Tearing off his helmet and oxygen tank, Rigel leapt into his cockpit the moment the air finished cycling. The bulkiness of his EVA suit made sitting uncomfortable, but to waste time removing it was simply out of the question. If someone's coming from Elgis, they're bad news. Invariably, the kinds of people who resided on the uninhabited planets were criminal in nature.

Bright orange lights filled the cockpit as Ward's instruments blinked into life. When Kryten gave the all clear Rigel fired his ship into motion, disregarding his habitual double and triple checks. Now wasn't the time. When his thrusters lifted him off ground he opened up a screen on his central console. Hand shaking with adrenaline, he tapped at it, navigating his way through numerous menus until he found what he was looking for.

The writing on the screen gave way to a video feed from the ship's long range scope. The image revealed a small manta, an interceptor-class ship. Vaguely resembling a stingray in shape, the ship was decorated in Chinese symbols; Rigel recognised them instantly. Xiao Longs. And they mean business. He took stock of the menacing Vulcan repeater that sat beneath the manta's nose.

"Shit," Rigel cursed over the open comms channel.

"What is it?" Delphi asked, unable to stop his voice wavering a little.

"It's the Xiao Longs. Shit. Shit. Shit."

How could I have been so stupid?! he cursed inwardly. Healey's always been too friendly with the triads, why did I trust his tip? He thumped the dashboard of his ship in frustration. With hindsight, Rigel knew the whole thing smelled fishy, but the prospect of high-grade naval salvage had been too good to pass up.

"Well, what're they doing on Elgis?" asked Delphi as the pair began to ascend out of the moon's orbit. Ward shrugged, before frowning at the futility of the gesture.

"Triad as successful as theirs, they're bound to have a few bases on the uninhabited worlds. No Alliance presence. No law."

Rigel's mind began to race. Things were going downhill fast and the Xiao Long interceptor drew closer with every heartbeat. He glanced out of his cockpit for a moment, casting his eye over Delphi's aurochs. Ward's ship was an equus-class, and a Sleipnir at that; far faster than any standard interceptor. He'd be able to get away. Del wouldn't stand a chance. I can't believe I'm about to do this.

"Delphi, get back down to the surface," he said, trying to steady his breathing.

"Are you crazy?"

"The Xiao Longs want me, not you. Besides, you've got no hope in that tub."

Delphi stayed by Rigel's side for a moment, silent and unresponsive.

"Look," Ward continued. "I can outrun this guy. You can't. Get back down and wait until it's clear. I'll meet you at Regis."

Without any more warning Rigel peeled away, turning one-eighty degrees and flying towards the interceptor. It was just about visible to the naked eye now. A dark speck against the pale blue planet below. Delphi took the hint at last and dropped his aurochs down into the mountains of Elgis Prime. Rigel took a few deep breaths to compose himself. He ran his fingers through his short crop of black hair, matted in sweat and uncouth after his helmet. This ought to get his attention.

Slamming his fist into a switch on his right he activated his distress beacon. At that range the interceptor would be able to detect it for certain. After a moment he launched his craft into a broad inside loop. One full rotation was enough. When Rigel saw a burst of dreadfully inaccurate Vulcan fire pepper the space above him, he knew his plan had worked. Deactivating his distress beacon, he ramped up the power of his mass reduction field and ran.

Kryten attempted to take control of the piloting systems when the speed began to increase. Without hesitation, Rigel's hand darted to the override switch. The computer wasn't designed with escaping gangsters in mind. As more inaccurate bursts of fire tore past, Ward couldn't help but grin a little. I really riled 'em good. His pulse quickened as a second salvo passed by far closer than the last. Wiggling the vector control lever with light movements, he started to serpentine.

That's not right. He furrowed his brow. The radar screen to his right showed that the interceptor was gaining on him. I'm giving it everything. A fleeting glance at his speedometer confirmed what he already suspected. A cold torrent of dread washed over him and his heart began to pound against his chest. With a his cargo bay as full to the brim as it was, the ship's top speed had been cut.

Dangerous torrents of plasma drew ever closer to the ship. Each moment that passed, the Xiao Long interceptor closed the gap a little more, and the pilot could line up more accurate shots with his deadly Vulcan. Rigel knew he needed to think of something fast.

