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IR4 is GO! Free Short Story by Richard James

It is the 22nd Century. The League Of Planets has tasked Jason Stone, Anne Warran and their two robots, Alpha and Zeta to explore the galaxy, bringing hope to those in need of rescue. On board Intergalactic Rescue 4, they travel to ice moons and jungle planets in ten exciting adventures that see them journey further across the stars than anyone before. But what are the secret transmissions that Anne discovers? And why do their rescues seem to be taking them on a predetermined course? Soon, Anne discovers that her copilot, Jason, might be on a quest of his own.

INTERGALACTIC RESCUE 4 By Richard James

I

The Slave Trader

The alarm interrupted the small crew of Intergalactic Rescue 4 at their breakfast. Just as Jason and Anne settled down to protein flakes and coffee, it sounded loud and clear against the background hum of the ship’s idling Pulse Drive.

‘There is a distress call, Master Stone,’ explained Alpha.
‘You don’t say.’ Jason winked as he swung his legs from beneath the table.
Anne munched on the last of her cereal as she rose from her seat. ‘He means...’

she began kindly, ‘let’s see it on the flight deck please, Alpha.’
The small box-like robot blinked and whirred in response as he relayed the

information to the main screen.
Although Intergalactic Rescue 4 was an enormous ship, the flight deck was just a

short sprint away from the crew’s quarters. Most of the craft’s bulk was given over to its vast engines, armaments and equipment stores. Being a multi-purpose rescue vehicle meant there was little room given over to the luxuries of life.

‘Gimme the details, Zeet,’ Jason barked as he ran onto the compact flight deck. Grabbing at a bulkhead, he swung himself into one of the two pilots’ seats with practiced ease.

Zeta pointed at the screen with an extendable arm. The diminutive robot was almost identical in every way to the small droid Jason had just left in the canteen, except where Alpha had been the first model off the production line, Zeta had been the last. Quicker, stronger and more efficient in every way, Zeta fancied himself as the superior specimen. Alpha, much older and therefore much wiser, knew different. He was proud of his advanced years, even choosing to walk with a limp to differentiate himself from his younger counterpart.

‘What’s up, Zeta?’ Anne lowered herself into the second pilot’s chair and focussed on the screen before her.

‘A stricken vessel of unknown origin is transmitting a distress signal on all frequencies.’ A pulsating dot of light appeared on the screen as reams of text scrolled beneath it, detailing its speed and trajectory. Behind it loomed a large planet, a giant swathed with swirling clouds.

‘Origin?’ asked Jason. ‘Unknown.’ ‘Configuration?’ ‘Unknown.’

Jason frowned.
‘That’s quite an erratic course,’ Anne whistled. ‘Engine blowout?’
‘They certainly appear to have lost propulsion.’ Zeta agreed.
Jason took a breath, suddenly decisive. ‘Then let’s get to it. Zeet? Lay in the

coordinates.’
‘Just a minute,’ Anne interrupted. ‘Look at that.’ She pointed at a text box beneath

the flashing dot. ‘Their altitude is falling fast. Just how big is that planet, Zeta?’

The box robot whirred and clicked as it calculated a response. ‘It has a radius of 85,000 kilometres...’

Jason puffed out his cheeks. ‘Jupiter size!’ he exclaimed. ‘That ship is being pulled right into it!’

Anne nodded, patiently. ‘And so would we have been if we’d gone charging in.’

Jason flashed her his most winning smile. ‘Point taken,’ he said. ‘Zeet, recalculate and punch in our best approach route.’

‘Carefully,’ interjected Anne, a note of caution in her voice. ‘I’ve already had to skip breakfast. I don’t want the day getting any worse!’

The stricken craft tumbled helplessly as it fell, held in the grip of the huge planet’s gravitational pull.

‘I can’t get alongside it!’ Anne yelled desperately from her controls. ‘Its course is too erratic.’

‘So pull out!’ Jason called from his chair.

IGR4 had traversed the distance to the distressed ship in an instant, its Pulse Drive punching a hole in the very fabric of space. Now, as Anne’s fingers flew across the flight controls, it moved to a safe distance from the doomed ship.

