Lieutenant Commander Naya Antoinette felt in her belly the familiar flutter of jump point passage as her F7 Hornet emerged into known space. She banked up and around and stabilized her ship, post-jump. Lieutenant Jackson’s droll voice immediately crackled over her cockpit comm:
He didn’t believe that any more than she did, but he was a perceptive enough subordinate to recognize his CO’s tone. “Aye aye, Skip. I gotcha covered,” he replied by way of sign-off.
More after the jump...
She saw the brief flash of his thrusters as he veered in the opposite direction, circling around to keep the shimmering jump point in front of his eyes — and his forward-firing laser gatlings.
The other two pilots of the “A” element, Stern and Lorraine, arced around with equal speed, so that all four Hornets of the advance element reached ready stations within a matter of minutes. Stationary now — but with power plants humming at the ready — they settled down to wait, hoping it wouldn’t be for long.
The other three ships were just blips on Antoinette’s screen, posted as they were in a square about a hundred clicks on each side. The shimmering vagueness of the jump point was barely visible to the naked eye but clearly outlined on the HUD’s J-Scan, in the middle of the square. Right now, it just sat there, almost taunting her — a reminder that a whole universe of possibilities, opportunities and promotions waited beyond that portal.
But she, and her pilots, had been assigned here, to the Centauri system. She told herself that the orders were not intended as punishment — and Admiral Hackbarth had said the same thing — but in her heart she knew differently. If she had been a little more . . . what? What should she have done, when the alien fighters and their leader with the spidery-shaped quad burner had swarmed from the asteroid belt to ambush her once-splendid squadron?
She had been alert, as always, and she had anticipated contingencies. She had trained her pilots to the limits of endurance before they had dutifully performed a sweep through the Cathcart system — and they had still been ambushed, decimated and demoralized. Eight good pilots, longtime comrades in arms, had perished, and the rest of the Void Rats still reeled, at least internally, from the shock.
So the now-understrength squadron, flying out-of-date fighters, had been sent to this system to recover, regroup, retrain. She’d been told that replacement pilots and ships would be coming to her, eventually. Centauri was not exactly a backwater — less than a year earlier a task force under Admiral Showalter himself, centered around the mighty fleet carrier Gemini, had fought a major battle against the Vanduul here. The raiders had been driven off, though, and the flow of combat had moved on to other systems. Centauri had been quiet ever since. It was not the kind of system where a disgraced officer could rebuild her reputation.
And now, all she could do was wait. She was grimly resolved that she would do her job, and see that her people did their jobs, no matter how long it took. First order of business: make sure the coast was clear — it was — and be ready to escort their support ship when it arrived. Africanus would either emerge from the jump, or she wouldn’t. Probably she would, but Antoinette’s memory of that decrepit old warship did not inspire confidence.
The squadron CO turned her attention, reluctantly, to the deployment and capabilities of her little four ship detachment. Like herself, each of her pilots flew an Anvil Aerospace F7 Hornet. The little ships were a now a generation obsolete, compared to the brand new F8s deployed aboard Steed, Gemini and other modern fleet carriers. Still, she liked the ships; and the F7 was the fighter she and her people had flown up until the incident, just a few short months ago. Before that spider-winged attacker had ended eight lives, and irrevocably altered so many more.
The F7s were in fact very capable machines. They lacked some of the speed and shield-power of the new F8s, but they had the same maneuver thrusters and the regulation arsenal of formidable weaponry: the dorsal ball turret with twin laser Gatlings; the canard turret with double neutron guns; a battery of Talon Devastator missiles; and of course, the pilots’ favorites, the forward firing lasers that gave the person at the controls a clear view of the intended target.
And Antoinette had to admit that even the F7s were still a long sight more modern than Africanus, a ship a hundred years out of date. Once the warship had been a modern cruiser, among the pride of the UEEN. And once, at about the same time, Antoinette’s grandmother had been playing tea party with her teddy bears back on Terra. But Grandma had grown old, and so had Africanus. Now the squadron’s support ship had to be part fighter-carrier, part cargo-hauling tub — and the squadron’s home for the foreseeable future.
With a flicker of the jump point and then a sudden, everstartling appearance of mass, the ship emerged from unknown space, closely trailed by four more Hornets. With her eight outlying escorts falling into the standard Gear formation, four before and four behind, the big old ship steered toward the orbital station that was Centauri system’s primary off-world business and military hub, and the squadron’s new duty base.
Watching as Africanus shuddered slightly from a wavering power plant in one of her engines, Naya acknowledged that it was the “cargo-hauling tub” role that seemed to have defined her appearance. She needed a paint job, and several of the hard points on her hull — spots that once had been weapon mounts — had simply been left vacant, guns, missile launchers and turrets cannibalized by more modern vessels. She still had a few batteries along her flanks, and a duel rail-gun turret in her belly, but she would be outclassed by a fleet warship of anything higher than destroyer class.
Suppressing her disappointment, Antoinette checked her scans to make sure that the eight fighters formed up properly. It was a routine maneuver, but she wasn’t leaving anything to chance. As if sensing her inspection, Jackson flared his burners in the #2 spot, a speck of brightness in the Void, but held his position with precision. She winced, irritated, even as she acknowledged that, though the young lieutenant was an annoying hotdog who thought he was God’s gift to the universe, the man knew how to fly a fighter.
The trip to the orbital station passed routinely and in less than an hour Africanus reversed her thrusters and decelerated. She was far too large to attach to any of the docking ports on the station, so she settled into a matching orbit about 20 clicks out. A few smaller freighters clustered around those station-mounted space wharves, like piglets suckling from a sow. Other ships — small fighters, scouts, and interstellar cargo craft that were operated by individuals and small consortiums — would be inside the station’s hangar bays, protected by secure airlocks. One other ship, an old ore hauler nearly twice as big as Africanus, drifted in space a few clicks farther out from the station.
Antoinette watched as her support ship’s shuttle bay opened and the boxy cargo hauler dropped out. With a flash of thrusters it steered toward the station. Chief Petty Officer Bradryck MacClean would be at the controls, Antoinette knew, and he’d have a list of necessary supplies as long as his arm. The veteran noncom, who had chosen to go into exile with the rest of the Void Rats, had made it known that he would whip the old warship into fighting shape or die trying. The fighter squadron skipper felt a flush of gratitude at the memory of his transfer request; she wasn’t sure she could have kept these old fighters operational without him.
As for herself, she had to report to the UEEN liaison officer on the station, and she decided to take her #2 along. She issued the commands over the squadron’s secure comm:
“Stern, Lorraine, stay on Combat Space Patrol for now. B Group, take your fighters aboard the flagship. Jackson, you’re coming with me onto the station. Remember to mind your manners.”
Somehow, she managed not to grimace when she called Africanus a flagship. She and Jackson took up position flanking the bulky shuttle, approaching the yawning hangar in the outer ring of the orbital. The large landing surface, screened by its energy curtain, beckoned with bright lights and the promise of creature comforts just beyond. The CSP fighters banked off, while the four Hornets of B Group eased into the big ship’s hangar bay.
And then all hell broke loose.
* * *
Chief MacClean, at the controls of the shuttle, felt the impact of a dumbfire rocket on the starboard thruster, the explosion rocking the hull violently. His head snapped back, only the high back of his seat preventing a broken neck, and the tubby little ship began to yaw wildly, spinning and tumbling at the same time. Instinct took over and Mac kicked in the maneuver thrusters, steadying the now-crippled vessel. The entrance to the orbital station’s hangar bay glowed like a rectangular star — bright, promising, and so damned far away.
“Where the hell did that come from?” he demanded of Dirkson, the young helmsman in the #2 seat.
“Nowhere, Chief! I don’t know!” the kid cried, his voice cracking. “We’re under attack!” he added unnecessarily as another rocket flashed past, missing them by a hair.
Mac flipped the comm link to ship-wide broadcast, mindful of the half dozen crewmembers strapped into their hard seats in the windowless, but pressurized, cargo hold. “What’s the report down there? Damage? Anyone hurt?” he snapped.
“All good, Chief,” came the reply, some starman keeping his voice remarkably calm.
“Steady as she goes,” the chief answered. “We’re almost home,” he added, exaggerating slightly.
A laser blasted from the darkness, and MacClean ducked in spite of himself. Annoyed by the involuntary gesture, he raised his head again and immediately smelled ozone. A couple more hits like that and the cargo shuttle would be so much ventilated space-junk. The vessel was underpowered, possessed only minimal shields, no weapons at all — just a tubby little craft that practically screamed “shoot me!” to any potential foe.
A glance out the side-Plexi answered Mac’s first question: outlined as it was against the starry vastness of the void, the big ore hauler orbiting with the station was clearly much more than it had seemed. A huge opening gaped in the underbelly of the hull, revealing a sophisticated, brightly lit flight deck. From that suddenly-revealed space, some two dozen fighters had streamed forth. Most of them now swarmed around Africanus, but six or eight streaked toward the shuttle, spitting rockets and energy beams.
MacClean tried a quick evasion, a jig to starboard, but with the disabled thruster on that side of the ship the shuttle did a complete spin; it was all the chief could do to steady it onto course toward the docking bay once he came around. He dared not try that again — though the surprising little dance had carried the stubby ship through a hailstorm of lasers, probably because the unknown attackers had been dumbstruck by the silly-looking maneuver.
“Who the hell are they, anyway?” he demanded. He wrestled with the helm as the unwieldy ship again tried to pirouette; it took all of his strength and experience to maintain a semblance of a straight course with only the portside engine.
And that course could hardly be anything other than fatal, he knew. On the best of days the shuttle turned like an overweight old mining tractor. Now one engine was down, and they had to make an utterly predictable beeline toward the only hope of a safe landing. They would never make it.
At least five of the mysterious fighters formed up on the shuttle’s tail, like they were preparing for one lethal volley. A sixth one, a quad-burner with a glowing silver electroskin and insect-like appendages fore and aft, circled around to plant itself between the shuttle and the station. Still, Mac had no choice but to plunge on, like a condemned prisoner marching to the firing squad.
Even as he gripped the stick and snarled audibly, something about that buglike fighter triggered a memory. He’d seen that silver spider before — not personally, but in the images of the flight recorders after the fight that had shattered his beloved Void Rats.
Abruptly the spider-ship rocked to the side as explosions sparked along its portside shields. Blasters from the attacker flashed at the shieldless shuttle, but the fire went wide, beams of energy searing past the cockpit. A Hornet swept in, shooting at the silver fighter and drawing its full attention in return. Mac recognized Naya Antoinette’s F7, and muttered a thank you to the skipper. With the lead attacker forced from their path, they might even have a chance to reach the hangar.
If not for the five fighters lined up behind them.
With agonizing slowness they chugged toward the tantalizing bright hangar bay on the station. The airlock was open, only a few clicks away. The shuttle was a perfect target, though, and Mac couldn’t figure out why they were still alive.
“It’s Jackson, Chief!” squawked Dirkson, checking the scanner to the rear. “He’s mixing it up with a whole squadron!”
MacClean risked a glance at his own scanner, and saw a tangled melee raging in the shuttle’s wake. “Good man, that Jackson,” he growled. “I owe him a drink or five.”
Somehow the ace pilot’s little Hornet had disrupted the attack formation of all five of the fighters to the rear. Two of them vanished from the scanner, drawing a cheer from the young starman and an approving grunt from the CPO. The other three maneuvered desperately, exchanging shots with the F7 while the shuttle continued its long, slow dive toward the hangar bay.
Mac allowed real hope to grow. Once more he flicked the comm to broadcast. “Hang on down there. This might be a bumpy landing.”
The spidery silver fighter suddenly flashed back into view from overhead. More rockets slammed into the shuttle just as the electromagnetic docking tractor from the station took hold. The second — and last — engine flashed a vain protest and broke away. Mac’s ears suddenly popped and he knew they were leaking air, fast.
“Hold on!” he shouted to the young helmsman. They couldn’t do anything else, and he hated the fact. The docking tractor pulled them into the airlock, but another volley of rockets lit up the shuttle’s hull, and the boxy ship crashed heavily onto the hangar deck. Mac strained for breath — the air was mostly gone — and then fire and smoke filled his senses.
For a moment they did, at least. Then everything went black.
* * *
Jackson pulled his F7 through a turn so tight that he could feel the blood pooling in his feet — only the extreme compression of his flight suit kept him from blacking out. Like his CO, he had deeply resented the recent demotion to the earlier generation of Hornets, but he had to admit they could still turn on a dime.
He was out of missiles, but they had not been wasted: he flew past two glowing hulks, the attacking fighters that had been shattered by his surprise flank attack. Both cockpits were smashed, and the fading flashes of dying powerplants further confirmed their total destruction. And even without more missiles, his lasers were powered up, and he was eager for fresh targets.
The remaining three of the unknown bogies came at him, in a tight triangle formation. His shields were taking a pounding but he diverted power to the ball turret and unleashed the full fury of the twin laser Gatlings. The energy beams cut one of the attackers right in two, dissolving the cockpit and leaving two burning engines to spiral wildly past the station, careening toward the distant star.
But he paid the price as his little ship lurched under the impact of neutron blasts. Even through his breather he caught the scent of ozone, a crackling, electrical stink. He pulled on the controls, struggling to bring the Hornet under control, but the fighter cartwheeled crazily.
It was then that he caught sight of the massive flight deck inside the old hulk of the ore-hauler-that-was-not. The ship seemed almost as big as a UEE fleet carrier, yet from the outside it looked like a century-old wreck. Was it a Vanduul trick? It seemed unlikely — the raiders of that race had their own fleet warships, and they were proud, even arrogant, in their use of them. Such a ruse would be out of character for what he knew of the Vanduul — which knowledge, he admitted to himself, was not exactly encyclopedic.
The lieutenant had no time to ponder the mystery, as the two remaining fighters in his sights split up and banked around him. He saw a third ship, bigger and silver-skinned, and he felt a chilling flash of recognition mingled with barely suppressed fury. That had to be the one, the leader of the ambush that had wrecked the Void Rats in the Cathcart system. That attacker was engaged in a duel with the CO’s Hornet, and the silver spider was getting the best of it. Antoinette evaded wildly, her shields flashing and quickly fading. She had no choice but to dive away, following the smoldering shuttle toward the station’s hangar bay.
Fortunately, a battery of fat-barreled neutron cannons flashed from the station, just above the bay, and the covering fire distracted the enemy fighter enough that Antoinette could evade its otherwise lethal blasts. Jackson saw her swoop into the hangar behind the shuttle, only to have her Hornet vanish into the plume of flames erupting from the stricken cargo vessel. Fire raged across the deck as the airlock panels started to swing shut.
Both MacClean and Antoinette, he realized with sickening clarity, were trapped in that growing inferno. The hangar would soon be like the inside of a furnace.
He reacted without thinking: his own Hornet followed the CO’s into the bay in a reckless plunge, just before the airlock snapped shut. Using every bit of his strength he hauled back on the throttle and deployed the landing gear. The little ship came to a bouncing stop, almost toppling onto its port wing before it stabilized. He was vaguely aware of the station’s battery banging away from outside the hull, driving the pursuing fighters away from the fiery hangar.
Jackson had popped the canopy even before his ship stopped moving. He swung from the cockpit, his booted feet finding one of the rungs of the access ladder halfway down the hull. From there he dropped to the hangar deck and in a split second took in the situation:
Fire engulfed both Antoinette’s F7 and the cargo shuttle. The Hornet rested on its belly, its landing gear either collapsed or never deployed. He started toward the smaller, closer ship, but the CO popped her own canopy and tumbled to the deck. Seeing several maintenance techs braving the flames to pull her free, Jackson turned his attention to the larger vessel.
The shuttle was a wreck, canted at a crippled angle, with the main cargo hatch torn off. Flames licked out of the hold, not quite obscuring the barbecued flesh of several hapless crewmen who had tried, and failed, to escape that way.
The fighter pilot scanned the cockpit, seeing flames and smoke — and flashes of movement behind the cracked Plexi of the viewports. He recognized Mac’s crewcut scalp and realized that the chief was trying to free his copilot from his restraints. The second man seemed to be unconscious, but he must be alive or MacClean wouldn’t be risking his own life.
“Fire suppression — there!” Jackson called to a damage control team advancing, hauling a long a hose. “Cover me!”
He pointed at the cockpit, and in seconds the team had unleashed a cloud of choking, white-vapored CO2. Instantly the flames subsided, grudgingly yielding to the temporary lack of oxygen.
Still not bothering to stop and think, Jackson plunged forward, grabbing the ladder and climbing the low side of the shuttle’s hull. Because of the overhanging angle his feet at first swung free, and red-hot rungs singed his gloves as he clawed his way upward. With a pull of his arms and shoulders, he swung his feet back to the ladder’s rungs, and clambered toward the cockpit. His suit, which included a helmet breather, was fire resistant, but that resistance wouldn’t hold out for long.
Finally he reached the top of the ladder, and his eyes met Mac’s over the motionless, bleeding form of a young starman. Several cracks marred the surface of Plexi, and Jackson picked a place where many of those cracks came together. Bracing his feet and his left hand against the hull, he rabbit punched the weakened surface — once, twice, again — until it buckled and caved in.
