Land of Shadows (pt. 1) (2008)

“Master! Master!” the apprentice yelled as he burst into the room.

Interrupted in his study, Durias sighed, “What is it, apprentice?” The event had to be important for his apprentice to disturb him. Or so he’d told the young Human repeatedly for the last month.

“A report from our agent in Burkeport, Master,” he reported, “It is very unusual and marked high priority by the library on Valtech Six.”

Intriguing. “Very well, place is in the reader, “ the Elf instructed. Might as well use this as a learning opportunity. While the machine read the datastick, he asked, “Why might this be important?”

“It comes from Burkeport, Master.”

“And?”

“The Arcanum has no official presence in Imperial space because of their restrictions on sorcery.”

“Very good,” Durias said as the data came up on the screen. He immediately saw why it was prioritized. “What does this say to you, apprentice?”

“It is a station diagram, Master . . . but I haven’t seen one of that shape before.” The Elf nodded, “Exactly.” He tapped a few keys on another computer. “Nor has anyone else in the Arcanum, it seems. Notice also in the notes, the top deck is open, yet opaque to recording devices. No such shield is exists in the Five Nations.”

“Master, the coordinates are beyond the Empire,” the Human pointed to the numbers.

Durias absently waved a hand, causing a comm device to float across the room to him. He keyed an internal location. “Yes. Master Durias . . . How did we acquire the latest information from Burkeport? Number . . . one seven six zero seven nine strike three six . . . yes, thank you.” He set the device down, then explained, “It will take a day or so. In the meantime, contact Kailis. Even if sorcery is not involved, this should be investigated.”

His apprentice hesitated, “Kailis, Master? Surely there is someone else, someone in the Arcanum?”

“It is precisely because he is a rogue that I want Kailis,” Durias said, “His family has been successfully moving between the Republic and Empire in secret for the three generations I have known them. Do you know how they do it without getting caught?”

“No, Master.”

“Exactly.”

“Yes, Master.”

The Elf continued to ponder the dearth of information as his apprentice slipped from the room unnoticed. The data was maddening, just a couple minutes of information, enough to be tantalizing. There was not enough detail to answer anything. Just color coded sections with each area’s apparent purpose, the intriguing top level, and some . . . no, that was strange. There were no radiation, biological, or chemical scans. Those were effectively standard everywhere, done automatically. But the information under each was blank.

So. Either there was no such radiation, life, or chemicals or the scans were not conducted. Or they had been suppressed, perhaps they were considered unimportant? Surely signs of life and radiation would be important in some so . . . unique. His fingers steepled, Durias considered the frustratingly minimalist data.

A spell that might help came to mind, one of his own creation that the processors would not be expected to know.

He was on the verge of trying it when the comm device buzzed.

It floated to his hand as one of his apprentices appeared at the door. He raised a hand, stopping the Orc as effectively as if he had cast a spell.

“Master Durias,” the Elf answered the call and listened for a few seconds, “That is a routine matter, send it to Ceswir. Yes. Very good.”

He beckoned the apprentice forward and sent the comm to its place. The Orc bowed, “Master. Myrlun says he has talked to the man you wanted and ‘the obstinate scoundrel said you can’ . . . master, I do not wish to repeat his disrespectful word.” Durias nodded. “In short, master, he said he might come by tomorrow for lunch. If you buy, master.”

The Arcanum master chuckled, “Of course he did. And do not worry about his words, Verr. I recall saying similar about my master behind his back. So the smuggler cannot say anything I have not heard before.”

He continued to chuckle softly as his apprentice, looking suitably scandalized, backed from the room. Off to studies or other duties, probably. They were all so solemn these days, Durias thought. It had not always been that way. They used to take joy in learning, about the Art and the universe. But that would have been a good couple decades before his current batch of apprentices had been born. These days, so many of the apprentices, and even young masters, seemed interested solely in amassing and hoarding knowledge, as if it was a commodity. They all obsessed about passing tests and acquiring rank. Perhaps the Arcanum had become too fixed and regimented. Well, that was a thought for another day.

Right now, the perplexing new information and his attempts to circumvent Bona’s Fifth Law of Enchantment, which appeared to be natural in origin, were more likely to retain his attention. Admittedly, he had been working on Bona’s law for the last month with little progress, but it did seem to be one of the more important blocking agents in that greatest of quests for mass produced enchantments. Even his brief forays into planar sorcery had not produced much help. Admittedly, he was far from being an expert in that obscure branch of the Art.

Thinking of which . . .