‘Let’s suit up,’ Jason spun his chair from the flight console.
‘Are you crazy?’ Anne’s eyes were wide. ‘Why don’t we just tow it out?’
Jason stopped in his tracks and looked at the small robot at his feet. ‘Zeet? What

are the odds of success if we put a tractor beam on that craft?’
Zeta whirred and clicked again. ‘Owing to the enormous gravitational pull of the

planet, a tractor beam would be of negligible use. It might hold the ship for a while but any attempt to tow it out would meet with a point zero zero four chance of success.’

Anne interrupted. ‘It’ll just pull us in right after it. So how long would we have?’

‘We could hold the ship stationary for 29 minutes and 33 seconds,’ replied Zeta coolly, his servos whirring.

‘Okay,’ Jason shrugged. ‘That’ll be long enough.’

Anne swivelled to her co-pilot. ‘Really? Are you seriously suggesting just walking right in?’

‘Of course not,’ replied Jason with a grin. ‘I’ll knock first.’
‘And what’ll you do then?’
‘All indications are that there’s a problem with the engine,’ Jason explained gently.

‘If I can fix that, they’ll be on their way in no time.’
Anne nodded. To give him his due, Jason was eminently qualified to fix anything.

She remembered how he had excelled in the spacecraft maintenance module at the Academy.

It was decided that Jason should take Zeta with him and leave Alpha behind with Anne in charge of IGR4. The older robot was put-out at first, until Anne pointed out that calculating the parameters of the tractor beam was by far the more responsible position.

With the ship held firmly in IGR4’s tractor beam, Jason extended the docking arm to the craft’s airlock. The beam had at least stopped the ship pitching and rolling. It looked almost sedate, thought Jason as he looked through a viewing hatch beside the docking

arm, although he knew it was only a temporary state. A wrist chronometer told him he had just 23 minutes left before IGR4 would relinquish its protective hold and the docking arm would be sheared away.

The short distance traversed in a couple of minutes, Zeta extended a mechanical digit to connect with a service node by the airlock doors. A few turns and the door slid aside to allow admittance. Jason felt the unknown ship’s artificial gravity grab a hold of him, his boots making contact with the metal grating on the floor with an audible clang.

‘So, where’s the welcoming committee?’ came Anne’s voice over Jason’s helmet comms. She was monitoring the situation on a screen back on IGR4, the image being fed directly from Zeta’s visual circuits.

‘Perhaps they’ve been told never to answer the door to strangers,’ mocked Jason as his robot companion got to work on the inner door. The hatch behind him had slid shut and wall-mounted lights blinked on to illuminate the scene. ‘It’s nothing special,’ he reported back as the inner door rolled back into the wall with a soft click. ‘Looks purely functional.’

Jason walked stealthily into the corridor beyond, mindful of the ticking chronometer on his wrist.

‘Titanium hull,’ announced Zeta to no one in particular. ‘Evidence of cannibalisation of parts.’

Jason looked around him as he walked. The robot was right. The walls were lined with mismatched panels and exposed machinery. It seemed to have been cobbled together from countless different ships. No wonder Zeta had struggled to identify it.

‘Perhaps I’d better get straight to the engine.’ Jason was suddenly worried about just what sort of a mess he’d be confronted with. He had felt confident enough in the face of the expected sublight drive, but now he wasn’t so sure. What if the engine was as much of a mishmash as the rest of the ship? He glanced at his chronometer. Nineteen minutes remained. Just as he was calling up the ship’s schematics on a wall-mounted computer console, he heard the hiss of an interior door. Zeta had been busy at another control node.

As the door slid back into its housing, Jason took a breath. Before him were a dozen humanoids, each chained to the other with heavy iron links. Shabby, shapeless robes hung from their shoulders. They wore downcast expressions on their heavily browed faces and barely seemed to notice their new visitors.

‘Anne, are you seeing this?’ Jason breathed. ‘Looks like we’ve got ourselves a slave ship.’

‘You’ve got to get them outta there!’ came Anne’s voice. ‘And you’ve got less than 17 minutes to do it.’

‘Sixteen minutes and 13 seconds,’ chimed Alpha over the comms.
‘He always was a stickler for detail,’ said Zeta with a robot sigh.
Having checked the ship’s internal atmosphere, Jason flipped the visor on his

helmet. The air was breathable. ‘Hey!’ he called to the assembled slaves. ‘We need to get you out of here!’ They turned their heads towards him, clearly struggling to focus on his words. ‘Of course,’ Jason muttered. ‘They’re drugged.’

