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Originally posted July 31, 2009

Halmah IV was a planet in crisis. Located in the Bleak Lands, it was a backwater planet in a backwater region all but forgotten by its government. The soil wasn’t hearty enough to produce the prized Amarrian wheat and there were no indigenous species of livestock worth going to the trouble of shipping to other parts of the Empire. No valuable minerals to speak of…

No, the only reason the Amarr Empire held onto the Bleaks at all, let alone Halmah, was that the region served as a buffer between the Minmatar Republic in Heimatar and the Amarrian Throne Worlds. Sure, the Republic could launch an attack without conquering the Bleaks - that much was shown by the Elder Fleet’s attack on the day everything changed - but without holding the Bleak Lands, their forward elements would be cut off from resupply and easily defeated after the initial shock had worn off. It was for this reason that the Bleak Lands had become a prime target the moment the war began and the capsuleer militias were sanctioned.

The Amarrians had gained footholds in Heimatar and Metropolis, and every tactical advantage they gained was hotly contested by the Minmatar Militia, but for a long time it seemed to all observers that the Minmatar were content to wash their hands in the blood of Amarr and Caldari militiamen; it seemed they lacked the will to occupy Amarr territory. The Amarrian citizens who had set up their operations here on Halmah to produce common wheat for export to the Ammatar Mandate where it was processed to make food for slaves and livestock alike had been cautious when the fighting started. Some had even shut down their plantations for a time. However, once it became clear that the Minmatar would not be occupying Halmah or any other Amarrian systems in the foreseeable future, it was business as usual. And now, their little cattle feed empire was in a shambles.

When word of the Minmatar Militia’s occupancy reached their respective governments, liasons were made between the Republic and the Empire and humanitarian agreements were made to the effect that the Amarrian citizens would be permitted to liquidate and evacuate their assets - including slaves - in peace. The Empire would be permitted to send escorts to protect these civilians and their vessels from the local Blood Raider patrols and the Republic and its militia would not fire on them. The Republic’s marines would not hinder or harm these civilians. Everything was to be conducted as cleanly and peacefully as possible; the planet was just an asset changing hands (hopefully temporarily), no need for things to be ugly. No need for there to be any atrocities or near-atrocities for The Scope and other GalNet news outlets to sensationalize.

No need for the Minmatar people to seek satisfaction for injuries millenia old.

Lasis Aronn was the head of a noble House that few people outside of the Empire would ever hear of. For that matter, few within the Empire would, either. House Aronn was more than 50 steps removed from the Throne and only held on to its noble status because its men had been sensible enough to mind their place and never offend anyone who mattered lest they lose all of their meager holdings. Of these holdings, the most valuable was an immense spread of farmland on Halmah IV where over two thousand slaves toiled in fields 16 hours a day producing wheat. The Aronn spread was responsible for no less than 20% of the food consumed by slaves and Amarrian livestock throughout Derelik. While this didn’t make House Aronn incredibly wealthy, it did make them fairly influential in the goings on of the Mandate.

So when a wealthy Ammatar businessman called Ianrair Tosrh who had heard of the impending fall of Halmah had contacted him about his live holdings, he was not surprised. After several hours of negotiation Lord Aronn had brokered a deal with this Ammatar in which the Aronn slave stock on Halmah IV, numbering nearly 2,500 head, as well as the season’s recently harvested wheat crop would be transferred to the businessman’s possession right here on Halmah IV for the tidy sum of 300 million ISK, to be paid in the form of alloyed tritanium bars whose value was respected throughout the cluster. 200 thousand of that represented the slaves, at 80 ISK per head. Normally, House Aronn would not part with so much wheat so cheaply, but these were extreme circumstances and the Ammatar was taking the risk of transport on himself. “Besides,” Lord Aronn mused as he watched the businessman’s Amarr shuttle land in the courtyard in front of his estate, “perhaps the Ammatar would remember his magnanimity in the future if Aronn sought to re-purchase a part of that experienced wheat farming slave stock.”

The shuttle’s hatch lowered and a figure strode purposefully down the ramp in the same style of traditional hooded robe the Amarrian himself was wearing. The visitor’s robe was a dark brown, near black, and his deep hood was raised casting the man’s face in shadow. Even from a distance, Aronn could see that the cut and fabric were quite expensive, worthy of Empress Jamyl I’s own court. The Vherokior female attending him was dressed in a style befitting a trustee-slave, but similarly expensive. The Holder wondered for a moment how he could’ve done business with the Mandate for so long, yet never have heard of such a serious player; the man hadn’t hesitated for a moment at the price of 300 million ISK.