The Elf rose and moved to a cleared area of his rooms. He surveyed the freshly scrubbed floor and chose his spot. A piece of chalk was removed from an inner pocket of his jacket. After a few seconds’ thought, Durias was drawing a circle on the smooth floor. That done, he added marks at key points, characters in an ancient dialect. Four minutes later, he rose and surveyed his work. When he found no imperfections, the Elf paused to check his own protective spells and charms.

Finally satisfied, Durias locked his chamber door, stepped up to the circle, and forcefully called, “Klivrn!”

Then came the requisite waiting period. For a minor dimensional entity, like the one he had called, it should not be long. Still, the delayed gratification had driven many of his colleagues away from this method, it was much slower and more dangerous than regular sorcery. Even as a hobby though, it was still sometimes useful, like it might be this time.

Within a minute, the inner circle was filled by a nebulous form. As it took a vaguely humanoid shape, Durias pointed to a display currently showing the basic station and its coordinates. “Klivrn, how long would it take for you to travel to that place and back here?”

A sepulchral voice responded, “An hour, friend Durias.”

Spatial locations were not necessarily located in the same place on every plane of the multiverse. The Elf nodded, “Excellent. Go to this place and discover what you can about it. Then return to this circle in tow hours. In return, I will provide five medium power cells.”

“Your offering is acceptable,” the being intoned as it faded from sight.

The master was left waiting once again. He busied himself by toying with Bena’s law for a time, oblivious to the rustlings of his troupe of apprentices until Myrlun touched his shoulder. All of his apprentices gathered for their afternoon lesson, or nearly an hour of their master talking about the theory behind the afternoon’s task. While they practiced turning the theory into reality, Durias left a comm message for a colleague more skilled in planar sorcery and awaited his extraplanar visitor.

He set the agreed upon power cells in the circle a few seconds before Klivrn materialized. Or, rather, before its essence did. To date, they had no known method of moving matter between the planes. The power cells’ energy was being drained as the being touched them.

Durias, familiar with the entity, waited patiently. The room grew silent as his apprentices slowly realized what stood with them. He wouldn’t have allowed them to stay had Klivrn not been positively disposed. Finally, the entity reported, “I am sorry, friend Durias. I could not get too close or much information. The place is . . . in flux, perhaps. It if not stable. And there are protections around it, out to several miles of space, in your plane.”

“I see. Well, it is more than I knew two hours ago. Thank you, Klivrn, you may go,” the master replied. Interesting. The fact that the station had wards implied that its residents knew of planar sorcery. But the rest, he did not know enough. Someone else might. The Elf grabbed an actual pen and paper, scratched out a title and signed it. “Verr! Take this to Master Winns and tell him I would like to borrow the book, as soon as he can part with it, if he does not mind. I am certain it is not yet in the database.” The last was added in answer to his apprentice’s look. The Arcanum library was a little behind on scanning older works into the electronic backup system.

Thirmes was widely considered the authority on such things, despite the fact that he had died over a century before. Since he wrote in an obscure dialect of ancient Dwarvish, not his contemporary version, or native tongue, and enjoyed codes, Durias figured he was in for a long night of reading and crosschecking.

By morning, the Elven master has only managed an hour’s rest. Even that had not been true sleep and was only done at the insistence of his apprentices.

He hurried through his customary morning routine, including a stimulant drink, with an eye on the time. Lessons were quietly undertaken by his senior apprentices without Durias noticing, the potential implications of his study and the station whirled through his head. If his hasty translation of Thirmes was true and he had properly understood, well, he thought with a glance at the time, the possible power and knowledge trove was virtually endless. In theory, if it could be accessed.

It was too important to leave in the hands of laypersons or even adepts. Even so, some precautions ought to be taken.

An hour later, his apprentices gone, the Elf watched his computer encrypt a message he had written then translated into Thirmes’ code and dialect. With internal politics being what they were, and many master seeking advancement, Durias set the message on a time delay to give a good head start in case it was intercepted and decoded. Hopefully, only his most trusted former apprentice, a talented kid with no ambition, would get it. Since he was doing field work in the Republic, even if he did act on the information he would be a few days behind.

The remaining time before his possible lunch meeting passed at glacial speed. Durias frequent glances at the time did not help. At least he had the foresight to send his apprentices off for the day, otherwise they might have considered their normally patient and imperturbable master ill. The delays and political embarrassment such an event would cause was best pushed from his mind.

He deleted yet another mistake caused by distraction before noticing that his comm was blinking.

With a thought, he activated the device.

“Master?”

“Yes, Myrlun?”

“Your guest is here, master. Shall I escort him up?”

A moment’s thought passed before, “Recall what we discussed last month, Myrlun. If it is that Kailis, send him away.”