Mac pulled the shards of Plexi out of the way and hoisted the sailor’s unconscious body in his arms. With surprising care he eased the young man through the port, face down, and Jackson took his weight over his right shoulder, clinging tightly to the ladder with his left hand. Another blast of CO2 smothered the suddenly resurgent flames, and the pilot carefully stepped down the ladder, holding tight to the motionless man. He only hoped the guy was still alive.
Hands took hold of his legs, supporting him near the bottom of the ladder, and he gratefully released the unconscious starman into the arms of the damage control crew. Only then did Jackson look up to see Mac following him down the ladder. Lacking a flight suit, the chief had to be taking some nasty burns, and the pilot quickly tumbled out of the way.
“Jump!” he cried, and Mac instantly let go of the ladder, landing in a crouch and rolling away from the ship.
Jackson got to his feet but immediately collapsed on the deck, his legs shaking and weak as the adrenalin faded.
Several Medtechs bore the young crewman, still alive, in a stretcher as they headed into the station. MacClean, grim and soot-covered but apparently not badly injured, looked like he was ready to chew glass.
Then Lt. Commander Antoinette came around the fire, holding her helmet under her arm. Her eyes flashed, and her lip curled into a snarl. “Did you see that silver spider?” she demanded. “It’s the same son of a bitch who led that ambush!”
“In the asteroids?” Jackson asked. “Yeah, I thought so too.”
He had been part of that previous fight, and the memory still burned. But the silver spider’s presence here begged all kinds of questions. “Who is it? And why are they here?” he wondered out loud.
“I don’t give a damn about that. Let’s find a ship and get after him,” Antoinette barked. “I want that bastard — and I want him dead!”
Jackson’s questions evaporated as he shared the skipper’s resolve. Like Naya, he recalled only too clearly the first time the Void Rats had encountered that silver, eightwinged fighter . . . .
Eight standard months ago . . .
The Void Rats had finally come together as a squadron, cutting their teeth on anti-smuggler patrols near the asteroid belt of the Nexus system. So far the mission had been active, aggressive and successful. The goal was simple: catch the slavers that came through with their hapless cargoes, rescue the captives, and dispose of the captors. Whether the slavers ended up as prisoners of the Advocacy, or just so much space-flotsam, mattered little: a minor distinction, at best.
Naya Antoinette, lieutenant commander in the UEEN and squadron leader of the Void Rats, liked it that way. There were quite a few unsavory activities known to the inhabitants of the UEE, and she disapproved of most of them. But the idea of holding sentient creatures prisoners, forcing them to perform labor or otherwise serve their ‘owners,’ was the one that crawled under her skin and itched like a radium rash. She was a good pilot and a good officer, and had learned that she was a capable warrior, though she didn’t particularly enjoy killing. Instead, she regarded it as a sometimes necessary part of her job. And she was damned good at that job.
In this mission she had truly found her calling, acknowledged by Admiral Hackbarth’s commendation just a week earlier. The Void Rats were her first command, and through combat, training and diligence she’d formed the squadron into a veteran, perhaps even an elite, outfit. They were the Void Rats, and they were hers.
Every time she had a chance to decommission a slaver caught red-handed in his brutal trade, she felt a thrill of accomplishment that was unmatched in any other endeavor of her life. Now, anticipation of another opportunity sent a ripple of that — there was no other term for it — bloodlust through her body. Her scans had flickered only briefly, showing a possible energy signal amid the asteroids, but her experience and instincts told her this was a real target.
“D-Jack!” she barked into her comm. “Take B section along the edge of this rock field — make it two megameters in the orbital direction. Wait for someone to poke his nose out. A section, follow me.”
She deftly touched her controls and turned her F7 Hornet into a gap between two large asteroids. The flight assist computer and auto-pilot were all right for cruising in a straight line through open space, but she’d never trust the machinery’s circuits for any kind of tactical maneuvering such as transiting an asteroid belt. Like every other reasonably competent pilot, she would trust her own senses and reflexes in a situation as perilous as this one could potentially become.
Fusion vents pulsed in her peripheral vision as her hotshot second-in-command, Lt. Darrison Jackson, tore off along the fringe of the asteroid belt. The eight F7s that made up B section flew a loose formation, a hundred clicks off the fringe of the belt, and Antoinette knew he’d be on station in a matter of minutes.
“Single file, people,” she ordered, banking to bring her Hornet around the far side of the big asteroid. She kept her eyes on the space before her, counting on her scanners to flash notice if they picked up any signature. The skipper was almost sure that had been a slaver’s ship she’d spotted, but as she veered among the drifting rocks, her seven wingmen trailing behind like a long tail, she began to feel some doubt.
“Back scan,” she murmured, still watching real space through her Plexi cockpit windows. The scanner dutifully replayed the image of the contact on her HUD, and she saw again a telltale brightening of dual exhaust vents just before the faint contact had ducked out of sight. Her doubts vanished: that was certainly a large, fast ship, and the only explanation for such a ship weaving through these asteroids was an illicit one. If it didn’t carry slaves, it certainly carried some other high value — and highly illegal — contraband.
Without averting her eyes, she checked the HUD in real time now and saw that her weapons were charged. But she hoped she wouldn’t be using them to kill. The Rats had worked out a tactical approach that allowed them to weaken a target ship with precise hits to the thrusters and shield generator. Killing the bastards would be just too easy — and vaporizing the smuggler’s ship would mean killing the innocent slaves, as well. Instead, she wanted to batter the ship enough that she could employ one of the new nonlethal PCR-880 Grapplers. ASD’s new ionic net had proven reliable and effective in capturing suspect ships after their shields had been disabled. The tactic had worked several times, resulting in four cargoes of slaves liberated and four crews of slavers delivered to the Advocacy for justice. Who knows, at this rate maybe the Void Rats could eventually populate their own prison world with the scum of the universe?
A flicker on the scan instantly drew her full attention — a heat signature, moving deeper among the asteroids now, the ship traveling dangerously fast. She steered after it, cutting past a cluster of boulder-sized rocks orbiting in loose formation. An opening yawned before her and she pulsed the engines, knowing without looking that the other seven Hornets of her section followed close behind.
“D-Jack,” she spoke into her comm, unconsciously whispering. “They’re moving toward deep space. Bring your section through the field and meet us on the far side.”
“Roger, Skip,” the young pilot replied. For once he sounded dead serious, and Antoinette felt a flash of relief — this was no time for kidding around. Or for cocky free-lance hijinks, one of the failings she’d addressed with Jackson on more than one occasion.
The signature flashed on her scans again and she accelerated, then banked and spun through another cluster of rocks. She was closing in now, and the scanner showed her nearly a dozen thrusters bright on the stern of the target. Judging by that vast array of maneuvering pipes, she guessed the ship was a Cutlass-class, still too far away for a visual.
But the Void Rats narrowed the distance quickly. The asteroids thinned as they neared the outer edge of the belt, and the nimble Hornets bobbed and weaved at speed through the drifting obstacles. The larger Cutlass, though a very maneuverable ship in her own right, proceeded at a more gingerly approach. Naya wondered if her captain was hesitant or unskilled, or perhaps he hadn’t yet realized he was under pursuit. The starry-patterned blackness of deep space loomed before her finally, and as the slaver broke into the open she slammed her own throttle forward. The F7 leaped like a living thing, and Naya felt the Gs slamming her into her seat even over the force of the gravity compensators. It was a good feeling.
She snapped out the commands, knowing her Rats would promptly respond. “We’ve got him now — A section — close in fast. Jackson, where are you with B section?”
“Just coming out now — a megameter away,” the lieutenant’s voice came back reassuringly. “I’ve got him on my scanners, and I see you too, Skip — Skipper, look out!”
“What?” demanded Antoinette, the word still echoing in her headset as her scanners came to life, squawking a contact klaxon. “There’s another ship here!” she called, warning her team of the bogey riding to the starboard, perched on their flank as the eight fighters streamed, one after the other, from the asteroid belt —
And right into a kill zone.
The first ship to go was the Cutlass, which dissolved into a shimmer of white light. Naya’s visor auto-filtered the flash, which certainly would have blinded her if she hadn’t been wearing her face screen. Even through the opaque masking she could see bits of the Cutlass, glowing white hot and streaking like meteors, blossoming outward from the spot where the ship had exploded. At the time she thought the ship had been hit by an unseen weapon; only later did she deduce that it probably had been unoccupied, remotely piloted. In other words, just a piece of bait to lure the Rats into a trap.
And they were well and truly trapped. Instinctively she arced the F7 through a tight turn, once again feeling the Gs slamming her into her seat. She saw the reflective image of a ship of unknown design, outlined in bright silver, perfectly positioned for a flanking attack, and now closing on the Void Rats as the eight fighters emerged in single file from the asteroids. Weapons — energy beams and rockets — flashed from a half dozen mounts on the ambushing fighter, and she felt a shock of horror as her wingman’s Hornet, only a couple of clicks behind her, dissolved in a flash of blast wave and light.
For a split-second she pictured the pilot, Winngut’s, guileless face, the kid fresh from the Academy after growing up on one of the Production worlds. He had trusted her, and she had put him on her wing because of his lack of experience. It was the first time she’d lost one of her own, and guilt savaged through her gut.
Ruthlessly she suppressed the emotion, replacing it with rage. “Come on, you sonofabitch!” she practically snarled at the silver fighter. “Try this on for size!”
Her twin laser Gatlings spewed bolts of searing energy, dead on target — but the attacker’s shields were surprisingly powerful and the blasts dissipated into splashes of color. Another barrage erupted from the enemy, at least six, maybe eight weapons firing at once. A flash from behind told the skipper that, unbelievably, another of her Hornets had been blown out of space.
She checked the rear and watched in horror as the number four F7 veered wildly and collided with number five, both ships vanishing in a flash. Half the section, gone! Four pilots dead … and she didn’t even know who the enemy was.
Her thrusters continued to accelerate and she flashed in at a nearly suicidal closing speed. The silver ship jigged sideways with amazing maneuverability, and she couldn’t help thinking of a spider crabbing quickly across the ground. Her own Hornet shook from the impact of a rocket, but at least her shields stood firm. She was jarred, almost stunned, but her F7 flashed past the mysterious ambusher and answered her touch on the controls, still spaceworthy.
The silver spider blasted away, leaving Antoinette far behind as she finished her high speed turn. She saw two more flashes at the center of a growing blossom of debris and understood, with a sense of numb disbelief, that the fifth and sixth fighters of her eight-ship section had been blown to pieces.
The silver spider rocketed away, skirting the edge of the asteroids.
“Lorraine,” she barked to the remaining pilot of her section. “Follow me!”
“Aye aye, Skip,” came the veteran pilot’s reply. It should have been reassuring, but it only made her afraid: am I going to get him killed too? Despite her fear, the two fighters flashed in pursuit of the silver spider.
Far away, a least a thousand clicks, her scanners picked up eight more engine signatures as Darrison Jackson led the Hornets of the Void Rat’s B section out of the asteroid belt. The young lieutenant must have analyzed the fight immediately, since all of his ships instantly turned. Like eight points of light, they assumed a perfect Double Diamond formation and moved to cut off the flight of the silver spider.
“Get that bastard!” Naya snapped — this time turning her commlink off first, since she knew the command was unnecessary. Instead, she concentrated on pouring all of her power into the Hornet’s thrusters, but even under maximum acceleration she could see the spider pull away from her and Lorraine.
“Watch out — he’s dangerous!” she called to the lieutenant, realizing that the word ‘danger’ didn’t begin to describe the savage lethality of that strange, gangly ship.
She could only watch as Jackson led the eight F7s of his sections in a blazing head-on assault against the mysterious ambusher, eight ships to one. Lasers and rockets blasted from the UEE fighters, clearly visible to the skipper as she approached; she could only assume that the silver spider was shooting back with everything it had. Shields pulsed on the multi-winged ship as blasts and rounds struck home, only to be absorbed by what was obviously a very high level of effective screening.
Then another white spark ignited, another fighter — and one of Naya Antoinette’s pilots — blasted into oblivion by the mysterious assailant. Still one more flashed, Hornet and pilot reduced to cosmic dust.
“No!” the skipper croaked, her voice hoarse, her mind clawing through a sense of disbelief. Surely this couldn’t be happening!
The last two kills left a gap in the Double Diamond formation and the silver spider veered unerringly through it. Jackson and his five remaining wingmen started their long, high speed turns, but the attacker’s speed was too great — and he was already following the bearing the others needed to turn to attain.
In another two minutes Antoinette and Lorraine had nearly caught up to the six B section fighters, but by that time the spider was just a pale flicker on the scanners, already a dozen megameters away. The surviving Hornets grouped around the skipper, but even as they blasted in pursuit at top speed she could see the mysterious attacker dive into the muddle of the asteroid belt.
“No!” she whispered again, but she had to face the truth: Half the Void Rats had been wiped out in a matter of minutes, and they didn’t even know who was to blame.
* * *
Darrison Jackson stood beside Naya as the fire control teams doused the burning wreckage of their Hornets on the hangar deck of the orbital station. The fire aboard the shuttle from Africanus was already suppressed. Judging by the look on the skipper’s face, however, Antoinette’s emotions were blazing in a white hot inferno. No doubt she fought the same bitter memory that now cast such a grim pall over his own thoughts.
“That has to be the same ship, right?” she repeated her question to the lieutenant, her tone accusing.
His own nerves tingled at a fighting pitch, but the younger pilot made an uncharacteristic effort to restrain his angry reply. “Looked like it to me, skipper,” he grunted. “Silver outline, all those wings bristling every which way. Incredible shielding, too.”
“It came with the other attackers, from that false ore carrier,” she stated, as if confirming the facts in her own mind. Jackson nodded. The large ship they’d taken for a miner’s tub had moved in much closer after launching the squadron of attackers. Now it lurked out there, about a dozen clicks away. Some of the attackers had already returned to the carrier, no doubt to replenish weapons and energy. But the enemy squadron, some two dozen ships plus that silver spider, had most certainly not been defeated and Jackson knew they’d be coming back.
“We thought it was maybe a Vanduul ship at first — but here, in the Centauri system?” the skipper wondered aloud. “Can’t say for sure,” Jackson admitted. “That spider ship doesn’t seem like a Vanduul craft, not like any I’ve heard of, anyway.”
They both turned to look through the airlock screen into space. Petty Officer MaClean came up behind them; Jackson didn’t realize he was there until the older man spoke.
“Thanks, L.T. You really pulled my fat out of the fire.”
Jackson had climbed through flames to pull the petty officer and a wounded starman from the wrecked and burning shuttle. The pilot was touched, but he could only shrug. “You’d do the same for me.”
Mac nodded; it was understood. He waved at the lights that flickered in space. Africanus, the Void Rats’ support ship and temporary headquarters, had taken a few hits, but the big old ship seemed to be holding up well so far, with the squadron of attacking fighters only nipping at her flanks like sand rats snapping at a bull lumberhoof.
“Look, there,” the chief said, pointing with his chin. Jackson saw the silver spider rocketing away from the orbital station and joining up with the smaller fighters. As they watched, those ships too flamed back to the support carrier. But they all sensed that the attack had only paused while the enemy replenished their fighter craft. They’d be back, for sure.
“We gotta get that SOB,” the NCO stated in a blunt tone that left no room for argument.
“Maybe you noticed our Hornets are smoldering space junk?” the skipper snapped. Jackson was surprised by the lack of emotion in her face — she had to be remembering the deaths of her pilots, less than a year ago, at the hands of that same silver killer. Every fiber of her being seemed to thrum with cold determination — but frustration and helplessness seemed to be winning out. “We need a ship!”
“We could commandeer a civilian craft,” Mac replied calmly. “Say, that cutter over there?” He indicated a batteredlooking Constellation-class vessel, the closest ship in the wide hangar deck.
Naya blinked, letting the idea sink in. “It’s a legitimate use of the UEEN code,” Jackson pointed out. “Taking temporary control of a civilian ship in an emergency. Africanus is still under attack, and if that isn’t an emergency I don’t know what is.”
He really wasn’t all that sure of the legalities — such matters were well above his pay grade — but he liked the suggestion, and he sensed the skipper did too. Even as he had the thought, he ducked over to the wreckage of his Hornet. The cockpit remained open, and his survival kit box lay within easy reach. In a second he popped the latch and pulled his powerful P4 laser submachine gun from the kit, before turning to rejoin his two comrades in appraising the civilian ship.
At first glance the cutter seemed like a tired old tub of questionable space-worthiness. Blast scars marked her hull in several locations, and her belly turret had been sealed over with an ugly yellow resin that might have kept her pressurization intact, but did nothing for her lines, or her appearance.
“Do you think it would even fly?” Naya wondered.
“Only one way to find out,” Mac replied.
“Let’s go,” the skipper determined abruptly.
They ran across the deck, dodging the damage control crews. Jackson took another look out through the airlock screen and saw the silver spider was already returning to the fray, leading its supporting fighters back toward Africanus. Another barrage from the multi-winged ship took the bigger craft in her aft-quarters, and flashes of fire and white blasts of escaping air glowed against dark space. The big ship lumbered into the beginning of a roll as her engineers fired maneuvering thrusters in an effort to hold her steady.
By then they had reached the cutter, and the close-up view did nothing to embolden their confidence. If the ship had a name, it wasn’t emblazoned on the hull anywhere that they could see. “Probably a smuggler,” Naya surmised contemptuously. She gestured to the dorsal turret, just barely visible atop the hull. “Twin Mark V laser cannons. A little heavy duty for an innocent freighter.”
