a senior member of your 'family,'" said the older man. "You are free to disagree with me if you like, but that could lead to difficulties later," he finished with raised eyebrows. "I for one," said Colin, "would never disagree with a Master." "At least not publicly," agreed Fergus Graham before waving towards a set of comfortable chairs. "I take it you're still planning on heading out of Imperial space?" asked Fergus after they were seated. "I am," responded Colin firmly. "In Bobbie's old ship?" "Bobbie?" queried Colin. "Robert Hadden's ship, the Red Rose," explained Fergus. "You know Gramps?" exclaimed Colin in surprise. "We were classmates a long time ago," explained Fergus. Colin found himself nodding again. "Yes, I've got the Rose now," he said, "Though she has been updated a little since Gramps used her." "Good," acknowledged Fergus, "and that is one of the reasons I wanted to speak to you before you left. I've got another update for your ship." "You have?" asked Colin in surprise. "Yes," said Fergus, "It's an update to your ship's AI. It won't change her personality but it will increase her capacities substantially, especially in military matters." "How?" asked Colin and without waiting for an answer asked, "Why?" "The why is easy and it's not just aimed at you," said Fergus. "I've been offering it or something similar to all scouts who are headed out of Imperial space for the last twelve months." He looked around his room for a moment before continuing. "Prior to that we'd lost over a dozen scouts in two years," he paused, "There's no evidence but I'm beginning to believe that there is something out there and it's either detaining or killing scouts. Anyone who'd heading in that direction needs all the assistance they can get and for those with limited support I'm offering a copy of an up-to-date AI system for their ship." "Angus?" asked Colin without thought. "My nephew already has a later system than this one built into his ship," Fergus said with a frown. "I actually think that he's too well equipped for the job in hand. A reliance on equipment tends to make you too brave, which can prove to be fatal to a scout, but his father and, more importantly, his mother insisted that he have the best ship they could provide." Fergus shrugged, "I've already told him of my suspicions so he has had the same warning you've had. Hopefully you'll both take heed and come back safely." Colin smiled softly, "I'm seeing Angus tonight, and I'll repeat your warning." "And a lot of good it will do," said Fergus with another shrug. "It's one of the problems with being young, you think you're invincible." "I don't," said Colin, "and I've no intention of taking any chances." "I'm glad to hear it," said Fergus. "Now where are you intending to go?" he asked. "Tor," replied Colin, "and then..." The two of them spent another thirty minutes or so in conversation before Colin bid the Guild Master goodbye, clutching a series of chips under his arm. <HR> Colin grimaced as he walked into Clementine's. The noise assaulted his eardrums and the flashing lights attempted to sear the back of his eyeballs. He paused as he attempted to acclimatise himself to the sensations and was approached by a barely clad fembot. "Can I be of assistance," she asked. "I'm looking for a friend," said Colin speaking clearly, he knew that most of the bots used in a place like this relied on a combination of hearing and lip reading to understand what was being said, "Angus Graham." The bot glanced up for a moment before returning her attention to Colin, "Please come this way," she said and walked off, wiggling her way between the various tables. Colin followed her into the darkness hoping that she knew where she was going. He was glad that the sound levels dropped as he moved through the room and were almost acceptable when she stopped, "Here you are, Sir," she said. "Colin," called Angus loudly as he jumped to his feet and offered his hand. "Angus," acknowledged Colin greeting the young man. "Grab a seat," said Angus. "What would you like to drink?" "Eiskan Pils, if they've got it," said Colin making himself comfortable. The bot nodded in understanding, "And I'll have another one of these," added Angus waving a half empty shot glass. "Yes, Sir," answered the bot before moving off. Angus dropped into his seat and glanced around. "Ever been here before?" he asked. Colin shook his head in response; he'd only been to the station a couple of times and never with enough time or freedom to get into anything resembling trouble. "You'll probably enjoy it then," said Angus, "the strippers are great and the drinks don't cost the earth." "But why come here?" asked Colin, well aware that Angus could have afforded a professional escort if he needed that sort of company. "It's more fun watching people than just paying for it," Angus replied. "You get so used to slaves doing what you want, whether they like it or not that it's no longer worth the effort. Most of the dancers here are in servitude and are still allowed to say no if they want." Colin shrugged. "Don't tell me you're one of those idiots who think slavery should be abolished," said Angus. "No," responded Colin. "I'm one of those who knows that the system works, which is more than can be said for what went before. I've no problem with criminals and the destitute being forced into slavery, the problem I have is with places like Tor and the slaving that seems to go with it." "Yeah," agreed Angus. "When it's used to replace a death sentence, it seems sensible but to be forced into slavery isn't so hot." Angus shrugged, "It's always going to be a problem as long as each planet runs its own slavery database and then uploads the information to the Imperial register." He shrugged again, "I can't see my dad allowing the Imperial forces to expand any of their departments onto Montrose. He'd see it as the thin end of the wedge." Colin nodded, "Yeah, they get a foothold in anywhere and we're all in trouble, I suppose that's one of the reason's I like the idea of servitude more than slavery," said Colin. "Making the villain pay for their crime with their freedom and any profit going to their victim just seems so right. And when the debt is paid off the person returns to society without any stigma." He shrugged, "Slavery is justified but it's permanent and I'm not convinced that, in the long run, it won't present its own problems." "Whether it's slavery or servitude it saves the expense of having to run a prison and diverting useful members of society to keep track of criminals," said Angus. "Did you know that in the twentieth century some governments were paying more for prisons than they were for long term health care? If the victim of a crime ended up in an institution the taxpayer had to pay for both the victim and the villain." "That was ludicrous," agreed Colin as he remembered the facts from one of his history lessons. "But true," continued Angus, "It's one of the things that we lost when centralised government went out of the window. No house is prepared to pay for things that they can't make a profit out of and the general public wouldn't stand for the levels of taxation that would be required to run an old style nanny state." "I know I'd vote with my feet if your house tried to introduce anything like that," said Colin and then looked up sharply as he realised what he'd said. "You wouldn't be the only one," replied Angus with a smile, "I think half the family would move out rather than give up the money they'd earned." Fortunately there was a pause in the conversation as the fembot bought them their drinks. After she left Angus sipped his drink and then looked across at Colin. "Do you know if your house has any plans to break away from ours?" he asked, just loud enough for Colin to hear. Colin jolted upright in shock, his mouth hanging open. His head was shaking negatively as he attempted to frame the words of denial. Angus held up his free hand, "I didn't think so," he said just as quietly, "but some people are beginning to wonder." "Is that why we're getting so much grief?" asked Colin suspiciously. "Possibly," admitted Angus. "I know my father doesn't believe that your father is looking to break away but it's happening to other houses and the people who advise him are looking for our own example." "People are breaking away?" gasped Colin in surprise and then had a thought, "Who's questioning our loyalty?" asked Colin leaning forward, "Is Admiral Hemmer one of them?" Angus waved his hand in a dismissive gesture, "Hemmer is a cautious sod who sees danger and treason under every rock. He's none too happy that I've become a scout and threatened at one stage to send a squadron of corvettes with me wherever I went." Angus frowned, "I soon put paid to that idea but it wouldn't surprise me if he tries to have me followed." "If it's not him then who?" asked Colin, "and more importantly what are you going to do about it?" "There's not a lot that can be done about people's perceptions, unfortunately," he grinned, "I can think of a few times when that ability would have been useful. Remember our free-fall manoeuvring class." Colin grinned as he remembered the trouble they'd had with one of the college's instructors when he found out that he and Angus were as happy in free-fall as they were under gravity and hadn't told him about it before the lesson. The happiness was short lived as he returned his thoughts to the problems between their houses. "Well I can assure you that I know nothing about any attempt on our part to break away from House Graham," declared Colin firmly. "I guess it doesn't really matter to us, does it?" asked Angus, "We're not going to be around here for the next six months or so." "No, I don't suppose we are," agreed Colin making a mental note to send a message off to his father. In an effort to change the subject he said, "What do you think of the warning that Master Graham gave out?" "The one about disappearing scouts?" asked Angus. Colin nodded. "I doubt if it will bother me," said Angus. "I'm steering well clear of any inhabited planets for the first dozen jumps or so. What about you?" "Tor's about the furthest place out that's been settled in any numbers, so I'm heading there to begin with," said Colin. "Even if I don't like the look of the place it's a good jumping off point." "Watch out around the fourth jump point on the journey," said Angus, "There's been a few ships encountering trouble around there. We've stationed a couple of corvette squadrons in the area to try and nab the bad guys." "That's the area that your uncle was on about," said Colin. "It's good to know that help will be on hand if I need it," he said as he rose to his feet. "Good hunting." "You too," replied Angus with a friendly wave, "and I'll see you back here in about six months." Colin walked out of Clementine's without seeing any of the much-vaunted strippers that Angus had been raving about; he had other things on his mind. <HR> Chapter 5 Colin settled into his command chair and took a look around the bridge. Adele was scanning the control board for the weapons system, running what he hoped were dummy runs against targets of opportunity. Zara had her attention split between the sensor net and the navigation control stations, the two stations that were her areas of responsibility. Rosie was shimmering between the two of them and keeping an eye on Yana, who was sat at the environmental control board. Yana was only keeping one eye on the board; the other was locked on Colin. One change that had occurred in the set up suggested by his Grandfather was that Rosie managed the communications duties as well as keeping an eye on the engineering section. This had come about because Colin had found it embarrassing to talk on the radio for some reason. "OK, Rosie, let's get out of here," said Colin. "Aye-aye, Captain," responded the AI, "disengaging from the station now." A slight shudder ran through the ship as she broke free from Tagliana's docking clamps and became free. All ship systems were checked as she hung there in space waiting for the instructions to move off. "Tagliana control has approved our flight plan," reported Rosie. "The flight controllers have wished us 'bon voyage.'" "Thank them for their assistance," instructed Colin as he relaxed in the command seat. "Set a course for the first jump point and ramp the speed up to fifty zeks." Around Colin the two bots functioned smoothly, working with the AI to ensure that the Rose's progress was smooth and safe. They'd been moving for nearly ten minutes when Zara glanced towards Colin, "You were right," she reported. Colin shrugged, "It's not surprising," he said, "I'd have done the same thing." Earlier he'd sent a message off to his father reporting the conversation he'd had the previous day with Angus Graham. He and his crew had then watched as Angus had departed the station, followed ten minutes later by a House Graham frigate. The frigate didn't follow exactly the same heading as the scout ship with Angus on board but it was close enough for the military vessel's sensors to track the smaller scout vessel. Now a pair of House Graham corvettes had broken away from the station and were tracking his own course in the same manner, not exactly the same but close enough for them to keep an eye on him. As his ship was fitted with a similar sensor suite he could see the corvettes as well as they could see him. "We can go stealthy as soon as we jump," suggested Zara. "No point," said Colin, "That would just reveal our capabilities and I want to keep them in hand in case I need them later. Besides, I've told everyone where I'm going and I've no intention of changing the flight plan so we'll just let them tag along if they want to." "I wonder if they know we can watch them as clearly as they can see us?" mused Zara as she made a couple of adjustments to her control board. "Thirty minutes to jump point one," reported Rosie. Because of the vagaries of hyperspace the trip to Tor was six jumps long with a possible danger point at jump four. The total trip would take nearly two weeks using the class two hyperdrive fitted to the Red Rose. The corvettes that appeared to be following them could do the same journey in just over eight days if they needed to. "How fast are those corvettes moving?" asked Colin. "Fifty zeks," replied Zara simply. Colin nodded silently; it looked like he was going to have a shadow. The only question left now was for how long? Would they be following him indefinitely or just until he reached Tor? At the back of his mind was a niggling suspicion that they were there to do more than just follow him. "If they start to close up let me know?" he ordered, giving in to his suspicions. As he'd once been told, 'it's not paranoia if it turns out that they are out to get you.' He didn't fancy trying to slug it out with a pair of corvettes but with only a five-zek speed differential he'd have to be pretty alert to out run them if they came after him. "Aye-aye, Captain," responded Zara. "Ten minutes to jump point," reported Rosie. "All systems are primed and ready to jump," she added. Colin breathed deeply and closed his eyes for a moment. "We'll drop back into the same watch keeping routine that we used on our way here as soon as we've jumped into hyper," he said. On the two week journey from Dundaff to Tagliana the crew of the Red Rose had adopted a very loose watch keeping system in that Colin or one of the bots had to be on the bridge when they were entering or leaving hyperspace. At other times the system watch was left to Rosie, who'd been given strict instructions to call Colin if there were any problems. This had caused a few chuckles as he was the least qualified person on the crew with the possible exception of Yana, but as he'd pointed out, if it went wrong it was he who would carry the can for it, not the AI's, especially those who didn't officially exist. "Two minutes to the jump point," reported Rosie. "I wish we could jump without all this build up," said Yana. "Me, too," said Colin with a smile. "I know a hyperspace transition is as safe as houses but the build up does tend to put your nerves on edge, doesn't it?" Yana nodded and tried to smile back at her master. "Transition," reported Rosie. The only change on the bridge was a couple of lights turned red as the sub light drive shut down and another couple turned to green as the hyper drive kicked in. "Well done, Rosie," said Colin. "Those corvettes translated at the same time we did," reported Zara who paused for a couple of seconds before adding, "they're maintaining separation." Colin relaxed, "I doubt that they'd try anything this close to Tagliana, after all the station is supposed to be a neutral zone." "That's only between the Great Houses," said Adele softly. Colin turned to her, "Did you have to say that?" he asked. "I'm just stating the truth," Adele responded. "She's right," said Zara. "I know," said Colin, "I was just speaking rhetorically." "Of course," said Zara before she threw her eyes to the ceiling. "I was," insisted Colin. "Yes, Captain," said Rosie, "Now do you want to drop down to a cruising watch." Colin huffed, "I suppose we'd better," he said looking from one bot to the other, "before I have to deal with a mutiny." "I have the watch," reported Rosie, "now get off my bridge," she ordered. <HR> The first leg had been completed safely and the transition into normal space and back into hyperspace had passed without incident. The two corvettes were still tailing them, maintaining a constant distance between his ship and theirs. Colin sat alone on the bridge with a data package in his hands, contemplating its contents. The question facing him was whether he should use it or not. "Rosie," he called and waited whilst she generated her image before him. "Yes, Colin?" she asked when she appeared solid. "Whilst we were on Tagliana I had a meeting with Master Graham of the Scouts' and Explorers' Guild," began Colin. "He presented me with this package and told me that it was an update for a ship's AI." Colin paused, "He assured me that when it was installed it would have no effect on the current AI's personality." Colin looked at Rosie who was regarding him calmly. "Is there any way, short of installing the system, that we can check out this package and find out one way or another whether he was telling me the truth?" asked Colin. "You believe that the Master was lying?" asked Rosie, her voice showing a hint of surprise. "I don't know one way or the other," admitted Colin. "He may be a Master but he is also a Graham and with the problems we have been having with their house I wouldn't want to compromise your abilities if it could be avoided." "Did he say that this was specifically for you and me?" asked Rosie. "Master Graham claimed that he was offering this upgrade to all scouts who were heading in the same general direction that we are," replied Colin. "He also added that Angus didn't need this upgrade because he had a better system already." "Let me check the records and see what I can find," said Rosie. She stood there with her head down for over a minute before looking up. "It seems, going on AI registration codes, that perhaps a third of the scouts leaving Tagliana in the last twelve months have upgraded their AI's in some way. Of those who didn't at least half have gone missing," she declared. "That many?" exclaimed Colin, "What about those who took the upgrade?" "It looks like about a quarter of those have gone missing," Rosie shrugged, "I say missing but they could