The Elf silently counted to six as his senior apprentice translated the coded message. No form of communication was entirely secure within an Arcanum archive. They were an order of sorcerers devoted to acquiring information, after all. Finally, the Human’s, “Understood, Master,” came over the device.

So, he had about seven minutes, accounting for the charade. Had it been Verr or most of the other students, he would not have used the subterfuge, but the Human had proven especially talented with illusions, particularly concealment ones. A pity his enchanting was so poor compared to the others.

That left a few minutes to decide on his traveling companions. Myrlun was an obvious choice, since there were other senior apprentices who could take over for a month or two and whose own progress would not be impeded by such a delay. The young Human could probably earn adept status in that time. Verr could be an option. His elemental and protection skills were admirable, for his age and level of training. But, there were few Orcs in the Arcanum’s ranks. He would be quickly missed and might raise suspicions. No, Edillae was probably the better choice Even as an older and less trained apprentice, she showed promise. Besides which, her natural talent for languages and experience with both ships and docks could prove useful on the trip. If they made it to their goal, her skills could be doubly useful. And the Human was much more trustworthy than Kailis, despite his long and fruitful relationship with the smuggler.

Shortly, Durias played for any listeners in the corridor.

Once the door opened, he paused to admire and critique Myrlun’s illusory disguise. To nearly all sense, his apprentice seemed to be escorting a young Dwarf rather than one of the nation’s least known, and therefore best, smugglers. Even as he noted a little raggedness around the edges and some olfactory slippage, Durias demanded, “Why have you brought this . . . ardwreca here?”

It was a testament to Kailis’ skills that he instantly looked offended by the insult even as Myrlun explained.

“Master, forgive me. He has the talent and wishes to be trained,” the senior apprentice learned how to put on the apology show very early. “He claims to be Alliance-born and that he only wants to learn from the best. He specifically requested you, master.”

The listeners ought to be satisfied by the mundane occurrence. He heaved a sigh, “Very well. I do not doubt that he is making up the story, but we shall see. I promise nothing. Likely as not he will be leaving rapidly.”

As soon as the door shut, resealing Durias’ wards, the net of light and sound vanished revealing the young Dwarf to be a middle-aged Goblin. Durias broke into a smile, matched by the smuggler’s, as they clasped hands and exchanged ritual greetings. Those dispensed with, the Elf motioned toward a seat and took another himself. While Myrlun served a small lunch, he started, “My apologies, Kailis, for the little show. You know how things are.”

The Goblin chuckled, “All of you book people cooped up here . . . it’s no wonder. I’m amazed you don’t all kill each other. Men were not meant to stay in one place too long. Why else would the gods make our ancestors nomads?”

“I need quiet passage for three beyond Imperial space, friend,” he replied, trying to dodge a theological discussion. Always best to do that with a Goblin. “As soon as possible. I would have preferred more time, but . . . well, it cannot be helped. I can say more when we are underway, if you can take me.”

“How long?”

If memory serves, the Breath should make the trip in a week,” Durias calculated as he spoke, “So, two weeks. And we will want to investigate while there, at least a week, probably more. A month at the outside, all told, I think.”

“A long while. Anyone else goin’ there?”

The Elf shrugged, “Fortune telling was never my strong point, Kailis. But my guess is perhaps. I should be more confident about that in an hour or two.”

“For a month, fifty. An extra ten hazard for any confrontation stationside,” Kailis decided, “Twenty in space.”

“Fair enough.” He could probably make seventy or eighty in that time. Either they were getting a deal or would be delivered somewhere nasty. Thus far, the smuggler had been loyal enough for years.

“Take-off in four hours then, port alpha, dock fifteen beta. Who else is coming?”

The master nodded to one side, “Myrlun and Edillae. Speaking of which, Myrlun fetch her, then escort our friend. I am sure he wishes to prepare his ship.” He noted with some pride that his apprentice only showed surprise for the briefest of moments. “And pack for yourself as well. Light. And quietly. Hopefully we can be well gone before we are noticed.”

An hour later, Durias’ instructions had been issued to his cadre of senior apprentices. That task complete, he sat with Myrlun and Edillae. “Do either of you have any qualms with accompanying me on this trip? If so, speak now,” he said, “It may be routine exploration or it might be worse, depending on who else knows what information we have and what it means. I tell you this, as always, so you can make an informed decision.”

Myrlun nodded his assent, as his master expected. They boy was devoted and they both knew that he was at a crucial point in his training.

The girl, they were both young by Durias’ standards although both adults, was more difficult to predict. She had only been with him for a few months. Edillae considered as she was watched, before asking, “May I know where we are going, master?”