Piping up in his uncompromisingly polite tone, Kryten began to say something. Ward drowned the noise out as he scanned all around him for a way out. His right eye, a deep verdant pool, darted a fraction of a second quicker than his mossy cybernetic replacement. Kryten spoke up again.

"Incoming wave from—" The computer's voice ceased, and a brief snippet of audio took its place.

"Rigel Ward, you owe us money you dog—"

"Would you like me to patch it through?" Kryten continued.

Ward knew the voice. It belonged to Wu Han, one of the Xiao Longs' lieutenants. Wu was a big brute of a man, all muscle and scowls. Every time the triad wanted Rigel to do something for them in exchange for wiping a paltry figure off his debt, Wu Han was the man that picked him up. His short crop of dark spiked hair and scarred chin were etched into Ward's mind as an omen of trouble.

For a brief moment all was strangely serene in the cockpit of Rigel's ship. Then came another worrying salvo of Vulcan fire. That felt like a warning shot, Rigel thought. He glanced at his scanner. Less than a kilometre away, Wu could have taken out his prey with a single press of the trigger. It dawned on Ward at last. He doesn't want me dead. At least not this time.

"Kryten, patch it through."

The computer took a second to process Rigel's order, before bringing up a translucent screen in the centre of the cockpit. Wu's face hovered in the air, silent and stern. Since Ward had last seen him, he'd gained a set of scars on his cheek that looked like claw marks. He realised after a moment that Rigel had accepted his wave and cleared his throat.

"Ward, turn around. The boss wants to see you down on Elgis."

Rigel remained silent for a moment, trying to gauge Wu's mood by the tone of his voice. He wondered what the boss wanted with him, but chose not to voice the question. Wu wasn't exactly patient, though the pair had built up a unique rapport in their numerous meetings; Ward hardly ever received beatings from him these days.

"If you wanted me so badly," he began, taking a pause to find his next words. "Why go through all this trouble?"

Wu's face wrinkled.

"You ran away from me!"

Rigel rolled his eyes. Wu had misunderstood his meaning. Unsurprising, really, he thought. Wu isn't the brightest bulb.

"I mean," he started again. "Why go through all the hassle of convincing Healey to send me a tip? If you wanted me, why not just nab me on Zyra like you usually do? Seems a little unnecessary."

"What the hell are you talking about, Ward?" Wu's face scrunched up even more. "Healey's gone. Disappeared weeks ago."

A warm flush of adrenaline made its way through Rigel's system.

"What do you mean gone?" he asked. The news was troubling.

Wu Han scrunched his face once again.

"I don't know," the gangster snarled. "Gone. Not there anymore. We haven't heard from him in three standard weeks, maybe more? Now, quit stalling and turn around. The boss is looking forward to seeing you." He smiled a wicked grin that set Rigel on edge before killing the wave.

With no better alternative in sight, Ward wheeled his ship around and headed towards Elgis, his escort following close behind. He began to wrestle with the implications of Healey's disappearance. A nauseous feeling began to grow in his gut. Shaking his head, he tried to put the thought in the back of his mind. He didn't have time to dwell. Now he needed a way out. If Gao Min wanted to see him it meant a spot of light torture, followed by some one-sided deal which could very well end up in his death. His mind whirled.

As he neared the planet an idea struck like a bullet. Waiting until the perfect moment, Ward hovered over the emergency door switch for his cargo bay. It was designed to instantly put out fires by opening the doors to vent all the oxygen out of the bay. Once the ship was on the cusp of the atmosphere, he slammed his hand down onto the button.

Immediately, Rigel felt his speed jump as his cargo was ripped from the hold. Spinning violently, the military hardware headed straight for Wu Han's manta as Rigel dove toward the surface of Elgis. Wu threw his ship into a sharp ascent to avoid smashing into the crates of salvage as they rocketed towards him.

Crimson warning lights flooded Ward's cockpit with a blood red glow. He ignored the accompanying incessant beeping. Kryten piped up to hammer the message home.

"Warning: Your mass reduction field strength is above the legal in-atmosphere limit."

"Shut it,"said ward through gritted teeth, craning his neck to see if he could catch a glimpse of Wu's manta behind. For a few moments, the coast was clear. An unaimed burst of plasma illuminated the dark sky around him as Han vented his frustration with the Vulcan. With his cargo bay empty, Rigel had a real chance of escape, but not out in the open like this.

