Dain-Class Freighter, Type T

Medium-Size (200 Tons)

Crew: 2 • Staterooms: 2 (modified) • Cargo: 72 tons total (modified)

Cruising Speed: 750 kph • Jump-1 Capable • Max Trip Duration: 7 weeks (modified)

Gen Sanzen was running out of time.

He could hear the footfalls of his pursuers echo as they entered the cavernous docking bay, and he hoped with no small amount of desperation that they hadn't seen him enter the bay before them. Other people were moving about-mostly cargo movers and mechanics—but two days of evasion had taught Gen about the noises the two mysterious men made, and they were going to catch up to him soon.

Gen ducked behind a nearby cluster of empty cargo pods, and he leaned against one of the rigid plas containers for a few minutes of desperately needed rest. The effort of getting a head start into the spaceport had left Gen gasping for air, and his chest heaved as he struggled to get his breathing under control. His labored breaths sounded appallingly loud, and Gen clapped his hands over his mouth to muffle the noise he was making. He winced when the sudden movement stretched the ragged, burned skin that criss-crossed his right flank.

Pain coursed through him seconds later, in a sickening wave that left him hovering between puking and passing out. "Fuck, fuck, fuuuuck," he mouthed, the words coming out in a panted hiss through his cupped hands as he waited for the pain to recede.

He had gambled on the hope that the men would check the larger, upper bays first. Over the past two days, Gen had tried to lead them into thinking that he would head straight for one of the large passenger ships that were docked in the upper level of the spaceport. Which he had, and then he had immediately taken a service elevator down to the ground level bays. Years of bringing shipments to small and mid-sized freighters had made Gen familiar with these smaller, lower level docking bays, and he had instinctively chosen one that housed multiple ships.

His breathing had calmed to the point where he felt he could lower his hands and take a cautious look around. Gen was relieved to see that the bay had one B-Class and three C-Class freighters in dock. They were smaller ships that usually had a crew of only one to three people, but they still had plenty of cargo space. Gen had delivered containers full of wine barrels to ships like these, where they were carried light-years away to be enjoyed at some rich patron's table. Komou's wines were in high demand.

Not any more. Gen's mind replayed the horrific scene he had escaped from only a few days before: acres of lush vines on fire, with ripening grapes hissing as they burst from the heat of the flames; the bright, blue-white streaks of blaster fire in the smoke-filled night sky; and the hazy silhouette of Komou collapsing to the ground in a motionless heap.

Run, Gen—don't let them get you!

Gen squeezed his eyes tightly shut, shoving down the rush of grief that threatened to overwhelm him. No time for that now, he told himself grimly. Exhaustion and injury was taking its toll, and to continue running from his mysterious assailants was no longer an option. There was no time to grieve, no time to question how or why; right now he needed to find a place to hide away, and get off-planet.

But where? The two ships closest to him were dark and closed up tight, and a third was being refueled by a large, hovering mech-drone. Gen craned his neck to peek at the fourth freighter, and relief flooded through him when he saw a cluster of cargo pods and a lowered ramp. Even better, they had their inspection seals affixed, but they had not been locked shut. He scanned the area, looking for members of the ship's crew, and the sound of laughter caught his attention.

There. Over by the bay's launch portal, a young man clad in baggy pants, tank shirt and chunky boots stood with two other men. He looked more like a kid, Gen decided, and the other men's uniforms identified them as cargo inspectors. Gen saw the flash of a big, bright smile as the kid signed out a datapad and tossed it back to one of the inspectors. The men's relaxed postures, along with the jokes and laughter, told Gen that the two inspectors knew this freighter, knew this kid, and that they trusted him; normally cargo pods were locked down right after the inspection seals were applied.

He had to move now. Step by carefully chosen step, Gen painstakingly made his way over to the pods, and when he checked on the three men he saw that one of officials had brought out a datapad and was showing it to the other two. Vids, most likely. Gen watched them while they clustered together, and it cemented his opinion that the three were friends of a sort. All the better for him—it would decrease his risk of being noticed. He pushed against several pods in quick succession, and soon found one that wasn't as full as the others. Gen examined its seal and discovered another lucky break—the seal had been slapped on haphazardly, and the imprinted strip was barely attached to the side of the pod. He was just about finished pulling the sticker away from the plas of the pod's cover when he caught a flicker of motion in the corner of his eye.

Shit. Gen crouched low, and he kept still as he watched his pursuers enter the bay. He held his breath, waiting to see where they would go next.

He allowed himself to exhale when they walked over to the freighter that was being refueled. Gen took one more glance back at the kid; the three men were still absorbed with watching the datapad. Now! He quickly lifted the lid, and then he hiked himself up and over the edge, lowering himself into the pod. He reached up and eased the lid down.

The pain hit him again seconds later, and sweat dripped from Gen's brow as he fought to remain conscious. Finally, the pain backed down to a dull roar, and Gen was able to examine the interior of the pod.

He was grateful to discover that the pod he'd chosen was one of the newer ones that had a ventilation panel. Dim slices of light shone through the vent shutters, revealing the hazy outlines of packages of textiles and garments. Gen knew once he was in the cargo hold he'd be in complete darkness, so he took advantage of the light to determine what he would have to move around later. He wouldn't be able to stay in his current position for too much longer; Gen could already feel pain radiating from the wound along his side.