‘I would close your visor again if I were you,’ exclaimed Zeta suddenly, sniffing the air with his olfactory sensors. ‘The atmosphere is laced with a synthetic sedative designed to keep them compliant.’

Jason snapped his visor shut at once and switched on the speaker in his chest unit. ‘Everyone, follow me and you’ll be fine!’

The strange aliens shuffled their feet towards him, Zeta cutting through their chains with a laser as they passed. ‘Quickly!’ yelled Jason as he turned to lead the motley band back to the airlock.

‘Wait!’ called Anne in his ear. ‘What about the pilot? Our readings indicate the ship was under manual control before its accident, so there must be a pilot.’

Jason groaned as he thought of the minutes ticking away. Before long, the ship would be ripped from IGR4’s docking arm to continue its fall towards the huge planet below. And he’d much rather not be on it when it did.

‘Okay!’ he called, holding up a hand to get the attention of the alien slaves. ‘Where is the pilot?’

Vacant eyes stared back. ‘Where is the pilot?’ Jason tried again, this time enunciating more clearly. He pointed to the empty seat by the flight controls and, ridiculously, found himself miming steering a ship. Still, there was no response. ‘Zeet!’ he barked to the diminutive robot at his feet. ‘You find the pilot, I’ll lead this lot off the ship.’

Zeta beeped in the affirmative as Jason corralled the aliens away. The robot opened a connection to IGR4 and requested an infrared scan of the slave ship. Alpha sent over a live image of the craft and Zeta used his visual circuits to project it onto a nearby wall. The slave ship’s systems pulsed red. Zeta could make out the glowing forms of the aliens as Jason led them through the airlock to safety. The engines, crippled as they were, still let off a ferocious heat, glowing white hot on the image before him. Leaning forward on his stubby feet, Zeta could dimly make out something else. There, in the engine room, was another heat signature. From the scale of the image, the robot could deduce its exact size and location. A humanoid, approximately six feet tall was, quite inexplicably, lying on the deck by the fuel input. Seeing that Jason had made it back through the docking arm to IGR4 with his strange entourage, Zeta checked his internal chronometer to see just how much time there was left. Twelve minutes remained. With a whistle, the little robot turned about and deployed his wheels. Lifting his feet from the floor, Zeta trundled from the room at considerable speed, eager to reach the pilot before time ran out.

‘I’ve put the feed from Zeta on the screen,’ said Anne as Jason led the alien slaves into the canteen. Freeing himself from his space suit he hung it in its compartment, then joined the aliens by the food dispenser.

‘Food,’ he explained, slowly. ‘Eat if you are hungry.’

One of the taller aliens stepped forward, his hands raised in front of him. Jason saw a strange symbol had been branded on his neck. He noticed that the other slaves watched this man’s every move. The alien seemed to look deep into Jason’s eyes as if trying to read his thoughts then, quite suddenly, clapped his hands together. At this signal, his fellow slaves fell upon the food in the dispensers, eager for nourishment.

‘Thank you,’ said the alien, unexpectedly.
Jason blinked in surprise.
‘I am Okron. We are from the planet Theka Seven. I speak for my people.’

‘We have just nine minutes before we have to let your ship go,’ said Anne quickly as she moved between them. ‘But we think there is one person left on board.’

Jason nodded. ‘Where is your pilot?’

Okron turned to face a screen on the wall as his fellow slaves sat to eat. It displayed Zeta’s view from the slave ship. Cluttered corridors whizzed past as the little robot approached the door to the engine room. It opened with a hiss as Zeta pressed a console on the wall to reveal a room full of smoke. Loose cables sparked from the floor. Zeta pressed forward through the heat to find a man lying prone on the floor, his leg trapped beneath a mesh of twisted metal pipes.

‘There,’ said Okron pointing at the screen. ‘And may his death be slow and painful.’ His fellow captives murmured in agreement. Anne noticed several of them make a

strange sign across their chest.
‘Zeta,’ she called into the comms, ‘you’ve got to get him out of there. And quick!’ ‘His leg is trapped beneath the pipes,’ came Zeta’s response. The image zoomed in

on the twisted cables.
The pilot’s moans filled the canteen. ‘Please,’ he was mumbling, delirious. ‘You’ve

got to save me.’
‘One of those pipes is the fuel line,’ Jason panted, his eyes wide. ‘Cut through that

and we’ll all go nova.’
Anne saw Zeta light up his laser attachment in anticipation of making a cut. ‘But

which one?’ She punched a button on the comms console to speak with the pilot. ‘This is Anne Warran from Intergalactic Rescue 4 of The League of Planets. We will attempt to free you, but we need your help.’ She leaned in closer to the mic. ‘Which of those pipes is the fuel line?’

