The first floor is larger than the others. Off on the sides, deeper under the rotunda, is a series of slave cages, tables, ledgers and computers. The small hum of a generator is drowned out by the louder drum of a dehumidifier. Large cables with thick wrappings line the floor, connecting all the electronics in the makeshift headquarters. The computer monitors shine a bright blue, and there are a few lanterns and lamps strewn about.
“That went well, I think.” Miramita rolls his shoulders then walks closer to me. He elbows my arm and wiggles his eyebrow, “so how many did you kill?” He waits expectantly with a wide, smug smile.
“Ha!” He smiles. “What a shame, that’s what Igot. Guess we’ll have to find some other way to settle this later,” he winks.
“m-gh… ughhh…” The slaver boss moans and shifts slightly. Before Miramita has the chance to react, I bring the rifle up and put another in the back of his head. He doesn’t survive that one.
“23. It appears I win.”
Miramita pouts and puts his hands on his hips. “Aww, that sucks. Glad we didn’t bet on it.” He shrugs, “oh well, we’re still not done here anyway.”
I counted the slave boss as a kill when I first shot him, and I counted him as a second kill just now. I’m glad Miramita didn’t call me out on it.
I look down at the girl trapped under the fat slavery boss, “why hasn’t she pushed him off yet?” I figured the poor girl was just smart enough to stay down during the shooting.
Oh no, did I accidentally shoot her? I thought I was careful, did I do something irreversible?
I quickly step forward and kick the fat man off her, and we realize the true reason. The reason why the slaver said the kidnapped firryans couldn’t be released.
Her skin is a dark grey, blending in with the stone around her, and her pure black tattoos swirl around her limbs like candy canes. Firryan skin will naturally change color to blend in with the background. FLF agents, like Miramita and I, permanently dye our skin red in order to stand out.
Her clothes are filthy and damp, with dirt and blood crusted into the fabric. She’s so thin and frail, her lips are cracked. Had they given her anything to eat or drink? How long ago was she captured? The worst is the deep bruising on her broken ankles and wrists. The four joints are shattered, her hands and feet dangling limp off her limbs.
A familiar burn wells up inside my chest. I can’t stand the sight, no matter how often I see it.
I get down on one knee and carefully check to make sure she’s still alive. “She’s not doing good, but she’ll live.”
Miramita runs to the corner of the room, where a number of tall metal cages sit. There’s about a dozen, packed closely together. While two cages have firryans inside, another three have various humans who were caught up with the slavers.
He crouches down to inspect our comrades, then shakes his head, “they’re the same. Now we know why the slavers wouldn’t let them free even after all we did. They physically could not run towards us.”
“Must have been to keep them from escaping, not that there’s anywhere they could flee to on this world…”
It’s disgusting, but not surprising. I scoot closer to the young woman on the floor and carefully cradle her head against my thigh. “Hey,” I use my kindest possible voice, “can you hear me? My name is Wanopplo, I’m going to get you out of here, alright?”
Her eyes lazily turn towards me. It takes a moment, but she notices my red skin, causing her pupils to dilate. The corners of her mouth tremble, and small tears run down her cheeks. She seems to mouth something, but no sound escapes her lips.
It’s most likely a prayer. I brush my hair behind my ears and press my forehead against hers, careful to support her neck and not hurt her further. I quickly look at her tattoos and get an idea of who she’s praying to. “By the Hero Tabalita, I will return you to the red sands of Foregone…”
She sighs weakly, then closes her eyes to rest. Not much longer until she can put this whole ordeal behind her. Or, of course, she might hold onto her anger and choose to join the Firryan Liberation Front.
Meanwhile, Miramita is fiddling with the locks on the cages. Obviously he went for the firryan cages first, and has been whispering sweet words to our comrades.
But one of the aliens keeps jumping in. “H-hey, you’re here to get all of us, right?” He’s a normal human from some planet out there. All I know is that he isn’t a firryan, so he’s an alien.
Miramita switches to an even tone when talking to the alien. “We won’t abandon you on this planet, if that’s what you’re asking.” Back to the gentle whisper that barely overpowers the machinery and clicks of the lock, “regrettably I spent my training learning how to kill rather than pick locks, haha! But don’t worry, I’ll have this open soon.”
“Shouldn’t one of them have a key?” The man interrupts once more.
“Doubtful. Keys can be stolen by people trying to do exactly what we’re doing. There’s no ship to get these slavers off-world, which means they’re part of a larger organization. These guys stay here to protect their ‘merchandise’, another group goes out with their ship to capture more slaves, and a third group will come by periodically to collect their gains and sell them on the black market. It’s all fragmented to keep raids like this from destroying the whole organization, and the sell-group will probably be the one that has the key to these cages. The cages, of course, auto-lock when the door is closed, that way the sell-group isn’t needed when the capture-groups bring more.”
Wait, but if the key is with someone else, how did they manage to get one of our comrades out to use as a shield?
I take off my over-shirt and gently lay my comrade down, supporting her head like a pillow. On a hunch, I walk over to the fat slaver I shot. He seemed to be the boss of this base, would he have a key?
