The starscape spread out in front of the ship like tiny white crystals suspended in a purple liquid. At their back was High Side; the planet’s dark half turned towards them. They had left the orbital dock after a three day rest; a well earned break for the crew following four consecutive cargo drops at local systems. Ven knew he worked them too hard, especially Adi, but he hated being idle.
“Lin? We ready?” he asked his first officer.
She was sat behind his left shoulder in an identical flight chair. They had flown together for the last five years. Lin knew the procedures as well as he did but Ven still had to ask. No amount of competence would convince him to let go of the tight control he had on the ship. It was his; he was in command and he would never give that up.
A series of green lights blinked into existence on one of the floating screens that hung in front of Ven. It was rare to use in-eye displays for ship control. They were fine when on an orbital. Then there was never more than a couple of items requiring attention, but when twenty or thirty data streams needed to be watched the human brain found it easier to follow information on a number of screens.
More ready signals flicked on. There was no verbal acknowledgement; Lin was the embodiment of efficiency.
“A rock! It’s crawling from under the blackest rock.” Adi’s voice cut across the tight bridge.
Ven glanced through the screen floating to his right. The shape of the little girl was obscured by her chair. All he could see was her dark-red hair catching the starlight from the displays. The captain watched for a few seconds but there was no movement. Adi was dreaming again. He never understood what she saw while she was out and it was one of the few things in the universe that scared him. With an effort he dragged his focus back to the pre-flip checks Lin was still sending across to him.
“Let’s kiss this system …” Something went red and he stopped. The warning expanded, showing what the ship had picked up. Seconds later, Ann, the third member of the crew, confirmed it.
“That’s no stray rock,” she said. “It’s on intercept.”
The little girl was the only one who did not notice the tension that now rippled through the room.
“Hold and hail,” Ven told the crew.
Probing beams sprang out from the freighter seeking to clarify what the interloper was. In moments they had a simulated image.
Ven studied the lines of the incoming ship. Stacked with engines and boosters it was made for speed. There was no evidence it had flip capability. It could be coming at them for any number of reasons and Ven wasn’t about to stay around and find out.
“We have time to flip before it gets too close. Go!” At the same moment as he issued the order a further nine red-ringed warnings sprang into life. “What?” he barked, but he already knew the answer; high velocity drones launched towards them.
They were on a wide spread at different intervals. None of them would hit their craft, that was not what they were designed for, but they would go by close enough to stop a flip. By the time they had passed, both ships would be too close for either of them to get away.
“Come to me, children like me. Like, like, like!” Adi was starting to pick up on the feelings of the crew. She was still out, but if this kept up she would wake and that was the last thing Ven needed.
“I’ve got a link from them,” Lin told him.
The head of a man appeared in front of the captain. Classic looks, black hair kept short, soft features. This was no night-man, therefore little chance it was a raid. Ven checked the ident the ship was throwing out: named Relief; registered to High Side; unsurprisingly the backers were Shepherds. These were activists and thankfully nothing worse. Most of the time such confrontations ended without trouble; all the protesters wanted to do was make their point.
“You are restricting the movements of a ship of Interstellar Continuum Research,” Ven said. “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 have no right to impede our flip.” Ven kept his voice calm and level.
“You’re a torturer working for a group who believe in sacrificing the weak so you can profit,” came back the harsh reply. “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 …”
It was the same line every Shepherd activist took. This was the preamble before they got down to real negotiations. Ven let his avatar take over the conversation. The ship’s AI had enough information on his personality to keep things going.
“Get me ICR,” he instructed.
“Already waiting,” Lin replied as a new image pushed the link with the other ship out of the way.
The ICR control officer was encased in a command pod, most likely orbiting one of the many planets the corporation had strong links with. “We can send five ships to handle the Shepherd. Just say the word. Protests have already been lodged with High Side and the local Shepherd branch.” There were no formalities; there was no need and no time.
“Fine. Hold for the time being. I’ll try to deal with it myself.” This was not the first time Ven had encountered Shepherds and he liked to think himself a man with many skills. “No point expending the resources if we don’t have to,” he offered by way of explanation.
As the links changed again Ven caught movement from the seat in front of him. “Ann, check on Adi. She’s coming round,” he said. Then he merged back into take the place of his avatar. The conversation with the Shepherd had not progressed very far. Ven kept his tone even but forceful. “We have already lodged 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. You can’t threaten us.”
Ven decided to take a different course. “We are providing a legitimate service to this planet; a service that is needed by many who live there.”
The activist remained untouched by the argument. “High Side can sustain itself. If the population stopped relying on the likes of you, bringing in goods from elsewhere, 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 your manifesto and there are no passengers onboard. The only people we are causing a problem to are you and your kind.”
Ven pulled his eyes away from the link and watched as Ann floated next to the chair Adi was in. They were talking to each other; Ann offering soothing words. Suddenly the child’s head shot forward. “Fire! Fire in all our minds!” Adi’s voice echoed around the small room.
Ven swore to himself and returned his attention to the connection. The Shepherd was still arguing about the benefits of instantaneous communication and how that meant no one needed to physically travel between systems.
“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 ban flipping go take up your argument with the authorities. We don’t make the rules.”
The man had an answer to everything. “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 us all!” came another shout.
Filters stopped Adi’s cry from going down the link, but not from jolting Ven. He shot another quick glance at Ann who was still doing her best with the little girl. Time was running out and a long debate was only going to make it worse.
“Have it your own way,” he told the Shepherd and cut the connection. The ICR officer reappeared in front of him. “You’re free to intervene,” Ven said.
The second link went on hold as the captain brought up an overview of local space. Ann had heard the end of the conversation and returned to her seat; there was nothing more that could be done with Adi.
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 the singularities created for the flip. At the same moment Adi went rigid, pulling against the chair’s restraints.
Across the empty space the minds of five children cried out in pain as their talent was used to flip the spaceships from points elsewhere in the galaxy. The little girl in front of Ven reached out to the others of her kind and shared their agony. Tears streamed from her large blue eyes.