just be refusing to make contact. The numbers actually lost for good will be a good deal lower than those currently unaccounted for." "The question remains," said Colin, "Do we risk applying this upgrade, knowing that it comes from House Graham?" "We can give it a good look over and see if there is anything obviously wrong with it," said Rosie. "If we can't find anything unusual, then we can make a decision as to whether to apply it or not. Did he say what enhancements it offered?" "He implied that it would increase your capacities substantially in military matters," said Colin. "That is one area where I am particularly out of date," admitted Rosie as she looked at the package in Colin's hands. "Which is just the sort of bait to dangle to make us rush into something," said Colin. "Run what checks you can on these chips, if you can't find anything we will run a full backup on your current set-up and isolate it. Then we'll get Zara to apply the update to you. If there are any problems we'll flush the system and put you back the way you were." "OK, Colin," replied Rosie and watched as Colin inserted the chips into a databank. "Let me know what you find," said Colin, "and don't be afraid to ask Adele or Zara for help if you need it." "I'll do that," replied Rosie, already lost in her inspection. Colin grinned, "If you need me I'll be in my cabin." <HR> Colin relaxed in his cabin and looked around, taking stock of his ship. The Red Rose was fitted out as a Scout ship, which generally meant she spent her life doing all sorts of different tasks, most of which could be considered contradictory. In an ideal world she'd be a fully armed scientific research vessel about the size of a cruiser, with teams of scientists as well as military men to fight her and diplomats to negotiate if the need arose. Instead she was an old, much modified freighter with little in the way of scientific equipment and room for only a small crew. A total of six cabins, including the Captain's cabin provided accommodation for that crew. At the moment Yana was using one of the cabins and Adele and Zara were sharing another. The two bots didn't really need the space and if a full human crew were recruited they'd end up using one of the storerooms that the ship was fitted with. In addition to the cabins the ship had a small brig and an armoury that currently held the body armour and personal small arms that Colin had received as presents before his departure. The weapons and sensor fit had taken up much of the available storage space that a Sirius class freighter would normally have which left the ship with only a small hold for goods. Colin's cabin was more of a suite than the cabin he'd occupied on the journey from Montrose to Dundaff. It had a comfortable sitting area as well as a king-sized bed. A separate cubicle had been fitted with a shower, whirlpool bath and toilet facilities for his comfort. Apart from a family picture the only other item that could be considered decorative in the cabin was the silver dirk he'd been presented with as he departed Dundaff. After checking up on his family's history he'd given the ancient weapon a place of honour on one wall. The two dirks had been in the family since before Culloden in 1746 and had been saved from the ignominy that followed that defeat. The aftermath of that battle had been brutal for the Scots and earned the victorious general the name of "Butcher" Cumberland. The English had gone on to make several new laws after the rebellion that attacked the Highlanders' clan system, and they included outlawing the tartan, the traditional dress of a clansman. Since that time the two dirks, their honour untarnished had been presented to the sons of the Laird of Clan Hadden; the golden dirk being presented to the oldest son and heir, whilst the silver dirk had gone to his younger brother. Now, nearly four hundred years later the silver dagger had been presented to Colin. Eyeing that weapon Colin remembered another gift he'd been given before his departure, a gift he'd yet to use. Thinking on the matter only served to increase his frustration, a frustration that the gift was meant to alleviate. Calling to mind what his brother had said concerning Yana, Colin hit on a plan. "Yana," he called, knowing that Rosie would automatically route his summons to the woman, "Come to my cabin, now." 'Be firm,' Fraser had said. Well, let's see how firm I need to be. He didn't have to wait long before there was a chime from the door. "Open," he instructed and the door slid wide to reveal Yana. She stood there mutely, her arms crossed under her large breasts. The pink trimmed black dress she wore did little to hide her body from his inspection; the red rose that had recently replaced the house crest on her forehead stood out against her tanned skin. "Come in," said Colin firmly. Yana stepped through the door, which closed silently behind her and looked at one of the chairs near to Colin. "Don't bother sitting," said Colin, "You're here for my pleasure." Yana froze, staring at her master. "That's right," confirmed Colin, "I'm going to make use of you, now." He smiled at the woman, who was twice his age, "Now remove your dress," he instructed. His smile grew as Yana peeled the straps off her shoulders and rolled the soft material of her dress down to her waist, revealing her lilac coloured bra in the process. "Keep going," ordered Colin when Yana hesitated. Keeping her legs straight the slave pushed the dark material over her hips and allowed it to drop to the floor around her ankles before she stood upright again. Colin admired her soft body clothed in a matching bra and briefs and couldn't help glancing down at his own response to her body. He smiled but Yana didn't, she just continued to stare at him. "Remove the bra," he ordered. Yana raised her hands and gave her bra-covered breasts a squeeze. Colin had to bite down to stop a groan escaping as her tits undulated under her hands. She reached behind her and the strain on her bra disappeared as she released the catch. She ran her hands around her body, her thumbs running under the bra and yanked the material from her body. Her boobs oscillated as they were lifted and dropped by her actions only slowing as Yana dropped her hands to her sides, her bra falling beside her dress on the floor. Colin swallowed as he gazed at her tits, they hung down under their own weight. There were no tan lines visible and her dark pink nipples stuck out a good centimetre. Licking his lips he glanced at Yana's knickers. "Get rid of them," he said, his voice trembling with lust. "Hurry," he prompted when Yana didn't move as fast as he wanted. Yana tugged at the sides of her knickers and lost her balance, half stepping forward her feet caught in her own dress causing her to topple sideways. She twisted as she fell, landing with her elbows on the arm of a chair; her knickers caught at the top of her thighs. He long hair fell forward around her head and her breasts swung too and fro beneath her. She started to struggle but Colin yelled, "Stop!" He took a deep breath to calm his racing pulse and continued, "Stay just as you are." He rose to his feet and peeled down the jumpsuit he was wearing. Stepping behind the slave he wrestled his erection out of his boxer shorts and shuffled up close. Swiping the head of his prick up and down Yana's slit he was surprised at how much moisture there was. Groaning he leant forward, forcing his erection into her body. It wasn't hard as she gave a little wiggle of her hips to help in him find his way in. He sighed as he bottomed out and held his position as the sensations washed through his body. Beneath him Yana began to rock to and fro, encouraging him to start fucking her. Taking a firm grip of her ample hips Colin obliged her, slowly ramping up the speed until he was pounding as hard and as fast as his young body could manage. At that pace, he wasn't going to last long and he didn't care. This was the first time he'd had sex since the he arrived on Dundaff and he was only interested in getting his rocks off. Within minutes he grunted and slammed his prick in deep and held on tight as pulse after pulse signified the departure of his spunk into his slave's hot body. Several shots later he sighed and relaxed, his prick softened quickly and as it slipped out of Yana's hot snatch, Colin stepped back. That was when he discovered that his feet were wrapped in his own jumpsuit and he sat down on the deck with a thump. Glancing back Yana smiled for the first time, "That's the first time I've fucked someone to a sit-still," she said before giggling like a little girl. Colin scowled back, "I suppose you normally fuck them to a stand-still?" "Oh, no," said Yana, "Sex with me is normally followed by unconsciousness." Colin shook his head and held out his hand, "Help me up and we'll retire to the bed and see if you can knock me out." Yana unhooked her own knickers from around her thighs and then, completely naked offered her hand to Colin. As her breasts swung freely before him Colin was tempted to grab them and drag her down on top of him but restrained himself. There was plenty of time for that sort of thing later, now he just wanted to get Yana in bed and see how good she was. <HR> As the Rose approached the transition point for the end of the second jump Colin had the whole crew on the bridge, he'd arranged a little exercise with Rosie and he wanted to see how things panned out. So far he was happy with how things were working out, the bots were everything he'd been promised and his own relationship with Yana was progressing nicely. Now it was time to start seeing how they functioned as a team. "Transition in thirty seconds," reported Rosie, "and I must say it's nice to see all of you together for once." Colin casually waved a hand, "I'm not worried about the end of this jump," he said, "but according to everything we've heard the end of the next jump may be exciting. I want us all to be sure that we know what to do then." "Transition in ten seconds," said Rosie. "How close are our friends?" asked Colin. "Exactly where they've been since we left Tagliana," replied Zara. "If they follow the same procedure as they did last time they will drop out of hyper at the same time as we do and then accelerate for the next jump," said Colin. "Let's just make sure we don't end up running into them." "I wouldn't do that," said Rosie, "that's stupid." Before anything else could be said Rosie announced, "Transition!" The engines switched smoothly from hyperdrive to normal space drive. "Contact!" snapped Zara. "Where?" called Colin. "It's within beam range," said Zara, "Here," she indicated a sensor image on her display. "Challenge it, Rosie," ordered Colin. "No response," replied Rosie. "Weapons locked," reported Adele calmly. "I'm getting weapons ready readings," reported Zara. "Fire!" ordered Colin. "Firing," replied Adele and the lights on the bridge seemed to dim as the two, one hundred and five millimetre particle beams discharged. A moment later Zara reported, "Target destroyed," her voice petered out, "That was too quick for the target to have been a ship," she said softly. "It wasn't," announced Colin, "It was an asteroid. I had Rosie mask it as a target to see how we reacted." "It wasn't much of a test really," said Adele. "I don't suppose it was," said Colin, "but as only Rosie and I knew it was going to happen I'm happy with the way the two of you dealt with the problem." "You may have been happy with that," said Zara, "but we may have another problem." She glanced in Colin's direction; "the two corvettes are closing in." "Shit," hissed Colin and then frowned in thought. "Zara, are there any small asteroids around us?" he asked. "How small?" she replied her hands busy on the sensor control board. "Something suitable to test our rail guns against," said Colin. "There's a couple but the range is a bit extreme," she replied. "Feed their co-ordinates to Rosie," he ordered. "Rosie, move us towards them." He turned to Adele, "Engage when you can," he ordered. On the display red lines shot out from the forward corners of the Rose and tracked onto two distant lumps of rock. "Loop the ship, Rosie," ordered Colin. She responded immediately and Adele switched from the forward rail guns to those on the aft smoothly, continuing to pepper the floating rocks with a steady stream of depleted uranium enriched projectiles. "Zara, What are the corvettes doing?" asked Colin. "They're holding their position," she turned towards him, "It looks like they've figured that the boy is having a play." "Well this little boy is more than happy with the results we've achieved," said Colin. "So let's secure the weapons and start heading for the next jump point." "Aye-aye Captain," replied the women in unison, even Yana joining in. Colin shook his head, "Let's hope it's just as easy if we run into real trouble." <HR> "Why are we dropping out of hyperspace that early?" asked Yana, when she saw the flight plan on the central display. "In theory we could drop out of hyperspace here," said Colin marking a spot, "change direction and accelerate to the next jump point. If we did that we'd be coming in where anyone waiting for us would expect us to be. By dropping out of hyper here we can get a good look at what is in the system before we are anywhere near it." He smiled, "That way we can decide if we want to get involved in what is going on or compute a new course and work our way around any trouble." "Are you expecting trouble then?" asked Yana. "I don't know about expecting trouble," said Colin, "but this is the point that Master Graham warned us about and it's also the point that Angus said that House Graham was keeping an eye on." He shrugged, "As I said earlier, I'd sooner avoid any trouble if it's at all possible." "How do you think our friends are going to react to us dropping out of hyper like that?" asked Zara. "It'll be interesting to see," said Colin. "The speed with which they react to our sudden change should also give us some idea of how close they are watching us." "Transition in five minutes," reported Rosie. "OK, everyone," said Colin, "As soon as we're back in normal space I want a full scan of what's ahead of us. If there's nothing there we will micro-jump into the system and then continue on our way. If there's something there we will assess the problem and probably run as fast as possible." The tension on the bridge rose steadily as they approached transition. "Transition!" announced Rosie and the ship dropped back into normal space. Within seconds Zara called, "Contact!" Colin held his breath, what was out there? "I've got two Corsair class corvettes," she reported. "They're not the pair that were following us, are they?" queried Colin. "No," responded Zara, "They're just dropping out of hyper now." "Anything else around?" asked Colin. "Just the four corvettes," replied Zara. Colin took a deep breath, "and?" he prompted. "Nothing," reported Zara. She studied her display for a moment; "All four of them have House Graham transponder codes." "So they've actually sat a squadron on the jump point," said Colin. "I'd have thought they'd have held them off a bit to see what they could catch." "Apart from some encoded traffic between the two squadrons there's no other activity in the area," said Zara. Colin sighed, "Then we may as well continue on our way," he said. "Jump us into the system, Rosie and then line us up for the next jump point." "Transition in five seconds," said Rosie. The short hop into the system was hardly noticeable. His arrival in the system caused a momentary stir from the four corvettes but that's all it was. The Red Rose was lined up on jump point four when Rosie announced, "Incoming call from Captain Hallis on the Typhoon." "Captain Hadden, if you wish to wait, I and the Sirocco can act as an escort for you to Tor," said a voice. "You can?" asked Colin, "What would be your business on Tor?" "We 'visit' the place about once a year," said the voice, "just to let them know that we are aware of their presence. Now that the fifth squadron has arrived to relieve us we can head in that direction and take a little R and R there." "Thanks for the offer," replied Colin, "but from what I've been told this is where there was likely to be trouble if it was going to happen." "There hasn't been any trouble here for the last month or so," said the voice, "I'd be careful just in case they've moved their point of operation." "Thanks for the advice," said Colin honestly, "I'll probably see you at Tor." "Probably," said the voice, "have a good trip." "Thanks," replied Colin and then drew his finger across his throat. "Looks like they've scared the bad boys off," he said. "Let's be on our way, I understand that the view at the next jump point is spectacular." <HR> Chapter 6 Colin rolled over and looked at the time display. 