“I’m not asking out of fear,” she quickly added, “only to be better prepared. And I understand our pilot’s reputation, so . . .”

“Excellent,” the Elf kept the smile from his lips, but not his eyes, “That I cannot answer until we are on the ship. There are those here who might use the information for their own gain and advancement, as well as my disgrace. Gods know they might do that anyway. You will have to decide on faith and your trust in me and your skills.” He left unspoken the fact that the rewards of the trip could be very impressive. Neither apprentice was versed in planar sorcery, after all, but might be in the future. Especially Myrlun, who had the mentality and focus of the art.

Meanwhile, his apprentice was staring, first at her master then at Myrlun. After a few minutes, she reached her conclusion.

“I’m in. This is obviously important, otherwise an adept would be sent,” Edillae said, “So, if it’s important, the reward must be pretty good. And you two’ll need protecting, from people out there. When was the last time you did field work, master?”

“Before you were born.”

“There,” she declared with a note of triumph. “I’m used to negotiating and dealing with all sorts of people. I can help.”

Durias smiled with a hint of serenity. “Indeed.”

A few hours later, the trio of sorcerers stood on the Archive landing field looking at their transport. The Breath was a sleek light freighter that appeared to their untrained eyes to be in very good condition. Durias recalled the smuggler once telling him that a junker ship was more likely to be stopped and searched than one that looked fresh from the yard. If that was true, then the ship certainly looked the part, although he knew Kailis had made innumerable modifications. Like concealed energy weapons and better sublight engines, among those he had seen.

They only had to wait a moment before the Goblin appeared at the ship’s lock and waved them in. According to plan, Durias had called in a few favors to quietly empty the little used pad. Kailis had used the ship’s sensors to ensure that no people were around. In theory, they were unobserved. However, since the Arcanum was well known for its ability to find information, the three still covered their faces as they ran across the narrow open space.

Only when they were aboard did they drop their cloaks before securing their gear and themselves for take-off.

Mere minutes later, they hurtled out of the gravity well, put a little space behind them, and jumped to FTL speeds.

Once they were out of the system, the Goblin entered the cabin he had assigned to Durias. Both apprentices were already there with their master. The Elf allowed himself a brief glance to be sure of his apprentices. The elder was perfectly masked, her face carefully blank. He had no worries for her. The boy, on the other hand, had faint traces of guilt. Well. They could only hope the smuggler could not read Myrlun as easily as his master could.

His own manner composed from long practice, Durias clearly stated a series of numbers. “That location is our destination, friend. Obviously we would like to arrive as quickly as possible,” he explained, “There should be a station there, a lost colony, we think.”

After repeating the numbers and receiving the master’s confirmation, Kailis paused. “Alright, I’ll go get the course plotted in,” The Goblin said, “Any problems with Gnomes?”

“No, Kailis, why?”

“Heh. No reason, just curious.”

“In that case, friend, I should return to my instruction duties . . .” the Elf waved the door shut as Kailis left. He raised a hand to stop Myrlun as the apprentice began to speak. He then flashed a few basic, ungrammatical, signs in an ancient Mehleen language of gestures. The boy nodded, obeying without question, as he had been taught. That would have to be broken soon, the master thought absently, or he will never advance in the order.

As he considered, both sorcerers reached out and grasped the energy patterns in the room. Carefully, they redrew and directed the lines of force as Edillae watched. In spite of himself, the Elf smiled. She had not advanced enough to be taught those spells, but he was glad she was curious enough to watch and try to understand. That curiosity was the mark of a good Arcanum. Like his apprentice, he wove spells of protection from eavesdropping. His own spells would cause listening devices to pick up only wind, for instance. The boy, he saw, had been studying a bit of technosorcery. The silver threads left by his spell boldly stated that fact.

Once they were done, he motioned for Myrlun to speak.

“Master, why did you say we detected a colony?”

“For two reasons. First, despite our years, I do not wholly trust our friend,” he explained, teaching a little. “For another, Kailis is a smuggler and therefore a businessman. Let him think of a lost colony, even believe it might be an Arcanum colony—“

“—and he’ll be thinking about possible profits instead of thinking about betraying us,” Edillae finished, “Very good, master.”

He chuckled at the faint tone of disbelieving awe in her voice. “I have not forgotten everything from my days in the field, Edillae. Keeping in contact with Kailis and others like him has seen to that.” He clapped once. “Now, Myrlun, play the report for our third and see if she has any insights we missed . . . on one of the portable players.” The standard one in the room was, of course, networked to the ship’s other computer terminals. And he would bet that Kailis had devices in place to store, copy, or spy on things his passengers read or watched.

