1001 Starry Knights: The Seven Voyages of Sinbad, chapter 13

Naja yawned softly, as I brought in the meal from the mess. She delicately lifted a cake of protein, and began to nibble at it. As she ate, she watched me. Finally, she spoke. “I apologize for my failure to save you.”

“It’s alright, really. They’ve threatened to sell me, but I’m hoping I can convince them that I’d be better suited to staying here, with them.” I frowned. “You said that you lacked conviction. And before, you told me that the warriors of that culture could change reality. So… How did Shin Ten Han win?”

“Because he believed in himself. That may sound trite, but it’s the truth of the matter.”

The extinct culture had grown used to the twisting of reality, and had grown confident in their own abilities. But their arrogance was nothing compared to that of Shin Ten Han’s. The ability to change reality was a double-edged sword, for it was not only the warrior who could change reality. The warping field was a combination of technology and technique. Technology made space and time and thought and force malleable, in ways that human science still doesn’t have words for. But this, by itself, was not very useful. Reality still had to be molded, which required a powerful will.

Thus, what made them invincible also made them vulnerable. The field only covered a few feet, just large enough to control the surroundings. Any kind of ranged weapon would be useless, the warrior’s field nullifying anything that could be thrown at them. The only hope was in melee, where wills could clash. It was still dangerous- Even more so, in fact, since you risked becoming subject to the whims of the warrior if they had a stronger will than you. But if you could make them doubt themselves, if you could break their confidence or their will, then you could defeat them with your bare hands.

Thus it was that Shin Ten Han killed the warrior, because within that narrow radius, he was supreme. Shin Ten Han knew his cause was righteous, and knew that he was invincible. He drank the warrior’s blood, and ate his flesh, and took that power into himself, for it was a part of the warrior’s very body. The Flame, the Ma, became the tool of the Reptile Clan. They destroyed the unknown culture, reducing them to dust, destroying every artifact of their existence, and they mastered the Ma as they did. This gave them the power to become their own Kingdom, and justified their actions in the future.

The Reptile Kingdom marched out across the Orion Spur, and purged every race they found. Peace had been tried, and had nearly resulted in the destruction of the Empire. They refused to compromise ever again, and the only foe they ever found that could stand up to them was the enigmatic El and her Heaven in the center of the galaxy. Thus it was that the Empire became what it was until the discovery of the genetic degradation.

The Ma was a dangerous weapon, double-edged. Only the greatest could be found worthy of it. Dragons are those who have proven that they have the skill, the competence, and most importantly, the hubris to take on Ma. There are only a handful of them at any time, perhaps a few thousand across all the galaxy. To become a Dragon, one of the reptile kingdom must perform some supreme service. Prolif, the Survivor, who conquered an entire fleet unaided after his comrades were killed in a sneak attack. Lang-Shi, the famed strategist, who once won the Imperial Throne by revealing a knife held at the throat of each of the Ten Kings and Queens. Var Dok, the man who captured the rogue Steel Clan warship MOBI.

Their rewards were threefold. They were granted the title of a noble, given permission to rule Reptile Kingdom worlds, systems, sectors, or even claim the throne of the Reptile Kingdom. They were given the Dragon’s Scales, the treatment that made an ordinary Reptile Clan into one of the most physically powerful beings in the Empire. And they were given the Ma, the Dragon’s Flames. Their arrogance is legendary, because they derive their strength from it. To defeat a Dragon, you must either have truly overwhelming force, or more confidence than them.

“There are ways around it. Psychological warfare. Memetic infection. Or simply striking them at a place where they are weak. Unfortunately, none of those techniques worked. The captain of this ship is… strikingly formidable. I wouldn’t have expected it from a simple captain of a pirate ship.” Naja leaned back, frowning. “You are a storyteller. Understanding the captain will be central to defeating her. I would recommend that you do what you can to learn more about her.”

I looked down at my hand, opening and closing it. I had been half-listening to the story, as I tried to remember something. “I… punched her. She broke my arm, but I gave her a nosebleed.”

Naja frowned. “I remember. That was… surprising. You don’t look like you could give anyone a nosebleed, let alone a Dragon. I suppose she must have a weakness for you.” The frown shifted, and was replaced with a broad grin. “That is useful to know. Perhaps you can kill her if you take her by surprise.”

“I’m going to pretend you didn’t ask me to do that.”