'Good,' he thought, 'I'm in time.' As he'd fallen asleep with Yana in his arms he'd decided to be awake for the end of this jump. He wanted to see just how spectacular the view was in this system that was a highlight of many space tours. Due to the way that faster than light travel worked it was necessary for each jump to be in a straight line. Hyperspace was also full of nasty little surprises for the unwary, things analogous to the old mariners' whirlpools and monsters that needed to be avoided if you wished to have a safe journey. Hence the difficulty of being a scout, as they were venturing into areas where no one had been before and they would be the first to discover these nasty little surprises. One consequence of having humans in space was that wherever possible the jump points for a journey would be positioned near to a star, or other large, relatively motionless object. Seeing the thing there in space before they made the next jump made them feel more secure before they headed into the wild unknown. The next jump point was just outside a star system that was full of space dust, much of it crystalline in structure. The nuclear furnace at the system's centre was roughly three times the diameter of Sol and was spinning rapidly, giving it a rather unstable surface. These two facts allowed the system to generate a truly impressive display that attracted visitors from all over Imperial space. Sliding out of his bed he left Yana lying there asleep, her long hair spread around her head like a nimbus cloud. Smiling, Colin slipped into the bathroom for a quick shower before he headed for the bridge. Five minutes later Colin was humming softly as he towelled off. A warbling alarm shocked him into silence, the towel falling unnoticed from his hands. "Rosie," he called, "What's the problem?" "I've just picked up a flash alarm from our next jump point," said Rosie's voice. "I'll be right there," he called as he strode back into the main cabin. As he reached for his jumpsuit Yana, who was now awake asked, "What do you want me to do?" "Get dressed and then join us on the bridge," said Colin. He smiled, "We'll find out what's happening and then decide what to do." Yana nodded and started to get up, the bedclothes that had covered her as she slept dropped away to reveal her naked body. Colin chuckled as he finished fastening his jumpsuit, "Don't bother with any underwear," he said, "We'll probably be back here in ten minutes." He didn't really believe that but he was trying to keep Yana from worrying, he was doing enough of that for both of them. Striding onto the bridge he wasn't surprised to see Adele and Zara already at their control boards. Between them stood Rosie, glancing from one to the other as they worked. Colin dropped into his command chair, "All right, Rosie, what's happened?" Rosie turned towards him, "I received a flash alarm claiming to be from the 'Viking Star,'" she reported. "According to Jane's she's a cruise ship that operates in this area." "How big is she?" asked Colin. "The database describes her as one hundred and seventy-seven metres long and capable of carrying five hundred and thirty-nine passengers," said Rosie. "Did they give any indication of what the problem was?" "The transmission didn't last that long," explained Rosie, "They reported that they'd been approached by a small ship that had latched on to them." The holographic image shrugged, "then the signal stopped." Colin sucked on his lower lip as he pondered what to do. The sensible option would be to keep going in hyperspace until he was well past this area and then re-compute a course to Tor. Colin shook his head; there was no way he was going to do that. "Rosie, get together with Zara and drop us out of hyper as far from the system as we can and still get a good sensor reading on what's going on." He glanced across to Adele, "You better make sure the weapons are on line," he said with a sheepish grin. As Zara and Rosie turned to discuss his instructions Yana arrived on the bridge. Colin waved her towards her normal seat, "We're going to drop out of hyperspace and have a look at what is going on," he said. She nodded as she sat down quietly. "Transition in thirty seconds," said Rosie. Colin returned his attention to the bridge and the possible danger he was dropping into. <HR> Colin could only wait as Zara, Rosie and Adele assessed the situation. "Can we move in closer?" asked Zara. "Why?" asked Colin. "I can barely make out the second vessel," she replied, "It looks like it's docked against the cruise ship but I can't get any details from here." "Threats?" asked Colin. "None that we can make out," confirmed Adele. "OK, jump us in a little closer Rosie, but be prepared to run." The micro-jump took only seconds to perform and then a sharp image of the well-lit cruise ship was centred in the main display. The ship was slowly rolling around its longitudinal axis, the large display windows built into its hull crossing in front of them as it did. "There it is," declared Zara, as the image on the screen moved sufficiently to display a small craft latched onto the rear of the cruise ship. "That's not very big," said Colin as he tried to estimate the size of the dark ship fastened like a leech to the white cruise liner. "It's smaller than us," confirmed Zara. "I make it about thirty metres long." "Any signals coming from either ship?" asked Colin as he looked at the scene. "Nothing we can pick up," said Rosie. "How much closer can we get without being spotted?" "I can park us on top of him if you want," said Rosie. "There's no active emissions from either ship and if I keep the cruise ship between us they're not going to get a chance of spotting us." "Do it," said Colin, all his intentions of steering clear of trouble forgotten. Rosie headed them towards the pair of ships at her best estimate of a safe speed, she didn't start spiralling until they were a lot closer than Colin would have done but he was relying on her skills, not his own. "What are you planning on doing when we get there?" asked Adele. Colin blinked, realising that he'd been watching the approach, not thinking about his next step. "If we can confirm that something illegal is going on," he began and was interrupted by a snort from Rosie. He frowned at her and continued, "As I said, if we can get confirmation we can slip out of the system and call for help whilst keeping an eye on the ships here." Tension mounted as the ships approached one another. On board the Rose Zara continued to study her sensor systems, muttering under her breath as she worked. Rosie had the range down to ten thousand metres and there had been no response from either of the vessels. "You know," said Zara suddenly, "I don't think there's anyone on that small ship." "No?" asked Colin in surprise. "I've got lots of life signs on the big ship but nothing at all on the small one," she confirmed. She frowned and made a few adjustments to her control board, "In fact most of the life signs on the big ship are stationary." Colin rubbed his face with his hands and let out a sigh, "Has anyone got any ideas about what's happening here?" Yana was the only one that took up his offer, "You say that very few people are moving on the big ship?" "A couple of dozen at the most," confirmed Zara. "Out of five hundred plus," said Yana. She looked at Colin who made a come-on gesture with his hand. "When there's trouble with the slaves the authorities gas them," said Yana. "Everyone collapses where they are, they're out for anything up to a day depending on what they use to knock them out. Do you think something like that could be happening here?" Colin frowned, he didn't know and couldn't think of a way to find out. "It's possible," said Zara, "The small ship is operating at about fifteen percent over pressure. That would be enough to stop any gas seeping back into her if they'd flooded the cruiser with something like remifentanil." "What's remifentanil?" asked Colin. "It's one of the opiate derivatives that can be used as an incapacitating agent," said Adele. "It's extremely potent with a relatively fast action but also short duration." She gave Colin a smile; "Its chemical structure allows the human body to quickly metabolise it into non-toxic and water soluble forms which means there's less chance of long-term problems." "Why would they do that to this ship?" asked Colin. "Kidnapping, slavery," offered Rosie. "Anyone who can afford to go on a cruise is going to be in the higher earning brackets," said Zara. "They're going to have families that could afford to pay a ransom." "And we're not far from Tor," said Colin, "where such exchanges can take place." He thought for a moment, "but why use such a small ship?" "Would you let something bigger get close to you?" asked Rosie. "No, I don't suppose I would," said Colin. "What now?" asked Adele. "You say the small ship is empty?" he asked Zara. "Yes," she said nodding for emphasis. "Then how about sneaking aboard the sneaker and seeing what trouble we can create?" asked Colin softly. "Yes," said Zara enthusiastically. <HR> As the Rose slid very slowly towards the spinning ships everyone held their breath. Rosie carefully positioned the ship directly above the smaller ship's emergency escape hatch before she reported that they were in position. "You're going to have to over pressurise our hatch before we go through," said Adele, "otherwise there's a chance that whatever seal they've got between the two ships will give way." "And our armour isn't a full environmental suit," said Colin, "so I'd go down as fast as everyone on the cruiser." He glanced to Yana, "Talking of armour and the like, can you go and get ours from the armoury and we'll get ready here." Yana nodded and took off at a very brisk walk. "It's a good job all hatches are standardised or this could be really messy," said Zara. "We might think it's a good thing but I bet the Captain of the Viking Star isn't so impressed," said Colin. "You know, if they've gassed the crew then they couldn't have been planning on taking the ship," said Adele. "There's no way that the AI on her would take orders from a pirate, no matter what threats were made against the lawful crew." "They could have bought along another AI," said Colin. "Then again, they were probably after the first class passengers. They'd be a much easier proposition than replacing the AI out here." "Or it could be a particular passenger," offered Zara. "The sort of person you used to protect?" asked Colin curiously. "They'd have had to come up with something better than a gas to take out one of us," said Zara flicking her eyes towards Adele. "And I bet that that's the same for anyone who's really important." "Any member of the Imperial family, that's for sure," said Adele. "How about the head of a House?" asked Colin. "Possibly," said Adele, "I know that several of our brothers and sisters have been made available to key individuals outside of the Imperial family." "Who?" asked Colin. "I don't know," said Adele, "That information would only be available on a need to know basis and we," she indicated herself and Zara, "don't need to know." "So if there's not a House Lord on board, there could be a member of his family," said Colin, "and that would fetch a good ransom reward for these people." "If they bother to wait that long," said Rosie. "They could make them a slave immediately and probably get as much selling them to a different House as a plaything." "Probably with less exposure if they did it that way as well," said Zara. "We'll find out in a couple of minutes," said Colin as Yana struggled back onto the bridge with three of the silver cases. "Here's your armour," she said, "I'll get mine and the weapons now." "Don't bother with your armour," said Colin before she could leave, "Just bring the weapons here." She gave him a hard look before nodding and heading off again. "You're not taking Yana with you?" asked Rosie. "She'd probably get in the way," replied Colin as he crossed to his armour. "The truth is I'll probably be in the way of these two, but I'm in charge so I get to decide who goes and who stays behind." He dragged the vest over his head, "Don't worry though, I'm going to be at the back and let your sisters deal with anything that crops up." Yana's second trip to the armoury was much quicker than the first. She came back to the bridge with the four silver cases that had the individual weapons in them. As he strapped on his Glock twenty Colin said, "Yana, you hang around on our side of the hatch, if anyone comes through that Rosie hasn't given the all clear to, you let them have it and we'll sort the details out later." He picked up the MP5 and scooped up two of the magazines that snapped together and fitted them to the weapon. That gave him sixty rounds on the weapon and that was before he clipped two more of the magazines together and dropped them into a side pocket of his jumpsuit. Beside him Adele and Zara went through the same motions silently. "Shall we go ladies?" Adele nodded and led the way to the airlock, Zara patted Colin on the shoulder as she passed him and followed her sister. Yana followed the group silently as Colin tracked the two bots and tried to prepare himself for whatever was going to happen. As the inner door closed Colin had a sudden thought, "Uh, ladies," he said, "How many bad guys are there likely to be?" "About a dozen at a guess," said Zara. "Don't you think you should have thought of that earlier?" asked Adele, giving him a stern look. "Don't worry," said Zara before Colin could reply, "we've already taken that figure into account." She gave him a happy little grin, "If there had been too many we wouldn't have let you try this." Colin felt a moment of relief and then began to worry again, who exactly was in command of the Rose? "Oh that hurts," he mumbled as the increase in pressure made itself felt against his eardrums. "Yawn," instructed Zara, "It will equalise the pressure between both sides." Colin tried it and felt relief as his ears popped. "Hatch opening," reported Rosie via the helmet's radio. "There are still no signs of activity on board the vessel you are entering." The hatch opened and the two bots disappeared, moving into the ship in a fluid motion, each of them working to cover the other with the minimum of effort. Colin swallowed and stepped into the craft behind them. There wasn't a lot to see, the emergency hatch was situated well to the aft of the craft. Moving forward they passed secure storage areas with their doors open. A quick glance showed that they were more like cells than either passenger cabins or stock rooms. They contained a metal sink and toilet and three bed racks and nothing else. As they slipped by Colin did a mental calculation and figured that they were looking at eight rooms, or space for twenty-four prisoners in this section alone. He stepped out of the last cell and whispered into his microphone, "Rosie, how many other cells are there like these?" "Just the ones you've passed," came the reply. Colin continued down the corridor looking for the two bots that'd led the way. He hadn't gone far when a voice in his helmet let him know where they were. "They've fastened an emergency lock over their normal hatch," reported Adele. An emergency hatch was like two sheets of plastic held together by static electricity; you could push your way between the two sheets without compromising the seal greatly. The device was used to provide an emergency way of entering a ship if its hatches were locked open, or had been blown open. "Why would they do that?" asked Colin. "It'll save them having to cycle through the hatch system when they bring their prisoners back," said Adele. "And with the over pressure they've got on this side there is no way that any contamination is going to work its way into their vessel." Colin turned a corner and finally caught up with the two bots and glanced at the emergency hatch. It wasn't completely clear, showing scratches from repeated use, something that wouldn't happen to a real piece of survival equipment. "OK," he said, "We'll wait here until they bring their prisoners back and disarm them as they come through the hatch." "We'll have to let them get through and then take them," said Zara, "If we cause problems before they're all through they'll just disappear back into the cruise ship and we'll never find them." Colin nodded, "Where do you want me?" he asked. "They're probably going to push their prisoners straight into the cells," said Adele. "If you wait in that corridor we'll wait back here. That way we'll have them caught between us if we need to start shooting." "Sounds like a plan," said Colin as he dropped back around the corner and settled down to wait. He hoped it wouldn't be to long, otherwise he'd be a nervous wreck. <HR> It wasn't a long wait for Colin before there was activity within the cruise ship on the other side of the hatch. Rosie reported that she'd picked up a group of five figures moving towards them. Colin couldn't see a thing from where he was and was tempted to stick his head around the corner. Fortunately Adele's voice whispered into his ear, "The first one's coming through now." After a pause, during which Colin heard a sudden rush of escaping air Adele continued, "He's through," she said, "he's armed with a Browning Hi-Power and wearing a breathing mask. He's gesturing towards someone on the other side of the hatch." "A woman's coming through, she's wearing a mask," there was a short pause in the commentary, "and she's got a collar round her neck," reported Adele and Colin nodded in silent understanding. The slavers had started with a collar, the easiest of the marks of slavery to apply. It didn't mean that the woman was a slave, well not yet, but things were definitely heading in that direction. "I'm surprised they haven't stripped her," said Zara, speaking just as softly as Adele had. "Probably haven't had time," said Adele. "With five hundred odd passengers to check through they'd be hard pushed to do more than find their victims in the time they've had." "Yeah," agreed Zara, "then pump them full of the antidote and march them back here." "Another one's coming through," said Adele, "looks like another woman." The fourth person through was a young man fitted with a collar, the last man through was another of the slavers. "They're coming your way, Colin," announced Adele. "The bad guys are at the back of the group." "Step out now!" ordered Adele and Colin did just that, the MP5 held in his shoulder. The leading woman let out a gasp when she saw the uniformed figure before her, the rest of the group bumped to a halt behind her. Before either of the slavers could do more than stare at Colin, Adele and Zara were right up behind them; their Glocks' pressed against the slavers' necks. "We'll take those," said Zara reaching around her prisoner and removing the nine-millimetre pistol from his slack fingers. It only took moments to disarm the two slavers and then Colin waved the three victims forward. Pointing to the farthest cell he said, "Get in the end room and keep quiet while we try to grab the rest of the bad guys." The two women didn't wait any longer but moved past Colin and headed in the direction he'd indicated. The young man looked at Colin and held up his bound wrists, "Can you free me?" he asked through the breather mask he was wearing. Colin looked at the guy's wrists, they were secured with a plastic cable tie and there was no way he could break the bond without a knife or something similar. "Sorry pal," he said, "I haven't got a knife with me. As soon as we've dealt with this mess we'll get you released." The young man nodded and followed the two girls he'd been captured with. With the victims out of the way the two slavers were searched and bundled into the first cell. Colin closed the door and checked that it was securely fastened before he turned back to Adele and Zara. "Two down, ten to go," said Colin, grinning at the two women. "Let's hope we stay lucky," said Adele as she turned back to the hatch. Zara grinned at Colin and waved him back around the corner before she followed her sister back to the hatch. Less than a minute later Rosie informed them that another group, larger than the first was heading their way. As it got closer she was able to give them a body count and it worried Colin. There were nine in this group and there was no way of telling how many were victims and how many were slavers. Before he could come up with a modified plan Adele announced the groups arrival at the hatch. "The first one's coming through," said the voice in his helmet, "looks like one of the slavers." The familiar rushing air sound reached Colin and he closed his eyes, waiting to see if the next person through the hatch was a slaver or a slave, he prayed silently that it was a slave. His prayers were answered when Adele whispered, "another woman's coming through, she's wearing a collar." Colin let out his breath silently and continued to listen as Adele gave a running commentary. "Another woman... And another... Slaver... A woman... A man, he's a slave too... Another woman..." "Colin, they're coming towards you," said Zara breaking into the commentary, "one of the bad guys is leading the way." "The last guy has got to be a slaver, we've got to wait," said Adele calmly. Colin felt his hands go clammy, how close was the bad guy, he tightened his grip on the MP5 and waited for the command to step out. "Where is he?" murmured Adele, still waiting for the last of the group to enter the smaller ship. "At last," muttered Zara as a leg was pushed through the seal. "Now Colin!" she snapped. Colin stepped forward and pointed his weapon down the corridor; the bad guy was about five paces from the corner and was looking right at Colin as he came into view. The slaver started to raise his right hand, his mouth open to shout a warning. Colin squeezed the trigger in the right sequence and a single shot rang out. He must have snatched the trigger slightly as the shot he'd aimed at the centre of the guy's chest entered just below the Adam's apple. He toppled over backwards; his right arm swinging in an arc before he released his grip on the pistol, fortunately