Chapter One: As Good a Time as Any

What has become of us?

We, whose rough hands formed

All things of industry.

We who brought down the beast

And made of him a meal.

We who clothed and fed the body,

Who nurtured the growing

Things on our blood.

We who mined, smelted and

Forged the very iron that binds us.

Whose blood and sweat

Keeps them strong;

Smug, bold, and imperial.

Much of the world goes unseen,

Unnoticed like the

Tangled floor of a forest,

Untouched by the buried imagination,

Overlooked in the

Restless search for ore.


Chapter One: As Good a Time as Any

Noon crept upon the Viceroy, climbed the low wall and poured itself over the lethargic midday drinking crowd gathered in the courtyard. While never pleasant here this deep in summer, today was a sultry bitch. If Julian McAllister had not counted himself a master complainer, with standards to maintain, it would be well worth remark. Spearing a round of cheese with a delicate stiletto, he afforded himself a vague feeling of satisfaction. Loosening his belt and patting his swollen belly, he let out a long, low belch and examined the great table laid waste before him; noting the stains and crumbs with nodding approval. While far too drunk to be called at peace this suited him well enough.

The axe head paving stones that interlocked beneath him were weathered and cracked. Delicate knot work patterns rendered dull, intermittent lines worn by rain and caked with dust. He could still recall the day they were set, holding one in his lap on the back steps, entranced by the minute detail of the stone work. He had just turned eight, the memory was an old one that intruded now and again throughout his life; unbidden and without purpose. It was strange to see this place again.

After his mother’s death some twenty years ago the local Christians took up residence, bent on saving the colony from the abandoned shell of its most sinful and debaucherous house. Thoughts of burning it to the ground itched in his mind but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. It would have been taken badly in any case. Back to see his childhood home for the first time in a decade, he was glad to find his mother’s brothel free of infestation.

Angry voices nearby roused him from his blunted introspections. Glancing upward, his eyes found a merchant who had come to argue with another patron over timetables or some such. A pint had been thrown in his face and he was shoved to the ground before taking point that rogues were best undisturbed once the drinking and wenching commenced. On his forehead he bore the snake and rail, a brand denoting him guilty of profiteering on another’s misery, most likely food or medicine. While these were lawless parts by common standards the locals most assuredly had their rules. That mark could get you killed here.

Julian stared right through the little man when he passed, their eyes briefly meeting. Anywhere else he might have sneered at him but this was home ground and he refused the bother. It would have been a lie to say he had no interest in a fight, the need for a good cathartic brawl weighed heavy on him but, a consummate professional, he held no interest in the terror of worms. Your quarry needed a fair shot at beating you savagely for any sport to come of it. The big guy who tossed the drink was another story; a smuggler by the look of him, gaudy and overdressed for the heat. Julian disliked him at once. It was not the man’s treatment of the merchant, clearly vermin, so much as his manner. A bully, Julian could smell it on him. Smacking a man around because you despise him is one thing, for cheap laughs quite another.

“Yarr, pig-fucker!” The voice might have been jovial if a touch less drunk and unsteady. Deacon sat down heavily across from his captain and began rummaging, turned a clay wine pot to find it empty and tossed it aside. Julian closed his eyes and smiled, listening to it shatter. Since a young lad, the captain had been an enthusiastic connoisseur of the sounds things made when breaking. A good storefront window being his hands-down favorite, but satisfaction could be found in anything’s destruction by a person with the right sensibilities. It really is the little things.

Finding the remaining spirits, Deacon set himself to task. “White wine after a bloodbath?” he sighed, “Fucking savage.”

The captain shrugged. “Had I any manners at all I might have ended up a proper gentleman and missed your fine company. A sad wretch I’d be.”

“As well teach a wolf to take his lamb with mint sauce as add subtlety to your mix.” Deacon finished off the wine and sent the empty vessel to join its brother in the hereafter. “Is he alright?” he then asked, indicating Billy who lay slumped over the table decidedly unconscious.

“Thus far,” Julian said, dropping his arm after confirming a pulse.

“Well,” Deacon began, his back now going straight. Julian sighed. The quartermaster was about to get bookish on him. Even loaded to the gunwalls the man never took a minute off the job. The captain waved him off. They were both too far gone to get into this now. He pulled himself forward and leaned on the table with a single arm, looking quite steady and sober from a distance he’d wager.

“Do you remember Martha?”

“No,” Deacon said, “but I remember Maria.”

“Maria!” Julian cried-out, slapping the table with authority and causing Billy to slide off in a heap. “Maria, yes, I’m convinced I saw her.”

“You did,” Deacon informed him, glancing over the table at their companion. “She owns this place now, has for nigh on a year I’m told.”

“Bristol fashion, that practically puts it back in the family,” Julian said and they shared a chuckle.

“Speak of the devil,” Deacon pointed over Julian’s shoulder.

“And a double health to thee, young gents,” said the woman who approached. “Welcome home, boys. Would you be staying the night? It looks as though you’ll not make it far otherwise.” She snapped a loud and practiced thumb to finger and a young girl seemed to shoot straight up from the ground. Maria instructed her to toss out whoever was in the best three rooms, refunding their money for the last two days, then haul Billy off to bed straight away.

“Please sit,” Julian begged her, attempting to pull out a chair for their host and losing his own. After helping him back to his seat she smiled and obliged him. “I cannot express how grateful I am to see the place back in respectable hands,” he confided.

Maria cocked her head slightly in confusion then understood, waving a shopworn hand. “The crossers? Long gone them, didn’t last a year in the port quarter. Took to raiding the taverns and tippin’ the booze, which didn’t sit well with the good folk round here. Mob came, branded ‘em with crosses and made ‘em move outside the walls.”