Lord Aronn walked out to meet the businessman and his assistant as they disembarked from the shuttle, two of his own trustee-slaves in tow. “A pleasure to meet your acquaintance, Mister Tosrh.” A Minmatar Republic Personnel Carrier screamed by overhead on its way toward the planet’s primary spaceport, bringing a scowl to the low-level Holder’s face. “Normally I would endeavor to entertain my guest to the fullest, but I’m sure you’ll understand if circumstances don’t permit much in the way of merrymaking.”

“Yes,” the businessman replied simply, his voice quiet and cool. Pale hands rose to lower his hood and marked the man for Thukker ancestry. Looking into the Ammatar’s pale yellow eyes, he mused that he’d never understand how the savages could see through eyes so light in color without going blind. “I would like to inspect my purchase,” the businessman said.

“Of course. Right this way.”

Lord Aronn led the Ammatar and his assistant briskly down a long cobblestone walk and into a large private amphitheater. This time last year, the amphitheater was probably teeming with well-to-do Amarrians enjoying entertainment provided by any number of enslaved athletes, actors and troubadours. Today, though, the amphitheater floor was to serve as a parade ground for the inspection of 2,340 chained Minmatar slaves with a few Gallente mixed among them.

“I am sure you will find that my stock is all healthy and in proper shape for the field,” the Amarrian said as he stepped aside to let the businessman carry out his inspection. His tone was that of a man short on time and annoyed with formalities. The businessman wanted to take his time, just to make the man uncomfortable… but the fact of the matter was, he was also short on time. He looked into the slaves’ eyes as he moved past them. Many of them were broken men and women, but a few of the Minmatar among them, particularly the Brutor, met his stare with fiery eyes. The hatred that burned in these men’s souls was tangible, as though if only they weren’t chained they could wield that very hatred like a weapon and strike him down where he stood. He walked briskly along only the first two ranks before returning to the Holder.

“I’m satisfied. I will send transport for them and my wheat and make payment within the hour. Have them assembled in the field and unfettered; we will use our own restraints during transport.”

Lord Aronn bowed slightly to the wealthy Ammatar. “As you will, Mister Tosrh. I look forward to seeing the transaction completed so I can be away from this pitiful rock at last.” As soon as the shuttle’s hatch was closed, the Vherokior woman helped the capsuleer out of the heavy robes. “Do you think the ruse was successful?” she asked. Havohej chuckled.

“That son of a bitch was so happy somebody was willing to pay him full price for his wheat in hard currency he probably didn’t even check the alias.” Not that such a check would’ve helped; Havohej had several aliases active in New Eden, all of which were active traders in one market or another and building carefully cultivated reputations for acute business savvy and incredible discretion - all thanks to the diligent efforts of assistants like ‘Taskmaster,’ the Vherokior who had built the Ianrair Tosrh identity for him over the last two years.

Taskmaster helped Havohej into his customary uniform, but looked puzzled when he removed the rank insignia that marked him as a Blade Commander in the Tribal Liberation Force. Seeing her confusion, he explained, “The Militia is forbidden to hinder or harm the civilians on this planet during the evacuation and occupation. What we do here today is not done in the name of the Republic… what we do here today is in the name of the Minmatar people.”

It had taken 20 minutes for Lord Aronn and his employees to oversee the slaves’ movement of several hundred tons of vacuum-sealed crates of wheat out onto the field and then to assemble those slaves in an orderly fashion - no simple task, given that the Ammatar had demanded the slaves be unfettered! Still, so accustomed to obedience were they that even the few among them who still had resistance in their hearts were hesitant to try and start anything. No matter that they outnumbered the Holder and his men 200:1, they couldn’t hope to stand up to what remained of the planet’s security garrison. The best they could do was hope that the Ammatar might renege on his end of the deal and their owner would be forced to leave them all here for the Republic to deal with, effectively freeing them. But even that hope was snuffed out when they saw one of Aronn’s men point skyward; following the man’s gesture, they could all see the two hulking cargo vessels breaking through into Halmah IV’s atmosphere and growing quickly larger as they approached the landing area just a few yards away.

