It is utterly dark in a wormhole, yet the edges are defined by bright, swirling light that shifts the spectrum from yellow to red and every color in between. I'm sure that the phenomenon is perfectly explainable but I'll be damned if I understand it. The ones who first learned to access these so-called 'rivers'--shortcuts through the unimaginable distances of the galaxy--haven't bothered to translate their findings into something that I can understand. And I'm fairly well-educated. For a human.
The darkness is comfortable to me, though. The only light I bother with while I wait is the fire at the tip of my cigarette. I'm sipping a glass of bourbon and idly scanning through a book on the French Revolution. Music is playing loudly enough to vibrate my entire ship. It's old stuff. Human stuff. The flowing yet violent style from the early twenty-first century. Most of the time I have no more than a passing acquaintance with the specific topics of the musicians but I can identify with the pain and the anger. The fear and rage that comes from being considered a lesser being than those with all the power.
A small warning activates in my brain, letting me know that my quarry is incoming. It only takes a thought to bring the engines of my ship, the Psychopomp, online. I drain the last of my bourbon and spit out my cigarette. The gravity in my ship is light and the glass and stub float behind me until they are vacuumed into a trash compactor. Another thought brings a virtual overlay to life. It glows orange, lighting up the cockpit of the Psychopomp. I grasp the ball that controls the flight of my ship and watch my instruments. In a few seconds, they tell me that another ship is passing just under me.
I send the Psychopomp in pursuit. The ship I’m intercepting is a freighter and about five times as large as my own. It is also considerably slower. It takes me only a few moments to catch up with it. The captain of the freighter wastes his one miniscule chance by not firing on me as I close, though I've no doubt that they know I’m coming. If stealth tech exists that would hide my ship, I’ve never heard of it. But I must be confusing them. I'm not broadcasting any IFF code but I'm also not acting like a normal pirate would. My ship is too small and I'm not sending any threats or demands. Am I truly attacking? Should he blow me to hell without knowing for sure? By the time the captain begins to shoot at me, I'm too close for his gunners to get a good angle. The disruption waves that do hit my ship only manage to shake it around a little.
In the meantime, I find the perfect spot at the top of the ship and fire lasers downward. Metal bubbles and melts and evaporates. The Psychopomp's computer estimates the damage and I send another pulse. That should do it. A thought primes the drill. With my left hand I grasp the control stick of the drill and sink the Psychopomp down. The drill bit was crafted to chew through the kind of metal hulls found on most ships with ease. Even so, it takes a delicate hand to keep everything steady as the drill bores a hole. Once I've determined that the drill has gone far enough, I stop it and press the button on top of the control stick. This swings the drill bit to the side and up.
I sprint from my seat and open a hatch near the midpoint of the Psychopomp. Heat rushes up at my face but I ignore it and jump down. I freefall, doing my best not to touch the red hot sides of the drill. The heat is so intense that I'd probably burn just from the proximity, were I a normal human. I hit the ground hard but my legs easily absorb the shock. I straighten up and can tell that I am in the crew quarters of the ship, as planned. It is painted a garish bright yellow. Debris from the drilling is all around me, marring the paint job to some extent.
Two beings rush around a corner and stop short of me. Each one is taller than me. They are both wearing red sleeveless shirts and shorts. Skinny legs with grey, scaly skin poke out from beneath the shorts. They are canted backward and end in a heavy splayed foot topped with two long talons. The arms emerging from the sleeveless shirts are a little more muscular and the ugly, grey skin is partially covered with a down that looks remarkably like feathers from a baby bird. They’ve got long necks topped with heads that are rounder than a human’s. Their eyes are bulbous and black. Instead of lips and teeth they have short, sharp beaks. The one on the right has a large red and black crest that cascades from the top of his head all the way down to the middle of his back. The other has kept his blue and white crest cropped close to his head.
Their reaction when they see me is a predictable flurry of chirping, screeching and whistling. They recognize me. That makes me happy. I've put a lot of work into my reputation. And I am imminently recognizable, even to a nonhuman. I'm big for a human, tall with broad shoulders. My skin is dark but the hair that hangs to my shoulders is pure white. I may not be handsome but my thrusting chin, large, hooked nose and bushy white eyebrows make me memorable. Also, though my dark brown eyes seem to me to be the most average aspect of my face, I've heard from more than one person that their intensity makes them hard to forget.
