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Whisperer In The Dark (complete)

Whisperer in the Dark

People complicate things. That’s what they’ve always been good at. Take a look at any functioning civilization and you will see chaos, confusion, and frustration. It could be human, Xi’An, Banu, Vanduul, whoever. We may look different, be built different, but boil us down and you’ll find the same insecurities, fears, and anxieties gnawing.>

Tonya Oriel watched the yawning abyss outside the window. Kaceli’s Adagio in 4 gently wafted through the otherwise empty ship. Scanners cycled through their spectrums on the hunt for any flagged anomalies.

The void. It was pure. It was simple. It was permanent.

A calm serenity huddled around Tonya’s shoulders like a blanket, the kind that can only exist when you are the only person for thousands of miles. Everyone else can have Terra, Earth, or Baachus, with their megacities teeming with people. Never a moment where there wasn’t a person above, beside, or below you. Everything was noise. Tonya needed the silence.

Her ship, the Beacon, drifted through that silence. Tonya customized almost every hardpoint and pod with some form of scanner, deep-range comm system, or surveying tech to get her further and further from the noise.

The problem was that the noise kept following.

More after the jump...

* * *

After three weeks on the drift, Tonya couldn’t put it off any longer. She was due for a supply run and to sell off the data and minerals she’d collected. After repairs, new scrubbers, and a System Almanac update, she hoped she’d have enough for some food.

The Shipping Hub in the Barker System had been the closest thing to a home she’d had for the past few years. Tonya set her approach through the shifting entry/exit patterns of ships. The Orbital was busier than usual. As soon as the Beacon docked, her screen buzzed with a handful of new messages from the CommRelay. She passed them to her MobiGlas organizer and went to the airlock.

Tonya paused by the entry and savored this last moment of solitude, then hit the button. The sound of people swept inside like a wave. She took a second to acclimate, adjusted her bag and crossed into the masses.

Carl ran a small information network out of his bar, the Torchlight Express. An old surveyor for a long-defunct Terraforming outfit, Carl traded moving minerals for slinging booze and information. Tonya had known him for years. As far as people went, Carl was a gem.

The Express was dead. Tonya checked local time. It was evening, so there was no real reason why it should be like this. A group of prospectors sat at a table in the corner, engaged in a hushed conversation. Carl leaned against the bar, watching a game on the wallscreen. His leathery fingers tapped out a beat to some song in his head. He brightened up when he saw Tonya.

“Well, well, well, to what do we owe the honor, doctor?” he said with a grin.

“Don’t start, Carl.”

“Sure, sorry, doctor.” He must be bored; he only called her that when he wanted to pick a fight. Tonya slung her bag onto the ground and slid onto a stool.

“Anything interesting?” Tonya pulled her hair back into a tie.

“I’m great, Tonya, thanks for asking. Business is a little slow, but you know how it is,” Carl said sarcastically and slid a drink to her.

“Come on, Carl. I’m not gonna patronize you with small-talk.” Carl sighed and looked around.

“At this point, I’ll take any patrons I can get.” He poured himself a drink from the dispenser. Tonya swiveled her MobiGlas around and showed him her manifest. He looked it over.

“Running kinda light this time, huh?”

“I know. You know any buyers?”

“How much you looking to get?”

“Fifteen?” Tonya said as she sipped. She knew she was pricing high and from the look on Carl’s face, he thought so too. “I need the money.”

“I might be able to get you ten.” He said after a long pause.

“I would give you my unborn child for ten.”

“With all the unborn kids you owe me, you better get started,” he said. Tonya smacked his arm.

One of the prospectors drifted over to the bar with empty glasses. He was young, one of those types who cultivated the dirty handsome look. Probably spent an hour perfecting it before going out.

“Another round.” As Carl poured, the prospector looked at Tonya, giving his looks a chance to work their magic. They failed. Carl set a fresh batch of drinks down. The prospector paid and went back slightly deterred.

“I think someone liked you,” Carl teased.

“Not my type.”

“Living?”

“Exactly.” Tonya watched the prospectors. They were really in an overtly secretive conversation.

“Any idea what they’re here for?”

“Of course I do.”

“Yeah? What’d they say?”

“Nothing . . . not to me anyway.” Carl pulled an earpiece out and held it out to her. Tonya wiped it off and took a listen. Suddenly she could hear their conversation loud and clear. Tonya looked at Carl, stunned.

“You have mics on your tables?!” she whispered. Carl shushed her.

“I deal in information, honey, so yeah,” Carl said, almost offended that he wouldn’t listen in on his customers.

Tonya took another sip and listened to the prospectors. It only took a little while to catch up. Apparently Cort, the prospector who tried to woo Tonya with his ruggedness, got a tip from his uncle in the UEE Navy. The uncle had been running Search & Rescue drills in the Hades System when their scanners accidentally picked up a deposit of Kherium on Hades II. Being the military, of course, they couldn’t do anything, but Cort and his buddies were fixing to sneak in there and harvest it for themselves.

Kherium was a hot commodity. One of the core minerals the Xi’An used to armor their spacecraft, it was exceedingly rare in UEE territory. If these prospectors were on the level, they were talking about a tidy little fortune. Certainly enough to patch up the Beacon, maybe even install some upgrades.

Even better, they obviously didn’t know how to find it. Kherium doesn’t show up on a standard metal or rad scan. It takes a specialist to find, much less extract without corrupting it. Fortunately for Tonya, she knew how to do both.

“You’ve got that look,” Carl said and refilled her glass. “Good news?”

“I hope so, Carl, for both of us.”

* * *

Carl offloaded her haul at a discount so she could set out as quickly as possible. Last time she checked, the prospectors were still at the Express, but from the sound of it, they would leave in hours maybe a day.

Tonya disengaged the Beacon from the dock and was back in her beloved solitude. The engines hummed as they pushed her deeper into space, pushed her toward a lifeline.

The Hades System was a tomb, the final monument of an ancient civil war that obliterated an entire system and the race that inhabited it. Tonya had it on her list of places to study, but every year Hades was besieged by fresh batches of young scientists exploring it for their dissertation or treasure hunters looking for whatever weapon cracked Hades IV in half. So the system had become more noise to avoid.

Tonya had to admit that passing Hades IV was always a thrill. It wasn’t every day you get to see the guts of a planet killed in its prime.

Then there were the whispers that the system was haunted. There was always some pilot who knew a guy who knew someone who had seen something while passing through the system. The stories ranged from unexplained technical malfunctions to full-on sightings of ghost cruisers. It was all nonsense.

There was a loose stream of ships passing through Hades. The general flight lane steered clear of the central planets. Tonya slowed her ship until there was a sizeable gap in the flow of traffic before veering off toward Hades II.

She passed a barrier of dead satellites and descended into Hades II’s churning atmosphere. The Beacon jolted when it hit the clouds. Visual went to nil and suddenly the ship was bathed in noise, screaming air, and pressure. Tonya kept an eye on her scopes and expanded the range on her proximity alerts to make sure she didn’t ram a mountain.

Suddenly the clouds gave way. The Beacon swooped into the light gravity above a pitch black ocean. Tonya quickly recalibrated her thrusters for atmospheric flight and took a long look at the planet around her.

As was expected, it was a husk. There were signs of intelligent civilization all around, but all of it was crumbling, charred, or destroyed. She passed over vast curved cities built atop sweeping arches meant to keep the buildings from ever touching the planet itself.

Tonya maintained a cruising altitude. The roar of her engines echoed through the vast empty landscape. The sun was another casualty of this system’s execution. The cloud systems never abated, so the surface never saw sunlight. It was always bathed in a dark greyish green haze.

Tonya studied the topography to plot out a course and set the scanners to look for the unique Kherium signature she had programmed. She engaged the auto-pilot and just looked out the window.

Being here now, she kicked herself for not coming sooner. It didn’t matter that this was one of the most scientifically scrutinized locales in the UEE. Seeing the vastness of the devastation with her own eyes, Tonya felt the tug that a good mystery has on the intellect. Who were they? How did they manage to so effectively wipe themselves out? How do we know that they actually wiped themselves out?

A few hours passed with no luck. Tonya had a quick snack and ran through her exercise routine. She double-checked the settings on her scans for any errors on the initial input. A couple months ago, she was surveying a planet and found nothing, only to discover on her way back that there had been one setting off that scuttled the whole scan. It still bugged her; it was an amateur mistake.

She brought up some texts on Hades. Halfway through a paper on the exobiology of the Hadesians, her screen pinged. Tonya was over to the display like a shot.

The scope gave a faint indication of Kherium below. She triple-checked the settings before getting her hopes up. They seemed legit. She looked out the front. A small city lay ahead, perched above an endless sea of dead trees. It looked like an orbital laser or something similar had hit it, excising massively deep craters from buildings and ground.

Tonya took a closer look. The craters went about six hundred feet into the ground, revealing networks of underground tunnels. They looked like some kind of transport system.

Tonya looked for a suitable landing spot with cover from overhead flights. If she was still here when the prospectors showed up, spotting her ship would be a dead giveaway and things would get complicated.

She strapped on her environment suit and respirator. She could check the ship’s scanners through her MobiGlas but threw another handheld scanner/mapper in with her mining gear just in case. Finally, she powered up her transport crate, hoping the anti-gravity buffers would be more than enough to lug the Kherium back.

Tonya stepped out onto the surface. The wind whipped around her, furiously kicking up waves of dust. She pushed the crate in front of her through the blasted forest. Gnarled branches clawed at her suit as she passed. The city loomed overhead, black silhouettes against the greygreen clouds.

Her curiosity got the better of her so Tonya decided to take a ramp up to the city streets. She told herself the detour would be easier on the crate’s battery. Smooth streets are easier for the anti-grav compensators to analyze than rough terrain.

Tonya moved through the barren streets in awe. She studied the strange curvature of the architecture; each displayed an utterly alien yet brilliant understanding of pressure and weight dispersal. This whole place seemed at once natural and odd, intellectually fascinating and emotionally draining.

The Kherium signature was still weak but there. Tonya maneuvered the crate around destroyed teardrop-shaped vehicles. Pit-marks in the buildings and streets led her to suspect that a battle took place here, however many hundreds or thousands of years ago.

The crater closest to the Kherium was a perfect hole punched through the middle of the city into the ground. Tonya stood at the edge, looking for the easiest way down. The crate could float down, but she would have to climb.

In a matter of minutes she secured a line with safeties for herself and the crate. She stepped over the edge and slowly rappelled down the sheer wall. The crate was making what should be a simple descent a little more complicated. The anti-grav buffers meant that any kind of force could cause the crate to drift away, so Tonya needed to keep a hand on it at all times. To make matters worse, the wind started picking up, flinging small rocks, branches, and debris through the air.

A shrill scream tore through the air. Tonya froze. She heard it again and looked for the source. The screaming was just exposed supports bending in the wind.

Suddenly, she realized the crate had slipped out of her grasp. It slowly drifted further out over the crater, the swirling wind batting it around like a toy. Tonya strained to reach it, but the crate floated just out of reach. She kicked off the wall and swung through the churning air. Her fingertips barely snagged the crate before she slammed back against the wall of the crater.

Her vision blurred and she couldn’t breathe from the impact. The HUD went screwy. Finally she caught her breath. She took a moment or two before continuing down.

The scanner from the Beacon couldn’t isolate the signature any more clearly to determine depth, so she had to rely on her handheld. The Kherium looked like it was situated between two tunnels.

Tonya secured the crate, climbed into the upper tunnel, and tied off her ropes. She checked her suit’s integrity after the debris-storm. The computer was a little fuzzy, but gave her an okay. She turned on a flashlight and activated the external mics on her suit. The tunnel was a perfectly carved tube that sloped into the darkness. A transport tube? Tonya couldn’t see any kind of power or rail system to confirm her theory. She started walking.

Hours passed in the darkness. Feeling a little queasy, Tonya stopped to rest for a few minutes. She sipped on the water reserve and rechecked her scanner. She was still above the Kherium and it was still showing up as being in front of her. That much hadn’t changed . . .

She heard something. Very faint. She brought up the audio settings and pumped the gain on the external mics. A sea of white noise filled her ears. She didn’t move until she heard it again. Something being dragged, then stopping.

IR and Nightvision windows appeared in the corners of her HUD, but she still couldn’t see anything. In the far stretches of these tunnels, there was no telling how far that sound had travelled. Still, she went to the crate and pulled the shotgun out. She made sure it was loaded, even tried to remember the last time she had cause to use it.

Tonya started moving a little more cautiously. She doubted it was the prospectors. For all she knew it could some other pirate or smuggler down here. Regardless, she wasn’t going to take any chances.

The tunnel started to expand before finally giving way to a vast darkness. Tonya’s Nightvision couldn’t even see the end. She dug through her supplies and picked out some old flares. She sparked one.

It was a city. A mirror city to be precise. While the one on the surface reached for the sky, this one was carved down into the planet. Walkways connected structures built out of the walls on the various levels. She’d never heard of anything like this before. Everyone speculated that it was civil war that destroyed this system. Was this a city of the other side?

She came to an intersection and the first real sign that the fighting had spread here. A barricade of melted vehicles blocked one of the tunnels. The walls were charred from either explosions or laser blasts. A shadow had even been burned into the wall. Tonya stood in front of it.

The Hadesian was probably seven to eight feet tall. It seemed to have a roundish, bulky main body with multiple thin appendages. A thousand- year-old stain on a wall is hardly much to go by, but it looked like it had four to six legs and two long arms. Even as a silhouette, it looked terrified.

A cavernous structure was built into the wall nearby. Tonya stood and approached to examine the craftsmanship. It was certainly more ornate than most of the other buildings down here. There weren’t doors down here, just narrow oval portals. There was some kind of tech integrated into the sides.

Tonya decided to take a look. It was a deep bowl with rows of enclosures built into the sides. All of them were angled towards a single point, a marble-like cylinder at the bottom of the bowl. Tonya descended toward it. There was a small item sitting on top of it. She kept her light and shotgun trained on it. It was made from a similar marblelike stone as the cylinder. Tonya looked around. Was this some kind of church? She leaned down to get a better look at the item, careful not to disturb anything. It was a small carving. It wasn’t a Hadesian shape, at least not one she was familiar with. She weighed whether she should take it. Tonya’s head suddenly swam. She stumbled back and steadied herself on the enclosures. After a moment or two it passed. A subtle stabbing pain started to ache in her arm. She stretched, trying to work out the ache. She took a last look at the small carving.

Tonya stepped out of the ornate building and brought up her scanner. The Kherium was close. She followed the scanner’s directions into the dark and twisted tunnels. Her eyes stayed locked on the growing glow of the screen. She tripped over something. The scanner clattered across the floor. It echoed for a minute.

Tonya shook her head slightly. This place . . . She turned her lights back right into the face of a rotted corpse, its mouth open in a silent scream.

“Hell!” she yelled as she scuffled away from it. She looked around. There was another form on the floor about twenty feet away. A strongbox sat between them. The initial shock subsided.

Tonya got up, grabbed her scanner and walked over to the first body. Its skull had been cracked open. There was no weapon, though. No club or bar nearby. That was odd. The other one had clearly shot himself. The gun was still in his hand. They were definitely human, and based on their clothes, they were probably surveyors or pirates. She didn’t know what kind of elements were in the air here so she couldn’t give an accurate guess how long they’ve been dead, but suspected months.

She shuffled over to the strongbox and kicked it open. Kherium. Already extracted and carefully wrapped. Sweet relief drifted through the exhaustion.

“Thanks guys.” Tonya gave them a quick salute. “Sorry you aren’t here to share it.”

Something flitted across her IR window.

Tonya snatched up her shotgun and aimed. It was gone. Her breathing became rapid and shallow as she waited. Her finger hovered over the trigger. She pumped the gain on the external mics again and scanned the hall. The whole time, telling herself to calm down. Calm down.

Every movement of her suit was amplified a hundred times in her ears. She tracked the rifle through the tunnel, looking for whatever was in here with her. Something came through the static. Close.

“Welcome home,” it hissed.

Tonya fired into the dark. She spun behind her. Nothing down there. She racked another round and blasted anyway. The shots blew out the speakers in her helmet.

She grabbed the strongbox and ran.

Ran through the slippery, sloping tunnels of pitch black. Now in total silence. She passed the intersection, where the Hadesian still raised its arms in terror. She kept looking back. She could swear something was there, just beyond the range of the IR, watching from the static.

Tonya sprinted up a rise to see the grim overcast light of the exit, now just a pinhole. Her legs burned. Her arm killed. All she wanted was to go to sleep, but she wasn’t going to stop. If she stopped, she knew she would never leave.

She pulled herself up the rope and pushed through the blasted forest back to the Beacon. Thirty seconds later, the thrusters were scorching earth. One minute after that, she broke atmo.

As Hades II drifted away, she tried to steady her nerves. Her environment suit slowly twisted on the hanger in the decontamination chamber. She noticed something.

The respiratory functions on the back were damaged. The fall in the crater must have done it. It bashed up the feeds and she was getting too much oxygen. The headaches, nausea, and fatigue . . . even that voice. Even though it chilled her still. They were all probably just hallucinations and reactions to oxygen poisoning.

Probably.

Tonya set a course back for the Shipping Hub in Barker. She had goods to sell, true, but even more right now, she wanted to be around people.

She wanted to be around the noise.

Back in the decontamination chamber, the tiny Hadesian carving sat on the floor.

 


 

THE END

 


 

Tagged: Dave_Haddock, Whisperer_in_the_Dark, Fiction
Comments (0) | last updated on March 2, 2014

A Separate Law (complete)

A Separate Law

Knowing it was bound to go sideways, Gates went in anyway. Sometimes, stepping directly into a situation was the only way to salvage it. Beyond that, you had to be seen trying to protect your assets. If people learned your snitches could be hurt or killed with impunity, the price of information grew too great for a poor working man.

He sighed and resisted the urge to check his weapons again. The sensor blister mounted in the elevator ceiling was probably recording. And if they’re smart, Tiger Kitty has someone watching through the nets, so why give away any hints what I’m here for?

The tenement elevator creaked to a stop, door opening at a decrepit pace Gates found both annoying and symbolic of the general state of the planet and its vast populace of Civilians. Impatient, he turned sideways and slid into a hall marginally less dank and dark than most Civilian housing he’d been in during his near-fifty years working this kind of operation.

Lenses adjusting quickly to the dimness, Gates picked out details he would have just as soon miss: the carcass of a rat in the far end of the hall, hard by the fire door, stimstick stubs and less identifiable things littering the rest of the hall, the vacant hall.

No physical sentry? Not so smart, after all. It is late, but still, I thought Tiger Kitty smarter.

Gates walked past the door, put his back to the wall beside it and pulled the local-built compromiser out. He hated relying on local, untested tech, but in this case the possibility of leaving an electronic signature that could lead investigators to suspect an off-planet connection was not acceptable.

He needn’t have worried — the local locks proved less reliable than the compromiser, releasing their hold on the door in a few seconds. He put the compromiser back in his pocket and drew his sidearm.

The cheap door groaned along its tracks as it opened. He stepped inside, gun in the lead and sweeping the corners for targets.

Short entry hall, opening on the left for a kitchenette, another opening straight ahead.

More after the jump...

He checked the kitchen: tiny, full of stinks, smears and discarded food containers, no threats.

Moving on, Gates entered the main living area. A female, snoring lightly, ass-up, on an air mattress laid out in the midst of what appeared to be an incongruously pricey entertainment system.

The grinding whine of a poorly-maintained waste recycling unit announced the presence of the other inhabitant and identified the room off the living area as the bathroom. Gates crossed the floor in a few strides, put his back to the wall.

The bathroom door popped open, his quarry shuffling out. Tiger Kitty had looked better in the booking vids.

Shortly, he would look a lot worse.

Gates kicked out, hard, into the back of his knee. Kitty went down, hard, head caroming off the entertainment console’s casing and activating the system. Sataball scores and standings scrolled through the air between them. Gates closed and snapped another kick into Kitty’s face as he rolled over. Tiger Kitty collapsed onto the mattress, waking the sleeper from her doped slumber.

“Wha?“ Doper asked.

“Angelique sends her regards,” Gates said, stepping forward and sending his boot into the woman’s groin. Doper wheezed, rolling into a ball in a belated attempt to protect herself.

Kitty was trying to shake the stars from his eyes. Gates put a stop to that by pressing the barrel of his pistol to the man’s bloody forehead.

“I have money.”

“I bet you do. Unfortunately for you, this isn’t about money.”

“I got dope.”

Gates tapped Kitty’s forehead with the pistol’s aperture, “Again, not what this is about.”

“What, then?” Kitty whined.

“You beat a girl bloody the other night, you and your friend here,” Gates sent a lazy kick at Doper, sending the wind from her again, “tuned her up real good, all because she had the nerve to come looking to buy from you, money in hand, no less.”

“She deserv–” Gates shut him up with the gun.

When Kitty was tracking again, Gates returned to his narrative: “Now, leaving aside the bad business practice of beating up customers willing to pay for their dope with cash instead of–of, what was it, again?” Gates asked, knowing the answer.

Kitty opened his mouth but Gates cut him off: “Oh, yes, you wanted her to get in bed with you and your friend here.”

Kitty’s only answer was the closing of his bleeding mouth.

“That particular girl, the one who resisted your advances? Her saying ‘no’ should have been enough for you, but it wasn’t. Now you have been made aware she has friends. Friends who would be terribly disappointed to learn she’d been harmed, refused service, or even spoken to with less than the utmost respect. Their disappointment will lead to another visit from me or someone like me. That visit will not be a polite conversation like this. In fact, very little would be said, beyond a bit of begging on your part, if the messenger was into listening to such before he blew your brains out the back of your head.”

Gates smiled, “Am I understood?”

Wiping his bloody mouth, Kitty nodded.

“Tell me I won’t have to come back.”

Kitty spat blood. “You won’t.”

“Can I trust that you speak for your friend here, too?” He gestured with his free hand at where Doper was still curled up and wheezing.

Another nod.

Too easy, part of him whispered. “You wouldn’t happen to be telling me what I want to hear, would you?” Gates asked.

Kitty shook his head, blood spattering the floor between them.

“Somehow, I don’t believe you.”

“Don’t know what I can say to that.” Kitty looked into Gates’ eyes. He read angry, sure, but there was a healthy dose of fear in there as well.