The tiger woman sighed, shaking her head. “Such reluctance to take a life. Even if you will not kill her… You must understand that the Reptile Kingdom thrives on arrogance, and the destruction of outsiders. They have remained on top because of their pride. They have remained vital because of their pride. And now, their pride is threatened by humanity. They are forced to bargain instead of conquering, and this makes them uncertain. And uncertainty, among the Reptile Kingdom, is weakness. They despise that.” She frowned. “You must be very careful here. I see that you are developing a fondness for the pirates, and the feeling is apparently mutual. But you are a threat to their captain’s pride, and that is not something you want to be.”

That evening, I sat in the mess, looking around the room. The Red Cap Society sat among the pirates, looking somewhat annoyed by the shared company, but eager for another story. I cracked my knuckles, and smiled at everyone, and then frowned. “Where’s the captain?”

“Right here.” I spun around, and tried not to swallow my own tongue. The captain had just entered, and she took a seat at the table near me, her eyes narrowed. “You’ve been telling a lot of stories about other Imperials. I don’t suppose you have any good stories about the Reptile Kingdom, do you?”

I gave her a bright smile. “As it just so happens…”

On the fifth day, the cabbie returned to Sinbad’s home. Sinbad met him at the docking port, and the two set off for a lawyer’s office. “What are you up to today?” The cabbie was feeling in a rather jovial mood. It had been a long time since he had enjoyed a bit of regular companionship with another human.

“Making some transfers. I have a not-inconsiderable amount of personal wealth, at this point. Tell me… Have you ever been attracted to a man?”

The cabbie frowned, and turned towards Sinbad. “Hey, I don’t do prostitution, whether it’s for Imperials or humans.”

Sinbad snorted. “I wasn’t hitting on you. At any rate… My fifth voyage started less than a day after my last story ended. I was still on the Jack…”

The retrieval of the seeds had taken some of the burden off of Sinbad. He was still going to have to journey out into the stars sooner or later, but for the time being, the colonel wasn’t riding his ass. He sat in the small bar, holding the small emblem that he had received from the Emperor. He turned it over and over in his hands, examining the intricately carved surface. The bar was a hole in the wall, poorly lit, with a single entrance. The barman was one of the Fae kingdom, long-eared and green-haired, his complexion rather like that of tree bark. Sinbad sat on the second floor of the bar, where there were relatively few people. He’d grown somewhat less antagonistic towards the Fae over the years.

“What’s that?”

The voice was female. He turned to look at the woman who had just sat next to him. She had bright, green eyes, and hair that was the color of the better class of red wine, a deep burgundy. She was short compared to him, and slender, wearing a dress. She was also human. There were a fair number of humans in the Jacks, but they were still rare enough that she was an unusual sight. He gave her his best smile. “An Imperial Knighthood. I got it for service to the Emperor. A rather dull story.”

“No way. That’s so cool! I’m Samantha, by the way.” She was young. Perhaps five years younger than him, her face still smooth and soft, no sign of a hard life. She struck him as someone from one of the central planets; Earth, Mars, perhaps the Jovian Plutocracy. “Please tell me? I just arrived on the Jack. I sold everything I had to make it out here, because I wanted to hitch-hike across the galaxy.” Her face was so bright and warm. It reminded him of Dolly, strangely enough, a flash of that same innocence and youth. He sighed, and leaned back in his chair. Then, he began to tell the story of his fourth voyage.

“And so, I wound up back here. The Empress gave me a knighthood, but there was no way for me to return; The labyrinth around the station has grown even more dangerous. And so, my wife and child are stuck there, and I have no way to save them.” He smiled weakly. “It has happened more times than I would like to admit.”

She nodded, leaning forward on the bar, her arms crossed. “I can imagine. I’m sorry, here I am, digging up fresh wounds.” She rubbed her cheeks. She’d cried a bit during the story. Young, vulnerable, naive. He felt a certain responsibility to her, a human out of her depth. He clapped her on the shoulder, and she squawked, looking surprised.

“Sorry. But it’s not so bad. It’s far from the first time that this has happened to me. And I wouldn’t trade my experiences for any world of your choice. After all, I know that they have what they need, now. And perhaps, someday, I’ll find a way to return back to them, and fulfill my promise.” He gave her a bracing grin. “Now, where have you decided to travel to? There are many beautiful worlds in the stars, and I’m sure you’ll have no trouble charming an Imperial captain into giving you a position. Most of them would be pleased to have a human crew-member aboard. It’s tough work, but there are few things as satisfying.”