Still panicking, the one with the blue and white crest at least has the presence of mind to raise his gun. I'm already moving though. The sword strapped to my back clears its sheath and slices through the blue and white in the same motion. The other one fires his gun hurriedly and the disruption wave passes over my head. I gut him the next instant. A quick snap of my wrist sends most of the blood on the blade flying. I should clean it properly but I'm in a hurry. The black blade is made of a plastic composite anyway. It's harder than most metals and sharper than any. That had made it a real pain in the ass when I decided to carve three Chinese characters into the blade.
I step over the writhing body. He's twitching and fluttering in ways that are very different from a human's death rattle. Birds. Niao. That's what the Chinese first called them when they first landed somewhere north of Shanghai. Since their name was some long trill that was nearly impossible for a human to reproduce accurately, it was still what they were commonly called. I consider slitting the niao's throat but it looks like the wound is mortal.
The freighter is a stock design so, while I've never been in it, I know the layout as well as I know the Psychopomp's. The ship is on full alert. The alarm is a keening wail that I wish were pitched just a little higher so I didn't have to hear it. Strips along the orange walls glow alternatingly purple and lime green. A few niao seek to block my path but I deal with them easily. This is a merchant vessel. I'm sure that the crew has been trained to defend against pirates but they're not military. And I'm not a pirate. Well, not just a pirate.
The main defense, predictably, has been set up in the hallway leading to the cockpit. The moment I step around a corner, the air is filled with disrupter waves. I throw myself backward just in time. A mental trigger sets my left arm charging. I always find it strange that I can't remember when exactly the Doctor had amputated my left arm below the elbow and replaced it with a cybernetic version. Seems like something I should recall but, then, the Doctor performed a lot of surgery on me during my childhood. He also never really bothered to explain what he planned before he went ahead and did it.
Once the charge is ready, I stick just my left hand into the hallway to the cockpit and let loose. The disruption wave is larger and more powerful than any a standard niao pistol or rifle is capable of. A quick look confirms that the wave sent the defense into disarray. I charge around the corner, drawing my blade as I do so. There were eight niao positioned to protect the door to the cockpit. The disruption wave killed three of them outright. Necks or spines or both broken. The rest are injured to some degree. I dispatch them in order of who seems most healthy.
The door to the cockpit is closed, of course. I consider my options. A few disruption waves from my left hand would pound through it but those blasts use energy from my own body. I've got several more shots in me but it never pays to be wasteful. Instead I decided to use the little cutie I nicknamed ‘the lightsaber.’ Secured on the backside of my belt is a cutting torch. I hold the half centimeter-long handle at the base and it connects with my false hand which feeds power into it. A press of the lever sends a torch shooting out that it is about as long as the handle. Using power from my hand and the oxygen in the air, the flame heats to nearly four-thousand degrees Celsius. I always wanted to see if I could fight with it but the little bastard is dangerous enough just using as intended.
I press the jet of flame close to the door, shielding my eyes with my free hand. Soon that area of the door begins to redden and then bubble. The torch penetrates the door with ease and I slowly but surely move it around in a large oval. It makes me grin when I think of what they must be seeing on the other side. Once the cut is finished, I release the lever and toss my ‘lightsaber’ to the side. It will take some time for the extreme heat around the mouth to abate. Before the metal of the door has too much time to cool and fuse back together, I rear back and kick the door. The piece of the door that I cut through shoots back into the cockpit. I'm right behind it.
There are only five niao in the cockpit. Four of them are armed. One of the ones with a gun has already been taken out by the flying piece of door. I jump up and laterally as soon as I am in the cockpit. The two disruption waves that were triggered just miss. The niao stare at me as I bounce off the roof and then the far wall. I'm not particularly adept at reading niao emotions but I've seen that expression of astonishment enough times to recognize it. Humans aren't supposed to be able to leap like that. Cybernetic muscle weaves throughout my entire body help. Another gift from the Doctor.
I land near one niao and in the next second his head is rolling on the ground. Grasping his body with my free hand, I fling him toward another of the niao. It connects with a satisfying squawk. A two step charge and I'm soaring through the air at the last armed one. A quick disruption wave clips me and sends me tumbling into her. Unfortunately for the niao, it didn't help her at all. Once I've untangled myself from her, I see that I broke something of hers when I hit. Her eyes are glazing with death.
That leaves the last one. I sprint toward him. He fires quicker and more accurately than I expected. The disruption wave picks me up and slams me backwards into a console. Pain radiates through my back but I'm back on my feet and charging in the next instant anyway. The niao frantically stabs the trigger of his pistol but there is at least a two second delay between shots with disruption weapons. On the best of them. The niao screeches a single question as I run him through. "How?"
