Night City — The Menagerie (2010)

Ed Shafer truly appreciated air conditioning on New Orleans’s hot and humid nights. His people were of good northern European stock, they hadn’t evolved properly for sun and heat. The city was ideal for necromancers, though, he thought. The art required spirits, and there were plenty of those around the city. Most were former humans too, his specialty since he found them easier to deal with. Of, perhaps, greater importance was the fact that the city had been accepting of the art for well over a century before magicians revealed themselves to the public. Sure, they called them medium, spiritualists, voodoun, and a whole host of other names. And most necromancers known to the public in those days had been charlatans at best. But the city seemed to draw North American necromancers like a magnet and lodestone.

And the Menagerie was the traditional meeting place of those necromancers, and, later, other magicians.

The club catered to the younger generation . . . those born in the twentieth-century or later.

Hell, if he allowed himself, he’d see literally thousands of bound spirits and millions of lines of magical energy all over the dance floor.

But he was there, on that night, for business. And business had just walked in the door, looking as out of place as a giant ape in New York. The business suit and military stiffness made Mister White, who was offering to interview him, stand out more than anything else. To make matters worse, the man was obviously a mundane, although he covered his reactions well. Probably used to dealing with the magically inclined.

An impulse toward pity awoke briefly in Ed’s consciousness. He waved to Mr. White after a few moments, giving the government mundane a chance to avoid embarrassment. After all, nearly everyone who did business with magicians in New Orleans did so in the Menagerie.

The government headhunter took a seat as Edward spotted the reason that this meeting would become interesting.

A young, felinoid, thaumod entered the club and unerringly made her way toward the table. Her suit was a little out of place, but otherwise her appearance fit in perfectly, and at least she was a magician.

“Mr. Shafer,” the government man started, before Ed cut him off.

“A minute, Mr. White,” he explained, “let’s wait for our other guest to save introductions.”

The cat-woman slid gracefully into a seat and sipped at a drink she’d acquired a few seconds later.

“Marie Lazarus, Mr. Shafer, from Thaumtech,” she said. “You spoke with my assistant the other day.”

“Indeed. And this is Mr.”

“White, DARPA,” the agent interrupted. “And we don’t appreciate Thaumtech trying to steal our prospects.”

Lazarus flashed a toothy smile and allowed a brief, forced, laugh. The latter audible due to a spell dampening the sound of the club’s music.

“Isn’t that the American way, Mr. White?” she asked. “Your bosses keep saying that healthy competition is good for the consumer, the economy, and the country.”

“Not my department, ma’am.”

“Besides, if Mr. Shafer works for Thaumtech, he’ll still technically be working for the government.”

“Just because you have the largest federal enchantment contract! . . .”

Ed let his attention wander as the two bickered. It was an old argument. Instead of paying attention, he let his vision slip and looked at the dozen of so spirits bound either directly to him or to his possessions. Through his connection to the spirits, he mentally questioned his friends and servitors. After a few moments, three of them—Archibald, Brian, and Sparky, as he called them—confirmed that the DARPA representative was a mundane and that the woman was a sorcerer with several active spells about her person. All of which he managed to do without ritual due to the spirits’ natural abilities. The necessary rituals had been used to bind them.

He let the banter continue for a short time before interrupting.

“I am rather busy . . . Mr. White, what do DARPA and your Area 72 have to offer? Yes, I’ve done my research and know the name, if not the nature,” he admitted to the look White gave him. “Then Ms. Lazarus can present Thaumtech’s counteroffer.”

Ed had to give the government man credit, he shifted gears quickly.

“Without going into too much detail, since neither yourself nor Ms. Lazarus here signed confidentiality agreements or passed security checks,” White began, “the job is an opportunity to work in a completely magical community with full medical, retirement, and housing benefits. The pay scale is excellent and there are no rent, utilities, or food costs on your part. All expenses will be covered by your employers, including relocation costs.”

“Night City without expense . . .”

“Or the guild violence. Or the crime.”

“Or guild support,” Ed added. “And I suppose friends and family couldn’t know where I was, correct.”

“Naturally. The location and projects are top secret,” Mr. White acknowledged, with a glance at his opponent.

For her part, Marie laughed. “Afraid we’re steal your secrets? Thaumtech is decades ahead of DARPA in sorcerous research. Our package, Mr. Shafer, includes a generous salary and benefits. If you wish to remain in New Orleans, we have a facility in town, or relocation costs to Boston will be covered. And we don’t care about any guild affiliations you might have, so long as company secrets are not shared. We at Thaumtech frown on corporate espionage.”

Ed nodded. The typical corporate schpiel.

“And what, exactly, would I be doing in the Thaumtech family?”

“As you no doubt know, Thaumtech is the world leader in enchanted item production,” she replied, with a glance at Mr. White. “Without divulging trade secrets, we are looking to branch out into the named object and fetish markets. So, we’re looking for young, talented necromancers.”

Mr White muttered, “Waste of money,” even as Ed said, “And the fact that no one’s managed to mass produce fetishes in . . . well, since the dawn of magic doesn’t bother your bosses?”

“Of course not, Mr. Shafer. Fifty years ago, no one thought enchantments could be mass produced. Today, every household in the western world has at least two enchanted items,” she explained. “Until we make a breakthrough, there is also the wealthy collector and celebrity market, looking for unique gifts or objects.”

Edward considered the offers for a time. The DJ must have turned up the volume as the club’s music was weakly coming through the dampening field. Heavy bass, not exactly his favorite to listen to. But business at the Menagerie was tradition.

“Both offers certainly sound attractive, but they would,” he mused aloud after a bit. “Honestly, I’ve never really seen myself as a military man. I know . . . DARPA’s not military as such.” The latter cut off White’s objection and caused Lazarus to smile broadly. Her grin of triumph wilted as Ed continued to say, “However . . . the corporate environment’s never been my thing either. Cubicles, suits, and stifling rules.” He exaggerated the involuntary shudder for their benefit.

Despite being an unaltered mundane, White recovered first.

“We have no cubicles and virtually no military presence. And no requirement for suits,” he assured the prospective employee. “In fact, you can have an entire official lab at the facility to outfit as you desire . . . and there are provisions for a private, personal lab anywhere on site, even in your own dwelling. In fact, such labs are encouraged. Finally, I am told we have numerous ghosts and ascended spirits,” he said, nodding toward Edward’s shoulders and elsewhere around the table. Probably enchanted or fetish contact lenses, Ed thought. “And many nature spirits, if you prefer.” Ability to see, but not to properly identify, the necromancer absently noted.

“Well then,” Edward said aloud, “in that case, and since you adapted well, where is that confidentiality agreement, Mr. White? Pending my successful security check, it appears I am all DARPA’s.” For the time being.

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Night City — New Academy (2010)

Marcus Sander popped into an empty field displacing a rush of air in the process.

He was jogging toward a stone wall about a hundred yards away even as his mind processed the time of day. Sunset had already started, so he had maybe ten, twenty minutes before the lone break in the wall was sealed for the next couple months. If that happened, he’d miss his second year at the secret academy.

The young sorcerer slipped through the kissing gate in time to see his meager possessions moving across the yard. A few spirits, he knew, bound to the old manor house turned concealed magic school would see that his things ended up in a room. In the meantime, Marcus turned to a Goblin woman a few years his senior. She waved a hand, causing the gate to become indistinguishable from the wall, and said, “You’re the last, Marcus.”

Responding to her concerned tone, he shook his head.

“I meant to be in sooner, Tisha,” he explained. “The TRA’s been relentless back home, especially today. Night Dragons hit the city hall and a bank this morning . . .”

Tisha grimaced. “Psycho bastards. Do more harm’n good. Anyone hurt?”

“Nah. Small town, and both were hit early. No one’s in before nine anyway.”

“There’s that at least. Less the fed can blame us with. Probably won’t get past the local news either, then.”

“Probably,” he affirmed. “Any words?”

“Galen’s been tracking the news, usual start of the year gathering in the theater . . . ten minutes.”

The pair split, with Tisha still having to find rooms for some newcomers and Marcus looking to track down a few friends before the meeting.

Marcus ended up being one of the last group of students to enter the theater, hand-in-hand with Julia Bowyer. A few mutual friends came along with the couple as they took a second to survey the room. Over the last several years, the formerly ruined nineteenth-century décor had been repaired, then partially covered by modern magical amenities during the five years that the school had been open. The right hand wall was already filling with sorcerously scrawled course titles as their fellow students gave Manny Opus suggestions. The other five ‘staff’ members hadn’t gotten there yet, but the hundred some odd students were spread around the room, mostly getting reacquainted.

When the lights dropped for a few seconds, Manny waved off a gaggle of fellow students and most people grabbed seats or a spot on the floor.

Up on the stage, Tisha came out with two humans, a thaumod, and a vampire. Once Manny joined them, one of the humans stepped forward. After a burst of applause, Galen bowed and raised his hands for silence. Marcus had to remind himself that the last of the Academy’s founders was only six or seven years his senior. In fact, this might even be the year that Galen ‘retired’ to go make a life beyond the Academy, like the other founders.

Once the group calmed down, Galen smiled warmly and said, “Welcome to the seventh school year at New Academy.” After a burst of applause, he added, “I want to thank you all for making my dream a reality and continuing our brief tradition of resisting the guild system. Glad to see all the familiar faces, and the new ones. I hope the Academy will outlast myself and the other founders.” A confused round of clapping, uncertain due to wondering what exactly was being cheered. “Before the year starts, I do feel that one announcement is necessary . . . for those who have not been following national news, the Thaumaturgical Regulatory Agency is quietly starting rumors that New Academy is linked to those damn Night Dragon terrorists,” a chorus of boos followed. “So be careful if you’re off campus at all for breaks. On another note, Justin Lee’s going to be doing a class on holistic healing with Lyn Day, mixing spirits and sorcery should be . . . interesting.” Especially, thought Marcus, since Justin was a vampire, albeit a young one. That alone should draw lots of their fellow students, the curious at least.

The meeting broke up after a few questions from the newer students.

As people started milling around, Marcus and Julia tracked down their vampiric friend.

Julia called out, “Justin! Finally decided to teach?”

The third year student clasped Marcus’ hand and grinned. “‘A Little Spiritual Healing’ on Tuesday mornings, so I can take Walter Schmead’s ‘Laughing at Ourselves—Jokes and Jinxes’.”

“Hmm, conflicts with Kaja’s ‘Walking and Talking: Magical Theory and Ethics’,” Marcus noted, “Sorry, Justin, gotta go with the campus walks.” He’d been in one of Kaja’s classes last year, she liked to hold class while strolling throughout the Academy and its grounds.

Julia grinned and playfully punched his arm, “The fact that Kaja’s cute has nothing to do with it, right?”

The vampire laughed at the couple as Marcus flashed a mock aggrieved face. Then he asked, “What about you two? I didn’t see your names on the wall yet. Any ideas?”

“I’m tossing together something about magical gardening,” Marcus replied. “There were some interesting plant hybrids I was working with over the break. I’m not sure what to call it, never was good with names.”

“Elemental physics . . . ‘Playing with Fire,’ or something,” Julia chipped in. “There are some fun things in Sorcery Today about mixing elements and spirit theories. We might have to compare notes on mixing magics, Justin.”

“Anytime. I’ll let Lyn know, she might have some pointers.” He caught sight of a clock. “Speaking of which . . . I’ve gotta run. We’re meeting to plan a few things tonight. See you at lunch?”

The couple nodded in unison and walked, with linked arms, toward the class wall. Most of the students picked up four or five classes that lasted all year, taught by their fellow students. And registering was first come, first served, informal. A demo at the end of the four to five years, or whenever, before the school body determined ‘graduation,’ such as it was. Which was one reason the TRA hated the Academy and was trying to shut it down . . . and the guilds weren’t too happy either.

After a few minutes of staring at the board, Julia asked, “Wanna grab a late dinner and find our rooms?”

“Sure. This can wait ‘til morning,” Marcus admitted. “Good to sleep on it, see what Manny puts up there in the morning.” Although anyone with an ounce of sorcery could put things on the class wall, someone was always designated to do it for the non-sorcerers. Eventually, everyone just went through the designee by habit.

It didn’t take long for the couple to find Ted Satrapi in the old manor kitchens. Getting the thaumod to settle down and stop bellowing at his collection of spirit aides in mingled Farsi and English long enough to grab a couple sandwiches took longer. As they left, hurriedly, both fervently hoped that the kitchen was settled and ready soon. It had become a livelier and louder place since Jen Moi had left for a job with some Wall Street family and Ted had taken over. But the food had also become more mainstream and there were more cooking students.