Gates shrugged. “Fair enough, I suppose.” He gestured at Doper, “Might want to get your girl to a medstation.” When Kitty looked at his lover, Gates backed toward the door. “Remember what we’ve discussed,” he said from the doorway.

Another nod.

Gates made his exit, but didn’t go far. A moment later he heard a clatter from inside followed by the sound of bare feet on the floor.

Stupid. Could have got off with a warning, kid.

Kitty charged out, cheap pistol in hand and a snarl on split lips.

Gates, kneeling just outside the door, put him down with two shots. Blood and bone spattered the lower third of the doorway, paired snaps of coherent light superheating cartilage and making a mess of the workings of the dealer’s knees. Kitty slammed into the floor, momentum sending him sliding across the hall to slap face-first into the apartment door on the other side.

Shaking his head at the stupidity of man, Gates headed for the stairs.

Doper’s screams started as the fire door snapped closed behind him. Gates barely spared her a thought as he mounted the stair. Kitty would survive if Doper would unlock from panic long enough to call emergency services.

Gates exited the stair on the top floor, walking out onto street level. This far into the planet’s sixteen-hour night, the streets were just beginning to return to life. He hailed a passing pedicab and boarded. “Central Station,” he said.

A few blocks from the station Gates reactivated his MobiGlas. The device immediately pinged with a number of alerts, including an incoming call from Agent In Charge Mitchi Oda.

Suppressing a sigh, he opened the channel, “Gates.”

The Advocacy Seal was replaced by Oda’s disapproving expression. “Where have you been, Agent Gates?”

“Serving my suspension, remember?”

“Your suspension ended last night.”

Gates covered surprise with a shrug, and a drawled: “News to me.”

“Wouldn’t be if you kept your MobiGlas on.”

Gates let it pass. She’s not half my age, has barely a tenth my field experience, and, frankly, isn’t worth arguing with. “I assume you aren’t calling to congratulate me on my reinstatement, then?” he asked.

“No,” she answered, lips twisting as if she found her next words distasteful: ”though I am required to formally lift your suspension for the record: Special Agent Arminius Gates, you are formally reinstated to your rank and privilege as Special Agent of the Advocacy.”

“Thank you, Special Agent Oda.”

She tossed her head. “Wouldn’t have happened, were it up to me.”

Again he let it pass, focused instead on what was important. Suspecting he’d be riding a desk, doing something boring like background investigations on potential civilian contractors, he asked her, “What assignment, then?”

He hadn’t thought she could look more bitter. “You’re going back to the Black Box: Special Action Division requested you return.”

Home.

He couldn’t keep a broad smile from creasing his lips. “Thank you, Special Agent Oda.”

 


 

Dropping his duffel, Gates looked around his tiny apartment a last time and verified he had every one of his very limited assortment of personal items. Satisfied, he took his MobiGlas out and called the management company to let them know he’d vacated the premises.

Mundane matters complete, Gates cued the cutout software on his MobiGlas and placed another call. Angelique’s heart-shaped face appeared in the pick-up, smiling. The bruises Kitty had put there were already fading. “Armi!” she said, eyes too bright for complete sobriety, but not so high he had to take notice.

“Good to see you’re feeling better, Angelique.”

She nodded, picking up on the cool response. “What is it, Armi?”

“I’m leaving on business. You’ll be on your own for a bit.”

Angelique frowned, pretty brows drawing tight, “But who’s going to look after me?”

“You will continue as arranged. Nothing changes.”

“The Se-“

He interrupted her, not wanting her to use the title, “Nothing changes. Deposits will continue. Keep happy and listen well. I will be in touch.”

“What about the other thing?” Angelique asked, brushing her bruised eye.

“Taken care of.”

“Just like that?”

“Yes.”

“Thanks.”

“A word of advice: clean up, if you can. I won’t be around to correct such problems in the near future. Besides, you know that stuff does you no good.”

She bit her lip, looked away, “I know … thanks.”

“Be safe.” He closed the channel and put his MobiGlas away. She would either sort out her drug problem, or not. Either way, she was a good source on Senator Yaldiz’s secret life, being the central pillar of it. He gave the apartment a final glance. Two years, reduced to a single ruck and a couple new assets; some on and some off the books. Not bad, but not the best use of an old agent’s time. He sighed. It will be good to be back in the fold, back with Special Action. Picking up his ruck, Gates left.

An hour later he stepped up to the local Advocacy quartermaster’s counter to claim the tag for the ship he’d been allotted. The kid behind the counter smiled as he pushed the datakey across. “Avenger, designated A3301. That old bitch is on flight line two.”

Ignoring the kid, Gates signed for the tag and hit the locker room. Donning his flight blues lit the old excitement, putting a bounce in his step as he walked onto the flight line. Gates found her by the designator painted on her tail. Found her, and snorted. He was tempted to go back and punch the kid quartermaster out: A3301 was an early model Avenger, but at least a decade younger than Gates.

He shrugged, mounted the ladder. It’s been too long, he thought, slinging the ruck through the hatch of the old fighter.

Pre-flight was easy and quick, old skills coming back. Gates logged his ground-to-orbit flight plan and request to depart. Both were quickly approved.

He took off a bit gingerly, getting a feel for her. Been flying a desk for a long time, even before the suspension, after all.

Gates found an honest smile curling his lips. In comparison to the ships he’d piloted at Special Action, she was sluggish and long in the tooth, but A3301 was his for the next little while.

The trip to the Black Box was long and less than entertaining, requiring several transits and a few stops to confound anyone trying to track him. The irregular black asteroid wasn’t all that box-shaped. Gates was one of the few that knew its shape wasn’t the reason Special Action had named the place — it was their policy of wiping the black box nav recorders of ships that stumbled upon it.

The defense network surrounding the Black Box sent multiple queries to verify his ID. For a long moment the only evidence he had that he’d satisfied the security protocols was the fact he hadn’t been blown to tiny particles.

He was given a flight path and followed it to the last decimal. Some things you just don’t take chances with. He entered a blacker pit in the dark side of the asteroid and slowly linked up with the docking collar extended for his craft. The hull clunked as mag-locks gripped his ship, connecting his systems with those of the base.

Gates smiled as his sensors went off-line and all lights went dark before the docking collar started drawing A3301 into the asteroid. Advocacy agents were trusted, generally, but institutional paranoia was the name of the game with SA.

This way he couldn’t have told anyone what ships were in the docking bay even had he wanted to.

“Special Agent Gates, welcome back to Special Action,” a woman’s voice interrupted his thoughts, mild trace of an accent spinning the words in pleasant fashion, “I’m Vasser, Special Agent in Charge. When your hatch opens, follow the blue line to me. I’ll brief you in on your mission.”

The Special Agent in Charge briefing me in herself? Unusual. Probably wants to set the tone by putting the old warhorse in his place first off. Setting himself to keep his temper, Gates collected his bag and waited for the hatch to pop. When it did, he followed the illuminated line along a series of empty passages to a hatch. It opened under his hand, revealing a small room.

Vasser sat inside, fingers interlocked on the table before her. White-blonde hair, cut short to fit under a flight helmet or combat armor. All in all, a bit hard on the edges for his personal preferences, but quite attractive. Her expression was neutral as she shook his hand. Nice grip. Not trying too hard. Good sign.

Gates smiled, “SAC Vasser.”

She gestured him into the seat across from hers, “Special Agent Gates. I trust your trip wasn’t too trying?”

He shook his head. “Good to be back in a cockpit.”

She smiled, showing even white teeth for the first time, “You might grow to resent being in one before this is over and done.”

“I doubt it, but do tell.”

“All right.” She punched at the tabletop, calling up a series of files.

Gates heard his MobiGlas chirp as it received copies for later review.

“Three Advocacy agents have been murdered in recent months.”

That got his attention. “Why haven’t–” he snapped his jaw shut on the question when he realized why he hadn’t heard: if these were deaths of undercover agents on active investigations, they wouldn’t have been reported, not through any channels to which a suspended agent would have access.

She continued as if he hadn’t started to say something stupid: “We already have a team chasing down the primary suspect in one case, but I’m tasking you with looking into the other two. On the quiet, as a bounty hunter.”

Not adding up.

She read him too easily, or at least figured her explanation was lacking: “Problem, Agent Gates?”

He shrugged, “Just that I’m not known for the quiet quality of my investigations.”

Her smile returned. He decided he liked it as she continued, “No, you’re known for breaking things. That works in our favor on this one: in fact, as far as anyone but you, me, and your old SAC knows, you’re still on suspension.”

“About Oda, she’s not a fan of mine … And there’s the quartermaster who assigned the ship I came here on.”

“My problem, and already dealt with.”

“All right.”

A barely-visible eyebrow arched, “Just like that?”

He smiled, “If you say Oda is handled, then she’s handled. Same thing on the kid manning the ship depot. Beyond that, I’d rather get on with learning what you know about someone who thinks they can plant our agents without retribution.”

She looked at him a long moment, seeming on the verge of saying something.

Gates waited, expectant.

Vasser didn’t speak, instead looked down and called up an image of an agent in his academy uniform. “Agent Max Nawabi. Graduated twelve years ago. Most recent assignment: Customs Control and Enforcement. Sent in, undercover, at Corel, to investigate rumors of slave trading. Expected to be a long-term op, he was checking in regularly before his handler lost contact two months ago. He turned up dead in a back alley on Nexus last month.”

Another graduation image. “Agent Gage Knowles. Graduated ten years ago. Most recent assignment: Narcotics Investigations. Sent in at Nexus on long-term undercover operation regarding narcotics trade along the Magnus-Nexus-Corel systems. Made regular reports until contact was lost two months ago. Turned up on Nexus in a trash heap within days of Nawabi’s corpse.”

“Aside from the timing, what makes you think the killings are related?”

She looked at Gates, called up the autopsies of both agents. “They made almost no attempt to cover up either killing, and the weapon used was the same in both instances.”

“Exactly the same?”

“Yes.”

 


 

So the same shooter killed both agents. Anything else linking the two?” Gates asked.

Our analysts think their investigations point to the same criminal enterprise.”

Gates couldn’t keep the snark off his lips: “Such a difficult stretch for the analysts: smuggling dope and smuggling people are so very different, after all.”

Vasser cocked her head, expression revealing nothing, “There’s more to it than that. For the last two years we’ve been running up against some unusually tight-lipped crims working back and forth between Corel, Magnus, and Nexus systems. We’d arrest some mope for whatever crime and run the usual on them: offering reduced sentences and Advocacy Witness Protection in exchange for their testimony, but everyone stopped taking us up on it.”

“Someone get popped in Witness Protection?” he asked.

“Not that Witness Protection is willing to tell us about.” She shrugged, “Either way, someone probably took credit for killing a witness, telling all their minions they’d have the same done to them if they turned on the organization.

At about the same time the best source of informants we had started drying out, some less useful local assets started complaining about competition in the narco-trafficking arena. Les Inconnus, they called the new group.”

“Any electronic intelligence, some computer record of their existence?”

She shook her head, “Very little, and always from groups in conflict with them, never from anyone inside Les Inconnus.”

Gates cocked a brow.

She nodded, “Unusual, I know. That’s why my equivalent over at Narcotics Investigations sent Knowles in. The story was more or less the same with Nawabi.”

“Did either of them seem to be getting somewhere?”

“It’s all in the files, but the short answer is: no, they hadn’t accomplished much. Knowles had penetrated some small-time local distribution networks and Nawabi’s last contact with his handler mentioned a meet that was supposed to go down on Nexus, but we haven’t even confirmed he was upright and walking when he left Corel.”

“No?”

“Advocacy assets in this sector are stretched thin and we didn’t want to tip the adversary off as to how thin by asking too many questions in the clear. Again, that’s where your suspension and reputation comes in handy.”

“Deniability.”

She nodded. “You’ll have full and public reinstatement once you’ve identified the principals in this case, should you wish it. Otherwise, I may need you to stay on in an off-the-books capacity.”

And there it is — a promise of future glory for an old warhorse, or a quiet pasture, should I fail.

“Any suggestions on where to start shaking trees?”

“Nexus. We know both Agents were there, however briefly.”

“Anyone in place I can talk to for the lay of the land?”

“No one we can trust, given recent results.”

“Any more good news?”

A partial return of that smile, “Just a new ship for you, everything else we have is in the file on your MobiGlas.”

“There a time-limit on this?”

She stood, “Sooner would be better … just close the case on whoever is behind the killings.”

Close it, with or without breathing suspects, Gates translated, climbing to his feet. “Yes, Ma’am.”

“Follow the blue line to your new ship, I think she’ll be to your liking.”

Thanking her, Gates withdrew.

With the Black Box’s lack of viewports, Gates didn’t know what he’d been assigned until he read the Origin Jumpworks GmbH and platinum-chased 325a etched into the ID plate set in the docking ring of the ship.

A 325a? A bit high-end for me, but I suppose I can play the well-to-do bounty hunter, if need be.

The absurdly-well-appointed cockpit was a shock after the Avenger, automatically powering up as he entered. He set the system to run a series of diagnostics while he examined her armament: a matched set of Omnisky VII laser cannon for close-in work and a pair of Talon SB missile pods to extend her reach. Not too high-profile for a successful bounty hunter… In fact, just about perfect.

Gates selected one of the 325’s multiple tags and set up the first of many jumps. I’ll have to contract a courier or two to send a few messages once I’m away — see if any of my sources can scratch something up on what’s going on.

A number of jumps later and several frustrating days lingering in the shadier bits of Nexus had earned Gates nothing but a few outrageous bar tabs, a couple of hard looks from the local lawmen, and the sneaking suspicion he’d have to break something to get anywhere.

Now, Kantor, a small-time dealer and sometime informant, was late.

Out of options, Gates stood waiting in the rain resulting from the non-stop operation of one of Nexus’ giant terraformers, still churning to maintain and improve the minimally breathable atmosphere. He wiped his bald scalp and shrugged deeper into the dubious shelter of an advertisement for a chemical company that claimed the cure for his condition.

Normally, Gates would have left and let the young dealer try and catch up with him some other day, but Kantor was the only crim Gates had spoken with who’d shown the least interest in dropping information on Les Inconnus. Even then, he’d asked for an exorbitant sum for his tidings. If a little rain and a few extra minutes were the only surcharge on the price of it, Gates would gladly pay.

The taverns, gambling halls and knocking shops, while open all hours catering to the stevedores that made up the bulk of Nexus’ population, were also the least likely places Gates could get dependable intel. Everyone in them suspected the other guy was reporting to Les Inconnus, with a result that no one was willing to talk.

Gates almost admired the intensity of the paranoia Les Inconnus had established regarding the identity of its members. Even better, they maintained it with very little obvious violence: he’d yet to see a single street killing, or even hear of one on the vidcasts. It all smacked of a highly professional outfit, which begged the question: why kill agents? Such was usually the death of quiet commerce as the Advocacy crawled up the ass of the offending organization and chewed its way out as messily as possible.

Were it a small-scale and violent operation, I’d just start offing street soldiers until they decided enough was enough and came after me. With this larger, more sophisticated group, that way’ll only serve to get me smoked. Still, it would be easier, short term, than this.

A shadow detached from the alley across the street, moved his way. Gates laid a hand on his weapon, turned to present a smaller target.

The shadow resolved into a young woman Gates didn’t recognize. She stopped some ten meters from him.

“Bounty hunter?” she called, peering through the rain at him.

“Who’re you?” he asked.

“Nobody, just here to tell you Kantor changed his mind, he don’t wanna talk to you or anybody else about nothing.”

“Where is he?” Gates asked, taking a step toward her.

Her only answer was to turn and run.

Damn.

Knowing she had the advantage of a head start and intimate knowledge of the ground, Gates let her go. He turned and set out for the spaceport. Nexus is a dead-end just now, at least from the street. Grasping at straws here … but maybe D’Ivoire or even Zara, with her corporate contacts, can run something down.

He sighed. Damn, I hope so.

He was wait-listed for permission to take off. The spaceport was busy, even this far into the local night, vessels of all types and vintage come to the surface to transship and cross-load cargoes from any number of systems. The five jump points connecting the system to nearby stars gave rise to the name of Nexus, its high volume of trade, and, ultimately, the delay for Gates. Even if a couple of the jump-point systems were pirate-infested trash heaps, they still linked to systems beyond that had things worth trading.

Pirates. The word surged free of his subconscious, dangling ropes of thought. I wonder if the Navy has any data on Les Inconnus. Of course, getting them to open their books to a civili– Wait, someone — Morgan! — was hooked up with a rear admiral or some such. And he’s out here, somewhere … He tapped on the console, wracking his brain … Nemo? Yes, Nemo.

A shark’s grin. Time to call in that marker from Vega.

The comm console pinged, notification he was cleared for liftoff.

Gates slipped the 325 clear of her pad and smoothly built power until he was rocketing free of the thin, rainy tendrils of atmosphere and groping fingers of Nexus’ gravity well.

This one’s going to ruin me for any other ship.

The planet receding behind him, Gates called up the nav plot. Examining his options, he decided against making the run through Corel. If he had to come back and start asking questions on Corel IV, he didn’t want some busybody noticing he’d been through the system recently. He instead chose the Taranus jump point. The nav system began updating, switched to a sullen amber and displayed:

NOTICE: YOU HAVE SELECTED A STAR SYSTEM THE NAVY HAS RECENTLY IDENTIFIED AS HAVING A HIGH INCIDENCE OF PIRACY. DO YOU WISH TO CONTINUE OR SELECT AN ALTERNATE ROUTE?

Gates reached out and hit the ‘Continue’ key.

 


 

Well now, isn’t this the perfect welcome to Taranis, garden spot of Human-controlled space?

A pair of obvious pirates were closing on a trader just at the edge of Gates’ sensor coverage. He’d been tracking developments for a while, watching as the captain of the long-hauler, trying to escape the two vessels behind it, blundered across the pirate lying doggo along his path. The third pirate went active with his sensors, closing the sack.

The trade-ship captain compounded his error, slowing when he should try and shoot past the lone ship along his trajectory: a stern chase was still longest … But no, he’d slowed, the course alteration only serving to keep him in the weapons envelope of the pirates that much longer.

Missiles traced between the pirate and quarry. EMP hashed his sensors as the opening salvo of the pirates downed the trader’s weak shields. Despite the blurring of the sensor image, Gates knew what was next: a high-speed pass with guns, aimed at damaging drives and shield generators, and destroying whatever weapons the owner had mounted.

Gates felt his upper lip curling, conflicted. Bounty hunters rarely took on pirates on the prowl, preferring to take down individual bounties while the pirate was planetside, hopefully drunk, and certainly well away from ship-destroying weapons that might put the hunter out of business. It was a practical tactic, and one that, if ignored, would raise questions about his cover.

If everyone kept to their present course and speed, their trajectories would close enough to get them inside his missile envelope in just under three minutes.

Someone always survives these things, and they always talk. Can’t have ‘em talking about how I blasted in for no guarantee of cash for my efforts.

The trader’s emergency beacon lit up.

Stupid. Should have just given in and lost the cargo. There’s insurance for that kind of thing. Now the pirates’ll take it out of their hides, literally.

The tags on the transmission identified the vessel as a T-XIII, one of the cheapest cargo-haulers plying the space lanes. Capable, barely, of transiting jump points, they had large holds and minimal crew requirements, making them the piece of crap of choice for down-at-the-heels traders.

Two minutes before entering engagement range on his missiles, the tactical plot beeped. The hauler had stopped maneuvering.

Damn it. Gates increased throttle by twenty percent, increasing his rate of closure. Maybe the pirates will spook, they see me coming.

He ran the drive signatures of all the vessels against the 325’s database of ship profiles. The one that had been lying in wait was a Cutlass, as was one of the pair of chasers. The other chaser was a Caterpillar, a modified cargo hauler; big, slow and certainly not going to win any battles of maneuver.

Gates checked the tactical plot, running a missile solution on the closing Cutlass and checking the positions of the other vessels. The Caterpillar was almost on top of the hauler, probably using its tractors to haul the cargo vessel in.

The general comms came to life: “Fellow traveller, you need to make for elsewhere.”

Polite breed of pirate I’ve found. Polite and nearsighted. Can’t see what he’s facing.

Gates smiled as the range ticked down. Once he had the other ship deep enough into his envelope, he launched.

It took a measurable moment for the sensors to report their findings to the pirate, during which the comm warning continued: “I won’t warn you aga-“ the speaker cut off with a squeal of panic as the pilot realized he’d gone from fox to hen. He didn’t react well, punching out countermeasures far too early and jerking his stick around. His indecision killed a lot of speed for no gain. He ended slower than he’d begun, and moving away from his support and almost parallel to Gates.

Gates punched the throttle and went straight in at the Cutlass. The targeting computer chuckled as it worked out a targeting solution on the other vessels. If the first Cutlass survived the pair of missiles sent its way, Gates would end him with guns.

Gates adjusted course, slid sideways as the ECM suite lit up with warnings.

He ignored them for the moment, spitting his own pair of missiles; both rocketing toward the other Cutlass. Gates lined up the mass driver on the first Cutlass and snapped a burst of hypervelocity rounds at him.

He needn’t have bothered. Both missiles from his first salvo easily overtook the Cutlass and its inexperienced pilot: the first detonation downed its shields a split second before the follow-up exploded right beside the vessel’s cockpit. Several heartbeats later the hypervelocity rounds from the mass driver ripped into the flank of the Cutlass just forward of her drive section, blowing great chunks of armor and internal components free. Bleeding atmo, the Cutlass pinwheeled into the long, dark night.

He tore his gaze away, saw the pair of bright pinpoints of their drives as the missiles raced at him from the remaining Cutlass. He waited as the warnings came more and more shrilly.

At the last instant he sideslipped again, dumping countermeasures to continue along his original vector. Both missiles bit into false signatures, tiny electronic minds deceived. Spheres of expanding plasma lit the black behind Gates. He adjusted course a third time, pushed the throttle to the stops.

He’d lost track of his own missiles, had to glance at the plot. This pilot was better.

Must have avoided one of the blasts entirely. His shields were just coming back on line. The Cutlass was punching it, maneuvering to come at Gates from the side, hammer to the Caterpillar’s anvil.