Jackson had already ducked down and under the ship’s belly, skirting the bulging dome of resin to get a glimpse of a long, grimy barrel sticking like a stinger out of her stern. “She’s an older model Constellation, maybe a Mark 1. Take a look at this,” he said. “Unless I’m way off base, that’s a particle cannon.”
“Definitely not a cargo tub,” Mac agreed, bending down to confirm the lieutenant’s guess. “And she’s parked noseout, like they wanted to be ready for a quick getaway.”
“Which suits our purposes,” the skipper noted. She seemed to be warming to the merits of the ship, and Jackson could see why. The resin covering the missing turret was ugly as sin, but it had been applied evenly and matched smoothly into the hull. That outer surface was scarred, scuffed and stained, but from close up they could see that it was smooth and very solid. The Mark 1 Constellation, though old, had a sturdy hull and mounts for several powerful weapons. It lacked the small onboard fighter of the more current Mark 3 version, but this one seemed to make up for it with some seriously upgraded firepower.
The ship rested on three metal struts, and a quick glance showed that they were solid, heavy duty enough to handle even a very rough landing. It was a workhorse of a ship, but looked like it could work very hard indeed.
“Let’s give the crew the good news,” Naya said wryly. The boarding ramp was already lowered, leading up to a darkened interior. “Back me up, fellas,” she ordered, pulling her helmet — with its darksight adapter — over her tight cap of short blond hair.
Jackson pulled his sidearm and took up a position at her right shoulder. As was his usual practice, he carried a weapon that was a significant upgrade from the typical pilot’s sidearm, the Behring 33 laser pistol. Jackson preferred to carry the short-barrel version of the MaxOx P4. The laser submachine pistol lacked the range of the long-gun, but in close quarters it would certainly live up to the “room-broom” nickname of the lethal repeating energy weapon. He noticed that Mac, from somewhere in the hangar, had secured for himself a Behring, and the CPO took up position at the skipper’s left side, pistol held in firing position.
“This is Lieutenant Commander Naya Antoinette, of the UEEN,” she shouted upward into the ship’s darkened interior. “We are boarding in the face of an extreme emergency! Do not resist, and you will not be taken into custody. Your ship will be returned to you as soon as possible.”
They heard a clunk from somewhere inside the ship, followed by the pounding of footsteps outside. With a gesture, Naya sent Jackson back down to investigate while she and Mac continued up the ramp.
Holding his P4 in both hands, the young pilot darted down the ramp. He spotted a hatchway hanging open between the Constellation’s engines and just caught a glimpse of two men in grimy coveralls sprinting through the open public portal connecting the hangar to the business deck of the orbiting station.
“Looks like the crew gave up without sticking around to argue,” he reported, climbing back up the ramp to find the skipper had turned into the two-seat cockpit. “Two men. They’ve probably already bellied up to the bar in some nearby dive. My guess is you were right about this being a smuggler’s ship.”
“Well, that at least means she’s likely to fly,” Antoinette declared grudgingly. “I’ll have a look at the flight controls. You men check out the rest of the cabin.”
“Aye aye, skip,” Jackson agreed. He started along the passageway toward the engine compartment while Mac slipped into the dorsal turret. Before the pilot had reached the far end of the tube-like corridor the petty officer had the turret powered up. From below, Jackson could hear that it swiveled freely and ran quietly, with barely a vibration passing through the hull.
He checked to port and found a cargo bay, small and compartmented. There was nothing large in there, though he didn’t take the time to look in all the cabinets. To the starboard he found another hold, similar except that thecabinets were open and empty. Perhaps she’d been in the middle of off-loading, he speculated.
Another hatch opened into an equipment locker between the engines, and even a quick glance showed that it was very well equipped. The ship was divided into more compartments than other cutters Jackson had seen — another mark of an older model. He saw racks of spare parts for the engines and guns, as well as an arc-weld station, and a very impressive bank of computer analysis machinery. The circuits were sleeping for now, but a few flashing blue lights confirmed that it wouldn’t take them long to power up.
He reached the last hatch, just above the firing station for the particle cannon. A glance at the power plant and trigger installation confirmed his first guess: this was an A&R Centurion plasma cannon, with a fixed mount for stern fire. In other words, a very potent weapon, certainly nonstandard for an innocent civilian ship whose crew intended to follow all the laws.
He was still admiring the plasma gun as he opened the last hatch, which is probably why he had no warning of the hard fist that jabbed out of the darkness to smash into his nose.
“Dammit!” he cried reflexively, tumbling backward, holding a hand to his bleeding face. He tried to blink away the involuntary tears flowing in response to the pain, while tasting the blood and knowing he was at an extreme disadvantage.
He pulled up the P4 but it was already too late: a figure lunged from the darkness to knock the gun from his hand. Another fist flew toward his pain-wracked nostrils and he barely parried the punch with his free hand.
“Who are you?” his attacker demanded in an unmistakably female voice. “And what in all Hades are you doing on my ship?”
The woman tried a side-kick that would have wrecked his knee, but Jackson had recovered enough to back away, letting her momentum carry her from the darkened cabin. He grabbed her, twisting in the air, and smashing to the floor on top of her. The force of the landing drove the breath from her lungs — and that breath, stinking with whiskey and stale stim-smoke, almost caused the pilot to gag.
He held her down, ignoring the blood that flowed from his surely-broken nose, and glared at her. She was strong, and struggled mightily to get free, but he was bigger and more pissed off.
And she, he guessed, was still drunk. She wore dirty khakis, with a shirt half open — yes, she was female, for sure — and had a greasy, scowling face framed by a mop of unkempt black hair. Nearly blinded by the pain in his nose, Jackson made all this out as he groped for his P4, finding the smooth grip and raising it so the barrel was centered right on her nose.
“What in the whole dark void do you think you’re doing?” she snarled. “Let me go, you son of a bitch!”
“Didn’t you get the word?” he said coldly, powering the laser pistol with a very audible click. “This is our ship now.”
Darrison Jackson sat atop the wild-haired, unkempt woman who had attacked him and glared down at her. She was covered in drops of blood, and he was only vaguely aware that the source was his own face. He was so angry he had to resist the urge to jab the P4 muzzle right into her eye.
“Damn it!” he snapped. “You broke my nose!”
She tried to spit some kind of reply, but when he pressed the laser pistol against her skin her face twisted into kind of a grimace. With a little imagination he could interpret that expression as a smile of cruel glee. With a little more imagination, aided by an imaginary washcloth, a shower and perhaps a day and a half in the drunk tank for detox, he could even interpret that face as being, if not beautiful, at least rather slyly attractive. What the hell was wrong with him — she’d kill him if he gave her half a chance!
“Mac! Skipper!” he shouted, the words sounding weirdly muffled by the blood draining past his mouth.
“Let go of me, you —” The grimy attacker’s objection was cut off as Petty Officer MacClean, racing down the companionway to the stern of the ship, arrived on the scene.
“Are you okay, L.T.? Jeez, you look like hell!” Mac declared, kneeling beside him to help restrain the squirming, desperate woman. “And who are you?” he demanded, as the prisoner on the floor twisted helplessly in the burly petty officer’s grip.
“She claims this is her ship,” the fighter pilot reported. “Though I think she’s a drunk who crawled back here to sleep off a bender.” Grateful for his comrade’s assistance, Jackson slowly rose to a standing position, pressing a hand to his bleeding nose.
“You! What’s your name?” snapped Mac, hoisting the woman to her feet. Her dark eyes flashed resentfully, but after her captor twisted her arms up behind her she evidently decided to talk.
“I’m Sharona Sirene — Captain Sirene to you,” she barked back.
“This rust bucket has a captain?” Jackson declared in a tone of mock amazement.
“This rust bucket is my ship, Plumetail, and she can outrun any pirate ship — for that matter, any damned UEE ship too — in this system or any other!”
“Outrun the pirates?” scoffed the lieutenant. “More likely, you are the pirate!”
Naya Antoinette appeared. She snatched a rag from one of the supply cabinets and handed it to Jackson as she glared at the prisoner.
“This ship is ours now,” she barked, her tone cold and firm. “For the duration of the emergency. The UEEN will compensate you — after deducting for Lieutenant Jackson’s medical expenses.” The skipper glanced at the pilot’s bloody face, raising one eyebrow in mild interrogation.
“What?” he demanded, his temper running high. “She ambushed me. I thought the damned cabin was empty. And we’re in a hurry — remember?”
“I should have broken your neck!” screeched Sirene, until Mac jammed her up against the bulkhead so hard that her voice broke off.
“Give me one reason I shouldn’t break your neck!” the NCO snarled. Jackson knew that MacClean was a kind person, and a gentleman — but the tone in his voice made it seem like he was readily willing to commit murder.
“All right — ease up!” gasped Sirene, apparently reaching the same conclusion.
The flow of blood abated somewhat by the rag he pressed to his face, Jackson looked at his CO quizzically. “What did you find in the cockpit? Is this garbage scow ready to fly?” He was pleased to hear a squawk of protest from Sirene as he tossed the gratuitous insult.
“She’ll do,” Antoinette replied. “I’ve already got her reactors charging up. We can be out of here in thirty seconds.”
“What should I do with this one?” Mac asked, giving Sirene’s arms enough of a twist that her feet almost came off the floor. “Toss her overboard? Maybe smack her nose-first down on the hangar deck? Or just vent her right out to space? Your call, skipper,” he added with apparent relish.
“I told you — this is my ship!” spat the captive, squirming again. “You can’t do this!”
Naya half smiled, then shook her head. She chose to ignore the other woman’s objection as she replied to Mac. “Tie her up and lock her in one of these storage cabins. I don’t want her making trouble on the station while we’re out there. We’ll figure out what to do when this is over.” She fixed her eyes on the captive captain. “Assaulting a naval officer who was duly performing his assigned mission is a serious charge. You’d better think about where you want to take this, from here.”
Jackson, looking back and forth between Naya and Sharona, couldn’t help but contrast the two women. Both were damned hot, each in her own way. The CO was a bit of an ice queen, tall, blond, fair-skinned and coldly beautiful. Even after her fighter had crashed and she’d emerged from its blazing wreckage, she looked clean, almost immaculate. He knew she had a sense of humor, but she rarely revealed it. Clearly she seemed to be taking a bit of enjoyment from the other woman’s predicament — not to mention from the broken nose that had been inflicted on her second-incommand.
Sharona Sirene, on the other hand, reeked of cheap liquor, and her olive skin was marred by smears of grease and other, less savory stains. Her shirt remained open, revealing a slender but definitely female shape — and even when Mac released one of her hands she made no effort to cover herself. Her eyes, dark where Antoinette’s were ice blue, flashed anger and humiliation. He didn’t doubt for a moment that she would slip a knife between his ribs if given half a chance. And yet he could see that beneath the grime and stink she, too, was a stunning woman, beautiful in a very exotic way.
“Lieutenant!” snapped the skipper. Jackson couldn’t help flinching — he had the terrible feeling that, somehow, she’d been reading his thoughts. “The silver spider — we’re taking off after it! Get up to the turret and charge the lasers. Mac, you get on the particle cannon after you secure the prisoner.”
“Wait — what did you do with my crew?” demanded Sirene, looking from one to the next of them.
“Apparently loyalty wasn’t high on their priorities,” Naya said acidly. “They scooted out the back door as soon as we showed up at the front.” She paused, and frowned. “How many men did you have aboard, anyway?” she asked pointedly.
“Just two,” the captain said disgustedly. “They weren’t worth the dry rations I had to feed them.”
“Welcome to the world of command,” the skipper replied. Again, Jackson felt the flush of rebuke, even though she didn’t look at him. With a last wipe of the saturated rag, he turned to hoist himself up the ladder into the turret with the twin Mark V laser cannons. The ship might be old, he told himself, but the battery in the turret was first rate and state of the art. He pulled on the helmet with its targeting scanner, and in a few moments heard Naya’s voice over the intercom ordering him to strap in.
He did, even as he flicked the switches that brought the big, twin-mounted cannons to life. The weapons and installation were fairly standard copies of the military turrets typical on UEEN ships like the Retaliator-class bombers. As such, Jackson knew how to operate the turret and to fire the weapon with speed and accuracy. He powered up the mobility drive as he felt the thrusters come alive below him. The turret was a small dome, almost flat against the dorsal surface of the hull, but well surrounded by Plexi. He had a good view in all directions above the ship, though the broad hull blocked his line of sight from everything even slightly below their level.
The ship lifted off from the hangar deck and Jackson felt the solid click of the landing struts retracting into the hull. The fires from the crash-landed fighters and shuttle had been fully doused, and he saw several dozen of the station’s hangar crew watching from a safe distance as Plumetail eased toward the airlock screen.
With barely a shudder the pirate ship swooped through that invisible but powerful barrier into the vacuum of space. Glancing back, Jackson saw the bright glow of the hangar recede quickly as the skipper accelerated them to the Africanus. Even from here, the starman in the turret could see that the enemy squadron had replenished itself from the ore carrier/mother ship. Now, with the silver spider in the lead, the attacking ships spread out to surround the big, old base ship — the only home the Void Rats had left.
* * *
“Wait — you’re going to need me!” Sharona Sirene insisted, as Mac started to close the door to the small cargo cabin. He’d secured her hands behind her back with a pair of flex cuffs, and determined that the compartment did not have a control that would allow her to open the hatch from within. “I can help you guys — and I want to save my ship. There’s a lot you don’t know about Plumetail! Seriously, turn me loose —”
“Fat chance. Just keep your head down,” he barked, ignoring her barrage of curses as he pulled the hatch shut. She was a fireball, that one, he thought to himself as he jogged aft. He had to admit that he kind of admired her spirit.
He slid through the hatch, dropping into the firing position beside the particle cannon. The space was cramped, but MacClean — a veteran of nearly twenty years in the service — had laid down in tighter spaces. He dropped to his stomach and pulled the targeting helmet over his head, then powered up the gun.
Not surprisingly, it had very limited traverse — it was adamned big weapon for this size of ship, and as such was limited to about a thirty-degree swivel up, down and to either side. Still, anyone who tried to come up on their six would be in for a very unpleasant surprise. He grinned tightly and privately as he pictured the silver spider roaring in, only to meet this unexpected firepower.
With his view limited to the stern, Mac could only see the orbital station behind them, as the glowing disk, home to tens of thousands of souls, shrank into the distance. He readied his hands on the cannon’s firing trigger, made sure that it could swivel freely through its full range of movement . . .
And wondered why he was thinking, again, of the grimy, whiskey-soaked pirate captain locked in the cabin just a couple of meters over his head?
* * *
Antoinette found the cutter surprisingly responsive to the controls. It wasn’t an F7, or any kind of fighter at all, really, but the acceleration that blasted them away from the orbital station pressed her backward with satisfying force, and Africanus grew in size and detail as she studied it through the cockpit Plexi. Clearly Sharona Sirene had invested more in her power plant than in the cosmetic appearance of Plumetail. In spite of herself, the officer found herself impressed by the unique vessel.
Eyes front again, she could see that the big ship’s hangar doors were closed, and she hoped that her two Hornets — the last surviving ships of the original Void Rats — had reached the safety of that hold and had the sense to remain there. She could see the silver spider — the ship was bigger, brighter and more aggressive than any of the other attackers — until it swept around behind the big ship, momentarily blocked from her view.
But there were several targets in the immediate foreground, and she took advantage of the fact that they didn’t seem to regard her scruffy-looking pirate ship as a real threat. The fake ore carrier upon which the attackers were based still stood aloof from the fight, at least two dozen clicks away.
“D-Jack!” she barked. “You have that turret powered up?”
“Aye, Skip. Give the word and I’ll light the bastards up,” he replied. There was no trace of his trademark wisecrack, and she felt completely confident that he would do the job.
“All right. On my signal — in another half minute or so. Mac?”
“All set, Skip. Can’t see crap from down here though, except through the rear window. How about backing up to ’em? I can clear us a nice path.”
She snorted a burst of laughter in spite of herself. “Just wait. I’ll get ’em chasing us soon enough.”
“You’re the boss,” he replied.
Plumetail closed at high speed, and Antoinette dipped the nose to give the dorsal turret a clear field of fire. She saw controls for several rocket launchers oriented forward, but she wasn’t sure about the targeting apparatus and, in any event, she was too busy flying the ship to consider launching them. Off to the side, operated from the copilot’s seat, she noticed an array of controls, including a stick that looked like a targeting marker. She momentarily wondered what that was for — and then they were in the thick of it.
“Now, Jackson!” she snapped, as a couple of the attacking fighters veered from the cargo ship, apparently taking note of the pirate’s aggressive approach. Both of the bogeys turned sluggishly, with irregular bursts from their thrusters, and she guessed they had taken damage in the first round of the battle. She hoped the damage extended to their shields as Jackson brought his turret guns to bear.
Immediately bolts of energy flashed over her head as the lieutenant operated the twin lasers at full power. She yelled in delight when one then the other of the unknown assailants exploded with bright flashes and blossoms of debris. The kills wouldn’t begin to avenge her Rats, not by a damn sight, but she felt the terrible thrill of combat success as the young pilot in the turret turned his attention toward another trio of fighters.