“Good riddance,” Deacon said, and three glasses rose to agree.

“Obnoxious as hell but I wouldn’t trade places with Curacao for a king’s ransom,” Maria went on. “Lousy with jihadis the whole place.”

“Everything they did and that’s what they get run out of town for?” Julian’s voice grew slick with venom.

“What matters is they’re gone,” Deacon said, hoping to bring the conversation elsewhere. One of Julian’s rants on the God-folk loomed dangerously near and no good ever came of one.

“As I was about to say earlier, while the new ship will certainly be profitable in the long term, it’s costing us dearly in the interim. It’ll take months before we’re competent with all the new gear and have her outfitted to our particular needs. Almost everything will go into immediate repairs and essential upgrades.” Deacon began enumerating on his fingers, “We may still have to—”

“Life is cruel,” Julian said, still desperate to avoid work topics.

“I just ran into Broden,” Deacon continued and Julian’s head nodded in recognition, “who was transferring a fifth of that medical cargo to Farrokh’s people. I asked him what was going on and he just tossed up his hands, telling me to talk to you. I’m the damned quartermaster, Jules. And ship master besides, I’d really like to have an idea what’s going on from time to time. If only to make me feel better.”

“Quit hangin’ the jib, Killjoy. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up or wait on.” Deacon opened his hands in waiting so Julian elaborated. “The Black Adder is in port.” He paused for another belch, washing-out the taste of it with a swig of wine. “They had a captive and I took him off their hands.”

Deacon looked confused and indignant. “We’re slavers now?”

“Of course not,” Julian said, offended. “Mr. Blackthorne is a free man who can do as he likes. I have convinced him, however, into staying on for the time being.” Deacon’s hands, still spread, now motioned inward for clarification.

“Guy Blackthorne, one of the most accomplished naval architects alive today,” Julian explained as if to a child. “A valuable asset to any vessel.”

“And you sent Broden to fetch his new competition, did you? You are a bastard.”

“I am,” Julian said, pleased with the recognition. He then added with a snicker, “It was Broden that wised me to him. Besides, we still have another three-eighty plus whatever we can get for the brigs. Not really suited to make for corsairs but they’re solid haulers.”

Julian hated talking trade when he was relaxing, let alone intoxicated, but the thought of money had him excited. The drone rumble of a heavy ship making for orbit filled the air, causing the hair on his arms stand straight and curling one side of his mouth in a grin. Even now tale of the daring raid spread across the twelve colonies of the Riftward Marches, growing grander by the telling; as he knew it would.



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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.”


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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Chapter Three: The Wages and Benefits Package of Sin

Chapter Three: The Wages and Benefits Package of Sin

Scores of ships, large and small, scurried about their business: hauling sugar, hauling people; hauling chickens, ore and vice. A brilliant but modest G-star reigned, attended by six planets, loyal and true. A pair of jovians and a modest ice world guarded its lonely frontiers, vigilant sentinels dutifully gobbling up the comets and wayward stones of Evernight to protect the inner planisphere. Three terrestrial worlds patrolled these orbits. The first a vesperian hothouse soaked to the stone in acidic clouds and rivers of flowing lava, the third a frigid arean desert under a wispy salmon veil of carbon dioxide. Between them circled the great treasure of Nova Antigua, a ringed gaian of vast oceans and long chains of volcanic islands that gave the system its name.

Vercingetorix entered first and alone, to announce the pending arrival of the captured Charlemagne. After much discussion the commanders agreed that a Federation ship of the line turning-up suddenly might be a bad idea; funny, but bad. The need to subvert amusement to reason left an acrid taste in Julian’s mouth, it always did, but he was still most pleased by the reaction when they followed. Every tug, freighter, shuttle and prospector heaved-to when the prize ship reached the inner planisphere and more than a few salty-old skippers had an unabashed tear in their eye. Windows on the orbital facility were crammed with faces pressed to glass. When she passed, they crawled over one another like swarming insects to keep her in view just a moment longer.

Word spread quickly through the settlement below and people began wandering into the streets, clustered in groups. Someone shouted, pointing skyward, and a gasp rose up like a wave through the host. Julian ordered a hot entry close to the city, heralding their arrival with a bolt of fire across the southern sky. As though a dam had shattered, a torrent of shouting bodies came teeming into the port quarter. Eleven corsair crews were summed to help the constables gain control of things. Had they not been held back, the throng, so mesmerized by what they saw, would have walked into her exhaust like moths to a flame.

The great vessel lifted her fins above her, lowered her claw-like struts, and set down on her new home with a single, slow suspension bounce that left the impression she was taking a bow. The big field just outside the walls, used for the annual fair, provided an acceptable landing area. The tarmac at the port was crowded with small craft and the captured ship would have claimed it all for herself. She was an incredibly large vessel to be built for surface landing, the largest yet constructed according to the Lockhard literature, massing-in at a quarter-million tonnes tanks dry. A radical departure from traditional line ship design, meant to answer the navy’s call for a lighter, more versatile fleet that would allow them to phase-out the gargantuan battleships so costly to build and maintain. Alas for them, this would not be her fate.

Disembarking was a problem with no gantries available, not that there were any on the planet big enough, so the cargo lifts were used to lower them two dozen at a time. Once the crew finally emerged, the city exploded in approbation. People cheered everywhere they went. Children were perched upon shoulders to see the conquering heroes through the crowd. The entire populous felt uplifted by the incredible victory.

