I knew something was amiss when Chief Watson came down herself at the first morning briefing. I was with Gaudrork and more than a dozen CT Tuc Boys pilots, Gustavo was helping Harleen adjust Minotaur’s fighter printer parameters. The corvette had experienced some brutal overheat yesterday during a fight with an imperial special operation squadron. The four of them broke n-space within half a klick from Minotaur, just as we were drawing fire from a Vulture and a Cutter. It did end with more imperial scrap, but the corvette had taken significant internal heat damage form the sustained SCB pumps. And I had lost significant amount of weight with the sweat from the heat and scare at the same time... So I would be flying Durandal for this sortie. Gaudrork would pilot his krait phantom, which was back on the line since yesterday. Paint was still missing but there was no time for that.
Harleen had not spoken to me for the last 2 days. But she was still drawing her part of the combat bonds and working on the deck so I guess that this still made her part of my crew. I didn’t knew too much how to handle the situation and besides, there was too much action and work to spend time on anything non-life threatening.
“Gentlemen,” started Chief Watson. “Our troops completed the takeover of Kurtz Colony this morning at 03:22 local. Several Imperial officers were captured and negotiations are being held with the Imperial consul for their exchange. The so-called “King Jordanius” of the CT Tucanae Monarchy has been shot on the spot when found in his quarters. Give it to the fat bastard, he did go down fighting. We have a cease-fire on-going with the imperial forces in system, with the understanding that they will leave once the hostage negotiations are completed. The war is over. The CT Tucanae Boys finally have full control all of the key installations in our home system. Bravo!”
There was a muted silence for a few seconds, then some scattered clapping and then some heartfelt cheering. I was too drained to even feel much beside surprise. After a few seconds, Chief Watson calmed down the room before continuing:
“However, this cease-fire is strictly between the imperial navy units and us. Namely, it does not includes the remaining Monarchy forces.” We are rounding them down in-system and will start flying clean-up sweeps with 2-ships wings, starting in two hours. Rules of engagement are interdict-and-terminate on any and all Monarchy-pledged shipping in system. Any and All. Whether the targets is a cruise ship, a trader or a military-trim anaconda, orders are Interdict-and-terminate. You are cleared to pursue high-waking ships in CD-60 or Daikulcondi, but not within Imperial space. For the duration of the truce, if an imperial navy ship jumps in the area to defend a Monarchy ship, you are to disengage at first opportunity. You can see your respective tac officers for the sweeps scheduling. Good hunting,”
Interdict-and-terminate on civilian shipping? That wasn’t good. Not very surprising from a criminal syndicate winning an existential war, but still not something I was looking toward… So I was pretty content to find that we were only launching in the early evening. As we were leaving the briefing area I made a quick sign to Gaudrork that I would meet him at the nearby Hangar mess and pulled up my comm. “Lynch, stops what you are doing now, re-tasking on the Printer bay Bravo”
“Commander?” came the somewhat icy reply. (Was I imagining things?)
“Re-task Printer Bravo to print XG-7 Tridents and have one ready in the launch bay Bravo. And get fit for flight, you are to report to Minotaur on pad 40 at two-oh-three-oh today. And tell Hendricks that he has the day off once those printers are green.”
The silence was unexpected. The reply came, neutral. “XG-seven, Pad forty, two-oh-three-oh. Acknowledged… skipper.”
Skipper. Not Commander. Could we be stitching things up? … by hunting civvies?
“So you know what’s coming up now….” This wasn’t a question. More of a flat statement as Gaudrork was sliding a large coffee container on the mess table, sending it toward my eager hand.
“Aye. I do. The boys will clean house in Kurtz colony. They’ll likely take the occasion to root out whatever well known Monarchy supporters they can get their hands on which stayed behind in Arantilae…”
Gaudrork continued, saying the words he knew I dreaded but could not deny: “And those one will end up in our hold for delivery in all the systems around. For a fat price.”
The same thing had happened after the boys captured Arantilae. I still hadn’t really come to terms with it. Literally thousands of peoples had been sold outside the system as slaves. A lot of them delivered by our squadron. Because you see, in their perverted logic, the pirates had outlawed slavery in Arantilae. So they had to sell their slaves outside the system.
I still remembered finding out what the cargo was only on delivery in Ys the first time. I landed Colonial bucket, my Type-nine, dodging the system surveillance and thinking that I was carrying plain old, normal, contraband.