Gates lined up on the Caterpillar, trusting to the 325’s better speed to get him in and out before the Cutlass could peg him with sufficient cannon fire to overload his shields.

Entering range, he snapped the 325 into a roll and held both firing studs down. Coherent beams snapped across the vacuum even as a stream of metal splinters followed at a velocity that was slower on a scale that only machines could appreciate.

The turret on the Caterpillar got into action.

Gates slammed the yoke forward and then hard left, stamping his right foot down at the same time, then immediately hammered the yoke to the right. Thrusters fired, yanking the 325 down and left before rolling in a righthand spin that leveled out ‘below’ the Caterpillar in its current orientation, preventing the turret gunner from targeting him. Turret gunnery required close coordination between pilot and gunner — something most pirate scum didn’t practice.

He brought his own nose up and fired into the belly of the Cat, hits spalling armor and releasing superheated metal vapor to glow against the black. Something broke loose inside the Cat as Gates straightened out, a half-dome of fire erupting like a glowing blister from a directional thruster.

More warnings blatted, this time from his shields. The Cutlass had come in when Gates slowed, managing several hits with its laser cannon.

Good pilot. Better, by far, than his wingman.

He pushed the comm button, broadcasting even as he maneuvered to shake the Cutlass: “Gonna have the bounty on one of you. Don’t need more. Should you want to run, I won’t be chasing you.”

Several more cannon shots tapped against his shields.

Still adding velocity, Gates cranked the 325 into a widening spiral, pushing the ship and its compensators to the maximum.

The Cutlass followed, inferior thrust costing her position with each passing second, despite the Cutlass’ better turning capability.

Starting at the apex of a turn, Gates reversed course. The world grayed, G-forces crushing despite compensators. Breathing hard and holding onto consciousness with an act of will, Gates lined up on the Cutlass and pressed both firing studs again.

Her shields buckled under the high cyclic rate of the 325’s laser cannon, then the hull cracked open under the flail of the mass driver’s munitions.

The Cutlass pilot’s gunnery was damn good: a series of successive shots managing to down the 325’s shields before wrecking the empty starboard missile pod and cracking armor all along that stretch of wing.

“Call it even, then,” the pirate’s transmission came as the Cutlass shot past Gates’ rapidly decelerating ship.

Gates turned but checked fire as the pirate continued to add velocity and run for it; a deal was a deal, after all.

The Caterpillar was already making best possible speed for the depths of the system.

He turned for the hauler. The comm went active again: “This is Captain Charles Zhou of Saint Claire’s Kiss. Please identify.”

“Arminius Gates, bounty hunter. The pirates won’t be back.”

“Oh, thank the Buddha.”

What followed was far too many tearful thank-yous that Gates found increasingly irritating. It took some doing, but the captain eventually got their primary systems up and running. Some hours later Gates was escorting the trade ship Saint Claire’s Kiss to the jump point for Nemo, trying to politely turn down Captain Zhou’s dubious offers of assistance he or his crew might render their savior.

 


 

It had been, Gates reflected, a frustrating week. First, the 325 had developed an electrical problem in the damaged wing after the jump, then the sole civilian shipyard in orbit over Nemo III claimed all their repair bays were occupied.

He would have landed and taken advantage of the cheaper facilities planetside, but re-entry into the planet’s atmosphere would surely burn out the rest of the electronics in that stretch of wing, costing more time and money he didn’t have.

He’d set the ship into high orbit and sent a message to Morgan asking for a meet, then settled in to check his mail. Courier ships ran electronic mail across systems, delivering it to local holding networks for delivery when a recipient checked in. It wasn’t entirely secure, but it worked well enough if you had enough junk mail to cover for the occasional nugget of important correspondence encoded in some advertising packet or other.

Buried in one such advertisement proclaiming the wonders of Universal Health Corporation’s latest life-extension treatment, Vasser’s message was brief and to the point: No additional developments our end. Any on yours?

The reply Gates sent was equally terse: No. Still trying. Running at it from different angle. The blue-green marble of Nemo III spun carelessly on beneath him as Gates deleted the actual junk and scrolled through a few more messages, finding them no more pleasing. Those of his informants who’d responded didn’t have anything on Les Inconnus. Those that didn’t were even more unlikely to have anything, as they were generally involved in, or reported on, matters political.

The comm blinked, indicating an incoming message from dockside. Gates slapped the pickup, “Gates.”

“Sir, your request for service on the 325 has been expedited.”

“Expedited? By whom?”

“A friend to this yard: Jimmy Morgan says he owes you.”

Gates was caught off-guard. He hadn’t thought to get a pleasant surprise anywhere during this investigation. “Ah. Very good.”

“Please proceed to bay One-Eight along this course.”

Gates slugged the data to his navcomp and set things in motion as the shipyard rep continued, “Our estimate on your repair time is about fourteen hours. Will you need a shuttle to the planet or care to stay aboard the station during the work?”

“A shuttle, please.”

“You can pick up your complimentary shuttle ticket upon arrival. The next will be leaving the station at 17:15 Zulu. If you have other business to attend on station, shuttles depart for the surface hourly at quarter after.”

“Thanks.”

“Our pleasure. Thank you for choosing NemoNautics for your service and repair needs.”

Several hours later, he was sitting down at a table across from Commander James Morgan (Retired) and placing his noodle order with an attractive server.

“Good to see you, Gates,” Morgan said as the server left.

“And you, Morgan. How have you been?”

“Old and decrepit.”

Gates snorted. “You’re twenty years my junior.”

“It’s not the age, it’s the boarding actions.”

“I’m not some young woman you’re trying to impress. Besides, how many desperate boarding actions have you been in?”

A snort. “None.”

“Right.”

“So, you retired yet?”

Gates shrugged. “Kind of.” The lie came easy, Morgan wasn’t Advocacy: “On suspension, again. Doing some bounty work to keep myself afloat.”

“Bounty work? Who you looking for?”

“I wanted to know if you have any intel on new criminal organizations in this region of the Empire.“

“New?”

“Yes.”

“What are they into?”

“Slaving, smuggling, and piracy.”

“What systems?”

“Corel, Nexus, Magnus, maybe Cathcart and Taranus, too.”

“That’s a lot of systems for your people to fail at tugging a thread loose.”

Gates shook his head, “I know. I wouldn’t be gnawing on noodles and listening to your inflated tales of yesteryear if I had other options.”

“Ass.”

Arminius chuckled, “I’ve been called much worse, and far more inaccurate, names.”

Morgan tossed his head, “I’ll ask around.”

“That’s it?”

“I am retired.”

Gates grinned. “Heard that before.”

“It’s true, this time.”

“Guess I should have called in that marker from Vega back when.”

Morgan raised his hands, “Hey, I’m not saying I won’t get you some answers. I know I owe. It’s just that I’m not directly in the loop anymore. Besides, if I wasn’t interested in paying you back, I wouldn’t have arranged your repairs.”

“And thanks for that … How’d you come to call the shots for that kind of thing, anyway?”

“I’m retired from the Navy. The pension ain’t the best, especially with my exes to pay, but I managed to land some consulting work. Enough to scrape a nut together so I could put my fingers in a few pies.”

Gates nodded, “Good to hear you’re doing all right. Even so, I’m buying.”

“Damn right you are.”

His MobiGlas beeped as Gates signed off on the repairs. He stepped away from the counter and attendant, taking the call, “Gates.”

“You private?” Morgan’s voice.

That was quick. I knew Morgan wasn’t as retired as he let on. “Not really. Just about to board ship. Call me back in five.”

“Will do.”

Gates finished up the paperwork and set out for bay 18. The MobiGlas went off again just as he was boarding. He slapped the hatch closed and routed the call through the 325’s intercom. “All right, I’m private,” he said, stowing his gear and beginning to change into his flight suit.

“Good. You were right, there is a connect between the pirates in Cathcart and Taranis. Starting about a year ago, some organization calling itself Les Inconnus muscled in and laid a couple of pirate clans flat, then offered the same guys new ships and weapons, so long as they made nice and played by some new rules. My information is sketchy on the new rules, but it’s clear the main point is keeping your mouth shut about who is on payroll and who isn’t. Our sources were clear that those who refused the offer didn’t appear again.”

“Anything on the where and who of Les Inconnus?”

“Corel-359 is supposed to be some kind of command center for their operations.”

Gates checked his MobiGlas, “Isn’t that a dead rock?”

“Sure is.”

“Expensive.”

“Yes, but private.”

“Why hasn’t the Navy moved on them, then?”

“Bigger concerns elsewhere, and I’m sure someone, somewhere along the line, is getting a subsidy to encourage them to look the other way.”

“Damn.”

“Gates, don’t go after these people. By all accounts, they’re heavy hitters.”

“Last I checked, I am one too.”

“Hey, I tried, right?”

“Sure, Morgan. And thanks for the intel, I needed it. We’re even.”

“No, I still owe you, Gates. Safe travels.” The line went dead.

Gates was jumping to Corel an hour later, having updated Vasser about his destination.

Gates was on a ballistic course, coasting in toward Corel-359 over the last three days, sensors in passive mode. The rogue planetoid was well out from the system primary and off the beaten path, its orbit an odd ellipse currently passing above the plane of the ecliptic. It made sense as a base in that regard, but the fact it was a lifeless rock made it a hard sell for anyone mindful of logistical costs. There were several rings of ice and dust around the planetoid, as well as four even smaller orbiting rocks cluttering up readings, but drive signatures were easy to pick out, even for civilian sensors at a distance.

_Problem is, even with my enhanced sensor suite, I’ve picked nothing up. Not a damn thing. Messing with my cherub-like demeanor, this waiting game. Much longer and I’ll be in orbit myself.

To hell with it._

Gates went active — all at once — punching the throttle up to eighty percent and pinging everything in the local area with his sensors.

Minutes passed, the 325 building speed and a more accurate picture of the planetoid and its orbital companions. Still, nothi–

Three drives lit up on the tactical display: two in front, one almost immediately to starboard and below his line of approach. Gates picked the two ahead for attention from missiles, setting the comp to find a targeting solution even as the 325 identified his opponents as a pair of Cutlasses and an Aurora.

Gates altered course, stretching the time envelope to prevent the Cutlasses closing before he’d dealt with the closer Aurora.

The targeting comp pinged readiness. He pressed the firing stud.

For a moment, nothing happened, then the 325 lurched as the missile drives, still clutched in their pods, ignited.

They won’t arm this close to the ship, so they shouldn’t explode, but someone ha– sudden certainty froze his blood — Morgan! Get me expedited for repairs so you can sabotage my pods, eh? Should never have trusted hi– The ECM suite started blatting. Missiles incoming, from all three ships.

He started evasive maneuvers, test-firing the mass-driver and cannon. Both were working properly, as were his shields.

If he survived the missile attack, there would be a reckoning.

Face set in a death’s head grin, Gates pushed the throttle to the stops.

Wolves beware, this old dog still has teeth.

 


 

“Gates, can you hear me?”

The words brought pain. Gates recoiled from them, retreating into a calm pool of nothing.

“Up the interrupter, he’s suffering.”

“Yes, ma’am,” a digital voice. Somehow, that was important, spurred him to think about his surroundings. Viscous gel-like fluid surrounded him: warm, yet cool, gentle, comforting.

A medbay. The thought came without alarm.

The pain eased. Gates floated, taking his time coming to his senses.

“Gates, can you hear me?” Details floated slowly to mind: a woman’s voice. Not one he recognized.

“Yes, I can,” voice weak.

“Good. Do you remember what happened?”

Images flooded the calm pool of consciousness, shattering it completely.

Gates snapped his eyes open. The glare of light was blinding, at first, but resolved to an attractive woman of indeterminate years standing beside him, arms crossed over a high-end civilian flight suit.

“Wher–” he started, licked his lips, and tried again, “Who are you?”

“To answer the first question: you’re on my ship.” She clicked her heels and presented her MobiGlas, “As to the second: I’m Agent Seabrook, Special Action. Vasser set me as your backstop Agent.”

“Vasser?”

Seabrook snapped her fingers, “Get your shit together, Agent, and focus: you were sent here by?”

He tensed. “Morgan. That motherf–” pain shut his mouth as he tried to rise from the medbay, gel sluicing from fresh-knit skin that marked his dark flesh like pink paint.

She put a hand out, “We’ll get to him, if he truly is responsible, now you’re tracking a bit better. Think a moment.”

Say this about my anger; it clears the mind of cobwebs quite nicely. Gates settled back into the grip of the medbay, just leaving his face above the gel. He took a few deep breaths, asked when he was calm enough: “I thought Vasser sent me in alone?”

“She did. I was ordered to keep to the background and well out of sight, which I did, at least until I was sure there wasn’t anyone else to pick up the pieces for the other side. Quite the gunfight. A gunfight you won, at least for certain values of winning.” Gates recognized the predator’s grin that spread across her face. He’d worn a similar expression often enough.

Gates winced as an image swam to mind: Beyond his shattered cockpit and crazed helmet glass — the pirate’s Aurora breaking apart under blasts of his sole remaining operational laser cannon.

“Thought I was dead.”

“You would have been, given a few more hours. You were a few hours from hammering into one of the moonlets. As it is, your 325 is all busted up and you’ve had some nerve damage in your extremities from vacuum-induced freezer-burns. Nothing the medbay can’t handle in a few more hours. I managed to stabilize your ship’s orbit, but it ain’t going anywhere any time soon.”

Gates grunted. “I’ll take it out of Morgan’s hide. After he tells me why.”

“I assume you’re talking about James Morgan?”

“Damn straight I am. You must have been closer than Vasser wanted, you know who I was talking to.”

“I know because, right after you left, Morgan showed up on the orbital platform where you had your repairs done, escorted by some serious-looking men.”

“Serious?”

“You know the type: muscle that has to act all hard and over-attentive to their surroundings, just to scratch a living. They were not being terribly gentle with Morgan, either.”

Maybe, just maybe, Morgan didn’t willingly hand me over. Best not to hope too hard, that’s how they suck you into making mistakes.

“How do you know they didn’t make you?” he asked.

“I was there,” she glanced at the ship bulkheads, “getting maintenance done.”

A new suspicion bubbled: “How’d you know who he was?”

“Vasser wanted me familiar with you and your contacts, so she gave me your records.”

Lips twisting in a grin made sharper by the pain of damaged flesh, he asked: “The official one or Special Action’s?”

Her smile was bright, even touched her brown eyes. “Both. Quite the history.”

“I’m old, see. History is longer for me than for you.”

“Yeah, but we both know that’s not what I meant. I must say I hadn’t thought to meet a living legend, let alone save his ass from certain death.”

He glanced away. “Flattery will get you everywhere.”

“Even places I don’t want to go?” she replied, archly.

The medbay beeped in alarm as his chuckle tore open stretches of skin along his flanks. Wow, must have done a real number on my suit when the cockpit went, he thought through the pain.

When it eased, she was smiling at him, “Really, though, it makes for interesting reading, your history. The last bit, especially: did you really dismantle Doctor Pantroski’s entire operation in one night?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Your SAC at the time, she didn’t appreciate it.”

“No, she did not. I had reason to suspect Pantroski of killing a couple of Advocacy agents.”

“And?”

“Oda didn’t think what I had was enough. I disagreed. Turns out I was right.”

“And Oda nearly had you run out of the Advocacy for it.”

“Nearly. Been closer a few times.”

“Me too, with Oda at the helm,” another flash of that predatory grin. “Oda’s all about making Oda look good to the Director. Brought me up on charges, once: claimed some ‘irregularities’ in one of my investigations.” She shrugged. “All I did was make the rapist slaver scum’s face ‘irregular.’ I had to try and keep him from doing … what he did … to anyone else …” Having worn them himself, Gates easily recognized the expressions crawling across Seabrook’s face as she related her tale: disgust at what the pirate had done, discomfort with her own response, followed by the calm surety that those actions had been completely necessary. Gates knew from long experience that the appearance of certainty was easier to maintain during the day. During the long hours of the night, sleep let the guard down, let the nightmares run free.

Gripped with a sudden urge to change the subject, he asked, “You didn’t happen to see the techs that sabotaged my pods, did you?”

“No.”

“You know if Morgan is still there?”

“He’s not.” Gates’ disappointment must have shone through, because she quickly went on: “I managed to tag the cutter he was shipped out on. He’s in-system, on Corel II. Or rather, in orbit around it on another orbital, this one owned by a Anselm Holding LLC.”

“Should that company name mean something to me?”

“The same company owns Nemonautics.”

“The company that facilitated the sabotage of my ship. Sounds suspicious.”

She cocked a brow.

“I’m wary of easily-drawn conclusions.”

“So am I, that’s why I ran a few checks while you were recovering. As the company is privately held, there’s very little information available, but they sprang into being three years back, buying up a bunch of shipping companies and several orbital maintenance facilities, all without any kind of financing on the books.”

“A front?”

“Absolutely, though I can’t say who for.”

“What kind of orbital is it?”

“Harmony Maintenance and Transhipment, much like the one in orbit around Nemo.”

“Any other corporations leasing space?”

She glanced at her MobiGlas. “No.”

“Any defenses?”

“Standard anti-meteor.”

He nodded and hit the inside edge of the medbay, gel sluicing around his fingers, “How long do I have to be in here?”

“A few more hours should see you well-cooked enough for very light duty.”

“Good. Then all we need is another ship.”

“We?”

Gates hadn’t even realized he’d made the decision about Seabrook until she called him on it. He looked her in the eye. “Yes. I need your help, Agent Seabrook.”

Seabrook returned his gaze for a long moment, clearly weighing the situation. “All right. For what?”

“We’re going in after Morgan. Either we spring him if he’s being held against his will or, if he’s not, we take him for questioning.”

She pointed at the medbay, ”You’re not going to be fully healed any time soon. Can’t see how you’ll get aboard without tripping alarms.”

“I won’t be boarding, you will. If they twig to you, they’ll expect you to extract to the ship you arrived on. That’s why I’ll be aboard another ship, ready to run in and extract you both, should it come to that.”

“Warrantless?”

He just looked at her.

Seabrook looked away, pained. “Stupid question, I know.”

“So, know where we can get a third-rate ship on the quick, cheap, and down-low?”

“Might be I know a guy, yes.”

Gates smiled and changed the subject, “How long you been Advocacy?”

“Nearly twenty, why?”

“I didn’t get to read your file, remember? And while SA is made up of harder-working agents than the rest of the Advocacy, it might help me plan if I know some of the specifics of your background.”

“I’ve been SA for seven years.”

“Ah, that explains why we never met.”

She nodded, “I arrived right after you were sent to work under Oda. Special Action needed a data jockey with field experience. I think the SACs did it as a one-for-one transfer when they shifted us.”

Data jockey, now that both explains a lot and could come in quite handy.

“Careerist bureaucrats do like to keep things tidy,” he said, to keep a verbal hand in the conversation.

She snorted, “But Oda got more than she bargained for with with you, eh?”

“That she did. Let’s hope that Morgan, or any people holding him, do the same.”

 


 

“You copy?”

Gates slugged the live feed to the command terminal, then had a moment of vertigo as the view wobbled, Seabrook climbing out of the Caterpillar’s conning chair and moving for the hatch.

“Yes, quite clearly.”

“Good. You ready?” she asked, her hand appearing in the view as she reached for the access patch.

He gave the question a moment’s honest thought as she moved from the bridge and headed toward the airlock. The op was cobbled together on short notice, with no real resources but the balls and brains the two of them brought to the table. That and the aged Avenger Seabrook had managed to track down.

They’d had two breaks that made the plan feasible: first, while they still weren’t sure Morgan was being held against his will, Seabrook had managed to find out where, as of five hours ago, Morgan was. Second: given the covert nature of Les Inconnus operations, there didn’t appear to be heavy security on the station.

“Gates?” she asked, hand poised to open the airlock leading from her ship to the station.

“It’s a go,” he answered.

“All right.” Seabrook put her hand to the panel and left her ship.

It would take some time for her to reach the core of the station, so Gates checked his navcomp feed. He’d put the Avenger she’d managed to scare up for him into a gradual approach vector meant to overtake the station in about ten minutes, at which point he’d start talking to them about getting service. In the meantime, Gates scanned the ships currently docked: the Caterpillar Seabrook had IDed as the one transporting Morgan was still there. The two other vessels appeared legitimate customers, there for maintenance, upgrades or to meet the company’s shipping needs.

Seabrook had been the one to see the last group as their way in: she’d falsified a manifest indicating she’d been contracted to transport some parts for Nemonautics and was supposed to pick them up here. Gates didn’t like counting on them not having the parts on hand, but the company reps seemed to have bought the story.

“Hello,” Seabrook said, dragging Gates’ attention back to her.

“Captain Tolliver, I’m sorry for the delay, but we’ve had some problems getting shipments in lately.”

The view bobbed slightly as Seabrook shrugged. “So long as I’m not in breach of contract and you’ve got someplace I can cool my heels for a bit?”

“Sure, we can put you up —” the rep tapped a few commands into his console, “— on deck thirteen, cabin eight.”

“Thanks. I am a bit tired of looking at the same bulkheads, if you know what I mean …”

Careful, he might start thinking you’re into him, Seabrook. Ops have gone south with less reason …

The rep smiled, waved his hands at their surroundings, “Tell me about it.”

Relieved, Gates sighed as his fellow agent stepped onto the lift and pressed the plate for deck thirteen. “Still tracking?” she asked after the door closed.

“Yes, you’re coming in clear. According to your data, we may have lucked out. Your room is just one deck down from Morgan’s.”

Seabrook whistled tunelessly as the decks sped by without anyone else boarding. It seemed they’d chosen well when deciding to extract Morgan late in the local night. The door opened, revealing a short hall. The room she’d been given was on the right side about half-way down. She entered, put down her ruck, and started stripping off her flight suit.

She pulled the hood of her deadsuit up and held her breath as the mask settled into place. Once it started cycling her air and damping her heat signature to ambient, Seabrook unpacked her compromiser and a small holdout pistol, then slipped the empty ruck into the expandable backpack of the suit. Deadsuits scrambled her image on the cams and would spoof heat-sensors, but wouldn’t do anything for actual eyes-on observers.

She used the compromiser to kill the door logs and returned to the hall. Instead of heading to the lift, Seabrook made her way to the emergency shaft and ran the compromiser over the panel. It took a bit longer than the hatch to her quarters, but eventually popped. The emergency escape shafts were meant to be easy to open, but Seabrook didn’t want the automated escape protocol activating. She entered and started up the ladder.