At nearly the same instant, the side cargo bay doors opened and a half-dozen uniformed men emerged from their cavernous innards. First they delivered a large crate of alloyed tritanium bars as agreed upon by Lord Aronn and Mister Tosrh, then they coordinated and oversaw the slaves moving the wheat into the lead cargo vessel. Finally, after the wheat was safely away, they set about securing the slaves with electronic wrist shackles and moving them into the dark hold of the second Hoarder. Once the bulkhead doors were firmly shut the lights snapped on, momentarily blinding the assembled slaves. On a dais at the front of the main hold stood the Ammatar businessman, staring down on them with those cold, pale yellow eyes. When the slaves saw his attire, hushed and confused whispers rolled through their ranks. When the man spoke, his deep voice boomed throughout the cargo hold.

“What is freedom worth to you?” Those hard eyes scanned the multitude of haggard faces. “What would you give to breathe the air that free men breathe?

Silence swept the hold.

“One hundred thirty-one years ago, our people rose up in rebellion against their masters. After more than eight hundred years of slavery and atrocities committed against our people. But back then, we didn’t have the power or the technology to finish them. We pushed them out of our space and contented ourselves with that. We formed a Republic and set about securing our borders. And then, we grew complacent.

“For over a century, our people have remained in bondage to the Amarr Empire and our Republic has been powerless to stop it. For over a century, we have had to endure the pain of an amputee who can still feel the limb he’s lost, but cannot touch it. But sometimes, we can touch it. Sometimes we can reclaim a lost brother or sister.

“Sometimes,” the speaker paused, his lips curling into a very slight smile. “Sometimes, we can reclaim thousands!” The hull of the Hoarder-class industrial shook with the might of two thousand Minmatar voices crying out at once. Lord Aronn and his people were so busy finalizing their escape plans that they weren’t paying any attention to the industrial ship that still hadn’t taken off from their field. Their liberator raised his hands, calling for quiet.

“My name is Havohej,” he said when the clamor had died down. “I represent a corporation dedicated to pursuing the betterment of the Minmatar people. It isn’t often that I get a chance to do so in such a direct way, so I am very happy to be able to see today take place.” He turned to Taskmaster and nodded, then turned back to the crowd. As he continued speaking, the Vherokior signaled for the auxiliary cargo holds to be opened. Then she pressed a button on her portable NeoCom and the electronic wrist shackles all released themselves, fell clanging to the floor.

“I have never been a slave,” Havohej said. “I am a capsuleer. Ever since I graduated from the Republic Military School in Pator and received my pilot’s license, I have enjoyed a life of freedom the likes of which you couldn’t even dream about. As such, I won’t patronize you about how I know what you’ve gone through and how horrible it must’ve been. I wouldn’t insult you that way.

“I will, however, say that I know you’ve gone through hell, many of you for your entire lives. I will say that I know you are owed. And today, it’s time you receive your pound of flesh.” He gestured toward the rear of the compartment to where his men were setting up several large crates. “inside those containers are small arms and ammunition. Their design is simple and intuitive; you point the end toward someone you wish harm upon, and you squeeze the trigger. When we open the bulkhead doors, you will pay for your freedom in blood. When we took Halmah, a deal was struck between the Empire and the Republic that Minmatar forces would not hinder the Amarrian civilians’ evacuation. As an officer in the Militia, I cannot do anything to harm the ones responsible for your suffering.

“So, in exchange for buying your freedom, you are going to do what I cannot.”

“But what about the security forces?” one voice shouted from the throng.

“The security forces have been disarmed by the Tribal Liberation Force’s occupying personnel and are remaining largely to facilitate the flow of traffic on- and off-world during the week’s evacuations. As for the TLF’s forces, there isn’t a Minmatar among them who would fire on an angry slave. Expect token resistance from them, but if you fire a few warning shots into the air, I’m sure you’ll have your way.

“When it’s all over, you will return here and we will carry you to Rens. There we will put you in touch with people who can help reunite you with the families you were separated from, however many generations ago.”

Six hours later, as night fell on this side of Halmah IV. Havohej and the Taskmaster sat drinking Quafe Ultra atop the hull of the Hoarder-class cargo ship, Havohej’s 300 million ISK worth of alloyed tritanium stowed safely back inside. A hundred yards away, the Aronn Estate was a smoldering ruin. On the horizon, the sky was aflame as Halmah IV burned. Not a single slave had returned to them yet. Judging by the faint sound of new explosions carrying across the miles on the warm night air, Havohej didn’t expect to see them any time soon.