Afterward, I could have refused to move those specific cargoes, or even left the employment of the CT Tucanae syndicate. But to what end? Moral high ground? I was fighting for the criminals enslaving these peoples. What evil was I avoiding by not carrying them myself? I was somewhat responsible for their plight in any cases. I shook my head, trying vainly as so many times before to make the memory go away. But no. I was tainted forever. I knew. But re-accepting it every time was still a challenge.
For that made us – me and Gaudrork – the very thing we came to Arantilae to fight:
… When we arrived, the boys were nothing but a small criminal syndicate – Chief Watson was meeting us in an office near ring E of all places! But me and Gaudrork started to work for them. We had… unofficial orders from the federated operation office: Get some kind of anarchy insurgency going at the edge of imperial space. That would complicate the kind of power structure that the Empire relies on to maintain its joug – Feudalism, dictatorships. We hated the Empire for its legalization of… slavery, of all things. So this was a way to liberate the system, and others nearby ones from the slavers, without implicating the feds. “Home-grown” insurgency.
So we unleashed criminal insurgency on those peoples instead. The end justifies the means… the goal was the grander scheme of things – stopping the Empire. Doing great good by effecting smaller, necessary evil. Which was anything but small for all those peoples that ended up as slaves. Not even Imperial slaves, just plain slaves without any rights, ready to be exploited and abused.
And doing so, we invested ourselves in the small criminal syndicate. As we fought beside them, bled and lost friends and crew amongst them, along the way, without even realizing it, we made their cause our cause. Cognitive dissonance I guess. Made friends – Hell, I was calling Carmen Watson a friend now. One of the leader of an interstellar criminal syndicate. And of course, once you committed to the cause, when you did so much evil, what was doing just a bit more? After all, if we stopped now, now that the CT Tucanae Boys was obviously causing real trouble to the hated Empire, wouldn’t all the terrible things we did or allowed before have been for naught? Would all these peoples being sold as slaves have suffered for nothing?
There was no way around it. Each time I took the time to think about it I could see the reality of it. The road to hell is lined with good intents. We were pretty far gone along the path already.
“Mike, Are we still the good guys?” I smirked as I asked. We both knew the answer. We could pretend that it was just business as usual. Or that we didn’t care. In fact that was what was frightening me the most. I was caring less and less. Fighting to keep caring, but the taint was growing… what use was it fighting it or pretending that It wasn’t there, or that It didn’t represented who I was now?. But I knew that as soon as I would stop caring, that would be all over.
Gaudrork shrugged as he took a sip of his beer. “What changed? We’re doing what need to be done. And getting rich for it. Would you rather have those peoples slaved away by the Imps? What difference? We would not be making the money. And who knows? If this really hurt the Empire, we’re doing our bit to hasten its fall and then Millions will avoid slavery… And we’ll be even richer by then.”
I am pretty sure that Gaudrork had already stopped caring. He didn’t like it, but he was past the need to rationalize it. He was probably more honest about it that I was.
“So let me sum this up: I’m not sure if we’re past redemption, but you are telling me we don’t need it. Keep it simple eh?”
The man across the table smiled. “I don’t like it more than you do Nick, but that’s the way it is. We don’t think too much about it. We do the job, we get paid the big bucks. And we’re hurting the big slavers – the Empire - all along.”
He looked at me with his eyebrows arched. “When you got me to tag along this adventure, you had to know that revolutions are not pretty things? I mean… we killed literally thousands of imperials citizens over the last year, a fair amount of those directly with our ships, many more by helping the boys take over the whole system… No surprises here is there?”
“F**k, Mike. I know you are right. I’m getting buyer remorse, even If I am the one who had the damn idea to start with. I… for some reasons I didn’t think the boys, with all that freedom and anarchism s**t, would actually enslave people. Besides, it’s like the killing, the civilian supporters… I understand the whole thing, but… I’m turning into a real criminal hitman and some part of my head is still fighting it. Some part of my soul...”
Mike looked at me, shrugging again, with a bland look. “Look Nick, tell your soul that he lost that one. We’re not turning into criminals. We are criminals. Hitmen working for the crooks and for the federal government – doing fed and boys dirty wetwork, both. That ship has long sailed… and don’t bother looking at the horizon, it’s not coming back.”
With that, my friend just got up, snatched his flight helmet and left toward the hangars. “Got 180 tons of freight to deliver at Romer Station in Herengul. Gotta get the Python ready. Fly dangerously Nick.”
I stayed at the table for a moment, looking absently at the glass of my flight helmet in my hands.
I didn’t bother to ask what that cargo was.