The pilot grunted as he lifted his head to look down. ‘I can’t tell you,’ he hissed, his jaw clenched with pain. ‘I’m a pilot not a goddamn engineer.’ With that, he sunk back into a murmuring delirium.

‘Jason?’ Anne turned to her co-pilot, beads of sweat pricking at her forehead. ‘What’s your best guess?’

Jason shook his head. ‘I can’t tell. The engine’s cobbled together from so many different components.’

‘I thought you were the expert!’ Anne pleaded. ‘If Zeta doesn’t cut him out of there in the next six minutes, the tractor beam will fail and he’ll die as the ship hits the planet.’ ‘That would be too good for him,’ said Okron quietly. ‘He does not deserve such a

quick death.’
Anne wheeled round. ‘Who is that man?’ she demanded, pointing to the screen. Okron took a breath and looked at his entourage for encouragement. They nodded,

sadly. Okron turned back to his rescuers with a sigh.
‘His name is Antar K’osen. He is a slave trader.’ He gestured around him. ‘We are

his merchandise.’
Jason leaned back against the wall. ‘Where is he taking you?’
‘To the planet below us.’ Okron gestured to a monitor where an image of the giant

planet turned against the blackness of space. ‘There he will sell us to the highest bidder.’ Jason was thinking things through. ‘Did you sabotage his ship in an effort to

escape?’

Okron shook his head. ‘We would be unable to do such a thing. The atmosphere aboard is laced with a chemical that acts like a sedative upon us. It’s only now we are aboard your ship that we can think more clearly.’

‘So that’s why you’re loath to save him,’ Anne nodded in understanding.

‘If you spare his life, you rob us of ours.’ Okron’s eyes brimmed with tears as he spoke.

Jason looked to Anne. ‘What do we do? We can’t just leave him to die.’

Anne held his gaze. ‘But if we let him live we’re condemning these people to a life in captivity.’

Alpha gave a beep from the floor. ‘May I remind you,’ he began after the robot equivalent of clearing his throat, ‘that Earth Control is clear in this matter? Intergalactic Rescue 4’s function is purely rescue. No interference is allowed with the customs and practices of any alien society.’

Jason crouched down to meet Alpha’s mechanical eye. ‘Customs and practices?’ he repeated. ‘This is more than some quaint religious belief.’

‘We’ve always done things by the book, Jason.’ Anne touched him on the shoulder.

‘Sometimes the book is just plain wrong.’ Jason rose, angrily. ‘If we rescue Antar and send him on his merry way with his cargo, we’re complicit in these people’s fate.’

‘Be that as it may,’ Alpha interjected, ‘we have just 3 minutes and 27 seconds before the tractor beam fails.’

‘We can’t just leave him,’ Jason planted a fist into his open palm in frustration. A sudden scream filled the air. On the screen, the pilot was writhing in agony.

‘Which pipe do I cut?’ Zeta was asking. ‘Guidance requested.’ His laser torch was poised.

‘Three minutes, precisely,’ Alpha announced from the floor.

Anne wheeled round to see Okron in quiet consultation with his fellow slaves. As they concluded their conversation, they each made the strange sign over their chests.

‘I am trained as a rocket scientist,’ Okron announced at last. Jason and Anne were speechless. ‘Before the slave times, my race lived in relative peace and prosperity on Theka Seven. I lived a life of learning. Then Antar’s race came to subdue us. We were forbidden many things; education, employment, freedom. We were made slaves.’

‘How?’ Anne asked, breathless.

‘His people have developed a chemical that induces compliance. That, together with my race’s naturally pacifist tendencies make us the perfect candidates for repression.’

‘If you know that ship’s systems, you’ve got to save him,’ Jason yelled, desperately. ‘Can you really leave a man –anyman – to die in this way?’

Okron nodded slowly and stepped forward. ‘Let me talk to your robot.’