While the apprentices reviewed the data they had acquired, Durias sat on his bunk and allowed himself to descend into light meditation. Still peripherally aware of his surroundings, he focused his attention inwards, seeking the sometimes elusive perception of other planes. At first, the Elf perceived the tendrils and threads of sorcerous energy that flowed freely throughout the galaxy. In this case, due to the limits of mortal perception, his sight only revealed those in the room and the Breath. The strongest were associated with elemental forces, notably the electricity provided by the ship’s reactor. Every apprentice could reach this state after a week or two of practice. Few did so after their early apprenticeship because feeling the energy became intuitive, even instinctive. He sought something different and reaching that state was often helped by passing through this one, he had discovered.

The first hints of a hazy outline were just visible, possibly even forming into a touch of clarity, when that part of his mind monitoring his surroundings demanded his attention. Durias brought himself back to merely mundane senses, finding his apprentices calmly awaiting his attention. On a second glance, perhaps clam was not the proper word to describe Edillae. Barely restrained excitement might be better. He could see the signs, from a slight flush to the rigidity of her posture, an attempt at control. Myrlun even showed some signs, although the benefits of greater training and thus more discipline kept his body loose and at ease.

Durias waited and patiently counted out nearly a minute in his head as a lesson.

Finally, the master sorcerer stated, “You have new findings from the data.”

“Yes, master,” Edillae burst, “First, the color coded areas are not marked in a standard, international, method. Except for two. If international standards were used, I would say the green decks were environmental and hydroponics. But there’s a big red patch that wouldn’t make sense. The black decks make more sense, brigs and courts. But I haven’t seen any that big before. My guess is that grey is command and control. The schematics don’t have enough information to be entirely certain.”

Useful information, the Elf thought, but hardly excitement worthy. There had to be . . . “What else?”

Both apprentices grinned as Myrlun took the lead. “Edillae found more data hidden under the main stream. I hate to be cliché and say it looked like random static, but it did. The unfortunate part is that it appears to be encoded. We haven’t tried to break the code, master. We do assume that it is original and not added by our contact since it does not match any of the standard Arcanum codes of which I am aware, master.”

Advertisements

A Medley of Burkes (pt. 3) (2008)

Dawn found Alyi behind the bar cleaning glasses as the morning’s first patrons stumbled in. Some were looking for breakfast before work, others for a drink to forget they had no work. She liked the morning shift and volunteered for as many as possible. For one thing, the place was virtually empty, except for the regulars who only left when they were thrown out for the two hours of cleaning the place got every day. The tips weren’t as good as night shift, but the clientele were dead on their feet, at least until after eating. And there weren’t many staff, just two security, two bartenders, and one cook. It was quiet most days. A good time to think and even daydream a bit.

There was a lot of time to think on dish duty.

And Weste was on duty in the morning. That was a bit of comfort. He at least guessed that she hadn’t been entirely truthful about her origins, but she was glad he’d said nothing to her or anyone else. He’d been helpful with the smugglers too. Her adoptive parents had taught her how to contact such people but Weste had been in Burkeport a while and knew who to trust.

Alyi set down the last glass. Conversation was nearly non-existent that morning. So was patronage. The security guys were chatting with the other bartender and the cook. She glanced over the customers as she replaced the towel. Only a handful, and all of them were regulars who never seemed to leave. Definitely not eaters or troublemakers. Since the patrons just barely outnumbered the staff, Alyi ducked into the back to check on Weste. Someone had said a water pump was being wonky. It sounded like the Dwarf had been fiddling with it for the last couple hours with no luck. She was actually amazed. Usually the maintenance guy seemed to fix problems in a few seconds. Could be the looming threat of a fight, she decided, that explained the sheisy number of customers too.

When she came back a few minutes later, Alyi barely crossed the doorway before she ducked back into the room.

Exercising as much caution as possible, she peered around the doorframe to confirm what she thought she’d seen.

Yes, over by the door. Another customer had come in, and even though he’d never been in the bar before, she knew him. The face was one she’d remember for a long time.

She spun into the storeroom, dodging stacks of foodstuffs and supplies. As she neared the utility tub, Alyi called out, “Weste! Weste, big problem!”

The Dwarf was at her side, his repair job forgotten in the face of a threat.

“What’s it?”

“New customer,” Alyi explained, remarkably calm, she thought, “I’ve seen him before, not here, at home.”

“When? Where?” Weste visibly relaxed a little. It was clearly a personal problem, not a Salma one.

“When my parents were arrested . . . and sent to Svalgard.”

Only the fact that he’d suspected for some time kept the Dwarf on his feet. He hadn’t guessed she’d be associated with the Empire’s most notorious prison. “When was, no never mind. Are you sure? Did he see you?”