in the confined space of the corridor he didn't pull the trigger. The noise of Colin's shot caused bedlam, the leading group of slaves fell about screaming, the only slaver who'd cleared the hatch dropped to one knee and spun to face Colin and more importantly the slaver who was half way through the emergency hatch started to retreat. Two shots rang out simultaneously as Zara drilled the kneeling slaver in the back of the head and Adele fired at the retreating leg of the last slaver. The scream that rippled through the partly open hatch indicated a hit but by the time she had pushed her way past the panicking hostages the wounded guy had made his escape. Adele looked through the clear plastic and turned to Colin, her expression showing self-disgust that the bad guy had escaped. She said, "I should go after him." Colin frowned before asking, "Are you good enough to go up against half a dozen guys who know you're coming?" "Probably," said Adele. "Without getting any of the passengers killed?" pressed Colin. Zara looked at Adele and the two of them seemed to converse without saying a word. "Probably not," admitted Adele. "Then we secure the ship and call for help," decided Colin. "That ship's not going anywhere in the near future and those House Graham corvettes can't be far behind us, can they." The two bots looked at him and agreed reluctantly. "Seal the hatch," ordered Colin before he turned his attention to the passengers who'd settled down after their initial panic. Colin didn't bother trying to explain what was happening he just waved them past and pointed towards the cells, "Get in there, three to a room. We'll sort everything out as soon as we're free of the liner." One of the women opened her mouth as though she was going to argue but a none-to-gentle push from Zara had her moving in the right direction with her mouth shut. A couple of the women stuck their noses in the air as they walked past Colin but he ignored their show of disdain. He had more important things to worry about; things like his own skin. <HR> "Rosie," called Colin over the radio, "will this ship accept orders from me?" "No more then I'd accept orders from its Captain," replied the AI. "Shit!" he exclaimed, "then we'll have to get everyone onto the Rose and blast this thing off the side of the cruise ship." "We don't have to," said Zara. Colin looked at her and waved his hand in a come-on gesture. "The emergency locks can be disconnected manually," she said. "As that's the only thing that's joining this ship to the cruiser we'd be able to fly it clear when we leave." "I wouldn't risk jumping with it attached but moving around this system shouldn't present too difficult a task," agreed Rosie in Colin's ear. Colin looked thoughtful, "Rosie, how long would it take to bypass the AI on this ship?" "Without a full scan I couldn't say," replied the AI. "I doubt if it's anything spectacular," said Zara, "but it's still going to take a day or two to convince it that it has to obey someone else." "And it will take the pirates at least that long to convince the cruise ship's AI to obey them?" asked Colin. "Probably longer," replied Zara. "True," confirmed Rosie, "The AI on the cruise ship is probably a couple of generations more advanced than anything we're likely to find on this old bucket." "OK," said Colin. "We'll disengage both of us from the cruise ship and move off. We'll yell for help and hang around until that help arrives." Zara grinned, "What are you going to do with our guests," she asked, waving a hand in the direction of the cells. "Let them go," replied Colin. "I wouldn't," said Adele, "At least not until you've checked their legal status." "What do you mean?" asked Colin perplexed. "If these people are switched on they will have entered their victims change of status into the ship's AI as soon as they collared them," she replied. "It won't be enough to prove ownership but it will deny them freedom until their status can be sorted." Colin raised an eyebrow. "If their families aren't particularly wealthy or influential then they become slaves and there is nothing that can be done about it," said Adele. "If they're families are well-to-do the best course of action for them is to buy their relatives back and then sort out their status." "You're suggesting that I keep them and ransom them back to their families?" asked Colin in shock. "If you don't," said Zara, "then whoever turns up following your yell for help will hang on to them. If you want to keep it discrete then I'd keep the people here and contact their families directly." She shrugged, "If you're feeling particularly magnanimous you can just hand them over but I'm sure that most of the families will offer to buy them back, it keeps ownership nice and legal and avoids problems further down the line." Colin shook his head. He'd known about this sort of thing but had never thought about it applying to him. "Let's get us separated and we can sort out our 'passengers' later," he said. "Talking of passengers," said Adele. "What are you going to do with the slavers we've got?" "Those I'll hand over to whatever competent authority turns up," said Colin. "Now let's get away from this ship before the bad guys decide to try and retake their ship." "I'll stay here," said Adele, "You two get back to the Rose and do the business" "Keep the doors to the cells closed until we're well apart," said Colin, "I don't want any of the people in there causing us any more problems." "No problem," said Adele, "and don't you forget to tell Yana that you're coming through the hatch or she's likely to shoot you." Colin raised a chuckle, "That's the last thing that I'd want to happen," he said. "Did you hear that Yana," he called over the radio, "Zara and I are coming back to the Rose." "I heard," came the reply, "all I have to do now is remember what you look like." Colin looked wide-eyed as Adele and Zara burst into giggles as the tension around the three of them evaporated. <HR> "Hatch is secure," reported Adele, "I can drop the coupling whenever you like." "Ready, Rosie?" asked Colin. "I'm ready," was the response from the shimmering figure. "Drop the connection, Adele." "Dropped," was the immediate response from Adele. "Move us clear, Rosie," ordered Colin. "Moving," responded Rosie. "One hundred metres," said Zara. "That'll do for now," said Colin. "Holding position," said Rosie. "OK, let's see who we can contact from here," said Colin. "Any preferences?" asked Rosie, "or do you just want a general broadcast?" Colin glanced at the display screen and frowned, "Is the cruise ship likely to run into anything soon?" he asked. Zara studied her control panel for a couple of moments, "not for at least forty-eight hours," she said, "and probably not then. Give me five minutes and I'll let you know for definite." "Don't bother," replied Colin before turning to Rosie. "Call Captain Hallis and see if you can raise him. If he is anywhere near here he can come and 'capture' the pirates." "Right away," replied Rosie. Colin looked at the outside display and marvelled at how soothing it was. "Who owns this system?" he asked. It was Zara who responded, "No one appears to have claimed it so far. It looks pretty but there is nothing here that can be recovered economically and nothing to anchor a mining station to. The biggest asteroid is only ten kilometres across and that's in the middle of one of the crystal clouds. You'd have to clear that away before you could build anything and then work to keep it clear." Colin nodded in understanding, it was only recently that population pressure had begun to force the Great Houses to look outwards from what they had already. Opening up a new system without access to a habitable planet wouldn't really be worth the effort. If this system didn't look so spectacular it would have been ignored completely. "Reply from Captain Hallis," said Rosie breaking into Colin's thoughts. "They'll be here in six hours." "Tell them we'll be waiting," said Colin. "In the meantime I'd like you to try and convince the AI on the slave ship that it belongs to me now. While you start on that I'm going to have a shower and then see to our guests." "That should be fun," commented Adele from the slave ship. "Yes?" asked Colin. "I can hear some of them bitching already," replied Adele. "Uhmm, maybe I should see them before I have my shower," said Colin. "Have your shower," said Zara, "That'll give me time to talk to the cruise ship's AI and find out if our guests have been registered or not." "You'll be able to do that?" asked Colin in surprise. "Why not?" said Zara and then she grinned, "after all we are a House Hadden customs vessel and requesting passenger lists is within our remit." Colin shook his head; "I'm off for a shower before you lot talk me into more trouble." "Want me to join you?" asked Yana. "Not this time," said Colin; "I'm not going to have time to play." "Are you sure?" she asked grinning cheekily. "Yes!" shouted Colin, nearly running from the bridge pursued by the laughter from three women. <HR> Chapter 7 "Well that was easy," announced Rosie, two hours after Colin had left the bridge for a shower. "What was?" asked Colin as he emerged, freshly showered and wearing a clean jumpsuit. "It appears that the slave ship AI has been through this before and has happily accepted you as the new owner," said Rosie, her voice tinged with disgust at the other ship's willingness to roll over. "So what have I just acquired?" asked Colin. "It was an Artist -class replenishment ship for the House Rutger's Navy," said Rosie, "before it fell into the hands of the LiveBody Consortium." "The what?" asked Yana. "The LiveBody Consortium is a Tor based company that specialises in providing 'to order' slaves and servitude's," said Rosie. "It kidnaps people," said Yana, shocked. "No, not according to its Galacticweb page," said Rosie. "It provides the person in question, if they are available, or a very close facsimile if they are not." Adele gave a grim smile, "So you can have Cousin Bridget if you want, or if the heat would be too much call her Britney, who just happens to be a look-alike." "It doesn't say that anywhere on their site," said Rosie, "but that does appear to be the way they work. According to the AI this is the fourth ship that they've approached in this manner, though the others were a lot smaller. More like private yachts than commercial vessels." "Does the AI know who the victims were intended for?" asked Colin. "No," responded Rosie, "It doesn't even know who the victims are, just that they've approached other ships and removed people from them." Rosie frowned, "In two of the previous cases the vessels were destroyed after the victims were removed." "Download and record all of the details," ordered Colin, "We'll hand that over to Captain Hallis along with our two prisoners when he arrives." "What about the victims?" asked Yana. "They're slaves," said Zara in answer to Yana's question. "They are?" asked Colin in surprise. "The cruise ship's AI has been most forthcoming," said Zara. "It wasn't so happy about divulging the location of its passengers but it appears that of the original four hundred and twenty-seven passengers on the Viking Star there are now only four hundred and eighteen aboard, the nine that are missing are all slaves." "Is there anyway of getting the original passenger list?" asked Colin. "That would show us what the status of the 'slaves' was when they arrived on the ship." "I've already done that," said Zara. "All nine of them were free people but were found guilty of capital crimes whilst on board and have been condemned to slavery. According to their new records the LiveBody Consortium has accepted all of them for disposal and has arranged for them to be collected." "And the ship's AI has accepted this?" asked Colin. "The details were dictated by the aggrieved party with confirmation from a ship's officer," said Rosie. "As far as the public record is concerned this was all above board." "So this is a simple collection?" said Colin nodding towards the slave ship. "It would have been if we hadn't turned up," said Zara. Colin rocked back in his chair; "I wonder how much longer Tor is going to be able to continue in this vein before one of the houses decides that enough is enough?" "As long as they don't overdo it I figure it'll continue for years," said Zara. "Why?" asked Colin. "Think about it," she replied. "Where else can the houses exchange prisoners without it becoming public knowledge. The Tortora and Tagliana are ideal for meetings and above board trade but for anything covert they are just too public. Tor satisfies the need for a covert meeting point and as long as the great houses don't start kidnapping each other's heirs they'll turn a blind eye to what is happening." Zara waved in the vague direction of the Viking Star; "This could cause a few problems if any of the remaining passengers dies but if they all survive it will be hushed up." She gave Colin a wicked grin, "It'll add to the mystique of cruising, 'I Survived a Slaver Attack,' or something like that. Any family that lost someone will go out of their way to recover that person and keep the whole thing quiet." She shrugged, "Nobody would win if it became public knowledge." Colin frowned again, "You know, there's not much chance of these 'pirates' reaching a court is there?" Zara and Rosie shook their heads negatively. "Then we'd better find out who we need to contact to keep things running smoothly," said Colin. "That's easy enough," said Zara, "I've got the list of 'missing' slaves here." "Let's have a look then," said Colin. Zara glanced at her screen, "Six of them are members of House Rutgers, the others belong to House Vogel." "House Vogel?" asked Colin. "A minor house under House Rutgers," said Zara, "Slightly older than House Hadden but of a similar size." She then continued, "From Rutgers we've got Ame De Jong, Sandra De Vries, Penelope Van de Berg, Petrina Bakker, Tedi Van Dijk and Galo Jansen. The House Vogel people are Leslie Visser, Harriette Goossens and Harrick Goossens." "I suppose I'd better go and meet them, then," said Colin getting to his feet. "Zara, you stay here and keep Rosie company. Yana and I will go and meet our new friends." <HR> Adele met Colin at the hatch connecting the two ships and grimaced, "They're getting a little irritable," she said waving an arm down the corridor. Colin could hear various voices raised in discontent. He turned to Adele and asked, "Don't they realise that they're slaves?" "I haven't told them," she replied, "In fact I've done my best to ignore them." "Who's been the quietest?" asked Colin. "Cells nine and ten have been quiet but they've only got a single person in them," said Adele. "Of those with more than one person in them I'd say eight and eleven have been the quietest. Twelve has definitely been the noisiest." "Then I'll start at the far end of the corridor and work my way back to here," said Colin. As he moved down the corridor he asked, "What about the slavers, have you had any trouble from them?" "Not a peep," replied Adele. "OK," said Colin coming to a halt outside cell eight, "Yana can come in with me and we'll have a chat with our guests. If I yell, come running." Adele nodded her head and stepped to one side before opening the door. Colin stepped inside and moved to one side to allow Yana to join him. As soon as she cleared the doorway Adele closed the cell door. Sat on one of the bunks were a young couple, very similar in appearance with dark hair and a slim build. Around their necks were plain black collars with a slight bulge under the chin. Other than that they were dressed in smart but casual clothes. The young man looked at Colin in turn, whilst the girl kept her eyes on the floor. "Hello," began Colin, "I'm Colin Hadden." The young man nodded, "I'm Harrick Goossens of House Vogel, this is my sister Harriette." It was Colin's turn to nod, "How much do you remember?" Harrick closed his eyes and began talking softly, "The Captain informed all the passengers that a small ship was in distress and he was manoeuvring to assist. He told us that there was no danger to anyone on the Viking Star." Harrick opened his eyes and gazed at Colin, "He was very good about keeping us informed as the 'rescue' progressed." He shrugged, "We all cheered when he announced that we'd made contact with the stricken vessel." Beside Harrick his sister let out a soft sob and Harrick slipped his arm around the girl. "There was a shrieking noise just after that announcement and the next thing I remember was being dragged to my feet by this," he ran his free hand over the collar. "I could smell the stinking breath of the man who dragged me to my feet," continued Harrick, "He grinned as he informed me that I was now a slave." The young man hugged his sister to his side, "Tell me, is that true?" "It looks like it," said Colin. "How long you remain so is down to your families." "Our families?" asked Harrick. "I'm planning on taking all of you to Tor and contacting your families," explained Colin. "I'd give you back to them but apparently that isn't good enough." He shrugged, "You're officially property and I have to sell you to them but I can do that as cheaply as I like." "And if they don't offer to buy us back?" asked the young man. "They'd do that?" asked Colin before he added, "I don't know. I suppose I'd have to sell you on the open market but I really don't want to do that if I can possibly avoid it." The young woman raised her eyes from the deck; "I really don't care what you do as long as I can stay with Harrick." "We'll see what happens after we get to Tor," said Colin, "In the meantime you are free to wander around this ship but please remember your status. As long as you don't cause us any trouble you'll remain free, if there are any problems you'll be confined to this cell." "Thank you," said Harrick. Colin nodded, "Can you stay in here until I've spoken with the rest of the people?" The couple nodded and Colin turned away with Yana hot on his heels. As they moved down the corridor Yana surprised him. "You know they're in love, don't you?" she asked. Colin ground to a halt and turned to Yana, "In love?" She nodded. "You're sure?" "Pretty much," replied the slave, "It'll be interesting to see what they do." "If you say so," said Colin as he began moving again. Behind him Yana exchanged grins with Adele. Still shaking his head Colin faced the door to cell nine and waited patiently as it opened to Adele's command. He smiled when the opening door revealed a young woman. He and Yana entered the cell and the woman rose to her feet. "Hello," began Colin, "I'm Colin Hadden." "Leslie Visser," replied the young woman with a dip of the head. "Are you going to be my master?" "So you accept that you're a slave?" asked Colin in his turn. "I don't accept it but I know enough of the ways of the galaxy to know that I've been caught and the only way out would be if my family would buy me back." She shrugged, her small firm breasts barely moving under her translucent blouse, "They're not going to do it," she declared. Colin gave a start of surprise; "They're not?" "No," replied Leslie. "My father has always said that he would have no truck with slavers, pirates or hostage takers. Anyone who ended up as a prisoner had better hope that he could rescue them because he wouldn't pay a centi-credit for their release." The young woman hung her head and said very softly, "And he wouldn't want to rescue me anyway." "Well I'm not a hostage taker," said Colin, "and I intend to offer you back to your family for the minimum amount I can get away with that still makes the transaction legally binding." Leslie raised her eyes and stared at Colin thoughtfully. "You did try to rescue us then, it wasn't just a squabble amongst slavers?" "No!" declared Colin loudly, behind him Yana shook her head as well. "What do you intend to do with the other... slaves?" "Return them to their families as best that I can," said Colin. Leslie nodded slowly and then glanced towards Yana, that glance took in the tattoo on her forehead and her collar. It also noticed that she was armed and stood behind her owner. "You belong to him?" she asked. Yana nodded. Leslie returned her gaze to Colin and took a deep breath, "Please just watch," she said, "I'll answer any questions later." Colin blinked but didn't move as Leslie opened the front of her blouse and revealed a small pair of pert breasts. Without pausing she popped the fastener on her trousers open and slipped them over her hips, wiggling to drop them at her ankles. Stepping to one side she hooked her fingers into the elastic of her briefs and took another deep breath. With one smooth motion she lowered the dark briefs to her knees and stood up, her hands dangling by her side. Colin looked her up and down and was on the way back up when he realised what he was looking at. A prick! His mouth opened, and then closed again as he struggled with his thoughts. Leslie raised one leg and flicked her briefs over the knee; the release of tension in the elastic allowed the small piece of black material to drop to her ankle. Opening her legs she dropped back onto the bunk behind her and lifted her legs into the air. Colin sucked air in noisily; behind him Yana gasped as well as a delicate pink pussy came into view. Stunned, Colin closed his eyes and took a couple of deep breaths. Opening his eyes he looked into the tear filled eyes of the young woman and tried to smile. "I take it that this is natural?" he asked softly. Leslie nodded from between her legs. "And that's why your family won't want you back?" Another nod in reply. "What do you want to happen?" asked Colin. "I'd like to stay with you," said the girl lowering her legs. "I'd be your slave." Colin shook his head, not in rejection but in surprise, he'd been in two cells and in both he'd been faced by well-to-do kids who didn't want to go home. "I'll think about it," said Colin, "but in the meantime get dressed. You've got the freedom of this ship, at least until we reach Tor." Turning to Yana he added, "And we tell no one about this." Yana, her mouth still hanging open, just nodded. <HR> Colin returned to the corridor and slumped against the wall, rubbing his hands across his face he sighed heavily. 