The attackers bolted in different directions, obviously taken by surprise by the stunning attack. Naya veered to starboard in a half-roll, aware that Jackson in the turret still blasted away. One more of the attacking fighters vanished in a cloud of debris, and she angled Plumetail alongside the long hull of Africanus, choosing to pursue a pair of enemy fighters that still persistently blasted away at the larger ship.
She remembered her initial assessment — guess, really — that these were Vanduul raiders. The notion remained a possibility, but raised more questions than it answered. How did they get here, to the Centauri system? What did they want? The Vanduul had been driven out of this system a year earlier, and for all that time had directed their aggression elsewhere. Could it have been the big task force, centered around Gemini, that had kept them at bay? What did they expect to gain here now? Especially by an attack on an orbital station? Even if they destroyed the installation, which would have been no easy task, the essential planet-based strong points of the UEE would remain in place. And besides, the attackers had first gone for Africanus, with only a detachment of them diving in toward the station.
But surely this was more than a raid! How many of these damned fighters were there, anyway? Another one vanished in a blossom of fire, targeted by Jackson’s impressive accuracy, and yet another dozen swarmed together in the distance, a few dozen clicks away. They seemed to be re-forming for another onslaught. And where was the silver spider, anyway? Somehow, it was hard to imagine that unique and capable spaceship as a product of the crudely savage Vanduul.
A solid crump shook through the hull of Plumetail, and the skipper knew that Mac had found a target for his particle beam cannon. Several more reports sounded, and a look in the rear scans showed the debris fields of one or more destroyed enemy ships. Another had lost an engine and now, trailing smoke, it careened crazily through a tumbling cartwheel until it impacted the massive thruster nacelle of Africanus’s starboard engine. The engine remained unscathed, but the fighter vanished into tiny specks of debris.
Antoinette steered the cutter up and over the dorsal surface of the larger ship, as Africanus seemed to regain her stability. The big thrusters flared and the supply ship moved out — sluggishly, perhaps, but still making way.
Plumetail handled like a large fighter, she admitted grudgingly, wondering for a moment about the captain now held prisoner in the supply cabin. Sirene may have been a smuggler or a pirate; the officer was certain that she was more than just a merchant or trader, to have a ship like this.
Her reflections were interrupted by a hard blow that rocked the Constellation-class vessel from stem to stern. Plumetail veered wildly as Naya fought with the controls. The impact had been violent and destructive. She wondered where they’d been hit, when Mac’s voice came crackling over the comm.
“Skipper, that spider came out of nowhere. He’s still on our six. Knocked out the particle cannon with a single shot. I’m leaking air back here.” Considering the emergency, the petty officer’s voice was remarkably calm.
“Are you hurt?” Antoinette demanded, wishing her own voice sounded as level.
“Just scratches. But the cannon is a wreck, and the firing position no longer stable.”
“Evacuate! Back into the hull — get up to the cockpit!” she ordered, struggling to control the ship as it plunged through a series of barrel rolls, barely missing the lighted bridge at the forefront superstructure of Africanus. She imagined she saw the fear on the helmsman’s face, though surely that was her imagination. “Fear on my own damn face, more likely,” she muttered to herself. She hoped Mac would hurry forward — maybe he could operate some of the forward-firing weapons while she concentrated on flying the ship.
And then her concentration focused like a laser beam as a silver shape flashed past, veering around through an impossibly tight turn, a full battery of weapons coming to bear on the crippled, barely controlled, Plumetail.
* * *
Petty Officer MacClean scooted backward out of the cannon’s firing platform, climbed back to the main deck, and slapped the airlock shut. He sealed it with a wrenching twist of the wheel, and tried to climb to his feet.
Only then did he notice the blood. He’d been vaguely aware of the pain when the rocket had impacted the particle gun, but now he saw that his left hand was torn to hell and gone. The little and ring fingers dangled like they were part of a separate limb, and a steady stream of crimson liquid drained from the wide slash across his palm. Grimacing, he pulled out his kerchief and tied it, clumsily, around the grisly wound.
The deck pitched under his feet, violently enough that the gravity compensator couldn’t keep up. He slammed against the bulkhead and slid halfway to the deck before he could arrest his fall. He found himself leaning against the hatch behind which he’d locked Sharona Sirene — and he could hear her shouting inside the compartment.
Ozone and smoke filled the companionway and he knew that the ship had taken more than one serious hit. A sense of guilt tugged at him: he didn’t like the thought of the ship’s captain dying, locked up and bound inside her own ship. At the same time, he remembered her words when he had closed the hatch, her strangely sincere insistence that she could help them. He thought about asking Commander Antoinette’s advice, but as another impact rocked the ship he knew there wasn’t time.
He flipped the latch on the door. Sirene was rolling on the floor, kicking at the hatch, and her foot almost clipped his knee. He was mildly surprised to see that she had somehow wriggled her hands, still bound at the wrists, from her back to her front.
“You said you could help,” he snapped. “What can you do?”
“I can boost our shields, for one thing!” she barked back, equally waspish. “Get me to the cockpit while we still have air to breathe!”
He eyed her warily, hesitating for a fraction of a second before he made up his mind. “What the hell,” he grumbled. “Where are you going to run away to if I take those cuffs off?”
“I’m going to try and save my ship — and all your lives, because there’s no other way around it!” she shouted as he released the bonds. As soon as her hands were free, Sharona darted past him and raced to the cockpit, Mac following right on her heels. He was mildly surprised to realize that the former captive showed no signs of the drunkenness that had seemed to impair her a few minutes earlier. She pushed open the hatch and squeezed into the co-pilot’s seat.
Antoinette looked up in shock, but didn’t dare take her hands off the controls. “How did you —?” she spluttered, until Mac came into view.
“I let her out. She said she could help this ship survive, and I guessed that we could use all the help we could get.”
The skipper looked like she was about to argue, but like the petty officer apparently concluded that desperate situations required desperate solutions. “So, what can you do?” she demanded, as Sirene strapped herself into the seat. Mac braced himself with his uninjured hand on the bulkhead and looked over both women’s heads. Debris and burning bits of flotsam blew past them. The silver spider charged toward them on a head-on course, but the skipper juked the controls hard and the cutter dipped away as the powerful ship swept past.
Remembering its impressive turning ability, Mac was certain that the spider was again poised on their six, and as long as the bastard stayed slightly lower than Plumetail there was not a weapon aboard the smuggler’s ship that could strike him.
Secured in her seat, Sirene quickly took the mysterious control stick. Kicking her foot against an unseen switch on the floor, she released the resin cap that covered the space of the belly turret. The ship immediately steadied, until another blast from the silver pursuer, once again on their tail, rocked them violently.
“Now — channel the reserve power into the shields!” Sirene snapped, sounding like a captain on her own ship.
Naya’s eyes narrowed, but she hesitated only a moment. She flipped the transfer switch, and a thrum of power vibrated through the ship. Jackson, over the intercom, protested that his guns had lost power, but they all ignored him.
And immediately the pummelling sensation, even the noise of the bombardment eased. “That’ll buy us a couple of minutes. Now, turn us around — do a one-eighty!” she barked.
Mac saw the skipper hesitate, and it wouldn’t have surprised him if she’d ordered him to drag the other woman back to her cell. Instead, she nodded curtly and cast a cold glance at Sirene. “I hope you know what you’re doing!”
“Turn!” repeated the pirate captain, but Antoinette had already started the maneuver. She kicked the steering controls with her feet and pulled on the stick. Plumetail continued on its trajectory, but now it flew backward, with a formidable array of guns and rockets facing the silver spider as it maintained its close pursuit.
“You bastard!” snarled Sirene, her voice a mixture of anger and glee. It took Mac a second to realize she was addressing the enemy fighter. She flicked switches, maneuvered a trigger with her left hand, poked buttons on a control panel with her right. Fire brightened the void as at least a dozen rockets exploded forward from hidden tubes in Plumetail’s hull. Two laser Gatlings lit up at the same time, and the full force of the barrage slammed into the silver spider, knocking it into a cartwheeling tumble. Mac even thought he saw a few pieces break off of the mysterious ship.
The large fighter recovered immediately, thrusters flaring as it sparked away, bearing toward the false ore carrier. Eight or ten of its fellow fighters — all that remained of the original two dozen — swarmed after it, zeroing in on the sanctuary of that wide, glowing hold.
“Run your silver ass right out of this system!” the pirate captain jeered.
“Negative — I want his silver ass in my trophy case!” Antoinette declared.
Sirene looked at the female officer appraisingly, and perhaps with a grudging element of respect. However, she shook her head dismissively. “Not gonna happen,” she replied. “At least not today, with that ship. We’ve taken too many hits even to catch him, much less bring him in.”
“What do you mean, ‘him’?” the skipper demanded. “Do you know who he is? What that silver spider is?”
“Even better,” Sharona Sirene replied confidently. “I know what he wants. And I just kept him from getting it.”
“What the hell is he after?” Antoinette questioned.
“Not an it,” Sirene answered smugly. “A person. More specifically, a female person who thinks she’s too high and mighty for her own good — one who gets her people killed without melting the ice in her veins. One who doesn’t give a crap about anyone else so long as she keeps getting promoted.”
The skipper’s jaw dropped as she stared at Sirene through suddenly narrowed eyes. “I imagine you have some reasoning behind that explanation. I can’t wait to hear it.” Her voice was almost level, but shivered with an undertone of dangerous fury.
“I finally clued in when I saw your stripes. He wants you. Wants you dead, more to the point.”
“That’s ridiculous!” MacClean sputtered. “You don’t really believe that, do you?” To his surprise, the skipper actually seemed to be thinking seriously about Sirene’s ludicrous assertion. “Do you?” he repeated, more warily.
“Want me to shut her up, skipper?” Jackson’s voice crackled, flat and menacing, through the comm. “I owe the bitch a broken nose.”
But Antoinette’s fury melted away in the face of her own reflection. When she spoke, her voice was level, and full of regret. “It makes sense, in a way. He’s attacked twice, both times against my squadron, and he could know I commanded it. He set up the attacks to take out our Hornets, about as brutally and efficiently as possible.”
“But why would he want you dead?” the petty officer pressed, utterly confused.
“Not so much because of me,” Antoinette replied, somewhat distantly. “It’s because of my father. But that’s a story for another day.”
To be continued in Fall 2943 . . .
Having commandeered the cutter Plumetail and her reluctant captain, Sharona Sirene, the surviving Void Rats have driven off the enemy fighter squadron that menaced their small carrier, Africanus, but they were frustrated by the escape of the enemy’s lead fighter, a small but powerful ship of unprecedented lethality they call the Silver Spider . . .
Plumetail came to rest in the reserve hangar of Africanus’s vast hold. Located in the stern, the compartment was usually tasked with loading cargo and storing the ship’s shuttle. That shuttle was now a smoldering hulk on the hangar deck of the nearby commerce station in the Centauri system. Though the battered old carrier had taken hits in the recent fracas, the hatch on her stern surface — a mechanical door, as opposed to the see-through force-field airlocks on the more sophisticated orbital station — was still intact, and before Lieutenant Commander Naya Antoinette popped the cutter’s hatches she was able to confirm that the pressure between the two vessels had equalized.
That didn’t mean that the air within Africanus was pleasant to breathe, however — a fact Antoinette realized as soon as she stepped down Plumetail's ramp. The lingering stink of battle filled the compartments and companionways of the old battle cruiser that had been reconfigured as a carrier a half century ago. The skipper tried not to gag as sulfurous smoke, stinging ozone, and even the stench of organic residue clogged her nostrils. She could have stopped to grab a breathing mask, but she was in too much of a hurry to reach the bridge and speak to Captain Marker.
“Stay here — I’ll see what’s going on,” she ordered the other three people who had followed her off the shuttle. Chief Petty Officer MacClean was already looking around the cargo hold, no doubt scouring the area for resources and supplies that would be needed to make repairs. Lieutenant Jackson, his normally handsome face distorted by the swollen mess of his broken nose, and Sharona Sirene, the pirate captain who had broken that nose, glared at each other in hostility as Naya quickly made her way through the central companionway of the ship’s long hull.
She found Captain Marker on the bridge, with the great dome of Plexi open to a view of space above and before the ship. Right now that space of the Centauri system was deceptively peaceful; the star itself was out of sight below the hull, and the glowing image of the orbital station was just a spot of light some hundred kilometers away. A few burn marks, a hole and other assorted dents marked the parts of the hull Naya could see, proof of the savage attack Africanus had just survived.
At her approach the captain lifted his gray head, which he had been supporting with his hands. His expression of dismay brightened a bit as she came through the hatch.
“Naya! Thank heaven you’re alive! After I saw your fighter wing get hit in that first attack —”
“I know,” she said, more brusquely than she had intended. Marker had been a colleague of her father’s through decades in the UEEN, and usually she welcomed his avuncular affection and appreciated his sincere concern for her well-being — not to mention his skillful and friendly mentoring that had meant so much to the success of her career. Now, however, her squadron was shattered, her career probably a shambles, and she wouldn’t give a cup of warm spit for concern of her own well-being.
“How many casualties?” she asked, remembering the smells of blood and roasted flesh that lingered throughout Africanus.
“Four dead, a dozen wounded,” Marker replied briskly. “Aboard my ship, in any event. We have two of your Hornets in our number one hangar bay, both intact, with the pilots also aboard and unwounded.” He left several questions unspoken, and Naya filled the gap. “Jackson and MacClean came back with me. Your shuttle was destroyed reaching the station, but Mac did a hell of a job bringing it in for a crash landing on the hangar deck. I think all of the passengers made it out — one starman was burned, but Mac pulled him out and saved his life.” She paused. “What about the attackers, sir?”
“You messed them up pretty good. Bastards lost at least half, maybe more, of their fighters. Of course, that silver one with all the wings made it out of here, back to that mining ship. Once the little ones were aboard, the big one made for the jump point. I’m afraid it’s long gone.”
“It’s the same son of a bitch who ambushed my squadron in the Nexus system,” Antoinette declared bitterly.
Marker nodded and opened his mouth to speak, but his words were forestalled by the swift opening of the bridge hatchway. A young petty officer stood there uncertainly.
“Begging your pardon, sirs,” she said to the captain and lieutenant commander. “But we request orders regarding your . . . passenger? Or is she a prisoner?” She directed the question at Naya, and Marker raised a questioning eyebrow.
“She’s a —” Naya’s anger flared, but she bit back her harsh retort before vocalizing it. She made an effort to remember the flight of Plumetail and the vicious dogfight objectively, and then she explained.
“Actually, she pulled our fat out of the fire. That cutter is her ship, and it’s a damned capable fighter. Very fast and maneuverable for its size. I commandeered it on the station to get us back to the fight. At first I had her locked up, but Mac released her after we took a few hits. We wouldn’t have driven off the Silver Spider without her help.”
She remembered something else, a conversation she’d had with the pirate captain at the end of the fight. “She also claims to know why that bastard has it in for my squadron,” she admitted.
“Then maybe we’d better have a talk with her,” suggested Marker. He seemed to have shaken off his despair, and his firm tone indicated the “suggestion” was more along the lines of an order.
“Yes, sir. Of course.” She addressed the petty officer. “Have Lieutenant Jackson escort the pris — er, our guest — up to the bridge.”
* * *
“The jump engine is disabled, Chief,” a gloomy engineer’s mate explained to CPO MacClean. “We won’t be leaving this system until we can get some big parts delivered. From a very long ways away.”
“And from a previous century, too,” Mac growled. He was the senior NCO on Africanus, transferring here with the rest of the Void Rats. Though his first priority had concerned the maintenance and battle-worthiness of Antoinette’s Hornets, he had taken an interest in the old ship, and had been impressed by the number of effective — and relatively inexpensive — modifications her crew had made to keep the big vessel spaceworthy and reasonably comfortable.
Now he’d learned that the chief engineering officer, a lieutenant commander, lay in the hospital with a serious concussion. His assistant, a second lieutenant, had been reduced to a shivering bundle of nerves by his first exposure to combat and was currently sedated in sick bay, so it would be up to the petty officers and starmen to get the ship back into some semblance of working order.
“How’s the atmo through the ship?”asked the chief.
“All sections are intact again,” the starman explained. “We had a few leaks to patch, though.”
“Get the air scrubbers online, all of them. Even the reserves.”
Mac knew the order was redundant. The ship’s ventilation systems already strained to filter the air throughout the long hull, while her propulsion was limited to the maneuvering thrusters that would carry her, slowly, around the Centauri system and nowhere else.
“What about the hangar deck?” he asked.
“The hatch took a few hits, but I made that repair a priority. She’s airtight again, and the two Hornets there are refitted and replenished, ready for launch.”
“Good man,” Mac stated, pleased to see that the young mate had his priorities in order. “Now, let’s go see about those engines . . . .”
* * *
“My father made his name as a captain in the UEEN,” Naya explained for Sirene and Jackson’s benefit, since Captain Marker was well acquainted with her family history. The four of them had retired to the privacy of Marker’s cabin. “He went after pirates and took part in a few fleet engagements, including some of the larger battles against the Vanduul. His accomplishments were enough to get some headlines, earn some promotions.”
“But that wasn’t his most important work, was it?” Sirene suggested, with a sly look that, to Jackson, made her thin, dark face and pointy nose resemble a fox’s. Even as he admired that look, he was surprised by the content of her words, and turned expectantly to his tall, blonde skipper. Antoinette’s usual haughty demeanor — he tended to think of her as an ice-queen — was surprisingly shaken, leaving her looking uncharacteristically troubled. It was the first time the subordinate pilot had seen her anything less than completely self-assured.