Anne punched the comms button. ‘Zeta,’ she began, ‘the next voice you hear will be Okron, one of the slaves we rescued. Do exactly as he says.’ She nodded to the alien beside her. ‘Go ahead.’

‘First, you’ll need to plug yourself into the engine’s systems.’ He squinted into the screen. ‘There’s an access portal on the wall to your right.’

The assembled party watched as Zeta turned and trundled to the portal. Uncoiling an appendage from his squat body, he inserted a jack and turned it until it locked into place. The portal beeped in response.

‘I’m in,’ said Zeta.

‘Good,’ Okron nodded. ‘Now, you’ll need to burn off the excess fuel. Purge the tanks.’

Zeta beeped in response as the portal began flashing a warning red.
‘Fuel tank evacuation imminent,’ came a disembodied voice.
‘That is good,’ Okron confirmed.
‘Alpha,’ barked Jason, ‘switch screen to exterior view.’ He watched as the display

changed to show the stricken vessel, held fast in the tractor beam.
‘You have just 93 seconds to effect a rescue,’ Alpha stated.
‘Thanks,’ Jason murmured as he watched the fuel escape from the craft in billowing

clouds of vapour.
‘Now,’ continued Okron, his face a mask of concentration. ‘You may cut the cables

without fear of cutting the fuel line.’
Zeta withdrew his jack from the access portal and sped back to the figure lying

prone on the floor.
‘Let’s see it, Alpha,’ commanded Jason, and the view on the screen switched to

Zeta’s point of view. Several thick cables snaked over the pilot’s wounded leg. Cutting just one of them would make it easier to lift the man to safety, but which one?

‘Cut the twisted cable to your left. The one that travels beneath the blue duct.’ The image zoomed in on an innocuous length of pipe. ‘Yes,’ nodded Okron. ‘That is the one.’ Zeta raised his laser torch and brought it to bear on the cable. With a shower of

sparks, it split cleanly in two.
‘I can move!’ the pilot rasped. ‘I can move my leg!’
With a supreme effort, Antar pulled his wounded limb clear of the remaining cables

and lifted himself onto his elbows.
‘Zeta!’ bellowed Anne into the comms console. ‘You’ve got just 40 seconds to get

clear!’
‘Make it as far as the docking arm and I’ll seal the airlock,’ added Jason. ‘Quick,’

he shouted to Anne, ‘let’s get to the flight deck. I’ll need to operate the controls from there.’

As the screen snapped off, the two young pilots sprinted from the room leaving Okron and his fellow slaves standing in a sullen silence.

Jason threw himself into his seat and set about his controls.
‘Twenty seconds remain,’ offered Alpha as he limped onto the flight deck. ‘Do you

think he’ll make it?’
Anne gave what she hoped was a reassuring smile. ‘Yes,’ she soothed. Anne knew

Alpha wasn’t asking about the pilot. ‘I’m sure he will.’
‘Punch it up on the screen, Alpha!’ barked Jason from his chair and, in an instance,

Zeta’s view of his journey to the docking arm unrolled before them.
‘Twelve seconds,’ intoned Alpha, as calmly as he could.
The screen showed Zeta’s progress through the slave ship. Every now and then, an

arm dangled into view at the top of the picture, an indication that the diminutive robot had hoisted the injured pilot onto his robotic shoulders.

‘Quicker!’ yelled the pilot in panic, and it was all Anne could do not to join him.

‘Five seconds.’

The airlock to the docking arm was visible now, and the picture tilted as Zeta scooted round bare cables and equipment that littered the floor.

‘Three seconds.’
Anne and Jason held their breath.
‘Two.’
‘I have reached the airlock,’ came Zeta’s calm voice from the comms.
‘One.’
Jason stabbed at a button. ‘I’ve closed the airlock!’
At that, the screen fizzed to static. The ship jolted dangerously.
‘Zeet!’ screamed Jason above the noise of rending metal. ‘Did you make it?’

Silence. ‘I’ve got to let go the tractor beam!’ The ship lurched again.

‘We’re falling,’ panted Anne as she grabbed at the flight console. The cockpit was tilting at a crazy angle. ‘Let go the tractor beam!’

‘Zeet!’ Jason wiped the sweat from his eyes. ‘Did you make it?’

‘Planetary collision in T minus 24 seconds,’ Alpha exclaimed. Anne was sure she could detect a note of concern in his mechanical voice.