'How could things get so complicated so quickly?' he thought before giving himself a mental shake and standing up straight. Glancing each way he saw Adele looking at him questioningly. He shook his head negatively and waved in the direction of cell number ten, "Let's see who's in here," he said. Adele frowned at how low Colin sounded but held her tongue when Yana shook her head. Still frowning she opened the door to cell ten and took up a position where she could see into cell nine. The girl in front of her was sat on the bed in just her knickers, the remains of her tears clearly visible on her face. Adele gave Yana a sharp look as she followed Colin in to the cell but only got another shake of the head in response. Inside the cell Colin found he was smiling at another single girl. "Hi," he said, "I'm Colin Hadden." "I'm Tedi Van Dijk," said the blond. "How much do you remember of what happened before you were dragged here?" he asked. Tedi closed her blue eyes and sighed, "There was some sort of rescue going on but it didn't seem to be bothering us, we were allowed to use the observation deck and watch the display that was going on." She shrugged, "There was an announcement over the speakers and everyone around me was cheering. The next thing I know some thug had got his hand on my tit and was telling me to follow him." Her eyes grew wide, "I tried to push him away and he grabbed me by this," her hand rose to the collar around her neck, "and he yelled at me that slaves did as they were told or else." She turned those sparkling blue eyes on Colin; "I'm not a slave am I?" Colin nodded slowly and was all for rushing forward and gathering the woman in his arms when she burst into tears. Yana held him back and stepped past him before gathering the young woman in her arms. "You're a slave," she said, "just like me but Colin here is planning on contacting your family to see if they wish to buy you back so that they can free you." "He is!" gasped Tedi, looking from Yana to Colin for confirmation. "That's the plan," said Colin. "As soon as we reach Tor I'll contact your family and let them know where you are. How long you stay with me is then down to them." "My father is on the Viking Star," said Tedi. "We were travelling together before I went off to college." "Your mother?" asked Yana gently. "She died five years ago," said Tedi, "That's why dad made time for us to get away together." "There's a couple of House Graham corvettes heading this way," explained Colin. "They'll deal with the pirates on the cruise ship and I'll try to get them to bring the ship to Tor." He shrugged, "How long it will take to sort everything out I've no idea but you shouldn't be too inconvenienced by your stay here." Colin waved his arm in the direction of the cells he'd already visited, "As I've told the others, you're free to make use of the public areas of this ship, as limited as they are. Don't do anything stupid or you'll end up back in here until we get to Tor." "Can I contact the Viking Star?" asked Tedi. "Not until we get the all clear from the Navy," decided Colin, "once that happens we'll see what we can arrange." Tedi nodded in understanding, "Thank you," she said. "What for?" asked Colin. "Saving us," said Tedi, "and not taking advantage." Colin grinned, "Don't make too much of it," he said, "I might just change my mind." He wiggled his eyebrows up and down and was rewarded when Tedi giggled at him. As he contemplated what to say next there was the sound of raised voices drifting in from the corridor. Shaking his head he turned towards the door, "Come on Yana, let's see what the noisy people down the corridor want." Yana grinned at Tedi and followed Colin out of the cell. <HR> "Cell twelve?" asked Colin as he rejoined Adele in the corridor. She nodded, "Do you want me to go in there and shut them up?" "No, we'll just ignore them for now while I speak to the occupants of cell eleven," said Colin. "Come on Yana, at least these people have been quiet." The entry into cell eleven followed the same procedure as the previous cells but here the occupants acknowledged his entry but somehow managed to remain aloof. "Hi, I'm Colin Hadden," began Colin as usual. "And?" interrupted the taller of the two seated girls. Colin frowned for a moment, "Who are you?" he asked bluntly. The tall girl sniffed, "I am Lady Penelope Van de Berg and this is my friend Lady Petrina Bakker. My uncle is Lord Rutger," she declared. Colin could feel his nose being put out of joint by the girl's attitude and had to bite down hard to stop a nasty retort from escaping his lips. As it was he couldn't help twisting the girl's tail with his reply. "Well Penny, I take it you believe that he'll be willing to buy you back?" he asked. The girl raised her nose into the air a touch more and replied, "Of course." Colin grinned, "I wonder if they'll think you're worth the price I'll be asking," he said and then turned his attention to the second girl. "Petrina, will your family be able to buy you back when we get to Tor?" The short, dark haired girl nodded, her dark eyes wide as she stared at Colin. "Then I'll reiterate what I've said to the other slaves," he caught Penelope's flinch as he used the term, "you are free to use the public areas of this ship but if you cause any trouble you will be returned to this cell. As soon as we get to Tor, I intend to contact your families so if you can let us have their contact details before we get there it'll help reduce the time you're kept here." Penelope continued to look down her nose at Colin but Petrina gave him a nod of understanding. Colin glanced over his shoulder as another burst of angry noises came from the cell across the corridor. "I've got to go and deal with that lot," declared Colin, "Please relax and I'll try to get this sorted as quickly as I can." As he led Yana out of the cell the slave hissed in his ear, "You should have stripped the bitch, that'd have taken some of the starch out of her." "Maybe," said Colin, "but it isn't worth it. We'll be rid of her in a couple of days and embarrassing her more than she already is could lead to problems in the future. She's probably her uncle's favourite niece and has him twisted around her little finger." Yana scowled, "Then don't sell her," she hissed, "keep her and train her properly." Colin stopped and frowned at Yana, "Why?" he asked simply. Yana swallowed, "She shouldn't treat you like that," she declared simply. "Maybe not," said Colin, "but I have to pick my battles and that is one I can do without. Besides they don't believe they're slaves and unless I'm going to keep them, they mean nothing to me either." Yana still looked sullen, "So don't you do anything to cause any trouble," instructed Colin. Adele coughed, "Do you want me to join you in here?" she asked indicating cell twelve. "No," replied Colin, "but don't go too far away." As the cell door opened Colin yelled, "Quiet!" before he stepped inside. Yana closed up behind him and stayed in the doorway. Inside the cell were three people, one of them the young man who'd asked to have his hands freed earlier. He was sat in the corner and seemed to be content to wait and see what happened. The other two in the room had been the ones making all the noise. Shocked by Colin's yell they'd subsided momentarily. "I'm Colin Hadden," said the young man, "now without getting loud who are you?" He pointed at the young man hoping he'd set a good example. "My name's Galo Jansen," he said softly. "Thank you," replied Colin before he turned to the first of the women, "and you are?" he asked politely. "Ame De Jong," she replied and then went on in a rush, "and I want to know what you're going to do about that bitch who pushed me?" Colin blinked and then ignored her. "You are?" he asked the final occupant of the room. "Sandra De Vries," replied the woman, "and I'm warning you now, if any man lays a finger on me he's going to get neutered." Colin raised his eyebrows and noticed the young man shake his head and look down. Colin had had enough, he took a step forward towards the woman and growled, "Listen you stupid bitch, that collar round your neck means that you have no rights at all. Any free man can do as he pleases with you provided your owner agrees." His face lit up with what appeared to be an evil grin, "and as I'm your owner that gives me pretty much free rein to do as I like." "As for you," he said turning his attention to Ame De Jong, "you were told to do something and failed to comply. What you got was mild and if you don't believe me then try stepping out of line again and see what happens." Both of the women looked shocked as the reality of their position was explained to them. "Now, as it happens, I've no intention of doing anything 'nasty' to you, unless I'm forced to." Colin took a breath and a step back, "Working on the assumption that the men who grabbed you intended to ransom you back to your families so that you can be freed I intend to do the same thing. I won't be trying to extort vast sums from your families but I will be selling you." He cast his eyes across the three slaves, "How they deal with your slavery will then be up to them. Personally I'd expect them to get the original sentence overturned and that would free you but I'll have no say in the matter so don't go giving me or my people any grief over the matter." "In the meantime you are free to make use of this ship's public areas," he said. "They're not much but it should be better than being stuck in here." He frowned at the two women, "As I've told everyone else, cause any trouble and I'll lock you back in a cell." Ame hissed at his statement but didn't actually say anything. Sandra looked like she was chewing a slug but eventually got her mouth to work, "Just make sure none of your men touch me," she declared. Colin shook his head and took two quick paces forward and grabbed the woman's collar. Holding it firmly he whispered to her, "Consider yourself lucky," he hissed, "I'm the only man in my crew but if there'd been any others you'd have just volunteered as their entertainment until we reached Tor." He pushed her away and said in a normal voice, "But I'm not interested in you so you've nothing to worry about." He turned and headed for the door only to be stooped by a call from the young man. "Sir." Colin turned. "Would it be possible to have these removed," asked the young man holding up his bound wrists. "Of course," said Colin, shaking his head at his own forgetfulness. "Adele," he called and grinned as the bot flew through the door pushing Yana to one side as she moved. "There's nothing wrong," called Colin when he saw that Adele had her Glock in hand. He pointed towards Galo Jansen, "Could you free his hands, please." Adele glanced at the two women before she returned her pistol to its holster. Freeing Galo's hands only took a moment using a knife that Colin didn't even know she had. Colin looked back into the cell from the doorway, "If you have any 'real' problems," he said, "speak to Adele and she'll see if she can help. I'm going back to my ship to co-ordinate the rest of the rescue and see about getting us to Tor. As I said before, relax and make the best of the situation." He stepped away from the door and Yana followed him. <HR> Zara chuckled as she listened to Colin describing his meetings with the various slaves. "So have you decided what to do with them?" she asked. "Exactly what I always intended," said Colin. "And if their families won't pay for them?" pressed Zara. "Then I'll deal with that problem when it arises," said Colin. He was saved from further questioning when an alarm sounded on Zara's control panel. "It's the Typhoon and the Sirocco," she reported. "Hmmm," murmured Zara, "they're launching fighters." "Seems a sensible precaution," said Colin; "I'd have done the same if we had any. It secures the area and lets you deal with the problem in hand without worrying about what might be sneaking up on you." A couple of minutes later Rosie turned to Colin, "Captain Hallis is calling." Colin nodded, "Hi, Captain, I'm glad you're here." "Captain Hadden," came the reply, "Has anything changed?" "Not as far as we can tell," said Colin. "The cruise ship is still drifting with anything up to a dozen slavers on board. We think the passengers were gassed so there's no saying what state they're in. The slavers' craft is now in my possession and we'll be taking it with us when we go to Tor." "We've got a company of Marines between us," replied Captain Hallis happily, "they'll enjoy taking the ship back from the pirates." "Do I need to hang around here?" asked Colin, "or will you catch up with me at Tor." "I take it you've got some extra passengers?" asked the corvette's captain. "Yes," replied Colin, "and I'd like to get rid of them as soon as possible." "Are any of them from House Graham?" asked Captain Hallis, his tone tinged with a hint of frost. "No," replied Colin just as frostily. "Then you go ahead and we'll join you shortly," came the response, "Typhoon out." "That was very generous of him," said Yana from the back of the bridge. "Not really," said Zara, "It just means we're out of the way if there are any salvage rights to the cruise ship." "Whatever," said Colin casually. "Can you and Adele get that ship to Tor?" he asked. "Yes," said Zara after a quick consultation with Rosie. "Then get your stuff over there and help Adele get ready to leave," said Colin. "We'll depart in a couple of hours and travel at speed one in hyper. Rosie will co-ordinate the jump." Colin got to his feet; "In the meantime I'm going to get some rest." Yana looked at her master and lowered her eyes and so missed Colin's grin. "Come on wench," he snapped, slapping her on the rump as he moved past her, "I need someone to wash my back." <HR> Chapter 8 "Transition in thirty seconds," reported Rosie and Colin let out a sigh of relief. The journey that could have taken less than four days had just taken seven because the slavers' ship only had a class one drive. It had been a journey that was totally boring and Colin was glad that he'd been on the Red Rose and away from the bleating and moaning of the new slaves. Contact between the ships had been kept to a minimum to reduce the chances of being intercepted on the way to Tor. Colin was certain that the government of Tor, whatever it was, was deeply involved in the kidnapping and slaving operations that went on around its borders and he didn't want any surprises happening before he was publicly in their system. "Transition!" The ship's systems settled down and Colin had his first look at the baddest planet in the galaxy. Although it was still several hours away it showed up as a predominantly blue planet on his displays. The data readout for the planet described it as having a gravity of zero point nine five Earth standard, its atmospheric pressure and make up were almost identical to that of Earth before the industrial revolution. The big difference between Tor and the human race's home world was in the amount of land available. Whilst Earth had a land surface area of just under one hundred and fifty million square kilometres or in percentage terms nearly thirty percent of the planet's surface Tor's equivalent figures showed a mere two and a half million square kilometres, or five percent of the planet's surface. This left a lot of water area and had a pronounced impact on the planet's weather and lifestyle. It also meant the planet was very blue when seen from space. "Petal wants to know what to do?" said Rosie. They'd taken to calling the slaver's ship 'Red Petal' amongst themselves. "Let them know we'll be moving into planetary orbit as soon as we've finished scanning," answered Colin. "They've acknowledged," replied Rosie. "So what can we see?" asked Colin. "The House Graham corvettes are here with the Viking Star," said Rosie. "There are also six attack craft at various places around the system, they're all showing Tor customs beacons." There was a short pause before Rosie concluded, "other than that the only things I can see are a lot of small freighters." "Call Captain Hallis and let him know we're here," said Colin, "then plot an orbital course that puts us close to the House Graham corvettes and pass it to Petal." "Aye-aye, Captain," responded Rosie with a jaunty salute. Colin shook his head and grinned before settling down in his chair. "Then I want you to see if you can contact representatives from House Rutgers and House Vogel." When Rosie nodded he continued, "I doubt if there's a proper procedure for selling people back to a House but try and keep our business discrete." "I'll try," said Rosie, "but unless they are willing to give me one of their House codes we're going to be speaking in clear and I know that House Graham at least will be able to listen