They took their time over dinner and simply wandering the Academy’s halls, reacquainting and chatting about the month apart. After looking in on a few mutual friends, Marcus was pleasantly surprised to find that Tisha’d put them both on the same floor at opposite ends of the hall. And he’d been roomed with Justin. He didn’t know Julia’s roommate, Toril something or other, but she seemed happy and apparently had had a couple good experiences in the past.

Once they parted for the night, Marcus unpacked and settled in. He figured he basically had a single room, since Justin would hardly ever be around. The vampire liked to stay active, so the room was just a place to toss his stuff. After a while, the young sorcerer stretched out on his bed, but had trouble falling asleep. His brain insisted on trying myriad class names, because everyone else’s were always so creative . . .

Night City (pt. 1) (2010)

A while back, I decided to put together a few vignettes to describe a setting.


“I’m here to see Darius.”

The mass of muscle passing as a doorman gave Robert a visual once over. He seemed to take in everything from the black combat boots to the jeans, shirt, light jacket, and long straight hair. The eyes lingered on both jacket and the thick leather wristband that Robert wore on his left arm. But this was expected as both bore the unmistakable faint blue auras of magic, specifically sorcery, for those who could see them.

“Darius doesn’t see message boys,” the brute responded.

Probably a thaumod, Robert decided, based on his inhuman bulk.

Still.

“He wants to see me,” Robert replied, flashing the symbol on his wristband. The sign was borne by all members of his order when they were not on assignment. “I’m not working . . . at least not that way.” The last added after the thug’s shocked eyes narrowed in suspicion. As a show of good faith, he slowly drew his HK USP and handed it over grip first. “Here, keep it ‘til I leave.” There were still several knives and other pointy surprises on his person plus his sorcery, but security seemed to relax if they thought they had all the guns.

Apparently that held true here as well. The bouncer led him into the club.

Nymphotopia.

Trust the Epicurean Order, he thought as they made their way toward the back, to base themselves out of a high quality strip, sorry, gentlemen’s club. And to make it one of the top restaurants with the best wine cellar in the city too. At least they were sometimes useful, and a few made worthy adversaries.

He allowed a mental sigh of relief as they came to a stop. Darius wasn’t one of the obese Epicures, not that there should be any of that sort with easy access to biomagic. Even the necromancers and wizards could do a little body sculpting. This leader of the order appeared trim and well built, if a little out of shape.

Robert gave a shallow bow of respect due for one of greater rank.

The other mage, a spellcrafter he noted, tore his gaze away from a stage on which a scantily clad man and woman danced. After a second, and what Robert guessed was a muttered word of power, he asked, “You wish to see me?”

“My master has sent me to warn you of an alliance between Julian and Hannibal.”

“How would they ally? They hate each other,” the Epicure scoffed.

Robert had been briefed for this reaction. “Are you not planning to open up a . . . club with benefits called ‘The Zoo,’ specializing in exotics?”

To his credit, Darius didn’t seem shocked, “If I am?”

“Would this not be a rival to Julian’s exotic brothel, ‘The Garden’? And would it not eat into his profits?” he replied, “Your organization and Julian’s are evenly matched.”

Darius nodded. “And what of your master?”

“She is concerned.”

“And does she offer support?”

Robert shook his head. “Simply the warning that Julian intends, through intermediaries, of course, to bring Hannibal to the opinion that another such establishment would be bad for the city. Increased crime and violence, for instance.”

“Which, of course, he’ll pounce on since he’s already tried closing ‘Topia,” Darius muttered, then louder, “I’ll have to confirm this information, but tell your master that I will owe her a debt if it’s true.”

“Of course.”

Recognizing his dismissal, Robert bowed again, retrieved his gun, and left the club.

Once he reached his car and drove several blocks from the club, he concentrated for a few seconds. When the spells he’d cast detected no observation, the messenger drew a flat cell phone and dialed from memory. A comm crystal would, of course, be more efficient, but most of the people he was avoiding took pains to detect and eavesdrop on magical communication. Those same people tended to ignore phones as beneath them, things only mundanes used.

The instant a connection was made, Robert said, “He’s checking, but bought it,” and hung up.

His message sent, with all his boss needed to know, he continued driving toward one of his handful of safehouses in the city.

The apartment was spartan, barely furnished with three easy exits beyond the single use teleportation stone he’d enchanted weeks ago. Like his other boltholes, this one had nothing to identify its occupant. In a city full of, and run by, magical guilds and orders, those lacking in such connections, despite his implied association with the Unseen Order that cowed Darius, needed such precautions. Yet, he had not lied, since the Epicure would assuredly be trying to detect falsehoods. Robert did serve a master, and she was concerned about Darius’ order, just not in the way he had inferred.

What exactly her plans were, Robert did not know or care. It was enough to know that she was powerful and skilled in sorcery, protected him, and taught him the art in return for his service. Not that he was a blind minion. Their’s was a business relationship, of sorts. They were both aware of that truth. She would only protect him so long as he did nothing stupid and doing so did not jeopardize her plans or position. Consequently, he would serve so long as he profited from the relationship and had a reasonable chance of surviving the tasks she requested.

In the meantime, the Mithraic Order awaited him.

Robert tapped a simple tattoo on his wristband. Halfway through, the symbol of the Unseen Order vanished. It was unnecessary now that he was no longer masquerading as one of them. When the tapped rhythm was complete, he held a plain nut brown jo in his right hand. Both focus and wristband had been enchanted to conceal the sorcerer’s staff when it wasn’t convenient to carry openly. His kind had had to develop several such tricks to conceal themselves from mundanes until recently in their history.

Fortunately, most had forgotten the tricks over the last century of living openly.

Carrying the staff in ‘Topia would leave him encumbered. In the rest of the city, especially where he planned to go, it would be no problem. In fact, among the order of warriors it may even aid him. Even so, Robert double checked his HK and added a sheathed, short bladed qama to his person before he left. This visit had nothing to do with his master’s interests, thus he could not count on her aid should things go south, as the saying went.

As he drove across the city, Robert considered. He owed a debt to the Mithraics that his information should pay in full. Still, they respected strength and one didn’t approach them demonstrating weakness. And he did trust his contact in the order. But to arrive unarmed, a gesture others took as a sign of security and peace, the Mithraics took as a sign of disrespect. It was tantamount to saying the Mithraic was weak and beneath your concern, that he wasn’t a threat. They didn’t take kindly to that idea. Nor did their warrior god.

Fortunately, they, like their god, did reward loyalty and truth.

Unlike most of Night City’s guilds and orders, the Mithraics kept their center of operations hidden. Probably their legacy of centuries of persecution at the hands of Christians, their former rivals. Whatever. Robert secretly thought they did it to annoy people. At least they’d given him a place to meet their contact when it was necessary.

He pulled up outside the restaurant, gathered his jo, and went in to find a table.

Robert waited until his chosen table opened up, one with chairs rather than a booth and situated so he could see the door in his peripheral vision. As he sat, he adjusted the qama and leaned his staff against the table near his hand. Neither elicited any comments from other patrons. The Gryphons, Mithraics, and Shadows commonly walked the streets openly armed. Mundane culture held little sway in the city. Especially since most of the other patrons had staves, or the signs of pocketed wands, at their tables. Lots of sorcerers tonight, he observed, although there were also a fair number of necromancers and wizards, both recognizable by the tools of their respective arts. Both used similar herbs and such, in rather different ways. Or so he’d understood.

A cup of coffee and half a bagel, that had been fresh that morning, later, his contact arrived.

Typical Mithraic, he thought as the man crossed the room. Male, average to tall, good build, legionnaire’s haircut. From the European branch, probably from those who’d fled to Spain after the Albigensian Crusade. There weren’t many from the Indian or Persian branches in the city, he knew. This one covered both bases, though, with a gladius and katar at his belt. Probably a few bound spirits too, he knew the man was a necromancer.

“Sextus,” he greeted the man after the other sat down.

“Robert,” the Mithraic returned, “We are safe to speak, those around will not hear.”

“You’ll understand if I add my own protection,” the sorcerer asked. He touched his jo lightly and thought for the necessary heartbeats as he spoke.

Sextus nodded his approval. “My people have learned the value of caution since Constantine betrayed us for the followers of the sheep. But we are not here to discuss the past.”

“Indeed. The future and present are more important at the moment,” Robert agreed, “I intend to pay my debt with information. Soon now, within the month, I believe, there will be a war in the city. Darius and Julian, with Hannibal involved somehow. The feds, as usual, will not get involved. The only way they could is through negotiation or force. The President won’t risk offending one side in diplomacy, so that will fail, especially with appropriate nudges. And he won’t risk the orders uniting against federal troops.”

Sextus nodded, “That would be the averted mundane-magic conflict of the sixties all over again. I agree with your assessment. I will relay your message to the lords of my order and see if they agree. If so, we will prepare and your obligation will be lifted, I think.”

Robert returned the nod, confident that he was free of the debt.

This was not to say that the Order of Mithras were gung-ho berserkers, he thought. They simply enjoyed and sought tests of their skills. Advance warning would let them position their people for the most appropriate tests.

After another half hour of exchanging gossip, both left, Sextus for who knew where, Robert for home and at least a little sleep.

When morning came, he rose, cleaned up, and went to Zeno’s. There was nowhere better in the city to get a coffee and catch up on the goings-on of the previous night. Or day, as the case may be. Being a vampire, Hardrada kept the coffee shop open around the clock. And he ensured that it remained factionally neutral. Not many people wanted to mess with a vamp who remembered the last millennium and had been studying sorcery nearly that whole time.

Hell, Robert thought as he entered, Hardrada was so feared that he enforced the Pax Hardrada to a few blocks radius from the place. With no faction, guild, or order affiliation no less.

Since he was a regular, he found his usual at the counter and left cash before finding a seat near the shop’s bookcase. Once he was settled with his plain, no frills, coffee and an equally plain bagel, Robert tapped out half the tattoo of the previous night, calling his jo. The focus-weapon rested against his knee as he surveyed the room. Most of the other patrons were regulars representing about a third of the city’s orders and guilds. More would pop in as the day went, trading news, spying, making treaties, leveling threats. The usual.

And there were a few newcomers. Or replacements for order operatives otherwise employed.

Dear gods, one of the newcomers was headed his way. Judging by her mildly bewildered look, she wasn’t only new to Zeno’s but to the city as well. Cute, though, he had to admit that. About his height, shoulder length blonde, fit as shown by her khaki cargo pants and black sports bra ensemble, and likely not a sorceress. She had a bit of the necromancer’s distraction to her, like she was aware of other people that most couldn’t see. Which would likely be true.

“Excuse me,” she said, sitting close enough that Robert was acutely aware that her top was maybe a size too small, and he didn’t mean the open jacket. “You look . . . like a native.”

“I’m not sure about that, but I have been here awhile . . . Do we know each other?”

“Sorry,” she said as she blushed a little, “I’m better dealing with the dead than the living, and they’re often not concerned with names. But they’re not helpful right now. Oh, I’m Char Stevens. We haven’t met before.”

“Ah . . . Robert.”

“Robert.”

“Yes?”

“Oh, sorry. I’m looking for something, for a friend. I’ve traced it to the city, but I’ve only been here for a couple hours and never visited before,” she explained. “A spirit said I should come here, but they’re rather vague and aren’t good at explaining.”

“I don’t think I can help you at the moment.”

Char laughed briefly, “No, I wasn’t asking for help finding it, or with the spirit.” She glanced at his staff. “But, maybe . . . you know someone who could help?” The last on a hopeful up tone in her voice.

Robert gave a helpless shrug, “Your spirit gave you bad info. You’d do better at the Knight Museum or the Academy.”

“No, it was very insistent, and truthful. We can tell.”

“I don’t know what to tell you, then, but I’m not the guy.” He spotted someone entering the shop and gestured toward the door. “Sorry, I’ve got a meeting. He’s particular about not having visitors.”

Rather than expecting the newcomer to take the hint, Robert rose and approached his contact before finding a different table.

Undaunted, Char, Charlotte really, gave herself a few seconds to adjust her vision. Once she could perceive both the material and spirit realms at once, she looked at the spirits bound to one of her rings for guidance. The ghost of her former master was, as she’d expected, less than helpful. Much as she liked him, the old Goblin could be as frustrating as he was lovable, although he’d never been the latter around others. Making her figure out his advice alone was probably another test.

She shook her head in exasperation, wondering for the umpteenth time why she’d thought it would be a good idea to bind his spirit.

