Chapter Two: Charolais

Chapter Two: Charolais

Amber Colossus, Darwin VIII, was a monster of a world: a sphere of bright hydrogen and helium spanning a hundred and fifty thousand kilometers. High deck clouds of sulfur gave the giant its radiant golden-yellow hue and deep layers of hydrocarbons fueled massive electrical storms that flashed across its skies like sunlight glittering on a gemstone. A dozen concentric rings of ice and a hundred and thirty-six moons adorned the ancient monarch, looming large in the sky above the hidden raiders.

Iceni Queen and Spartacus sat with their engines rumbling beneath a massive tent on the sixth and largest moon, rigged to protect them from prying eyes and the radioactive bombardment of the parent world. The invisible storm was deadly and they had to work at a frantic pace in low gravity to get the structure up in time. Corsair warships typically had high-end radiation shielding but Julian and Billy decided to sacrifice cargo and berthing space to accommodate the magnetic field generators that made them glow with a shifting blue aura even beneath the shelter. This afforded them the ability to hide in places where few would go looking. The option to endure harsh conditions could make the difference between escape and death.

The expense and loss of hold space meant going after higher value cargo, and taking greater risks, but they had assembled two of the best crews in the March and cobbled together a pair of fine, if aging ships, which little resembled the armored freighters they began as. By necessity, improvisation was a well-developed trait among corsairs and mercenary groups but even in these circles the Lords of Entropy enjoyed an artist’s reputation.

The homemade shelter filled the cargo bays of both vessels and precluded their exploiting a rare opportunity the week before at Gamma Pavonis. A luxury liner strayed from regulated jump routes and found itself without power; waiting on rescue or plundering. A piece of the crew wanted to hold an emergency meeting, doubtless to lobby for abandoning the attack on the medical fleet in favor of capturing the liner with its many wealthy passengers. Not so profitable a venture but a far safer one. Julian flew into a near rage, reminding them of his supreme authority once an operation began and the need for com blackout near unjammed hostiles. Kyle Richter, the Queen’s boarding master, went so far as to start making his way to the bridge to press the point. Olga noticed his approach on a monitor and put the ship on alert, forcing Richter back to the EVA prep room with his raiders.

Tensions between the two men were palpable and mounting with everyone bracing for a power struggle. Julian was the best-known corsair in the Rift but, to some of his shipmates, more trouble than he was worth. A dozen of The Lords had died so far at the hands of bounty hunters and mercs looking to collect on the impressive scalp-price he had accrued. There were those who resented it. Nor did Julian help matters by routinely keeping things from even his closest associates, disclosing them offhandedly once a point of committal had been reached. Already on this venture he had privately arranged for the inclusion of a third ship from outside the wing to join them, costing a healthy share of the proceeds.

The legendary Vercingetorix, commanded by Julian’s uncle and mentor, Mad Jack McAllister, would begin to shadow the convoy as it crossed the asteroid field a league sunward of Amber Colossus. Once within a half-naut of the planet, the Rix would get “too close” allowing the Navy to sight her on passive sensors. So near their goal, they would press on and let the frigate fall back to deal with the threat, allowing the valuable transports to escape; or so they would believe.

That they needed to hope Vercingetorix was in position and on time was no small concern. Space travel was equal parts art and science under ideal circumstances and in their profession conditions seldom approached idyllic. If Federation listening posts noticed her entry into the system the fleet would be grounded until the raider had been chased off. Even once underway, if the convoy detected her too soon they might turn tail and head back for Ambrosia. Much could go wrong but Julian waved off each possibility saying “Uncle Jack will be there.”

A paragon of casual confidence, he leaned back in his chair and turned his attention to Olga who sat unblinking at the EW station off his right shoulder. The crews were in their vacsuits and the ships depressurized in anticipation of action. Behind her visor, her face was a shimmering blue by the light of monitors; puffed-up in the micro-gravity environment. It lent her a childish, cherub-like beauty.

He’d toyed with the thought of asking her to share his cabin but hesitated. Not one for hesitation as a rule, this intrigued him. It wasn’t that relationships of that sort with another bridge officer could be trouble, which was undeniable, but rather the inevitable lecture from his faithful quartermaster. Billy had gotten an impressive one when he became involved with his ship master, Kakumi Kato, though even Deacon had to admit they were always professional.

“Dare,” Olga said abruptly. “Two armored freighters begin approach, von escort corwette in high rear slot, facing sunvard. Second corvette pulling ahead at tree-G to begin sveep.” A cloaked sensor buoy floated above the third and smallest of the inner moons where it beamed the enemy’s telemetry to them. The convoy would use the super jovian’s gravity to slingshot the slow-moving freighters to the edge of the star’s domain, allowing them to jump to safety.

The scope master did some quick keypad work with her left hand and continued. “Vee’ll be clear for shadow launch in five minute, vee have narrow vindow, she move quick. Say, tree and half minute on mark. No sign of frigate.”

“Uncle Jack,” Julian said. “Queen to Sporto, status.”

“Sporto is ready-steady,” Billy responded. Under the protection of their radiation shelter the comlink was clear, but upon launching the two ships would be unable to communicate further until they swung wide of the planet.

He and Billy discussed the new tactical situation, the lead corvette staying much closer to the convoy than expected and cutting their time to deal with her quietly in half. “We’ll need to cut our aero-break time, so we’ll come on the chase a lot hotter, but I wanna keep our set formation.”

“Yarr,” came the response after a brief pause. “The Jersey Devil,” Billy DeVelles, was obsessive about precision. Experience taught him to accept complications but he never acquired a taste.