She bit her lip, looking up at him with those large, soft eyes. “I’ve got to admit, I’m not really sure. Where are you heading?”

He rubbed his chin. “As it happens… I was returning to the Imperial Throneworld. I’ve booked myself passage aboard the IMS *Rand* tomorrow. If you would like, I’m sure that I could book passage for you, as well. From the Throneworld, you would be able to make your way to any corner of the Empire.”

She frowned up at him, and her demeanor turned cold, her arms crossing, as though defending herself. “In exchange for what?”

He frowned. “What do you mean?”

“I mean… If I accept this, what are you going to be expecting in return?”

He opened and closed his mouth, slightly flummoxed. “Well, I can’t say I was expecting something. You seem to be dealing with a bit of distress, and you’ve had a hard journey here if you were forced to sell everything you have. There aren’t many of us humans out among the stars. We have to help each other out, don’t we?”

And then she burst into tears, her arms going around him. He almost fell out of his chair, looking around in embarrassment as the others in the bar gave him looks. She let out heavy, ragged sobs, her tears streaming down his stomach, leaving wet patches on the dark gray shirt he wore. He patted her on the back as best as he could, embarrassed as she continued to sob pitifully. The barman gave him a knowing look. Then, she stopped, and sat up quickly, looking at the entrance. Two men had entered, wearing white suits. They were not trying to be stealthy. “Oh god. Please tell me you can get us out of here.”

Sinbad looked over at the men. They kept one hand in their jackets. They did not blend in, which suggested that they were confident about any fight they could start. He turned to the bartender. “Any chance there’s another way out of this hole?”

The man leaned over the bar, and gave them a huge grin. “For a story like this? Definitely.” Sinbad groaned. He’d gotten better with Fae, but they were still Fae. He ushered the two of them behind the bar, and opened the door into the maintenance tunnels. “By the way, Sinbad. I heard about you from my cousin, Booth. I can’t wait to tell him about your newest journey.” The Fae man winked, a broad grin on his teeth. “I’ll stay here, in case they come through. Run, young lovers! Flee your oppressors!”

“We’re not-” Sinbad began, and then thought better of it. If the barman wanted to employ a delusional view of the world, and it justified helping them, he’d let the crazy Imperial imagine to his heart’s content.

I paused the story for a moment, and looked towards the Red Cap Society. “Sorry. It’s what Sinbad said.”

The leader nodded, adjusting the sleeves on her letterman jacket, and tilting her hat forward to a rakish angle. “He’s not wrong.”

The two of them walked through the maintenance tunnels of the Jack. Sinbad had checked his hand-computer. “We should be able to make it back to my hotel safely. Once we’re there, we can keep a low profile until tomorrow, and get off the Jack together. Whoever those two are, they’ll be hard-pressed to threaten you when you’re in the Empire proper. But I am going to have to ask you for something, now.”

“You want to know why I’m being chased.” Her shoulders were hunched, her head lowered. He nodded, as the two of them walked along through the poorly lit steel tunnel. “I am a slave.”

‘Slave’ wasn’t the word used in the Jovian Plutocracy. They preferred ‘Involuntary Indentured Servant.’ Everyone else went with slave, because it was accurate. In the cut-throat worlds of the Jovian Plutocracy, corporate law held sway over every interaction. Labor relations tended to be poor, at best. The corporations were always eager to loan to entrepreneurs in the Jovian Plutocracy. And for their part, the citizens of Jupiter were eager to take those loans, because starting one’s own business was the only hope most had to ever move past the position of lowly office drone.

Of course, most failed quite quickly. Oftentimes, they might even find themselves actively sabotaged by the corporation that had loaned them the money. When they defaulted- And most did- they became property of the company that had loaned them the money in the first place. It was not a particularly well-liked system outside of the Jovian Plutocracy, but few but the most wealthy could afford to leave the habitats. And in the artificial habitats, where air, light, and food all came at a premium, those who didn’t work were obviously stealing. The punishment for such theft of resources was slavery. And so many were willing to risk everything on the chance to get rich, because the difference between poverty and slavery was academic.

In this society, even family was commodified. If a single lifetime of work could not pay back the debt, then the lives of one’s children were held as collateral. There were even breeding programs, directed by corporate geneticists seeking the proper balance of traits between slaves. Among these, the euphemistically named ‘Morale officers’ were among the most popular type. Bred to please the executives of the Plutocracy, born into debt to the company.