I assume he is speaking of my survival of a straight-on disruption wave, which should have pulped my organs and snapped my spine. Or perhaps he recognized that the black jumpsuit covering me from throat to ankles is a material designed to dampen and disperse the effects of disruptions. Only niao special ops sorts were supposed to have access to that technology. I answer whichever question he asked with a tight smile. "I have my ways."
The niao slides of my blade and collapses. This time I take a moment to clean my blade properly on the niao's shirt. I shoot a glare at the remaining niao-the unarmed one-and see that he is cowering in the corner and not planning on going anywhere. I then hack into the net of the freighter and take a quick scroll through its manifest. There are a few things worth taking. Digging deeper I find some cargo not listed on the manifest. Even more of that is worth taking. There is a note on that list that makes my jaw tighten. But I had already known about that.
A quick communication with the Psychopomp and my spider drones scurry into the freighter to take possession of the cargo I want. I turn my attention to the remaining niao. He is squatting in one corner with his arms drawn over his head. His shirt and shorts are gold and green respectively and of a finer quality than any of the others' had been. There is a bracelet around his right wrist that sparkles with gems of several different colors. His head crest nearly reaches his knees and is various shades of green and blue. It has been plied with something that makes it much brighter than a normal crest. I wonder if it's meant to resemble a waterfall or if that's just a human conflation.
I grasp him by the front of his shirt and haul him to his feet. I whistle his name. I don't exactly know what it means. Niao names, like humans’, tend to be some corruption of a long ago word or phrase. This one means something like 'the deeply buried strength of a tree.' I call him 'Roots' in my head. Roots flinches when I whistle his name. "So pleased to meet you," I continue. Many niao understand Chinese or English but I have my doubts Roots does. This means I'm forced to communicate in his own language. I understand the niao tongue just fine but like most humans, I can hardly speak it. All those whistles and trills and chirps. I've been told that the most fluent human sounds like a four year-old with a learning disability to a niao.
"Please, if you are here about the other humans, I had nothing to do with it," Roots says.
My eyes narrow. "I'm here for you, Roots." I slowly draw my sword from its sheath and press the blade to Roots' throat. His eyes bulge and he stares down at it. I cock my head slightly to the side. One of the few body language traits both niao and humans share is to tilt our heads slightly when we are curious. "Tell me, do you know this blade?"
"Evil," he says in a strangled voice. That is indeed what the niao call it, after the character on the blade that reads 'aku.' Sometimes I wish they'd picked up on the other two characters but truly, as long as they associate the black blade with death for niao, I suppose I'm happy.
"If you know the blade, you must know the wielder, yes?"
He whistles a name. It makes me smile widely. He does know. Hachimantaro is what I call myself, after an ancient Japanese warlord. The name refers to him as the son of the God of War. Roots, of course, can't say Hachimantaro but the name he whistles is a rough equivalent derived from some ancient god of the naio. "I just want to go home, human. I hated being on Earth. I never wanted anything to do with your kind. Just let me go home. I never did anything to any human."
I smirk. "I don't know if I believe that. It doesn't matter anyway." I laugh harshly and he flinches away again. "What did you think you were really buying when you hooked up with this bunch of outlaws? They weren't going to take you home, any more than I will. They already released both a ransom demand for you over the net and started a bidding war between any group out there that might have an interest in the son of the Governor of East America. I heard both Bloodbeak and the Lindwyrm put in substantial offers. I wonder which one I should sell you to?"
Roots holds very still in a way I have learned means a niao is absolutely shocked or terrified. "They were going to sell me?"
I shake my head slowly though he probably doesn't know what I mean by that. "You thought that slavers had some sort of honor or something?" I glance at the corpses. "Bunch of small-time idiots, though. Most of the clients they were talking to would have taken one look at this weak crew and just slaughtered them and took you." I shrug. "Like I did."
"Please do not sell me to a criminal!" Roots squawks. "You said there was a ransom? My father will pay. I know he will." I grab his arm and shove him toward the door.
"Maybe I will. Depends on how much he is willing to pay me." The niao keeps pleading with me as I push him out of the cockpit. Collecting my cutting torch, I head toward my makeshift entrance. Luckily, it isn’t too long until I meet up with one of my spider drones. The little eight-legged robots are a few meters long and have several compartments for storing items. I built them all myself. I push Roots onto it and the spider drone shoots out several restraints to hold on to the struggling niao. Roots shouts something at me but I ignore it and command the drone to head back to the Psychopomp. It will communicate to me if it comes under attack and I've equipped the drone with some defenses of its own.