in on anything we say." They'd been approaching the planet for nearly thirty minutes before a message came in from the nearest customs boat demanding identification information and requiring them to declare the purpose of their visit. Colin kept it simple, they were here to sell some slaves and pick up supplies before heading out on a scout mission. The closest pair of attack boats moved towards them in a leisurely manner and after a quick pass waved them on. "I don't think much for their security," commented Rosie as the two craft withdrew. "They don't want to make it too difficult for people to do business here," replied Colin, "if they did the place would go bankrupt in a couple of months." The insertion into planetary orbit went smoothly as Rosie ensured that the Red Rose took a position astern of the waiting corvettes. The cruise ship was sandwiched safely between the Typhoon and the Sirocco and appeared undamaged to Colin's untrained eye. The Petal settled in close to the Rose and both ships lowered their drives into a station-keeping mode. Colin ensured that Rosie had established a secure communications net between the two ships and had them logged onto the planetary node of the Galacticweb. "Well," said Colin after a good stretch, "now we wait and see what happens." <HR> "I've established secure communications with both of the Houses you requested," said Rosie. "They told me they have been expecting us." Colin blinked and then chuckled to himself, "Of course they were," he said. "The cruise ship has been here for a couple of days, so everyone knows what's happened." Colin checked that his jumpsuit was presentable and nodded to Rosie, "House Rutgers first." "Richard Van Velt of House Rutger," announced Rosie as the screen displayed a smooth looking middle-aged man. The image gave a brief nod before speaking, "Captain Hadden, I've been informed by the Captain of the Viking Star of the events aboard his ship and the impact that those events may have had on several people associated with House Rutgers. I've also been informed that those people are now in your possession, is this so?" Colin nodded gently, "I've several people who have stated that they used to be members of House Rutgers," he said. "You are aware that their convictions are false?" said Van Velt. "That is a possibility," acknowledged Colin, "but until the matter is clarified their status remains as it currently is, or so I've been led to believe. Do you know any differently?" The man before Colin settled back, their starting positions stated. "Whilst we do not agree with the way that the local government does business that is our understanding also. Do you have a suggestion as to how we can mitigate the possible problems that could arise from this situation?" "Only one that I've been informed has been used before in this system," said Colin. "That is that you 'buy' the people from me and place them in safe keeping until such times as the misunderstanding is cleared up." "I'm also aware of that method of solving this particular problem," replied Van Velt, "and I've been instructed to offer you a suitable remuneration for several people who may be in your possession." "I can send you the details of those people we have who claim to be under House Rutgers protection if that would help," said Colin. "Please do so Captain Hadden," requested Van Velt. Colin nodded to Rosie who nodded straight back. "As you can see," continued Colin, "there are six names on the list." He raised his eyebrows, "Does this tally with what you were expecting?" "All except for one name," replied Van Velt and then continued when Colin frowned. "The young lady, Tedi Van Dijk is not on my list. If you'll hold for a moment I will see if I can find out why?" Colin nodded and the screen changed to the House Rutgers crest. "Any ideas, Rosie?" asked Colin. The holograph shook her head negatively. "Captain Hadden," began the returning Van Velt, "I'm afraid that I'm the bearer of bad news. It appears that Ms. Van Dijk's father died on the cruise ship and as she has no surviving relatives she has no one to fund her release. The House is not willing to do so in this case." Colin was shocked, "If you'll wait a moment," he said and waved to Rosie to blank the screen. "Bastards," he hissed, "I'm sure that dad would recover any of our people that the slavers took from us." "I'm sure he would," agreed Rosie, "but for House Hadden it would only be an occasional occurrence, not an everyday event. House Rutgers could not afford to recover everyone who was caught up in this way. She's just going to be one of the unfortunate casualties of the way the galaxy works." Colin looked glum, "A casualty and I'm going to have to inform that her father is dead and she's a slave." He looked at Rosie, "and what am I supposed to do with her?" Rosie grinned, "Well she is a pretty blond," she began. "Wash your mouth out," snapped Colin before he looked back at the screen. "Connect me," he ordered. "Mr. Van Velt," he started, "It looks like I'm in the slave business for real then." "You're not in that line of work," asked Van Velt, the surprise clearly visible on his face. "No," said Colin angrily," I just happened to bump into events on the Viking Star and collected your people as I endeavoured to help." "Ahhh, that could change things," said Van Velt. "How much were you thinking of asking for each of our people?" "The bare minimum that would be acceptable as a transaction," said Colin. "If it's too low it calls into question the legality of our dealings. I'm sure that your legal people know what that figure is." Van Velt frowned and appeared to be listening to someone off screen. His eyebrows rose a couple of times before he nodded; he turned his attention back to Colin. "As a starting point I'm told that Ms. De Jong is valued at ten thousand credits on the open market, as is Ms. De Vries. Mr. Jansen would fetch something in the region of fifteen thousand credits whilst in increasing terms of value Ms. Bakker is worth twenty thousand credits and Ms. Van de Berg a rather generous twenty-five thousand credits." The smooth looking man turned on his smile, "My legal council advises me that the minimum acceptable figure would be around the ten percent mark for some reason though that did cause a moment or two of debate." His smile broadened, "I will therefore offer you ten percent and add, say five percent as a finders fee, to their open market value for the transfer of these people to our estate." "And Ms. Van Dijk?" pressed Colin. Van Velt gave a casual wave, "She's yours," he said dismissively. On seeing Colin glower he added, "House Rutgers has a policy of not keeping its own people as slaves. If I bought her from you I would have to sell her on immediately. That would only present me, personally, with problems. Problems I am not willing to undertake." Still scowling Colin nodded, "You've just bought yourself five slaves. I take it that you will be freeing them as soon as possible?" "That is our current understanding," said Van Velt. "The legal team I work with have put forward a general request to have all of the convictions carried in the Viking Star's memory annulled but we doubt if that will happen as there may have been genuine convictions involved." "So?" prompted Colin. "Each case will have to be reviewed individually." Van Velt gave a slight shrug of the shoulders, "That will take a long time. Even with the House pushing the judicial system here it will take about six months to have all of our people cleared." "And the rest?" asked Colin. "If no one is pushing proceedings, who knows, a couple of years maybe," said Van Velt. "How much would it cost to have a case expedited?" said Colin, the glimmer of an idea in his mind. Van Velt looked interested for a moment; "We have been allocated ten percent of the slaves market value for each person, that's about the going rate." "Uhmm," murmured Colin as he pulled on his ear in thought. "What would the open market value of Ms. Van Dijk be?" Van Velt's eyebrows rose as he saw where Colin was going, "One moment," he said and the screen went blank. "Colin, is that the right thing to do?" asked Rosie. "I'm not sure," replied Colin, "and if it's too expensive I won't..." He stopped talking as the screen displayed Van Velt's image. "Captain Hadden, Ms. Van Dijk has an open market value of seven and a half thousand credits." "So seven hundred and fifty credits would get her conviction annulled and her freedom restored in, what, about a year?" asked Colin. Van Velt nodded slowly, "Yes," he said, "around about that long." "If I gave you the money would you be prepared to add her name to your list," said Colin, "at the end of course." Van Velt stroked his chin a couple of times, "I would be working on the case already," he said softly, "it shouldn't be too difficult to add her name..." He looked at Colin, "All right, young man, I'll do it." Colin nodded in turn, "Then take the sum from the money you are sending me and add her name to your list," said Colin with a grin. Van Velt smiled in return, "You have yourself a deal, Captain." "Well that's settled," said Colin, "Will you arrange to have your other slaves collected?" "We will need some time for that," said Van Velt, "we hadn't expected our proceedings to flow this quickly." "That's not a problem," said Colin, "they can stay in the cells they're occupying at the moment." It was Van Velt's turn to frown. "They are not being mistreated in any way, are they?" "Not as far as I'm aware," said Colin, "but I don't have room for them on my ship so I've left them aboard the slaver with a couple of my crew to keep an eye on them." "If they've been mistreated in any way..." began Van Velt. "Don't go there, Sir," growled Colin. "They were informed after I picked them up that if they behaved they had a free run of the ship. But they were warned that if they caused any trouble they'd be locked in their cells until I sold them." Colin looked at the older man angrily, "and at least two of the women were making threats to me before I'd left the ship so I wouldn't be surprised to find that they'd spent the whole journey tied to their beds." Van Velt sat back and looked thoughtful for a moment or two. "That is the extent of their possible mistreatment?" he asked. "The crew I left on that ship were all women," said Colin. "I see," replied Van Velt, "then I think we can safely say that you'll hear no more about their treatment." "Thank you," said Colin with a slight inclination of the head, "then I look forward to the credit transfer and the removal of your goods from my ship." "As soon as possible," said Van Velt and after another couple of pleasantries the connection was broken. "He's still a slimy bastard," muttered Colin as the screen went blank. "Slimy he may be," said Rosie, "but he's efficient." Colin raised and eyebrow and Rosie went on, "Eleven thousand, two hundred and fifty credits have been transferred to our account already." Colin stretched, "Then I'd better speak to House Vogel's representative before I go over to the Petal and speak to Tedi Van Dijk," He shook his head sadly, "I'm not looking forward to that at all." <HR> "So you're the snivelling little worm that kidnaps children and hangs a dagger over the hearts of their loved ones are you," growled the man with the dark visage who stared at Colin from the screen. "Well I can tell you that you'll get no blood money from my House." "You are?" asked Colin, his own eyes narrowing as he stared at the man before him. "You will address me as Lord Goossens," snapped the man as he puffed up his chest. Colin shook his head, the various conversations he'd had with the House Vogel people came back to him. The terms belligerent and obnoxious seemed so fitting. "I'm Captain Hadden," said Colin. "I have recovered three people of your House from a slaver. I am offering to sell them back to you at ten percent of the current market value, which I am reliably informed is the lowest price I can charge and keep the transaction legal." "I told you at the beginning of this conversation, worm. I don't do business with scum like you!" The man moved forward in his seat. "What's going to happen is that you will return my two children to me or I'll hunt you to the ends of the galaxy. You'll be thankful that I'm going to let you off with your life if you do." Colin blinked and sat back; he took a deep breath as he attempted to control his temper. "Listen you obnoxious little toad," he began, "when it comes to rank I'm your equal at least but that isn't a problem as far as I'm concerned. What is, is the fact that I've got your people on board and it's three not two because I went to their aid. If you're too stupid to deal with me in a civilised manner, I'll speak to House Rutgers and see if they're prepared to deal with me honourably. If not, I'll keep the slaves and sell them for a profit." As Colin finished his speech he realised that he hadn't controlled his temper at all. Mentally he shrugged and hoped he hadn't gone too far. The man on the screen frowned, "I don't want that thing back, you can do what you like with it." Colin felt his anger rising as the man who had a duty to protect his own people discarded one without a qualm. "But I want my children back and you're going to give them to me. If you so much as twitch I'm going to have your craft blown out of the sky. You've got the rest of the day to comply," with that the man started to lean towards the controls. "Then I hope you're ready for a war," said Colin, silently hoping that the man didn't realise how much of a bluff he was trying to pull. "I'm a subject of House Graham and in case you haven't noticed yet the two ships that bought in the Viking Star belong to that House. Attack me in such an unprovoked manner and I'm sure that not only will they have something to say about the matter but so will House Rutgers as I've still got their people with me." The man sat back and stared. Colin hoped that he was wrestling with the consequences of dragging a couple of the Great Houses into what should have been a straightforward business negotiation. "I've already concluded a deal with House Rutgers that fulfils my legal obligations and returns their people to them," said Colin. "Speak to their Mr. Van Velt and see what he has to say." The man on the screen was shaking his head, "I don't deal with scum," he declared. "Then you leave me very little choice," said Colin. "I'm going off on a scout mission as soon as the House Rutger people have been removed from my ship. If you haven't seen sense before that I'll be taking all three of your people away with me." He gazed at the screen for a moment, "I'll be back in about six months, you can talk to me then." The screen went blank as Rosie dropped the channel. "Bring up the screens, Rosie, just in case," said Colin. "Screens are up," said Rosie, "Sensors are extended to maximum and I've informed Petal of what's happening." "That wasn't very good was it?" asked Colin. "Not the most diplomatic of conversations," said Rosie, "but your grandfather did much worse in his time." Colin rubbed his eyes. "What should I do?" he asked softly of no one in particular. Yana answered, "Keep Leslie," she said, "and send the other two back to your father with a full report." Colin jumped; he'd forgotten that Yana was on the bridge. Blinking he turned to the slave, "Why?" "You heard what he said about Leslie," she said, "and you know why. The twins would be in the way if you kept them aboard and selling them here would just cause trouble immediately." She rose to her feet and approached Colin, "If you send them home you will be doing what they want whilst getting them off this ship. Your father is a better diplomat than you are and will probably be able to smooth things over without the war you were threatening. He should also keep House Graham off your back at the same time." Colin slumped in his seat. "House Graham wouldn't be best pleased to be drawn into a squabble with another house, especially on our side," he admitted. He rubbed his face again before letting out a long sigh, "Right, Leslie is going to be my slave since she's clearly not going to be sent home and I doubt if freeing her will be easy without House Vogel's help. The twins will be shipped back to Dad as soon as I can figure out a way of doing it that doesn't make it obvious." He glanced from Yana to Rosie, "and then we can get on with what we came out here to do." Rosie and Yana smiled at Colin as he shook his head in disbelief at the problems he'd encountered whilst trying to do the right thing. <HR> Colin was feeling pretty despondent; his talk with Tedi had been as harrowing as he'd expected. Finding that she'd lost her father as well as being deserted by her House had been too much for the poor thing. Even the fact that he was paying to free her didn't seem to console the young woman. Colin had left the tearful woman with Yana and beat a hasty retreat. Adele was waiting for him as he left the cell. "The twins want to speak to you," she said, "and so does the pretty boy." "The pretty boy?" "Galo," said Adele. "I think he's had enough of the two women with him and wants your permission to bump them off." Colin chuckled, "Have they been that bad?" "Not really," replied Adele, "and I allowed him to move into a cell on his own so he didn't have to listen to them all the time." "So why the pretty boy tag?" asked Colin. "He's just too good to be true," said Adele. "He's given us no trouble at all. He's helped where he could and has done his best to keep the rest of them in line." "So you think I should go and see him then?" asked Colin. Adele shook her head, "Oh no, you're not getting me that way," she said. "If you want to see him that's entirely up to you. I'm just passing on his request and my observations concerning him." "Well lead the way then," said Colin, "and we'll find out what Pretty Boy wants." Adele scowled at Colin and then chuckled as she turned and led him to the start of the corridor and cell number two. As they neared the door she asked, "What are we doing with these things?" pointing towards the first cell door. "Shit," muttered Colin. "You know what, I forgot them completely. We'd better get in touch with the authorities and see what they want me to do with them." Colin paused at Galo's cell door, "Talk to Rosie and see what they want us to do with them." He turned towards the open door and saw Galo stood waiting for him. "You wanted to see me," said Colin entering the cell. "Yes, Sir," said Galo. "May I?" he asked indicating he edge of his bed. "Sure." Galo sat on the edge of his bed and looked like he was trying to relax. "I don't know how much you know about me but please allow me to explain. I'm the third son, of a second wife, of a brother to the House Lord. In other words, I'm considered a member of the ruling family but so far out on a limb that I'm never going to be in a position to inherit." "The problem is that because of that heritage, I am not permitted to do anything useful." The young man shrugged, "I've tried but no one will employ me. It's too much to ask them to put up with the family's attitude. To make things more intolerable, there is nothing within the family that I can take charge of." "Don't get me wrong," he continued, "I'm not mistreated or anything. I'm just not allowed to spread my wings, so to speak. I've had a full and rounded education, I've been trained in self-defence and with a variety of weapons but I'm not allowed to put the theory into practise." He looked