It may occur to one to ask why the Eudaimonia Universalis, or the United Earth, or the Martian Commonwealth would allow such a system of gross unfairness to continue. The truth of the matter is that the great masses of Jupiter and Saturn provided the fuel that drove the Solar System. Great collections of freely available energy that flowed through the Jovian Plutocracy gave them a certain stranglehold on the economy of Sol. Those who were rich could always buy violations of human rights. It was considered an unpleasant situation, but the general consensus was that those affected made up a relatively small percentage of the Jovian population- perhaps one in ten thousand were born into slavery, rather than having gambled their way into it- and the tradition, while abhorrent, was simply the cost of doing business.

All of this was little comfort to Samantha. Born into slavery from a young age, she spent much of her childhood being trained as a courtesan. Her virginity was auctioned off when she came of age, and she spent much of her adult life traded from one executive to another, never knowing her own parents. Not that she would want to know who was responsible for her life of servitude.

With the Empire came her chance, however. Her current ‘supervisor’ had been enamored with Imperials, and had hired one as a courtesan. The Imperials, with their nigh-infinite lives, were all-too-happy to spend years at a time playing at slavery. The Fae that had been hired, however, was one of the Comedy court. She had been kind, and understanding. She had distracted their owner, and helped Samantha to steal from him, enough to buy passage to the Jacks. Inside of human space, she was legally property. While there may have been those who would shelter her, she would always have to fear retribution. In the Empire, however, she could flee to where the Property Reacquistion Division would never be able to find her. Live her life free. If she could make it off of the Jack, then she could travel to some far-distant star, where the inhabitants would be all too happy to protect her.

Sinbad frowned as he sat in the hotel room, leaning back into the soft white gel-seat. He could afford far better than the coffin-hotels that most travelers settled for, while they waited for the next ship. “I had heard some of the Jovian Plutocracy’s actions. I never liked those soft corporate bastards.”

“You’re not alone.” Samantha stepped out of the bathroom. It used real water, a notable luxury on the space station. She was dressed in only a white robe, toweling down her hair. “If I can make it to the Throneworld, I’ll be home free. If you would be willing to escort me… It would mean the world to me.”

He gave her a warm smile, as she picked up his emblem from the dresser. “I promise. We’re all in this together.”

She laughed softly, turning the emblem over in her hands. “What a knightly sentiment. So, what does this do, exactly?”

“Ah, simple enough. It’s the sign of my rank. Not land-holding, but one of the favored of the Emperor. It can get you a very long way in the Empire. It’s coded to my genetics. Anyone else who tried to use it to claim to be a knight would be revealed as a fraud almost instantly. It’s linked to my bank accounts, showing that I can afford things even on distant worlds. And of course, it has the details of how I became a knight.”

“Wouldn’t it be rather dangerous if you lost it?” She frowned. “I’d think you’d keep it on you at all times.”

“Not at all. Watch- Try throwing it down the drain.” She gave him a suspicious look. “I promise, it will be fine.” She sighed, and stepped into the bathroom. There was a brief sound of rushing water, and a clink. He held out his hand, as she stepped back into the room. The emblem sat in his hand. Her jaw dropped. “Locked to my DNA. If it moves more than about ten feet away from me, it performs a short-range quantum jump back to my person.”

“That’s- Impossible. That’s not even how quantum superposition works!” She bent forward, her eyes widening as she stared at it.

“I’ll be honest, I wouldn’t know. I can only repeat what I was told about it. It’s possible that they were just simplifying it for the human. You’ll find that they do that out there quite a bit.” He smiled. “But they mean well.”

She took a seat next to him. Her soft, warm body pressed against his side. He tried not to think of her in those terms. She’d likely spent her entire life being thought of as a toy. The last thing she needed was some rough-faced spacefarer losing control of his hormones. “Thank you for what you did. They would have captured me if not for you. You’ve done so much for me.” She leaned closer, her breath soft, her lips pouting.

“Samantha- It’s just what’s decent. You don’t need to worry about it.” He leaned back, trying to fight the excitement. The desire. She leaned closer, smiling.

“But this is what I want.” Her lips met his. She was soft, and sweet, her hands resting on his sides as she kissed him. The world spun around him, as she broke the kiss, smiling.