They practiced the maneuver for two straight weeks around Gaso Maldungi, a large jovian in Haveno Libera, the wing’s home since Julian’s rise to captain a decade earlier. The constant drilling had been the source of much grumbling, especially once informed they would be staying in orbit until they perfected it. All depended upon timing in such matters and this would be especially complicated. They complained, they brawled, but they drilled. Force of personality and an unpredictable temper held the captain’s wing together in like proportion to the success of his ventures.

“Stand by,” Deacon announced over the fleet channel from his post at the operations console, now on the bridge in his ship master role. “Mark.”

“Strike the tent,” Julian ordered and the shelter burst along its center, falling away. As it reached the ice locked surface, the two ships were lifting off and configuring for flight. Soon they were racing around the far side of Amber Colossus, the planet’s gravity speeding their way. The lone corvette, doing a circuit of the gas giant to search-out an ambush, found one nearly on top of her. Four quick missile salvos smashed her head-on and sent the bull spiraling into the planet’s atmosphere where she would meet her doom.

Rounding the planet, the corsairs sank abruptly into the titan’s veil. The maneuver allowed them to bleed-off speed and get close to the chase unnoticed. With the lead defender quickly dispatched there was no worry of a distress call reaching the others; all remained under control. The convoy had just arrived within a planetary diameter of Amber Colossus and completed its final engine burns when the aggressors pounced; impossible fireballs rising from the depths of an endless sea. Going into overdrive the raiders closed to within a hundred meters of one another; adjusting course for line of sight with the second corvette a few kilometers above its charges.

“Jamming,” Olga said, voice tight, eyes never straying from her panel. After a moment her shoulders relaxed and her continence lightened. Pulling-up the ship’s music library she looked to Julian over her shoulder. “Any requests?”

“Whatever you think appropriate,” Julian said.

“Someting bellicose. Beethoven I tink.” Then inspiration struck. “Even better, from Clockwork Orange!”

“Would scare the crap out of me,” Deacon admitted.

While blocking outgoing transmissions was standard fare, made easier by taking them by surprise at close range, a truly gifted EW could sometimes gain control of a ship’s internal communications, resulting in chaos. A captain forced to rely upon runners to accomplish even the simplest tasks was a captain about to lose his ship. The Lords were known for flooding their targets with music played at high volume to put their prey further on edge. A scope master of The Red Menace’s caliber was a prize in of itself, yet another sound reason to put thoughts of her out of his head.

“Sporto, angel-up two seconds,” Julian said over the command channel and Billy affirmed.

“She’s dropping zeke fast,” Deacon announced. The lone escort vessel, hopelessly outgunned but unwilling to run, descended to place the vulnerable freighters between herself and the raiders. Not a standard tactic for Federation escorts but also not unwise. The pirates would be loath to endanger their prize and likely slow and separate to avoid collision. This would afford a brief window where it faced only a single opponent. If she could wound it enough the attacker might give up, leaving it better matched against the other.

Julian would have none of it though. He counted on the freighter captains to be unwilling to play the shield and they did not disappoint, frantically pulling away from the planet and turning wide to head for the protection of the frigate. With any luck, it would have dispatched the first attacker by the time these new aggressors reached them.

The lone defender threw its engines into full reverse, keepings its main forward armaments bearing on the Rifters who seemed determined to crash into her. She fired a heavy spread of javelin missiles from her forward pods. They reached their targets within a few seconds only to be destroyed by the corsair’s phalanx guns, which spewed a massive hail of metal before them and shredded the approaching threat. Those few that escaped the defensive fire shattered ineffectually against their armored targets. Next, two infrared beam lasers swept across the huge round shields of the raiders but the effort was futile.

The pirates were using an older class of carrack, though clearly heavily modified, equipped with massive ram shields affixed to their bows to protect from dust and debris when traveling at high speed. Such devices began disappearing from military and commercial ships many decades ago but the corsairs of the March Worlds often preferred them. Less effective against navigational hazards, they could be augmented to be vastly superior against anti-ship weapons. They also provided a large surface on which to display a ship’s heraldry, which appealed to the corsairs.

The corvette spun about and fired its drives with impressive agility. She began making her way to the initial contact site near the asteroid field at best acceleration but her captain must have known it was done for him. The raiders closed to within a few kilometers and fired with everything in their arsenal, even their point-defense guns, rotating once the shooting started in order to bring every last weapon to bare. Cut in two just forward of her engineering compartment, the Federation escort underwent explosive decompression. Its severed halves flew apart and tumbled away spewing men and machinery into the void. Many would go to the vacant embrace of Mother Night before this was done, and though that death horrified any spacer, gentility had no place in battle or business; this was both.

“Outstanding, Gunnery,” Julian said loudly over the com and a great “Hazza!” echoed back from all stations as was tradition.

“Gunnery wants those bonus shares,” Richter beamed in, “but our turn’s still coming up.” He then added, “When the boarding crew wins I’ll match them myself for shooting like that!”

Deacon winced at his console, glancing over his shoulder at Julian who gave no indication he heard the highly inappropriate remark, clearly meant to make Richter seem gracious at the captain’s expense. Nevertheless, Deacon knew he did and there would be trouble. While getting on Richter’s bad side was foolish, getting on Julian’s was weapons-grade stupid. He just hoped it would keep until they reached Nova Antigua. That man would push Julian too far and he would do it soon.

“The frigate’s drones have been neutralized,” Deacon said, examining the long-range sensor data. Though a laconic man by nature, he was glad to have something to say in the heavy silence that fell on the bridge. It seemed everyone heard Richter’s remark and noted it.

“A good deal of her weaponry’s been nicely dispatched. Otherwise she’s in good shape.” He turned to Julian, looking him in the eye. It was almost time for the captain’s surprise. Deacon kept his face smooth, his tone businesslike. Julian simply nodded. The two had a long and heated argument over the wing captain’s plan to seize the heavy frigate, which only the two of them, plus Mad Jack and likely Olga, were fully privy to.