“Yes . . . I don’t think so,” she considered, “No, he didn’t.” Otherwise, he’d be back with them, if he was after her.

Weste nodded, “Good enough for now. Stay here, out of sight. I’ll get Lazi.” He could probably handle it alone, but this was Lazi’s place. And she and Kel had done favors for all the employees, just by taking them in.

“But . . .”

“I’ll tell her I recognized him. We can explain it all later. Just stay here.”

“Thanks.”

The Dwarf was behind the bar when Lazi, flanked by three members of the neighborhood security, confronted the stocky Human. He overheard his boss introduce herself and ask that he come along with them in regards to an ongoing inquiry. Weste shook his head at the look that passed across the man’s face. Even an Imp agent couldn’t be that stupid. Not with Lazi’s spare muscle and the now alert bar security. Or maybe he underestimated Imp agents . . . the man started to rise and run. The Elven ex-smuggler and her guard were fastest, four stun bolts hit the man before the other two security’d cleared their weapons. The Imp’s momentum carried him another couple feet before he hit the floor.

As the three patrolmen cleared up, Lazi made her way to the bar. She looked meaningfully at Weste, “So. He was a probable threat and won’t be for a few hours. Would you like to tell me why?

“We’ll need to talk to Alyi, she id-ed him.”

“So he’s not really Imperial?”

“No, he’s an Imp,” Weste avowed, fully trusting his friend, “And so was she. I’ve thought so for a couple weeks, since helping her contact Republic smugglers, but she just confirmed it.”

Lazi’s potential reply was interrupted by one of the security guys. The Orc held a double handful of wires, small blades, and spikes. Weste registered them as a covert op’s tools, apparently his boss did too. She just nodded curtly. “Alright. Take him to the nearest holding station, I’ll be there in an hour to question him.” When they left, she turned to Weste. “Where’s Alyi?”

“Storeroom,” he said, opening the door in question.

The Elf strode in, eyes blazing. Weste was impressed. Years ago, when she and Kel had first purchased the place, she’d be storming around. The ex-smuggler definitely has a passionate streak and being misled usually brought it out.

He stood a few feet behind his boss, out of sight, but close enough to offer Alyi moral support when Lazi simply asked, “Well?”

Alyi noticed the Dwarf, but knew better than to acknowledge him. Still, he was there. She stumbled, then her mind caught up with her tongue. “I’m sorry, I’ve been hiding for months, before I got here,” she started, “I would’ve said something earlier but . . . obviously I’m not from the Commonwealth. I grew up on Clarsic, when I was nine, the Imperial authorities arrested my parents. They said they were spies, but they weren’t. There were spies in the neighborhood, they took me in, but the Imps just wanted land for a new facility. A year ago, my foster parents were caught. I’ve heard both my parents and the ones who took me in were sent to Svalgard. I guessed I’d be next, so I tried to disappear.”

Weste watched his boss, noticing subtle signs that she was cooling down. The kid made a good choice with her story. Wanted by the Imps herself, Lazi had a bit of a soft spot for others in that position.

“It took five months to get here because I tried not to be followed. I guessed I could get a transport to the Commonwealth or Republic from one of the fringe worlds. Burkeport was the only one I could afford.”

“And you recognized this man I just arrested?”

“Yes. I don’t know what he is, but he was there when my parents were taken, then he stayed for a few days and vanished.”

“you think he’s tracking you for the Imps?” Lazi spat out the last word.

“Why else come here after a year? And to Salma?”

“Could be a pilot with family there. Or maybe he was in the wrong neighborhood then,” Weste detected a note in his boss’ tone. No, she didn’t really believe that. If Alyi noticed, she’d have an opening, a crack in their boss’ façade.

“I don’t think so. I think the soldiers deferred to him,” the Human hesitated, “They didn’t salute or some close to him, but they knew where he was and stayed away, I think. Like they didn’t want to give him away. I think he might have been a spy.”

“Fine. Why don’t I go have a chat with our new friend then. If it turns out that he is innocent or not a spy, I want you out of here by the end of the week. If he is what you think, then we’ll talk,” the Elf turned to leave without an answer. She turned back as Weste drew his antiquated comm. “No need to call Kel, Weste. Or the rest of security. I’ll handle this and they don’t need to get involved.”

The mechanic nodded as his device disappeared into a pocket.

After Lazi was gone, he escorted Alyi to her room, realizing their boss would want her out of the way for the next couple days.


 A couple hours later, Berl was interrupted in an interview when her comm went off. She pardoned herself to answer.