The only other spirits Char spotted were all either bound to her or obviously under the sway of other necromancers. No help there. So. Plan B. She consciously removed the mental walls she used to dampen her artificially enhanced senses. With the blocks down, the thaumod’s senses picked up subtle odors from the kitchen, muted conversations at every table and couch, even the whispered air currents of the room. Still no help. None of the myriad conversations came close to being interesting.

On to Plan C, then, she thought as the mental walls were rebuilt. Take the local’s advice and check out the Academy. What she sought could be at the museum, but curators were notoriously uninterested in giving up their treasures, even for a good cause or better preservation. And without a TRA presence, the museum probably had private security. Not that the Thaumaturgical Regulatory Agency provided museum security, but the lack of federal officers in a city this size suggested limited policing.

Nothing else to do for it, she thought with mental shrug. Char got directions to the academy from one of the baristas.

A mile outside the city proper, she came upon the Bloyse Academy, or at least the gates of its encircling wrought iron fence. Char was well traveled enough to take it for granted that the fence represented the boundaries of teleport blockers and other magical wards. As she pulled up to the gate, an older woman stepped out of a small office guard house. She appeared non-threatening, probably a formality. Made sense. Even mundane schools were being careful of visitors these days, especially with magic so widespread.

“What’s the nature of your business?” the woman asked as Char rolled down her window.

“I’d like to speak with the principal.”

“Do you have an appointment?” the woman asked as she eyed Char’s attire. Fortunately, she’d buttoned up the jacket.

“Sorry, no. I didn’t know I was coming until a short time ago. I was supposed to be out of town now, but my editors . . .”

The guard woman stepped back into her box and Char saw her tap an earring. Likely a communication crystal. She kept her own on a pendant on the silver chain she wore.

A few moments later, the gate opened.

“Principal Manfred says he can give you ten minutes. Park there, wear this, and his office is on the first floor of that building,” the woman said. As Charlotte pinned on the visitor badge, the woman added, “Any weapons, offensive enchantments, or spirits on your person?”

Because the woman glanced toward her shoulder, Char nodded, “Just two spirits, a ghost bound to my ring and a canine spirit bound to myself. Neither is violent.” The woman nodded in satisfaction and waved her through.

Charlotte parked and walked along the paths across green quads through the neo-classical buildings. She guessed a number were dorms, since the Academy had the look of a boarding prep school. The building she wanted was rather large and grandiose, even compared to the rest. From the directory inside, she discovered that it held the administrative offices, faculty housing, and the main school dining hall. Probably labs for the faculty and rec equipment as well, if she judged the place correctly.

Finding the principal’s office only took a couple minutes, after which she was waved into the office proper.

After exchanging pleasantries with the slightly balding, long bearded man in the pinstripe suit, Hugh Manfred, she went straight to the point.

“Sorry for the unexpected visit, sir. I only discovered that I need the assistance of one of your faculty within the last hour. An interview,” the last added as she noted his concerned look, “for Sorcery Today, an article on detection devices.” Without thinking, she began to produce pheromones magically tailored to lull anyone in close proximity.

As the principal was.

“Of course,” he gave a polite cough and straightened, “An expert on both artifice and oracular sorcery then? Professor Winn should be exactly who you are looking for, and she should be free in a few minutes, once the period ends. Office 315. In the meantime, feel free to make use of the staff lounge down the hall.”

Charlotte repeated the information to herself as she gave Manfred a seated bow. “Thank you, Principal Manfred. I should let you get back to work. My apologies again for being such a bother on such short notice.”

He waved her off, “Think nothing of it. We’re always glad to share the expertise of our faculty especially with the wide reaching press, even if we only normally do so during breaks . . .”

“Thank you for bending the rules this one time, Principal Manfred,” Charlotte said as she left the room. “You’ve saved my job, sir. I’ll make sure the Academy gets a glowing review in the magazine.”

She hurried out of the office and started up the stairs. It would be best, she felt, to avoid the lounge. Best to stay out from underfoot, lest someone change their mind about an outsider and supposed reporter being loose on the private boarding school’s grounds.

Finding room 315 was easy enough, once she determined which wing of the building it was in. Remaining inconspicuous was an entirely different story. Between the upper floor’s general silence and the students downstairs, Char became uncomfortably aware that there were few adults, she guessed around fifty, and that she was an outsider. In the closed community, all the adults probably knew each other. And the kids likely knew all the adults. Then there was the chance that Manfred would change his mind or check thaumnet to verify her non-existent credentials. Maybe the idea hadn’t been a good one. Maybe hiring a private investigator or hunter would have been better. After all, she was a crafter, this wasn’t her expertise. Mimicking movie and story detectives would only go so far before it all fell apart.

The seven minutes that passed since leaving the principal’s office felt, well, not like eons. Too cliché. More like hours.

Finally the old Goblin’s ghost alerted her to someone heading down the hall.

Charlotte looked over and sighed silently in relief. She didn’t recognize the woman. Bracing herself, she fervently hoped this was Professor Winn and, yes, the woman passed by every other door. As the teacher drew nearer, Char noted that she was not quite a traditionalist. Beneath a black traditional, almost collegiate, robe, she wore a knee length grey skirt and white blouse. That, plus the fact that the robe was open and bore no signs of traditional enchantment, spoke volumes. For instance, she was fairly young, but fitting in with an older crowd of instructors. That knowledge, assessed in an instant, helped.

Stepping up, Char delivered a reasonably traditional bow in greeting, “Professor Winn?”

“This is Professor Winn’s office and this is Professor Winn’s key.”

Charlotte flashed a wan smile, choosing to take the reply as poor humor.

“Principal Manfred sent me up. I need to consult with someone knowledgable with oracular sorcery, he strongly recommended you.”

“He did, did he?” the teacher sniffed, “Well, of course I have no papers or assignments to assess. No busy work created by the administration in the name of standards. Nothing at all.”

“I understand you’re busy, professor . . . but I hope my consultation won’t take more than a few minutes.”

“Which means it will no doubtedly take much longer. But, come in and let’s hear about this problem.”

Once they were inside, Char took a seat that had likely been filled by scores of students. She ignored the rest of the office to focus on the other woman. The moment that Winn sat, the necromancer drew a shard of pottery from her bag of materials.

“This is associated with something I seek to help a friend,” Charlotte explained, “What I need is apparently protected from the view of spirits. And I have reason to believe it is protected from the usual sorcerous and wizardly scrying too. I’m not exactly certain what it is.”

“Thus a spellcrafter’s art is useless,” the professor finished, “So you decided on the Academy . . .”

“Because a man in the city recommended it. And I assume you follow the tradition of magic schools?”

“Neutrality? That our faculty are forbidden from joining any guild or order? Of course, we are a reputable institution,” Winn replied with just a touch of imperiousness. “Very well, let me see this shard.”

The teacher ran her hands over the piece of pottery for several seconds, manipulating energy that Char was unable to detect without external aid. From what she knew of sorcery, Winn was probably drawing and shaping energy. Knowing how badly a necromantic ritual could go if the caster was interrupted, she remained silent and watched. The process lacked the inherent show and, some might say, spectacle of her own art. No chanting, no candles, no offerings were present. Simply a woman sitting at a desk touching a piece of pottery with a slender stick barely the length of her own forearm.

After a time, the professor met her eyes across the desk.

“You were correct,” she said, “What you seek is protected from the usual basic divinations and scrying. The wards would block my most advanced students here and would no doubt foil the average oracle for hire. Few in the city are capable of creating such protections, even fewer know how to circumvent them. The one who sent you here has probably helped more than he intended.”

“So you can find it?” Char gave the shade of her ex-master a quick glance.

Winn nodded, “I believe so. I know a spell that should be powerful enough. But it will take at least half an hour to gather the energy and cast.”

She nodded instantly in return. “I’ve been looking for over a year, half an hour is nothing. And I’ll reimburse you for your time, as much as I can.”

The professor flicked her wand at the door, which audibly locked itself. Another simple pattern of wandwork caused the door to glow for a second. “Then I will require absolute silence. You may stay, but any distraction and the spell may fail with disastrous results.”

Char sat back and made herself as comfortable as possible in response.

She intended to remain watchful throughout the process, but after ten minutes of nothing to see but Winn staring into space with her wand raised, she lost focus.

A cleared throat brought the necromancer around.

Embarassed and realizing she must have nodded off, Charlotte took a few seconds before meeting Winn’s eyes. When she did, she started to apologize until the professor held up a hand.

“No need,” the teacher gestured toward the door, “If I got offended every time someone slept around me, I would have been driven mad by this job long ago . . .”

“Did . . . did you find it?”

The professor nodded gravely.

“And?”

“I don’t believe I was detected. And I advise you to leave the city and forget about whatever it is that you seek.”

Charlotte shook her head, “That’s not an option. All my research says it’s the only thing that can help. Where is it?”

“The location is why I advise you to forget it . . .,” Winn sighed, “My spell traced it to Tempus Manor.”

“Alright, that’s my next stop then.”

“You do not just go to Tempus Manor. The manor is the power center of the Shadow Order. They control most of the city’s criminal activity, and have stakes in crime throughout the country,” Winn explained. “Some say around the world. Think of the mundane mafia, but ten time worse.”

“So how do I get this thing?”

“That, I cannot tell you, at least not without violating the neutrality of the school,” Winn replied, touching the pottery shard with her wand. “If you are set on this course of action, though, I can furnish you with this.” She handed the broken shard back to Charlotte. “It will tell you when you are close to the item, a stronger glow the closer you are.”

Stowing the shard as she rose, the necromancer met Winn’s eyes, “Thanks, for that and your time.”

On that note, she beat a hasty retreat from both the building and the Academy. As she drove back into town, Charlotte let her mind wander over the possibilities. According to her research, this was the only thing that could help, but it appeared to be unattainable. From time to time, she glanced at the spectral Goblin in the passenger seat, hoping he would offer some advice.

She was so lost in her thoughts that soon after passing the Night City limits, Charlotte almost hit a young man. As he gave her a gesture that asked what she was doing, the necromancer registered shoulder length straight brown hair, t-shirt, jeans, a staff, and a knapsack with two long white sticks on his back.

Brian Carter jumped as the car almost hit him.

He gestured toward the red light and raised his hands to silently question the driver.

With a shake of his head, the spellcrafter continued to the other side and took a left toward his destination. At least, he hoped he was going the right direction. So far he’d gotten himself lost twice in the city. Being a suburban kid from out of state was no help navigating the busy city. Heck, half the streets didn’t even have signs. He’d already had to stop for clearer directions a few times.

A couple blocks later, Brian muttered two words in a language long forgotten by mundanes. His own kind has kept it alive in some of their grimores and histories over the last six millennia. Combined, the two sought his goal . . . and failed, as they had during his last several attempts. Either he’d gotten the second word wrong or the place was protected against divinations of all sorts. Probably the second, he decided. It was, after all, said to be the home of a great master, one who may choose to test his potential students.

Brian stopped at the corner of an alley, closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and willed his body and spirit to relax as he exhaled.

The effect was instantaneous.

He felt loose, all his tension released to go where it would.

His eyes opened to find three people coming toward him. As they approached from in front, behind, and the alley, he noted their threatening body language and similar style of dress. His rattan staff clattered against the pavement as his hand rose in surrender.

The one in front drew a thin wand while Brian heard the sound of steel clearing leather from behind. He ignored his right for the moment, as the one in front spoke, “We’re takin’ donations, sir . . . to beautify the city.”

“I have no money,” he replied, knowing that without his staff in hand, they’d be more confident.

“Why don’ I believe that? Ain’t gonna be a problem if we search ya?”

In response, Brian simply turned to face the knife woman behind him. He grabbed her incoming hand as he pivoted again, muttering two words to block the leader’s spell. As he continued to turn, Brian drew his oak practice dagger and let the woman’s momentum carry her into its point. As she doubled over, he’d already slid toward the alley man, slide stepped next to him, and rapped the hard wood against his assailant’s windpipe. He paused then to face the leader, the tip of his wooden knife pointed toward the man’s throat and words of power on his lips.

“I assure you, I have no money,” Brian tried again, “and no desire to fight.”

When the man glanced toward his disabled companions, the spellcrafter whispered words that caused his dropped staff to float to his open hand. The practice knife returned to its place tucked in his belt. And Brian simply walked away, maintaining his subtle, non-magical, awareness of the mugger for a few yards.

He turned a corner a few blocks later, down a narrow, junk filled alley. About halfway down, between the two soot blackened brick buildings, Brian found the door he sought. He neither saw nor expected any bell or other means of indicating his presence. The one he had come to see would know, or he was not the one Brian looked for. Besides which, he had heard the man was a stickler for tradition and courtesy.