“No,” Naya acknowledged with a slight shake of her head. “His reputation was really established behind the scenes, in Unit 0811.”
Jackson blinked, surprised by that admission. Like all officers in the UEEN, and many civilians, he had heard rumors about the mysterious wing of the navy that specialized in new technologies and advanced system designs. Very few people were cleared with a “need to know” on Unit 0811; to most the black ops section was simply a matter of speculation and gossip. It was the latter, in fact, that had attracted notoriety to the secretive unit — stories were rife about cost overruns, scandals and extra-legal operations of questionable tactical worth and even shakier moral justification. Every once in awhile a story about the unit would make it to a news broadcast, but those stories tended to quickly disappear. Some few 0811 officers had risen to positions of fame and flag rank; more often, the branch was known for destroying careers, with many projects ending in courts martial, and even a few whispered cases of people being “disappeared” because of what they knew.
Now, Naya surprised them by talking about the section with unprecedented frankness. “My father was a rear admiral, a department head in Unit 0811, for the last decade of his career. He was working on a unique operating system for small ships, something that allowed the pilot to link his intentions and commands to his ship’s drives, shields and weapons with an organic connection. The system had advanced beyond the test stage, far enough that several prototypes were built, and good pilots were being trained to fly them.”
“Wait a minute. By ‘organic,’ you mean the ship’s controls had a connection right into a pilot’s nervous system?” Jackson asked in surprise. “It tapped into his brain?”
“More or less, yes. I gather it was sort of a wireless plug that could pick up the impulses of a trained pilot’s central nervous system, and convert those impulses into commands to the ship. He or she could instantaneously activate screens, weapons and maneuver drives, that sort of thing.”
“That would revolutionize space combat!” the young fighter pilot immediately perceived. Every second mattered in a dogfight, and any system that could speed up the transfer of a pilot’s intentions to the performance of his ship could be a life saver.
“Well, yes. It would have if it had worked. And to an extent it did — the ships performed amazingly well, during the early trials. But it soon turned out that there was a terrible cost,” Naya continued. Now it seemed like she was having to work hard to force out the words. “Some two dozen pilots were trained and . . . prepared to use the technology. You see, there had to be some surgical modifications to the pilot before he or she could connect to the ship.”
“Brain surgery, you mean?” Captain Marker asked. His face wore a disturbed frown.
“Yes, neurosurgery to establish the connectors to broadcast the brain’s commands. There were some initial successes. But also a high rate of pilot casualties. Most of them seemed to fall sick after one or two flights. I don’t think any of them were cleared to return to duty. Then the project was abruptly disbanded.”
“Did the pilots die?” Marker followed up.
“I’m not entirely sure. Dad talked about it a little, when he knew he was near the end. He told me that the pilots, they . . . well, they lost a great deal of their own intellect, very quickly. In some cases, most of them, it proved fatal. Even before death the pilot was essentially disabled by the stress on the brain. And I mean disabled to the point where they couldn’t feed themselves, didn’t recognize their own parents, spouses, children. Like that,” she concluded forlornly. Her father’s despair had seemed a cruel burden for him to bear at the end of his life. Now she wondered if that despair had reached beyond his grave, a curse on the next generation of Antoinettes.
“I’m pretty sure one of those test pilots is still alive,” Sirene declared bluntly, as if reading her thoughts. The comment startled the three navy officers who had virtually forgotten her presence. “And I had enough of the bastard’s paw prints on me to assure you he is not in any way disabled. At least, not physically.”
“You know this how?” challenged Naya, visibly shaken by the allegation.
“I’ve met him. His name is Zather Dane, and he’s now a crime lord. Powerful, but not terribly well-known — he’s very secretive. He operates out of a base in the Nul system. That fighter — the one you call the Silver Spider — is his ship. I first saw it a few years back, when Dane had me in for a . . . visit.”
“And you think he’s using this brain connection technology in it?” Jackson asked pointedly.
“I assume so,” the pirate captain replied with a shrug. “He was trying to recruit me, and gave me a tour of his base. I got a look at the ship, but the cockpit was off limits. He was a weird-looking guy: half his skull was a chrome plate with wires and connectors built right in.”
“And that’s what lets him control his ship?” queried the pilot.
“Not just the ship. That bastard could move . . . things . . . just by waving his hands. I saw him dump a personal hovercraft from across a room. A fellow was flying in to make a report, and Dane thought he wasn’t showing enough humility or something. So he waved his hand, and the hoverbike flipped upside down. The guy is a complete and unapologetic bully. And he’s king of his own little hill, so no one I saw dared to stand up to him.”
“Okay, wait a minute,” Jackson interrupted, trying to comprehend her descriptions. “First, what kind of things could he move?”
Sharona shrugged. “Machines, I guess. He had a motorized chair he liked to ride in. He could wave his hand and bring it to him from across the room. He also had a hovercar that he drove all over the place — never once touched the controls when I was with him. It’s not too far of a jump from there to imagining he could mentally control his fighter.”
“And what about people? You said he controlled them. Did he hypnotize them or something?” Antoinette pressed.
“I got more of a hint about that. His minions, servants, soldiers, whatever, they have to wear collars. They were silver rings — the ones he had on his female attendants were studded with diamonds and other precious stones. I think that’s how he influences their actions. At least, everyone he jerked around — and he liked doing it, I could tell — was wearing one of those. He tried to slip one on me, which is when I decided it was time to give him the slip.”
“How did you get away?” Jackson wondered.
“That joker couldn’t get up off the floor fast enough to chase me,” she replied smugly. “And from the amount of blood, I think he was dealing with a broken nose.” She chuckled grimly and Jackson winced, involuntarily touching a hand to his own still-sore face.
“What kind of visit did you make? Why didn’t you report this?” snapped Naya, drawing a look of scorn from Sirene.
“Report to whom? And what should I have told them? You know as well as I do that I’d have been in a world of trouble, just for visiting that base.” Her expression grew dark, even bitter. “Truth is, he was trying to recruit me to pilot for him, and he offered me more money than I’ve ever seen before. But he moves slaves through there. Hundreds of them, all sentient races. He’s made a cargo-load of money doing that, and even worse, he seems to like it.
“But I don’t,” Sirene continued vehemently. “Once I learned what was going on with him, I pretended to consider his pitch, but I got out of there as soon as I could. I don’t think he was happy that I got away.”
“You weren’t tempted by the money?” Naya probed.
“I hate slavers,” Sirene snapped angrily, glaring around the compartment, challenging anyone to argue. “And he’s a real bad one. At least half crazy, it seemed to me. He has all his, I don’t know, minions or whatever you want to call them, wearing these silver collars. He wanted them to call him Caesar, if you can believe that! I admit, I didn’t connect him to the UEEN, at least not at the time. I told you, we didn’t part on exactly friendly terms. I just barely made it back to Plumetail, and I wasted no time blasting out of there.”
“If he’s got such a comfortable and profitable empire to run, why would this Dane guy rock his boat by going after the Void Rats?” Jackson wondered aloud. “I mean, with a stronghold and unlimited funds—“
“I think he wants revenge,” Sirene said, turning again to Naya. “Against your father. And since he’s dead, you presented the next best target.”
“And what makes you think he was one of my father’s test pilots?” Naya asked again, but she was afraid she already knew the answer.
“I didn’t make the connection till I heard your story, but now I’m sure of it. He’s ex-military, to the core. But he also referred to an old unit. His fellow pilots, he referred to them . . . they all died. Because of some admiral who Dane claims had his hand out, taking bribes to overlook safety considerations. He was agitated when he talked about it. Of course, he got agitated a lot; he’s not the most stable fellow I’ve ever been acquainted with. He was a braggart, too. Told me he had busted out of a hospital by manipulating the machines the doctors were using to control him.”
“It might be that the procedure, the neurosurgery, encountered some kind of mutation within him, that allowed him not only to survive, but to apply his mental powers to other kinds of machines, as well,” Captain Marker suggested.
“Makes as much sense as anything,” Sirene admitted. “Like I said, he had that kind of a remote control ability with his personal transport. He was an arrogant son of a bitch, too. I’m sure his vanity is relishing the notoriety he can gain by taking on a whole squadron of Hornets with just one ship.”
“More to the point,” Jackson interjected. “Do you know where this scum-bucket can be found?”
“I’ve got a general idea,” Sirene acknowledged. “At least, I can narrow it down to the fifth planet in the Nul system. It’s a waste world, uninhabited by anyone except the rankest kind of criminal, but Dane has created one hell of an installation there to be his headquarters. He even has a personal arena — and it’s huge — where he parades his slaves before potential customers. You probably know that Nul is one of the busiest illicit trading hubs in the known universe. They hold a very secret slave market there on an irregular basis. By invitation only,” she added dryly. “And Zather Dane is king of the hill when it comes to that circus.”
“You were invited?” Naya challenged.
Sharona shook her head. “Not to that party. But I’m sure it would have come to that if I’d joined his team.”
“Sir,” Antoinette said, turning to Captain Marker. “I request permission to take my squadron to the Nul system and hunt down this Zather Dane in his lair.”
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” Sirene asked, a hint of nastiness in her voice.
Antoinette looked irritated for a moment, then stricken as the reality hit. Jackson suspected she was remembering that the Void Rats were down to two intact Hornets — hardly enough for an interstellar strike force, especially when taking those two fighters would leave Africanus essentially defenseless. The squadron commander looked almost defeated, though she clenched her jaw in defiance and glared at the pirate captain.
“I have an idea,” Jackson proposed, addressing Sirene. “You sound like you have a bone to pick with this Zather Dane. Why don’t we go in your ship? You’ve shown us that Plumetail can really hold her own in a fight. And from your own words, it sounds like this may well prove to be a profitable excursion.”
“An excursion?” Sirene’s tone was contemptuous. “Oh, you mean like a vacation, or a sight-seeing trip?”
“No. He means a chance to get revenge. For you, for me, for all of us. And to remove one useless rat-bastard from the universe, and make sure that no one else gets his hands on that screwed-up technology.” Antoinette spoke harshly and then faced the pirate captain directly.
“At least, I want revenge, for my Void Rats, for my father, for the navy. If you come along, I’d suggest you be authorized to carry away as much of that treasure hoard as you think you could carry.”
Surprisingly enough, Sharona Sirene appeared to be seriously considering the lieutenant commander’s proposal.
* * *
“Everyone strapped in for the jump?” Antoinette asked, before casting a sideways glance at Sirene.
The pirate captain smiled slightly, then shrugged. “You can see that I am,” she replied.
The two women occupied the flight deck of Plumetail, while Jackson sat above in the dorsal turret and MacClean stretched out in the tail, ready to use the newly-repaired particle cannon. The chief had personally supervised the restoration of the powerful gun, and in a matter of a few hours had confirmed that it was ready for action. Less than six hours after bringing the cutter aboard Africanus, the crew of four had taken their seats and gotten under way. Since they didn’t want to jump directly from Centauri to Nul, suspecting they might be anticipated, they had taken the extra step to make the jump from the Croshaw system, and were now poised for their final transit.
The two men acknowledged their readiness over the comm, but Naya hesitated. “You take the helm for the jump,” she finally said, shaking off her reluctance.
“Don’t mind if I do,” Sirene answered.
Her supple, thin fingers stretched across the controls as she applied power to the jump drive. The ship shuddered slightly as the computer program took over, steering them through the maze of interspace. Finally, with barely a shiver, they emerged from the shimmering aura of the jump point into the Nul system.
“Bogey — dead ahead!” barked Jackson, even as the alarms blinked and sounded through the ship. A long, metallic ship lay sideways across their path. The vessel was huge, battered-looking, and terribly familiar.
“It’s that carrier!” snapped Antoinette, recognizing the huge ship that had originally appeared to be an ore hauler — until its hatches burst open to disgorge a whole squadron of lethal fighters, led by the Silver Spider. “How the hell did they know we’d be coming in from Croshaw?”
“This is the same way I came last time I visited; bastard must have anticipated me. So much for the element of surprise,” Sirene muttered as she instinctively pushed Plumetail into an emergency dive. The maneuver carried the cutter beneath the ventral surface of the big carrier, even before the enemy ship had opened up with a single shot.
“Or it may have just been the luck of the draw — I bet all the JPs are guarded, and it might simply be her turn for sentry duty. Either way,” Mac observed laconically, “I think she fell asleep at the gate.”
Finally a laser battery blinked from the carrier’s bow, lashing a few hastily-aimed bolts of energy past Plumetail’s stern.
“Permission to return fire —” Jackson’s voice came over the comm, but Naya was already barking her orders.
“Give that bastard everything you can! D-Jack, try to take out that laser battery, any other guns you can see as well. Mac, shoot for the engines.”
Immediately the two men opened up. The twin Mark V lasers in the turret swiveled, locking onto the bow gun of the carrier. Jackson fired a blast that stitched a line of fire through the faux-miner’s hull, neatly excising the laser battery that had opened the festivities. Meanwhile MacClean lined up his particle cannon on the control surface of the enemy’s starboard engine nacelle. The big weapon packed a powerful punch; the lack of a full turret limited Mac’s tracking ability and field of fire, but the Sirene had the ship perfectly aligned for a killing sting out the stern. His first bolt was negated by the suddenly activated screen, but the second shot tore through the barrier and ignited a cascade of sparks on the engine surface. He grunted in appreciation as he watched large pieces of metal break from the drive mechanism and spin away into space.
“Any small ships on the scanner?” Sirene snapped, flipping switches and then pulling Plumetail into a hard, banking turn. She took care to keep the particle cannon aligned on Mac’s target.
“Nothing in the vicinity. I’ll expand the view,” Naya replied. In the stress of battle, she didn’t have time to consider the irony of taking orders from this ragged pirate captain. Besides, there was a certain competency in Sharona Sirene that the tightly-wound naval officer found herself respecting, almost in spite of herself.
“I’ve gone system-wide,” she continued, leaning in and frowning. “There’s a lot of traffic out there.”
The star called Nul was a pulsating yellow supergiant, currently in the midst of an uptick in size and brilliance — it was too bright to look at directly, even at this distance and through the shaded Plexi of the cockpit screens. Quickly Antoinette located and marked the images of the system’s planets, all but one apparently lifeless and uninhabited. Because of the pulsating star, Nul had long been abandoned by legal Human interests, and though it was a known haven for smugglers and slavers, such clandestine activities would not be revealed in the harsh glow of a system-wide scan.
“Most of the traffic is in stable orbits,” Antoinette noted, still examining the scanner. “But we’ve got someone making speed, coming our way from the fifth planet. Coming fast.”
“That will be your Spider, I’m thinking,” Sirene replied with remarkable calm. “We’d best get ourselves out of the line of fire.”
“I took out a belly turret!” whooped Jackson, his voice shrill in the comm. “And Mac has that engine dribbling parts like a broken gearbanger!”
“Cease fire!” Sirene barked. “We’re going dark.”
She pulsed the engines once, a full blast of power that accelerated the cutter away from the jump point. Naya checked the rear scans. She could make out the big guard ship; her starboard engine glowed dangerously and the spot where Jackson had taken out the belly turret spewed smoke and debris into the vacuum of space. Another glance at the wide-scan showed the hot-spot of the other ship, the vessel Sirene had confidently labeled as the Spider, still closing fast.
But now Plumetail had soared far from the jump point, on an arcing course that would take them very near Nul’s first, heat-scorched planet, a heavy-metal roundel orbiting terribly close to the fully expanded volume of the pulsating star. Radiation and cosmic particles bombarded them as they swept in to Nul I, but Sirene didn’t activate her maneuver thrusters until they were almost even with the steaming, virtually molten rock. “If he followed us on his own scanner,” she explained grimly, “he might think we’re disabled, crashing into the star.”
Only then, when the interference was thick enough to cancel out almost any search program, did she curl in and slow down, barely a thousand klicks above the sunward side of the world. The scorched ball of rock lay between them and the rest of the system.
Naya glanced nervously at the temp regulators, seeing that the outer skin of the cutter was already growing dangerously hot. “What now?” she finally asked, startled by the dryness of her own mouth.
“Now we wait,” Sharona Sirene replied. “And hope we don’t burn to a crisp before that bastard gives up the hunt.”
Three UEEN starmen and a rogue captain have taken the cutter Plumetail to the Nul system, where they seek a vicious slaver named Zather Dane. Dane is an ex-military pilot, subject of an experimental neurosurgery that has rendered him uniquely capable of manipulating machinery with his mind, including his very advanced and deadly fighter, the “Silver Spider.”
The temperature inside Plumetail’s cabin continued to rise as the ship held steady in her position, on the starward side of the metallic planet Nul I. The cutter remained a good thousand klicks above the planet, her ventral surface facing the searing inferno of the pulsating star. Through the dimmed Plexi overhead the four Humans could see the smoldering, storm-tossed planetary surface of what looked like a sea of molten iron. The liquid metal glowed red, and in places wicked cyclones roiled. Where these vortexes concentrated, the temperature on the planet’s surface rose to yellow-heat.
Volcanoes spewed more crimson liquid from around the rim of the vast molten sea. In places black clouds obscured the atmosphere, though — for good or ill — the cutter currently hung above an area of clarity. Lieutenant Commander Naya Antoinette, in her unfamiliar position in the co-pilot’s seat, found that she couldn’t take her eyes off the searing, tempestuous landscape.