“Berl. What’s going on?”

“Get to the Alyyn Street station, and bring Kel if you have him. You should hear this.”

“Lazi? Tied to the case? He’s not with me, but I’ll be there in . . . ten.”

Berl arrived a few minutes before Kel, but the two entered the station’s interrogation room together.

Inside, they found Lazi standing with her arms folded behind the Human. As far as Berl’s trained eye could tell, he hadn’t been battered, but there were ways to conceal physical interrogation. And there were other means. Her guesses were cut shirt as her boss explained, “Mr. Certyr, here, and I were just having an interesting conversation. Alyi pinned him as an Imp agent, stationed on Clarsic. He says he’s with the Hawks and watching something here. I will explain Alyi later. It sounded like he might help the case.”

While Kel kept near the door, Berl came to the table. “Interesting,” she locked eyes with her fellow Elf, “Mr. . . . Certyr, is it? When did the Hawks hire a Riven?”

“D-d-didn’t.”

She sighed, her bosses forgotten, “Mr. Certyr, someone hired a Riven. The Hawks and some BCC faction then started killing Imperial patrols and spies to frame Salma. They’re the two biggest beneficiaries if the Imps go to all out war with us.”

The man glanced fearfully at Lazi, then, “N-no. N-no R-rriven. Stolen Alliance tech . . . bioengineered by corp and nano-enhanced.”

Sheis, Lazi must’ve done something . . . sheisfrek! Someone had mixed Alliance-level gene splicing and Republic nanotech? She raised a brow to her bosses, who were now standing together. “And we should believe this for what reason?”

“I w-was hired by the W-w-warhawks to observe the r-results of the attacks. T-to assess and r-report.”

“And how exactly is this person getting into our territory?”

“D-don’t know.”

“Why don’t I believe that, Mr. Certyr,” Lazi interjected.

“H-he’s living near the port,” Certyr stammered, with another fearful look at Lazi, “That’s all I know!”

Berl nodded, “Fine. Boss?” She flashed a security hand signal for ‘outside.’

Both Kel and Lazi nodded. An Ogre from security entered the room before they left, to ensure that their guest was safe.

“It seems plausible,” Berl opined when they were in the corridor.

The other Elf nodded, “Bounce him up to orbit from the Imperial or BCC port, transfer to another ship there, then back down to our port. A couple hours, tops, no bribes to worry about. That is how I would do it.”

“So what do we do about it?”

Kel and Lazi exchanged a look. The Human took the lead, “I’ll get a couple special teams together to tackle this guy, once we have a description. Berl, try to get one.”

His spouse nodded, “I can handle the Imps and data. We could let another BCC faction know, but the data would still be out there. Get me a team for some night work, Kel. And leave the Hawks to me. I think we can stretch the benefits out for at least a couple weeks, once the threat is eliminated.”

As everyone split, Berl determined to get the information fast. If they moved too slow, the Hawks would be able to alert people, destroy evidence, and otherwise clean up their mess. If that happened, the threat could just resurface and then they’d be in trouble all over again.

A Medley of Burkes (pt. 2) (2008)

Halfway across the neighborhood, Alyi Sykes was having her own problems. First there had been the issue of being sure she wasn’t followed while maintaining her cover, without making overly amateurish ‘mistakes’ that would draw attention. Then there was the fact that the people she was supposed to be meeting were nearly twenty minutes late already. They hadn’t been late the last three times, so maybe they’d been caught. If that was the case, she should be running before the Imps broke them, not hanging around here, she knew. She didn’t know how many other illegal Imperial refugees there were in Burkeport, those seeking illegal transport to other nations that was, but the smugglers implied they’d been working for a lot of people this time.

She ducked behind a pallet of crates as the grating screech of a rusting hinge shattered the warehouse’s silence.

Peeking between pallets, Alyi spotted three people approaching the meeting spot. As they came down the narrow row between stacks, she decided two were Humans. By bulk, the third must be a Troll, she’d decided before they crossed a bit of light. No, not a Troll, wrong color. An Ogre? That meant . . . they must be the Republic smugglers. She’d been fed enough Imperial propaganda about Ogres to know the Imps on planet wouldn’t hire one. And, she double checked, no uniforms so they probably weren’t security. Not that that fact meant much, Alyi thought, since Salma’s security didn’t do uniforms either.

Alright, do like Berl or Tam, she decided. Either shoot it out, she had the small holdout blaster that most residents carried, or bluff.

Emerging from behind the stack, Alyi glared through the dim lighting as best she could and demanded, “Where the frek’ve you been? I’ve been waiting.”