Thus, Brian sat, his pack on his back and his training sticks set to the side in an inoffensive place.

Years of practice from a young age made sitting in the kneeling position comfortable for several hours. Even so, as night drew near and his presence had not been acknowledged, he felt cramps in his legs. Subtle breathing and internal relaxation techniques somewhat eased the ache, but not completely. To deal with the rest, Brian focused on the door and wall. He attempted to let go of conscious thoughts and ignore the night sounds of the city.

In time, the alley became filled with a darkness that passersby found impenetrable, concealing the waiting man.

This also made the city lights more difficult to ignore, or might have if Brian had not entered a trance-like state.

Two days passed in this way.

Near dusk of the third day, a young woman’s head appeared from behind the open door.

“The master wishes to know why you are blocking his door.”

“I seek, humbly, to enter the master’s attention, however briefly.”

The woman left and the cracked door closed.

A few minutes later, she returned.

“The master wishes to know why, if you sought his attention, you did not knock.”

Brian swore she had smiled for a fraction of a second after the statement.

“I had been led to believe that the master greatly honored tradition, and that sitting at his door awaiting notice was traditional.”

“Ah,” the woman nodded, “he thought it would be that. In that case, Master Sikula says you may enter and have an audience . . . after you have knocked on his door like a sensible person.”

After a few minutes, Brian muttered two words in a lost language. The air stirred as the last syllable was pronounced and two dull thuds sounded as the wind made contact with the door. The supplicant was on his feet and waiting when the woman returned, opened the door, and waved him in.

Stellar Buccaneers (pt. 3) (2008)

They came to a halt in front of the captain as the thud of the Patrol’s airlock tunnel reverberated through the hull. The wererat took his place just behind the captain with Stenn and a couple others behind him.

It took a moment for the lock to cycle before the Patrol’s officials came on-board.

The Patrol squad was led by a young human in the brown robes and outfit of a Star Knight, not their full name, Warn knew, but good enough. Although the leader bore only a short, straight bladed sword, her unit was well armored in matching grey uniforms and carried rifles. The Knights were the core, and leadership, of the Patrol. He’d heard that some wore other colors and even infiltrated various crime networks, but had never seen them.

Without a word, the squad fanned out and started searching the hold while their leader stood before the captain.

She bowed before saying, “Captain. I am Lieutenant Alphei of the Patrol, representing Captain Parhas of the Trition. My men, with your cooperation, will conduct a standard search of your ship for contraband. I suggest you cooperate.”

Warn watched the captain, certain the man would return pleasantries. No one aboard really wanted to test the rumors about the Star Knights’ combat prowess, at least not firsthand.

As certain as he was, the wererat still gave an inaudible sigh of relief when the captain said, “Of course, Lieutenant. We’re always happy to help the Patrol. My cargomaster, Lernen, will answer any of your team’s questions. Warn here will take care of your needs, as I am needed elsewhere, to see to a few repairs with our FTL drive. We were not scheduled to drop out here, something malfunctioned.”

A little forced politeness, the wererat noted, and deception were two reasons they still operated while so many crews were captured or killed.

Warn stepped forward as the captain and the Patrol officer exchanged bows. He half expected the knight to take a tour of the ship. Instead, she remained in place and simply looked around the hold.

Since she stood still, he took a similar stance and studied her.

Her head tilted slightly to the left, as if she were listening to something. All he heard was the hum and throb of the ship that the crew typically ignored, it was so constant. But there was nothing he’d consider unusual enough to focus on so intently. Maybe, Warn thought suddenly, she had an implant communicator. Those were common in some places, maybe the knights used them too, getting reports.

After a couple moments, the knight’s posture returned to normal and she seemed indefinably relaxed.

Alphei seemed to notice Warn for the first time.

“What is that?” she said, pointing toward the far hold wall.

The wererat jumped, “What?”

He had to jog to catch up since the knight was already halfway across the hold. Recalling stories about their powers, Warn silently offered thanks that she was headed away from the secret hold they’d stuffed the biologicals in.

He caught up as she said, “That crack in the wall. Right there. There isn’t a hidden door there, is there?”

Warn shook his head rapidly.

“No, it’s probably just that the ship’s old. We’re a bit behind on replacement parts and repairs. That’s an internal dividing wall, so not a high priority.”

The Patrol officer continued to look suspicious and he was uncomfortably aware of her squad still moving around the ship. His own crewmates had deserted the place after the initial exchange. That was their standard practice to keep some of the dimmer crew quiet.

Warn shrugged his indifference. “Feel free to check. I can call one of our mechanics down, if you like. I mostly deal with non-crew and help move cargo, so you’ll need one of them for more details.”

The robed woman stared at him long enough that Warn was reminded that some said they could read minds. He tried to keep his blank, only to fail, as always happened.

She turned away, apparently satisfied, and started back to her place by the airlock.

A short time later, a man wearing a Patrol sergeant’s stripes joined them.

After a quick salute, he said, “Everything’s clear, sir. No contraband in either hold, sir. Should we check crew quarters?”

“No, sergeant. Gather the troops, we’ve spent enough time here.”

Too many civilians and too few Patrol, Warn thought as he saw the squad off. That always helped them against the Patrol. Because they were led by the knights, and not many were drawn to the order, they had limited resources. It helped when the knight was young and inexperienced.

The instant that the knight and her squad were through the cycled airlock, Veng appeared with a couple of Lernen’s assistants. The Goblin silently handed Warn a small box and directed all three of his aides to different parts of the hold with hand signals. Without a word, the wererat switched on the homemade detector and started sweeping his part of the hold for bugs and homing devices. The Patrol was supposed to be too honorable to use such things, or entrapment, but the captain liked to be sure, another reason they were still operating. Veng had explained previously that the devices weren’t full proof, but they were better than nothing.

After an hour, as the engines were firing up again, Warn switched off the scanner and handed it back to the Goblin.

The techie gave a thumbs up a short time later. The hold was as clean as they could tell, given relatively old gear.

“Clear,” Veng announced. “The Patrol should be away now.”

“We jump in ten,” the captain’s voice came over the ship’s comm, “straight to Alest.”

Most of the crew spent the several hour jump to Alest making what repairs and maintenance they could to the ship. The rest saw to personal gear, simultaneously looking forward to shore leave and disappointed in their small haul this trip, at least so far as most of the crew knew.

Warn spent the time worrying about how he and Lernen were going to offload the biologicals. Getting rid of them and bringing in a large price would be easy. Finding a buyer who wouldn’t immediately turn around and use any malignant ones on a world’s populace was another story. They’d have to be careful if they didn’t want to be responsible for the potential demise of millions or billions. The captain, he knew, didn’t shrink at killing people, nor did most of the crew. But, the death they dealt out was personal and comparatively clean. Death by biologicals . . . it lacked even the worst pirate’s sense of honor. It was a source of pride for Warn that he never recommended small traders as targets, only corporate ships and the free merchants who carried their overflow cargos.

Since Robbyn was busy in the armoury, and therefore couldn’t provide distraction, the wererat settled down to try sorting through his known contacts on Alest. He hoped to have a short list of four or five to compare with Lernen and present to the captain when they docked. The chance that there would be some overlap in their lists was pretty good, if only because there were a finite number of fences on the station.

A few hours later, as the ship came out of FTL, Warn looked for the cargomaster in the hold. He’d only managed to cut the list to a little under a dozen. Even some of those weren’t entirely reliable about payment or about where they’d sell the goods, in his opinion. It was entirely possible that Lernen had different dealings with some of them. Maybe they dealt better with humans or cargo-types than with him. There were probably rumors about his “condition” on the station, even though he didn’t advertise his special talents.

After a quick glance around, he left the datapad with his list on Lernen’s console since he couldn’t find the woman. They still had an hour of STL approach to the station, for safety and defense purposes, so that’d be more than enough time to compare.

By the time the ship entered Alest orbit, Warn had a strong short list.

He looked out a viewport at the asteroid below them. The direction, of course, was fully subjective. A variety of other large ships were in similar orbits nearby. Everyone, he knew from experience, would have to be shuttled over since the hollowed rock couldn’t dock large ships. Small freighters, yes. They were significantly larger, though.

Since Lernen was staying in the hold, that left the wererat to check their contacts.

He joined Robbyn in the shuttle bay in time to get a spot on the first shuttle.

The pilot glanced over her shoulder at them. She said, “They’re on, finally, Cap’n. Hopper One ready for launch.”

Warn felt a momentary twinge of remorse for holding up others’ shore leave as he hurriedly strapped in. The guilt vanished as his thoughts turned toward his job on the station and a brief surge of acceleration hit before the art-grav adjusted.

The trip between ship and station was thankfully quick. The Nistar’s shuttles weren’t intended for passengers or comfort. They’d been built as cargo haulers, the seats folded down from the walls. As many people as possible were packed in, shoulder to shoulder, to get everyone to station as quickly as could be done, to save fuel costs. Warn found it difficult to think when he was crammed in between his wife and a Dwarf he barely knew. The latter had only joined the crew in the last couple weeks, he recalled, their first Dwarf in some time.

Once they matched the station’s slight rotation and docked, Warn fairly flew along the corridor that tunneled through nearly a hundred yards of rock. He had no problems with ships or space, but there was something about the hollow asteroid that drew him more than any other station.

The view that leaped upon them at the end of the hallway was, he admitted, probably part of the allure.

Residents of the station had built structures along the entire inner surface of Alest. The effect was a bit visually disconcerting at first, but one grew used to it. Art-grav plates, augmented by a little rotation, ensured that ‘down’ always pointed to the rock’s exterior regardless of where a person stood. The subjective ‘up’ was always the empty space at Alest’s center.

There were even gardens and parks with real trees and grass.

And drunken, rowdy pirates, privateers, and smugglers, he reminded himself. The green places were mostly in neighborhoods where the natives lived. The station’s AI rarely let common shiprats in those areas. Its robotic drones patrolled the streets and corridors to keep some places calm, normal, and off limits.

The station was probably better that way, he thought as, flanked by Robbyn, he set out for one of the seedier parts of the station. No place could be totally lawless. There had to be some core, or balance, otherwise the place would either be destroyed by its residents or they’d all scatter. Anarchy, he thought, didn’t work very well for a society, in fact it was the opposite of society. The AI enforced law abiding parts of Alest balanced the lawless, gave the residents whom the pirates relied upon a place to sleep safely and raise families. If it weren’t for that, Warn figured the station would have failed decades ago as there’d be no tavern owners, fences, or ship mechanics on board.

Warn’s thoughts were interrupted as his subconscious recognized key landmarks.

He had to pay more attention to his surroundings. Lack of awareness in this part of town caused people to end up in the proverbial gutter. There were no gutters on Alest, of course, no rain. And maintenance droids took care of the debris, organic or otherwise.

They’d decided to try Lernen’s contacts first, in the assumption that she’d have more current contact with people who dealt in bulky merchandise. Warn at least thought that would be the case. Then again, he knew his own contacts better than Robbyn did. Even the captain, who wanted the goods off his ship, agreed that they couldn’t trust feelers or negotiations to the station’s comm channels. Most people assumed there were government and police spies on Alest, despite the AI’s assurances. It helped their case that most pirates and smugglers could think of several ways to sneak on the rock. Besides, he didn’t know the cargomaster’s contacts, so face-to-face would give a chance to read them.

But, Warn hadn’t thought the woman’s best contact would be in one of Alest’s worst neighborhoods.

It only took a couple minutes of looking before they spotted the bar he worked out of.

Robbyn led the way in, for safety, and scanned the room as Warn told the door bouncer that he wanted to see Fynn. In answer to the half-Ogre’s look, he added a few credits and Lernen’s name.

As they went to the bar, the wererat saw the bouncer speaking into an earpiece comm.

Probably a good arrangement, he thought as his partner kept an eye on the other patrons. Fynn got free security and the bar got extra patronage as he made his visitors wait out front. The fence’s place would be on the second floor of the dingy building, he decided. Fire escape or hidden door to the neighboring building through the shared wall. If this had been anywhere else they’d be ways to elude the police. On Alest, they were probably meant to escape drunk and angry patrons. That was how he’d set things up. Add two or three guards, because the bar’s muscle was loyal to someone else, if to anyone.

Very nice set up indeed, the wererat thought as Robbyn drew his attention to a tall Dwarf heading their way.

The Dwarf, maybe half-Dwarf, Warn amended, barely glanced them over.

“Fynn says to get lost yourselves, or we’ll be sure you’re lost.”

