The Voice Of A Child

The starscape spread out in front of Ven.

“Lin? We ready?”

A series of green lights blinked into existence on one of the projections that hung in front of the captain.

“A rock! The blackest rock!”

The voice cut across the tight room. Ven glanced through the screen floating to his right. He could see the shape of the little girl; dark-red hair that flowed over her arms caught the starlight from the displays. Adi was dreaming, again; it made him shiver. He dragged his focus back to the pre-flip checks his second in command was popping onto his screens.

“Let’s kiss this system …” Something went red and he stopped. The warning expanded, showing what Lin had picked up.

“That’s no stray rock,” Lin said. “On intercept.”

The little girl was only one who did not notice the tension that now rippled through the room.

“Hold and hail,” Ven ordered.

Probing beams sprang out from the freighter. Moments later they had a sim’ed image.

Ven studied the incoming ship. “We have time to flip before it gets too close. Go!” At the same moment a further nine red ringed warnings sprang into life. “What?” he barked, but he already knew the answer. High V drones had been launched towards them. They were on a wide spread at different intervals, none of them would hit, that was not what they were for, but they were close enough to stop a flip. By the time they had passed both ships would be to close for either of them to do anything.

“Children like me. Like, like like!”

Adi was starting to pick up on the tension. She was still out of it, but if this kept up she would wake and that was the last thing Ven wanted to worry about.

“I’ve got a comm’,” Lin told him.

The head of a man appeared in front of the captain. Classic looks, black hair kept short, soft features. Ven checked the ident’ the ship was throwing out: named Relief; registered to High Side; the backers were Shepherds. At least they were only up against activists. Most of the time these confrontations ended without trouble once the protesters had been able to make their point.

“You are restricting the movements of a ship of Interstellar Continuum Research,” Ven told the other man. “If you stop now no action will be taken.”

“Jumped-up bunch of corporate dicks,” the man threw back at him. “We know who you are and we’re here to put a stop to your activities. You’re a torturer working for a group of who believe in sacrificing the weak so the strong can profit. We have every right to do this. We order you to return to High Side orbit and hand over your ship for decommissioning. If you do not follow our request we will …”

Ven let his avatar take over the conversation. It was the same line every Shepherd activist took. This was the preamble before they got down to real negotiations.

“Get me ICR,” the captain instructed.

“Already waiting,” Lin replied as a new image pushed the link with the other out of the way.

The ICR control officer was sat in comm’s buddle. “We can send five ships. Just say the word. Protests have already been lodged with High Side and the local Shepherd branch.” There were no formalities.

“Fine. I’ll try to deal with it myself first.” This was not the first time Ven had encountered Shepherds and he liked to think himself a man with many skills.

As he changed links again, Ven caught movement from the seat in front of him.

“Ann, check on Adi. She’s coming round.” Then he merged back into take the place of his avatar. Ven kept his tone even but forceful. “We have already logged this incident with High Side authorities. We will be happy to withdraw that complaint if you stand down now.”

The activist grinned back at him. “We are both in uncontrolled space. High Side has no jurisdiction here.”

Ven tried another tactic. “We are providing a legitimate service to this planet; a service that is needed by many who live there.”

The activist only blinked. “High Side can sustain itself. If the population stopped relying on the likes of you they would learn to stand on their own.”

“What about the travellers we carry? Are you suggesting the free movement of people should be restricted?”

The grin on the Shepherd grew wider. “Don’t try to trick us. We’ve checked you’re manifesto and there are no passengers.”

Ven pulled his eyes away from the link and watched as Ann floated next to the chair Adi was in. Suddenly the child’s head shot forward. “Fire! Fire in all our minds!”

Ven swore to himself and returned his attention to the link. The man was still arguing.

“The fact is,” the captain said, cutting the other off mid-sentence, “this is a free universe and we’re free to ply our trade. If you want to stop flipping go take your argument up with the authorities.”

“You’re right, this is a free universe and so we’re free to sit here. If we happen to be in your way, that’s just how it is.”

“It’s burning! The fire is burning!”

Filters stopped Adi’s shout travelling down the link, but not from jolting Ven. There was not going to be any easy way out of this one.

“Have it your own way,” he told the activist and cut the link. The ICR officer reappeared. “You’re free to intervene.”

The second link went on hold as Ven brought up an overview of local space.

Spread around the edge of the area of disruption caused by the two ships, five further craft appeared. Their compact bodies rotated out of the glistening winks of singularities. Across the empty space the minds of five children cried out in pain and in her chair Adi joined in the shout, tears streaming from her large blue eyes.

—————

8 January 2010
A boat from the anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd was irreparably damaged when it was involved in a collision with a Japanese ship in Antarctic waters. At the time the Japanese were undertaking their annual scientific whale hunting expedition, something Sea Shepherd are opposed to.

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