I root through his pockets and in his jacket, thankful of the fact I didn’t take off my suit like Miramita did. He’s just so foul and gross, I know there’s no running water here, but is there really no soap?
Before long, I find a small keychain.
This doesn’t make sense.
“Miramita!” I toss the keys over and he turns his head just in time to catch it.
“Huh?” He raises an eyebrow, “where’d you find this?” He slots it in and the cage door unlocks, “why..?”
I walk closer, “there’s thousands of slaver groups out there, maybe this one does things differently.”
“Yeah…” Miramita rubs his chin. “Maybe.”
There’s a thick sense of unease in the air. Something is wrong.
Miramita opens the remaining cages, including the ones housing aliens, while I’m left to think. Why would the slavers here have the key? We didn’t detect an enemy ship when I approached Quintara… No, there’s a thousand different reasons there could be a key here. I’m over thinking things.
Miramita gently pulls the firryan captives out of the cages and rests them on the warm, damp, stone floor. The other aliens run from their cages and give their thanks to the two of us. In total, there are three firryans and three aliens. Two firryan women, one boy, as well as two alien women and one male.
With his task complete, Miramita walks over to me, his voice nothing more than a whisper. “Something doesn’t feel right. What do you think?”
“…It could be anything. I say we focus on getting everyone to the shuttle for now, worry about problems as they arrive.
Then a computer begins ringing. We look to the opposite side of the room, its faint blue screen glows brighter, and there’s a flashing red light on top of the bulky monitor.
At the same time, my earpiece rings.
That alien man gulps, “wh-wh-what does that mean?”
Miramita crosses his arms. “Trouble, most likely.” He flashes the man a smile, “we came prepared though.”
I press a finger to my ear and Miramita walks towards me. My earpiece is connected to the shuttle that dropped me off.
“Wanopplo!” The pilot yells, “a frigate has broken atmosphere and is inbound on your location!”
“A frigate? Where did it come from?”
“It was hidden in the asteroid field around the planet, sir. It was on low power, so it didn’t give off any signatures.”
“Can you pick us up?”
“Negative, sir. I can’t make it in time, and that ship will blow me out of the sky if I get too close. You’ll have to get out of there, or chase it off somehow.”
“Chase off a frigate? Fine. I’ll call you when we have a plan.” I tap my earbud and turn to Miramita.
He leans in closer and whispers, “I heard the word ‘frigate’ and a lot of panic.”
“These aren’t all of the slavers. They have a ship and it’s coming towards us.”
“A trap then?” Miramita grabs his chin and looks around while the alien man goes off into a panic with the other two slaves, screaming about how we need to get them out of there.
I grab the key from Miramita and look it over. My guess? Unlocking the cages set off some sort of alarm that alerted the ship. Maybe it really would have been better to leave the aliens… No. That would be evil, I shouldn’t think like that. “I wouldn’t recommend running into the jungle. If you want to get off this planet, you’ll need to stick with us.”
“W-we’re getting out of here soon, right?”
“You said a frigate is coming!? We can’t outrun that, what do we do?”
“Tell me you have a plan!”
I glance between the three of them, but I’m at a loss for words. I’m no good with aliens. With firryans, all I need to do is show them my red skin and they’ll be reassured, but aliens? They just don’t get it.
There’s a beep behind, then Miramita says “hello?”
I whip my head around, almost slapping one of the aliens with my hair. My partner is in front of the bulky computer, hands on his hips. The screen is a mess of static, but the image is slowly coming in to focus.
I run to the side of the monitor, hopefully out of sight before the other side get’s a clear image of me. “What are you doing,” I silently yell.
He turns to me and shrugs, “might as well see what’s going on.”
I’m on the side of the computer. I can see the screen as it starts to clear up, but I’m not in-view of the camera. An alien appears, sitting in what looks like a throne. A giant, eight-foot tall green-skinned toad man, he’s a gurant. His kind used to own a vast empire, but it fell apart, and all they run now is the occasional gang if thugs.
His voice is deep, and his language a collection of gutteral snarl and belches. Seeing as gurant are so linked with the criminal underworld these days, the FLF reaches our agents that disgusting language.
“[Ah,]” it’s hard to understand gurantish the best of days, but his voice comes through a subtle layer of static. “[So you did arrive. I take it my men are all-]”
“Dead,” Miramita pats his chest and smiles. “Wasn’t that hard.”
I shake my head and mouth the words ‘don’t provoke him’.
“[Yes, yes,] the toadman says. “[The reputation of the Firryan Liberation Front is well deserved, but that’s fine.]”
Miramita needs to suppress his giggles, “it’s fine that we killed like 40 of your guys and busted your slaves free?”
The giant shrugs, “[the stars are vast, there’s more than enough fools who will work for the right pay. Besides, my property isn’t free until you’ve escaped Quintara. I’m eager to see how you fair against my forces.]”
“They’ll fare all the same,” Miramita waves his hand dismissively.
“[Perhaps, but two FLF agents against an army? The result for each individual might be the same, but I’m sure I can drown you in bodies just as well.]”