Warn didn’t have to see Robbyn to know she’d tensed and assessed their ‘friend.’ He simply shrugged, “Since I assume you’re in touch, tell Fynn we’ll happily leave and offer out goods to a competitor, Lernen said Fynn probably couldn’t afford or move the goods anyway. The offer was just a courtesy, since they’ve known each other for so long . . .”

It was, potentially, a dicey gambit at best. With luck, Fynn’s reputation and ego would be on the line and he’d go for it. Or his greed would win out, didn’t matter which way to Warn. At worst, they could be shot and Lernen’s relationship with this fence would be ruined.

The fact that the Dwarf looked angry wasn’t a good sign.

Warn was surreptitiously eyeing the door and trying to silently signal Robbyn when their opposite spoke.

“Fynn says, ‘Cheap tactic, not one I’d expect from a friend of Lernen. Not inspired either.’ But, Fynn will see you, to reward guts. No promises.”

The wererat waved toward the stairs, “That’s all we asked for. Lead on, no tricks from us.” He hoped the partial, sample, manifest of biologicals they’d brought would be enough to get the fence’s interest and spark a purchase.

They were followed up the stairs, the part-Dwarf clearly having done this before.

At the top, the tough grunted, “Right, at the end.”

In a few steps, Warn and Robbyn stood outside a surprisingly solid door, given the state of the rest of the bar. Even though it wasn’t visible, the wererat spotted the place he figured a pinhole camera would be, where he’d put one at least.

The door swung open automatically, with no one near it.

Warn first noticed the large, heavy desk that dominated the tiny room. Its light tan wood clashed with the dark grey, washed out walls. Probably armored, he thought, given Fynn’s job and the kind of people who were in need of a fence’s services. His eyes traveled to the windows, almost missing the woman who was swallowed by the desk.

He came back to her with a start as the Dwarf took a position by the door.

The two guards flanking the desk, both Human, indicated that the desk’s occupant was Fynn. His own escort had probably already assessed them. Warn took a moment to follow suit as he adjusted himself.

“My associate tells me you have something of interest from Lernen,” the fence said, without pleasantries or rising. “Why didn’t she contact me herself, as usual?”

“She is rather busy,” the wererat quickly replied, “The goods are sensitive, so she’s in the best position to keep an eye on them. I have a sample list, it’s incomplete, but should have enough to get an idea.”

The Dwarf intercepted Warn’s datapad and took it to Fynn.

She spent a few moments skimming it as Warn waited and Robbyn traded measuring looks with the guards.

Just as the wererat started to get concerned, Fynn looked back up at him.

“Pretty heavy stuff,” she said. “I’m not saying I can’t move it, but it would cost and hang around a while . . . buyers aren’t exactly lining up. I can offer a couple thousand for half this list. Best offer.”

Warn shook his head. “No deal. That stuff alone, not counting the rest, has gotta be worth over a million. Even figuring a mark up on sale, half that list should be at least a couple hundred thousand.”

“True, but it’s pretty specialized stuff and easily recognized. Moving it is going to be rough, it’ll probably sit here for a while. I’ll have to store it for a while, and they’re pretty hot, even for storing on Alest.”

Warn shrugged, “In that case, we’ll have to take them elsewhere.”

“Good luck. There’s not many on the station who can move biologicals, even in smaller quantities.”

“But there are enough,” the wererat said. “Thanks for the time.”

He turned to leave while Robbyn watched the thugs, she followed in his wake.

They were a couple blocks from the bar before Warn spoke again.

“Not a great meeting, but not unexpected. Let’s see Harrik, he’s somewhere near here, unless he’s moved.”

Robbyn changed direction to match him and waited a block before asking, “He’s the one who shot your last partner?”

“Yep. But that was nearly ten years ago, and in his defense, Morim deserved it. He was a frecking ass and insulted Harrik’s family.”

“I’ll take your word for it.”

Warn smirked, “He made the Nistar’s crew look like saints and perfectly polite gentlepersons.”

He was amazed to see Robbyn smile out of the corner of his eye. It wasn’t often she broke on a job. Usually the impassive, constantly alert mask was her default state. Well, unless the job involved blowing something up. Then, the best description he could think of for her emotional state was giddy. Still professional, but also like a high school boy with firecrackers.

“Harrik will likely take at least half the stuff at the price we want. He’s fair, as fences go, and about as honest a person as you’ll find on this part of Alest.”

And professional Robbyn was back. Not even a noncommittal response.

They returned to the Nistar a few hours later, empty handed except for the information that Harrik had been knifed in a brawl a week before. He’d been, so far as they could tell, an unfortunate bystander and hadn’t made it. His network and contacts were already absorbed by other fences. Telling the captain about this failure didn’t go over well, but at least Warn’s talents were rare enough to keep them on board.

A few days later, Lernen and Warn had to settle for a third of what they’d hoped. There were only a couple on the station who would touch the goods, so they had to admit it was a buyer’s market and just take what they could get. The captain getting on them about the repair and reoutfitting bills didn’t help. At least the other stuff had sold fast, Warn had thought, and covered some of the damage. Still, they’d only break even, which meant an unhappy crew without pay.

The day they sold the biotech, the wererat booked passage on a ship to one of the region’s busiest ports, hoping to find a rich ship.

Stellar Buccaneers (pt. 2) (2008)

They didn’t take much care moving the small crate, seeing as it hadn’t blown up during transport to the hold.

The delay only bought Warn a few seconds of respite before the pressure was restored.

That seemed to be enough, though, he decided after rolling his wrists and fingers to be sure they were loose.  He rolled his neck and shoulders to be sure before settling into a comfortable position.  During the whole delaying process, he kept studying the lock and possible transmitter.

Once he was ready, the wererat’s outstretched hand was filled by one of Veng’s scanners and a probe.  The former was set gently on the crate’s lid, display facing Warn.  He found an insertion point and watched the scanner’s measurement of power and radiation from the lock.  His eyes never left the display as he slid the flat metal probe into the lock’s casing.  He stopped with half the device sticking out as images flashed on the scanner.

“I’m past the shielding.  Internal images are starting to come up,” he informed the others, notably Veng.  “Looks like it is a transmitter . . . following the leads . . . hmm, good quality, with backup power supply and redundant wiring . . . expensive . . . even if this has Veleran caviar, this thing would dwarf the value of the contents . . .”

He heard a low whistle from behind and ignored it.  Even so, the back of his mind was running possibilities.  Oddly, that and the talking helped him concentrate.

“Oh, interesting and tricky,” Warn muttered, then, louder, “The transmitter’s wired to the lock . . . and the lid . . . if the lock’s opened without the right key or the lid’s forced, I’m guessing the transmitter’ll go off . . . so the owner must be sure agents’ll be in range when it is opened . . . and there’s another lead I can’t trace . . . don’t try opening any of the others, the lead seems to be coming from the lock.”  Concern about explosives came flooding back.  Close on its heels was the continued suspicion that these crates held more than food, even delicacies.  The security was too elaborate and expensive, no one could make a profit off foodstuffs, or most medicines, with this sort of expense.

“Veng?  Any power readings from the probe?”

“Nothing.  Either there isn’t any, it’s too low to register, or the probe’s gone screwy.”

“Technical term?  Never mind,” Warn commented under his breath.  No definite way to determine what the lead was attached to or what it would do.  Explosive, combustive, or sealant would make the most sense.  Destroy the thief, destroy the contents, or render the box unopenable.  Did the lock pulse a charge to set it off, or did it go if the current was interrupted?  Damn good question.

He ran his hands over the case and checked the weight in the scanner.  The latter came when they’d moved the crate.  Its size to weight ratio didn’t seem to indicate great density, that helped unless a gaseous explosive . . . Warn paused to check with Robbyn before dismissing that idea.

Thirty-some minutes later, the wererat looked up from his work.

“Ready to go for the lock itself,” he reported.  “I think I’ve managed to disengage or bypass all the problem leads I see.  Veng?  Great.  Everyone may want to take cover just in case.”  As he spoke, Warn laid out the set of tools the Goblin handed over on the floor.  They were his own set, so he wouldn’t have to look to find what he wanted.  He could ignore all the tools toward his back since they were made for the, now rare, mechanical locks.  Owner had gone electronic, code key access with a thumbprint scanner, twice the security of the other crates right there.  Based on his study, he guessed there would be a second key sequence too, not numeric though.  No problems.

The pads were easy, he could automate that.  The real trick was the thumb scanner.  Darn things couldn’t be fooled, especially without knowing who was authorized to spring the lock.

There were, at least, some tricks to bypass the scanner that he’d learned in the seedier parts of some seriously seedy ports, though.  The necessary gear was in his standard kit, even though most of it carried multiple life sentences in the five nations merely for possessing the gear.  Warn gave a scoffing chuckle.  Like that would worry most owners, the ones who weren’t already wanted never thought they’d be caught anyway.  Deterrent based punishments rarely worked, he thought as he selected the necessary devices.

After considerable fiddling with several devices, Warn managed to bypass the scanner without triggering any counter-tampering problems.  The jumble of jerry-rigged solution spoke to the difficulty, but he hoped the same rig would work on the others.  If it didn’t short itself out first, he thought, eyeing the nest of physical and other connections.  The wireless ones were only visible in his mind’s eye, of course.

Finally, he leaned back.

“Veng, all clear,” the wererat announced.  I hope, he added silently.

The Goblin took his place and attached a comparatively simple, and tiny, dedicated computer to the lock.  It was smaller, faster, and a lot pricier than Warn’s, a point not lost on the ship-scout.  Better to use the best gear though.  The comp was designed solely to run code combos as rapidly as possible.  The latest model, which Veng’s was not, could supposedly run the thousand digit codes used by high end bank vaults in fractions of a second . . . and only existed in prototype form at the moment.  Another decade and a poor pirate might afford one, after they were long obsolete.

He turned his attention from the tech to Robbyn and flashed a, he hoped, reassuring smile.  She returned the positive sign and moved to another crate.

As it was, the Goblin’s device managed to crack the code in a couple minutes, at which point Warn helped remove the lid.

Both pirates backed off as a cloud of condensed vapor billowed out of the crate.  Veng looked at Lernen quickly, the latter glanced at a scanner and shook her head.  So, there was nothing but water in the rapidly dissipating cloud.

Warn was the first to venture back to the crate and look in.

After a moment, he let out a low whistle.

“Well, now we know why the security’s tight . . . this ain’t delicacies, unless that’s really changed,” he explained.  “Looks like biosamples, least they’ve got the universal biohazard sign.”

The cargomaster came up while Veng moved on to another crate.

Lernen echoed Warn’s whistle a few seconds later.  She pointed to the contents, “See that?  It’s Zeitkar’s logo.  They, so people say, do biotech work for the Commonwealth and Republic, a handful of public projects and a bunch of classified stuff.”

Warn nodded absently.  He trusted the other human to know company signs, the lady saw enough of them.

“What kind of classified?”

“Who knows for sure,” the cargomaster shrugged, “but the scuttle is they’re into frecking bioweapons and genetic engineering, maybe even stuff that’s illegal internationally.  Word is they’re one of the top five biocorps outside the Alliance, maybe even stealing Alliance tech.”

“That would explain the siffle response,” Robbyn said, joining them.  “If this Zeitkar really is doing covert biotech work for them, they’d want it covered up.  Probably no escort to keep it hidden and not draw attention.”

Warn nodded, “So . . . who’s going to tell the Captain?”

“It’s Lernen’s turf,” Veng pointed out, as if that was the end of debate.

The cargomaster’s eyes widened.  “The Captain’s not happy with my boys right now, he seems to think we could have unloaded their hold faster,” she mused.  “Besides Veng and Warn open’d the cargo.”

After the silence stretched to the point where comfort fled, Robbyn rolled her eyes.

“Fine,” she rose, “I’ll talk to him.  At least I’m not on his bad side right now.  I’ll play shield, try to calm him down on this one.”

“Well, you’ve always known him better than we have, love,” Warn pointed out, “I’m sure you’d be better than any of us.”  He understood the problem, though.  Biologicals, especially bioweapons or gene samples, were a high ticket item, good profits and a great haul for the ship.  On the other hand, they’d also be high on Zeitkar’s recovery list, which meant elite corporate retrieval teams.  Usually they only operated in squads, but even a corp squad had enough firepower to take over a battleship and their training often made the siffle’s special forces look like a kids’ camping group.  Then there was the moral side.  Despite public rumors and conceptions, most pirates in Warn’s experience held a code of honor.  Dealing in bioweapons, genocide, or mass destruction wasn’t a good thing in those codes, at least for most ships.