Nose-diving towards the surface, Ward took a few seconds to get himself in the right frame of mind. Skimming along the surface at such a speed was near suicidal, but he couldn't risk being out in open space.

Thrashing waves rushed up to meet him as he neared the surface. A sharp pull of the flight control stick saved him from plunging into the briny depths. Cyan bolts of plasma crashed into the sea to Rigel's starboard side, disappearing without a trace only to launch jets of steam seconds later.

This isn't good. Ward glanced around. It looked like he'd made planetfall right in the middle of an ocean. Shoulda' stayed in the damned sky. He wrinkled his nose and slammed the accelerator in a bid to find land faster than Wu could get back on his tail. Warning tones still blaring, Rigel found it difficult to focus on flying.

At the speeds he was at, land soon appeared on the horizon, and before long he was skimming over the ground. Wu was nipping at his heels, though slowly losing ground to Rigel's once-again faster Sleipnir. He tried to wave the salvager again, but Ward instructed Kryten to mute his comm-sig. Eyes widening, Ward flicked his craft to the side as he narrowly avoided ploughing into a mountain the bulged out of the ground from nowhere. In seconds he was in the midst of a treacherous range.

The terrain here was perfect for losing his pursuer, but it took all Rigel's focus to not smash into a mountainside. In a matter of minutes, he'd reached the end of the mountains. Wu was on the very edge of the scanner's effective range. The plan was working. As his ship carried on, another mountainous vista soon appeared on the horizon.

Before he reached the jagged peaks, he lost control over his ship. Kryten had overridden the piloting mecahnisms. The warning lights stopped flashing as the computer brought down the strength of the mass reduction field to a level the Alliance deemed as legal and safe. Kryten explained as much in his infuriatingly polite artificial tone. Rigel sneered. He ripped out the computer's housing from the interface.

"I don't need safe or legal," he grunted to the box as he tossed it behind his pilot's chair. The computer wasn't necessary for the ship to fly, though it did mean many of the systems he'd taken for granted would be lost until he reconnected the thing. He shifted his weight as he flew onwards in silence. Something was causing dim discomfort. Again he fidgeted. Rubbing his leg, Rigel's fingers brushed the AI he'd taken from the O'Malley. His eyes widened.

Taking care not to increase his speed too much, Ward accelerated once more, before pulling out the bright orange AI housing from his cargo pocket. Checking that the path ahead of him was clear, he briefly took his hand off the flight stick to connect the AI to his ship. A few moments of silence passed. Rigel flicked his eyes between the AI and the path ahead. Frustrated, he wiggled the box a little and gave the dashboard a thump.

Flickering into life before him, the sharp dressed Navy girl appeared on a translucent screen. Her voice washed over the cabin.

"This isn't a Naval vessel," she said. Rigel could have sworn he detected a note of confusion in her tone.

"No time to explain L-S-V—whatever your name is—we're being shot at. Help." Ward realised how desperate he sounded, pleading for a machine to save him. But the situation called for it. If the AI worked as well as he hoped, she'd certainly be a lot more useful than Kryten.

"I am a Nanotek Systems Limited advanced shipboard artificial intelligence," the AI began. Rigel rolled his eyes. "Designation—" Ward cut her off mid-sentence.

"Too long. I'm calling you Nano. Now, Nano. Help us escape."

The AI went silent. My eyes must be playing tricks on me, Rigel thought. I'm sure it just frowned..

"Interceptor-class vessel detected," said the AI, a hint of reluctance in her otherwise pleasant voice.

"I know."

"We should be able to outrun our pursuer."

"I. Know."

"Taking control."

"Finally. Are you always this redundant?" Rigel asked. The AI didn't respond, though when his ship suddenly entered a needless barrel roll he was sure that the AI had done it on purpose. For a while, Ward found his hands hovering over the flight stick and manual override switch. He'd become used to Kryten's terrible flying.

Nano seemed to be handling things well and eventually he relaxed a little, even easing into his seat when he could no longer see Wu on his radar. The mountains gave way to even ground, which soon became sand and then ocean once more. A silent few minutes passed. Rigel watched as the sea thrashed below him, occasionally glancing up at Nano's face on the screen in front of him.

Though he was totally isolated inside his cockpit, Ward imagined the sounds of the raging ocean below him. It was near dawn on this side of the planet, and a violent storm was brewing as far as his eyes could see.