Over the last several years Federation warships had been venturing deeper into the Narrow Way and anxiety mounted. Now that worry vanished like a wisp of fog in the morning sun. The people of Nova Antigua felt invincible. Placed atop horse drawn carts, since motor vehicles were forbidden inside the walls, the commanders were paraded through the streets to great fanfare and a rain of beer from the rooftops. Julian smiled until his face ached. I’ll never pay for drink again.

In due course they arrived at the grand forum and were greeted by a delegation from the city council. The gathering took place at the Circle of Titans in the central plaza, a raised granite platform thirty meters across, lined with life-sized bronze statues of great pirates from ages past: Edward Teach, Henry Morgan, Ching Shih, Sam Bellamy, Graham Chapman as Yellowbeard… The impromptu celebration was brief and amorous to Julian’s relief. Deacon, Billy and he all exchanged an uncomfortable look when it began, having been in front of the city council before and not cared for it.

When it was done the spectators began to clear out, leaving the corsairs to pay their respects in private. Mariner customs were always treated with reverence in the Rift Worlds. At the heart of the stone platform, twice the height of a man, stood one esteemed above all others: Errol Flynn. They knew they just didn’t care; he was the Sea Hawk and Robin Hood. Each scurvy space dog in turn touched the plaque below, saying “Hi, Earl!” before heading off to the spacer’s mall to get obscenely drunk.


Late the third night after their return, Julian sat alone on the balcony over the large garden out back. The sun relented at last and a nice breeze came in from the shore, cool and salty. Stonego Ponto, Nova Antigua’s belt of five wide rings, arched across the southern horizon like a glittering diamond highway. Julian thought it a shame the Earth lacked such adornment, what stories might have come of it… Two of the planet’s four shepherd moons could be seen beyond the shimmering arch, both in quarter phase. The smoky plastic overhangs that relieved pedestrians from the daytime glare also kept the streetlights dim from above and the sky was full of stars despite the ring-shine.

Being scourge of the galaxy involved more work then he counted on as a young lad; still, he did get to kill the customers, and was his own boss. Maria told them they could have the top floor however long they wanted and that it was an honor to have them home. It was a generous offer, though also self-serving and crafty. Overt public advertising banned in the city, business owners constantly schemed to gain the public’s attention and Maria was a shrewd matron of the capital arts. The crews of Iceni Queen, Spartacus, and Vercingetorix were here almost constantly and everyone in town came to have a look at the heroes of the March and hoist a glass at their favorite bar.

“The Cattle Raid of Amber Colossus,” as it had come to be known in these parts, was being recounted across the Rogue Stars. Likewise, the sorry tale of the “Darwin VIII Disaster” would be making the rounds of corporate boardrooms and Federation council chambers. The stories had them wiping-out a fleet considerably larger than the combined FDF Navy and making off with a planet-load of ill-gotten booty.

The sad truth of it: they were broke and had a great deal of work ahead of them. The medical cargo amounted to a small fortune, and reaped great favor with the locals, but fell well short of what they would need to refit the behemoth warship. The Lords agreed in council to forgo shares and were living out of the coffers but there was no real hope of putting to space before it was gone. Pirates were a rowdy bunch in the best of times and starving them made for bad policy. Concern mounted that Julian had bitten off more than an army could chew and that his victory might prove their undoing.

Moreover, there was the matter of Vercingetorix. Mad Jack had a harder time convincing his people that patience was all the virtue rumor would have. Instrumental in pulling-off the most spectacular raid in history, they were being told there was simply no money. Not being the ones with the shiny new ship, Julian couldn’t really blame them. Nor could he pay them.

They were appeased for the time being that when the new Iceni Queen was ready, they would group for a high-profit shipping lane cruise of no less than five months with Vercingetorix receiving an extra share for every two at the Lords’ expense. A hard pill to force down his own people’s throats, but Julian began in high praise of the Rix when broaching the subject and had his people whipped-up in good feeling by the time he sprung it on them, making it seem obvious and aside from question.

They ate it straight from my hand, he noted, feeling clever. He would have to be to get through this next year but it would pay fifty-fold in the end. A good meeting, he decided, rubbing his swollen jaw and wincing slightly. Until today he could claim that no man had ever laid hand on him and lived.


“Where’s your funny hat?” Julian seemed puzzled. Why would this man flaunt the rules so? Bad form. “Your funny pirate hat, it says in the articles that crew will attend all councils ‘in formal’ which means corners and dodgy long-threads.” He lifted the patch he wore over his right eye to shoot Richter a dirty look. “I will not have you make a mockery of these proceedings, sir.”

Richter turned to Deacon, expecting him to scupper this. Julian was in charge aboard ship but the quartermaster called the shots planetside. “I’m a strange one to be looking to for an ally, Mister Richter.” The quartermaster spoke without looking up from his preparations.

“That’s ‘Master Richter.’”

“Not anymore,” Victor said, tapping the insignia on his tricorner. “You crossed your captain in a fight. That makes you a bilge-rat born-again pup, and part of my bailiwick. Now heave-ho and get your fucking gear, boy.”

Kyle never wore indignities well and today was far from exceptional. He turned in a huff and strutted out. There was some laughing and there were some cold steel glances. Deacon ignored both, Julian noted each.

Ursula and Kitty entered the room passing by the defrocked boarding master. “He seems tense,” Kitty observed.

“Is that a stuffed parrot on your shoulder, sir?” Ursula asked the captain.

Julian glanced at it before answering, as if unsure what she was talking about. “No, he’s just pining for the fjords.”

“Beautiful plumage,” Kitty added.

“Please stop,” Deacon begged them, and the room lightened a touch.