Ambrosia’s port security might already be aware of the attack and sending reinforcements despite the best communications jamming, and the crew of Vercingetorix would doubtless want heavy compensation for doing much of the blunt work. That meant they would demand most, if not all of the medical cargo, and leave The Lords of Entropy broke and angry. Julian was convinced the new ship would settle them down but Deacon was not, and keeping Billy out of the loop could threaten the entire wing.

In truth even Deacon remained ignorant of the wing captain’s true intentions but that might not matter now. Julian bit down on his lip, trying not to let disappointment cloud his focus, but inside he raged. So much time and effort wasted. This would still be an impressive raid but his hopes were aimed much higher.

“Where the hell is she?” he asked Olga over a private channel, speaking in English, their strongest common tongue.

“Julian, dare iz no sign of her. She vould have attack by now.” Olga spoke eleven languages, all of them atrociously.

“Damnú air,” Julian groaned. He wanted to rub his temples in frustration but his helmet prevented it. “Plan ‘B’ then, we take the frigate and cut our losses.” The captain leaned back and shut his eyes, drumming his fingers together before him.

“The tiger seems to have lost some teeth,” he announced over the fleet channel with a surprised laugh, one that all but those who knew him best thought sincere. Then, like it just occurred to him, added: “Let’s cattle-up this bull!”

“Hazza!” echoed throughout the wing. Deacon shook his head and suppressed a wry laugh. Julian called it and now he owed him dinner.

“Sporto, take the heifers and board them,” Julian spoke quickly and ordered the helm to plot an intercept course for the frigate, talking right over Captain DeVelles’ sighing conformation. Billy truly hated Julian’s rigs and always saw through them. Deacon couldn’t help but crack a smile, picturing the exasperated grimace on Billy’s face.

“That’s not the plan, Julian!” Richter shouted over the intercom. “We’ might lose half the chase if we start playing games. We stick to the plan!” The boarding master could be heard shouting with someone in the background before speaking into the com again. “I will not lead my raiders onto that ship! This was never brought up in planning, you have no prerogative—”

Silence took hold. At a time like this, the low-level buzzing of muffled voices over a dozen channels should fill the ether, but a taut silence held reign instead. Julian broke that silence, addressing himself to the provost. “Victor?”

“Yarr Captain, Mister Richter has been relieved.”

“Thank you, Master Kruger,” Julian said. “Congratulations by the way; ready status?”

“Oh, there won’t be any more trouble down here,” the new boarding master assured him, though by his tone he clearly spoke to any of the raiders who might yet harbor an urge to mischief.

“Excellent,” Julian said with cheer. “Carry on.”

The crew resumed their preparations; every nose to the grindstone, none wanting any attention with the captain in the black mood he must be in. Julian smiled though; the fool had undone for him the tightest knot in the line: Richter himself. With another corsair added to the wing, Richter stood an excellent chance to win the chair.

Floyd had a solid claim, if he could be talked into it. Julian had been trying to nudge him into the ship master slot for some time now but the gun master, a devout anarchist at heart, resisted. Still, in the end that would only strengthen Richter’s arguments that Julian crowded the upper ranks with cronies. That would not be a problem anymore and neither would Richter. Ridding himself of his scheming boarding master made for no small consolation prize and Julian found himself smiling now, despite his wider disappointment. Deacon observed the grin on Julian’s face ruefully. He knew the cause of it but did not share in the captain’s optimism. He worried that Julian would kill the man, and worried that he wouldn’t.

“Queen, this is Rix,” said a booming voice only faintly subdued by open space and wires.

“Uncle Jack,” Julian beamed, in too good a mood to even play at being mad. “We’ll begin D’cell in just under twenty minutes, hit weaps in thirty.”

“Yarr,” said the senior and resumed taking low-yield pot shots at his struggling adversary, targeting her thruster ports.

The frigate, wounded but dangerous, showed no sign she meant to run, though she must have been aware of the Queen’s pending arrival. A beauty, no doubt: An EH-12 Lockhard Defender, twenty-thousand tonnes with a crew of four-hundred and thirty, including her contingent of marines. They would sell their lives dearly and fight with abandon once the pirates’ intentions became clear. They must already suspect. Corsairs from the Riftward Marches had been raiding from the Rogue Stars for generations now. Tiny outposts in their early days, transformed into bustling colonies in their own right with the plunder taken from Federation shipping and the rising flood of refugees from the crushing poverty and oppression of the core worlds.

These “prols,” as the poor were called there, lived in cramped and filthy sprawls that stretched between horizons under the towering archologies of their betters, the Free Trade Federation’s corporate class. Those lucky enough to be deemed of some use to their masters at least, for the rest there were secure ghettos or the poisoned wilds, their populations monitored and controlled by those who decided everything. The Federation Defense Force drew their ranks from these lower classes, acting as police, army, and navy of the Trade Council. Reviled by their fellows as traitors who brutalized their own, either out of desperation to feed their families or sheer cruelty, FDF blue was a death sentence once in corsair hands.

The Queen turned about to slow her approach at the half-way point where the order was given to launch her fighters. Both of The Lords’ ships had been outfitted with small docking bays, each holding a pair of Cheetah light interceptors. They burst from the rear-facing launch tubes like fiery shot from the deck guns of an ancient sailing ship, making tight sweeping arcs across one another’s paths. Dangerous at such high speeds but not without purpose; gun crews on the frigate would lose their weapon locks every few seconds this way, helping protect the fighters until they could close to their own, much shorter range. It also served as an exercise in bravado, and few things impressed Julian The Bastard more than a good show of bravado.

Making for the battle site directly, they would arrive several minutes before the Queen and join with those from the Rix. Though expensive to operate, and skilled pilots both rare and costly, the fighters were invaluable in wrangling cargo ships and tying-up escort vessels. Many pilots, including the Queen’s “Amazon Ursula” and “Dire Kitty,” were themselves former naval officers.