“Permission to close the screens,” asked D-Jack, the lieutenant’s voice hoarse through the commlink. “It’s getting damned hot up here in the turret.” Antoinette didn’t hesitate. “Yes, button up and come on down into the hull. You too, Mac,” she added, to the chief petty officer manning the powerful particle cannon in Plumetail’s stern. “You guys can work on your tans later.”
It was with visible relief that the two starmen joined the women in the cockpit, where at least the cooling system, at full bore, had a little success in holding the killing heat at bay. The lieutenant’s face was coated in a sheen of sweat, while the normally stoic MacClean allowed himself the luxury of leaning against a bulkhead.
“Seems like the heat is helping with the swelling on your nose,” Naya observed tartly, eyeing her subordinate’s face. Jackson winced, and glowered at Sharona Sirene. The dark-haired, petite pirate captain, who had broken that nose within moments of their first meeting, pointedly avoided the bait.
“How long are we going to wait here?” Jackson asked, finally.
“As long as we can stand it,” Sirene replied. “The ship that was waiting for us at the jump point obviously was a sentinel, so we have to assume that Zather Dane knows we’ve arrived. My hope is that he thinks we got blasted to pieces by that sentry ship — I tried to make it look like we were crashing into Nul, before I pulled around behind this planet. And I don’t think he’ll come this close to the sun to seek us out, so if we can handle a day or two of this, he might let his guard down.”
“While our heat index climbs through the roof,” groused the lieutenant.
In the end, they were able to last a little more than twenty-four hot, punishing hours in the star-scorched inferno reflected from Nul I. Mac and Jackson were drenched in sweat, all but passed out in the narrow companionway beyond the cockpit, while Naya dozed fitfully in the co-pilot’s seat. She awakened when she heard Sharona Sirene stir beside her.
“We gotta move,” the pirate captain whispered hoarsely, “but real quiet like.”
Naya nodded, and flipped the switches to activate the power plant. She set the screens to full power while Sirene eased the ship around the curve of the scorched, hellish planet below them. Soon they were out of the reflected glare between star and rock, and though the temperatue effect in the cabin was not immediate, they both took heart from the surrounding darkness.
Slowly accelerating, Sirene directed Plumetail away from the star and towards the bulk of Nul V, which glowed as light as a bright star before them. She kept an eye on Plumetail’s heat displays to monitor other ship activity. Antoinette got out of her seat and went back to where the two men lay sweaty and prostrate on a pair of mats. They stirred groggily when she tapped their shoulders.
“We’re on the move,” she told them. “Better take up stations at the guns . . . just in case.”
“Aye aye, Skipper,” Jackson replied, while Mac nodded his assent. They returned to the turret and tail gun, respectively, and Naya went back into the cockpit.
“What’s your plan?” asked the officer, as the cooling systems gradually brought the cabin down to a comfortable temperature.
“There’s traffic around Nul V,” Sirene replied, gesturing to the screen of the system display. “Mostly doing stuff of which you would not approve.”
Naya winced, but knew that the pirate spoke the truth. She could see dozens of images on the radar scans, each representing a ship maneuvering or holding in space. Those vessels currently under way swerved and slashed through space, and in at least two places she saw the telltale flashes that indicated laser or rocket fire exchanges. Such violence would have attracted considerable attention in most systems, but here in Nul, she realized, the rest of the ships and crews simply seemed to veer around these sporadic dogfights.
“We’re going to make our way out to that party, blend in from the edges, and see whatever we can see. And then we’re going to move in and take that slimy bastard out.”
“That’s something I can endorse,” the lieutenant commander declared. She settled back into her seat, put her hands on the controls, and fixed her attention on that glowing white speck in the blackness of space.
* * *
It took much longer to make the approach, since Sirene took great care not to flare her engines or do anything else to attract attention. By the time they neared Nul V, the scanners were alive with traffic, with a number of ships moving through the space around them.
“Not many of them coming into or leaving the system,” Antoinette commented, after watching the traffic pattern for a few hours. “They’re mostly just circling around out there.”
“I imagine it’s almost market-time,” Sirene noted. “The customers and the vendors are gathering for the big event.”
Naya remembered that this was rumored to be a major slaving outpost, and she stiffened in outrage at the thought of the helpless captives being hauled here to face unimaginable fates. She silently renewed her resolve to take down Zather Dane and avenge her slain Void Rats.
As they drew nearer and zoomed the scanners in for more detail, she became aware of ships taking off from and landing on the planet.
“What’s the planetary surface like?” she asked.
“It’s a desert world. Sand and wind, with a few sharp mountain ranges here and there. Very little oxygen, so breathers are needed for more than a couple minutes’ exposure. Plus, your skin and anything you wear can get sandblasted off of you if you’re not careful.”
“I can tell there’s more than one landing zone, but their specific locations aren’t obvious,” the officer commented. “A smuggler’s dream, I guess.”
Sirene nodded. “The planet is impossible to secure, and they like it that way. Gravity is tolerable: a little less than one point oh. The installations are underground — except for one squatter city they made out of a crashed starship. There’s no central authority, so anyone with a team of workers and the budget to pay for them can hack a base out of the bedrock.”
“And each base has its own LZ?” Naya asked in surprise. “Some do, some don’t,” Sirene answered. “A few slave lords have their own strongholds on world, but a lot of the smaller operations share hangar and dock space. I know Dane has one dedicated to his own operation — he keeps his ship in a hangar built into the side of a mountain. But he also makes use of the biggest shared station, for landing large cargoes and so forth.”
“Can you mark those spots for me?”
The pirate captain nodded, and punched numbers into her geo-scanner. A contour of the world’s surface appeared, showing mostly the sandy, windswept dunescape she’d described. She zoomed in on a range of massive, blackstone mountains. Jagged peaks jutted like a saw-blade into the airless sky, and a blinking light showed on a cliff near the top of the tallest summit. “That’s his base. He has a goodsized hangar, though I think he only keeps the Silver Spider there. The rest of his men — he calls them ‘torques,’ I remember, ’cause of those silver collars he makes them wear — use that commercial site, right there.” She indicated another busy hub, just beyond the base of the mountain range.
“That’s only a hundred klicks or so from his base,” Naya observed.
“Yep. He likes his privacy, but also wants to be close to the action.”
“What kind of security can we expect, if we land there?” the officer asked, her heart sinking. She wondered how they’d ever manage to approach, much less penetrate, Dane’s fortress.
“Not as much as you’d find at, say, a military post,” Sirene answered breezily. “We pirates like our privacy, and are used to carrying weapons. There won’t be any bio-IDs. Sidearms are allowed, even expected. They will stop you from taking a bomb down there, though. There’s a tube system from that hub that goes to Dane’s arena. Anyone who buys a ticket can take the ride.”
In another hour they had joined the queue of ships moving toward the large landing zone Sirene had identified. Ships were touching down and taking off about once a minute, and within a short time they had dropped down to the surface. The pirate captain deftly guided her ship under the overhang of a black slab of rock, through an electronic airlock, and up to a vacant berth along the wide arc of the dock. Several dozen ships, in an array of sizes, occupied the spaces to port and starboard. Surprisingly, to Naya, no one approached Plumetail to make an inspection or to check documentation. Instead, the captain just punched a docking fee credit into the commlink, and they were authorized to stay, load or unload as they wanted.
They had decided, collectively, that Jackson and Mac, dressed in civilian coveralls left behind by Sirene’s fleeing crew, would make the initial reconnaissance. Sirene, who was known to Dane, and Antoinette, the target of his vengeance, would stay on the ship until they got word from the two men.
It wasn’t much of a plan, they all realized. But it was all they had until they could get the lay of the land, and some intel about the opposition.
* * *
“Swallow this,” Antoinette ordered, handing Jackson a small capsule.
“Trying to poison me now?” he asked sardonically, though he recognized the device and knew its purpose. It was a tracking signal, tuned to a very high frequency. It would broadcast only for short bursts, at a pre-programmed interval, but if the skipper used a scanner timed precisely to that interval, she would be able to track his location. The long gaps between broadcasts, on the other hand, were designed to minimize the chance that any hostile forces would be listening in. Also, if he were captured, a simple electro-search would be unlikely to reveal the presence of the sender.
Unless, of course, he was so unlucky that the search occurred at the exact moment of a broadcast. But there was nothing to be done about that.
Naya then handed him a second small capsule, this one with a single switch on its end. “If you find yourself in an emergency, flip that switch. The tracker will emit a steady burst of power that will set off alarms back here, and we’ll do our best to reach you.”
“If the signal gets through,” he said, not at all confident in this newer technology.
“You’re right,” she agreed with aggravating cheerfulness. “But it’s one hell of a powerful transmitter when you goose it with that thing. It’s supposed to be able to overcome just about any interference.”
“You’re the skipper,” D-Jack replied, still not convinced.
“Try to gain access to the arena, and see if you can learn when the market is going to start,” Sirene chimed in. “Judging from the traffic, it should be within a few days — a week at the most, maybe even today. Most times, there’d be hardly any ships moving around here. Dane will be in his fortification, and his ship will be nearby. Get back here to report if you can; send us a message if you can’t.”
“How do we do that?” the pilot wondered.
“There’re comm-posts all over the place down there.” She punched in a code and pulled a small chip out of her panel. “Use this — it’s preprogrammed to communicate directly to this ship. We can talk it over on a secure line, and we’ll work out a plan.”
The odds seemed damned long, but Jackson had lost a lot of friends and comrades to the Silver Spider. He was more than willing to take the chance. He’d examined the LZ from above, but there wasn’t much to see beyond the surface of bedrock, protected by a few land-based weapons installations. Clearly, most of the action took place underground.
As soon as the ship was docked, he and Mac emerged from the cutter’s bow ramp dressed in the old, patched civvies left behind by Sirene’s previous crew and started along the airlock toward the commercial zone. Each starman wore a P4 laser pistol openly on his belt, while Jackson had a sonic knife in his pocket and Mac went old-school with a lead-filled sap. On Sirene’s advice, they had opted against more concealed weapons, since she had warned them they were sure to show up — and attract attention — on a scan.
As they walked along the landing deck, D-Jack looked back at Plumetail, deciding that the scruffy, poorly painted cutter, with her collection of gear that appeared to be pasted on the hull at irregular intervals, fit right in with the motley collection of pirate, smuggler and slaver craft crowded along the bustling dock.
Once through the large gate of the landing bay, they entered a dark commercial district of twisting passages. The stench of stim sticks, sweat and urine soured the air as they passed the darkened entrances to a series of bars. They heard shouts of anger from within one, blaring music from another. A scruffy, bearded man came flying out of the third, aided by the forceful heave of a couple of burly bouncers. The man fell to the deck in front of the pair and began to retch.
“This one looks like my kind of place,” Mac commented drolly.
“Suits me,” Jackson agreed. They ambled into the bar, ignoring a pair of grimy mates who were working themselves up to a fistfight, and found places at the moderately crowded bar. The customers were mostly Human, male, unshaven and covered in tattoos. They took no notice of the newcomers.
Bitter smoke filled the air, and lights of every conceivable color flashed and blinked from the ceiling. A number of very supple dancers, all Human females, gyrated on a stage, while bartenders — again, mostly Human, but including a couple of lanky Banu as well — poured an exotic array of drinks from a variety of spigots. The drinks, Jackson noted with surprise, were as brightly colored as the flashing lights.
“I gotta cut myself off — takin’ the next train in to the show,” remarked one of the spacers to Jackson’s left. He looked at the digital clock above the bar for several seconds, as if trying to make calculations in his addled head, then pushed back and stood shakily. Finally he started for the door.
“I have a feeling that’s our ride,” Mac said. He swiped his MobiGlas to cover the tab, and he and Jackson followed the drunk out into the maze of companionways that made up this station’s commercial district. A few minutes later they watched him stumble up to an arched entryway. He fumbled through a pocket and came up with a MobiGlas, which — after several attempts — he swiped at a reader to one side of the arch. A ticket emerged from the wall, and the scruffy spacer snatched it up and shuffled through the arch into the lighted tunnel beyond.
Jackson looked at Mac, who shrugged. They couldn’t see any sign of guards or a checkpoint, so the young pilot pulled out his MobiGlas and headed for the ticket machine with the petty office close behind. They saw a screen blink and flash their images beside them, with their sidearms, knife and sap clearly illuminated, and Jackson felt relief that he hadn’t tried to sneak any heavier firepower through.
There were no markings on the ticket machine, but the pilot repeated the process he’d observed, trying not to obviously hold his breath as he waved the MobiGlas at the reader, twice. The wall before them slid to the side, revealing a narrow passage sloping slightly downward, and they proceeded along like two men without a care in the universe. Coming around a curve in the corridor, they dropped their tickets into a turnstile gate, then followed several other passengers through an archway and across a rubberized connecting seal to enter the tubular chamber beyond.
A dirty, dimly lit train of four connected cars waited on a rail within the tube, and the two spacers followed the other passengers inside. Their car was a windowless, sparsely-furnished cylinder with seats along the outer walls and standing room for perhaps a dozen people in the center. The seats were all occupied, and the central floor space was about half full as Jackson and Mac made their way through the doors and took up standing positions on the side opposite the entrance. Not sure what to expect, the two starmen looked around for grab bars, but no obvious means of support was visible.
The other people on the car were mostly similar to the half-drunk spacer they’d followed from the commercial district, plus a few men and women who were dressed in metallic or leather finery and, by appearance alone, seemed to stand aloof from the riff raff. Most of these were accompanied by big, muscular escorts. Jackson suspected they were ship captains or influential traders, and were protected by a personal escort of guards.
A blinking clock clicked down the seconds until departure. When it reached zero the door whooshed shut. Immediately a series of hand bars dropped from the ceiling overhead. Copying the other standing passengers, Mac and Jackson each took one handle and held on. Within another couple of seconds they felt the car lurch and accelerate. The motion was surprisingly smooth, but the acceleration continued for more than a minute until Jackson guessed they were going very fast indeed. With nothing to see, the lieutenant tried, unsuccessfully, not to worry about whatever it was that awaited them in the unknown base.
* * *
“They’re taking a train toward Dane’s base,” Antoinette announced, eyeing the scanner as she and Sirene waited in the cutter’s cockpit. The buzz of the scanner’s broadcast flashed from the screen, showing Jackson’s — and hopefully Mac’s — location a dozen klicks toward Dane’s base.
“Makes sense,” shrugged the pirate. “That’s where the arena is. And the Silver Spider.”
“I wish they’d reported back here first,” the skipper said nervously.
“Probably didn’t have anything to tell us,” Sirene replied. “So keep an eye on that sensor, and let’s be ready to move out.”
* * *
The feeling was eerie since they could see no visible proof that the windowless car was moving; it was strangely quiet and peaceful as they careened along. The trip lasted no more than ten minutes; arrival was signaled by the pressure of deceleration as the series of cars gradually came to a stop.
They emerged into a large corridor, apparently underground — judging from the cut stone on the floor and the walls to right and left. Lighted panels formed the ceiling, and numerous apertures opened into small hallways to the right and left. The passengers in the car dispersed as they emerged, with what Jackson had decided was the riff-raff going into a wide entrance leading to the left. Most of the more well-dressed passengers, each accompanied by a brace of guards, started down the main hallway in the opposite direction, toward a brightly lit atrium.
They heard a commotion from a side corridor and followed the example of the other pedestrians, who all moved to the edges of the passage. A trio of personal hovers emerged from a side passage, banking and turning sharply as they shot down the main corridor. Each was a floating vehicle, basically a rocket with handlebars, and the riders were intimidating, bearded Humans with dark visors over their eyes. The two in the lead were solo bikes, while the third carried a passenger — a slender, scantily-dressed woman—on an extend seat. The three drivers leaned forward, balancing against the thrust of acceleration, as they blasted away.
The thrusters were heat-free, but powered the nimble machines with an audible hum — a sound that dopplered down from a shrill moan as the three vehicles quickly left the walking Humans behind. The hoverbikes vanished into the distance along the long, dimly-lit main roadway.
After a moment’s thought and an exchanged glance wherein Mac simply raised his eyebrows, Jackson followed the wealthier passengers who were strolling down the path taken by the P-hovs. There were four of them, three men and a woman, and they strode along without speaking, but with a visible sense of purpose.
The two starmen strolled more casually, a hundred paces or so behind. Thankfully there were a few other people, apparently workers and attendants, moving in the same direction, so that they didn’t appear completely out of place.
All four of the wealthy visitors turned in unison and passed through a wide entrance to the right. There were armed guards here, men in poorly matched uniforms carrying laser assault weapons, and they stepped forward to examine the small cards each of the four presented. After a quick scan, the guards stood back respectfully and let the party through.
Eyeing those guards, Jackson was beginning to think that their route was thwarted, when a crew of movers emerged from a side corridor. They were wearing coveralls similar to the disguises of the two starmen, and they were wheeling a series of power carts that carried large, square objects. With a shudder of revulsion, Jackson recognized the containers as cages, secured with electrical bars, each capable of holding a half dozen or more Human adults.
Sharing the same thought, Mac and D-Jack fell into stride with the workers, who were guiding their loads toward the same entryway the wealthy visitors had used. Once again, the armed guards stood back to open the entryway. The workers pulled their floating carts through the gate, as another P-hov, thruster idling with a straining groan, eased past them and out into the main corridor.