Scattered low-level conversations went on, some gossiping and some griping, but no one was going to introduce any business without the Richter issue settled one way or another. By law, once in action the captain was god-fucking-emperor and you didn’t tell him no. Julian could have ordered him killed on the spot but that may not have played well, leaving him with a mutiny on his hands at an inopportune moment. Now Julian could call him out to fight, which Richter wasn’t fool enough to accept, or order him expelled. The latter choice would involve a lengthy proceeding, depleting time and energy they didn’t have to waste. It would also lead to an air of hostility they could ill-afford with the whole wing on the verge of bankruptcy.

There was no alternative, Richter would have to be bought-off and it stuck in Julian’s craw. He had eighty-three directly under him which made him master of the largest bailiwick. About half would leave, along with a piece of gunnery and a few engineers, but Floyd and Broden both wanted to clean house on that score for some time now.

Kyle Richter returned wearing his tricorner and a dark long-coat, the least he could do to comply.

“Not even an earring?” Julian asked with disappointment. Shrugging, he continued, “Let’s get this unpleasantness aside then shall we?”

“Indeed,” Richter growled.

“This is what’s going to happen,” Deacon announced, setting his portable aside and looking up from the table at last. “You and whoever decides to go with you here and now…” and he paused to give the assembled host a look, “will take the old Queen in her present condition, minus her fighters and all but essential supplies and materials, and be on your jolly.”

With the first rumbles of defiance from Richter, Julian tossed down two beautifully balanced, identical knives, wrapped in an old black and red bandanna. Richter tried to stare him down but quickly saw the futility of it and stormed off. Six others filed in behind him with insulted looks on their faces. The captain and quartermaster guessed a little more than a hundred will go all told.

There was no getting around another issue now; continuing work on the new Queen would require giving-up Spartacus. Billy was going to love the idea, a matter that would need to be broached later in private.

“Now let us all get drunk and play ping pong!” Kakumi said. The room burst out laughing, everyone very relieved that passed without bloodshed. Notepads and tiny computers began to appear amid post-nervous chatter.

Deacon was well ahead of them as always, his portable and four neat stacks of paper strategically placed around him. If anyone dared violate the sanctity of the quartermaster’s work area they were quickly reminded the quiet man was a practiced killer of men. He activated the small holographic projector on the central table and networked it to his portable. A three-dimensional model of their new vessel appeared above, rotating slowing.

Julian hoisted a glass. “Before we begin I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge our brethren from Vercingetorix.”

“Fuckin’ Hazza!” came the call and a standing ovation to boot. Mad Jack, in attendance with his bailiwick masters, waved-off the attention embarrassed.

“Settle down, scum!” Julian bellowed. “Now as we all know this venture, for all its potential long term rewards, has left us resource poor. None more so then our comrades on the Rix, and so I think it only fair that we commit now to a five month cruise, in trade lanes to be determined by Navigation, at a three to two ratio in her favor.” With that Julian spread his arms and looked to the assembly for objections. When it became clear that none would be the first to voice them, Deacon called for a vote that carried unanimously.

That went well, Julian thought.

“What’s going on with the ground staff transfers from Haveno Libera?” Billy wanted to know straight off.

“Most of our groundside people have agreed to relocate to Nova Antigua,” Deacon assured them, “on the provision it’s financed from our end, to include family and live-in companions.”

Everyone looked around and nodded, more than fair. The Lords of Entropy were among a handful of wings that employed their own permanent ground crews and warehouse staff. The massive new ship necessitated they not only continue the practice but expand it. They were unique for including support staff as half-share crew in lieu of salary. Expenditures were increased, but not extravagant, and it infused the organization with a sense of unity. Moreover, the coveted positions attracted the best people in the Rift. They had been after a permanent seat on the council also but Deacon convinced them to drop the issue, promising to raise it himself by next year.

“Time for a new face!” Julian announced with a clap. “Guy Blackthorne,” he said with a point. “He’ll be serving directly under Broden in Engineering and be putting together a repair and upgrade itinerary.

Mister Blackthorne is an accomplished naval architect and systems engineer who had a hand in designing the very ship we’ll be calling home. Now Guy isn’t accustomed to such unseemly company as we, so I expect all of you to savage him without mercy until we’ve made a proper brute of the man.”

Guy smiled nervously, taking in the savage glee the prospect of beating him to a pulp inspired. Corsair hazing rites were the stuff of legend. Julian noted his discomfort and grinned. He’s right to be nervous, he thought. They’re going to make his life a living hell for the next week or so but he’ll be accepted, he’s got the metal. Comes off a bit prissy but he’s got that English stoicism. Besides, he needs a rude awakening or two before he gets one dressed in FDF blue.

“Speaking of young Mister Blackthorne,” Broden began when things had settled down. “A reasonably clever lad, ‘ee an’ I ‘ave a situation requires fair coin an’ work. This new ion drive’s remarkable but ‘as the flaw a bein’ ‘bout quick ta get goin’ as a lame cow.”

“I thought ion drives disappeared a century ago,” Kakumi said.

“Closer to two,” Guy said, glad to have something useful to say. “The trouble had always been choking. You’d have a net space charge repelling new ions and keeping them out of the reaction chamber until the ones already inside escaped. We found a way around that with a spatial compression system. Because of the energy requirements of course, it needs time to rev-up. We couldn’t get the acceleration change any better than forty-four seconds.”

“Slow pirates are dead pirates,” Deacon said. “So how do we get around the low range problem?”

“It was a point of great contention during the design phase,” Guy said. “The decision was made that these ships would operate like mobile bases in groups of three with their launch craft doing the nimble work. I gathered that acceleration might be of some value in this business, so I suggested to Broden an idea that had been shot down in early production. A tandem system: add a second set of drives, compact high-yield fusion torches, mounted in pods near the tail.”