But the rest of the haul would, he guessed, only just cover refueling and restocking.  Break even hits weren’t popular with the crew.

The list of possible buyers was rather short too.  Some arms dealers, an alright bunch really, though some were crazy.  Various psychotic rebel groups would be an option, along with rival companies, but both tended to have either fanatics or their own heavy artillery and were dangerous to deal with.  And there was always the possibility of a sting operation.  Whatever.  Anyone they unloaded the crates to would know that Zeitkar and the CFL special units, maybe even top Commonwealth agents, would be after the stuff.  Hot goods were fine, of course, but there was such as thing as too hot.  That would drive down the profits considerably.

Warn glanced at Veng as Robbyn left the hold.

The Goblin nodded toward their cargo, indicating three that he’d unlocked.

With Robbyn off to report, the wererat was the closest they had to a trap and explosives person.  Somehow, the idea of bringing more of the crew on the project didn’t occur to anyone.

Nearly an hour passed before the last of the potentially transmitting containers was safely open.

Warn sat aside with Veng while the pair of cargo jockeys inventoried the contents. There were still twenty-some shielded crates to go, and Robbyn had only gotten to check half of those for explosives, as best she could in the circumstances. Assuming they didn’t end up as splatters of biomass on the bulkheads, there were roughly thirty containers of the stuff. Even accounting for variable sizes, he assumed the smaller ones were rare and more valuable, and based on going black market rates at their last port . . .

“You have an average size of the crates?” he looked at Veng, who nodded. “Multiply that by . . . 132,500 then by . . . twenty-eight.”

The techie did the simple math, showed him, and both let out low whistles.

They knew exactly what their share out of every hundred thousand credits the ship earned was, divided amongst the crew. Warn further knew that the number he’d chosen had been a conservatively low amount for patented genetic codes, modified for the corporate heat. Military biosamples could conceivably increase the amount thirty-fold, if they were lucky. With the right buyer, it could be a retirement level haul.

His thoughts were interrupted by the surprisingly quiet return of his wife, with their captain in tow.

The pirates rose as one, both seeking signs of the captain’s emotional state on first his blank face then Robbyn’s. She was keeping a stiff mask, one even Warn couldn’t read. He was familiar with it, though, often calling it the ‘avoiding a superior’s blame’ face. Carefully neutral and controlled, even when the Captain was behind her. Probably so they wouldn’t accidentally reveal anything . . .

“Who knows?” the Captain started, straight to business as usual.

“Just the five of us,” Warn said for the group, “We didn’t think it would be good for the whole crew to know, Captain.”

The man seemed to lose tension without any physical change.

“Thank the gods for that at least,” he muttered. Then louder, “It doesn’t leave the hold or this group until I say so. Anyone breathes a word beyond us six and he’s out the nearest airlock with a hole in his head. Understood? Good. What’re we looking at here in goods and value . . . and threat?”

Veng showed him the numbers, adding, “A conservative estimate, Cap’n.”

“We are not completely certain of what exactly is in the inventory,” Lernen put in as the captain grunted. “The crates lack a packing slip or manifest, for obvious reasons. Presumably, the bar codes on each item can be read at the destination and compared to a list transmitted some other way.”

Warn nodded to himself. Made sense, from what he’d heard of black market transfers . . . he’d had a lot of lessons, mostly unwilling, from the cargomaster since taking a berth on the ship. In theory, they helped with the scouting part of his unique job. The true manifest could be carried by a trusted courier either on the transport or another ship, probably a faster one. He had no issues seeing the interstellar companies adapting similar techniques for their grey ops.

“The last ones were only just opened, sir,” the cargomaster continued, “before you got in, so we haven’t had a chance to look closely.”

The captain nodded and surveyed the collection.

“Fine. Do whatever you can to quietly determine the contents, I’ll get the mate to gather names of any bioweapons crew we might have. And send me everything you all know about this Zeitkar company.” With that, he turned and strode from the hold.

The quintet was left standing with no direction for most of its members.

Finally, Robbyn said, “May as well get back to the other jobs, Veng. Can’t see as we’ll need much help here. Warn and me can stick around to keep the rest out.” She glanced at Warn for his confirming nod. He had nothing better to do.

The pair sat in silence for a time after the Goblin left.

Warn watched the door and considered modern piracy. It was a far cry from the historical adventure holos. Gone were the days when all a pirate needed was a ship, a gun, and knowledge of the trade lanes. Back in the old days of sea-based piracy. These days they needed eyes and ears in the ports, connections to fences for goods, information about goods and trends to keep from being cheated, even data on major corps now that private armies were common and doing things the legal authorities and governments wouldn’t. Never mind the facts that they needed bigger hauls to keep up a starship and falling off a sea-ship didn’t mean instant death. And, of course, a ship big enough to take on armed merchants meant a good sized crew, including specialists like engineers and armourers, not like those old ships where anyone could make rope, mend a sail, or do some carpentry. On the other hand, their chances of being caught were slimmer, space was an extremely large ocean.

His thoughts continued to roam over the hour or more that it took for Lernen and her assistant to comb through and record their special haul. Finding a secure place to stash the biomaterial took nearly as long, even with Warn and Robbyn rotating to help move the goods. Finally, Lernen was satisfied that the rest of the crew wouldn’t be able to find the cases, letting the couple go free.

The wererat made sure he memorized exactly which panel could be removed for access to the hidden space, just in case anything happened to the cargomaster.

After spending the whole day, into he wee hours, together, the two split to eat in different galleys before crashing for what was left of the night. One of the advantages of needing a reasonably large ship, Warn thought before his head hit the pillow, is that it was easy to spend time apart every now and then.

Seconds later, his body overrode his brain’s desire and simply shut every non-essential system down.

Presumably Robbyn’s followed suit, the last active conscious synapse managed to fire off.

The morning found Warn assigned to the hold, helping to disguise the pirated crates or stuff them into hidden storage. After a slower, circuitous route, they were a couple hours outside Alest. One more jump and they’d coast into the asteroid-station’s orbit. But they had to get through a system crawling with Patrol ships first.

One such ship had already contacted them, as the freighter they claimed to be, the captain’d said.

That meant there’d probably be boarding and a search.

The Nistar couldn’t jump for a while and couldn’t take most of the Patrol ships in the system anyway.

He shoved a crate into a concealed compartment. Crawling with Patrol probably meant three or four ships. That would be a lot for the Patrol. What they lacked in numbers, they made up for in tenacity and skills. The captain would play things safe.

With the last of the goods stowed, the half dozen crew in the hold vacated the area. Most, Warn thought, probably went to stow their personal arms and goods. Even if the Patrol boarded, there was no guarantee they’d confine themselves to the hold. Most of his own special toys were already hidden enough to avoid a cursory glance. In some ways, the ship really was, he thought, one part smuggler to its one part pirate. Back in the sea days, they’d probably have run. Those pirates didn’t have to deal with slow, recharging FTL drives. Simpler times.

Such thoughts carried the wererat to the ship’s rec room, near the galley.

The room was practically deserted, except for Stenn and a couple others using the antiquated exercise gear they’d picked up years ago. With little else to do until the inspection, Warn settled down to wait for his friend’s routine to end. The rest of the ship was in chaos, everyone rushing to look respectable, but he had little to do until talking was needed. Then the captain might call on his services.

In the meantime, keeping out of sight and helping to make the ship look like a freighter was the best course of action.

Warn sat and reviewed who he knew on Alest while Stenn finished. All the vids the ship had, he’d watched several times and he had no interest in watching the handful of exercisers. If there was any justice in the world, Talye would still be around on the station. She had, last he’d heard, the resources and ability to move the biologicals. Maybe Varen if that didn’t pan out. Or the captain probably had his own resources to deal with sales as well.

He slowly became aware that his Orc friend was standing nearby, waiting for him.

“Sorry, Stenn,” he apologized. “Got lost in thought.”

“No prob. Patrol on yet?”

The wererat shook his head, “Not yet, probably still ten, fifteen out. There’re a few ships out there, though. Destroyers, I hear.”

“What’s cap’n want then?”

“Stow contraband, keep low key, remember we’re traders, nothing big,” he shrugged, “The usual.”

The pair were walking the corridor, helping crewmates where they could when they were called to the cargo hold side airlock.

Warn jogged through the ship with the Orc close behind. The Patrol was starting to dock and connect airlocks.

Stellar Buccaneers (pt. 1) (2008)

The ship rocked under the impact of energy bolts and missiles against its shields. Klaxons sounded and alarm lights started up as the freighter’s shields failed. Feet pounded along the corridors to position crew at possible airlocks.

Hidden behind an access panel, in a head near the center of the ship, a rat rode out the excitement.

This unusual rodent wore a collar with a red flashing light, a beacon.

More importantly, for some, the rat could picture everything that was going on around the ship. It had experienced enough piracy actions to recognize the pattern. In fact, it had been involved in more of them than any other being on the ship.

Right there was the thud of the pirates’ airlock tunnel meeting the freighter’s. And the pounding of crew moving to cover the access point. Since breaking the combination on the airlock would be too slow, Robbyn would be placing charges. The others would line up behind her. Probably Stenn right behind her with a couple grenades and his heavy autolaser. The Orc was one reason the rat hid deep in the ship. Besides, Veng would find him anywhere on the ship thanks to the homing beacon. The merchants were too busy to look for that now, so the rat left it active.

By now, the door was blown and Stenn had tossed his grenades. Probably half the defenders were dead or wounded. That’s how it usually worked. Boarding actions in space were extremely dangerous for both sides. Stenn was probably hosing one end of the corridor with laser fire while Robbyn did the other end with EM slugs. Two more heavily armed crew, probably the Orcs, Ogres, or Humans, then the Captain and Veng. A few more crew behind them. The fighting would be short and fast. The rat estimated that more than half the merchants would surrender. They had no marines, military, or other guards. And they were taking on seasoned pirates.

Three days exploring the ship and sending out occasional homing bursts had given the rat a good working knowledge of the ship’s layout.

It sounded like Robbyn blew the dorsal airlock. That meant they had two decks to descend before Veng could recover him. Five minutes if they were careful and took a direct route. Ten if they helped the other boarding party a little.

In fact, it was nearly eight minutes before the door to the head opened and the rodent heard familiar voices.

He slipped from his hiding place. The others turned their backs and a few seconds later the rat was replaced by a naked man. With a muttered, “What took so long?” he began dressing in the clothes and gear his crewmates had carried. The homing collar deactivated and disappeared into a pocket of his secondhand flight suit.

While Stenn and Robbyn covered the corridor, and the ex-rat strapped on a hard cuirass, the Captain shrugged, “Ran into a couple heroes on b-deck.” Veng nodded, adding, “Stenn got ‘em both.” The Goblin techie was grinning.

Stenn grunted, “Shouldn’t’ve had reflecting stuff behind their barricade.”

The Captain took Robbyn’s position while she gave the ex-rat a quick kiss as he holstered his sidearms. “How was it, Warn?”

“Not bad, good mess this time, love,” he returned the kiss just as quickly, given the situation. “I take it major fighting’s done?”

“Just a few hold outs in crew quarters,” the Captain said. “We can stand down. Engine room, bridge, and cargo hold are secure.”

“Should be a good haul, lots of stasis boxes and freeze units.”

“Lernen’s getting an inventory now. Comms are jammed, so we’ve got forty minutes to transfer.” The Captain glanced at the countdown on his HUD glasses, reflexively the others checked their own countdown clocks. “You three to the hold. Veng, toys away, you’re with me to the bridge.”

The rest of the boarding party, those not guarding prisoners, were just starting to transfer the ship’s most lucrative cargo when the three arrived. Lernen took a quick glance before saying, “Everything we’re taking’s in blue.” She’d apparently been setting packing lights, as usual. During the first couple loads of luxury goods, Warn managed to discover that half the merchanter’s crew had surrendered and a couple were still cut off and holed up in the crew quarters. Since the Nistar wasn’t a slaver, they’d probably be left alone, if they behaved.

A few minutes later, the entire boarding party rushed the airlock. Someone had sent the recall signal.

As they were heading into the Nistar, the trio caught the Captain’s voice on shipwide PA, “. . . CFL signal. Repeat, the merchant crew managed to punch through the jamming and is sending a CFL signal.”

Sheis, was all that ran through Warn’s mind. The Commonwealth Foreign Legion were bad. Only worse than the Republic’s Patrol because they had greater numbers.

With the probability of a CFL response, the wererat dropped his load in the hold and rushed to his damage control station. They could handle a corvette or a destroyer, not that the latter would be pretty, but if there was a cruiser or better in range, they’d be fighting a retreat to jump. If they didn’t get moving, at least.