The two starmen and the work party came through the entrance to find themselves on a large platform in a huge underground chamber, an enclosure that rivaled in size the cargo dock of a larger space station. The level that they occupied formed a ring that passed around the entire perimeter of this coliseum-like space, while the floor, far below, was covered with cables, blinking lights, and various pieces of mismatched equipment. Several P-hovs prowled and grumbled along the various balconies, each of which seemed to circle the whole amphitheater.
The workers took the cages to the edge of the platform where an elevator rose up to meet them. More armed guards rode the platform, and this time the lead worker presented a document card. The first sentry started to check the card, lifting his head to compare what he was reading to the loads on the hover carts. As he did, Jackson noticed a silver collar around his neck, remembering Sirene’s description of Dane’s ‘torques.’ This metal ring was unadorned by gemstones, but had a series of blue lights that blinked periodically.
Sensing, again without speaking, that this document check was trouble, the two starmen stepped to the right, away from the work party, and moved back into the shadows of the wall that rose toward a ceiling so lofty that it was barely visible overhead. A number of passageways led into the rocky base that framed the huge space, and they picked the nearest, ducking into a tunnel that was even more poorly lit than the main roadway outside.
Jackson caught a flash of movement in the peripheral vision to his left. He spun, too fast for his casual act, but couldn’t see anyone, or anything, in the shadowy entrance to the side corridor.
“Did you see that?” he asked, as Mac followed the pilot’s stare. The chief shrugged an inaudible negative.
“I want to get down there and see about those cages,” MacClean said, indicating the floor of the auditorium. “You see any way down besides the elevator?”
Jackson looked around, and his attention returned to the side corridor. He stepped back a few feet to confirm his first impression. “This looks like a ramp leading down. Maybe it’ll come out on the bottom.”
The two starmen, still trying to stride purposefully along, entered the corridor and found that it was, indeed, a descending passageway that curled through a complete circle before coming out onto another platform, one level lower than where they had entered the huge chamber. The upper level extended above them, while connecting passages, also screened by the overhang, extended to the right and left.
Welcoming the concealment offered by the upper deck, Jackson stuck his head around the corner to look at the platforms. He saw that they connected to another complete ring, a circle that extended all the way around the huge chamber. This walkway was much narrower than the balcony they had first entered, and lay perhaps ten meters below their original position. It was hard to tell because of the vast scale, but the pilot guessed that the arena floor lay another fifty to sixty meters below them.
“Let’s see if we can find another ramp,” he suggested — then grunted as Mac grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him roughly into the passage.
A blast of something hot and violent impacted the wall, right where his head had been. Jackson spun to see two armed guards charging toward them. One was holding a handgun — apparently the laser pistol that had just snapped off that shot.
Another laser blasted right beside Jackson and he realized that Mac had drawn his P4 and returned fire. A scream of pain indicated that his blast had found meat.
“This way!” the pilot snapped, sprinting into the corridor, which seemed to continue downward. He came around a corner, and then another, sensing that he was circling back toward the arena. Moments later they emerged onto another of the wide balconies. As he tried to decide whether to turn right or left, another P-hov, this one with a passenger in the rear seat, shot along the edge of the wall to block their path. The man on the rear seat carried a long gun, and swiveled the barrel toward them.
The two starmen reacted instinctively, Mac shooting at the passenger while Jackson blasted the driver. Both men tumbled, blistered, onto the deck of the balcony while the machine, idling loudly, rested just off the surface.
“Get on!” Jackson cried, leaping across the saddle-like driver’s perch. The P-hov settled slightly as Mac leaped into place behind him. Jackson, an instinctive pilot, grabbed the handlebars and quickly saw how the throttle and steering controls worked. With a twist of the former, he accelerated away from the two wounded men, following the curve of the level deck that extended around the rim of the vast arena.
“There!” snapped Mac, pointing to a wide opening to their left, a space that suggested they could get away from this huge open space.
Jackson twisted the steering control, aiming for the opening— but to his surprise the machine spun and shot away in the opposite direction, carrying them both away from the platform and out into the yawning space. Jackson wrestled with the controls, but they wouldn’t respond, and the P-hov instead swiftly zoomed upwards until they were sixty or seventy meters above the floor.
There the machine came to a stop, wobbling frighteningly so that the two men were forced to clutch the handles and grip with their knees just to prevent a fatal fall. D-Jack’s heart pounded in his chest as he cursed and pulled at the stubborn controls.
Abruptly a small video screen at the head of the P-hov’s central post flashed into life before him. He saw a man’s face — at least, it looked like a man, though there was a chrome plate of metal covering half of his skull and extending as far as his left cheekbone. The eyes were dark, perfectly black, and a full-lipped mouth was pursed into a look that might have been mild amusement.
“Don’t bother with the controls. This machine will do what I want it to.” The words came out in a wicked buzz, as if some electronic device were modulating human vocal chords.
“And who the hell are you?” snapped Jackson, even though he already knew the answer.
“I am Zather Dane. You are my . . . guests . . . for as long as I choose to let you live. So please, relax.”
The pilot was unsuccessfully trying to come up with a witty reply when the machine shot forward again, accelerating so quickly that the two men had to cling desperately just to keep their seats. They flew toward the side wall of the vast arena, and Jackson instinctively hunched down and braced for a collision.
Instead, the surface of the rock wall slid away to reveal a dark hole. The P-hov shot into that hole and continued forward at high speed. The concealed door slid shut behind them, leaving them in utter darkness, hurtling forward at blazing speed, toward a destination they could only imagine.
Two starmen of the United Empire of Earth Navy, Lieutenant Darrison Jackson and Chief Petty Officer Broderick MacClean, are clinging to a flying hover that is being controlled by Zather Dane, a renegade officer and slave trader. The pair have infiltrated Dane’s stronghold on a barren planet in the Nul System, but their plans went seriously awry when Dane took control of their vehicle. In a cutter docked at a smugglers’ base on the dead planet, Jackson’s squadron leader, Lieutenant Commander Naya Antoinette, is tracking her confederates by a concealed broadcasting sensor. Beside Antoinette, the pirate captain Sharona Sirene — captain of the cutter — sits, watches and waits. She knows that she is the wild card in this deadly confrontation.
The personal hovercraft rocketed through the dark passageway with terrifying speed, completely beyond the control of the two men it carried deeper into the rock-bound caverns beneath the surface of Nul V. D-Jack, in the pilot’s seat, yielded to the inevitable, knowing that if he did somehow regain mastery of the flying bike, he’d inevitably crash it into one of the stony surfaces he sensed — but couldn’t see — very close to either side, and above and below them. He clung to the handgrips and kept his head down.
“Hold on!” he heard Mac growl, quite unnecessarily, as the speeding craft banked hard and turned tightly to the left. Once again it rocketed forward, though now Jackson could make out a glimmer of light ahead. The handlebar-mounted controls still resisted any of the pilot’s attempts to slow or steer the vehicle.
A few seconds later the craft burst through an opening, a terminus where the tunnel entered through the side of a large, brightly lit chamber. The P-hov took a dive toward the stone floor below them, careening along a meter or two above that smooth, polished surface. Still clinging for dear life, Jackson saw a large, metallic ship resting on three struts. The vessel’s skin gleamed like chrome. Multiple wings extended from the sides, and three large engine nacelles were visible at the stern.
Beyond the ship yawned a large, transparent airlock. The dark atmosphere of Nul V roiled beyond, visible as a murky gray sky shot through with flashes of electrical discharge. Jackson could barely see the shimmering barrier that separated the stormy planetary atmosphere from the temperate, breathable atmo within the hangar.
The hovercraft abruptly halted, stopping so suddenly that Jackson lurched forward and almost pitched over the handlebars. He had barely regained his seat when the vehicle rolled through a half-circle to hover upside down. The surprise maneuver dislodged him instantly, and he barely broke his fall with his arms, rolling across the floor. Mac cursed, and thumped to the ground behind him.
The pain and shock of the fall were forgotten as the pilot gaped upward at the shiny vessel. “The Silver Spider!” he barked out loud.
“That’s quite a name, I rather like it.”
Jackson recognized the voice as Zather Dane’s, the same vibrato cackle that had addressed him through the vidscreen when Dane had taken over the controls of the P-hov. Pushing himself to his feet, rubbing a bruised shoulder, Jackson looked around for the speaker.
He spotted Dane easily. The man was sitting in a large chair that floated, apparently weightless, a meter or so above the deck, and just before the nose of the Spider. His chromed skull shimmered from the shadows.
“You will do me the kindness of dropping your weapons,” said Dane. His eyes, black as coal but strangely bright, were fixed on the two men.
Jackson’s hand was on the grip of his P4, though he hadn’t been aware of reaching for the weapon. Four men, each armed with a laser rifle, emerged from the shadows, a pair of them to either side of Dane. Their weapons were leveled at Jackson and MacClean. Remembering Sirene’s description of Dane’s ‘torques,’ the pilot was not surprised to see that each man had a silver ring around his neck. For a split second time seemed to stand still, and the pilot’s hand trembled on the verge of drawing his weapon.
“Come now, do you think you can slip anything past me?” asked the slaver calmly. His eyes never left the starmen, but Jackson got the distinct impression he was reading from some sort of display only he could see. His lilting voice suddenly hardened. “Put them on the floor or this will be a very short conversation.”
With no obvious alternative, the two men dropped their weapons and stepped to the side, urged on by the gestures of the four riflemen. Dane waved at the P-hov, which righted itself and glided smoothly over to come to rest beside him. “That thing obeys him like a damn lapdog,” Mac growled, softly enough that only Jackson could hear. The pilot could scarcely believe how easily the slaver manipulated the craft, without using any visible tool or equipment.
“But where are the ladies?” Dane sighed. “I was so hoping that they would join our party as well.”
“What ladies?” demanded Jackson, going for the bluff.
Dane shook his head, as if in disappointment at Jackson’s feeble ploy. “Lieutenant Jackson, I know all about you. Chief Petty Officer MacClean as well, so don’t attempt to outwit me. I refer to Commander Antoinette, of course. And that ravishing pirate, Sharona Sirene.”
“The pirate bitch is dead,” Mac declared curtly. Though startled, Jackson played along and nodded his head firmly.
“How did that happen?” the slaver demanded, frowning in sudden disappointment.
“She didn’t want to give us her ship,” Jackson snarled. “So I shot her.”
“Oh well, I had such plans for that girl.” Zather Dane sighed loudly. “Well then, I shall have to give little Naya twice as much attention.”
“She’s long gone by now,” Jackson shot back, trying for a tone of bravado he didn’t actually feel.
“Don’t be ridiculous. She would not have sent you here without some means of communication.” He waved a hand and two of the torques advanced and pushed MacClean to the floor, holding him face down with both barrels pointed at the back of his head.
“Now,” said Zather Dane, a new tone of steel in his voice. “Call Commander Antoinette, or I shall be forced to have this brave starman’s brains splattered all over my nice clean deck.”
“Don’t listen to —!” Mac started, before a brutal kick silenced him. Jackson looked at their adversary, whose eyes seemed to glitter even more coldly than before.
And the pilot knew that he had no choice.
* * *
“Skipper? This is L-Jack. I’m approaching the objective. I think I have that intel you’ve been waiting for.”
The words crackled from the speaker in Plumetail’s cockpit, though the vidscreen stayed dark. Naya and Sirene had both stiffened in their seats when the sudden communication came through. The lieutenant commander reached to activate the video, but hesitated when the pirate captain, a finger to her lips, reached out her hand to block Naya’s move.
Antoinette understood, and left the vidswitch alone. “This is Antoinette. Report,” she ordered crisply.
“We’ve located the target. Mac encountered some trouble, and he had to go to ground. He might have been captured. And the subject knows that Captain Sirene is dead.”
Naya looked at the captain, who was very much alive in the seat beside her, and nodded in growing comprehension. “What do you suggest we do?” she asked.
“I think you need to get down here. Together we can work out some way to get Mac back, and then take it from there.”
The skipper was thinking hurriedly. Clearly Jackson was not speaking freely — she’d never called him L-Jack. And of course, the story of Sirene’s demise was pure fiction.
“Good idea,” she said, forcing herself to remain calm. “Look, I’m going to put the ship into auto-orbit to get it off the dock. Where should I meet you?”
“Take the train to the arena. I’ll be waiting,” Jackson replied. His voice sounded normal, but he had given enough clues for her to realize that events had taken a dire turn.
As if those clues might not be clear enough, as soon as she turned off the commlink, his signal suddenly flared — he had switched on the panic button.
She muted the alarm and cast a glance at Sirene, who was studying the screens showing the area immediately surrounding the ship. The pirate pointed with a dark finger, and Naya saw two teams of armed guards, each a half dozen strong, approaching the ship in skirmish formation; one group closed in from port, the other from starboard. They darted down the long, crowded dock as if approaching a military objective: half the men took up shooting positions behind bales, struts or hulls while their teammates dashed forward five or ten meters. Then the movers would take shelter and sight their weapons while the rear rank advanced past them. They were closing fast from both sides.
“Good call — sending the ship away. I’ll take care of that. You better get out there,” Sirene whispered. The two parties of armed men were less than a hundred meters away to either side.
“All right,” Naya agreed. She wondered momentarily if she could trust the other woman, a known pirate and smuggler; she realized as quickly that she had no choice. She rose and was about to head for the ramp when Sirene held her up with a gesture.
“Remember: Act like you don’t know it’s a trap.”
“Right.” She paused to strap on her sidearm and threw a thin fabric cloak over her uniform. She darted down the exit ramp and turned away from the ship, heading for the gateway leading into the station’s commercial district. The riflemen before her melted away into the shadows, and she dared not look behind.
Immediately there was a hum and a click as the ramp swept back flush with the cutter’s hull. She did not stop to watch as Plumetail began to move, her engines backing her away from the platform, drifting slowly toward the electronic airlock and the dark space beyond.
“Hey!” came the call, and now she spotted the team behind her, running forward. “Hands up! You‘re coming with us!” he barked.
One of them raised his rifle to aim at the ship, but apparently thought twice about blasting away in the bustling station. Besides, his laser rifle, though powerful, could have done little damage to the sturdy cutter.
“You were supposed to leave that ship here!” growled another of the armed men, this one emerging from below the hull of a neighboring ship where he had obviously been waiting in concealment. She noticed the metal circlet, like a collar, that he and each of the other men wore around their necks. He prodded Naya with the barrel of his laser rifle, but she set her jaw and refused to flinch.
“No one told me that!” she snapped. “I’m just going to meet a friend.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” declared the second speaker, with a meaningful gesture of his long gun. “Though I’d like to see just how friendly you can be,” he added with a leer.
Naya stiffened, but bit back a retort. As the dozen gunmen took up formation around her, she kept her chin high and marched along the dock, determined not to give them the satisfaction of witnessing her anger.
Anger that was raging at a very high level indeed.
* * *
“What do you mean, you let the cutter get away?” Zather Dane croaked, his voice almost a whisper.
The leader of the guard detail, a swarthy, tattooed hulk of a man who had roughly prodded Antoinette into the hangar before his leader, seemed to shrink in the face of Dane’s rebuke. Jackson looked at the skipper, but she avoided his eyes to stare at the slaver with something like wonder. With a shiver of horror, the pilot saw that a silver collar, this one studded with at least a half-dozen huge diamonds, had been fixed around Antoinette’s throat.
The guard captain, meanwhile, struggled to create an articulate reply. “I . . . that is — we . . . were told that the ship had only one occupant. When she came off, we brought her here. I thought . . .”
“You thought?” Dane sneered. “You thought you would just let the ship go. I confess: I expected a higher level of competence, Tribune.”
“Caesar — great leader! No!” croaked the guard, falling to his knees. The other torques stared in momentary horror until, almost in unison, they turned and sprinted toward the door leading back into the mountain complex.
They never even got close. Dane waved a casual hand and each of the running men fell to the ground and thrashed silently, but in obvious agony. Jackson watched, appalled, as the torques dropped their weapons and clutched at the gleaming chromatic rings encircling their necks. Feet drumming a frantic tattoo against the stone floor, they flopped and flailed like nothing so much as a school of landed fish. It took more than a minute for their struggles to subside; finally, one by one, each man flexed rigidly and finally lay still. The pilot didn’t need to take a pulse to recognize that the guards were all dead.
“Such is the price of failure,” Dane said casually, addressing the surviving torque, the one he had called “Tribune.” That hapless fellow gaped at his erstwhile Caesar mutely, his long gun apparently forgotten. The torque’s left hand rose almost unconsciously to touch the ring at his neck. Zather Dane pointed toward the electronic screen of the airlock, the barrier separating the interior of the hangar from the harsh, virtually oxygen-free atmo of the wild planet beyond.
“I will give you one more chance to redeem yourself. Step outside,” the slaver said calmly. He put a sliver of steel into his voice, adding “Now.”
The torque leader dropped his rifle. He momentarily looked as though he would argue, but Dane gestured curtly and the fellow stumbled toward the barrier. The screen flickered and sparked as he passed through, but it obviously presented no physical obstacle. Once beyond it, the man turned and cried something inaudible, but stayed on the outside of the barrier, despite his obvious despair. His face locked in an expression of horror, he soon began to stagger weakly. Slowly he slumped to his knees, wobbling unsteadily, until he finally collapsed onto all fours.