He drew a rough outline on his portable where it transposed to the 3-D model so everyone could see what he was talking about, using a lightpen to tweak the image until they resembled the tapered cylindrical tubes he had in mind.

“Would she remain atmospheric?” Floyd asked.

“Oh yes,” Guy said enthusiastically, “the great virtue of the ion drive is that it’s very low mass and uses relatively little fuel or propellant.”

“Aye,” Broden said with an authoritative nod, “the only problem is parts. We’d ‘ave to build ‘em ourselves. Young Mister Blackthorne ‘as a solid design but the only way to get what we need is by cannibalizing Spartacus. I know this is a touchy subject but it’s the only option. We wouldn’t ‘ave crew enough for both ships any’ow.”

There were stern objections raised at once, though not a word from Billy, Julian noted, sure he had an opinion. Though greatly annoyed the issue should be brought up in this manner the wing captain felt relieved to be off the hook. Still, despite Julian’s overall command, Spartacus was Billy’s ship and he had the right to refuse.

“I would be willing,” Billy said unexpectedly, “providing the commanders have no major objections.” He looked about and saw some hesitant faces but no one spoke out now.

“A ship this size I’ll need to put down one of my hats,” Deacon offered. “Have Billy take the ship master slot and I’ll stick to the QM job. We can keep all the masters as seniors and let them compete for the top slots as decided by the three of us.” Billy and Julian both agreed and it was put to vote where it carried along with a resolution to give priority to the additional drives.

“We also need to address the matter of cargo space,” Deacon said. “She has about six hundred and fifty cube which isn’t much. Also, we need a good deal more berthing space and room for some proper EVA lockers.”

“I think there’s an easy solution to that,” Guy broke in, again going to work with the lightpen to illustrate what he was suggesting. “It hadn’t been built yet but there was supposed to be a troop carrying module that would attach beneath the boom, latching into the secondary hull at the rear. We could build our own version out of hull sections from Spartacus.”

Julian scratched his chin, listening. “It would need to be detachable, self-maneuvering, and most importantly, the ship’s atmospheric characteristics can’t be degraded.”

“That’s not a problem,” Broden assured him. “If you can get me a chandler dock for a month I can assign, say thirty people, and we’ll ’ave ’er done before the drives. Give us time to get ‘er fitted proper.”

“We could add a set of wing tanks for another shunt’s worth of fuel while we’re at it,” Guy suggested to Broden’s approval.

“You’ll have what you need,” Julian assured them and made some annotations in the small notepad always on his person. He refused to rely on a computer as a rule; writing in long hand provided a mnemonic component more efficient technology lacked. He then turned his attention to Floyd. “Tell me scary stories about things that go boom in the night.”

“Defensive weaponry is lacking,” Floyd answered while still looking over the screen of his portable. “A few point-defense lasers spread around the outer hull but not able to deal with a volume of missile fire, especially from abaft. I’d like to add all the phalanx guns we have plus maybe another half dozen.” The floating model became transparent with the various subsystems turning red as he covered them.

“I’ve also looked into adding that missile bay to the bow. There’ some difficulties. There’s a lounge and some ridiculously big senior officer’s quarters up there now.”

“We can lose all that,” Deacon said, “what’s the trouble?”

“We’ll need to raise the main sensor port to accommodate it and that means a fair amount of structural modification. Doable however.” Floyd took a swig of coffee and continued to the offensive systems.

“Seven turreted hard points, each with three linked, type VII pulse lasers.” Here Floyd paused for the assorted whistles and affirmations of approval which, came on cue. “If we add a few good weapons along each fin edge we’ll have a proper killing machine on our hands.”

“Aren’t the heat scuppers along the fin edges?” Julian asked.

“Most of them,” Floyd said, “but she’s got space set aside for a heavy weapon mount.”

“A modular design,” Guy said. “It was made to swap-out between a nuke launcher and an orbital bombardment platform.”

“We won’t need either of those,” Julian said. “Although . . .”

“Don’t even think it,” Deacon told him.

“The spinal mount is a monster of a weapon,” Floyd went on; “a five-gigawatt sublimation model ion cannon.” If people were impressed by the ship’s laser batteries, this floored them, excited whispers filling the room. “Requires an absurd amount of power to operate, intensive maintenance and it’s going to be a while before we have time to start training on it. In addition, it’ll need its own dedicated crew. I’m thinking eight gunners and a dozen techs if you wanna keep it.”

“Oh, I do,” Julian assured him. “It’s a ship-killer. We can take on some sizable chase with that little number.”

“What about the fighter bay?” Ursula spoke-up.

Guy answered here, “Designed to hold six Fire Hawk heavy fighter drones, though they hadn’t been delivered yet. We can modify the tubes to accommodate the four Cheetahs fairly easily.”

“I’d much rather have some Rapiers,” Kitty said and Ursula nodded.

“I’m confident we can spend ourselves into ruin without having to resort to that,” Deacon warned.

“I’m just saying,” she told him with laughter. “But that aside, what’s this I hear about a corvette bay?”

“It’s not a landing bay in the traditional sense,” Guy answered. “It’s more like a semi-internal docking port that clamps down to integrate the smaller ship into the hull of the mother craft. About half the boat is inside the cruiser, accessed through special hatchways and an airlock. It was designed to be used with a modified Broadsword EL-22, also wasn’t delivered by launch date. It’s a shame too. Combined with the fighters it makes a formidable screening vessel. Maybe with some work we can find something to retrofit and make use of the docking port.”