“How we doing for time?” she asked, breathing easily.

“Good. I’ll start hailing the rep in about two minutes.”

“Thought he was going to hit on me.”

Gates grinned, glad she couldn’t see him. “Me too. Good job keeping it professional.”

“Men. My figure is about as obscured as it gets wearing this thing under a flight suit, yet you still want some action.”

“Hey, you won’t catch me ogling.”

“So you admit you have been?”

“I admit nothing.”

Seabrook chuckled, came to a halt. She tapped a command into her compromiser. The live feed from it was simulcast to his feed, taking the place of her view. The hallway outside the emergency hatch wasn’t empty: a thick-necked man, his entire being screaming goon, stood at the end, right in front of the hatch to Morgan’s.

Poor placement, a part of Gates’ mind reflected even as Seabrook cursed under her breath.

“That’s not good,” Seabrook said.

“No, it’s not. Ideas?”

“Should have checked the security system before making a move, dammit!” her frustration was quiet, but no less intense for it.

“Couldn’t risk tipping them off before you got on-site. Any new ideas?”

“Screw it, I’ll do it now.”

“It?”

“Tap in and take over the system. I’ll get this guy out of the way. Be ready to pick up the pieces.”

“You sure?”

“Gates, don’t ask me that. You want this jackass or not?”

“You know the answer.”

“Then shut up and let me work.” Seabrook leaned against the far side of the shaft, stripped the flexible keyboard from her compromiser, and set to work.

Gates’ comm showed another incoming transmission. He took the call. “Vagra Five Five —” it took Gates a moment to recognize the Avenger’s identifier, ”— this is Harmony Maintenance Station Alpha. We show your course as an intercept. Do you require service?”

Gate keyed the mic, “Harmony Maintenance, this is Vagra Five-Five. My ship does need maintenance, can you send me a list of services and your rates for an Avenger?”

“Certainly.”

“Thanks. Do you have an open berth?”

“Yes, sir, what do you need?”

“I’m a few hours over the scheduled maintenance on my drives.”

“How many?”

“A couple hundred.”

An almost suppressed snort, “Just a few, eh?”

“Money’s tight just now.”

“Well, we have plans for every budg–“

“I’m in, Gates,” Seabrook’s transmission over-rode the service call.

“All right, I was just on th–“

“Yeah, he’s not going to be calling you back, bigger problems just started lighting up his boards. I’m going in. Be ready.”

“Copy.” Gates pushed the throttle up.

In the feed, Seabrook took a deep breath and pressed a final key. The station’s emergency sirens started blaring, deafening even through the speakers.

In the security cam, the goon turned toward the hatch to Morgan’s room.

Seabrook popped the emergency hatch and launched herself at the goon. She was on him, fast: open hands connecting with his shoulder, arm and back. The deadsuit discharged with a dull crackle each time she struck. The goon sagged to the floor, out cold after the second strike. The third was either caution or nerves; either way, Gates approved.

The hatch opened under her hand.

Morgan was standing, naked and bleary-eyed, in the middle of a small, unfurnished room that certainly looked like a prison cell.

Relief flooded Gates, surprising him. Guess I hadn’t realized how much I hated the thought of his betraying me.

“Morgan, you want out?” Seabrook asked.

“Hell, yes!”

“On me, then,” she turned and started for the emergency hatch.

“Where we going?” he asked, following her.

“Out.”

“Out!? I ain’t even dressed!”

“I noticed, but the last thing you need just now is clothes.”

“No?”

She pulled the hatch open. “Emergency bubbles ain’t that big, you know.”

“Damn,” he said, turning to face Seabrook, then back to the emergency tube.

Something coughed several times in quick succession. A red hole appeared in Morgan’s chest. Red spattered the inside of the lift tube behind him.

Seabrook grunted, swung around and raised her pistol, snapping several shots down the hall. Gates had a glimpse of the open lift door and a fresh pair of goons standing inside, one of them holding a carbine.

Both goons ducked back into cover. Seabrook shoved Morgan through the open hatch, watched as the automated life-pod system deployed. Morgan, blood smearing the life-pod, shot from view as the system sent him to safety.

More mechanical coughing from behind Seabrook. She staggered against the hatch, grunted, “Damn, that stings.”

Realization struck Gates: The goons are using frangible bullets to avoid piercing the habitat — pounding on her, but the deadsuit should hold.

She rounded on them, sent them back into cover with several more shots, then stepped into the emergency chute, slamming the hatch closed. The pod activated, quickly surrounding her.

Gates slowed, saw Morgan’s pod shoot from the station, and altered course to pick him up. That done, he set up a comm link, “Morgan?”

A cough, a wet, organic one this time, then: “Look at that, I’m bleeding.” Another cough, “Gates. Should have known it would be you. I’m sorry. Don’t have much time, so listen: Commander Gilles Stroller, Naval Intelligence. He’s the inside man. Based on Nemo. Got the address for you … Get him … Make him pay …”

 


 

Gates waited in the underwater transit tube connecting Nemo Prime with the suburb Stroller called home. That house was too tough a nut to crack on short notice, so he and Seabrook had decided on taking Stroller here.

“Go.”

Gates gathered himself and leapt across the tube. He slid on landing, the maintenance stanchion slick with moisture. He barely managed to get his feet under him before a transit pod swept by.

“Close,” Seabrook opined.

“Yes,” Gates grated.

“Two minutes.”

“Copy.”

Gates set to work. Clearing ten years of seeping ooze was filthy work, but he had to be sure the modules were placed precisely.

“Thirty seconds.”

“Copy.”

“Ten.”

He placed the last module and jumped back across. Another slip bounced him off the tube wall. He staggered, the pod nearly raking his back as it hummed past.

“All right, everything’s in place,” Gates said, hands panic-tight on the rungs.

“Going live in two.”

“Clearing.” Gates put hands and feet on the outside of the ladder, letting his weight drive a rapid descent, retrieval line hissing out from his harness at the shoulders. He stopped at the next maintenance platform, leaning back against the sweating tube wall.

The problem with taking someone from Navy Intelligence down, Gates reflected, _is that they are already prone to a certain level of justifiable paranoia.

Especially if, as in Stroller’s case, they’re traitorous scum. Even more so if you want him alive. Easier by far to put a laser beam through Stroller’s heart, harder to keep him alive for questioning._

“Live,” Seabrook said.

The next private transport pod to pass the magnetic modules he’d placed derailed, missing its transfer point and dropping ten meters down the maintenance shaft in a sudden free fall.

On-board safety measures kicked in, meant to slow the pod to a survivable stop. Gates stepped from the gantry onto the roof of the still-decelerating pod. Bending, he yanked the emergency hatch up and away.

Gunshots echoed loudly in the tube, rounds shattering against the combing and hatch. Frangibles. Sensible in pressurized environments where thirty meters of water would make a tiny hole a massive problem.

Gates grinned. Shoot first, eh? Damn fast reactions. He dropped the riot grenade into the pod and slapped the hatch back into place.

The grenade went off in a series of disorienting flashes accompanied by a warbling shriek that would make a deaf man’s ears bleed. Gates let it go on a few seconds, then threw the hatch open again. When no gunshots greeted him, he jumped into the smoke-filled pod, deactivating the grenade.

He found Stroller already climbing empty-handed to his feet.

Gates dropped a hammer fist into his brachial plexus, gloves discharging.

Stroller dropped the gun and grunted, but rolled with the blow, catching Gates on the chest with his opposite fist.

The punch didn’t hurt so much as surprise. Stroller should have gone down with that first strike.

Insulators.

Gates smiled.

Better this way.

He snapped a knee up, aiming for Stroller’s face.

The traitor swayed, grunted again as he took the knee on his upper chest.

Gates’ estimation of the other man’s fighting skills went up a notch as Stroller used the power of the blow to help drive himself erect. Stroller had several centimeters and several kilos on him, but was still groggy from the grenade.

Maximizing his limited advantages, Gates threw a combination at Stroller, pressing him hard in the limited space of the pod.

The traitor managed to get a grip on Gates’ arm, drove an elbow into his bicep.

It was Gates’ turn to grunt. A following forearm clipped his head, making stars come out.

Gates swayed back, pulling his nearly-limp arm free before reversing direction and driving a head-butt into Stroller’s face. He felt teeth snap under his forehead and knew Stroller was unconscious even before he sagged to the floor.

Blood from his forehead dripping onto Stroller’s jacket, Gates bent and slapped the restraints on. The heat-activated memory-metal restraints quickly expanded to enfold the man’s wrists, cinching them tight together before creeping around his waist to connect in front. Gates clipped Stroller’s restraint to his own harness.

“Two minutes.”

“Copy.” Gates pulled Stroller tight, stood up, and promptly staggered sideways, a wave of dizziness threatening to make him puke. He worked on it a moment, figured he wouldn’t puke if he moved sideways to get under the emergency opening, and eased over.

Hard-headed I might be, but damn, I won’t do that again. Swallowing bile, Gates set himself, muttered, “Clear us.”

“Copy.”

The retrieval line went taut, started hauling them in. Gates bashed his shoulder on the hatch combing, and he had to pull one of Stroller’s broken incisors out of his forehead, but aside from that the extraction went smoothly.

Less than two hours later Gates stood across from Stroller’s unconscious form, administering a shot. He closed the medical case but left it on the table between them, not because he thought it would be successful — most Navy Intelligence types had some familiarity with interrogation techniques — but because the threat was often more useful than actual violence, medical or otherwise.

“Mrph …”

“Stroller, wake up.”

“Uh?”

His vital signs were good. He was awake. Not fully aware, but awake. The drugs would loosen Stroller’s hold on courage, but there was a limit to their effectiveness. Dulling the mind could lead to a lack of recollection. So Gates decided to lay out a story for the traitor; to play a character Stroller would find easy to believe.

“You pissed off the wrong people, Stroller.”

Stroller groaned, lisped, “Wh-What?”

Gates slowed his delivery, pasted a wide grin on his face. “You pissed off the wrong people.”

The lisping reply tried for cold anger, came out sounding plaintive: “You’ll let me go, you know what’s good for you: the Navy comes down on those that hurt their own.”

Gates hid a sigh of relief. First mistake. Never, ever open your mouth to say anything during an interrogation but your name and rank. This is going far easier than I’d hoped. “Come on, Stroller, the Navy doesn’t give a fart in a spacesuit about you. You left their protection when you started working with us. In fact, they’ll probably applaud our removing you, once we make it clear you broke faith with them.”

Stroller looked confused, “Us?”

“Our employers, of course,” Gates said, keeping the big smile in place. “Well, in your case I suppose I should say: former secondary employers.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Stroller lisped past his broken teeth.

Gates snorted. “Yes, you do. The ones who’ve padded your accounts quite nicely. You know, the ones set up in your daughter’s name.” Gates read the bump in Stroller’s vitals when he mentioned that little bit of data. He made a mental note to thank Seabrook.

“Thoo … So, what did they tell you I did?”

Gates laughed, “It doesn’t matter, really. See, all this consolidation, all the groups under one roof? It couldn’t last. There’s a split in the organization at the system-wide level, and I’m on the winning side. You are not.”

“System, only? Then I–I can be of use, run coverage for you, same as I was doing for Whittaker. I’m not his, by any means. Who is it you’re working for, Chambliss? He knows me, knows the quality of my information.”

Filing the names away, Gates shrugged, “You aren’t making much of a case for yourself.”

“I —”

Gates waved a languid hand, “We have our own sources, ones that we can rely on that aren’t just working with us to save their hides. Besides, I was told to find out what you know and dispose of you if you proved a threat to the new, improved organization.”

Fear lit in Stroller’s eyes. “I’m no threat.”

“I was given wide latitude to decide that. You were not. And see,” Gates smiled again, “here’s the thing: no one said anything about how I dispose of you,” a caress of the medical case, “so I thought I’d play a bit before getting to that point.”

Stroller swallowed. “What?”

“I do so like my little games,” Gates said, opening the case and grinning into it like a pervert presented with his favorite perversions.

“I’ll give you the local leadership, where they live, who their mistresses are, all of it, if you’ll just let me work for you.”

Gates didn’t bother to look at Stroller. “We already have the names of those we need to take down, it’s how we found you.”

“Anything!”

Gates pretended to consider that, eventually shrugged. “No, I don’t think you know anything sufficiently important to make me give up on the one thing that makes my job so much fun.” Gates reached into the case.

“The top leadership, all of it, from every system! They’re gonna be on a ship at the end of next month!”

Too easy, I had thought Navy Intelligence was made of sterner stuff … Gates let his anger show, left his hand in the case.

“_The White Stag_, a corporate liner, that’s the ship!”

“And why would my bosses not know about that?”

“Turner just announced it, the message traffic showed up in my monthly packet. I hadn’t yet forwarded it to anybody. You can confirm it, easy!”

Gates let his lip curl, “Really?”

“Really. Hadn’t you ever wondered how your people were able to coordinate with outside organizations without Advocacy pukes tripping to it? It’s me, man, I’m the one handling the information, so you can’t kill me. I’m too important.”

“Tell me everything, then I’ll decide if you’re worth keeping alive.”

 


 

Gates was growing tired of Nemo, or at least the tiny patch of it he and Seabrook had gone to ground in. The safe house was spartan, yes, but that was to be expected. Seabrook was fine as a housemate, though she had disappeared into the nets as soon as she believed it safe to do so. That left him only Stroller’s statement and Morgan’s dying declaration for distraction, and they weren’t helping much to contain his mounting impatience. He could only listen to Morgan’s last moments so many times without wanting to kill Stroller, and Stroller was no longer on hand for the killing. Gates had the man shipped him off to Special Action’s blackest holding cells, the ones set aside for traitors awaiting trial.

Stroller had given up a lot before he’d been shipped. There was a meet planned for next month. Les Inconnus leadership was looking to integrate the heads of a couple of new slaver organizations into the fold, and had a meeting set up on the White Stag. It had all gone in the report, along with Seabrook’s assurances that she’d managed to cover for Stroller’s absence by planting transfer papers into his file and answering his mail with the data he’d provided them.

It’s driving me mad, this waiting for a response from Vasser!

There was a knock at the front door.

Gates pulled his sidearm and glanced across at Seabrook. No one is supposed to know we’re here, let alone come calling. She tapped a command into her terminal, checking the security feed. She nodded at Gates. Because he wasn’t the trusting sort, he still kept the pistol ready as he opened the door. He nearly dropped it when he saw who was standing on the front step.

“Gates,” Vasser said, brushing past him.

“Ma’am,” Gates muttered, still off balance.

“Seabrook.”

Gates closed the door, tried to get his thoughts moving.

Vasser looked back at him, “Good to see you’re recovered.”

“Thanks, Ma’am.”

“Unfortunately, it’s the only good thing about this visit.”

Gates opened his mouth, but she held up a hand to stop him: “Look, Internal Investigations Division, in the person of one Agent Jakob Neustedt, made a run at me last week, at almost exactly the same time your report hit my MobiGlas —” she paused, held the device up, showing it was in active recording mode, and giving both her agents a chance to think about the timing of that bit of news before resuming: “I told him to walk out the airlock, that it was under my direct orders and supervision. My associates at headquarters are saying that IID is now looking at ‘fiduciary inconsistencies’ in Special Action. They listed Seabrook’s Caterpillar as one of those irregularities.”

“How the hell?” Seabrook blurted.

Gates kept his mouth shut, anger building as he worked through the implications.

Vasser shook her head, “As I was the one gave the order, I felt I owed it to you both to tell you face to face: we can’t continue against Les Inconnus while this crap is going on. They clearly have people with clout on payroll, and those people will tip off the targets as soon as we move.”

“Understood,” Gates said, holding his temper tight.

Seabrook shook her head, “Someone in IID is working for them and we have to call it off?”

“If some Advocacy agent is working for or with them, I can’t prove it, yet. Therefore Special Action is not undertaking any investigation of Les Inconnus until I can clear it. Am I understood?”

“Understood,” Gates repeated, letting out a long, slow breath.

“What!?” Seabrook barked at him. “You were the one who said we had to move, that taking them down wa–”

He spoke over her: “Yes, I did say that.” Gates gestured at Vasser, “The Special Agent in Charge just told us Special Action is no longer on the case.”

“I’ll follow orders … but … it’s …” Seabrook spluttered.

Gates turned to Vasser, clicking heels together. “Thank you, Agent Vasser, for personally informing us.”

Vasser nodded, “You’re welcome. I am sorry I can’t offer more comforting news.”

“Understood,” Gates said, decision made.

“Seabrook, I have a seat for you on the shuttle departing in five hours. I have other business to attend in the meantime.”

Understood.

Seabrook looked back and forth between Vasser and Gates, clearly puzzled.

Vasser left without another word.

“What the hell, Gates?”

He paused a moment before replying, wanting to get it right. “Vasser’s hands are tied, Seabrook. She had to give the order to stand down, and do so on the record. Remember, she had her MobiGlas on and active. If she hadn’t, then she wouldn’t be able to deny responsibility for what I’m going to do.”

“Wait, what?”

“Think about what she said.”

“She said we —”

“No, she didn’t. Think. Her exact words were …”

“She said —” her eyes shot wide. “She said Special Action.”

“Exactly. And I’m on suspension. As in: not even Advocacy.”

“But, that’s messed up.”

He snorted. “Don’t like the heat this close to the sun, change your orbit.”

Seabrook’s eyes narrowed with suspicion. “What are you going to do, Gates?”

“I’m going to take them down, of course.”

“Call it what it is: you mean to kill them.”

He cocked his head, just looked at her.

“I didn’t sign up for murder. We’re not above the law.”

Gates nodded, “You’re right, we aren’t above it. That said, there’s a separate law for this.”

She sniffed. “Gates, do you actually listen to yourself, sometimes?”

“Look, Seabrook, I’ve been around a long, long time. Longer, probably, than the people you called dinosaurs when you were coming through the Academy. One thing I learned at the knee of the agents I called dinosaurs back when: we can never allow the murder of Advocacy agents to go unpunished. Never. Not once. Usually that means making an arrest and walking someone into a prison cell. Sometimes that means going all the way: off the charts and into the big black, and maybe not coming back. Stroller’s information gives us a shot at the leadership. I’m taking it.”

“It’s not right, Gates.”

“Agent Max Nawabi. Agent Gage Knowles.”

She blanched. He was sure she’d have controlled her shock better if he’d slapped her.

“They are what this is about. Nawabi and Knowles, and making sure Les Inconnus don’t make any more like them.”

She held up a hand in surrender, “All right. I understand. I won’t go shooting my mouth off.”

He nodded, once. “I didn’t think you would.”

She turned away.

“And Seabrook: you’re good people.”

“Screw you, Gates!” she said under her breath. Reaching for her console, Seabrook hunched over the table and started typing.

Gates shrugged. Pacifiers come in all shapes and sizes, I suppose.

“Sorry,” she muttered, “just getting a few things you might find useful.”

“You sure that’s a good idea? I mean, I appreciate it, but Vasser won’t be happy if she has to cover for your ass after that talk.”

She turned and leveled a dark look at him, “You really think I’m that slow? That I don’t know how to dance the data to pick up a few items without it leading back to us?”

“Sorry,” he said, meaning it. “It’s not my area of expertise.”

“I know, it’s mine,” she said, turning back to the comp.

“I’ll just start packing, then.”

“You do that.”

When he returned a few minutes later, she was done and on her way to her room. She said nothing to him. Even so, he heard the accusation in the silence.

He put it away, sat down in the front room and pulled out his MobiGlas. Time to set my people digging. They made a mistake coming after Vasser, now there’s a chance my people can work backward from that point of contact. If there’s an after for me, it’d be helpful to know who Neustedt sold his soul to.

Angelique can start working Senator Yaldiz’s contacts from that end, see if there’s something the Senate Oversight Committee on Advocacy Affairs might do with the knowledge Neustedt is working with Les Inconnus.

He sent Angelique’s message and started going through the mental list of his other contacts. He typed Zara’s address in. Might come across a thing or two as well, with her ties among the corporate lobbyists. Best tap her as well, since Stroller confirmed the corporate connection Seabrook revealed. She still owes me big for keeping her and her corporate clients out of the newsfeeds on the Holbrook case.

He was sending the last message when Seabrook spoke from behind him: “Still using the old protocols?”

Gates looked over his shoulder at her. From the drawn look to her, she’d been thinking about hard choices and harsher realities. He didn’t feel good about opening that particular door for her. He remembered, too well, having the same thing done to him. They were not pleasant memories.

He realized he’d left her question unanswered for too long. “They work, last I checked?” Gates said, wondering how his answer ended up a question.

Seabrook smiled, “Oh, it works quite well, given enough message traffic to bury it in.”

“Good. Our earlier conversation had me worried.”

“Had I known we weren’t going to be working together, I’d have shown you a few tricks.”

“You may have noticed, being an agent and paid to notice things, but I’m an old man. Learning new things does not come easy for me, or for those trying to teach me.”

Seabrook snorted and reached for his MobiGlas, “You mind?”

He handed it over without showing too much hesitation.

She punched several keys, then handed it back to him. An image of an ID and passcode appeared on the screen. “I set up a blind account for you. Check it in a few days, there’ll be something for your use … call it … call it my contribution to the cause.”

 


 

“That’s got it,” Ferrera said, the strained hum of his tractor beam generator underlining the statement.

“Very good, Captain.” Gates tried not to look at the gaping wound of the 325’s cockpit. He had to consciously force his hands to relax from the fists they’d made on seeing the wreck.

Hard to believe I made it through that.

“Damn, but she took a beating,” Ferrara observed, looking at the readouts.

“Yes, she did,” Gates was surprised at how level he managed to keep his voice.

“Any idea what —“

Gates spoke over the salvage man, “I have an idea, sure: it involves you asking questions when you agreed not to, and the provisions of our contract that allow me to deduct from your fee for every single question you ask.”

Ferrara closed his mouth and busied himself with the nav comp.

Gates felt a twinge of regret. Shouldn’t step so hard on the salver, might need some good will before all is said and done.

Finished plotting a course back to his station, Ferrera spoke. “Going to be a day or so before I can pull her into the shop.”