Then it kept spinning. He tried to stand up, and found himself falling, his shoulder slamming against the table. He was breathing hard, gasping for air desperately. “Now, now.” Samantha leaned forward, smiling, crouching down. “Don’t go damaging that magnificent body of yours. I’ve got such plans for it.”

And then the darkness fell.

The cabbie was staring with rapt attention. Sinbad paused. “I feel I should explain something about Imperial technology, now. It is something that most are dimly aware of, but the actual mechanics are important. You know that an Imperial may change their body, not merely by altering its structure, but by transplanting their intelligence from one body to another. The process is fairly simple, mechanically speaking. Everything that a person is, is recorded, and transported to another body.”

The procedure was simple enough. Much like being revived after dying, it was a simple matter of moving information around. In this case, the memories, personality, everything that made an Imperial who they were, were downloaded from one body, and uploaded into another. It required a bit of specialized technology, but the nanovirus in most Imperials keeping them healthy made it simple. The same fact made it unavailable to most humans.

One’s Kingdom, with the exception of the Aberrants and the Constructs, was a matter of choice more than anything else. There was a certain cultural pressure to embrace the role you were born to, but those who wanted to change who they were, were free to do so. It is one of the reason why stereotypes about the Kingdoms and their Clans tended to be so pervasive; Those who did not fit the stereotype most often chose to simply change what they were, rather than who they were.

Of course, there were those among humans who could be offered the same option. There were Imperials who would gleefully pay great prices for a human body, even if not inhabited by a human mind. The Emperor had declared this practice illegal, but as always in the Empire, this was not an impediment to the truly powerful and wealthy.

Sinbad awoke, slowly. He tried to sit up, and found himself manacled. His eyes snapped open. His wrists were held to the bed, pinning him down. The manacles were Imperial, gleaming unfamiliar metal. He strained against them. They wouldn’t move. “You really shouldn’t struggle. You might damage yourself.” He looked up, and saw Samantha. She was sitting, naked, on the chair. She sat down, and carefully attached a set of manacles. “They’re voice-activated. They’ll only release with the proper code-phrase.” She had what looked like a gun in one hand.

“Why are you doing this?” Sinbad asked, trying to shake the cobwebs out of his brain. His head was still spinning. His lips tingled, feeling slightly numb. The innocent, frightened girl was gone. Replaced with someone who was as cold as ice, and much harder. “I said that I would help you.”

“Oh, and you will. I don’t intend to enlighten you. When you are captured, you’ll be taken back to the Centauri Technocracy. By the time they nerve-staple the truth out of you, I will be long gone, and my plan completed.” She smiled. “Goodbye, Sinbad.” She held up the gun, and fired. His eyes closed, and he let out a cry. It came out far more high-pitched than he expected.

His eyes slowly opened. He was sitting on the chair. He wore no clothes. He looked at the bed, and saw his own body sitting up. His own voice, rich and rough, spoke. “Limbic.” The manacles holding his body down opened. He looked down, and saw a soft, smooth expanse of skin, and bright pink nipples. There was the lingering scent of ozone in the air.

“What did you-” He clapped his free hand over his mouth. The voice was soft, feminine. Not like his own at all.

“Isn’t it obvious?” The tone was Samantha’s, but the voice was his. “I changed our bodies. It’s a rather useful trick. I won’t elaborate on how I did it.” Sinbad raised the gun, and pulled the trigger twice, aiming for his body. Nothing happened. “There was only one round in the weapon. I kept the rest hidden.” Samantha rose to her- Well, his- feet, and walked towards him, smiling. She ripped the gun from Sinbad’s soft, delicate fingers, leaving them stinging. It had been a long time since something so small had hurt so badly. He bit his lip, feeling his teeth sink into the soft, plush flesh. “Now, if you will pardon me, I have a flight to catch. Enjoy the experience, Sinbad. It’s your body, now. Please don’t feel embarrassed to explore it. I’m sure that it will be enlightening for you. And I plan to do much worse with your body.”

She walked over to the small communicator, and typed something in. “What are you doing?” Sinbad asked, trying to get over the sound of his voice, made soft and lovely.

“Oh, alerting the men following me. I’m sure they’ll be looking forward to interrogating you.” She smiled, and walked to the door, stopping momentarily to turn her eyes to him. “Thank you for your help. I hope you don’t hold any grudges against me. Not that it will matter.” And then, she was gone.