up at Colin and said, "I'm in danger of turning into a fop." "A fop?" asked Colin, unfamiliar with the term. "Sorry, my mother is interested in some sort of old acting tradition," said Galo. "A fop is probably best described as an overdressed fashion statement. He's required to be perfectly turned out in the latest styles at all times. He would never lower himself to actually do anything that could be described as work and as for getting his hands dirty, well, he'd faint at the thought." Colin couldn't help grinning at the look on Galo's face as he described his idea of hell. "It's all right for you," said the young man, "You've been allowed to escape." Colin cocked his head at the young man. "Oh, don't try to hide it," he said, "I've spoken to the girls here while we were travelling. They told me all about you, how you're the second son of a House but you went to college and got all the qualifications needed to be a scout and now you're off to discover new things." He waved his arm in exasperation, "That's what I want to do, get out there and do something useful." "So why don't you?" asked Colin. "That's why I wanted to speak to you," said Galo. He raised his eyes to Colin's face, "Could I come with you when you head out there?" his arm waved around. "I know this is going to sound as though I'm trying to talk myself out of a job but I'm really not qualified to do anything. Don't get me wrong, I'm well educated and more than willing to work hard to learn but I don't have any real practical skills. If you'd let me go with you, I'd do as I'm told, learn whatever you throw at me and do everything I can to be useful." He looked earnestly at Colin, "You won't have to pay me or anything and I'll have no claim on whatever you discover." Colin remembered how Adele had described Galo as a pretty boy and frowned. He may be heading that way but it didn't sound like he wanted the title. The real question for Colin was how much trouble would it be if he took Galo along? Already he'd have two new people with him, Leslie and Tedi. Did he want to take another; especially one who'd already admitted that he had no skills worth talking about? "I really shouldn't..." began Colin and Galo's face dropped. "But if you can arrange to be available when I leave I'll take you." Galo jumped to his feet but stopped when Colin held up his hand, "I'm leaving as soon as I can. That means that in all likelihood you will still be classified as a slave when I depart." He looked at the young man seriously, "That is something you need to consider seriously. You wouldn't be freed until I got back to here and if we went somewhere else you could end up being a slave for the rest of your life." The young man blinked as Colin continued, "You are being picked up soon by representatives from House Rutgers, you're free to use the communications from this ship to make whatever arrangements you want to. When the rest of the slaves depart you'll need to decide whether you're staying or going with them." Colin grinned, "If you want to stay, I'll be happy to take you but don't think it's going to be like your cruise. I'm going to be working the whole crew hard and that would include you!" "Thank you," gushed Galo, "I'll get Adele to show me how to call home and get things organised." Shaking his head Colin waved towards the cell door, "Go on then, I've got other things to sort out before we leave." Galo shot through the door calling for Adele as he left. <HR> Colin entered the cell occupied by the twins and was surprised as the two of them dropped to their knees. "Sir," said Harrick, his eyes still on the floor, "I know we have become a problem for you because of the attitude of our father. I," he cast his eyes sideways at his sister, "We would beg you to hear our plea." Colin opened his mouth, and then shut it again. He took a deep breath to steady his nerves and then waved towards one of the beds, "Sit on there, both of you." He crossed the room and dropped down on the second bed. "You're right in one way," said Colin. "Having you here on this ship does present several problems, mostly to do with your father. Unfortunately for me, I was unable to rise above his belligerent attitude and got involved in a war of words. As such he called into question the honour of my House and that means I'm not prepared to back down." Colin looked from one to the other of the siblings and continued, "I am not prepared to give you back to him. I'd have sold you in the same way that I have the others but your father wasn't prepared to bend even that far. That leaves me with the problem of what to do with you two. I could take you with me when I go off on my scouting mission but to be honest, I don't want to, my ship would be too crowded with you on board." "That was what we wanted to see you about, sir," said Harrick. "We," he indicated his sister with a casual wave of his hand, "believe it would be best if you sold us as a breeding pair here on Tor." "You believe that it would be possible to do that?" asked Colin. "Why not?" asked Harrick. "Your father is why not," responded Colin. "He has already declared that he is going to follow me wherever I go in order to recover you. I've no doubt that he is going to check up on any sales I make while I'm here and if you were one of those transactions he would take you back. Possibly even injuring your new owner, which is a risk I am not prepared to put them through." Colin shook his head, "You're not being sold and you're not staying with me," he declared. "You are going back to Dundaff. There you'll be with my father who is much better at handling things like this. All I've got to do is figure out how to get you back there without waving a banner that tells your father where you've gone." Harriette raised her eyes for the first time. "You don't seem to be against the two of us having children together." "Why should I be?" asked Colin. "I know a lot of the old religions have a problem with incest and as we were taught in school too much close in-breeding can cause problems. That's all old hat nowadays. Raenil medical technology has removed the chances of birth defects to the point that the incest taboos are just so much superstition." "You don't think it's wrong then?" asked Harrick. "Not for the reasons that are always quoted," said Colin. "I'm not saying it's a good thing and I'd be at the front of the queue to top an adult who forced themselves on a minor. But for two well educated adults," he shrugged, "it's their choice. If they can live with the attitude of those around them then it's nobody's business but their own as far as I'm concerned." "And if they're slaves?" asked Harriette. "Then they don't have a choice in the matter do they," said Colin, "but it isn't a relationship if they're forced into it, especially if children are involved." "Would you allow us to breed if we were your slaves?" pressed Harriette. "You are my slaves," said Colin firmly, "and as far as I'm concerned you can make love all you want. Having children is a different thing entirely, at least until your status is finally settled." "What do you think your father will do with us?" asked Harrick as he took hold of his sister's hand. "I've no idea," admitted Colin, "but whatever he does it will be for the best of House Hadden so I wouldn't hold out too many hopes of getting everything that you want." "Then why send us there?" asked Harriette, her eyes filling with tears. "Because it gets you out of my hair," said Colin, "and gives things time and space to settle down. At the moment there is too much heat in the fire for people to be sensible about what they say and more importantly, what they do." "You really think that our father would attack you?" asked Harrick. "Don't you?" returned Colin. Harrick pondered for a short while before he looked up, "You're right," he said, "he may not do anything immediately but he's like a bulldog, once he's got a smell of blood he'll never let go." "Precisely," said Colin. "So you're going to be shipped off to my home for my father to deal with. Then we'll see whether your father is going to follow me or you." Harriette dropped her head onto Harrick's shoulder. Colin rose, "You'll not get much warning before you leave," he glanced around the room, "not that you've got much to pack." He strode out of the cell and nearly bumped into Zara, "I hope they're really in love," he said as he moved past her. <HR> Chapter 9 When Colin returned to the Rose he discovered that he had another source of income. The two pirates he'd held were already condemned men and as such he was free to sell them and keep the profits. The next auction was a full property sale so he'd be able to unload anything he wanted to, and conveniently it was happening the following day. "Colin," called Rosie, "Captain Hallis would like a word if it's convenient." Colin nodded and the image of Captain Hallis appeared before him, "What can I do for you Captain?" he asked pleasantly. "It's more a case of what I can do for you," replied the corvette's Captain. "The owners of the Viking Star have made reparations and rewards." "Already?" said Colin in surprise. Normally any sort of salvage claim took months if not years to go through the legal system, especially when more than one of the Great House's was involved. "Yes," said Captain Hallis. "It seems to be a bit quick but it appears that House Rutgers applied some pressure and the company's board of governors folded fairly easily." Colin nodded, "I take it you've turned a tidy profit on your rescue mission, then?" "A fair amount," admitted the Captain, "but it appears that you haven't done too badly out of their generosity either." "Me?" asked Colin in surprise. "You didn't know?" asked the Captain. "Clearly not. You were the first ship on the scene and broadcast the distress message that called us to the stricken craft. In addition you removed several of the passengers from harm's way at great risk to yourself." Colin shook his head dismissively. "I was lucky." "Lucky or not," said the Captain, "they've presented you with a finders fee." Colin grinned and the Captain continued, "I'd asked for your contact details to be passed to the owners but I've no idea how long it will take to get a message through to you." Colin raised an eyebrow, which the Captain correctly interpreted. "They're contacting me through the Navy headquarters on Montrose rather than directly." Colin shook his head, "I bet they've got a representative on Tor as well." "Several," agreed the Captain, "but they're working through their head office, so we have to do the same." Colin nodded, "Are you heading back home soon?" "In about four hours," confirmed the Captain, "You?" "I'm off out there as soon as I've finished dealing with House Rutgers," said Colin who had a sudden idea. "Captain, are you allowed to carry things, you know, freight, things like that?" "What sort of things?" asked Captain Hallis, suspiciously. "I've a couple of slaves I want to send back to Dundaff," said Colin, "I was just wondering if you could do it for me." "It's a little unusual," said the Captain thoughtfully, "but not unheard of." "Would you be willing to make a detour for me?" The man on the screen rubbed his chin, "I'd have to charge you a nominal fee," he said, "Say a hundred credits." He shrugged, "Yeah, why not, after all you've made us a fair parcel of credit. Send them over and I'll take them home for you." "Thanks, Captain," said Colin with a grin, glad that he had solved that little problem. "Now, do you happen to know where I can sell an obsolete replenishment vessel?" "No," said the Captain with a shake of the head, "You could always toss it into the sun." "I'd probably get charged for doing that around here," responded Colin. "True," said the Captain and then with a friendly wave he broke the connection. "Adele," called Colin. After Rosie had made contact with the second vessel Adele replied, "Yes." "Get the twins ready for departure," said Colin, "they're heading home on the Typhoon. You'll have to be quick about it as they're planning to leave in a couple of hours." "I'll get it sorted," responded Adele. 'Two down, four or five to go,' thought Colin. "Rosie, can you see to getting Tedi and Lesley transferred from the Petal to here when Adele has finished with the twins. We'll be taking the two of them with us when we leave," said Colin. "What about Galo?" asked Rosie innocently. "Not you too?" said Colin with a grin. "I have no interest in him," said Rosie with a sniff, "after all I'm only an image. But if you did plan on taking him with us, it would be wise to make preparations. I need to allocate a cabin, ensure we have supplies for an extra mouth, clothing, male grooming products." "Wouldn't you need them anyway?" asked Colin suspecting that he shouldn't ask. "You use them?" she responded sounding surprised. Colin shook his head, "Set aside a cabin for him and get your supplies." He stared at Rosie and said, "I'm going for a shower." She just grinned back at him. <HR> "There they go," said Colin softly as the screen in front of him stopped displaying the image of the House Graham corvette. He tried to relax now that the twins had been moved on but deep down he had a feeling that he'd just created a whole load of trouble for his house and the reason was his own pride. On the screen he could just make out his own shuttle making its way back after dropping off the twins. Colin twitched as a hand descended on his shoulder. "You've made those two happy," said Yana, "no matter what else you think you've done." Colin smiled, "Those two maybe, but what about you? You're going to be sharing the ship with two other slaves." "Possibly three," replied Yana, "if Galo gets his way." Colin looked to the ceiling and sighed. "No, I don't fancy him," said Yana, "but he seems determined to come with you and I think that this is the first time he's ever felt that way. It will be interesting to see how his family reacts when he informs them of his intentions." "They'll probably say no," said Colin. "From what I've heard it's almost certain that his mother will," she gave Colin a knowing smile. "I wouldn't be so sure about his father." "No?" asked Colin. "He's some sort of officer in the House Rutgers military," said Yana, which did nothing for Colin's peace of mind. "Galo sort of hinted that his dad wanted him to do something useful but hadn't pushed the point with his mother so far." Colin shook his head and sighed again, "That's as may be," he said, "and Galo may be joining us but Tedi and Lesley definitely are. How do you feel about that?" Yana's eyes opened wide in surprise, "I'm a slave, what I feel doesn't matter." "Maybe not according to some people, but I want to know how you feel." said Colin. "To be honest I'm not sure," said Yana. "Tedi is young and very pretty but she's lost her father and I know you're trying to free her. Are you going to drag her into your bed and replace me?" Colin shook his head. "I didn't think you would," she said. "Oh don't get me wrong, I expect you to make love to her but I don't believe that you'd treat me badly because of it." She gave a shrug, which Colin noticed did interesting things to her ample bust. "Lesley is a different thing," continued Yana, "I'm not really sure what I think of, uhmm... Should I say her or it?" "As far as I'm concerned she's a girl until she decides otherwise," replied Colin. "I think that's my problem with her," said Yana, emphasising the 'her.' "I'm not sure whether she's one of the girls or an interloper." "Give her the benefit of the doubt," instructed Colin and then it was his turn to shrug, "whether I'll be able to do that and take her to bed is another matter." "I guess we'll just have to see what happens," sad Yana. "That we will," agreed Colin. "They'll be here after the auction tomorrow and we'll all see how things progress." He glanced around the bridge, "and talking of their arrival have the cabins been prepared for them?" Yana nodded, "All of the cabins are aired and ready for occupation. I've set aside a cabin for Galo as far from yours as is possible so the two of you don't disturb each other." Colin shook his head but remained silent. Grinning, Yana continued, "I've put Tedi in the cabin alongside yours and Lesley is in the next one along. Adele and Zara are in the one between Galo and me." "Is that wise?" asked Colin. "Who for?" asked Yana, "Galo or Adele?" Colin shook his head and chuckled, "Forget I asked," he said. "I just hope Galo knows what he's letting himself in for." "I bet..." began Yana. "Captain, I've got a corvette approaching us," reported Rosie, "It's got a House Vogel transponder code." "Oh shit," said Colin as he twisted to study the screen before him. "How long until he's within firing range." "Twenty-five minutes," said Rosie. "He's only just dropped into normal space." "How long till our shuttle gets back?" "Ten minutes maximum," said Rosie, "I've already informed them that we may have a problem and Adele is coming in as fast as she can manage." "Well done, Rosie," said Colin. "Now bring up the shields and spin us to face the threat as soon as the shuttle has docked." "Power up our weapons?" asked Rosie. Colin pondered the problem, it would take about thirty seconds to get the particle beams up to working status but doing so would be easily detectable as his own energy signature fluctuated. If he kept them off line it would give the approaching corvette at least one shot without a return. However, energising his beams could be considered a hostile act and that would allow the incoming corvette to claim he was operating in self-defence. "No, don't do that," said Colin, "We'll play it cool until we see what he is up to. You can target the first missile on him though, at least we'll get some sort of shot in if he opens fire." He glanced around the bridge, "Tell the AI on the Petal to reposition herself so that we are between them and the incoming corvette." "I'm on it," responded Rosie. Fifteen minutes later and the House Vogel corvette was still approaching slowly. Adele was at the weapons console and Zara had started massaging the sensors. "It's an old Buccaneer class corvette," she reported. "If it hasn't been modified then it's only got a single seventy-six point two millimetre beam." "Well that's good news," said Colin. "That may be but it also carries sixteen Uran anti-ship missiles and they're big and powerful," said Zara. "Could we out run it?" asked Colin. "Assuming she's operating at one hundred percent we're about even," said Zara. "And she's got a military hyperdrive so we're not going to outrun her in hyperspace." "Marines, fighters?" asked Colin. "The normal complement for a Buccaneer would be a platoon of Marines, if House Vogel has got any and there's room for a flight of Katar fighters," replied Zara. "Adele, make sure the rail guns are online," Colin kept one eye on the display screen and turned to the two women stood by the hatch. Tedi looked worried but Lesley was strangely calm. "Do either of you know anything about operating a ship?" he asked. Tedi shook her head negatively; alongside her Lesley did the same. "Sorry," she added. "It's not your fault," said Colin. "Take a seat in front of those consoles but don't touch anything. Strap yourselves in just in case." With the warnings finished he returned his attention to the approaching corvette. Just outside the range of the Buccaneer's missiles the corvette came to a halt. The two spacecraft continued to orbit the planet below, dead in space relative to each other. "Message