Fighters had long been employed as in-system pursuit vessels and for anti-piracy operations in the core, but began disappearing over the last decade in favor of unmanned drones. Ironically, this led to a renaissance in their use, this time by the very pirates and rebels they had been designed to fight. Surplus fighters became cheap and experienced pilots found themselves without work, making their way to the Marches and Expanse. While it been the navy’s intention to keep these individuals on as remote drone operators and gunship pilots, fighter pilot culture reached back over a thousand years and few were willing to let it end quietly.

Combined with the unavoidable fighter pilot attitude this created tension with other crewmembers. They were close to Olga and Kakumi, to a lesser extent with Julian, Deacon and Billy, but hardly spoke a word to anyone else. They were also bizarrely secretive about their relationship even though there was no stigma attached to it in the Rift. An old habit doubtless learned from a lifetime of having to appear respectable. All that mattered to Julian was that they killed like champions and kept Federation gunships off his arse while he was busy crimpin’ the booty.

There had been resistance to the idea over cargo loss, especially from Richter, but Julian browbeat the bailiwick masters into compliance and the rest followed. In the end, everyone agreed they paid for themselves in saved lives, even if the pilots insisted on triple shares and the large maintenance bailiwick meant cutting the boarding crew. Richter especially loved that, but Julian artfully threw Kyle’s endless boasting about his raiders’ efficiency back in his face to great amusement. Even Richter’s people gave-in, feeling cornered by the raucous laughter brought on by the exchange. The quickest road to what you wanted in council was to get them rolling and Julian knew it well. Accounted a fine leader for his strength and charm, he knew the real trick was being ruthless and manipulative.

Turning again to face the direction of battle, Iceni Queen sighted the enemy frigate, now identified as the Pegasus, as a small gray shape darting to and fro, desperately trying to bring its remaining weapons to bear on the tiny pinpoints of light that circled like angry Tortugan lightning wasps. The Vercingetorix swept back and forth beneath her, taking opportunity shoots and making certain no transmission could be sent to Ambrosia. The Queen now approaching, Mad Jack signaled they were ready to board. Indeed, there remained little else to do, what damage could be inflicted and fly her clear now done.

The bull could have tramped, or at least made for her charges and remaining escorts once it became obvious they outmatched her, but she still fought to hold her own. Pride held her captain in this fight and would now be his ruin. Julian liked that: some would dismiss dying for pride as arrogance but he felt it as good a reason as you were likely to find when the time came. Pride at least was a cause of your own, to die for a fat man’s purse marked a fool by his reckoning.

The frigate, now deprived of its primary arsenal, launched what appeared to be a dozen-odd mines, secured in a cargo net. Julian’s eyes became thin lines and his lips parted in bewilderment. “What the fuck is his he gonna do with—”

Suddenly, the frigate hog tackled the twelve megatons of explosives with a tow line and began to spin rapidly in place. Julian’s eyes grew wide then; “Floyd!”

“I see it.” The net burst open, releasing a shotgun blast of high-yield bad times. Once armed, the mines went into stealth mode, leaving the Queen’s fire control blind. If even one made contact they were heeled. The corsair’s phalanx guns began to fire in snaking waves across their path, the Queen charging forward.

Julian breathed deep and exhaled. Four explosions registered on his monitor, the closest not two kee of his portside flank. He found himself laughing; in part he was just glad to be alive, but he also had to confess a deep admiration for the ingenuity of his opponent. A giggle still in his throat, he called his gun master over the intercom. “There are apparently too many of the wrong people still alive over there, punch some holes.”

At once, a spread of four missiles flew through the raging silence of the battlefield, all striking their target midship a few meters apart. The Pilum missile was a favorite among the Rift World corsairs. A shaped charge behind a thin duralloy shaft made only a small opening in a ship’s hull, just enough to let the air inside escape quickly, while causing its interior hull plating to shatter and ricochet through the affected compartment. Anyone caught inside would be little more than a stain before they knew what hit them. The lack of oxygen would also extinguish any fires, keeping the target in more or less one piece until the raiders could have their way with her. A pressurized hull was a major liability in battle but Federation ships relied upon heavy armoring and force-shielded hulls to protect them, rarely carrying enough vacsuits for half their crew. A deficiency Julian hoped they would remain too stubborn or lazy to correct.

The frigate’s engines and portholes went suddenly dark and she began to coast with her momentum, a major command linkage apparently severed. Not a good sign, Ambrosia surely realized something was wrong by now and would be dispatching a patrol. Julian’s knuckles cracked in tight, angry fists. Things were not going to plan and it had him in a petulant way. The entire reason behind this attack, the huge expenditures no one knew about. . . Yet. Now he might have to leave without even the frigate for his trouble. He wanted to scream.

They might have a few hours with a good deal of luck. The Queen took position above the crippled ship, Vercingetorix below. They fired a dozen hog lines and began reeling themselves down on her, their landing struts magnetized and locked onto her hull. A docking ring lowered from each corsair’s belly and clamped into place, teams would already be cutting their way in. Three minutes estimated time according to the display update.

“Queue the music and proceed at your convenience, Master Kruger.”

“Yarr.”

A bare instant later, Julian heard the long-range sensor alarm beeping sternly.

“From Ambrosia?” The captain asked.

“No,” Deacon reported, “from Amber Colossus. Sporto is nearing the Oort cloud with both heifers captured and away. New contact is an unescorted armored cruiser, two-hundred and fifty thousand tonnes, unknown configuration; coming wide of the planet from the nightward side at an altitude of twenty kee.”