Jackson, appalled, looked at the slavemaster. Dane was concentrating on his dying minion, and the pilot realized that the seated man was repeatedly clenching his fist as he stared at the exhibition before him. With each clench, the man outside gave another kick, lurch or groan.
For several minutes Zather Dane, his four personal guards, and the three starmen watched the man die. The guard lay just outside the electronic airlock screen. His face was blue, though his legs still kicked feebly. Finally, clearly bored, Zather Dane turned back to the three starmen.
“There is no redemption if you fail me.” He then pointed a finger at Naya Antoinette. “Come to me.” She didn’t move. “No?”
He slowly and deliberately closed his right hand into a fist and Naya’s face flashed with a look of consternation, even horror. The slavemaster flicked his left hand — and immediately Antoinette screamed and grabbed at the collar around her neck.
“Skipper!” Jackson shouted.
“You bastard —” Mac chimed in.
“Silence!” commanded Dane. His hand stilled and Naya stopped screaming. Instead, the blond officer slumped forward, panting and sweating, with her hands on her knees. “Take that as a warning; you may expect the same anytime that you consider disobeying me.”
Turning from his latest prize to his four remaining torques in the chamber, Dane pointed at the young pilot and then the petty officer. “Bind them.”
Immediately the men advanced. Two trained their laser rifles on the starmen, while the other two knelt beside a pair of their comrades’ corpses and quickly unsnapped the rings around their necks. When they advanced with those metallic collars, Mac made a lunge to evade — and quickly dropped to the deck as a blast of hot energy seared his knee. One of the guards knelt on his chest, pinning him in place and securing the collar around his neck. Recognizing the inevitable, Jackson made no move to escape as he, too, was collared. The ring felt cold against his skin, and hummed with a kind of itchy energy.
“You will learn to obey,” Zather Dane barked, “or suffer the consequences.” He glared at the two starmen. Jackson, watching for his movement, saw Dane’s right hand clench again, as his left swung quickly from side to side — and immediately Mac gasped and clapped his hands to his neck, as if the collar had grown impossibly hot.
Jackson, however, felt no discomfort — and in a split second he saw the need for deception. He clutched at his own torque and mimicked the chief’s agonized gestures.
A moment later, Mac groaned in relief as, obviously, the pain ceased. Once again Jackson copied his comrade, determined not to reveal that his own collar had not been activated.
“Now, stay there,” Dane declared. “Next time I will not display such mercy.”
Jackson’s mind raced: how had he escaped the effect? He suddenly remembered the capsule in his pocket, the signal switch that had set off the panic transmitter he’d swallowed, initiating a powerful broadcast. He recalled that Naya had told him that the signal would be strong enough to overcome most any interference.
His hand slipped into his pocket and he found the capsule. Testing his theory, he flipped the switch back off. Jackson immediately felt a shock of static electricity, startling him and almost knocking him off of his feet. That sudden stagger suggested to him that the interference was having an effect; he quickly turned it back on and the electricity dissipated.
“Mademoiselle Antoinette, you may board my ship,” Zather Dane said with a great display of false graciousness. “You should see your father’s handiwork, firsthand.”
With a numb look on her face, Naya involuntarily touched her collar, then started toward the Silver Spider. Holding her head high, she almost vanished from sight in the shadows below the hull, but Jackson, watching, saw her climb the steep ladder leading into the ship’s belly.
“As for you brave starmen,” the slaver said, sneering contemptuously at MacClean and Jackson, “I’m afraid your usefulness has come to an end. Why don’t you go for a stroll outside?”
He gestured toward the airlock screen, where the body of the guard captain lay still and blue on the wide shelf of stone outside the hangar. MacClean, his jaw clenched in resistance to the command, made as if to resist—until a zap of pain hit him so hard that he dropped to his knees. Staggering to his feet, he had no choice but to step forward.
Jackson went with him. He knew that he was free of the collar’s compulsion, but he was not about to leave Naya, and — with four armed guards still watching — he was not ready to reveal his successful resistance. But as Mac marched past the Silver Spider, Jackson’s path took him under the hull. Once that shadowy darkness embraced him, he sprang to the nearby ladder and quickly, soundlessly, pulled himself up into the cabin.
* * *
Sharona Sirene guided her cutter through an easy orbit around Nul V. Mindful of the cover story, that her ship was supposed to be operating on autopilot, she refrained from any vigorous maneuvers, maintaining a safe distance from other traffic and making no unnecessary adjustments to her flight path. She wondered if the pirates would send a crew out to try to board her in space — a risky proposition, given the known capabilities of her ship — and decided not to worry about that until such an attack materialized.
But she also knew she couldn’t just drift in space while her confederates dealt with the monster who flew the Silver Spider. She had no real tie to the starmen — in fact, they’d started their acquaintance as enemies — but she never gave any serious thought to fleeing the system.
She couldn’t just wait here either, she decided. Her whole being committed her to action, to striking at her enemies, to helping her friends, and — admittedly — to maximizing her profit margin. She could potentially make progress toward all three of those objectives if she could figure out something to do.
Sirene was surprised to realize that she placed the three starmen in the ‘friends’ category. To her amazement, she admitted to herself that she respected Naya Antoinette for her accomplishments, and for the moral code that seemed to compel her to try to make up for her father’s mistakes. Mac was a rugged pragmatist, like herself — he’d been the one to release her from confinement on their first flight together. And Jackson? Even with his broken nose, she thought with a wry smile . . . Jackson was kind of cute, if still a little wet behind the ears.
Her mind made up, she guided Plumetail into a gentle dive, still taking care not to perform any radical maneuvers. The ship was coming around the planet at the end of another orbit, and she could easily see the jagged mountains where, she knew, Zather Dane had his base.
After an hour of careful descent, she brought the cutter to a halt, holding it in a gentle hover barely a half dozen klicks from the hangar where she suspected the Silver Spider still sat at rest. Slowly, carefully, she turned the ship through a gentle spin. She didn’t stop until she was in a precise position, with the particle cannon, Plumetail’s most powerful weapon, perfectly lined up on Dane’s hangar door.
Abruptly Jackson’s alarm paused briefly and then restarted. She silenced it again with a push of a button.
“I know you’re in trouble, pal,” she muttered. “But you’re going to have to hang in there for another minute or two.”
She magnified the image of the hangar door in her viewer, making out the shape of the silver fighter through the gauzy curtain. Perhaps she should take a shot from here, striking the ship before it flew? The idea had merit . . . .
Except that, very suddenly, circumstances changed. She saw something moving through the screen of the electronic airlock, and a man emerged onto the shelf of the mountainside just outside of the hangar. She focused her magnifier and recognized Mac, saw the CPO stagger and drop to his knees. Only then did she spot the motionless form of another man, apparently dead, lying on that same black surface.
Cursing in frustration, she backed away from the particle cannon, turned, and sprinted toward the flight deck.
* * *
Jackson climbed into the belly of the Silver Spider and immediately found himself face to face with Naya Antoinette. She looked at him miserably, and shook her head in frustration — clearly she was so restrained by Dane’s collar that she didn’t even try to speak. The pilot pressed a finger to his lips and winked, provoking a spark of hope in her eyes. Then, as he heard the sound of movement just outside the ship, he ducked behind a bulkhead. He was worried about MacClean, desperately wishing that he had a weapon.
But at least he figured he could present the slaver with a most unpleasant surprise. And as he ducked deeper into his shadowy alcove, he spotted something fastened to the wall: a small fire extinguisher, a metal cylinder not even as long as his forearm. It was made of metal: a solid tool. He pulled it out of its strap and hefted it, waiting for the first opportunity to strike.
A soft hum of power, accompanied by a wash of light, infused the compartment as Dane’s power chair floated upward to carry him into the belly of his ship. Though he was crouched in complete shadow, Jackson was able to watch the slaver’s arrival in the reflective surface of the side bulkhead. For a second he allowed himself to be glad the man was so partial to bright chrome. He saw Dane deftly twist his wrist as he came aboard, and the pilot began to wonder if it was somehow related to Dane’s control over the silver collars and other items.
“Have a seat, my dear. I do so hope to recover that splendid cutter our late pirate lass was so adept at flying around. Now, stand just so.”
Dane stepped out of his chair, moving with the natural athleticism of a fit young man — a man much younger than the slaver’s actual age, Jackson realized. He let his leering gaze run up and down Antoinette’s body before he stepped into the cockpit. He left the flight deck hatch open, apparently so that he could admire Naya’s lean, shapely form from the comfort of the pilot’s seat.
“Are you ready to see your father’s legacy?” Dane said with a grin. Almost instantly, with no touch on the controls, the Silver Spider thrummed to life and began to rise from the stone floor. “Impressive, no?”
Jackson couldn’t see anything beyond the ship, but he hoped desperately that Sirene, and Plumetail, had been drawn to the scene by his distress call — the same radio broadcast that apparently blocked out Dane’s ability to torture him through the silver collar. There was a chance, if she did, that she would spot Mac outside the hangar and rescue him before Nul V’s smothering atmosphere asphyxiated the chief. How long had the guard survived out there? Five minutes? Ten? Almost groaning, Jackson knew that it was a forlorn hope.
Angrily he forced himself to cast that thought away. He felt a shiver of interference as the Spider passed through the airlock and began to accelerate. He couldn’t save both Naya and Mac, he knew. But he had boarded the Spider not just for personal reasons. In fact, he had every intention of capturing or destroying this ship in the process.
With that grim determination foremost in his mind, he rose to a crouching position, hefted the fire extinguisher, and prepared to rush the cockpit.
* * *
Sirene watched as the Silver Spider shot through the airlock and flew along the face of the black mountains. Plumetail hovered, as dark as she could make her, a half dozen clicks away, and Zather Dane seemed not to be aware of her presence. As soon as his ship swerved around the shoulder of a vast, dark summit, she powered up the cutter and swooped in to land on the wide shelf outside of the hangar.
Mac was there, slumped on his hands and knees, in a very bad way. She slapped a breather on and grabbed a second one, then dropped the belly ramp and scrambled out. She strapped the second breather around his head. Grabbing the big petty officer under his armpits, she half carried, half dragged him into the hull. He collapsed on the deck as she repressurized the ship.
Only then did she hear the alarm from her cockpit. Rushing back to the pilot’s seat, she engaged her engines and checked the scanner to see that the Silver Spider, bristling with weapons, had reappeared. The lethal fighter had obviously reversed course, and now curled around the mountain to dive into an attack.
And Plumetail, with the rocky shelf underneath and the sheer black cliff behind, was utterly trapped.
* * *
“There she is!” gloated Zather Dane. He turned to beam at Naya Antoinette, still standing outside the flight deck where he’d ordered her to remain. “Oh, do come in and sit down, my dear. You’ll enjoy this . . . or rather, I’ll enjoy making you watch as I capture your pirate friend.”
Naya stepped through the hatch into the cockpit. Still observing the reflected action, Jackson saw her take the co-pilot’s seat.
“Of course, I never believed the story that Captain Sirene had perished,” the slaver declared. He pointed at his scanner’s screen. “And certainly her ship, under autopilot, wouldn’t be swooping in to rescue your comrades.”
Rising from his concealed crouch, Jackson sprang through the hatch leading to the flight deck. He hoisted the fire extinguisher, aiming for that gleaming metal scalp —
And somehow, Dane knew he was coming. The big slaver bounced to his feet and spun, lifting an arm to block the container’s heavy blow. Jackson staggered backward, his ears ringing from a metallic clang — and he knew that the slaver’s skull was not the only metal part of his body. Some kind of exoskeleton clearly protected his arm.
The bastard shifted with remarkable speed. Before Naya could move, Dane waved a fist toward her. Naya grimaced in pain as her collar seared her from the inside out and jolted her back into the co-pilot’s seat. Following up his parry, the slaver struck back, driving a fist toward the pilot’s still-tender nose. Jackson blocked with his own left, the blow smashing into his wrist with incredible force. He fell back, reeling from Dane’s powerful punch. The slaver then pointed his fist at Jackson, flexing his grip as if he had an invisible pistol.
Dane’s eyes widened in shock as nothing happened. The pilot lunged forward. His fist smacked into the slaver’s flat lips, knocking him backward, and the starman took savage satisfaction from the fact that he was finally giving his enemy an unpleasant surprise.
Yet that realization was small consolation as the metalcapped criminal reached with his other hand under the control panel against which he had fallen and pulled out a laser pistol, one that looked a good deal larger and more lethal than the standard issue P4. Jackson wondered if his luck had finally run out. Should he chance one desperate dive into the field of that lethal-looking barrel?
Abruptly the Silver Spider pitched under the impact of multiple rockets. Jackson, tumbling to the deck from the force of the wrenching barrage, guessed that Sharona Sirene had fired her entire arsenal in a single salvo.
“Damn that bitch!” Dane spun around to check his scanner, grabbing both sidebars for balance. Outside the cockpit, the ship’s batteries rotated and locked into position while the Silver Spider steadied on her course, all without the slaver touching a control. The mountain crest, a long, flat ridge of hard rock, loomed just below them and to port, barely a hundred meters away.
But at least his attention remained fully focused on Plumetail.
It was all the opening Jackson needed. He raised the fire extinguisher and threw it like a thick, short spear. The top end, with the valve, struck the slaver’s metal skull with a powerful force, clanging loudly off the hard surface.
Many things happened at once then: the ship lurched crazily, veering toward the nearby mountain summit; Zather Dane tumbled, cursing, into his control panel; Jackson fell again, thrown off balance by the wild tumble of the fighter.
And somehow Naya Antoinette ended up holding the big pistol. She pointed it at Dane’s head as the man recovered his balance, pushing himself off the panel, turning to see the weapon aiming at his face. He showed no fear, just fury, opening his mouth to bark a command at the still collared lieutenant commander.
But Antoinette didn’t wait for him to speak. She fired one powerful blast, a searing shaft of energy that struck the slaver right in his open mouth. For a moment that oral cavity glowed like red fire — and then the force of the blast carried through his skull, burning his metallic cap into red heat. The stench of burned meat filled the cockpit as Dane’s body fell backward, his entire head charred black.
The Silver Spider smashed against the rocky ridgecrest then, the blow hurling Jackson forward. Only the slaver’s body cushioned his impact, the still-glowing skull searing a painful burn into the pilot’s arm. With a screech of tearing metal, the ship skidded along the — thankfully mostly level — expanse of black rock.
Antoinette’s hands were on the controls as she desperately tried to kill the engines and bring the fighter to a stop. For nearly a kilometer the wrecked fighter careened along the crest of the mountain ridge. One engine tore away and the ship twisted like a living thing as the remaining thruster fired in reverse. Finally the spider came to rest on the edge of a tall, precipitous cliff.
Jackson groggily climbed to his seat in the eerie silence. Antoinette remained in the co-pilot’s seat, her face locked in an expression of shock.
“Skipper? Can you hear me?” the lieutenant asked, fearing that the effects of Dane’s control collar might linger past the man’s death.
But Antoinette nodded, and visibly recovered her wits. The ship lurched unsteadily and she quickly scrambled out of the seat. “We’ve got to get out of here!” she snapped.
Jackson was already moving. He saw an escape hatch at the rear of the hull and popped the lever. The hatch blew off and he immediately gagged at the foul, nearly unbreathable air. But glory of glories, there was Plumetail!
The cutter came to rest on the ridge crest barely twenty meters away. The two starmen, both limping and straining to breathe, covered the distance in seconds, and seconds later were safely inside the cutter’s hull. Jackson drew deep, life-giving breaths for several long seconds, until he gradually became aware that Antoinette was looking at him with a strange expression on her face. He blinked: it almost looked like she was impressed with him!
“I — I never imagined he could control so much with his mind,” she said finally. “Those collars . . . he just had to look at a person, and he could make it burn.”
Sitting up, the pilot shook his head. “Not his mind,” he said. “Tech. I was watching his hand, and he must have had some kind of interface inside his glove. His right hand was always in motion when the collar burned someone.”
“How the hell did you ignore it, then?” Mac demanded in aggravation. “The thing damn near burned through my spinal column!”
“I’ve got to thank the skipper,” Jackson said. He pulled the transmitter switch from his pocket. “I don’t know if this helped you find me, but it put out enough interference that the collar didn’t activate.”
Naya helped D-Jack to his feet, then pointed through the forward viewscreen. “Look at that.” Together with Mac and Sirene, they watched through the Plexi as the wrecked Spider toppled over the edge and broke into pieces, smashing against ledges and outcrops of rock as it vanished into the darkness.
“Dane?” asked the pirate captain, squeezing profuse contempt into the single word.
“Dead,” Jackson replied. “The skipper fried his brains out.”
“Damn. I wanted to squeeze some treasure out of him,” Sirene growled, watching the distant explosions. Still, her expression showed that she was far from displeased at the news.
“Here.” Naya Antoinette had pried the metal collar from around her neck, and now she held it out to the pirate. Around the ring were eight diamonds, each the size of a small eyeball. “I guess he gives jewelry to women he wants to . . . impress.” Her eyes were distant as she reflected on the fate she had so barely avoided.
“You’re welcome to keep this,” she told Sirene. “It’s worth a small fortune, and you earned it. Besides, I never want to see the damned thing again, not as long as I live.”