“Tch,” I walk past the monitor and into view of the camera. “You knew I was here?”
His fat toad nostrils snort, and he props his head up on his arm. “[Of course. Your organization always sends two. I set this trap with those numbers in mind.]”
I put a hand on Miramita’s shoulder, leaning on him slightly, “so you know a bit about us, fine. You think that’s enough to make us surrender? Even if you get close, you won’t recapture us, we’ll die before we end up in chains.”
“[Hmm?]” His cold, solid black eye opens a little more. “[Are you unaware of the market change? Your organization has been too successful lately, and there’s people who will pay a lot of money for proof of your deaths. The red skin from you two will sell for a lot more than three live firryan slaves.]”
Miramita’s horrified face reflects my own. It’s not enough to capture and sell us by the thousands, but now they’re even hunting us for our skins? Disgusting. Aliens are disgusting.
“[Regrettably,]” the monster continues in his dull voice, “[I need your bodies intact to retrieve your skin, so I can’t blast that pyramid from up here. Nobody will care about a few extra bullet holes though.]” He rubs his fat fingers along his fatty neck, “[actually, they might pay extra if they know you suffered before death. I might need to do a bit of market research before I set another trap like this… oh well. Goodbye, agents of the FLF, we won’t speak again.]”
The screen turns a dull blue and all that remains is a low buzz.
I silently press the off button.
I glance to Miramita and he returns my gaze.
It gets demoralizing after a while, the sheer dehumanization on display. Our willingness to fight to the death had been a deterrent for so long, but now there’s an incentive to expend manpower and resources to kill us? There are dark days ahead for firryan kind.
I move closer to Miramita, crossing my arms. Our shoulders touch, our faces are close enough that we can whisper to each other. “What do you think?”
“…” His hands are on his hips and he taps his foot, “we could stand and fight, but this place has too many opening for just the two of us to cover. Even if we can fight back the tide of men, they could easily stay out in the jungle and starve us out… And there’s no shuttle in the base so we can’t use that to escape.”
“Do these places have secret passages or tunnels?”
He shakes his head. “The only way out is through the main passages. We could try to run through the jungle, but there’s only two of us and there’s three wounded firryans. Can you carry two?”
“Well, nuts.” He runs his hands through his long, sweaty hair, pushing it back. “We could get the aliens to move the last one, but I’m not confident in them at all.”
“Because they’re aliens, or because they’re untrained?”
“Both.” He glances over at the three aliens panicking and shouting. “We’re the only ones with the firryans best interests in mind. We can’t count on them to not cut and run.”
I purse my lips as I know he’s right. So much as asking them to carry one of our comrades is likely to be met with a response of ‘just leave them’. I tap my earpiece once more.
“Yes sir?” The shuttle pilot says.
“The ship we came to this system on, the PNV Red Harvest. Where is it?”
“It should still be orbiting a moon on the far side of the system, investigating an abandoned pirate base.”
“That’s far… alright, raise communications with the Red Harvest and route it to me when you can.”
“Yes sir!” A small bzzt signals the end of our chat.
Miramita walks around the room and collects more ammo for his sub rifle. “So we just have to hold out for this ‘Red Harvest’ to come and blow up that ship? Alright, we can wait that long.”
“No…” I take a deep breath, everyone waits silently. “The Red Harvest… is a corvette.”
The man cries, “well that can’t blow up a frigate!”
A woman stomps her foot, “can’t it board the other ship or something?”
The third alien woman puts her hands on her face and sobs. “We should just go back in the cages and hope they don’t kill us…”
I grip the bridge of my nose, “quiet! Here’s what we’re doing. It’ll take 20 minutes at least for that frigate to get close enough to drop off their troops, that means we have 20 minutes to get as far away from here as possible so my shuttle can pick us up. I’m grabbing a firryan, Miramita will grab a firryan, and one of you will grab the remaining firryan.” I walk over and grab the poor girl who was crushed under the slaver boss. “We’re leaving. Now.”
The loudmouthed alien man stutters and stammers but finally gets his words together. “Th-this is insane! You want us to bring them all? Just leave them, it’s not our fault they’re legs were broken!”
Another alien speaks up, “y-yeah, isn’t this a trap?”
The third does as well, “they probably broke their legs so the rest of us would be slower and easier to catch!”
Miramita puts the young firryan boy in a piggyback ride, “then go, leave. There’s four exits around here. We saved you from being sold for free, but if you want a ride on our shuttle, this is the payment.”
I nod and hurry towards one of the exit hallways. On my way out I grab some ammo and a rifle from one of the dead slavers. I grab both ends of the rifle and hold it parallel to the ground behind me, giving the firryan girl a small platform to sit. Miramita does the same, and thankfully the aliens aren’t so forward thinking as to grab weapons they could use to betray us.
The aliens discuss amongst themselves who’s strong enough to carry the remaining girl, and it’s the loudmouth man who decides to do it.
The pleased look on his face as he picks her up… disgusting. Even with her so malnourished and injured, he can still find enjoyment with a firryan’s body. People like him are why the FLF are so needed.
No matter. For the sake of our survival, we need to leave.