Julian froze in place, his hands grasped the arms of his chair and his breath held of its own volition. Deacon watched him blankly, waiting on the order to abandon the frigate and tramp while they still could; there would be no getting away if they remained to fight this monster. Julian’s eyes smiled then and Deacon’s grew wide.

“Oh no. . .” the quartermaster spoke under his breath, blood going cold.

“Queen to Sporto, abort your jump sequence and turn on the cruiser,” Julian’s eyes locked forward, fixed on the image of the line ship now on the main viewer. Beautiful, sleek; she looked like a hunting shark.

“Jules,” Billy’s voice was full of warning.

“Direct path, we’ll adjust for synchronized intercept,” Julian said, already working out the navigation, his fingers a blur on his keypad.

“Are you wired right, lad?” Mad Jack’s voice filled with astonishment heard even over the speaker.

“We can do this,” Julian said urgently, his voice carried a pleading quality enough out of character to give everyone pause; a long and quite one.

“On your fin, lad.” Mad Jack’s concession carried the day.

“The order is full committal!” There was nothing pleading about Julian’s tone now.

“Hazza! Hazza! Hazza!” cried the voices, all three crews swept away in the audaciousness of it.

Both ships moved quickly to recover their fighters and form-up before lighting their engines. Speeding for the huge grey craft, the crippled frigate fell from thought and view. Their new quarry waited patiently some twenty-five thousand kilometers from the mammoth planet. Just close enough to severely limit the options of approaching attackers and far enough out to allow some freedom of movement.

*

Captain Bernard G. Sturgis, thirty-eight year veteran of the FDF Navy, was shrewd and experienced. The loss of the medical supply ships and three armed escorts told him all he needed to know about his adversary. He rubbed his hands vigorously and his eyes became those of a hunting eagle. Due for retirement, this would allow him to do so an admiral.

He ordered the repulser field charged, then the dissipater field, weapons manned and ready: down the list, by the book. Once the raider ships were positively identified his face began to shine in excitement. Mad Jack and his whelp protégé, he thought. I’ll crush the scum at last. Hell, I’ll get the damned Starburst for this.

“A shame we couldn’t stop them from making off with the freighters,” Commander Sansebastian lamented.

“No matter,” Sturgis said. “They won’t get far on their own. We’ll have them before long and the whole thing will be all the more impressive for it.” He began to laugh then. “Good things do happen to good people.” His bridge officers exchanged some cautious glances but said nothing. He then added in a low growl, “I’ll have that pay back now, Jack.”

Much had been accomplished during his long tenure of service but the admiralty remained closed to him because of a single, if glaring, black mark on his record: the loss of his first ship and a ransoming at the hands of Jack McAllister some twenty years earlier. Only a spectacular blow against a major threat to Federation shipping lanes would wipe it away and force the council to recognize him. Cutting the throat of Mad Jack’s nephew and hand-groomed successor in front of him, then tossing his nemesis like an animal into the dark abyss of the Department of Justice, would be a thing of great personal satisfaction.

It proved no mean feat getting the brass to agree to a “Captain’s Discretion” mission plan for Charlemagne’s shakedown cruise, especially on razor thin notice, and it all came close to being for nothing. Forcibly diverted to assist the survivors of a disabled luxury liner at Gamma Pavonis cost him the better part of two days. A few more hours and he would have missed them entirely. Even when they arrived to find the attack in progress, he remained concerned that McAllister might have sold the job off. None of that mattered now; the McAllisters were both here and the traitor Blackthorne safely in ISS custody. The future looked bright.

“Sir, should we begin a wide orbit and have some momentum once they reach us?” The first officer’s question brought the captain back to the moment.

“No,” he answered firmly, “they’ll have to cut speed and try a tight orbit on our position or else strafe across it from a narrow angle. We’ll win either contest.”

“The third vessel has begun to double back, closing on us from the opposite direction, ETA in thirty-seven minutes, twenty seconds, a full four minutes behind the sunward pair. A moment… Trans intercept: ‘closing talon,’ they’re adjusting their formation, sir. They will now arrive simultaneously in forty minutes, five seconds.”

“Who ordered the formation change?” Sturgis asked.

“Iceni Queen,” announced the businesslike operations officer, Lieutenant Kaminski. “Smaller of the formed pair, a converted freighter.”

Sturgis regarded her a moment. A barracuda that one, she might be the right choice for Mister Sansebastian’s job. Clod-blooded, efficient, and secure enough in her abilities to use all her assets. Sturgis afforded himself a smile at that. Once this business was seen to he would have to invite her to dine at the captain’s table again.

He turned his attention to his monitor. Letting the boy call the play, Jack? Your mind has gone soft with scotch and syphilis no doubt. As you like it then.

“Everyone sit tight and poised,” he said, surveying his bright and polished bridge. This would be the first combat trial for her class; the most advanced starship yet put to space. Her thick armored hull and layered shielding made her nearly invulnerable to fighter craft and most weapons that pirates and rebels could bring to muster.

What made her so special though was her new ion drive. Though an ancient technology, recent advancements had returned it to the forefront of starship design. With few moving parts, it was easy to maintain, could be pushed to its operational limits with minimal wear, and allowed for fantastic high-end acceleration, if sluggish to get going. New technology allowed not only superior containment of the ship’s inertia but also provided a modest internal gravity. This in turn freed up copious amounts of space and power by alleviating the need for centrifuges. A showcase vessel, the Charlemagne represented a new school of thought in naval architecture, and hopefully, a quantum leap forward in efficiency. Captain Sturgis remained skeptical of new technologies aboard serving vessels of course, especially with so many systems not tested in combat. That at least I can remedy here and now, he decided.

Iceni Queen began raising zeke rapidly while the Vercingetorix lowered hers. All three raiders were now evenly spaced and advanced on the waiting cruiser at high thrust. They might bloody his nose all diving in together but no matter, he would survive it and they would not. At their current speed they would have to be masterfully handled to avoid the gas giant but the approach spoke volumes on their confidence.