from the Vogel corvette Viper," said Rosie. "You are required to return the children to their father, failure to do so will not be tolerated." "Ignore him," ordered Colin. Rosie nodded in acknowledgement. Adele glanced at him and frowned. "He needs to recognise that I'm at least his equal," explained Colin. "Once that has occurred we may be in a position to start negotiating. Until then we will continue to ignore him." Colin glanced around the bridge and then turned to Adele, "If he closes up, or sends his troops or fighters towards us don't hesitate. Just take them out and scream for help from the locals. I know it won't be forthcoming but it should mask our actions." He drummed his fingers on the armrest of his chair. "I'm going across to the Petal and deal with the pirates we've got. Hopefully Galo will have sorted out his status and we can begin making preparations to leave. Lesley, Tedi, you come too." He rose from his seat, "Yana, get our weapons and armour and meet me at the shuttle." The slave nodded and left the bridge. "Adele, keep an eye on our friend and let me know if he tries anything." He started walking towards the hatch. "I'll be back tomorrow, after I've sold the slaves and the Petal at the auction. If I need anything I'll call and if our friend suddenly gets polite patch him through to me, otherwise just sit tight." Zara called out, "Captain, don't you think one of us," she indicated herself and Adele, "should accompany you?" Colin shook his head; "I want you two running the ship. I doubt if they'll try anything against us and they'll probably expect me to stay aboard just in case, so going off shouldn't provoke anything." Neither Adele or Zara looked happy but Colin didn't wait around to argue. <HR> Early the following morning, following a restless night, Galo was sitting silently alongside Colin on the flight deck of the Petal as it neared the conclusion of its descent. Colin hadn't been forthcoming concerning what was happening when he'd entered the ship and Galo had picked up on the tension. When Yana had waved him away as he tried to question her he'd begun to worry. That worry had intensified when he'd heard Rosie report that the 'Viper' hadn't moved when they broke orbit. Who or what was the Viper? "Approach control, this is the Red Petal, we are twelve kilometres from touchdown," reported Colin. "Roger Red Petal, you are cleared to pad Blue five," came the reply of the approach controller, "Contact ground control when you have gone cold and they will report your arrival to customs." "Thank you, approach, Petal out." concluded Colin. Galo couldn't take it any more, "Is there a problem?" he asked into the silence. Colin blinked and glanced across the cabin, "Not down here," he said. "Up there," he flicked a finger towards the ceiling, "well, maybe." "Anything to do with me?" asked Galo looking worried. "No," said Colin shaking his head before he went on to explain, "It appears that House Vogel is not very happy with me," he continued, "They're not prepared to do a similar deal to the one that's going to set you and the others from House Rutgers free. Vogel seem to think that I should just hand over their people and the best way to achieve that is by insulting me." Colin managed to shrug despite the restraining harness he was wearing; "I've told them it's not going to happen and they've informed me that they'll follow me until I comply. There was an implied threat to use force in there as well," admitted Colin, "and now one of their corvettes is in orbit close to the Rose." "Could you win in a fight with a corvette?" asked Galo. "I've got the guns, he's got the missiles," said Colin. "If they ever manage to physically board the Rose we've had it." "What are you planning on doing?" asked Galo. "Not a lot, at the moment," replied Colin as he levelled out the spacecraft, prior to landing. "If you can think of something I'd be most interested in knowing about it." Galo thought about the matter but didn't have anything constructive to add and as Colin was busy putting the ship down he held his tongue. "Power down engines," ordered Colin, "and then contact ground control." He started to remove his straps and glanced at Yana, "Ready?" She nodded and began unbuckling herself. "Go and make sure that Lesley and Tedi are ready to leave when we do," he said. Colin was interrupted by an incoming call. "Morning," announced a pleasant voice, "what's the nature of your visit, Sir?" "I'm here to sell off a couple of convicted pirates," said Colin, "and this ship." The voice chuckled, "I doubt if you'll get much for that ship." "Neither do I," agreed Colin, "but I don't want it, so it's got to go." "Any other business?" asked the voice. "I've a meeting with a Mr. Van Velt of House Rutgers." The House Rutgers representative had contacted Colin the night before and had agreed to collect his people for the spaceport rather than orbit. "You're not importing any weapons or livestock are you?" asked the voice. "Nothing like that," said Colin. "Then welcome to Tor," said the voice, "and have a pleasant stay." Colin shook his head at how lax things were; his father would have had a fit if Dundaff security were so lackadaisical. "Right, we're ready to go," said Colin. "I've already arranged for the auction house to collect the pirates and they've got details of the ship. Van Velt has arranged to collect all of the House Rutgers people at lunch time today, until then they can remain on board." "He will be looking after them until the details of their release are finalised and you," said Colin pointing at Galo, "need to conclude your business before lunchtime. If you're coming with us then you will need to join Tedi and Lesley as we get them confirmed as slaves. If you can't manage to convince your parents to let you go then you'll be joining the other Rutgers people with Van Velt." "We," said Colin, "will be getting a local shuttle this evening back up to the Rose and if you're not with us then it'll be goodbye and good luck." Galo looked worried, "I've been told that my father is actually on Tor." Colin flinched, as Galo continued, "No, he's not after me, well I don't think he is. Officially he's here as part of a liaison team and I've been trying to contact him." Colin waved at the communications panel, "You know how it works," he said, "keep at it. If you haven't succeeded by noon just join the rest of the Rutgers. If you have succeeded then get the AI to patch you through to me and I'll tell you where to meet me." Galo nodded and slid into the seat that Yana had been occupying. Slowly and carefully he began to manipulate controls and behind him Colin smiled, already he'd picked up a useful skill. <HR> Even with Yana, Tedi and Lesley accompanying him the auction had been a let down. An agent for a mining company that always needed strong backs for manual labour had purchased the two pirates and the price he'd paid had been pitiful. The Petal had eventually found a home with a young man with more money than sense who told Colin he intended to use it as a Scout ship when he finished college. Colin barely managed to refrain from laughing and Yana beside him had bruised his arm, she was squeezing him that tightly as they listened to the young boy's plans. The only reason the price had got above rock bottom was that a few of the boy's so-called friends had bid against him. The transfer of ownership went ahead with the proviso that funds had to be transferred before the unlock codes would be exchanged, failure to do this before the close of business today would result in a penalty against the purchaser and the sale being declared void. The sale was over well before lunch and Colin felt a need for a snack before proceeding with the rest of the day's business. "Come on girls," he cajoled as he headed for the nearest thing to a sidewalk cafe that he'd seen. "I need refreshment." "Nothing new there, then," called Yana as she followed him out of the hall. Beside her Tedi and Lesley remained quiet and close together. They'd become very subdued, as they'd witnessed the slave auction, especially when several young women had been led onto the stage, naked except for a collar. More than one of them had claimed that they weren't slaves, but no one had paid them any heed. Colin had found it hard to remain silent but even a casual look around the hall used for the auction showed a number of men in what appeared to be a security guard's uniform. That they were openly carrying tasers gave their presence a menacing feel that he, for one, didn't wish to press. They'd just had time to find a seat when Colin's communicator went off. Sighing he pulled it out and saw that he had an incoming call from a Commander Jansen. "Hello," said Colin simply. "Captain Hadden?" enquired the man on the small screen. "That's me," replied Colin. "I'm Commander Gavin Jansen," said the man, adding "Galo's father," as a further qualifier. "Ahh yes," responded Colin noncommittally. "Don't worry, I'm fully aware of the facts of his situation and what it is that he's trying to do," said Commander Jansen. "And to be honest I approve wholeheartedly." "His slavery..." began Colin. "Is irrelevant, if what you have led him to believe is true," said the older man. "It is," said Colin, "if his family approve I will take him with me and if I should return here then I will check to see if he's been freed. If he has then he will be returned to his family. If I don't have that approval then he remains here with the rest of the people from House Rutgers" "Will he be going into danger?" asked the senior Jansen. Colin looked surprised, "It's a scout mission," he said. "I'd be surprised if there wasn't a hint of danger." "I know," said the Commander, "that was purely for his mother who will be seeing a recording of this conversation. I take it that you won't get him killed needlessly?" "No more than I would any other member of my crew," replied Colin understanding what the older man was asking. "Then he has my permission to go and I'll wish you both luck," said the commander. "Thank you, sir," said Colin and them stared at his communicator as the line went dead. "That was a bit abrupt," he murmured. The device in his hand beeped before he'd even started t put it away, the display informed him he had another call from the commander. "Yes?" asked Colin, his demeanour showing his confusion. "I had to end that call so I could turn off the recorder," said Gavin Jansen and then he grinned, "Now I can talk normally." "I see," said Colin with an answering smile. "My boy has been a little bit smothered and I've noticed over the last year or so he's been itching to break free," said the older Jansen. "As much as I deplore the way he came into your possession we have been presented with the perfect opportunity to get him away from his mother without too much in the way of ear ache." The smile faded a little, "I know there is a chance that he may be killed, as does he, but this is a good chance for him to grow as a man." Colin nodded but remained silent. "With that out of the way, I understand that you may have a problem with House Vogel?" asked the commander. Across the table Lesley, who had been listening to the conversation went stiff as she heard her old House mentioned. "So it would appear," said Colin. "Would it help your planning if you knew when the Captain of the Viper was going to be dirtside?" asked Commander Jansen. "Definitely," replied Colin, his mind plotting a rapid departure as soon as the commander put the idea forward. "Then I'm sure you'd like to know that the Captain of that vessel is going to be attending a dinner hosted by the head of the House Rutgers delegation tonight," said the Commander. "That's me in case you're not aware of the fact." Colin smiled. "If he's down here when we start to move it would take him, what, half an hour to get back to his ship?" "Probably more like an hour," said the commander, "especially if the message didn't reach him immediately." Colin nodded, "Thank you, Sir," he said. "It appears I'll be leaving sometime tonight so I doubt if I or your son will have another chance to talk to you." "Good luck to you, Captain," said Commander Jansen as he broke the connection for a second time. "Good luck indeed," said Colin softly as he folded his communicator away. <HR> "You didn't have to get them all tattooed," said Yana as they sat in the commercial shuttle he'd hired to take them back to the Red Rose. "No?" asked Colin. "Especially not Tedi and Galo, they're going to be free by the time we get back," she said. Colin slipped his arm around her shoulder and hugged her, "They're slaves, like you," he acknowledged, "and just because their status may change in the future, it doesn't mean that they're going to be shown any special privileges in the meantime." Yana rested her head on her master's shoulder, "Thank you," she whispered softly. Behind the two of them the freshly marked trio of slaves were sitting silently. It had come as a surprise to both Galo and Tedi when Colin had gone to the trouble of having them marked, even though they knew that legally he was required to do so. None of the three had understood that he'd gone for an inked tattoo rather than a laser etched brand. Although the brand was etched it still needed to be redone every ten years or so because it faded. The inked tattoo would only last for about six months before it was too faded to be recognised. It was often used by slave traders as a way of temporarily marking their stock before a master applied a more permanent mark. Lesley, for her part, had been expecting to be branded so it hadn't come as such a shock as it had for the other two. What she hadn't realised was that she had to appear naked with her master for a picture as part of her documentation. That had been particularly hard for her and it was only Colin's insistence that it be carried out in private that had made it bearable for the young hermaphrodite. Colin had had the pictures of Galo and Tedi taken in private as well but Lesley suspected that he'd only done that so that she didn't stand out. The more she thought about the young man that owned her the more she realised just how lucky she'd been when she threw herself on his mercy on the slave ship. Colin led the slaves back onto the Rose and shooed them off to their cabins; he headed for the bridge. "Captain on the bridge," called out Rosie as he entered and Colin stopped in his tracks as Adele and Zara sprang to their feet. "What?" he asked as the three women grinned at him. "We just thought you'd like to be welcomed back like a true hero," said Rosie. "A hug would do that," said Colin. "Goody," called Zara as she charged across the bridge and threw herself at Colin. He staggered under the impact but managed to keep his feet. Zara proceeded to give him a thorough kissing before releasing him. By the time she did Adele was right behind her waiting for her turn. Her hug was just as strong and her kiss was just as passionate as her sister's had been. Across the bridge Rosie was making catcalls and generally creating a noisy distraction. As Adele stepped back Rosie called out, "Unfair, I can't get a hug." Colin blew her a kiss and slipped into the command chair, "Now, what was that about really?" "Really," said Adele, "we just wanted to remind you that you are the commander of this vessel and as such you have certain responsibilities, include the safety of the ship and the crew. It may be the done thing on all those space operas for the Captain to be the one that leads all the adventures but in real life that shouldn't happen." Colin looked thoughtful, "I take it you believe that one of you should have gone down there for the auction and I should have stayed with the ship?" "Not necessarily," said Adele, "you as the Captain have to make that decision, but it shouldn't be an automatic choice for you to go and someone else looks after the Rose." Colin stroked his chin in thought. "In this case I had to go," he said, "as I had to be present to register the new slaves." He sat back in his seat, "but you're right," he admitted, "I went without really thinking about the matter." He grinned, "Tell me before I run out next time, I'm not saying I'll change my mind but I'll definitely give the matter a second thought." Adele and Zara nodded and then moved back to their stations. "What's been happening while I was away?" asked Colin. "Nothing really," replied Rosie. "The Viper has maintained position and any communications traffic between her and the planet has been encoded. No other vessels have come close and apart from routine traffic control messages we haven't been contacted." "I've been informed that the Captain of the Viper will be going down to the planet later today," said Colin. "An hour after he does we will be leaving." Adele pondered, "We'd get a thirty minute head start at least," she said. "If we get into hyperspace that far ahead of him and go stealthy there's a good chance that we'll lose him." "And if we're an hour ahead of him it's almost certain," said Colin, "especially if we drop back into normal space and take off in a totally different direction." "I take it you want us to be ready to move as soon as his shuttle departs?" asked Zara. "Yes," replied Colin, "but it needs to be done so that he doesn't get suspicious." "Hmmm, we'll just have to be careful," said Zara. "I take it you don't want to take a poke at him before we leave?" asked Adele, "It might slow him down." "It could also cause trouble with the locals," said Colin after he'd considered the idea. "We'll just run for it." <HR> Colin had ordered the new slaves back to their cabins when the Viper's shuttle had dropped into the atmosphere. They could be of no help on the bridge and keeping them there could possibly cause a distraction they could do without. On the bridge the tension rose as the time for their departure approached, Adele and Zara sat calmly at their control stations while the two humans, Colin and Yana fidgeted in their seats. "All systems are ready," reported Rosie as the clock clicked around to the agreed departure time. "Inform Tor that we are departing," ordered Colin. "Tor acknowledges and wishes us bon voyage," replied Rosie. "Thank them, Rosie, then get us moving," said Colin. Earlier they'd agreed on a new destination to begin their exploratory mission. For now, it was their intention to head towards their original well published, destination, in the hope that that would throw the Viper off their trail. "Viper has gone to active scans," reported Zara, "her weapons are still cold." Colin remained silent; anything he said at the moment would just be a distraction. "Twenty minutes to jump point," reported Rosie. "Viper is powering up her engines," said Zara, "her weapons are still cold." "Five minutes to jump point," said Rosie. "I've got a shuttle departing the planet's surface," said Zara, "it's going to take it another thirty minutes to rendezvous with the Viper." Colin allowed himself a small smile; the Viper would take another thirty minutes to get to the jump point once the Captain was aboard. He'd managed to get a good lead and intended to be well away from here before the Viper was in a position to cause him any trouble. "Jump point in one minute," said Rosie. "Incoming message from the Viper," said Rosie as she turned to look at Colin. "I'll find you, you bastard!" "Well that wasn't very friendly," said Colin. "Transition," said Rosie and the Red Rose jumped into hyperspace. "Boldly Go," muttered Colin into the silence. <HR>