Deacon tapped his temple lightly with his pen. “I think I know where we can find one.” Guy gave him a curious look but the wing master just smiled and signaled to wait with a gesture.

When the meeting let out everyone was a little tipsy, and so prepared they set forth to begin their carousing proper. By custom, captain and quartermaster left last and together. They strode down the alley a short way when Julian turned to ask Deacon what the angry mug was about.

Julian lay on his back for a time, eventually deciding it best to lean over and spit out some blood. Once satisfied he sat upright and shot Deacon a bemused look.

“You were after that ship from the start,” the wing master said, pointing angrily. “The whole damned time . . .” Deacon shook his head and walked away.

“I deserved that,” Julian said.


The next day Julian awoke to a murderous noon sun. He was sore and hung-over; the daylight wholly unacceptable. Olga, a contemptible sort of beast called a “morning person” was up and about and apparently left the curtains open. Such creatures should have been exterminated before they could breed off world and spread their vile genes across the galaxy. He pulled the sheets over his head but it was pointless. He had been disturbed.

Rising to a sitting position, he surveyed the room for an unemptied bottle and yawned. Little chance of that with the crazy vodka monster up first, he decided. Suddenly feeling adventurous, he assembled a makeshift toga from a sheet and made for the bar. Olga was off being sunny somewhere so he had the place to himself. The shacking up question had been broached shortly after they arrived on Nova Antigua and she agreed far more readily then he expected or cared for. He was beginning to suspect he had been duped.

Finding a full bottle of whiskey and putting on a pot of coffee, he sat in one of the big wicker chairs with his back to the sun. He noticed a stack of letters and a small package that Maria must have brought up, another early riser. He picked-up the padded envelope and saw Deacon’s handwriting on it: Just in from the core—You’re famous. He poured out the small cased D-chip and popped it into the console on the table. The live view of the beach south of the city turned briefly to static then a Federation News Service upload began.

“Now an update to our story reported earlier in the week. A massive fleet of pirate raiders attacked and destroyed a twelve ship convoy of food and medical supplies destined for low income families in the New London system. Reports have come in that authorities there have suspended all social services indefinitely, citing increased acts of piracy and local criminal activity as the major factors in that decision.

The announcement has been met with praise throughout the Federation as a great step forward in the elimination of the last remnants of parasitic welfare allowed to run rampant on some outer core worlds, robbing local businesses of much needed subsidies.

The FDF has acknowledged that an undisclosed number of warships were damaged or lost, but denies widespread rumors that a major ship of the line was captured and spirited away by a rogue mercenary and pirate organization calling themselves ‘The Lords of Entropy.’ The group is believed to be led by one, Julian ‘The Bastard’ McAllister, son of domestic turned prostitute and serial killer, ‘Bloody Boo’ Boudicca McAllister. A name some of you might remember from the infamous ‘Double Socialite Murders’ of thirty-five years ago.

The incident has fueled rhetoric in the Trade Council, and several of its constituent boards, that the pirate threat to Federation shipping calls for decisive military action, as these terrorist mini-states become more organized and better armed by the day.”

“Does your skin ever itch? If so, then you mostly likely suffer from Dermal Degenerative Disorder. Dermal Degenerative Disorder, or D3, is a condition that can lead to serious impairment or even death. Luckily, your good friends at the Phelzor Corp—”

Julian turned it off. Well, at least Deacon was still speaking to him; more or less. He laughed to himself about the “food and medical supplies destined for low income families” line. The entire shipment was comprised of Methuselah Eel livers. Though true, these could have produced millions of doses of medicine for radiation sickness and a variety of degenerative illnesses, they had but one use in the core: anagathics. The entire shipment would have been used to keep a few dozen monger around to see their tricentennials.

Tossing the envelope aside, he noticed more written on the back. He leaned close, “Dark Vengeance, formerly Iceni Queen, left port for whereabouts unknown at 8:20 this morning; Kyle Richter commanding.”

“I should have killed that filth when I had the chance,” Julian thought aloud. He meant it only for a quip but a voice then sounded from the nadir of his mind: “Yes, you should have.” The room, uncomfortably hot a moment ago, felt strangely cold. He shook it off and downed his glass. The future was full of disturbing possibilities but his thoughts now turned to a story his mother once told him after a little too much to drink.

* * *

Conner and Ellen McAllister were independent asteroid prospectors with their own ship and a reasonable, if hard won living, among the Expanse and March worlds. Their two children, Boudicca and her twin brother Jacobite—Just plain Jack if you please—were still in their early teens but already skilled in the family trade.

The couple named their daughter for the great warrior queen Boudicca of the Iceni Celts, who dared raise arms against mighty Rome three thousand years in the deep past. Her father always insisted they were descendants of the illustrious ruler, by way of her youngest daughter, Tasca, who fled to Ireland swearing revenge. If pressed for evidence he would cite “family tradition” as though any other proof would be superfluous, and frankly insulting.

For three years the McAllisters worked the asteroid fields and Oort cloud of Nova Antigua where they had done well for themselves. Rich as the system was, a huge number of prospectors operated in the Rift and prices were low. And so, a new ship purchased with their earnings, the family made ready to take on Hades Rising, a red giant on the edge of the Fringeward Expanse. It was remote and a rough a place on a good day, but for all its many drawbacks the giant star possessed the richest ore fields in explored space.

They were all sad to go, the children most especially. Already a talented pilot and navigator, Jack was determined to return and join the corsair ranks, raiding Federation shipping for fun and profit. A dangerous but romantic trade, it offered great status and wealth though his parents who have preferred a less belligerent vocation. Boudicca long since had her fill of life in space, spending much of her free time in the near-by jungles, painting landscapes and exploring. She had always been shy and on the move, burying herself in painting and books, and Conner felt especially guilty about taking her away with her finally making some friends.