“Charge the spinal mount and keep our bow locked on Vercingetorix,” Sturgis spoke sharply, reasserting his intensity of focus. Though concerned that the massive ion cannon running down the length of the ship would obliterate Mad Jack in the opening salvo, these corsairs were not to be toyed with, even well outmatched. He’ll live, Sturgis assured himself, he’s like a cockroach.

“Fire as soon as she hits mid-range,” he ordered.

“Sir, we have a beam transmission coming in from Iceni Queen,” Kaminski announced.

Sturgis looked over his monitor and laughed. “Calling to threaten me, you little gnat?” He opened the channel only to hear a short series of beeps and whistles, repeating itself three times before the line went dead. Switching off the channel, the fleet captain’s brows furrowed. What that was about?

As a safety precaution, and a very sensible one, whenever a naval vessel leaves port its primary computer initiates a full system’s check to make sure no malicious software lies hidden in its programming, waiting to disable the ship at an unluckily moment. Sadly, there was a way around that for the creative saboteur. The audio signal was picked up by the ship’s mainframe and analyzed. Sensing no threat from the innocuous stream of numbers, they were shunted to memory for later analysis. It was now that a second signal began bouncing from terminal to terminal, making its way to an innocent looking silicon chip deep within the Charlemagne’s power control server. The dummy chip then liquefied into a silver-grey fluid composed of a few hundred-thousand microscopic nanobots which quickly spread-out and got to work. Without warning, all turned red under the emergency lights and confusion crashed down on the bridge like a wave.

“What in The Spur is going on?” Sturgis demanded.

Kaminski answered, astonishment filling her voice. “The computer is going into emergency lockdown!”

“We have command priority from the bridge!” he exclaimed, “They can’t have remote accessed any ship systems!” Rage narrowed his eyes and made his voice thunder.

“No,” she explained, “but the mainframe thinks the bridge has been captured, the only way to regain control is a reboot. We’ll be helpless for at least seventeen minutes, long enough for them to tear us to shreds.”

The fleet captain stood there shaking in fury. This was simply impossible; impossible unless the computer had been tampered with in advance. His eyes first bulged then squinted when it came to him: Blackthorne.

“All hands prepare to be boarded!” he found himself yelling into the intercom before realizing it too had been disabled by the computer failure. On any other ship, communications would be independent from the primary computer but the designers felt it an inefficient redundancy. He resolved that should he survive, he would learn who made that call and relieve them of an inefficient and redundant lung. Taking out his personal comlink he called his security chief, only to be answered by a message saying Commander Turner was not available and would he kindly leave a message. It went on to assure him his call was important.

“You don’t fucking say!”

Two successive waves of Pila from each raider smashed into the Charlemagne, rocking her from all sides. The ship’s composite armor acquitted itself well but without the protection of the ship’s point-defense weapons and repulser field there were numerous casualties along the outer decks. Those not killed or incapacitated were tossed about, the ship now in zero gravity and without inertial containment. Pirates often preferred cutting their way into an enemy from unexpected locations, making it difficult to defend against or contain them.

The cruiser’s only hope was to keep the invader at bay until help could arrive from Ambrosia. Two squadrons of gunboats and their tenders were in orbit of the colony and began to move in when Charlemagne entered the system. These were nearly six hours away however, Fleet Command deciding he local garrison commander should remain in the dark, least these pirates learn of the trap through their network of eyes and ears.

The three corsairs hog tackled the larger vessel and reeled themselves down onto her. The Rix mounted itself on the drive hull while the Queen and Spartacus attacked the warship’s central boom. When the computer went back online reports began coming in that the attackers were massing in the forward boom, the area most heavily damaged in the initial barrage. The raiders quickly severed the control and power linkages between the main and drive sections. It would be an easy matter to reconnect what was needed once they were in control of the ship and it effectively crippled her in the interim. The crews of Iceni Queen and Spartacus made ready to storm the primary hull while Vercingetorix took charge of securing the engineering compartment.

The one advantage left to Captain Sturgis was that the attackers would be forced to fight their way through a narrow area where he had amassed his security personnel and marines. By the time the security hatches, sealed tight by iris valves could be breached, the pirates would be funneled through a hail of gunfire where they could be cut-down in waves. Watching his monitors from the bridge, he waited, hands folded before him.

This will be a bloodbath, he thought, but the situation is still salvageable. Leaning back, he wondered what devilry these brigands might yet have in store.

*

Skeleton crews remained aboard the corsairs so every possible fighter could board the Charlemagne. Still without gravity under battery power, the raiders equipped the boots of their hardsuits with magnetic shoes. They experimented with molecular-velcro for a time but decided against it. While it allowed for a faster, more natural gate, it was not sturdy enough for a man in heavy powered armor, especially wielding an eight-gauge boarding gun.

The Lords employed a wide variety of armor, purchased from arms smugglers or captured on raids; often as heavily modified as their vessels, especially among the dedicated boarding parties. Horns were popular, as were spiked shoulder plates, strange paint schemes, retracting blades along the forearms for cutting air hoses and punching holes in visors. The opportunity pleased Julian greatly, rarely having occasion to dust off his powered battle armor and immensely proud of it.

It had a beaked helmet with narrow, mirrored eyepieces that lent it a sinister feel. A set of shark-like teeth and a hanging tongue made of chrome were welded to the snout. A stylized pirate hat in muffler black steel was affixed to the crown, his personal Jolly Roger mounted on its upturned front brim: comic and horrid, like its owner. In the corsair worldview, and especially Julian’s, just as something could not be purely utilitarian, it could neither be simply decorative. The beak housed an air scrubber that allowed the suit to preserve its atmosphere when an outside source was available. The tongue that hung from its side served as a sensor pad, delivering information about the surrounding environment by way of a HUD display, and the teeth were a high-gain fractal com antenna.