Sinbad looked down at the chair arm. The chair was wooden, of fine yet fragile construction. He stood up, all-too-aware of the weakness of his limbs. With a great effort, greater than he would have liked, he lifted the chair, and smashed it against the wall. It took half a dozen blows before the arm splintered and fell, letting him slip the manacle away from it. He looked around. She’d taken the clothes with her, leaving him nothing to wear. He swore, and went to the door. He had to find her, to stop her. He ducked down the stairs to the lobby.

One of the white-suited men stood in the lobby. Sinbad ducked low, and made for the kitchen. If he could escape, he could find her, and-

The door to the kitchen opened. The other white-suited man stood there, smiling at Sinbad. “Hello, doctor.”

Sinbad’s blow, had he been in his own body, would have collapsed the man’s throat. With his own frame, his own strength, the decades of training, the advantage of the fruit that had rebuilt his body to be stronger and fitter, the man would be on the floor, choking on his own blood. But Sinbad was in the body of a young woman, who had never thrown a punch in her life. The man caught the blow easily, and jabbed a stun-rod into Sinbad’s midsection. And he fell unconscious again.

Sinbad’s eyes snapped open. He was strapped into a chair. He still didn’t have any damn clothes. He was still painfully aware of his own femininity. And two white-suited men stood over him, with unpleasant smiles. He could hear the distant tearing noise of an Alcubierre drive in action. “Well, Doctor Shen. Finally awake. You appear to have been hoisted by your own petard. Trusted the wrong person with your secrets. The Director will be very happy to see you returned. And I, personally, cannot wait to see you punished for your crimes against the Technocracy.”

“I’m not Samantha.” I stated, trying to keep calm. “My name is Sinbad. I am a former member of the Orion Hierarchy. The person you’re looking for, she used some kind of device-“

“Yes, a very convincing story, Doctor. I’m sure you’ve worked very hard on it. I think we’ll get the truth from the Nerve Stapling, though. Don’t you think?” The man gave him a sickly white-toothed grin. “We will be arriving at the Technocracy in just a couple of months. There, you can have your story revealed. And if you are telling the truth… Well, our apologies in advance.” There was a soft thump. The man frowned. “Did we just collide with something?” he asked his companion.

“Can’t be. We’re in the Alcubierre bubble. Let’s go check the numbers.”

And with that, the two men left the small cargo hold, leaving Sinbad sitting in the silence. He sat back, and felt the sick anger in the pit of his stomach. Helpless. His body stolen. Unable to do anything to save himself. He felt his eyes filling up with tears, and for the first time in a long time, he didn’t even bother to fight it. His dignity and pride had been stolen with his body. Who would care about seeming vulnerable now?

There was a clatter from outside. Sinbad looked up, frowning. The door had been left open. A strangled cry echoed through the room. There was a soft susurration, as a shadow approached the door. His nails dug into the arms of the hard metal chair.

The figure that appeared in the door was tall, and only partly human. The upper body of a human, and the lower body of a great white snake. He was handsome, and cold as ice, his skin pale, and his eyes red. White hair hung around his head, long and delicate. He approached Sinbad, wearing a white robe. A sword was held in one hand, curved, with an edge that flashed blue. “You claim to be Sinbad the Spacefarer?”

Sinbad swallowed. He was becoming aware of a tingling in his stomach as he looked at the handsome Imperial. Something inside of him fizzled, and made him feel strangely excited, his breath growing fast. To his great consternation, he realized that he was attracted to the strange, white-scaled serpent. “I… Yes.”

“I am Llewellyn, of the Emperor’s White Scales. I have come to rescue you.”

I sat back. “But it’s growing late. And the tale of Sinbad’s fifth voyage deserves to be told in full.” I smiled at the crowd. “I hope you’ll all see me tomorrow.” The mess had grown rather crowded with the addition of the Naja, and the Red Cap Society. As they filtered out, soon, the captain was the only one left.

“Do you mind if we speak, scholar?” She was surprisingly polite, and I nodded, smiling. She stood up, and began to walk. I followed her. The two of us made our way through the corridors. “I must confess, your stories are quite fascinating. Well told, exciting, and varied. It’s almost enough to make me want to keep you.” She stopped abruptly, and I nearly ran into her. “So we have a conundrum.”

She spun, and pressed me against the wall. There was a sound of shifting metal, and the airlock door opened behind me, leaving only a thin shell of energy between me and the hard vacuum. “Swear your fealty to me, and be my toy, or I will dispose of you for toying with my heart.”

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