“That was allowed for. Any comms from the shop?”

“No, the deliveries you’re expecting haven’t arrived yet.”

Gates nodded. Good. Don’t want that stuff on site before I’m there to supervise the unpacking and get on the repairs myself.

Never thought I’d be grateful to Special Agent Constantine for pulling me off Special Action’s flight team and forcing me to work Maintenance and Repair on the Black Box. He struggled a moment, trying to remember what it was he’d done to earn that particular punishment. Oh, yeah, the Hadrian incident …

Coming back to the present, Gates found his gaze drifting to the cockpit of the 325 again. Suppressing a shiver, he crossed his arms across his chest.

Get a grip, Gates. Les Inconnus even did you a favor — the repairs will be easier with most of the armor already stripped or cooked off.

Somehow, that was small comfort.

* * *

Thirty-six hours later, the 325’s cockpit was restored and Gates was getting ready to pressurize the living spaces. It wasn’t pretty, but it was functional.

He had the use of one of Ferrera’s salvage frames to himself, and was keeping it unpressurized and free of gravity to ensure no one just walked in on him.

He’d found the challenging physical labor helped set aside the fear that wearing a vac suit lit him up with. He didn’t like to think about how he’d react to getting in the pilot’s seat.

I’m gonna need some serious down-time when this is over.

In the meantime — Gates activated the life-support system. It held steady amber, indicating the system was charging the compartments with breathable atmosphere and hadn’t detected any leaks. He climbed around the framework to the wing, examining the site of his next project. The cooked missile pods.

“Mister Zerezghi?” the suit comm crackled with the cover name Gates was using.

“Yes?”

“Your parts are here.”

“Good. Push it in the airlock and leave it to me, I’ll take care of it.”

“Will do, Mister Zerezghi. You hungry?”

Gates realized he hadn’t eaten since starting work some eight hours past. “In an hour or so. Checking life-support now.”

“You work fast.”

“Needs must, when the devil drives.”

“I hear you. I’ll have something ready for you in an hour.”

“Thanks.”

* * *

Gates tossed the empty food carton into the recycler and activated his MobiGlas. He had two new messages. The first was from Angelique:

I’m on it, Armi. My friend got a bit spooked when I asked her about it, said the man you’re asking after is protected from on high. I’ll let you know as soon as I learn anything.

The postscript was interesting: Oh, and congratulate me — I managed to quit the stuff.

Good for you, Gates thought. He said as much in the return message, typed while using the head.

The second message was from Seabrook. The heavily encrypted message took a moment for Gates’ MobiGlas to process: Gates, I know we aren’t supposed to talk, but if this message is intercepted, we need to hire whoever manages it! Just don’t reply. Your decrepit encoding will get stripped first thing. Anyway, I had to tell you: Stroller’s interrogation led to another name, a high-level hitter for Les Inconnus name of Jahangir Kung. Everything indicates he’s the ‘corporate security contractor’ who uncovered Agents Nawabi and Knowles. I like him for their murders, and he’s also listed as Chief of Security for the White Stag.

On the other thing: I got you the funds you need for your ‘big purchase’ (I don’t think I want to know), but you’ve tapped me out completely.

Things are adding up. Good luck.

Smiling, Gates was back at work in minutes.

* * *

The air hissed out of Gates’s borrowed pressure suit.

That’s quite a wake up call, you moron!

The hiss became a high squeal, then cut off entirely as the suit sealed itself.

Pushing too hard. Too tired. Yawning, he’d let his grip on the cutting torch slip, holing the suit above the opposite forearm.

Hands trembling, he shut down the torch.

Lucky, stupid, clumsy, tired, old man. Time to call it a night.

Feeling every one of his many years, Gates left the bay.

* * *

He slept for eight solid, got up, and was at it again within the hour.

The missile pods were so much fused junk, which was easily solved by cutting them loose. Ferrera could salvage them for the material if nothing else.

He wasted the next few hours in mind-searing frustration trying to fit the new pods before realizing he’d misread the schematics. Cursing, he corrected the simple issue and linked the ship to the new systems.

The attitude thrusters were next on the list. Four of them had to be scrapped, and two were looking a little anemic. Ferrara had secured three new thrusters and a pair of salvaged ones Gates would prefer not to use.

The main drive had, for a miracle, not been directly damaged in the fight. The comp links had been ravaged, however, and would need replacement.

His comm activated, “Another shipment, Mister Z.”

“Same routine, please.”

“I ain’t touching this one, Mister Z.”

“Oh?”

“My hazmat detectors say the contents are milspec explosives. Quite a large quantity.”

“I’m on it, thanks.” He made sure the thruster was in place before leaving.

* * *

“That’s some serious gear, Mister Z.”

“I know. It’s for serious business.”

“Just sayin’.”

“And I hear you. There’s nothing that can be traced back to you.”

“Easy for you to say.”

“I mean it.”

Ferrera shrugged. “Again, it’s not your ass going to get worked over if it’s otherwise.”

Gates rolled his neck, tried to relax, force himself not to go where instinct wanted to take him. Instead he said, “Ferrera, I give you my word, this will not come back on you.”

Ferrera went still, realizing too late that he’d made Gates start thinking of him as a potential problem. Problems in this kind of thing usually had simple, fatal solutions.

“I’m sorry, Mister Z. It’s my natural state to worry.”

“I get that, and I can only say I’m doing everything I can to make sure this doesn’t come back on you,” Gates hiked a thumb at his chest, “And I’ve been doing this a while.”

Ferrera looked at Gates a good long time, but eventually nodded. “I accept your word. I’m sorry to have doubted you.”

“I understand your concern. I’ll be out of your hair in forty-eight hours, assuming the test-flight goes without a hitch.”

“Want to eat?” Ferrera asked.

Gates accepted the olive branch.

* * *

An hour later he was back at work, pushing even harder. Ferrera might not — probably won’t — betray me, but the sooner I’m off, the better for everyone.

Each thruster wasn’t too difficult to hook up, but making sure they were properly linked to the comp was time consuming. Gates managed to get the new thrusters installed and working properly. The two thrusters he’d thought to salvage proved beyond his ability to save. Disappointed, he went ahead with installing the used ones Ferrera had found. The first required some tinkering before it would function properly, but worked out. The other fit perfectly and the first time, surprising him.

Despite the late hour, Gates started on the weapons systems. One of the Omnisky VIIs had been destroyed outright and two of the others were off-line because the power coupling had been destroyed. The new cannon proved harder to replace than the coupling, but not by much.

The mass driver had ammo feed problems that occupied his every waking moment for the next day and well into the next night before he was able to resolve them.

The enhanced sensor suite he’d had was blown, but he managed to get basic fire control and navigation sensors back in working order by the simple expedient of replacing the entire system.

* * *

“She’s ready to go,” Gates said as his host entered the galley. He’d taken the time to lay out breakfast for the two of them.

“Ahead of schedule?” Ferrera asked, scrubbing sleep from his eyes. “Ever thought about salvage work? I could use someone works as hard as you.”

“I’ll keep the offer in mind, if I’m back this way,” Gates said. I may actually need work, if I make it through. Suspension is likely the least of the punishments that’ll be in order if Angelique can’t come through for me on the other side of this.

“You going to test-fly her?”

“Yes, but if it doesn’t need work, I won’t be back,” Gates said, holding out a coffee.

Ferrera grinned as he took the drink. “If you really screwed up the repairs, you may not be able to come back.”

That startled a laugh from Gates. “True.”

“You got everything you need?”

“Yes. And I left you a bit of a bonus, for your trouble.”

“Thanks. Unnecessary, but thanks.”

“You did everything I asked you to, and without complaint.”

Another grin, “More or less.”

Gates answered with his own smile, “Yeah, more or less.”

* * *

The 325 handled just as well as it did before, it was his own state of mind that concerned him. Never had nerves like that, just putting on a damn flight suit. Better not happen when things kick off. Got to be ready …

 


 

The White Stag appeared on the edge of his passive sensor envelope. He’d been on station for two days, waiting for this moment, sleep troubled with recurring images of his cockpit canopy shattering, waking hours spent fearing Les Inconnus had discovered Stroller was compromised. It took longer than it should have, but the White Stag’s escorts slowly appeared, like drops of blood, on the nav plot. He went over the readings: the White Stag was a Drake Industries light passenger liner, about the size of a Navy frigate and designed to transport a better class of tourist or a party of corporate executives in speed and relative safety. She would have strong shields and excellent point defense, but almost no offensive weaponry. She was straight-line fast, and nimble for a vessel her size.

Another full minute passed before his sensors tagged the escorts as Cutlasses. With four Cutlasses along, destroying the White Stag would be impossible if his plan didn’t pan out. Les Inconnus must have a contract with Drake Industries, the number of Cutlasses they field.

More minutes passed. The plot updated again, target and entourage moving in-system from the jump point. Gates sighed with relief. The White Stag’s heading confirmed Stroller’s information: the ship was supposed to rendezvous with another carrying the local Nexus leadership somewhere among the scattered rocks of the system’s sole asteroid belt.

For now, more waiting.

Four hours later, Gates adjusted position, trusting that his tags would show he was just a mining prospector. It wouldn’t stand up once they took a direct read on his ship, but he had to hope they weren’t likely to take a close look until it was too late.

The White Stag’s skipper had other things on his mind, anyway: the system boat the local Les Inconnus bosses were using to meet their counterparts had recently arrived and was now leaving the larger vessel’s grip. It took up station about 100 klicks away, presumably to await the end of the meeting. Not a combat craft, so Gates chose to ignore it, but its escorts remained with the White Stag, bringing the total to six.

Sweating in his flight suit, Gates continued the slow, nearly parallel approach.

An hour ground away at his nerves.

The better part of another.

Gates was nearly in active sensor range. Still no indication they’d figured out where he was. His ship was fast approaching the point where he’d have to alter course to keep closing. He’d been running passive targeting solutions on the escorts for the last hour, planning to distract as many as he could, then saturate the remaining defenses with missiles while he went straight in on the liner.

That was the plan, anyway.

Damn, but I never sweat this much. He cracked his neck, first one side then the other, popping vertebrae in an attempt to calm down. Get it together, Arminius! There’s work to be done and no on else to do it. One clean strike to cut the head from the beast. One action to hold back the continuing tide of lawlessness and disorder. One fight, nothing beyond this moment, this trial by combat.

Not wanting to give himself time to think about it, Gates grabbed his helmet and jammed it on in one nervous motion.

Judging the moment, Gates triggered the simple remote. Well ahead of the White Stag, Saint Claire’s Kiss ignited its drives and started accelerating at a snail’s pace toward the liner. The tramp freighter hadn’t been the most expensive thing Gates had purchased for this operation, but he’d made sure Zhou was well-compensated. Fair was fair.

The seal between helmet and flight-suit wasn’t fully closed when Gates opened the channel and started talking through the empty hauler’s comms: “White Stag, this is Captain Trevor of the Saint Claire’s Kiss. We believe we have something you’ll have an interest in.”

Saint Claire’s Kiss, this is Captain Jahangir Kung, commanding White Stag’s escorts.”

The murdering bastard himself. Good. Gates kept the smile from his voice, “Don’t want to talk to you, want to talk your bosses.”

“Not going to happen.”

“Well then, I suppose they don’t care what Gates had to say when we caught him.”

A delay of a few moments, then: “Might be you do have something we need to discuss.”

The drive signatures of four of the escorts intensified, courses set to overtake Saint Claire’s Kiss.

A few minutes more.

Gates let go of the trigger. Saint Claire’s Kiss stopped adding thrust.

“How did you come to be in possession of the man?”

“He didn’t pay promptly.”

A barking laugh, then: “You were one of the ones hit our station?”

“Could be. Could be I just have someone you want, for an equitable price.”

The escorts were closing fast, already in missile range.

“I don’t know, could be we just take your ship out with a couple missiles.”

“Sure, but then you wouldn’t learn what Gates had to say about a turncoat in your organization he was using to secure intel for bounties. How do you think I knew to be here?”

“Oh?” Kung asked, clearly hoping for more.

“Not that easy. Six hundred thousand credits and safe passage and you’ll get it all: Gates, with whatever he learned about your operations.”

Several moments passed in silence, probably Kung asking his bosses for permission.

“All right, I’ll bite. Prepare to be boarded.”

“Just don’t try and change the terms of the deal, hear?”

“Right, Kung out.”

The four Cutlasses closed in, one preparing to dock with the ugly little freighter. Gates flipped the switch below the drive trigger on his remote.

Saint Claire’s Kiss, her drive, and the explosives with which Gates had packed her detonated. Kung and another of the Cutlasses disappeared into the expanding ball of ravening plasma, while the remaining two were clearly disabled, drives flickering.

Just the right amount of bang for my credits, I think. Damn stuff was more expensive than Saint Claire’s Kiss — gotta be sure to thank Seabrook properly!

Only two escorts remained on the White Stag, and those were distracted by the death of their commander. Satisfaction flooding him, Gates used that distraction to start launching his missiles as fast as the pods would cycle. As the final missile parted from its cradle he changed course, heading directly for the White Stag and pushing the throttle to the stops.

Two minutes to cannon range.

The closer escort turned into the missiles boring in on her, trying to narrow her sensor profile. The pilot was doing everything right, launching countermeasures even as the first of Gates’ missiles, now in active tracking mode, closed.

Gates checked on his quarry: the White Stag was launching her own countermeasures, the captain making sure she wasn’t getting hit.

The nearer Cutlass had avoided the first missile only to take the second one square on the nose. Shields dead, the first missile looped back to explode just aft of her, shredding the primary drive.

It took Gates a moment to find the other escort. When he did, he snarled.

Damn smart. The Cutlass was tight alongside the White Stag, where the larger vessel could use her her point defense guns to protect the escort from Gates. First one, then another of his missiles were burned from space. But by then Gates was close enough to start hammering the larger vessel with everything he had.

He had the aft shields nearly down when his ECM suite blatted a warning. The Cutlass, looking for missile lock.

He swung the 325 into a looping spiral around the axis of his target, maintaining fire from all guns.

Just a little longer.

The warning tone warbled up to a screech, a missile incoming. Fear momentarily paralyzed Gates, mind’s eye replaying past battles. Each breath was suddenly as hard as sucking water from a rock.

He squeezed his eyes shut.

Get out from under it, Gates! No time for this shit!

He broke free of his paralysis with a shout only he could hear. Letting up on the firing stud, Gates slammed the 325 through another roll, exiting closer to the White Stag, so close as to be almost atop the liner’s shields.

The warning tone stopped abruptly as the canopy lit with a dull flare of light: the White Stag’s point defense lasers boiling the deadly missile into its constituent materials.

“See, two can play that game, you bastards!” Gates howled into his helmet.

He cranked the 325 ‘up’ and away from the liner, started battering the bigger vessel’s shields down, one eye on the Cutlass in his plot.

He began scoring hits through the shields, mass driver munitions vaporizing armor plate.

The White Stag spun along its axis, presenting fresh armor to Gates’ guns. He obliged the maneuver with more fire, tagging a shield generator.

The missile lock warning returned, started to doppler up again.

Gates maneuvered in tight with the liner again.

Too late, he realized the White Stag’s point defense systems weren’t firing.

Good coordination, damn them!

The missile detonated off his starboard side. The explosion pounded his shields flat and vaporized the armor all along that side of the 325.

Gates’ grin was feral: the White Stag had taken as much damage, if not more, than the 325. He inverted relative to the Cutlass, presenting his unmarked side to the escort.

The 325 shuddered, lashed by fire from the Cutlass. Ignoring it, Gates kept pouring fire into the wounded flank of the liner, blasts erupting deeper in the hull with every shot.

Just a little longer.

Another pounding, another set of warning lights. Gates adjusted position, started weaving back and forth across the liner’s drive nacelles, still firing steadily.

The Cutlass kept at it, as well.

An attitude thruster on the 325 disintegrated, causing a sudden slow-down in his weave. The next salvo of laser cannon fire meant for Gates lashed past and punched into the White Stag’s hull.

Something finally broke inside the White Stag, a sudden stuttering of her main drives making her slide from under Gates’ guns.

Gates sideslipped then pulled back on the stick. The Cutlass stayed with him through the upper part of the loop, started losing him at the apex. Gates tried to roll out behind his pursuer, but his remaining directional thrusters weren’t up to the task: he exited alongside the Cutlass instead of behind.

Wary of a collision, his adversary turned away, hard. It was the wrong thing to do. The Cutlass clipped one of the White Stag’s drives. The resultant explosion was shocking in its violence.

A massive chunk of one of the vessels — Gates was fairly sure it was part of the Cutlass – flew free of the spherical explosion toward Gates.

In the instant before impact, Gates threw his arms up, an animal’s reflex in the face of death.

Metal and ceramic met metal and ceramic with a crunching finality.

The cockpit went dark; so did Gates.

The rattling quality of his own breathing brought him back. Snorting air through a broken nose. Not the first time that’s happened, eh?

He blinked, tried to get his bearings. The cockpit had enough light to see drops of his own blood floating inside his helmet. It was the thick red of head-blood, already partially clotted.

Thoughts were sluggish: Gravity’s out.

Not good.

Last thing to go, more often than not. If it weren’t, spacers tended to make messy pancakes on the inside of their vessels.

Sudden fear rose up, threatened to drown him.

He let it win for a while.

At least, Gates told himself, he was letting it out.

He eventually managed to dig his medkit out and self-administer a shot of O&S.

Gates spent his last moments of consciousness screaming.

 


 

“Guilty.”

Stroller moaned a denial.

“Guilty.”

“Guilty,” the most senior judge of the Closed Tribunal Council announced her verdict with relish.

Always good to see someone enjoy their work, Gates thought. He was sitting alone in the darkened upper gallery of the tribunal court. Officially, he wasn’t even here. On suspension, he had no right to be present for matters presented here.

None of which had prevented him listening as Seabrook and a team of forensic data miners testified to Stroller’s crimes. Even before Seabrook had finished, Gates knew the judges would have no choice but to come to the proper conclusion.

Stroller started keening as the first judge passed sentence, “Gilles Conrad Stroller, in light of your conviction for treason and betrayal of the trust placed in you by the Navy, Citizens and state of the UEE, I sentence you to death by exposure to vacuum.”

Stroller was screaming denials as the second judge repeated the formula: “Gilles Conrad Stroller, in light of your conviction for treason and betrayal of the trust placed in you by the Navy, Citizens and state of the UEE, I sentence you to death by exposure to vacuum.”

The senior judge gestured at one of her clerks, who shut down the feed from Stroller’s cell. The convicted’s screaming cut off mid-squeal. The judge spoke for the record: “I concur with the sentence of my fellow judges, sentence to be carried out immediately.”

Strong emotions welled, mixed in him. Gates wasn’t all that clear on what he was feeling: satisfaction seemed too strong a word, as did vindication. He was, for lack of a better descriptor, at peace.

Getting up to leave, he saw Seabrook looking up at him from the lower gallery. Unsure what she wanted, Gates returned her gaze.

After a moment, Seabrook punched her chin in the direction of the exit.

He nodded, set out to meet her downstairs. His still-healing legs slowed him down, making it hard to walk, let alone hurry. The medboys said he’d done too much nerve damage too soon after his last stint in medbay. So much damage they considered it unlikely he’d ever regain full function. They had managed to replace the fingers he’d lost, though.

The other, though — the fear when I see a flight suit — don’t know if I’ll ever be able to put one on again, he thought, limping up to Seabrook.

He clicked heels, nodded to her. “Well done, Agent Seabrook.”

“Wouldn’t have happened without you, Gates.” She looked at his face, marked the spider web of fresh scars that would be with him for the foreseeable future. “Heard you had a rough go of it.”

He shrugged, gestured at the scars. “Just a little damage the medboys couldn’t clear up.” And because she deserved to know the full truth of it, he tapped his temple, “Aside from the psych pukes diddling around in here, I’ve been told I’m as well as I’ll get until my body decides to respond at the cellular level to further regenerative therapies.”

She didn’t — quite — manage to hide her wince. “But you did what you set out to.”

“Yes. I’m told that as soon as word arrived that the White Stag had been lost, the criminal organizations of no less than seven systems had sudden, violent changes in leadership or simply broke into smaller groups. We weren’t even aware Les Inconnus were in charge in a couple of the systems.”

She nodded, “I heard. What about IID? I heard Oda was dancing for joy when IID came to her with their investigation.”

Gates grinned. He’d seen the expression in the mirror, and knew that his scars assured the result was both lacking in humor and unnerving to the faint of heart. “Taken care of.”

Her brows shot up, “What, how?”

He waved a hand, “I have friends in low places and dark, mysterious powers of my own.”

She snorted.

“Just because I like to work the field doesn’t mean I’m a stranger to the techniques necessary to get ahead in office politics. Likewise: just because I don’t use my powers of darkness to gain position doesn’t mean I can’t use them for important things.”

“Full reinstatement?”

He gestured at his legs, “Not yet, but once I’m in shape to work, I’ll be at it again. Assuming Vasser will have me, of course.”

“She told me to talk to you.”

“Oh?” he asked, a bit stung.

She smiled, reading his reaction well, “Not that I wouldn’t have talked to you on my own, she just wanted me to tell you these exact words …” her brow furrowed as she recited: “Problem solved, but is the solution now a problem?” She looked at him. “Do you know what she meant?”

Gates nodded, chuckling.

“Care to share?”

“She wants to know if I’m ready to come back, and, when I do come back, will I be hunting the IID pukes that shut us down or ready to toe the line.”

“And?”

“Those friends, the ones in low places?”

She nodded, “Yes?”

“They’ve found a nice, out of the way hole to stuff Agent Neustedt into. I’m told they run supplies in once a year, whether the inmates want it or not.”

“But why would Vasser be worried you were after them if —”

“Oh, he’s not finished answering to the Senate Subcommittee on Advocacy Affairs, so Vasser doesn’t know what’s about to go down, but I have it on solid authority that he will be surprised at the results of the session, right up to when they clap him in restraints.”

That startled a laugh from her, “No, you didn’t!”

“Oh yes. Yes, I did.”

“Remind me never to tick you off.”

“I will be sure to do so. What about you?”

She sobered. “I’m still assigned to the Black Box, but there’s been some rumor about a transfer to HQ, Cybercrimes Division.”