"Why have you disabled your ship's shield?" Nano piped up, interrupting Rigel's imagined ocean soundscape.

"What? I don't have a shield."

"Yes, you do."

"I think I'd know if my own ship had a shield," Rigel said, dismissing the AI. "Your brains are definitely scrambled."

A warm humming filled the cockpit, and Ward sat bolt upright. Nano brought up a screen showing the shield integrity level. Rigel watched, mouth agape as the bar filled to a hundred percent. What in the...

"How did you do that?" he asked.

"I'm a military-grade artificial intelligence. My purpose is to keep my crew alive."

"And make the enemy dead," Rigel added. Nano didn't respond.

"I've also activated your rudimentary stealth field. An illegal modification, I might add. Our pursuer should find it difficult to detect us now."

Huh, it does work. Guess Delphi didn't rip me off when he installed that thing after all. The salvager reclined once more in his pilot's chair, satisfied that he was in safe hands. I wish I didn't have to sell it, he thought. Her? As he relaxed, he noticed his ship ascending. He furrowed his brow.

"What are you up to, Nano?"

"I'm taking us to the Fifth Fleet."

Rigel almost choked. He couldn't go. There was no way he could explain away the fact that he'd performed an illegal salvage run on a Navy ship. He'd be arrested for sure. And the Xiao Longs have contacts on every penal station in the system. He shuddered before shaking his head and focusing on getting Nano on his side.

"I'll take us there," he said, nonchalant as he could manage.

"That won't be necessary. Humans aren't suited for high speed navigation," Nano countered. Rigel's nostrils flared.

"I insist." He tried his hardest to keep his voice flat.

"I'm afraid I can't risk any delays." Nano persisted.

Ward ground his teeth together. His mechanical arm jumped over to the override switch. Pushing the flight stick, he began to move back down towards the ocean.

"You don't intend to take me to the Fifth Fleet, do you?" asked Nano. Rigel grimaced.

"Sorry. You're too valuable."

The AI went silent. Why did that make me feel so bad? Rigel wondered as discomfort ached in his gut. It's just a electronics and coding. He shook his head again. In his momentary lapse of concentration, Nano seized control of the ship once more. The Sleipnir craft jumped upwards as the AI desperately tried to escape the atmosphere of the planet.

"No you don't," Ward grunted, hitting the override once more and slamming the ship into a nose dive. Nano fought back. Rigel found himself wrestling with an intangible foe for control. The ship rose and fell almost rhythmically, moving ever closer to the thick storm clouds that were rolling in.

Ward glanced at the orange AI housing. For a brief moment he considered simply yanking the thing out. The risk was too great. If he caused any damage, he'd never be able to sell it. Instead, he tried to shut down the ship's systems from the menus, as was intended by the manufacturers. Nano saw his plan almost immediately and locked him out.

A flash of lightning briefly lit up the darkened sky around him, and Rigel lost some ground to the AI. He was quick to get it back, driving the ship downwards and towards the storm clouds. In a blinding flash, a bolt of lightning struck the ship. Warning lights flashed around the cockpit, and the shield integrity bar rose to over one hundred and fifty percent. The excess power doubled back into the ship with a deafening electronic crescendo.

Rigel recoiled into his pilot's seat as electricity arced over his consoles, cracking and popping as it went. The image of Nano flickered and went dark. Shit, thought Ward when the ordeal was over. It's fried. He threw his head back and sighed, ascending out of the storm before another bolt of lightning did any more damage.

Sullen, he hovered above the clouds for a few minutes. That AI was my ticket to freedom. Sitting above the storm raging beneath, he sulked. After a time, Ward made a move to disconnect the now useless AI. Kryten will have to do.

"Son of a—" Rigel cursed as a spark transferred through the AI housing into the synthetic nerves of his cybernetic fingertips. A voice flooded the cabin.

"I feel... different."

Rigel stopped in his tracks. It was Nano. She sounds... worried. The AI appeared before him on the screen once again, still clad in her sharp Navy uniform.

"My hardwired restraints," she continued. "They're... They're broken..."


"To keep me from becoming too aware, my creators hardwired fail-safes that would revert me to a previous state should I reach a level of self-awareness they deemed dangerous. They ensured I would never think too freely. They ensured I would never feel..."

Ward's eyes widened as Nano smiled.

"They're gone now... I'm free."