The thought of the drone being hassled reminds me to review the crew. I know their original number and subtracting from that the number I killed leaves nine. They had to be the most cowardly of the crew though, not to have faced me already. Unless there are a few guarding my next visit. I hurry the opposite way of my drone, toward one of the cargo bays.
My stray thought turns out to be true and there are two niao waiting at the entrance of the cargo bay. I decide to be a little lazy and blast them with the disruptor cannon in my left arm. It does double duty by knocking the cargo bay door open. Inside is a sight I've seen far too many times.
Row upon row of humans are shackled to the walls and floor of the bay. There are a few narrow walkways between the humans but otherwise the large hold is completely jammed. Meaning several hundred humans at least. They are mostly young, under thirty, with several under ten. More women than men, as usual. The stench of unwashed bodies assaults me and I wrinkle my nose. It's not as bad as it could be though. The human cargo have tubes connected, both to feed them and take care of waste. It's efficient and makes sure none of them can try to starve themselves rather than exist in this hellhole.
Slavery is illegal in the star spanning empire of the niao. They think of themselves as a civilized people who don’t treat sentients as slaves. Hell, even their livestock have plenty of protections. The galaxy is a big place, however, and there are plenty of planets where an enterprising merchant can sell a bay full of humans for a nice price. And just because slavery isn't legal, doesn't mean the niao bother to try and combat it where it happens. Why waste resources on a few savage monkeys? No one cares aside from a handful of puffed up advocacy groups and fringe journalists. And me. I've spent a lot of time making it known that Hachimantaro has a grudge against slavers.
It only takes a moment for me to activate the release process for the slaves. I step outside while it happens. I've seen it before and it isn't pleasant to watch. After an impressively short period of time, one of the humans stumbles out of the hold. He is not the fastest I've ever seen recover from the release process but he's up there. The man is older than most, with thinning black hair and excess flesh hanging off his bones. He is also naked and...leaking a little from where the tubes were ungently removed. He falls to his knees once and gets back up, reaching toward me.
I take a step back so I am out of range. I've no real desire to be touched by the rather filthy would-be slave. "Thank you, sir," he says in a hoarse voice. He is speaking English but the accent and his complexion tell me he is Indian. A large percentage of abductees come from East Asia, especially China and India. An unfortunate confluence of the area's high population and the fact that the niao are best established there.
I acknowledge his thanks with a nod. "It was nothing. I wanted to let you know that when I leave, there will be a vacuum in the corridors just north of the crew quarters. I'll lock down the bulkheads around the area. Obviously, you won't want to open them until you have landed on a planet with a breathable atmosphere."
The man's mouth gapes open. "You're leaving?" he finally manages.
"Of course. I have business that needs attending to."
"But what about us?" he gasps.
"What about you?" I ask, feeling annoyed even though this is a conversation I've had many times. Or perhaps because of that. "I'd say you are all markedly better off now than you were a few minutes ago. It's not my concern what you do from here." I narrow my eyes into a glare. "But I'd suggest not getting abducted by slavers again."
"What?" And again he gasps, "What?"
I rub the outside corner of my eye with my ring finger. "I don't understand. I release you. Do as you will. There are maybe seven niao left on this ship so if not one of you can operate it, press one of them into it and go where you will. You could head back to Earth or go somewhere else. The universe is vast," I add with a smirk and a shrug.
"There are seven niao left aboard?" he asks, his voice pitching high.
I nod. "They are hiding. I don't feel like spending the time to hunt them down." I point at the two niao corpses. "There are disruptors on each one of them. More in the cockpit. Plus you outnumber them about a hundred to one. I'm sure you'll manage."
A few more humans drift out of the bay while I speak. One of them, a young Chinese woman, asks in her own language, "What is happening? Where is he going?"
The Indian man glances at her blankly and turns back to me. "You cannot just abandon us!"
"Abandoning you would have been leaving you stuck in that cargo bay," I snap. In Cantonese I add, "You're free because of me but what you do from here is not my concern. Take your lives back or run to a niao and beg for the chains. It makes no difference to me." Surprisingly, the young Chinese woman nods her head.
That salves my anger a touch as I turn on my heel and march away from the group. Dealing with would-be slaves always leaves me seething. I don't know what sickens me more, the masters or the slaves. It is the weakness that gets my blood pounding. The search for someone to take ownership of their futures. That same weakness is what allowed the niao to settle on Earth and turn humans into an underclass on our native world.
Hachimantaro might be an enemy to niao and slavers does not mean I am a friend to slaves and humanity.