While the main contingent gathered within the paralyzed ship, the dedicated boarding crews made their way along her outer hull to force their way through the airlocks. Resistance would be fiercest here and they were best equipped and trained to deal with it. Kruger was in command of this effort with a hundred and fifty-six raiders armed with gyrojet assault guns and a few man-portable lasers. Victor Kruger was one of Julian’s most trusted associates, having served with him under Uncle Jack on the Vercingetorix years ago. The captain was glad to have him in Richter’s place for this; not because Kyle wasn’t one of the very best at what he did, but for purely aesthetic reasons; symbolic of a new beginning.

Julian himself would command the main force, waiting for the demolitions team to finish their work. He turned to Olga then Deacon who would be entering with him in the first rank. The scope master’s bright red armor affected the look of high-medieval plate, sporting an ornate bucket helm with a stylized cross visor bordered in etched gold; a ruby star at each point of the cross. A hammer and sickle, also gold, adorned the breastplate.

The wing master went with a reptilian theme. The helmet was a grotesque dragon-like affair with sharp spines bisecting its crown. The narrow visor sat between parted jaws where fiber optics displayed a hologram of empty space filled with flames. This was some kind of private joke between him and Billy, who nearly dropped down laughing the first time he saw it.

Thermal charges would heat to tens of thousands of degrees and neatly melt through the bulkhead surrounding the access doors. A few well-placed explosives would then blast the entire assembly apart and open the passageway in a flash of shrapnel and molten metal. Far more convenient than trying to squeeze everyone through a tiny hatch under fire and it would win them the initiative as defenders recoiled from the explosion.

They would march in step, three abreast, each freely expending their ammunition then turning aside to reload while the formation continued past, falling in on the rear. Each row consisted of two raiders armed with short-barreled LAM carbines and a center a man wielding a boarding gun loaded with buckshot. As major compartments or intersections fell to the invaders, one rank would remain to guard the area and form an ambulance relay for injured comrades.

The bomb chief, a giant of a man named Tuttuwalla, waved his people back and signaled ready. They charged their weapons. Julian raised his hand making two circles in the air, crying “Yea ready, maties?”

“Yo-ho-ho, mother-fucker-Yo!” they cried like thunder, voices good natured and slightly psychotic. He typed a quick command into the keyboard set on his left arm, snapped it closed and readied his weapon, an eight-gauge auto-shotgun he affectionately called Ingrid.

*

Captain Sturgis leaned so far in his chair that only his harness kept him from tumbling out of it. He gave orders for the bridge crew to don their E-suits and for the ship to be depressurized, cursing himself for trusting new technology, relying upon the ship’s armor and shielding to protect her. That nasty little surprise had cost him dearly. Still, his remaining marines were holding their own against the attackers trying to force their way through the airlocks. They would save the day now if indeed that were still possible.

“Sir,” Kaminski approached him and spoke quietly. “We’re short two E-suits because of the extra marines.”

Sturgis noted her thinly veiled smile. She wanted Sansebastian out of her way and here was an obvious opportunity. He smiled back, knowing she had a shock coming. “Daniels,” he said, nodding to the young ensign who went pale as a sheet, “and Kaminski.”

Grabbing him by the shoulders, she bore into his eyes, shock leaving her speechless. “I am sorry my dear,” he told her, “but you have no experience in close combat and you are a woman besides. This ship needs to be defended.”

“You piece of shit!” she said and slapped him in the face.

Taking hold of her arm on the second attempt to strike him, he would allow one, Sturgis pulled her close and spoke in a whisper. “You may enter the lift and await your fate, my dear, going gently to sleep. Or you can stay right here and be exposed to the vacuum, but you need to make a decision promptly.” The alarm bells began to sound and Kaminski joined the young ensign in the lift, never taking her eyes off Sturgis until the doors slid closed before her.

“Women. . .” the captain said, returning to the task at hand. The bridge crew laughed in the brief but welcome respite; all very glad it wasn’t them. The main pirate force, ready to pounce, delayed for some reason. The wait translated to an eternity from his remote vantage point on the bridge.

Why don’t they do something? He asked himself, and then they did. Something he did not expect. Music sounded over the com, he switched channels but found it playing on each of them: familiar, happy music. It can’t be, he told himself, a confused and terrified look hidden behind his visor.

“A rollicking band of pirates we,

Who tired of tossing on the sea,

Are trying their hands at burglary

With weapons grim and gory!”

An explosion followed. The entire bulkhead shattered into dozens of pieces that hurtled down the passageway at his waiting men. A bare instant later, a great volume of gunfire erupted and out marched the invaders in tight step and even lines. They were singing, loud and clear, broadcast over every channel with the music.

“With cat-like tread, upon our prey we steal,

In silence dread, the cautious way we feel!

No sound at all, we never speak a word,

A fly’s foot fall would be distinctly heard!”

The defenders were stunned and fell back at once. No sooner would they emerge to escape they began falling in great numbers, shot-down like animals from behind.

“So stealthily the pirate creeps

While all the household soundly sleeps.”

In mere moments the retreat became a rout, Sturgis watched the carnage aghast and knew it would all be over soon if he kept hemorrhaging men at this rate.

“Come friends who plow the sea!

Truce to navigation, take another station,

Let’s vary piracy, with a little burglary!”