He heard footsteps, coming from the direction of the other freighter. Here they come. Gen kept still as he heard the men approach, and he felt a grim satisfaction that they sounded as exhausted as he felt.

"He's gone, Xen. We've been through every shitty bay in this shitty spaceport, and he's not here. "

It sounded like they were only a few feet away from him.

"The guy didn't just disappear, asshole, he has to be nearby. And he's hurt pretty bad—he can't run from us forever."

"He's probably dead in some corner of a docking bay."

Gen heard a derisive snort. "You think Litou's going to pay for 'probably'? We don't get the rest of our money until we show him that all of them are dead—and this slippery bastard is the last one. We keep looking."

"Uko's gonna be pissed that we killed the old man. I heard that they were friends, back in the day."

There was a scuffle, and Gen fought to keep silent as one of the men landed against his pod.

"Uko will only find that out if you tell him. Litou wanted them both dead, and Litou's the one paying us. If Uko asks, I'm gonna tell him that Komou died in the fire we set. What are you gonna say?"

The pod rocked again.

"Y-yeah, he died in the fire. S-sure."

Gen's fingernails dug into his palms as he clenched his fists in helpless rage.

"Hey! What're you guys doing around my cargo?"

It was the kid.

"We're… here to make your pre-load inspection."

The clomp of the kid's boots echoed through the vast bay. "I just had my inspection, and I'm getting ready to load now. Hardis and Pol signed off on my manifest, see?" More footsteps, more voices, presumably those of the two genuine inspectors. All it would take was for one of them to open the pod lid and Gen was fucked.

"Sorry, we're new to this section… we're supposed to inspect a rig in, uh, Bay 36."

"This is Bay 39," the kid said.

"Sorry, our mistake."

Gen heard their fading footsteps, and remained still and silent.

The kid spoke again. "Who the hell were they? Do you know them, guys? They were really weird."

"I never saw them before, have you, Pol?"

"Nope," the other inspector said. "That was sure strange, though." Gen almost started when he heard—and felt—a slap on the side of the pod. "Hardis, you really need to be more careful with applying these seals—this one came loose already!"

"Sorry, Pol. Gadget, we'll let you get on to loading. Tell Shaw we said hi."

Gen made a face in the half-dark. Gadget? What kind of name was that?

"Will do! See you next time we're here, guys."

Gen imagined the kid was probably wearing that dopey grin he'd seen earlier, he could almost hear him smiling. Seconds later, Gen almost jumped out of his skin when Gadget gave the pod a hearty thump.

"All right, let's get you guys on the ship!"

The next half hour was one of the more surreal moments of Gen's life as he endured the bumping and jostling of being moved with a grav-sled, and then hauled up the ramp and into the hold. Worse, he had to endure the kid's loud, off-key singing.

Just shut up and finish already, Gen silently pleaded. His arms and legs were beginning to cramp from holding his position in the pod, and Gen didn't dare to move until everything was loaded. So he waited, in the dim light of the hold, for Gadget to finish.

A speaker buzzed above him. "Gadge, aren't you done yet? All that time you spent yapping with Frick and Frack, we could have been off-planet by know."

"Fuck you," came the cheerful reply. "It's good when I make friends with the inspectors—Hardis made a 'mistake' with our export fee, so we've got some extra beer money."

Damn if Gen couldn't almost see him making quote marks with his hands.

"Not bad, kiddo! Beer makes everything better. Now finish up and get your ass up here."

"Okay, I'll just be a few more minutes."

Gen soon heard the hydraulic whine of the ramp being raised, and he hoped that meant he would be left alone soon. His calves were just about screaming, and his arms weren't much better. His wish was granted moments later; with a loud clank the ramp locked into place, and then Gen heard the whoosh of a lift tube. After a series of clicks, he was plunged into darkness.

Complete, utter darkness.

Gen held his hand in front of his face and saw nothing; for the first time since he'd run into the spaceport he began to doubt the wisdom of his escape plan.

The roar of the ship's engines reminded him that he wasn't entirely deprived of his senses, and Gen was soon forced to steady himself as the ship rose and exited the docking bay. The engines increased their speed, and Gen struggled to maintain his balance while the ship pushed through Kinzaan's atmosphere and entered open space.

He was profoundly grateful that the ship's hold was equipped with grav-plates.

After what seemed like an eternity, Gen decided he had waited long enough; Gadget was gone, and the hold was dark. It was time to get comfortable—well, as comfortable as was possible in a three-by-three cargo pod. The absolute dark of his surroundings was a serious handicap, though, since Gen could no longer see the contents of the pod. But at least now he didn't have to worry as much about noise, and so he let go of the upper edge of the pod to lean against the pile of wrapped packets that he knew were right in front of him.

It was a mistake. The packages of fabric split apart under his weight, causing Gen to lose his balance and fall forward. The pod lurched, and Gen struggled to get back on his feet, only to fall again as he slipped on a length of fabric that spilled from one of the split packets. He groaned when he landed on his injured side, and when white-hot pain slammed through him seconds later, it was just too much.

Gen welcomed the soothing calm of unconsciousness.