“And what do you make of this talk?”

She shrugged, “I don’t know. Not all that sure I have the sand for Special Action anymore.”

“What?”

“You heard me. I’m not so sure I want to do our kind of work anymore. Hell, I’m not so sure I should have been doing it in the first place.”

Gates shook his head, “Now why would you say that?”

“I can’t do what you do.”

“No one’s asking you to. Look, you’re exactly the kind of agent the Advocacy needs in Special Action.”

She opened her mouth to deny him, but he kept on going, “And I mean it. When I started talking about going off and doing what had to be done, you checked me, forced me to think it through. And when I declared it was the right thing, you got out of the way, even backed me because I was a fellow agent going into harm’s way. To my mind, you showed all the qualities Vasser and Special Action need. And that’s before giving you credit for keeping your head when we were trying to spring Morgan and everything went sideways. No, I think you are just what Special Action needs, Seabrook.”

Seabrook looked half-convinced. “But I couldn’t operate under that, what did you call it? “Separate Law.” I just can’t.”

“Not for nothing, but do you think there might be a reason I’ve been around as long as I have?”

She laughed again, “Because you refuse to stop?”

“Seriously, though, can you hazard a guess?”

She shrugged.

“Because there are very few people who can do what I do. That can go out into the deep black and do the … things I do, then come back. Most people can’t —” he held his hands out, struggling to find the words, “— can’t get the stink off them enough to operate well under normal rules once they’ve gone off into the deep black. They go rogue, start wearing guts for garters, think they can make more money as hit men, that sort of crazy nonsense.” He looked Seabrook in the eye, “As many times as I’ve been made to step into the black, I’ve always come back.”

“Why?”

A deep sadness yawned wide in him. “Too stupid to live, too old to change, I suppose.”

She reached out, touched his arm, “That’s not an honest answer, not really.”

“No, it isn’t. Here’s a truth, though: when there’s someone who checks me at the airlock into the deep black, someone who asks whether what I’m about to do is right, it makes it a bit easier to find my way back. Someone like you, Agent Seabrook.”

She sniffed. Gates was pretty sure he saw the glitter of a tear before she looked away.

“Jesus, Gates, do you listen to yourself sometimes?”

“I try not to. That way lies madness.”

 


 

THE END

 


 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Griffin Barber is a veteran police officer with a major police department. In his spare time, he tells fictional tales about far-away places and people he’ll never meet (mostly because they don’t exist). He’s had several short stories published in the 1632 Universe’s Grantville Gazette. His blog, The Ranting Griffin, is a good way to peek inside his skull, if you’re interested in such horrors.

Tagged: Griffin_Barber, A_Separate_Law, Fiction
Comments (0) | last updated on February 22, 2014

The Cup (complete)

The Cup

Hello everyone, and welcome once again to GSN Spectrum Broadcasting’s continuing coverage of the Murray Cup Race. The MCR, or The Cup as it is more commonly known, is one of the finest sporting events in the UEE. Nearly 100 racers compete in the Hare Division’s grueling 10 -stage run, which winds its way through Ellis System’s many wondrous planets and dual asteroid belts. Racers compete to determine who’s the fastest and strongest, as they struggle to maintain the integrity of their racecraft amid some of the deadliest conditions in the galaxy. This year’s competition promises to be one of the toughest, as the top 25 share in a meet-and-greet with media and sponsors in GSN’s sports atrium in orbit above Green. Though many come to race, only a few are considered real contenders, and those contenders are now awaiting their chance for glory and honor.

This year’s darling is Ykonde Remisk, a Human who surprised everyone by winning both the Goss Invitational and the Cassini 500. He comes into the MCR with a real chance to be the first racer to win the Triple Crown in twelve years. Then there is Shoo-ur Motak, the finest Xi’An racer in the history of the sport. If he prevails, he will be the first to ever win three MCRs in a row. Zogat Guul, the old Tevarin warhorse, can’t be counted out, either. This legend has won the MCR more than anyone else in its history, but fate and bad luck have prevented him from winning a major event in over five years. His second place finish at the Cassini 500, however, has brought his name back to prominence. Can he win it once more before he fades away? And finally, newcomer Hypatia Darring has surprised everyone by taking the pole position away from Remisk. She has never won a major racing event in her short career, but her consistent top ten showings for the last two years indicate that her pole position is no fluke.

Can this youngster handle the enormous pressure placed upon her? Only time will tell . . .

Let’s throw it back to GSN reporter Mike Crenshaw, who is making his way through the reception as we speak. Who do you have for us now, Mike?

More after the jump...

Hypatia Darring didn’t even notice the reporter’s question as she stared across the busy reception floor. The Tevarin looked to her like a lean, elegant gray post amid a gaggle of reporters who crowded around his thin body like pecking birds. She felt sorry for him. How silly was that feeling? To feel sorry for Zogat Guul. Ridiculous! I should feel the need to whip his ass, to blow past him on the final stage, to force his ship into an asteroid. That would be the feelings of a great racer, a great competitor, one focused and ready to win. But no. Try as she might, she could not feel that way toward this legend who stood only a few feet away. Much to her sorrow, she hadn’t had a chance to speak with him when their paths could have crossed at Cassini. Now, she had to find the time. She fought the urge to walk across the room, push past the media hounds, invite him to dinner, and ask him to sign the worn, faded, dog-eared poster of him in his youth — standing proudly next

She shook her head and blinked. “I’m sorry. Say again?”

Mike Crenshaw cleared his throat. “Do you think Admiral Darring is proud of his daughter?”

Darring clenched her teeth and forced a smile. “Of course he is. Why wouldn’t he be?”

“He has stated publicly more than once that he believes you are wasting your talents as a racer. That you should drop all this ‘nonsense’ — his word — and pursue a more fitting career in the UEE Navy.”

“My father has never been one to restrain his opinions,” she said, taking tentative steps toward Guul. “But if you really want to know the answer to that question, you should ask him yourself.”

Another reporter fought her way in. “Ms. Darring . . . taking the pole position from Ykonde Remisk was a marvelous achievement. How did you do it?”

Her smile was genuine. “Luck.”

“Oh, come now, Hypatia,” Crenshaw said, regaining the floor. “Achieving a time one point five seconds off the record is hardly luck. How’d you do it?”

She chuckled. “Patience, dedication, focus and an acute attention to detail. That, plus the fastest damned M50 on the circuit. All things I’m sure my father would appreciate.”

The reporters laughed and scribbled notes. Darring made a few more steps toward Guul.

“Ms. Darring,” another reporter interceded, “how do you intend on maintaining your ‘luck,’ as you put it, through the entire race? Ten stages, all timed, many with narrow, dangerous channels, especially through the asteroid belts. You’ll be racing neck-and-neck with some of the finest racers in history. Being a relative newcomer, how do you intend on handling the pressure, maintaining your good start, and ultimately winning the cup?”

“She’s a natural!”

All turned, including Darring, and found Shoo-ur Motak, the Xi’An, dressed in a bright purple jumpsuit, standing among a pool of sycophants who followed him to every event. Some of them were ex-GSN reporters, now under full employment by the Motak family, captured by his fame, notoriety and wealth.

Darring controlled her scowl as the tall Xi’An stopped a few feet from her. “She’s a natural,” Motak repeated, to make sure the reporters could record his reply, letting the last word bounce across the short, sharp beak of his turtle-like face. He was taller than Darring by an inch or two — unusual for his race — but his cool, amber eyes ensconced beneath a prominent, boney ridge scanned her face as if they were searching for food. His thin, leathery pink-black tongue slipped through his razor mouth, slicing the air like a knife. His powerful jaw muscles pulled back in a tight approximation of a smile. “She’ll win it by being the best racer on the circuit.”

“Do you really believe that?” Crenshaw asked. “She’s the best?”

Motak nodded slowly, diplomatically, his eyes affixed on Darring. “I wouldn’t have said it if I didn’t.” He blinked. “How are you, my dear? Rested from your trials at Cassini?”

“Rested enough,” she replied, beneath her breath. The reporters leaned in to hear. “But you should know all about that.”

Motak waved her off as if she were his lesser. “The dangers of the trade, my dear. I did what I had to do to gain advantage.”

Darring nodded. “But you didn’t win, did you? Cutting me off in a move that, technically, was illegal, only gave you third place.”

“Still, a better finish than you.” Motak chuckled. His devotees did the same. “The Cassini is not all that important to me, my dear. The MCR is the crown jewel. You’ll understand that in time . . . if you last long enough.”

“Can we get a picture of the two of you side-by-side?” a reporter piped up. The rest confirmed that desire with exaggerated nodding.

Motak turned to the crowd, preening his proud, slim form for all to see. “Of course you may have a picture,” he said, offering his hand to Darring in goodwill. “I’m honored to be a part of this great tradition. The MCR is dear to my heart, and with such brilliant competition, like Hypatia Darring here, this year’s race will be one to remember.”

Hypatia took his hand cautiously. She wrapped her fingers around his broad palm. She was surprised how warm and comfortable it was. She relaxed and turned herself toward the reporters to let them take their pictures and ask their questions.

But then Motak began to squeeze, and squeeze, and squeeze until she felt the small delicate bones in her hand giving beneath the pressure. She squeezed back against it, but that didn’t provide much relief as Motak continued to grip. Don’t cringe, she said to herself. Don’t cry. Don’t give him the satisfaction. But the pain began to leach up her arm, into her shoulder, through her neck. God, he’s trying to break my hand. He’s . . .

He released, and the pain subsided. She sighed and wiped a bead of sweat from her forehead. She used her other hand.

Crenshaw was about to ask another question, but then someone spotted Ykonde Remisk, and they all scurried away like a flock of sparrows.

At her side, Motak chuckled. “We are only as important to them as our last quote.” The Xi’An turned to her again. This time he didn’t offer his hand. He winked. “Athlé-korr to you, my dear. Safe travel. I’ll see you down the line.”

Motak disappeared into the doting arms of his fans. As he walked away, Darring caught the eye of a lean, surly-looking fellow who maintained a watchful position behind his employer. He nodded at her. She ignored him and imagined driving a knife into Motak’s back.

“Don’t let him get to you.”

The voice was soft and amiable. Darring turned to greet it.

There he stood, even taller than Motak. In his shadow, she felt truly small, both in stature and in status. But Zogat Guul’s waxy, pale grey face, small coal-black eyes and tiny puckered mouth radiated a kindness and a quiet experience that steadied her rage. She offered her sore hand humbly. He took it without complaint and massaged it with smooth fingers stained in red tattoos.

“Don’t let that pompous twig get under your skin. He’s infamous for his mind games.” With a quick grin, he snapped into formal posture, as if he were greeting an officer, thrusting his chest out though it was wrapped comfortably in a black-and-gold half-coat. “My name is Zogat —”

“I know who you are,” Darring interrupted, embarrassed immediately by her rudeness. “It’s an honor to meet you. It’s a dream I’ve had since I was a kid.”

“And I have been following your career with great interest.” He took her by the arm and began to lead her toward a table filled with three large punch bowls and an assortment of fish appetizers. They walked slowly. “You are rising steadily on the circuit. Your name is on the lips of many. Your fifth place showing at Cassini was quite impressive, especially for someone so young.”

“Thank you. It would have been even more impressive had I won, if Motak hadn’t forced me back.”

“You let him get too close,” he said, with no malice or indictment in his tone. “You had the inside lane, but you slowed down to spar with him.”

“He pissed me off!”

Guul stopped, turned Darring toward him, and held her shoulders with tight, fatherly hands. “Such behavior may be tolerated in the smaller, roundabout races like Cassini. But not here. Here, such raw emotion will get you expelled or killed. True, there are stages along the way where the racing will be tight, where you will have to maneuver for position. But speed matters the most here . . . speed and time. Remember, Hypatia Darring, the one most important fact about the Murray Cup: Speed is life.” He smiled. “Speed is life . . . or death, if you are going in the wrong direction.”

She laughed at that, letting the seriousness of his words trickle away. “We will speak no more of these things now,” he said, resuming their course toward the food table. “We will have further opportunities to talk later, when the wolves are not so thick and hungry.” He ignored the wave of a reporter nearby. “Every word we speak here is interpreted and reinterpreted until, in the end, they will make us lovers in the eyes of the public.”

Darring forced a wry smile. “Sorry . . . you’re not my type.”

Guul let out a hearty laugh. He shook his head. “Story of my life.” He quickened his pace toward the food. “Now come, and treat me to a glass of the greatest gift Humans have bestowed upon the galaxy.”

“What’s that?” Darring asked.

Guul smacked his lips. “Lemonade.”

* * *

Shoo-ur Motak crushed the thin shell of the jumbo shrimp with his beak. He did not bother shucking it as a feeble Human might do. Blast this Human food anyway! What he wouldn’t give to be back at the family complex in the Kayfa System, gorging to contentment on huge handfuls of crunchy needle fish. Their bladders had a dye that was as sweet — no, sweeter — than anything a Human might concoct. Nothing on the table before him was actually enjoyable in his superior opinion, but he tolerated it as best he could, smiling humbly as he picked at this dish or that for the benefit of the media. Motak nodded at a Human reporter as she walked by.

Humans had their uses.

And so did the one that stood now in the center of the media frenzy. Short, stocky, dark-skinned, considered the favorite of the circuit, although the true favorite was Motak. Why wasn’t the media surrounding him, asking him questions, begging him to divulge his secrets for winning the race, just as they had asked Darring. These damned Humans and their racist ways! But Motak was the best Xi’An racer that had ever climbed into the cockpit, and his perfectly modified 350r, with its purple hull and reinforced golden-stripped wings would do what no other racer had ever done: win the MCR three consecutive times. Neither Remisk, nor Guul, nor Darring could claim such a feat. So, why weren’t the GSN goons surrounding him?

But perhaps that was best, he reconsidered, popping another shrimp in his mouth and sipping on a warm, frothless beer. Let Ykonde Remisk have his moment in the spotlight. Let the media have their favorites. For when they fall, when they fail to live up to the hype, Motak’s victory will seem that much sweeter. Yes, let them bask . . . then let them fall. And I will see that they fall hard.

“Is everything in place?” he whispered to an underling at his side.

“Yes, sir. Your maintenance crews are dispersed through the Ellis system per your specifications and per the MCR guidelines.”

Motak scratched his neck in frustration. “That’s not what I meant.”

The underling gulped and wiggled his head. “Yes, that matter we spoke of has been taken care of as well. But I would recommend against it, sir. The risk is too great, and besides, Shoo-ur Motak does not need to rely on such things. He is the best racer on the circuit.”

“I do not pay you to give me such advice or praise. I pay you to do what you’re told. Now go, and make sure everything is ready as I have instructed.” He put his beer down. “And I will go and remind the ‘favorite’ of his obligation to me.”

The underling nodded and ran off to do his duty. Motak sighed deeply, put on his happy face, and walked confidently toward the madness surrounding Ykonde Remisk.

* * *

She loved her Origin M50 Turbo more than life. Banged up, scratched, red and white paint slopped on to cover a hull that needed an integrity sweep, but there had been no time for any of that after Cassini. Nor would her father condescend to send her enough money for such repairs. But what of it? The plant was sound, the thrusters new and top notch. In a pinch, she doubted that any racer, anywhere, could match it. Certainly, none of the other twentyfour challengers behind her — including Guul — could beat her in a straightaway. But the MCR had few straightaways. Hull integrity mattered.

As her crew chief rattled off the final systems check in her ear, Darring pulled up on her navcomp the schematic for the first stage. It appeared with a bright blink to display row after row of rings winding their way through low orbit above Ellis III. Darring studied the rings carefully, reminding herself which ones were large, which were small, where the cameras and timer buoys were located. All racers were required to stay within the “invisible” lane running through the rings; if a racer strayed outside, he or she would lose time. This first stage was both timed and awarded extra credits to first, second and third place. Having the pole position, then, gave her an advantage. But for how long? Darring leaned over in her seat and studied the course carefully.

It was not unlike one stretch of the Goss Invitational, so she had ample experience with this kind of run. Her M50 was built for strenuous zigs and zags through tight spots. But how well would she fare later on, when the courses got more deadly, more strenuous?

From Ellis III, the racers were mini-jumped to Ellis IV where the so-called Seahorse Shuffle took place. Then on to Ellis V and the “Noble Endeavour.” After that through the first of two asteroid belts, a course called The Sorrow Sea, where hulls of previous racers floated as obstacles. Then around the gas giant Wall-Eye, where ships could be easily ripped apart by one foolish move. A longer stage followed, across the outer asteroid belt (formerly Ellis XI) and finally to Ellis XII. Then the race turned back in-system to finish at Ellis VIII. She had run this race before, but never as a true contender, and thus she had taken her time, flown each stage slow and steady, like a marathon runner, to learn all the ins and outs. This time, though, the pressure was on. She held the pole position, the top spot. Everything was different now.

The MCR starter’s voice crackled over the comm link. “Racers, prepare for launch.”

Darring turned off her navcomp, affirmed the standard agreement to MCR rules and regulations in unison with the other racers, strapped herself in, and gave a small prayer. She was not religious by any stretch, but figured it wouldn’t hurt. The prayer calmed her nerves as the bay doors of the starting carrier opened to space.

She could see Ellis III through the door. It was beautiful, green, its orbit peppered with corvettes and pleasure craft of the well-to-do who had come out to view the race firsthand. There would be plenty of spectators along the way, a lot of media, and Darring had to just put them all out of her mind. She focused on Zogat Guul’s words — Speed is life — and looked back through one of her cockpit panels to try to get a glimpse of the Tevarin’s upgraded Hornet. But he was too far back. All she could see was Ykonde Remisk’s M50, with its garish gold and blue trim. She noticed that he was too close to her; by rule, there was a specified distance that racers had to maintain prior to launch: the privilege of the pole position. She gnashed her teeth and cursed beneath her breath. Someone was already violating rules.

“Hypatia Darring . . . you may launch.”

She didn’t even wait for the spokesman to finish. Darring burst out the carrier bay door at top legal speed.

Through a narrow channel flanked by media and spectators, Darring flew the ceremonial lap. The rest of the racers followed behind, releasing one after another, but maintaining their specified positions within the line. Ahead of her, the pace craft sparkled with a flashing red light. Nervous energy spotted her brow with sweat. Her crew chief gave his final comment and instructions. She signed him off and focused on the course ahead of her.

In her ear, the MCR starter counted down — ten, nine, eight . . . Darring thrust to the left, trying to keep directly behind the pace craft. Ykonde Remisk was right on her six, the nose of his racer dangerously close. Back off! Darring mouthed silently, wanting to flip on her comm link and tune to his frequency. It wasn’t strictly against MCR rules to speak to other racers, but officials discouraged it, fearing that frequent conversation during the race could produce distractions that would lead to crashes and injuries. Besides, there was enough chatter going on between racers and their crews. Still, Darring wanted to open a channel and scream into Remisk’s ear, Get off my back!

Five . . . four . . . three . . .

Now, all the racers tightened as the pacer made the last turn to set them up toward the first rings. Darring gunned it a little herself, closing in on the pacer. She put herself now just a little to the right of it, to keep Remisk from rushing past her at the last minute. Darring’s heart raced, her hands shook on her joystick. She tried concentrating on the small object that grew and grew in her viewport: The first ring, its rotating lights swirling around its virtual frame, signaling the beginning . . .

Two . . . one . . .

The red lights on the pacer flashed green, and it fell to the left quickly, breaking formation.

Darring pressed herself into her seat, gunned her thrusters, and blew through the first ring.

* * *

The flashing lights of the rings caused her eyes to ache. They flew by her quickly and she was concentrating on them too much, too worried about her time, her position in the line. She had fallen to third place by count of the last timing ring. It had been her fault, too, worrying so much about conserving thrusting fuel, letting some pilot with a beat up Avenger take the inside lane. Her crew chief yelled at her for it; she ignored him. The little shit was right, of course, but he was an old academy friend of her father’s, and she was in no mood to listen to a man yell at her. Besides, she could overtake an Avenger at any time. The real focus of her recovery had to be Ykonde Remisk.

The smarmy son of a bitch had forced her against the left wall of the tunnel they were speeding through. Her wing had actually broken the virtual plane, and the voice of the MCR caller came over her comm . . . “Ten seconds added to your time.” Damn! Remisk’s press was not strictly against the rules since his ship had not touched hers, but it was certainly dirty pool and against the spirit of the competition. She had no way out of the pick-and-roll either; it was as if he and the Avenger pilot were in cahoots. That wouldn’t surprise her in the least.

She refocused and thrust her M50 forward, dipping beneath the Avenger and slipping past it on the low. It tried muscling her back, pointing its right wing down to mask her view, but Darring anticipated the move, shifted in kind, and kept her position and composure. Meanwhile, the Avenger pilot had lost his focus on the lane ahead of him, and failed to notice the ring closing fast and to the left. Darring hit her thrusters hard and shifted left, at the last minute moving out of the Avenger’s path. Darring took the turn and ring perfectly; the Avenger saw it too late, tried to adjust, and clipped the ring with its left wing. It broke the invisible plane of the tunnel and then overcompensated into a spin through the void.

Eat that!

She hoped that somewhere behind her, Guul was cheering. She could almost hear his martial voice singing her praises. She liked the thought, but the most pressing concern now was right in front of her.

Remisk had been pushing his craft at full speed the entire course. How was that possible? she wondered. Sure, he had customized his M50 like all the rest, removing hardpoints for extra fuel and cooling equipment, but he must be running on fumes by now. There was no other explanation. He would have to burn out soon, and the sooner the better.

She ignored the three other racers pressing hard at her six. She took the next ring and the next, letting the strong inertia pull and propel her craft forward. That was the best way to conserve fuel, she had learned racing around Saturn. Release thrust on the turns, and let your craft drift at top speed into the vector. Then you had enough thrust to pick up the few seconds you might have lost on drift. This racing gig was a game of milliseconds, and each one counted.

She moved up behind Remisk, taking advantage of the last straightaway before the final turns through the ultimate three rings. There was not much time left, and she had to make her move now.

She tried shifting up and over his craft. He moved to block her. She shifted down; he moved again, in perfect unison, their ships equal size. She shifted left, right, and each time Remisk moved to counter. How is he doing this?