Vast wealth waited to be found in Hades Rising however, more than enough to allow Conner and Ellen to send their children to a decent planetside university and hire some new hands to help with the expanding business. They were determined that their children should spend some time on solid ground, and in one place, in order to round out their educations. Both were bright and fast learners but the couple could only do so much with a labor-intensive business to run. Though expensive, professional teachers could accomplish more.

There were three planets in Hades Rising, two airless rocks and a prodigious macro jovian. The two terrestrial worlds may have been very interesting places once but their aging sun had scorched them bare millennia ago, leaving surfaces of barren grey rock exposed to the vacuum of space. Their interiors, conversely, were rich in metals and gemstones and either alone could have justified the settlement of an entire system.

The grand jovian, officially HR III but known as “Cerberus” to the locals, was a near brown dwarf at one-fourteenth a solar mass. Of her one-hundred and sixty moons, thirty-two were home to mining outposts. What made Hades Rising so important though were the most extensive asteroid fields in known space, divided into four wide bands encircling the star between its surviving worlds.

The primary settlement was Sisyphus Rock. Cut from a coal-black carbonaceous asteroid more than eighty kilometers across at its widest, rough and oblong in shape. On its completion, a fleet of towing vessels and scores of imbedded thrusters were used to set the ugly beast rotating along its axis like a propeller, providing artificial gravity within. More than ten thousand dwelled there in cramped and filthy conditions, breathing poorly recycled air and deepening in debt to absent employers. Hardly a place you wanted to take your family but an excellent opportunity for a well-equipped and experienced independent.

Still, the more Conner saw of life on Sisyphus Rock the more he missed the pirates, smugglers and mercenaries of Nova Antigua. There was a place you could safely walk the streets at night. For all the roughness and ethnic tensions of the Rift, there was an earnest sense of community there nowhere to be found in the core worlds and certainly nothing that approached the random violence here.

And then there was the extortion. Back on Nova Antigua, you could pay whom you liked of several local services and you received honest protection at a reasonable price. Here on “The Rock,” which everyone took to calling it, it amounted to nothing short of naked thuggery. Some unlucky souls had the misfortune of becoming disputed clients between rival gangs. Flee or die were the specials of the day when such became your lot. He was right to be concerned of course, but not of the street level hazards he had in mind. It would be the forces of law and order that would shatter his family.

ConCo Industries had recently set up shop in Hades Rising. Their presence at first limited to an office, a geology lab, and a lone survey craft; they soon bought-up nearly a quarter of the space on Sisyphus Rock and swelled the population by thirty percent. With the arrival of this corporate member of the Free Trade Federation came all the miracles of civilized life: an oppressive and corrupt court system, FDF police presence, the odd visit by naval patrol craft, and a hell storm of paperwork and bureaucracy for anyone wishing to do business there.

The first month had been hard going but they quickly learned the peculiarities of working the vast asteroid belts of the giant star. The McAllisters could smell prosperity on the air for all the foul contaminants; then came the “Impact Fees.” Fifty percent taken off the top from all their earnings, paid in penalties to ConCo. Meant to redress the terrible wrong done to the interstellar conglomerate by competing with them in their chartered system, one for which they paid a considerable licensing fee to the Council on Fair and Equitable Commerce.

After much discussion, the McAllisters resolved to approach the man in charge at ConCo to propose a mutually beneficial solution. They would continue prospecting as a subcontractor for the megacorp, who were in need of more ships and personnel in any case, at three-quarters the rate set by the exchange each week. Working for them in this capacity might also have the benefit of shielding the family from some of the rampant gang activity on the station. While the courts ignored activity that made life difficult for the dwindling independent population, they were jealously protective of ConCo’s interests. However bad things got on The Rock, corporate employees went unmolested.

His name was Tilbert and it seemed to suit him, a hawk-nosed little man that insisted on showing you his cavernous nostrils when he spoke. Though dismissive and rude at first, just when they were ready to give up and leave his demeanor shifted to something almost pleasant if a touch oily. Not only did he agree, but saw to all the necessary paperwork being processed or bypassed and the couple walked out the door with a signed contract in hand. A remarkable feat, it made them both highly suspicious, but there seemed little to fret over. He agreed to the exact language requested by the McAllisters who had done their homework.

“I swear,” Ellen said, hugging herself for warmth though it was rather hot, “if that effete little prick had a mustache he’d have been twirling it at the end.”

“A very creepy man going about his very creepy ways,” said Conner. “Let us never speak of him again.”

“Agreed,” Ellen said. “Hey, let’s celebrate tonight! We can take the kids out to dinner at that fancy place where no one’s been killed.” With that, the two laughed their way home in the best mood they would ever be in again.


Eight months of toil gave way to prosperity and they did well for themselves, despite doing even better for ConCo. “Life is cruel,” Conner would always say. “If you’re waiting on things to get fair you might as well do it in your grave.” At any rate, they would have to delay their plans no more than a year if luck held. They even rented a second apartment down the corridor for the kids to share. There they could drown themselves in dirty dishes and laundry to their heart’s content, provided they endured a lengthy decontamination procedure when they showed up looking to be fed.

It happened the morning Boudicca was to take her exams. Ellen arranged for the husband of a friend, the local assessor, to monitor the test that would go out on the next shuttle. Boudicca had never set foot on Earth but scarcely a night passed where she did not dream of it. Within three months she should know if she had been accepted at the Rose Valland Art Institute, a very old school predating the Long Night and one of only a handful of independent universities left in the core worlds.

