“And I thought that the accommodations at Jahreen Manor were unpleasant,” Remi stated flatly to no one in particular. The cramped, converted cargo pod that has served as a prison cell for the last ten days is barely large enough to contain Remi and his entourage, but the Muster guards, commonly known as the “Chainers,” do not care much for the conditions of their prisoners; they get paid for each living body that makes it to Pandemonium, a few cuts and bruises do not hurt their business.
Just two weeks before, the spirits of the cadre were high. After Remi made his final judgment on the fate of Asha Talib al-Malik, Remi announced that he and his companions would be leaving in short order and unable to attend the traditional post-wedding festivities. Before sunrise the next morning, servants had repacked the Griffon Aircar and Austyn had finished some minor maintenance. “Amazing piece of machinery, still running after all these years,” he said, patting the cherry-colored hood of the antique skimmer affectionately. “It’s a shame we’re about to sell it.”
Cory slipped past Austyn, sliding into the driver’s seat, and answered with a smile. “I’m just happy we’re finally getting off world. I’ve had enough of Criticorum for two lifetimes.” After punching in the security code into the dash and turning the ignition, the skimmer rumbled to life. Soon after, the cadre quietly departed Jahreen with little fanfare.
As the morning turned into the afternoon, the rough dirt roads gave way to maxicrete highways, signaling the beginning of Acheon, the decaying metropolitan planetary capital city of Criticorum. Gigantic Second Republic towers glistened in the sun, reflecting brilliantly above the layers of thick smog engulfing the smaller buildings below.
Once the cadre arrived at their hotel in the Old Suq Historic District, Remi rented a few rooms under an alias. “Well dear friends, you all have your orders. Lavant, Austyn, monetize Father’s skimmer. Cory, once we have the proceeds, I want to be on the first ship off planet before someone recognizes us.”
Austyn and Lavant immediately tackled their task at hand. After a private meeting with one of his contacts, Lavant uncovered the address to a landcraft “repair” shop operated by the Salmasi family, a Scraver family with a less-than-savory reputation and a penchant for salvaging stolen vehicles for parts. Between Lavant’s adept negotiation skills and Austyn’s expert knowledge of engineering, the two were able hawk the skimmer with no questions asked and avoid any confrontation. “As the saying goes, any trade with the Salmasi family in which you leave with all of your digits” Lavant started, waving all of his fingers, “should be considered a win.”
With a satchel full of sparklers, a currency used in al-Malik holdings, Cory visited the Charioteer guild house and updated her guild licenses before making the trip to the starport just outside of Acheon’s industrial zone. The flight log of all upcoming departures displayed the exact flight that she was seeking – The Pathfinder departing for Byzantium Secundus in less than twelve hours. After introducing herself to Djoka Vaandrager, a squat man with a receding hairline and Charioteer captain of the The Pathfinder, she examined the starship. A Pilgrim Class Scout, a Diasporan-era cargo ship, often used in the present era by traders peddling the stars. The Pilgrim is an aerodynamic flying wing design, with its iconic delta shape and cockpit mounted in the fore-center of the wing. The hundreds of years of use were apparent in the dented hull of the old trader. “Not much to look at, but it will due,” Cory thought to herself as she negotiated the passage contract to the Imperial throneworld with Vaandrager.
Cory returned to the hotel to find Remi sitting at a desk, writing a missive to his father, Baron Sudhra al-Malik. Once finished, he carefully folded the pages and stamped the letter with his personal seal. “Allag, please see that a courier delivers this letter to my father. These words will help him understand. Now we have a spaceflight to catch.”
Stevedores loaded the luggage onto The Pathfinder as Remi settled into his stateroom. The room was not spacious, but at least the personal space and the bearable meals were comforting. The rest of the entourage received typical transport passage. Better than cramming into a cargo hold with a bunch of other passengers, but still not grand. A series of bunk beds and hammocks completely filled the room, providing enough sleeping space but no maneuverability amongst the group.
Within two hours, the ship was fueled and climbing up the gravity well. Before long, Criticorum was just another bright star among the many hanging delicately in space.
The next seven days of travel all blurred together in a jumble of sleeping, eating, and card games. Every day the tight confines seemed to close in on the group. As The Pathfinder passed Bhuta, the last planetoid in the Criticorum system as it approached the Jumpgate, the Devil attacked.
The assault was over before Captain Vaandrager had a chance to react. The Devil’s Revenge, the dread pirate Beliah Black’s flagship, was stealthily powered down in waiting. As soon as The Pathfinder entered into range, the ship powered up and accelerated to combat speed – the sheer firepower of the flagship was overwhelming. Within seconds The Pathfinder’s shields had failed and the hull had taken serious damage. The fusion reactor was in disrepair; The Pathfinder was stranded, floating aimlessly through the void.
Minutes passed like hours, all in silence. Then the ship quivered, grappling hooks attached to the trader. Pirates swarmed the bridge after the charges exploded, clearing an entry path through the hull. The combat was brief. Armed with frap sticks and sonic rifles, the pirates subdued the cadre as well as Captain Vaandrager. “Ye think me a fool, do yeh, mate?” Beliah Black asked Vaandrager as he boarded the trader. “Not whan scum suckah can evah cheat ol’ Beliah, don’t yeh know?” The tentacles of the alien latched to Black’s face squirmed delightedly in anticipation of the upcoming horror. “It’s time that I take me payment.” Captain Vaandrager struggled feebly as the pirates stripped him of his spacesuit and forced him into the airlock. “No last words for yeh. Enjoy yehr Chauki Stride, mate.” Black slammed his fist against the control panel for the airlock, ejecting Captain Vaandrager into the cold vacuum of space. The alien tentacles shuttered in ecstasy as the Charioteer’s blood vessels ruptured and his fluids boiled, transforming his body into a frozen, bloated corpse.
A few days passed in the holding cell of the Devil’s Revenge before Black and his crew rendezvoused with the Muster ship, The Ladies Dream. “It’s a pleasure doin’ business with yeh, mates. Enjoy yehr slaves.” Firebirds exchanged hands and the Muster assumed control of the cadre, shackling them together before escorting them to their prison cell. The Chainer ship is a battered old crate with modified cargo modules serving as prison wings, bonded into place on the outer hull. The Ladies Dream has seen better days and conditions are unpleasant for the crew and even worse for the convicts.