He was a great racer. There was no doubt of that. He was strong, athletic and cool-headed. Remisk had not gotten where he was on the circuit without being smart and precise. But his moves, his instincts were almost supernatural, as if his senses were enhanced. But that was impossible. Every racer went through a rigorous medical exam to ensure that no drugs had been introduced before the race, and further testing would be conducted along the way to ensure none had been taken after the first stage. Remisk was just that good.

Then I have to be better.

She pushed her plant to its limit, exceeding safe levels, much to the ire of her crew chief who implored her to back off, take second or third place, don’t risk blowing your plant so soon for so little reward. Little reward, my ass! She had taken the pole position, and she was going to let everyone know that it was not some fluke, that Hypatia Darring was here to stay. She wouldn’t give her fath– the media — grist for their mill.

She barrel rolled, letting the rotation of her M50 spiral her forward like a screw. Remisk, fearing that he would be clipped himself, shifted ever so slightly to his left, and Darring pounced. She pulled alongside him, letting her craft settle. She punched her thrusters again, feeling them wail their discontent through her arms and hands. Her stick was shaking, her heat warnings blaring. She could feel it all through her body, and there was, in all the galaxy, no feeling like it. It was something her father had forgotten. He was a good fighter pilot himself, or at least he was in his youth. But he had spent too much of his life in the warm, safe comfort of destroyers, cruisers and battleships. He had forgotten what it was like to feel flesh tingle as strong G forces threatened to rip your skin from its bones. Ghuul understood it. Remisk most certainly did. And even that sorry son of a bitch Motak understood the ecstatic feeling of sheer speed.

She pulled ahead. She took the next ring flawlessly, shifting against inertia and rolling through the next ring, which appeared immediately after the last. The final ring loomed large in the distance. Her crew chief, his attitude suddenly changed, barked “Go! Go!” into her ear. She smiled. She’d made the right decision. She most definitely deserved to be here racing among the greats.

Remisk pulled up above her, obviously giving her first place. She kept her course forward and strong, letting her plant holler. She giggled like a little girl, accepting praise from her chief. The flashing lights of the last ring did not make her weak or sick this time. She welcomed them happily.

Then a shadow came up over her, darkening her cockpit. It was Remisk, his M50 finding new life and overtaking her ship. In her joy, Darring had not realized that her thumb had lightened its pressure on her throttle, and she had slowed just slightly. Slowed enough for Remisk to swing his craft up and over her hull and plant itself, with its exhaust nozzle, right in front of her cockpit. Darring tried keeping her speed and course, but Remisk kicked his thrusters and threw a gout of yellow fire across her cockpit windows.

Darring screamed and rolled left. It was a serious mistake. She tried regaining her position, pressed her thumb deeply into the throttle, but it was too late. Ykonde Remisk passed through the final ring in first place. The Avenger and one other racer took second and third, while Darring, her ship rolling uncontrollably through the last ring, barely finished fourth.

 


 

At the end of the first stage in the Murray Cup race through the Ellis system, Ykonde Remisk edged out Hypatia Darring with an exhaust flare that, while technically legal, was definitely dangerous. Both of these two Human racers finished ahead of their main competition, the veteran Tevarin Zogat Guul and the wily Xi’An Shoo-ur Motak. Darring reacts to Remisk’s maneuver . . .

Darring jumped out of her racer, sped across the carrier bay floor, found Remisk in the middle of a media gang, and drove her fist toward his cheery face.

He ducked just in time.

One of Remisk’s crew grabbed Darring and held her back as she hurled accusations. “You son of a bitch! You could have killed me!”

Remisk recovered from the assault and tried to seem cool about it in front of the crowd, adjusting his collar and giving a weak smile. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Darring. I ran a clean race.”

“You tried to burn me alive!”

Shock and dismay spread among the faces of those gathered.

Out of the corner of her eye, Darring could see an MCR rules official coming their way with a concerned look on his face, but she didn’t care. She fought her way out of the crewman’s grasp and took another swing. Remisk caught her arm and held it tightly.

“Back off, Darring,” he said, “or I’ll file a complaint.”

“The only complaint worthy of filing is one I will submit requesting your dismissal, you cheap —”

“People, come now, let’s remain civil.”

Motak pushed his way through the crowd and stood beside Remisk. He waited until the MCR rules official arrived, then continued. “Ladies and gentlemen, I can assure you that from my perspective, Mr. Remisk violated no MCR rules. In fact, not only was his move brilliant in its simplicity, but it showed a deep dedication to the integrity of the sport. Remisk never once touched his ship to Ms. Darring’s. He showed incredible care in the maneuver. I can attest to that.”

“You can attest to kissing my —”

Guul stepped in and peeled Remisk’s fingers from Darring’s arm. He whispered into her ear. “Come on, let’s go. Not here, not this way.”

Motak chuckled. “You should listen to him, young lady. Guul is an old, wise soul.”

Guul ignored Motak and pulled Darring through the crowd. “I said, let’s go.”

She relented, and they made their way out of the carrier bay and into a long narrow corridor that led to a small atrium with chairs and tables that looked out over Ellis III. The planet’s orbit was alive with the race as it continued with the remaining racer groups down list. It was a beautiful display, the rings of the course pulsing their light, and the blur of racecraft rushing through them at marvelous speeds. Darring looked out at it, and her anger began to subside.

“Take a seat, Hypatia,” Guul said as he pulled one chair away from a table.

Darring sat, crossed her arms, and kept looking out at the race.

Guul sat down across from her, his long body almost comical in the Human-sized chair. “Now tell me . . . what was that all about?”

Darring did not respond at first, but she met Guul’s stern gaze with her own. Then she blinked, sighed, and said, “He cheated. He cut me off and blew fire into my face.”

“It is not a violation of the rules, and you know it.”

“Well, damn, it should be.”

“You know,” Guul said, shaking his head and leaning back, “I would not expect a loose cannon like yourself to be such a slave to the rules.”

Darring finally smiled. “A residual from my father’s parenting. ‘Play by the rules, Hypatia’,” she said, imitating a deep manly voice, “ ‘win by the rules, and they can never have cause to take your victories away’.”

“It is a noble statement,” Guul said, “but, in racing, a touch naive. There are rules, and then there are rules. But you pull something like that again, especially with witnesses, and you’re the one that will be expelled, not Remisk.”

Darring sloughed off his warning. “He’s a jackass, and so is Motak.”

“That is true, but there’s nothing you can do about it right now. They will do what they have to do to win, and you must keep your cool. Besides,” Guul said, his gaze growing more serious, his face cast down toward the racers rushing past, “I want my last race to be against the best. And if you are expelled, then it will be against cookie-cutters and has-beens.”

Darring wrinkled her brow with concern. “Why is this your last? You have many years ahead.”

Guul nodded. “Many years perhaps, but not as a racer. Every joint aches, every bone brittle, and my eyes are failing. It is time.”

Darring sat in quiet, not wanting to speak, not wanting to accept that her hero was near the end. And she had just met him. How could he be leaving now, when she had so much to speak to him about, so much to learn? Afterwards, he would likely return home (wherever that may be), and she’d never see him again, and time would be so precious during the race. When would she have another opportunity to talk to him, to learn from him? If this is his last Cup, she thought, then perhaps I should back off a bit, let him have a course or two, let him take the lead when

“What is that look?”

She turned to him, shrugged innocently. “What look?”

Guul leaned forward. “You’re thinking about throwing the race for me, aren’t you? You’re thinking, ‘Give the old Tevarin one more victory.’ Well, forget such nonsense. My people are warriors, Hypatia, and we have a saying: ‘Honor your enemy, praise him if you must, but never lose a chance to kill him.’ Here, you and I are friends. Out there,” he said, pointing to the race, “we are foe. Promise me, that if we find ourselves neck and neck on the final lap, and you have an opportunity to win, that you will. That you will show me no mercy, no quarter, and then at least I will know that if I lose, I have lost against the best. Promise me.”

His face was so serious, yet so pleasant in its bland color. His cheeks had darkened somewhat which left a nice contrast against the paler skin of his brow. He was blushing, she figured, perhaps on the verge of tears. A crying Tevarin was almost a contradiction in terms, but there was no doubt of his seriousness at this moment. Darring knew that he would not let her leave the room until she promised and did so sincerely.

She nodded. “I promise.”

Guul smiled, and his color returned to normal. He stood. “Excellent. Now, I owe you a dinner. Hungry?”

“Famished!”

They walked together through the corridor, took a turn toward the carrier’s mess. It was a good idea to get a full meal before the mini-jump to Ellis IV, and some rack time as well. The next several legs of the race would be tough, and Darring would have to face her crew chief soon and figure out if any serious damage had been done to her engine. It was not a conversation she was looking forward to.

“Have your crew chief speak to mine,” Guul said. “He’s an old M50 pilot.”

Darring pinched his arm. “Now that is against the rules.” Guul laughed. “But there is nothing in the rules that says that a crew chief can’t accidentally sit back to back with another crew chief in the mess and accidentally hear said crew chief talking about engine repair.”

She pushed him playfully. “You are so bad.”

“Tricks of the trade, my dear. When you’ve been around as long as I —”

Guul did not finish his words. They had turned a corner and there stood three Humans wrapped in dark clothing to match the faint light of the corridor. The three did not hesitate.

One pulled a knife and slashed towards Darring’s throat. She leaned back instinctively and felt the wind of the man’s brutal attack across her chin. The blade did not find flesh, however, and she tumbled back against the wall.

The other two were on Guul immediately, but despite the Tevarin’s confession of joint pain, he moved quickly, subduing one in a head lock and guarding off the fists of the other. Darring tried to get to him, but her assailant was not finished. He slashed again with his blade, this time toward her stomach. She knocked his arm back with a move she had learned in Basic, then drove her fist into his kidney.

As the man lurched back, trying to recover from the blow, Darring recognized his face. He was from Motak’s entourage, the one who had shielded his boss and nodded to her as the Xi’An had walked away. She gnashed her teeth, scowled, and drove her boot into his crotch, knocking him to his knees. She continued her assault against his face, striking him twice before he managed to turn, kick out his leg, and swipe her feet from beneath her. Darring fell hard, her hip reeling from its concussion against the corridor floor.

He was on her again, but this time she was ready. She timed her move, brought her knees up quickly and flung him up the corridor. She tried rising to pursue, but the body of another assailant flew over her and hit the wall. She looked toward Guul and found him making mincemeat of the third man’s face. His companions, bloody, beaten and clearly not wishing further punishment, collected themselves quickly and dashed away.

Guul released the third man, pushed him back against the wall. Darring tried moving against him, but despite his mangled face, he got away from her grasp, grabbed his blade and shot away down the corridor in the opposite direction of his accomplices.

Darring went to Guul’s side. He had slipped down the wall and was holding a bloody gash across his stomach. Darring moved his hand away to look at it. “Bastards,” she said, trying to help him to his feet. “Bloody bastards. Come on, let’s get you to the hospital.”

Guul shook his head and pushed her away. “No. Just get me to my crew. It’s not that bad. I’ve had worse.”

“But we have to tell someone about this. Tell them it’s Remisk and Motak.”

“How do you know that?”

“One of the men . . . I saw him in Motak’s gang the other day.”

He nodded. “But you can’t prove it.”

“Come on, Guul,” she said, letting her anger rise again. “Don’t play stupid. You know who ordered this.”

“And if you’re wrong, then it will reflect badly on you, especially after your unprovoked assault against Remisk. No, you may be right, but they are far too smart to leave evidence lying around. Motak has too many friends among MCR officials. This will go away as quickly as it was attempted.” He pointed down the corridor, toward the atrium and out to space. “We’ll beat them out there.”

Reluctantly, Darring nodded. She did not like the plan, but let it rest. The most important thing now was to get him to someone, anyone, who could help.

She hugged his waist and helped him back to his crew.

* * *

“You’re late,” Motak said, sitting quietly in the dark of the room while Remisk expressed his agitation in short, sharp barks. “It’s got to stop, Motak. It’s gone too far.”

“How so?”

“They could have been killed. Both of them. That’s not what I signed up for.”

“What did you sign up for?”

“Sabotage is fine. Damaging an engine, clogging a fuel line, denting a wing, forcing a racer back with an illegal move. These are all fine. Win or no, succeed or fail, it’s all part of the unspoken game. But trying to kill people is another matter entirely.”

Motak chuckled. “What would you rather do? Race the final course with only me to contend with, or with Guul and Darring as well? The Tevarin is a beast, and that bitch is far better than anyone gives her credit for. If they remain in the race, you’ll go down in history as the man who had a chance, but failed, to win the Triple Crown.”

You will fail regardless, Motak said to himself. Once I’ve dealt with Guul and Darring.

“It’s over, Motak,” Remisk said, waving his arms in the darkness as if he were slicing bread. “I’m not doing your dirty work anymore.”

Motak turned on an overhead lamp resting on a table at his side. Beneath the cast light lay a small, gold-colored box, which he carefully opened. A small syringe with a green liquid lay in its center. He picked up the syringe and held it as if he were going to give someone a shot. “Oh, I think you will. You still have things to do for me. And if you don’t, I will share with the MCR rules committee what is contained in this needle.”

“What is it?”

Motak shrugged. “The very thing that has given you an almost inhuman energy, an ability to anticipate moves three, four turns ahead.”

“That’s a lie! I’ve never taken drugs in my life.”

“I’ve been planning this for a long, long time, Remisk. So let me lay it out for you. A young, successful pilot wants to make a name for himself. He wins the Goss Invitational by a nose and begins to think he really has a shot at winning the Triple Crown. He goes to a small- time dealer and asks, “What can you give me that can’t be detected by scanners?’ The dealer gives him this, which I gave the dealer — an inert liquid that contains a Xi’An enzyme that, in a Xi’An, is meaningless. But when introduced into Human brain chemistry, it creates an almost extrasensory perception that only activates under extreme stress and excitement — feeding off adrenaline — like during racing. It deactivates and hides itself once your adrenaline subsides. MCR scanners at their current settings cannot detect it. And you have been taking this for months.”

“You’re a liar!”

Motak ignored the accusation. “And here’s the catch. This is your last dose. There’s enough in here to keep you vital to the end of the race. Take it, and you’ll be fine. If not, somewhere around Ellis IX, as your ship is being pulled by the gravitational forces of that giant gas ball, you will fall into a deep sleep and be crushed by the tidal forces of its wild weather.” Motak held up the syringe for Remisk to see, letting a few drops squirt from the needle tip. “What will it be, my friend? Life or death?”

Remisk stood there in the darkness for a long time. Then finally, he fell to his knees and crawled over to Motak, rolled up his sleeve, and offered his forearm. “You bastard!”

Motak punched the needle into a vein. “No, Remisk. I’m not. I’m just a businessman, protecting his investment.”

He pushed the entire dose into Remisk’s arm, then laid the empty syringe in the golden box. Remisk got up and rolled down his sleeve. He turned to leave, but Motak stopped him.

“Oh,” he said, reaching into a pocket and producing a silver capsule. He pitched it to Remisk. “Make sure our man on Darring’s crew gets this. Make sure he puts it where we have discussed. We want to make sure the sweet girl has a pleasant ride through the Bone Yard.”

Remisk left. Motak lingered in the dark, chewing the inside of his left cheek, considering the future. He sighed. He should never have relied on Remisk, on a Human, to do the work. They could never be trusted. He’d never had one pleasant experience with them in all his life. Not as a racer, not as a young adult, and certainly not as a child, when Human pirates had scattered his family and killed his mother. There wasn’t one in the bunch worth a damn. But Remisk . . . could he be trusted to finish the job against Darring? Motak shrugged. It hardly mattered anyway. Whether he did or did not, Remisk’s time in the race was coming to a close. With the dose I gave him, Motak thought, getting up and leaving the room, he won’t survive the Bone Yard either.

* * *

Hello again, and welcome to another broadcast of GSN Spectrum’s continuing coverage of the Murray Cup Race. After a rough start that saw Hypatia Darring warned and reprimanded for her assault of Ykonde Remisk, things have calmed down. Ms. Darring has kept her cool and has fought her way back to contention with a stunning head-to-head struggle around Ellis V against veteran Zogat Guul. Though these two are reported to be the best of friends, no love is lost between them as they make their way through these dangerous courses. But now the most contentious portion of the race is upon us. The Sorrow Sea, or as most of the racers call it, the Bone Yard, looms large in the cockpit window. Can anyone brave the shattered hulls and sharp asteroids that hazard this course? Let’s find out . . .

Motak was on her left, Guul on her right, and somewhere behind her, Remisk waited to pounce. It had been like this for a long time, shifting back and forth through broken hulls of previous racers and multi-ton asteroids, some so large that their gravity tugged on her hull as she passed. Her navcomp displayed the Bone Yard in all its glory, and there were many paths to take through the obstacles; some shorter, some longer. This was a timed course, but the lanes were sometimes so narrow as to force racers to poke and prod one another, thus making it one of the deadliest in the race. The broken hulls of the hollow racecraft around her confirmed its danger.

She shifted left and took one of the shorter paths. Doing so would put her closer to the finish line, but the obstacles here were ridiculous in their distribution. She turned left, barreled tightly through a wide hole of a Destroyer’s ancient hull. The racer right behind her broke formation and flew down another path. At her speed, Darring could not tell if it had been Remisk or not, but one less bee in her bonnet was okay by her.

Motak was still on her left, however. Guul had broken formation as well and had chosen a longer path, but one less constricted with debris. She could see his little red blip on her navcomp, and several others training in on him from all angles. He was in deep shit, she knew, if any of those other racers worked in silent unison to push him off course. His modified Hornet would have trouble with excessive obstacles, but then that’s why he took the longer route. He was no idiot.

Motak turned his 350r sharply and shot above her. Images of Remisk’s scorching exhaust flooded her mind, but this time, she ignored her impulse and kept course.

Speed is life.

A Banu racer in its heavily upgraded Avenger slipped in alongside her. There were a few Banu in the race, and Darring could not remember the name of this one, but she remembered the distinct green-and-black striping of its hull. It tried forcing her into the craterous side of the asteroid ahead of them. Darring took her thumb off the thrust, acting as if she were going to slow and allow the Banu to take position, but at the last moment, she gunned her engine, shifted sharply up so that the belly of her M50 skimmed mere inches from the crater floor, kicking up dust from its ejecta blanket, and blowing it back into the cockpit of the Avenger on her tail. The Banu had to turn sharply to the left, giving advantage once again to Darring.

I can play dirty too, bitches!

Darring laughed into the ear of her crew chief who was warning her to take it slow and not risk getting her hydrogen scoops clogged. He was worried about her engine, which had been refitted after its over-exertion around Green. There was still so much race left, and he was especially concerned with Ellis IX, the gas giant that would place serious pressure on her hull. He didn’t want her engine to go down a second time as well. But she was enjoying herself. She was enjoying the Sorrow Sea, the Bone Yard, in all its wondrous danger.

Only Motak annoyed her now. The rest of her competition had fallen behind or had taken different routes. The route ahead of her was still tricky, but it was hers. She commanded it now, and she leaned back in her restraints and let her engine run.

And now Motak fell back, and his blip on her navcomp stopped flashing red in danger. She was free, and the finish line was close.

A warning light suddenly flashed on her cooling monitors. She looked down and saw that her engine’s heat dissipation, which would normally be at one to one, had fallen sharply to one to two, and now one to three. She pressed controls, tapped panels, and now other warning lights were flashing.

Something was wrong with her fuel. It was rising in temperature, too fast, too hot, and the cooling system could not dissipate the excess heat fast enough. It was burning her engine, and her hull shifted and sputtered, pressing her forward against her restraints.

She tapped her comm link. “Something’s wrong here! Engine reaching critical heat.”

“Check your heat release override valve on the —”

She tried doing as her crew chief advised, but before she could move her arm, fire exploded into her cockpit, engulfing her torso and helmet. She screamed, panicked, tried patting the fire out with her gloves. But that did nothing, as the flames grew larger and larger, working their way under her jumpsuit, piercing the protective lining at her neck, and burning her face and shoulders.

“Power plant breach imminent!” screamed the safety system in her ear. “Power plant breach imminent!”

Through searing pain, Hypatia Darring reached beneath her cockpit seat, tapped the eject pad, and blew her cockpit window into space. Thrusters beneath her seat erupted, and she tumbled after the cockpit, still strapped into her chair, gasping for air.

Five seconds later, before she lost consciousness, Darring watched her M50 explode into a thousand pieces.

 


 

Recovering from her disappointing start in the Cup series, Darring has worked her way back to the front of the pack. She is on her way to victory in the Sorrow Sea — the Bone Yard — when her ship explosively overheats . . .

Darring awoke in a quiet, sanitized room of white walls and beeping monitors. She lay in a medbay tub containing a pale, viscous gel-like fluid. There were monitoring nodes on her neck and chest. She lifted her arm out of the fluid and tried sitting up. A strong hand kept her from doing so.

“Not yet,” the voice said. “Not until the doctor says it’s okay.”

She stared at a figure standing alongside the tub. Tall, thin, gray. She laid her head back against the tub wall and blinked repeatedly until the shape focused. “Zogat,” she said, her voice cracking, her throat dry and pasty. “Where — where —”

“Carrier infirmary,” he said, “in orbit above Ellis VIII.”

She tried sitting up again and felt a deep pain in her shoulder as she moved her arms. She reached across her chest and felt a layer of burnt skin, soft and supple due to the fluid, but still present. Terrifying memories flooded back. “My ship!”

Guul nodded. “Unsalvageable. It’s now a part of the Sorrow Sea.”

Darring massaged her sore shoulder. “What happened?”

“They do not know for certain. But your fuel went through a rapid temperature increase, spread through your systems and ignited the plant. It’s a wonder it didn’t explode while you were still strapped in.”

“How did it happen?”

“They couldn’t recover enough of the fuselage and its monitoring equipment to know the exact cause. No black box either. But . . .” He paused, letting the word linger there in the space between them. “Remisk has confessed.”

“What?”

“He’s confessed to it. Went mad, in fact, attacked a reporter, nearly ripped off her face. He says he put some kind of gel capsule into your tank; or rather, hired someone to do it on your crew, which, by the way, has been scrubbed. He even confessed to sending those thugs against us.”

She nodded, feeling a moment of relief. “Then Motak is finished as well.”