She would be gone most of the day, her parents scheduled to be home by dinner if possible, Jack off with his insipid friends. Her mind was a flurry of things that needed doing and seeing to. Admittedly far too serious for her fifteen years, she set her sights on being a great artist since the age of eight and much needed to be done if she would be ready to play the part.

What she would do for money was another matter. Making a living that way was not a meaningful option in the core. The arts were considered a province of the sons and daughters of the corporate aristocracy, not someone born a prol. She could have potentially found low-level work in advertising or as an “Edison Artisan,” slaving away on projects assigned to her by some board celebrity collector who would then sign their own name to it and be praised as a genius across the civilized galaxy. The rationale behind this arrangement being that “true art” could only spring from a cultured mind. The physical act of creation was incidental; servant’s work.

Just as well, as far as Boudicca was concerned. All forms of entertainment in the core worlds were required to sell a product or otherwise glorify the free market in general to pass DOJ censors; unrestricted expression being inherently subversive and a mere step from anarchy. None of this mattered as she firmly intended to return to the Rift upon graduating, loving the time her family spent on Nova Antigua. The tropical jungles, great rivers, and mammoth waterfalls were the most beautiful things she had ever seen. Sisyphus Rock only served to cement this opinion.

Coming out of an extended shower, vigorously drying her hair with a towel, she tried to calculate whether there was still time to eat when her body seized in pain. She knew at once it was her old friend electricity, having felt that wonderful sensation before while helping her father repair a faulty mineral scanner on the family prospector. Darkness took her.

Eventually, she realized she was awake, through she could not guess as to how long, lying naked in a pool of her own urine on the simulation hardwood floor of the kitchen. She heard the muffled sounds of talking, laughing, things breaking. Only her eyes remained sharp, taking in the scene: Boots, men in big black boots; police boots. Someone grabbed her by the hair and pulled her up. She lost consciousness again before the first one finished with her in the bedroom she had been dragged to.

From what she eventually gathered, an official at the ConCo offices by the name of Tilbert was arrested for his arithmetic involving unreported outside contractors that included her parents. Though no one ever accused them of doing anything wrong, or even knowing about a crime, they were party to a criminal act and each held responsible to the full amount plus a variety of charges for legal expenses, administrative costs, detention fees, it went on.

In one thing Boudicca was successful. She arrived on Earth after a sixteen megasecond stay at a corrective vocational rehab where she drilled in the arts of serving dinner and being invisible. By the terms of her contract with the “domestic academy,” she was a bonded servant until six-hundred and sixty-three point six megaseconds old. At that time she would begin to receive a small salary with which she could purchase her freedom for the cost of her education and upkeep, plus any fines imposed by her employer for poor performance.

“A prudent girl can buy her contract by the time she’s a gigasecond old, if she is well-behaved and spartan,” the headmistress was fond of saying. She periodically contemplated suicide but resolved to not end her days the property of anyone, least of all the person whose property she became.

The first encounter with her new mistress came at the Harrington family residence, high on the uppermost level of the New York Archology, rising from the Atlantic more than twenty kilometers offshore where its namesake city once stood. Two kilometers wide at its base, it stretched-up twelve-hundred levels, topped by a massive disk more than twice the supporting tower’s width, covered in a clear dome. Only the wealthiest of the wealthy had quarters on the outer ring of the park and the Harrington’s had them all lined up at their door.

“It looks like a giant evil mushroom,” she said aloud, receiving a sharp slap from the tiny woman the school had sent to supervise the delivery of eight girls today. The refusal to hold her tongue bought her many beatings, often more. Mistress Kelp looked at the tag on Boudicca’s neck and laughed, saying something about it being “too perfect.”

Boudicca had been picked to be a handmaid to a very important woman. Exactly why she was important being something of a mystery. She possessed no great talent or intellect. She possessed no moderate talent or intellect. What she did have going for her was being one of the wealthiest, and therefore one of the most famous people in the galaxy. Just ask her. Elizabeth “Lizzy” Harrington was three years older than Boudicca and of a whole other species as far as she was concerned. Had she bothered in inquire, Boudicca would have agreed on that point.

Mistress Lizzy looked over the new arrival as if she were an animal far more removed from her then the yapping little rat-dog ever nested in the crook of her arm. Anything that required use of the hands could be tasked-out to her pet remora, Cousin Paris. Paris Grubworth, a foot shorter then Lizzy, emulated her in all things, especially when it came to dialog. Boudicca and some of the other girls on staff took to calling her “Echo” behind her back.

“Cut its hair, Lizzy,” said Paris with disgust. “It looks like a wild beast! What’s its name?”

“Boudicca,” Lizzy said reading the tag. “What a bizarre name. We shall call her Boo,” she decided, tapping her on the nose. “This Boudicca nonsense makes her sound like one of those feral blacks from the sprawl. Imagine—this pasty little ghoul!” The two shared a raucous laugh until Boudicca opened her mouth.

“Black Irish,” she said defiantly.

“Oh dear,” Lizzy said. “It speaks.”

“Yes,” Echo prattled. “It speaks.” More of that night, Boudicca would never recount.

* * *

Julian suddenly realized he was not alone in the apartment. He could hear Olga in the bathroom emptying her stomach, having gotten her grog-blossom on last night. He grinned and continued writing but an especially brutal round of dry heaves made him set down his pen and go keep her from drowning in the toilet.

We are all born of the far-flung debris

 Of ancient lights that have gone from the night.

 We and the trees, the rocks and the soil:

All brothers brewed in a cosmic cauldron.

We race our way along the expanse in

A seething tempest, too huge to be seen.

Until we tire and make our way home;

For then it grows time to set out again.


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