A few seconds later, Stenn showed up at the station, across the corridor from an airlock. He silently handed over a spare blast carbine to augment Warn’s collection of blasters, laser pistols, and electromags. If the CFL boarded, they were a possible first line of defense. And compared to his Orc friend, he figured he looked like a picnicker for arms and armor. A brief glance guessed the Orc could arm the whole ship and still have some spare gear.

Warn shook his head. Everyone was heavily armed, they were pirates after all, but Stenn went overboard even by those standards.

He felt the Nistar’s drives kick in, his body automatically adjusting to the split second of inertia before the art-grav caught up. The wererat just hoped and prayed that the old bucket was up for it and that the nearest CFL ship was far enough away. Warn didn’t know much about physics or space travel from a scientific perspective, but he did know they were starting from a relative stand still while any CFL ship would be coming in hot, right out of FTL.

“Heard anything, Stenn?”

The Orc shook his head. “Scan’s got nuthin’, but I hear Sifle’s got ships scan can’t see. Guy on Alest said. Said Sifle came up on ‘im outta nowheres, tree weeks back.”

Warn gave a bit of a nervous laugh. “Well, can’t believe everything you hear, eh, Stenn? ‘Specially not on Alest.”

“Naw, guess not, Warn . . . Guy was purty sure, though. Knew ‘is ships, like I knows guns.”

Which did nothing to help Warn’s nerves. The Orc could strip, clean, and reassemble any weapon faster than anyone else on the ship. And he could fix any personal weapon too. But, Warn tried to console himself, Stenn had a reputation for being gullible, especially when it came to ghost stories and reading people.

He couldn’t quite convince himself that was true in this case.

The first sign of a problem came when the ship bucked.

Warn winced. He’d played stowaway enough to know the feel of a ship being hit by weapons fire. The shields dissipated energy, but it had to go somewhere, and often the jolt was too sudden for the art-grav to compensate fast enough. One of the mechanics had explained how that was flawed and simplistic as an explanation once, but he’d zoned out a few seconds into the lecture.

He nodded to Stenn and did another recheck of the half dozen or so weapons he carried for boarding. It was, the wererat had discovered, often faster to switch weapons in a firefight than it was to reload. Since he lacked the Captain’s durability and Stenn’s strength, Warn relied on speed and agility.

“Probably lasers, high power, long range,” he explained to the Orc. “Near the edge of their range, I’d guess, like our first volley.” Except for being on target, he thought, but didn’t tell his partner. “If that’s so, the boys on the bridge’ll get us safe, no worries.”

Several more blasts rocked the ship as they fled. Warn tried guessing the type of weapon that caused each, to calm himself. He also reminded himself that the Nistar was fast, faster than anything else in its class or its age. The Captain had convinced the crew to upgrade the ex-destroyer’s engines, STL and FTL, and add a backup reactor just a year ago. The latter popped into his head as the second reactor kicked in and started pumping extra power into the thrusters. They only did that in emergencies for extra speed. One of the pilots told him they usually operated at about two thirds speed, to deceive other ships.

Warn glanced at Stenn to see that the Orc was nearly asleep.

He had an urge to comm Robbyn, but reminded himself that she was probably returning fire to distract the CFL ship. It wouldn’t be a good time to break her concentration.

The Captain’s voice came on the internal comms.

“We have been challenged by the CFL cruiser Interceptor. Gunners are successfully keeping it at bay, shields are green. Prepare for jump in . . . one minute, unless the Sifles have more ships in the area.”

Which would mean a trap and ambush, Warn thought. Gods don’t let that be the case. Smart CFL leaders or bad luck could easily be the death of the ship and crew, even if he could hide and survive without prison. There was no way Robbyn, Stenn, or Veng could avoid death or prison, which were basically the same since most pirates were sent to the worst prisons in the Commonwealth. The mortality rate was pretty high at those places.

Moments later, the familiar sensation of the ship achieving FTL speed came.

Warn relaxed with an exhalation of relief. Stenn, he thought, looked almost disappointed. But, then, the Orc enjoyed boarding resisting freighters. The wererat wasn’t sure if his friend had ever been on the receiving end of a boarding, though. Probably enjoy that too.

It wasn’t until a few hours later, in the galley, that he discovered just how close the CFL had come.

A couple mechanics were sitting half a table away with one of the pilots as he and Stenn sat down with Robbyn and Veng.

“. . . just sayin’, if you’d flown better; ship wouldn’t’ve been needing so much fixin’,” one of the repair crew was saying.

The pilot threw up his hands. “I’m telling you, they came out of jump right on top of us. If we hadn’t already been running warm and the Captain hadn’t changed out the thrusters last month, we’d all be in chains right now.”

“Damn near holed the rear section,” another chipped in. “Even through the shields . . . I heard they’ve got some new secret weapons . . .”

“Nah, PDLs just let a projectile or two through, high yield, the gunners said, but not like that,” the pilot replied, hastily looking to see if any gunners were near.

Warn tuned out the rest and sent a question to Robbyn with his eyes. She shook her head slightly.

No way to tell. Both storytellers were probably exaggerating, by how much was impossible for mere grunts to know, even one close to the Captain. But, if the Sifles had come close to putting a hole in the aft section, things had been a lot closer than he’d thought.

“So what’s next,” he asked her.

That brought a mischievous glint to her eyes. “I’m dragging my husband off to our cabin for a couple hours . . . to make up for his weeks of shore leave,” she replied, “The ship’s probably heading to Alest.” Which was probably a day away.

“Shore leave? You call being stuck as a rat and cooped up in a strange ship’s head shore leave?” Warn grinned through his mock indignation. “I’d like to see you try it, woman.”

Robbyn playfully punched his arm, “C’mon and quit whining . . . you didn’t spend all that time on the ship, so pay your debt like a man.”

“Ah,” he grunted, with hands crossed over his heart, “I’m wounded by the very suggestion that I’d dishonor my good pirate’s name by welching on a debt.”

“What honor?” she laughed, mock dragging him from the rowdy mess hall that never missed their presence.

A couple hours later, the pair emerged from their shared room to find Veng on the verge of knocking on the bulkhead. Neither looked in any way embarrassed, despite the Goblin’s obvious flush and mild discomfort. A bonus side effect of the vacuum hardening of the ship was sound proofed rooms, the doors and bulkheads being designed to be airtight in case of a hull breach.

“The cap’n wants you two with me,” Veng explained, changing the unspoken subject. “Lernen’s in the hold, ready to check out our haul. Cap’n figures we should be useful and help . . . not that I don’t have enough to do fixing the damn cheap wiring the re-fitters used. Should all be taken outta the . . .”

The couple interrupted with shared smiles, Robbyn saying, “Let’s get it done, then. Should be quick, right Warn?”

“Everything I saw said food and medicines, luxuries on the first,” he said with a shrug. “Nothing too serious to search for safety, unless the other crew got into a bit of side action.”

Veng rolled his eyes, “All the more pointless to drag me out then. Better to get it over with, I guess.”

“I didn’t spot any lifters, but I wasn’t watching the cargo the whole time,” Warn admitted as they walked the corridor. In fact, much of his time had been spent in sabotaging the target ship—messing with their sensors, subtly diverting power from key systems, setting up the shields to overload—sometimes he wondered if the rest of the crew really appreciated how much work he saved them.

Musing over the crew’s respect and knowledge was put on hold as the trio entered Lernen’s domain. They immediately spotted the squat, bald Human near a couple plasteel crates that Warn recognized from the ship. Others were stacked nearby, a few already open, separated from the ship’s stores and replacement gear.

Veng, being the most impatient and the one with the orders, took lead.

“Lernen! Cap’n sent us down to help out,” the techie called as they approached.

The cargomaster shook her head. “No, I told him to send you three down here. He said he’d get you here an hour ago.”

Warn shrugged, “Semantics. Anyway, we’re here, you gonna tell us why?”

“We got nearly three score crates off the target. Half of them are fine, the rest I can’t open without help on the locks.”

“What?” Veng yelled. “You can’t get some boxes of food open so you call me?”

Lernen glared, “No . . . the crates of food and medicine were easy. These have high end locks. I know I can’t handle ‘em. One of the boys scanned ‘em and got nothing. Not empty, no reading at all. The freckin’ things are shielded.”

“So who puts delicacies and basic meds in shielded boxes,” Robbyn asked.

“Exactly. I want Veng and Warn to take a look at the locks and you to check for tricks of the esplodin’ kind.”

The wererat looked at his spouse and both shrugged. Warn raised an eyebrow, “We can do that, but why? It was a civvie freighter, the registry checked out, no corp or military connections, completely clean, right Veng?”

“That’s what the comp boys say.”

Lernen grunted. “Right. I worked docks for years before getting’ on this liner. Ain’t no ship’s completely clean unless it’s a corper or gov’ment plant. I figure the corp’s running something or she was a freelance smuggler. Either way, I likes the cargo hold but don’t wanna be plastered all over it.”

“Got it. Well, Robbyn, wanna check for explosives? Veng can start checking the locks with me?” He’d done some petty theft and boosting in his youth, kept his skills in practice getting on cargo ships. They could be helpful getting into sabotage areas on a ship or getting out of trouble. Actually . . . “Sorry, love, any chance of detecting bombs before the crate’s unlocked?”

“If they’re scan shielded, forget it. But it takes a special kind of lock and trigger to trap it so just fiddling will start a countdown. That I might be able to find,” Robbyn explained. She turned to the cargomaster. “Did you check the energy consumption or heat output on any of these? Forget it, why would you? Get me those meters. Touch based instead of leads, if we’ve got ‘em. Less chance of tripping a secondary explosive or sealant if we don’t have to breech lock integrity.”

The Goblin and wererat took a closer look at the crates and fasteners while they waited for Lernen’s assistant to get the requested devices. Neither felt the risk of setting off a security device likely by simply touching the crates, otherwise they’d risk going off accidentally during transit. As they poked around, Veng called his attention to two of the boxes. One came up to his shoulder, the other to his knee. Both were tagged with Commonwealth foodstuffs stickers. It took a few seconds to see what the techie considered notable. Once he caught it, Warn signaled his spouse.

“Check these two first,” he said, “and have Lernen get the comm jammer up, if it isn’t already.” These two pieces of information told her everything she needed to know on short notice. They’d worked together long enough and gotten used to CFL and Patrol tricks, as well as those of the corporations. He had used and seen enough tracking devices over the last couple years to recognize the signs. The suspicion alone didn’t mean anything, Warn admitted to himself. There could just be another layer of security, but he didn’t think so. Better safe than sorry with the whole crew’s fate in his hands . . . there were a lot who were boorish and uncouth, ones he hated, even, but they were still his crew. Besides, the Captain had always done right by them. And he had friends and drinking buddies on board too, even leaving Robbyn out of the calculations.

He glanced at Veng for confirmation.

The Goblin looked up from one of his devices and shook his head. “I’ve got nothing on transmissions. But it could be set for bursts or pulses at set times.”

Warn shrugged and moved on. They’d find out soon enough. If it was a tracker and on bursts, maybe the jammer would be up first.

He wrapped up the rest of the crates and came back to the others before the assistant was back. A few seconds later, the kid panted in, carrying a bulky case that probably weighed as much as he did. It hit the deck hard before Lernen knelt and opened a display cover.

“Never seen the locks before,” the wererat reported. “They look like a variation on the Burc Corp R50 series, though. At least that’s the closest equivalent I can think of. If there’s no hurry, I can do some searching on the Republic’s net at the next jump point. If it is secret corp or milspec, they could be custom jobs, though.”

Lernen looked up from where she was pushing buttons and fine tuning knobs.

“No dice, Warn. Captain wants them opened ASAP so he has time before Alest,” she said. “On the upside, the jammer is up and working perfectly, for once.”

Not really wanting to be in charge or responsible, Warn looked at Veng and Robbyn. Those two glanced at each other before Robbyn nodded. That left the Goblin techie in charge, Warn decided. Pretty much as expected. A brief, uncomfortable silence descended while Veng gathered his thoughts.

“We assume the jammer is working,” he said, “but disabling any possible transmitters is our first priority. Assuming they are locators, which I think we have to. After that, or at the same time, we check for explosives. I’ll take the transmitters with Warn’s aid. Robbyn gets bomb detail. Once we’re clear there, Warn can work the locks with me. Lernen, you and your assistant will be runners, if the rest of us need anything, like equipment or rations. During the first two phases at least, no questions asked or trouble.”