‘Zeet,’ Jason whispered, sadly, ‘we gotta go.’ He reached out to punch at a button on his console. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘Docking arm retracting,’ said Alpha as the cockpit suddenly quietened.
‘Okay,’ breathed Anne with relief. ‘I’m taking us back to a safe distance.’
With a hum of its engines, Intergalactic Rescue 4 retreated to a higher orbit. An

unnerving calm descended on the flight deck as its three occupants gazed at the image on the screen. The slave ship, free of the tractor beam, was tumbling through the planet’s upper atmosphere, a glowing ball of fire. Debris broke away as it burned.

Alpha’s visual sensors pulsed gently as he watched. ‘When humans experience the loss of another, what do they feel?’

Anne turned to face the robot, her eyes sad. ‘We feel an emptiness,’ she explained. ‘We call it grief.’

Alpha looked downcast. ‘Then I feel grief.’
‘Well,’ came a voice from the doorway, ‘I feel fantastic!’
‘Zeet!’ Jason had a wide grin on his face. ‘You made it!’
Zeta was standing proudly in the door, the rather bemused pilot beside him, his leg

caked with blood.
‘Of course I made it. I’m only sorry my visual feed was interrupted in the docking

arm. Static, I guess.’
‘We need to get this man to the infirmary.’ Anne took the pilot by the arm to lead

him away. He hobbled painfully into the corridor beyond, his eyes wide in bemusement. As Jason followed, Zeta turned to his robot companion. Alpha was beeping gently to express his pleasure.

‘Did ya miss me?’ Zeta squawked, with a flash of his visual sensors that could only be described as a cheeky wink.

‘Miss you?’ Alpha responded with a harrumph. ‘I barely noticed you were gone.’

‘He did what?’ Strangely, Antar seemed almost angry. Following his treatment in the infirmary, he had been led to the canteen for some refreshment. He was a squat figure, Anne noticed, used to a planet with a greater gravitational pull. He had a sour looking face and nervous, shifty eyes. As he was handed a plate of flavoured protein, Antar K’osen found himself face to face with Okron and the other slaves.

‘This is Okron,’ began Jason.

‘He is number four zero one,’ Antar interrupted, jabbing towards the slave with his fork. ‘It says so on his neck.’

Anne noticed Okron cover his branded mark with his robe, suddenly self-conscious. ‘He is a scientist,’ she said, sharply. ‘The only one of us who understood your ship’s engines.’ She leaned in, almost threatening. ‘He saved your life.’

Antar swallowed a mouthful of food. ‘Then he is a fool.’
‘Perhaps I am,’ interjected Okron, sadly. ‘But I am an honourable fool.’
Jason turned to the slave leader, eager to calm the situation. ‘We will talk with

Antar,’ he whispered. ‘Follow the lights on the wall to the astrodome. We will let you know the outcome soon.’ He stabbed at a wall console and a line of lights led the way from the canteen.

‘We have but one demand,’ Okron replied. ‘A dinghy to take us home.’ He looked at the slave trader with narrow eyes. ‘And away from him.’

Jason nodded. ‘I’ll see what I can do.’ Satisfied, Okron led his party from the canteen.

‘Consider what that man did for you,’ said Jason when they were alone. He was having trouble containing his feelings.

‘It is irrelevant.’ Antar looked unimpressed. ‘It changes nothing.’

‘You wouldn’t be here now if it wasn’t for Okron,’ added Anne. ‘Surely he deserves something in return?’

Antar spluttered on his food. ‘You mean hisfreedom?’
Anne nodded. ‘Freedom for him
andhis companions.’
The slave trader pushed his empty plate away and swung back on his chair. ‘He

called himself honourable.’ Anne noticed he couldn’t even bring himself to mention the slave’s name. ‘I too am an honourable man.’

‘What honour is there in trading slaves?’ Jason scoffed.

In response, Antar pulled a computer pad from his tunic pocket. Stabbing at the screen, he pulled up a text file to show the young pilots.

‘My contract,’ he explained, ‘for the delivery of 12 slaves.’ He indicated a phrase towards the bottom of the screen. ‘Payment on delivery.’

‘It’s obscene.’ Jason was clenching his fists.