Guul cast his eyes down. He shook his head. “No, Hypatia. Motak has confessed nothing, nor has Remisk implicated anyone else. He’s gone catatonic, can’t speak, can’t move. He’s on something, but it can’t be detected. They fear he’ll die before he’s interrogated. He’s out, but Motak is still in and has condemned Remisk publicly in the most powerful words. The race has been suspended for a few days so that all remaining crews can conduct a mandatory check of their ships. Then it will resume.” He shook his head. “There are three things certain in the galaxy, as you Humans might say: Death, taxes and the MCR. The race will go on.”

Darring closed her eyes and laid her head back once again. She fought tears. “Yes, but it’s over for me.”

A pause, then, “Not yet.”

She tried asking how, but on cue, the room door opened and in walked Motak, straight and proud, wearing a fresh jumpsuit of gold and purple. Three reporters followed in his wake, one with a camera. He pulled his mouth back and said in a sincere voice, “Ah, I am so glad to see you alive and awake, my dear. You had us all worried.”

I bet. She wanted to say those very words, but the pressure that Guul placed on her arm with his strong hand recommended otherwise. She forced her anger down and tried to smile. “It seems as if the Fates are on my side.”

Motak nodded. “Indeed. And it would also seem that Lady Luck has granted you favor as well. With my gift, you can now return to the race.”

“What gift?”

Motak seemed surprised, pointed to Guul. “Your friend hasn’t told you?”

“I was just about to,” Guul said.

“Well, then let me say it proudly for all to hear.” Motak adjusted his position among the reporters, giving them time to ready.

The Xi’An cleared his throat. “I and the Motak family corporation want to again strenuously condemn Ykonde Remisk’s actions. His cowardly assaults are inconsistent with what I and the MCR are all about. The integrity of the race must be maintained. Thus, as a gesture of good will and healthy competition, I have donated my personal M50 so that Hypatia Darring can return to the race.”

It took a moment for the announcement to register in her mind. To help drive the point home, a vid screen on her wall activated to reveal a clean, gold-and-purple trimmed M50, with new scoops, new heat dispensers, and freshly polished cockpit windows. It was brilliant, beautiful. Darring loved it.

“No way,” she barked, pulling herself up in the tub. “I’m not putting one toe into that —”

Guul applied pressure to her arm once again. “What Ms. Darring is saying is that she would be honored to accept your gift and looks forward to further competition in the days ahead.”

“Hey,” she said, pulling her arm away. “Don’t answer for me. I’m not a child, dammit!”

“Well, let’s leave Ms. Darring and Mr. Guul alone,” Motak said. “Clearly, they have much to discuss.” He leaned over Darring’s tub and stared into her eyes, his sharp mouth inches from her face. “I’m so glad to see you well, my dear. Please do accept my offer. It would be a disgrace to lose one with so much talent.”

They scurried out, but left the image of the M50 on the vid screen. When the door closed, she rounded on Guul. “You’re not my father, old man — don’t answer for me.”

Guul shook his head. “I am not your father, Hypatia, but I am trying to get you to grow up a little. If you refuse this offer from Motak, he will have won thrice: by getting rid of Remisk, by getting rid of you, and by further damaging your reputation. Racing is as much about your public image as it is about skill. You already have a bad reputation. Don’t damage it further by being ungracious.”

“But it’s his ship!” she said, pointing to the vid screen. “He’s done something to it, I’m sure.” Guul shook his head. “No, he’s not that stupid. There’s too much light on the competition now, too much that’s transpired. He can’t afford to offer this gift and then sabotage it. He’s done all he can do. It’s a matter of who’s the best now. There’s plenty of racing left, Hypatia. Go out there and prove to everyone, prove to Motak, that you will not be stopped, that you are the best.”

Despite the logic in his words, Darring just wanted to reach out and scratch his face. She was so sick of males telling her what she should and should not do. Dammit, if she wanted to refuse Motak’s gift, she would. And yet, to beat Motak with his own ship, that would be so lovely. But it wasn’t just a matter of getting up and strapping into the cockpit. Every M50 had its own quirks, its own personality. There were always balancing issues, thrust issues, drift issues that needed to be identified and learned. The cockpit displays would be configured to Motak’s own preferences, which would take time to sort out. And it could take weeks for her to get comfortable on the stick and throttle. She had maybe 48 hours to make it all work. Her burns were healing in this goo around her, but her flesh was tight and still stung beneath her movements. Motak was setting her up to fail. He didn’t need to sabotage the ship, she realized. Her current condition was its own sabotage.

And now Guul was taking advantage of their new friendship. He had no right to interrupt her and speak for her publicly. Guul may admire me, she thought as she pulled herself up and sat on the edge of the tub. Now, he needs to respect me.

“Okay, Zogat,” she said, looking around for a towel. “You win. I’ll accept his offer. I’ll show him I’m the best, but more importantly . . . I’ll show you.”

* * *

Hello again, and welcome to another GSN Spectrum broadcast of the Murray Cup Race. After the tragedy rising from the Sorrow Sea, Darring’s near death experience, and Remisk’s shocking confession, the competition has gotten back on track and has settled into a sweet groove. From the midway checkpoint and out all the way to Ellis XII, the top racers have pushed their craft to the limit. Hypatia Darring has come back with a vengeance, accepting Shoo-ur Motak’s M50 and taking two of the last three courses before the stage through the asteroid belt and back to the final checkpoint at Ellis VIII. The completion around Ellis IX, in particular, proved raucous, as Darring slowed to allow Motak to gain the lead while dogging Guul’s Hornet, forcing him to flirt with the Eye’s crushing tidal forces. No love was lost between those two during the following press conference. But now the aged Tevarin has surprised everyone once again by taking the final obstacle course in the outer asteroid belt, painting his targets with non-lethal laser fire, showing a refinement that proves that he will go down in history as one of the finest pilots ever to race The Cup. Now, the competition enters its final leg with only 65 racers remaining, and the top three positions held by Motak, Darring and Guul. Can these three power-houses hold out, or will someone fly past them and beat them all?

The final leg awaits. Let’s kick it back to Mike Crenshaw who’s in the thick of it. What’s the mood on the carrier, Mike?

* * *

Raw.

That’s what she was. Just a raw nerve, always ready to spark if you gave her a chance. He had hoped that he could share with her a little of his experience, teach her some wisdom, in a sport just as rough on the spirit as it was on the body and mind. And perhaps she had learned a little. She was racing better, maneuvering better, taking to heart his philosophy . . . speed is life. But looking across the carrier bay floor at her as she ran a cloth across the belly of her borrowed M50, Zogat Guul could not tell if Darring’s improvement was motivated by skill or anger. Did it really matter? In the end, if she blew across the finish line in first place, it would all boil down to victory. And that was the ultimate goal of everyone in the race. Go home a winner . . . or just go home.

“Hypatia Darring has it out for you, doesn’t she?”

Crenshaw’s face was all perky as if he had just said something infinitely clever and devious. Guul did not take the bait. “She is a tough competitor. Like a Tevarin, she shows her enemy no mercy.”

“But she held back around The Eye just to force you to lose. That’s the move of someone bearing a grudge. What did you do?”

What indeed. He could not fathom it. Perhaps he had come on too strong. Was it when he interrupted her and spoke for her publically at the hospital? She would not say when he asked; instead, she would change the subject or walk away. But direct action, direct speech was the Tevarin way. Surely she realized he was right. She had to compete. She had to accept Motak’s offer and finish the race. Not just for herself, but for the honor of her family. Surely she did not blame him for pointing that out.

“Scurry away, bug.”

Motak appeared, alone this time, and flicked his long fingers at Crenshaw as if he were swatting a fly. “Yon Tevarin warrior will not condescend to answer such a silly question. Shoo! Go bother someone else.”

Crenshaw pulled a rueful face but put his recorder and pad away.

When he was gone, Motak closed on Guul and offered his hand. “Good luck,” he said.

“You want to break my hand like you tried to break Hypatia’s?”

“I wouldn’t dream of it, my friend. I merely want to wish you a safe final course. This is your last, isn’t it?”

Guul nodded. “Perhaps.”

“And you are braced to win it all and be remembered as the greatest racer in the history of the sport. For that, I wish you good luck.”

Guul took the handshake reluctantly. Motak’s fingers were firm but not vise-like. He moved until he was beside the Tevarin. They were similar in height, but Guul was thinner, leaner. Motak placed his free hand on Guul’s back.

“Look at it all one last time, Zogat. All of it. The bay, the racers, the media, the hustle and bustle of the crews. You will miss it. But I think you will miss that young lady right there most of all.”

Before Guul had a chance to speak, Motak pushed his hand hard against the Tevarin’s neck. Guul heard a high-pitched squeal, then his skin ripped apart.

It was a short, sharp pain, quickly over like a bee sting. But then he felt something crawling beneath his skin. He tried to move, but Motak gripped his hand harder. “Now, now, Zogat. Don’t strain yourself. You’ll die quicker that way.”

“What have you put in me?”

Motak maintained his composure and kept looking forward as if they were having a pleasant conversation. “The pupa of an Eealus Lime Worm. It loves the warm comfort of your blood. It moves with the beat of your heart. If it beats fast, the pupa moves fast. If slow, it moves slowly. Eventually, it’ll be flushed into the ruddy chambers of your heart, where it will divide again and again until it squeezes off all blood flow.”

“I should kill you right now.”

“But I think you won’t. You may still win this race. It may or may not reach your heart before the end. It all depends upon how much effort you put into winning. Do you go slow, keeping the worm from finding your heart, thus losing the race? Or do you go faster, letting your adrenaline build and build in order to beat the worm to the finish line?

“Now imagine it . . . me, Shoo-ur Motak, the greatest Xi’An racer in the history of the sport, crossing the finish line in first place, while the legendary Zogat Guul sputters at the last moment, his overwrought plant boiling to mush, or his ancient heart giving out from the exertion. It matters not. Either way, I blow across the finish line to glorious victory. Imagine the headlines in the news the next day.”

“I have to imagine nothing,” Guul said, feeling the worm work its way deeper into his body. “Whether I win or lose, Darring is still out there. If I fail, she will beat you.”

Motak chuckled, released his hold on Guul. “Don’t forget. She’s racing in my ship.”

He winked, gave a warm nod. “Good luck out there, old friend,” he said, as the media crowded around once more.

Guul leaned against his Hornet, trying to ignore the thing moving deeper into his back, far beyond any hope for simple removal. He could, if he wanted, have the nasty little grub removed surgically, but that would take too much time, and everyone was suiting up, strapping in, readying for the final course. He couldn’t get out now, not when the end was so close. He had to take his own advice. He had to finish the race. Motak was right: there was a chance to beat the worm to the finish line. And he could not leave Darring to whatever fate Motak had in store for her. What has he done to her — his — ship?

He looked across the bay floor, toward Darring. She was putting on her helmet, getting ready to climb into her cockpit. He tried catching her attention with a wave. She did not see him, or she was ignoring him. Whatever the reason, he did not care. He was grateful that he had had an opportunity in the twilight of his career to race against such a warrior, such a competitor as she. And he would make damn sure that he saw her win it all.

Speed is life. Indeed it is, he thought as he put on his helmet with shaking hands. But this time, speed also means death.

* * *

Guul was just ahead of her, Motak at her six. She was perfectly placed to take advantage of the Tevarin’s erratic behavior. He had been speeding up, slowing down, speeding up, as if unsure what to do. Or perhaps he was playing with her, working to sap her resolve, force her to slow down and deal with his uncharacteristic movements, thus giving the lead away to Motak. But that was silly. Guul did not want the ruthless Xi-An to win any more than she did. So, what was his game?

They raced in high orbit above Ellis VIII. The final stretch was a long, loping crazy-eight of rings that flashed brilliant reds and greens and whites, keeping a tempo with the natural flow of the racers as they shot past one another near the intersect. It was a dangerous place, for racers coming out of those rings could slam into one another and ricochet into space. The time it would take to recover from such a collision would be race-ending.

Two orbital grandstands just outside the course held spectators and prominent dignitaries that had come out to see and share in the glory of the winner. The MCR allowed the energy and excitement of the crowds to be broadcast into the cockpits of each racer as GSN announcers gave the minute-by-minute account of the final laps. Some racers thrived on the energy of the crowds. Some reveled in the noise. Darring muted it all, preferring instead to concentrate on the racers around her.

She maneuvered her M50 to the right of Guul, taking advantage of the loop. He swung his Hornet out a touch too far, and she slipped right in beside him. His wing grazed the invisible walls of the ring course, letting the tip of it cut through the barrier like a shark’s fin cresting a wave. He’d lose time for that, but he didn’t seem to care, keeping his craft pressed against the loop to ride it all the way around. He’s getting old, she thought, letting a smile slip across her lips. Can’t handle the rigors of such a sharp turn anymore. Then she thought better of gloating. She wanted to beat him, to make him see her as a racer, an equal, not as a puppy dog to counsel. But she didn’t want him to leave the race. There was still plenty of track left, plenty of twists and turns, and Motak was right on them.

The Xi-An thrust his 350r down to run right below her belly, keeping an interloper behind him in a souped-up Avenger from making a move. Darring banked to the right and felt the tug of strong G’s despite being held tightly in the chair. Her skin had healed well and there was little pain left in her shoulders, but such a move reminded her of the frailty of flesh and her own mortality. Bank too strongly, and you could pass out.

“You’re not winning this one, Motak,” she said into her comm link. Only her crew chief could hear it, but he shared her sentiment. He gave her directions which she accepted and moved her craft to the left as they cleared the loop and headed for the final intersect.

Guul came up to her side again, but he was still moving oddly, letting his wings wobble on the rebalance. She shook her head and focused on Motak, who had gunned his plant, showing significant burn out of his exhaust nozzles. He wouldn’t dare cross her cockpit now, not with the MCR looking on so intently. In fact, Motak had acted reasonably well since his vanity display at the hospital. He’d let his racing skills speak for themselves. So perhaps he wasn’t such a rotten son-of-a bitch after all. But she wouldn’t be keeping his gift after the race.

Red blips danced on her navcomp, showing the racers that could be hazardous as she crossed the intersect.

She drifted up in the lane, taking the traditional approach for a right-side cross. Motak followed, but Guul struggled to drift up, taking too long, letting his craft fall behind once more. She fought the urge to acquire his frequency and link into his comm. Motak tried to force her down. She gripped her stick and moved with him, not letting him gain advantage. The blips on the screen grew brighter. She keyed her focus, thrust her M50 forward and sailed into the intersect.

Lagging ships flew past her at the right angle, trying desperately to keep up with the pack. One nearly clipped her wing. She banked left just in time. She tried finding Guul and Motak in the flurry of crimson blips on her screen. It was impossible. She banked left, right, left again, swirling through screaming racers.

Darring flew out of the intersect, righted her ship once more, and prepared for the final run. She checked her navcomp. The madness there settled to show those that had gotten through and were in pursuit. Damn! Motak settled again beside her, and Guul was not far behind, though struggling still. Can’t I shake these bastards?

Finally, Guul made the move she was expecting. The Tevarin thrust his Hornet forward, clipping between her and Motak at such velocity that he was nothing but a blur. Her heart raced alongside him. She gunned her plant, falling just behind him, watching as the blips on her navcomp were replaced by the long green pulsing line of the final straightaway. She could hardly contain her excitement. She, Hypatia Darring, in second place on the final lap around Ellis VIII. The perfect position to be in to make a final move and win it all. And there was Zogat Guul, the master, egging her on, forcing her to put away her silly feud and chase him, chase him for glory, for fame, for personal fulfillment. She giggled like a little girl.

Speed is life.

They hit the final stretch together. One full lap around rocky Ellis VIII. Full bore speed. There was nothing like it in all the galaxy. She could not contain her excitement. She screamed into her comm link. Motak tried to muscle his way into her space. She refused him. He tried again. She pushed her M50 even faster, keeping pace with Guul, letting the green lights of the navcomp draw her forward.

Guul slowed, fell alongside her, slowed again, letting her take the lead. Bullshit! she thought, frustration growing as she punched a panel and said to him, “What the hell are you doing?”

She was greeted with coughing, spitting and moans. Something was terribly wrong. “I’m glad to speak to you once more, Hypatia.”

“Do you remember what you told me? What you made me promise you? If I were in a position to win, I’d win. And now here you are, about to win, and you’re falling back. Explain.”

Guul coughed. It sounded thick, bloody. “It isn’t important that I win, Hypatia. I’ve won enough in my life. It’s time for others to shine. It’s time for you to shine. Now, go beat him. And remember what I told you.”

He cut their link. Darring shouted, but he was gone. Guul fell back, and back, until she could not see him anymore.

Motak pounced, took the lead. Shit! She gunned it, moved down in the lane, set her craft just below Motak’s. The sleek, long body of his 350r shadowing her smaller M50. There was no doubt his craft had the endurance; in a rough and tumble, he’d prevail. She had to get out from his shadow, his influence. The only way to do that . . .

She tried pushing her plant, thumbed the throttle hard, but it did not register. She tried again. Her dashboard controls blinked, once, twice, then resettled with different settings, measurements, displays. What the

“How’s my ship?”

Darring’s heart sank. “Motak!”

“It is indeed,” he said, his voice fuzzy over the comm link, “and now that I have your undivided attention, I will reclaim what is mine.”

Nothing she did registered. She tapped panels, flicked switches, tried raising an MCR official over the comm. Everything was null, but her ship responded quickly to Motak’s remote commands. He banked to the left; she did the same. He banked right, she followed. The Xi-An finally settled his 350r beside her, waved smugly at her through his cockpit window, commanded her ship to move slightly ahead, then said, “I’ll let you take the lead for a little while, my dear, then I’ll dramatically pull forward at the last minute, flying on to victory, while you spiral out of control, hitting the royal grandstand and killing dozens. You’ll be remembered as the Butcher of Ellis.”

She pushed and prodded at the stick, banged at the dashboard. She even struck the eject controls. Nothing. “I’ll kill you first, you sorry son of a bitch.”

“And how will you do that, my dear? You have no control over anything . . . and your Tevarin is gone.”

As if on cue, a flash soared past them both, a flush of red and gold nozzle fire. It was burning, its plant pushed beyond integrity. Darring squinted to see who it was. She recognized the blue Tevarin lettering on the hull.

Guul.

His Hornet barreled ahead, all flame and fury. Darring could hear Motak curse beneath his breath. She tried again to take control of her stick. Nothing. She tried calling out to Guul, but all she could hear was Motak’s agitated mumblings as he commanded her ship to move up and ahead of him. Darring watched intently as Guul flipped his burning craft around, shifted it to align perfectly with her own, and headed straight for her.

Her comm link crackled with another voice. “Move!” it said, ragged, faint. “Dive! Dive!”

“I can’t!” she screamed back, but there was no response. Only Motak’s maddening cackle could be heard. “Say to him whatever you wish, my dear. He cannot hear you.”

Guul banked left. Darring’s ship moved to shadow the Hornet. He banked right; she banked in kind. Guul’s weakening voice continued its pleading for her to get out of the way. Tears streamed down her face; her voice broke from exertion. Motak laughed and laughed.

Her ship began to spin like a cork-screw on its long axis. She closed her eyes, waited for impact, whispering softly to Guul, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry . . .”

Then she remembered.

Beneath the dashboard of every M50 lay a panel, and inside it, a power cut-off valve, independent of the main electrical and command systems. Could Motak have forgotten it? He might have, so foolishly overconfident in his scheming and back-stabbing, and spending too much time in his 350r to remember all the systems of his secondary ship. But it might be: A mistake . . . finally.

Through the dizzying haze of her spinning, she reached beneath the dash, found the panel with shaking fingers, ripped it open, and pulled the valve.

You lose, Motak!

The plant died, and with that sudden lack of propulsion her ship spun to port. Zogat Guul slipped right past her, hitting Motak’s ship square in the front, exploding on impact, and sending their shattered, burning hulls into the void.

The cockpit came alive, her stick again responsive. She pulled her ship out of spin, reignited the plant, and blew across the finish line ahead of all others.

Her pit crew went wild, matching her own screaming, but for different reasons. They were joyous, elated, happy that their racer — the youngest Human to ever win the MCR — had just done so, and in a blaze of glory. They were happy, and they deserved to be.

She was not. Oh, she was happy to have won, to have taken the Cup, to have proven to her father that her choice in career was not foolish. She laid her head back into her chair and cried. Cried joyous tears for Guul. She understood fully now his words, echoing loudly in her mind. Speed is life, and there was no life without speed. She understood that now. The Cup was just one race in a thousand that lay ahead of her, and there would be no true happiness until she had raced them all and chased down that beast that lay in front of her, that lay in front of all racers. In his fiery death, Zogat Guul had finally caught the beast. Now, it was her turn to chase it, and she would do so for him, for Guul . . . forever.

Beyond the finish line, beyond the grandstands, beyond the accolades and cheering fans, beyond the media, and even beyond her father, Hypatia Darring gunned her power plant and kept racing.

 


 

The End

 


 

Tagged: Fiction, The_Cup, Robert_Waters, Subscriber
Comments (0) | last updated on February 4, 2014

Contests! ... and pardon any mess...

Contests: At the end of each Quarter this year VSAlpha will be hosting a a contest/giveaway featuring RSI Prizes for different areas of creative exposure. Details and winners will be announced here first. The next scheduled event Will be a video contest, in April (approximately), and will coincide with CIG's DFM release if that has not yet happened.

Site Updates: Thanks to suggestions made in the RSI thread, we're working on rolling out changes to update VSAlpha, the first of which have already finished (forums now link back to the main site via top banner, and the forums style has been adjusted to more closely resemble the main) and more are coming

If you notice anything broken, and it doesn't clear up after a few minutes and a Ctrl+F5 refresh, please leave us a note on the forums, or you can contact "Void Singer" directly on the RSI forums, or RSI Chat.

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Comments (0) | last updated on January 26, 2014

The Void Rats (complete)

The Void Rats

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:

“Hey, Skip — what can go wrong?”

Of course it was Jackson asking the question — it was always Jackson. The squadron commander grimaced in private frustration but she kept the emotion out of her voice as she replied. “Just stay on station, Lieutenant. I’m pretty sure if you follow your orders, nothing can go wrong.”

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.”

 


 

The End

 


 

Tagged: Fiction, The_Void_Rats, Doug_Niles, Subscriber
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