He looked around slowly, getting nods from everyone, the wererat’s crisp one being last.

The next hour passed with the three pirates bent over a pair of crates. They shifted around to give each other space as needed, heads together from time to time conferring about their tasks and discoveries. Occasionally, the cargo assistant was sent out to get a tool, or a lead, or some other necessity. Finally, after running every test they could think of and had the equipment for, the trio determined that the people who had set up the tracers wouldn’t want to blow up said tracking device and that the results implied a lack of traps of that sort on the crates.

With that conclusion reached, Robbyn broke off for the greater mass of crates.

The Goblin remained at the pair, checking his pad and various devices. Occasionally, he consulted Warn for the Human’s knowledge of transponders and tracking devices. Most of the latter’s experience being oriented toward their use, repair, and jamming since they were helpful in his part of the ship’s activities. Warn guessed, based on size, that the devices would be short range, probably only a couple lightyears’, which would also explain pulse bursts or an activation code. That guess, he was painfully aware, was based on the assumption that the whole crate wasn’t a tracking device. The more he thought, the more he decided it could be. A lightyear or two was pretty pitiful range unless the planter figured the theft would occur through short range ships. But no pirates he knew of attacked ships near their favorite holdovers or bases. Corporate raiders, maybe, but even that was a shot in the dark. Or the people who planted it were plain cheap and short sighted. That sounded like company accountants or CFL admins. It was cheaper now to install short range trackers, even if it might cost more in the long run because more time and ships would be necessary to track it if it was stolen.

He watched Robbyn work for a bit, feeling considerably safer by betting on corporate ignorance and greed or CFL incompetence. The latter had numbers, bigger guns, and were scary in a fair fight, but when had people in his line of work ever fought fair? Besides, as had been true throughout history, those who broke the laws were always a couple steps ahead of those who enforced the laws, when it came to innovative technology.

A while later, Veng tapped his shoulder.

“I think we’re ready,” the techie explained, “If you’d care to give cracking these two a try. Start with the smaller . . . less chance of a big boom with that one.”

Warn stifled a grimace and knelt beside the crate in question.

“A moment,” he said at a thought, “let’s move it over there, away from the rest and the outer hull. Just in case. Lernen . . .” He stopped when he saw the cargomaster and her assistant already had fire gear out. He noticed, absently, that Robbyn had paused in her work to watch too. Four pairs of eyes wasn’t the sort of pressure he was used to while operating on a lock, avoiding being seen was more normal, but since that wasn’t an option . . .

Final Exams (pt. 3) (2008)

After her last trip to see Kaly, Singe passed on their timetable. They’d decided to make a play the next day, after the Council guards dropped him off. There’d be minimal security, the target would likely relax after a day doing whatever he did, and what passed for police would be undergoing a shift change, if Leton’s sources were correct. The Elf had been managing to sneak out and conduct a couple recon runs of his own the last two days.

All of which was why the Elf and Orc arrived at their door in the late morning.

Most of the gear was concealable, including the four old comm sets Raphe had procured from Satem the other day. He figured there’d be no suspicion from the Dwarf after his cover. Once they were all set, Kaly reviewed the plan for everyone, knowing that once they passed the last abort time, there’d be no second chance. If things blew up, they’d be lucky to get off the station. Everything in place, the squad headed toward Gerlan, Elf and Orc as bravos, Raphe reprising his gem dealer role, and Singe taking a different route as an odd job seeker complete with explosives packed toolbox. She even carried some Gerlan maintenance identification that Raphe managed to acquire for after she was safely across the border.

He took up his position in a little used corridor near the sleepover. According to the plan, he had the least distance to go, so he used the remaining time to check his gear. Most importantly, Raphe checked the blast carbine they’d managed to find. It was old, nearly antique, and he’d prefer a much more accurate laser or EM rifle, but it should punch through any of the target’s defenses. Most of those would, admittedly, be focused on lasers since those were favored by assassins for their accuracy.

As ready as possible, Raphe checked the time and called in his prep status. Kaly’s and Leton’s voices replied affirming that they were in position. A short while later, as Raphe spotted the security detail coming down the street-corridor, Singe called in her readiness.

The sniper watched their target and security go past.

He waited for the man to enter Wond’s before he counted down the time.

A few seconds behind schedule, the lights in their target’s room turned on.

Well within variables, Raphe thought as he started to signal the others.

He’d just thumbed the antique comm to transmit when the sleepover’s window shattered and the target came out backwards. He watched the body tumble nearly thirty feet to the deck, where it hit head first with an audible crack.

Rather than report, he called, “Abort. Repeat, abort. Another team’s in the game and they just won.” Raphe repeated the message twice before cutting comms. It was the only thing that made sense, because neither Kaly nor Leton, no one, would change the plan without saying something.

The abort given and confirmed by Kaly, Raphe only remained long enough to try a quick, distance, bio-scan to confirm that the corpse was their target and not a fake. In the process, he caught sight of two others much closer to the body and quite interested in it. He had the handheld scanner get information on them before he turned and melded into the growing crowd. The carbine, lacking prints or other identifying marks, dropped into the first trash incinerator he passed. The rest of the team would be abandoning much of their illicit gear on their way back to the predetermined regrouping site.

On the way through Gerlan, he operated on autopilot with most of his consciousness focused on replaying the scene. Every time he analyzed the last several minutes, Raphe became further convinced of his initial impression. The execution was a classic—high yield laser or blaster shot to the head, blow through to destroy the window, throw him out to be sure. It was more flashy than most liked, but had been part of their own study at the Collegium. Masters there called it the Illya Method, after a famous Mehleen mistress who used it as a sort of calling card. In fact, Master Drorn, one of her figurative descendants, was said to favor the method as well. Which didn’t mean the technique was limited to Mehleen use.

Half an hour later, having just gotten past Gerlan security before they closed the access points, Raphe followed the last couple turns to throw off pursuit. Certain that he hadn’t been followed, he made his way to the rendezvous site in Ethelridge. The instant he saw Kaly and Singe, he said, “Illya Method?”

The question drew surprise and concern from the other Human, but the Orc nodded. She’d been the only other one in a position to see the attack itself.

“Definitely another team on the playing field,” Kaly agreed, “I didn’t get a look at any of the players.”

“A man followed me a bit on the way here, but I lost him in Gerlan,” Singe said, “At first I thought it might be Raphe, he moved the same way, when I got a glimpse.”

Raphe nodded, “Hate to say it, but it looks like we were set up. I spotted two when I did the confirmation scan. Definitely Mehleen movement, Sikcula or Millun, I think.” They’d trained with and against students of other masters enough to recognize the styles. And they’d worked on identifying both security and intel operatives from every nation by their stances. As Master Talo drummed into their heads, knowledge was power and even the smallest edge was an edge. Then, he added, “Where’s Leton?”

“If he wasn’t sidetracked or caught,” Singe considered, “he should be about halfway across Cending by now . . . give him about fourteen to get here. He took the most scenic route.”

And, Raphe thought, add another five because the plan had been blown. Leton would be triply careful about being followed.

“No way to contact the council or Talo until we’re well off-station,” Kaly summed up the situation in the meantime. “So, I suggest we assume the other players are a backup team, to be sure we could get the high profile job done, being beginners to some extent. They got itchy, thought we’d taken too long or failed, and moved on their own. At least until we hear otherwise. Which means we evacuate, once Leton’s safe, and head for the rendezvous point before going home to report.”

Singe almost gave herself whiplash from shaking her head. “No. I’m not going back empty-handed with a failure. The target may have been wiped by someone else, but we need to find out who. Or at least try to.”

“Much as I agree,” Raphe got in before their leader, “This place’ll be hot for a couple weeks. Security’s always tightest after an incident, everyone wants to be seen being vigilant at their posts. And if this was a backup team, they’re senior to us and will be impossible to find due to experience alone.”

“Exactly why we need to figure out extraction now,” Kaly said, “You know he’s right, Singe.”

The demolitionist refused to budge, “What would Master Talo say if we didn’t at least confirm they’re Mehleen?”

“You think I haven’t considered that?” Kaly’s voice rose, before she regained control. “You think I want to start out with a failed command? You should know better than that! But better a failure in command than losing the entire squad on its first mission.”

“She does have a point,” Raphe hedged, “Master Talo would be frecking mad if we can’t confirm that a Mehleen team completed the contract. And if they aren’t Mehleen, honor dictates that we wipe them to save face.” Not that he truly believed the other team were anything but Mehleen. “Maybe we should wait for Leton’s report.”

Kaly sighed. “Alright. Compromise. Singe, check all the comm chatter we can catch. Raphe, extraction plan based on current situation and projections for the next twelve hours. I’ll try to hack the comp, see if I can find out more. When Leton gets in, he can cover what he’s seen and we’ll decide what to do.”

As Singe gathered the comms and a couple backups they’d stowed and the Orc crouched over the computer terminal, he started trying to get them out of the station. Unfortunately, everything that came to mind at first relied too heavily on the myriad neighborhoods remaining territorial and disorganized. Although he thought it likely that the response would be chaotic, counting on chaos to work in their favor was not exactly how Raphe wanted to get out. Too much chaos and things fell apart, just enough was good but could spiral too easily. And, he decided, any plan would have to be open to periodic revision, in case they did stay and it had to be postponed. Every six hours seemed about right, for broad strokes. Specifics would change by the second once the plan, or plans, was in action.

By the time Leton made it back to the group point, a couple hours late, Raphe had the start of a few extraction plans in mind. They were all nebulous, but for the time he’d spent and minimal information, they’d have to do.

The Elf explained that he had gone across the border into Cending mere minutes before the sorcerers called for a lock down and shut off all access. “As near as I can tell,” he related, “they did it because of the assassination, but not to help Gerlan. The main corridors and halls were blocked by guards. The word I picked up seemed to tend toward the sorcerers being worried about their own safety. Some locals said they do it anytime there’s an incident in a neighbor’s territory.” Common lock downs meant the locals had developed ways around them, of course. Raphe guessed there were back corridors and ways through the ships’ walls all over Cending neighborhood.

His thoughts were interrupted by Kaly.

“Could you see clearly, Leton? Who got there before us?”

“Not enough that I can identify them, but they were professionals.” The Elf considered, “All the local incidents we’ve managed to hear about . . . seems like the local are amateurs by my standards. Prefer poisons and brawls, maybe accidents. These people used planning and fair weaponry, an old A-17 concussion grenade to take out the door, unless I am mistaken.” He glanced at Singe, who nodded.

Raphe caught the exchange and added, “The two I saw looked like Sikcula or Millun’s people, pair of Arehawk blasters, heavy.” Most places, those were illegal for use or ownership, outside of the military or a licensed mercenary outfit. Not that the same rules applied on Sargasso. Among the pirates and others, heavy artillery was common. But most of what he’d seen on station was old, Arehawks were fairly new and pricey hardware.

“Could be a recent raid,” Kaly temporized, but her tone told Raphe she really didn’t believe that. Not that it mattered. As he’d said earlier, they duty was to prove Mehleen involvement or make an honor example of the non-Mehleen.

Leton shrugged, “Irrelevant to remaining or leaving. This could be a last test, see how we operate in the field and deal with failure.”

In other words, did they slink back home in disgrace or stick it out with honor. Master Talo already knew what they would do and therefore wouldn’t bother. The other Collegium masters, though, were entirely another matter.

“Might be something to that,” Raphe conceded even as the Orc started to agree.

Kaly shifted gears smoothly, though. “So. How do we go about tracking these people? Raphe, you’re on extraction. Figure out how another Mehleen team would leave. Factor in Sikcula and Millun as possible influences. Singe, keep monitoring the comm chatter. If they’re local, maybe they will be picked up. If not, we can hope for a mistake. Leton’s with me checking contacts, the few we’ve got. Maybe we can trace the gear, or at least confirm no one’s gotten it on station.”

“It’s a long shot, if Mehleen are involved.” Raphe suggested, “But you might try acting as buyers for Arehawk hardware. If we’ve got locals, they might be sloppy about ditching the gear, or might even sell it.”

The Elf gave another shrug, “Worth a try, subtly. Don’t want to raise any alarms.”

As the two left, a short time later, Raphe ran possibilities against the data they’d collected since arriving on Sargasso. He bounced everything off their previous observations of other students and the instructors in question. They were surely more experienced, but stations were notoriously tricky regardless of size. He smiled to himself, enjoying the hunt and challenge, now that there was a plan and clear goal. With the initial shock and adrenaline rush past, Raphe settled into calmly and happily figuring out the puzzle, pitting himself against a worthy opponent.