‘It’s a living,’ Antar replied, simply. Slipping the computer pad back into his pocket, he leaned forwards on his elbows. ‘I have three children,’ he began, ‘not much younger than the two of you. Their mother died in the Zargon Wars so I am left alone to provide them with a future.’ He gestured to the door. ‘Those slaves will provide me with the income I need to send my children to school. It’s the biggest run of my career.’ He tapped his pocket. ‘And the biggest payment.’

Anne pulled up a chair opposite. ‘Surely you owe it to your children to show them a better way? How would they feel, knowing they profited from the misery of others?’

‘It is the way,’ Antar shrugged. ‘It always has been.’

Jason rounded on him. ‘My father used to say those are the four worst words in the English language.’ He planted his palms on the table and leaned in close. ‘Just because a thing has always been done a certain way, doesn’t make it theonlyway.’

There was a silence as the slave trader contemplated the young man’s words. At last, he pushed his chair back from the canteen table and stood. ‘I heard word of a dinghy,’ he said. ‘I would be grateful if you would put it at my disposal so I can fulfil my contract.’ With that, Antar swept from the room, leaving Anne and Jason to gaze at one another, dumbstruck.

‘Intergalactic Rescue 4’s function is purely rescue,’ said Anne, softly. ‘No interference is allowed with the customs and practices of any alien society.’

Jason shook his head. ‘Then tell me,’ he hissed, ‘just who have we rescued?’

The astrodome was graced with a large bubble window that protruded from the ship’s hull, providing the viewer with an almost 270-degree view of the universe beyond. Jason took in the vista before him, his arm draped gently across Anne’s shoulders. Alpha and Zeta squatted on the floor beside them. The crew of Intergalactic Rescue 4 seemed united in solemnity. Beyond the viewing window, the dinghy raced away from the ship and towards the great planet below. Jason and Anne had been powerless to intervene as Antar rounded up the slaves and herded them towards the docking bay. They had watched, helpless, as he fixed their chains with a laser torch and shackled them to the small vessel’s walls. Now they stood, disconsolate, as the slave trader departed with his merchandise.

‘There was nothing we could do,’ Anne whispered, partly to convince herself. ‘We did everything by the book.’

Jason was unimpressed. ‘How will the universe ever progress if we don’t better ourselves? Seems to me that Antar is bound by shackles every bit as restricting as his cargo.’

‘We tried.’ Anne patted his hand as she spoke.
‘Course correction,’ squawked Alpha suddenly from the floor.
‘What?’ Jason peered closer at the stars beyond the window to get his bearings.

‘But we’re stationary.’
‘Not us.’ Alpha waved a mechanical arm towards the window. ‘Them!’
The two pilots’ expressions changed to one of wonder as they saw the dinghy peel

away from the planet.
‘He’s changed his mind!’ Anne gasped.
‘A new course has been laid into the dinghy’s navigational computer.’ Alpha

clicked and whirred. ‘Destination: Theka Seven.’
‘The slaves’ home planet!’ Jason squeezed Anne’s shoulders in celebration. There was the sound of static as the astrodome’s comms screen crackled to life.

The small party recognised Antar at the controls of the dinghy. Behind him, the slaves were seated, comfortably, their broken chains discarded on the floor.

‘Just because a thing has always been done a certain way, doesn’t make it theonlyway.’ Antar gave the crew a wry smile.

Jason nodded in gratitude.
‘But your payment?’ Anne asked. ‘And your children?’

The slave trader looked around the cockpit. ‘I reckon this dinghy will be good for a few thousand credits on the open market. More than enough to get them all through their education.’ He leaned in closer to the screen. ‘Perhaps they will learn that there is always another way.’

‘Take it with our pleasure,’ Jason grinned. He nodded to Okron in the seat behind. ‘And I hope you get home safely.’

‘Thank you,’ the erstwhile slave smiled. ‘For everything.’

With a final nod, Antar leaned forward to punch the screen off. For a moment, the little crew of Intergalactic Rescue 4 stood in silence.

‘That’s the first time I’ve heard you mention your father,’ Anne said at last, turning to Jason with kind eyes.

‘Really?’ her co-pilot replied, nonchalantly. ‘Well, he was quite a guy. Zeet? Alpha? We need to look at the main drive. The couplings need recalibrating.’ With that, he slipped his arm from Anne’s shoulder and walked from the room, leaving the young woman to gaze thoughtfully out the window and to the stars beyond.

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