Elsewhere, heavily armored men armed with gyrojets and MPLs forced their way into the primary hull through the airlocks and flooded into his ship. Everywhere the losses were staggering. Wherever his people found defensive positions and time to brace themselves, the pirates would plow through them like a slow stampede, or trap them in nonessential areas by sealing hatches with magnetic clamps. Things were falling apart at an alarming rate. The corsairs fought like demons, killing ten of his men for each they lost. Every time an attacker fell the one behind took their place, the injured passed down the formation where waiting medics would fly them back to their ships using handsleds. A pressurized triage in the cargo hold of each corsair, accessed through the EVA prep rooms, received the wounded.

After ten minutes of this Sturgis decided there was no hope of enduring long enough for the relief force to arrive. He ordered the bridge crew, and the eight marines stationed with them, to ready for action and led them down a service tube running the length of the ship beneath the main gun. They had to crawl along in the dark, guided only by their helmet lights. The passage, never under gravity, had ample handholds and room for a man in an environment suit to pass easily; one tiny blessing at least. He hoped to reach engineering and disable the reactor, preventing his enemy from making off with the ship. Come to it, he could force an overload and destroy the entire vessel. He’d not be captured by another McAllister no matter what.

They emerged to find the compartment in darkness save for the light of indicators and a few status monitors. He and his men made for the power control station to restore main lighting and get to work, but when the lights went on he longed for darkness. More than fifty corsairs had been waiting and now had him in their sights. They stood upon the walls and ceiling, on and underneath the catwalks, everywhere. His engineers floated lifeless about the cabin among small quivering globules of their blood.

A laser sight swept across the nametag on his environment suit and Sturgis heard a familiar, gregarious laugh.

“Well hello, Bernie!” Mad Jack said. Captain Sturgis barely had time to sigh in disgust before he was shot through his visor and left eye.

With the native crew fully dispatched, The Lords set to work on securing their mighty prize. Though structural damage had been minimal, power and computer control would have to be restored and the holes cut into the boom welded before they could shunt to hyperspace. They would have to move handsomely if they intended to get the massive hulk ready to make the jump to freedom. A pair of fleet tenders, each carrying a dozen gunboats, and two escort frigates from Ambrosia were speeding their way to the captured line ship and rapidly gaining ground.

The real worry, however, was the computer. Sturgis had locked it out before he abandoned the bridge and there was no time to circumvent it. They brought down a portable unit kept in storage for just such an occasion and Olga worked to get it operational. This new warship was radical in design and even with the information provided by Mister Blackthorne the task was proving onerous. She cursed freely in her native Russian so Julian made a point of not getting in her way, least he be stabbed.

Iceni Queen and Spartacus, still under skeleton crew, clamped down on the Charlemagne to act as external drives while the heavier Vercingetorix led the way, towing her by six hog lines stretching back from her stern. The corsairs could only move so fast with her under tow and it would be a close race to the edge of the solar system. Danger loomed heavy in the air but every eye was sharp, every hand ready-steady. They held victory in their jaws and had no intention of letting go.

Floyd monitored the sensors on the captured vessel’s bridge, weaponry being a tertiary concern with the computer inactive and the relief force from Ambrosia closing on them. “You’re not gonna believe this shit,” the gun master said. “That frigate we pounded is back under power and falling in with the relief force.”

Julian stepped over and examined the screen. “Tenacious sonofabitch,” he had to admit. It pleased him greatly that he could walk without the aid of those hideous clamps on his feet, his knees ached from it. Only about point eight-G but far better than nothing. Gravity was both handy and in short supply on a starship. The Queen and Spartacus each had a pair of small centrifuges used for sleep and exercise but you spent most of your waking hours in free fall and needed to workout constantly to stave-off muscle and bone loss. Zero-gravity toilets were another thing he could learn to do without.

He took a seat at the helm, regarded the shiny new vessel with eager eyes, and started to play. Everything brand new and of the latest design, the best that corporate science had to offer. Remarkable sensor and EW capabilities, though the corsairs had made a few advancements in the latter area which could stand to be implemented. Amazing firepower, if it did rely more on energy weapons then he cared for. Room up front for a good hundred cube missile bay I should think.

Julian’s thoughts now turned to Guy Blackthorne. He hoped all had gone well. Guy seemed a nice enough fellow and besides, his help would be invaluable in learning and making the necessary modifications to these systems, saving them months of costly down time. If everything went to plan he should be in the care of Blackheart Banerjee even now. It cost a tidy sum to convince the Pit Viper wing captain to free an ISS prisoner from custody and spirit him from the core worlds.

He felt an odd pang he assumed to be guilt over leaving Deacon and Billy out of the loop but he knew neither would have agreed to risk taking this ship based on some harebrained scheme dreamed-up by a man now under arrest for espionage. Only Olga and Uncle Jack knew about that and it was hellish getting them to agree.

Killjoy’ll work it out before long but what can he say? He was in on the rig to grab the frigate. Julian suddenly felt very bad about having thought that but it passed quickly enough. Now is the time to be smug and self-satisfied, he reminded himself.

Full life support restored to essential areas, they were able to remove their helmets though they kept them handy. There would be several minutes warning before any shooting started if it came to that and it was a relief to have the damn thing off your head despite its still being very cold. Julian had a terrible itch on the side of his nose but made no move to scratch it. He never considered himself superstitious, like many mariners, but had a bad feeling about doing so until they were safely on their way.

“The freedom to scratch is never so appreciated as when it’s been lost,” he remembered his mother once telling him. Home, Julian thought, opening a completely new can of mental worms for himself.

“Boys an’ girls, vee are online,” Olga chimed in triumph. Julian smiled and scratched that itch.

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2 Responses

  1. For a blood and thunder space epic written by an avowed antisocial goon, this would make a good kids story; the kind a grandad or uncle could read to his young charges while making appropriate scary voices and sound effects.

    Sorta like ‘Dan Dare’ with antisocialist tendencies in place of Anglophilia.

  2. […] <Previous Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Sins Chapter ThreeNo TitleSin boldly chapter three […]

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