To their credit, the trio neither jumped nor tried to attack her. At least they were professional, though one of her friends from the bar would probably read their reactions better than she could. Especially with her heart thumping against her ribs.

One of the Humans, a man she’d met before, tossed his shaggy head. “Patrols held us up. Imps and bar rats’ve at least doubled their people on the streets and Hawks’re going freksheis for the last hour. Gonna be at least a week before we can move, maybe a couple months.” He ignored his partners, so Alyi decided to follow suit, even if she thought they could have made better time without the Ogre.

“A couple months?”

“If things get worse with the Imps and bar rats. Might be all out war between ‘em. Could get you across the ILF line tonight, but no port and our ships here. It’ll be at least a week, we think, before things die down enough to move.”

Alyi ignored the second use of her co-workers’ nickname, insulting though it was. There were things more important than pride, besides she was only with them for a short time, not truly one of them. “Still. A week? It’s not that bad, I thought your crew was supposed to be good.”

That got a reaction from the woman and the Ogre. The one bristled, the other reached for the axe on its belt. Both stopped when the man raised a hand. He shook his head, clearly communicating how little regard he had for rank amateurs. “They are good, not the best, but much better than average. See, I’m still being honest here, most would claim to be the best, kid. Part of being good is not being caught. And the best way to avoid being caught is to know when to move.”

“Why not now? Lots of ships are still leaving all over.”

“That’s as may be. They’re all being searched close too. ‘Specially by the Imps, bar rats, and corps.”

Even her short time on Burkeport was enough to make the political connections: the injured party, the accused party, and the injured’s questionable ally. Only Warrl wouldn’t care to search. The sorcerers there would probably give the squad killer a small parade on his way to their port. Even so, “Makes sense, but won’t they be worse later?”

The woman gave a short bark of laughter. Alyi felt a bit of red tinge coming to her complexion as the man explained, “The patrols and border guards. Most of our passengers need to be smuggled here first. Not that your bar rat bosses care, if we aren’t too obvious. So, a week at least. No extra charge. We’ll contact you if we need another meeting.”

Well, that’s something new, Alyi thought as the trio left. She glanced at her watch, four more minutes. She’d thought the smugglers were being paid by someone else, they’d been so cheap that she had been concerned at first. Working at the bar taught her a rough scale of smuggling rates, and people were always the most expensive, especially those wanted by the Imps. Probably the Alliance or Republic, if the Clanhold destination they’d told her was right. Weste had told her the Gnome territory was a notoriously unstable and little patrolled border. Either government, she guessed, would want to free and interrogate Imperial citizens, not that she really knew anything.

Time was up. Five minutes gave the smugglers enough time to move away, enough not to appear suspicious. She checked the alley before leaving the warehouse and kept to the shadows until she found a busy street. There were threats other than Imperial patrols and spies in the neighborhood, not as many as in the Popular Front’s turf, sure, but still. Alyi walked along, ignoring the minimal vehicle traffic, and pretended that she was exactly what she appeared: someone out shopping after work. It helped that she spotted and nodded to a few of the security patrols, people she knew from the bar who’d been pulled to keep the streets quieter.

In order to maintain the charade, Alyi stayed on public streets and entered the occasional shop for a few hours. That was something the couple that took her in after her parents were sent to Svalgard had taught her. It created an alibi, being seen in public by lots of people about the same time as something illegal or illicit was done, because people were rarely specific about times. Or so they said. Nice people overall, nothing like some of the neighborhood rumors she’d heard before her parents were arrested and sent to prison. A few days later, the government demolished her home and started a new military base.

Alyi spared a glance at her watch. 1958, or close enough. That should do, she decided and turned toward home.

At the same time, Berl stood outside an apartment a few blocks north of the bar. She knew the other three security personnel with her by reputation and looks only, having reviewed personnel files the other day. While they waited for Kel to come back out, she grilled the patrol.

“When did you get here?”

“’Bout nine, ten minutes ago. Heard a scream from his neighbor, must’ve just found him.”

“Neighbor didn’t see anything.” It wasn’t a question. She was certain of the fact.

“No, says he heard and saw nothing.”

The Elf rolled her eyes. “The day someone sees something, we’ll know they’re lying,” she waved them off, “Go on and keep the civilians away.”

A few minutes later, Kel left the building. He shook his head, “Linked?”

“Of course,” she replied, “one night an Imp squad’s wiped, next night Cairik, a known Imp informant in our turf. Single precise blaster shot, probably close range. Can’t confirm that until the autopsy, but that’s too much to be coincidence. They’ve got to be linked, and our Riven’s been out of sight since he left Salma left night, which no one saw him do.”

“Evidence seems to point that way, doesn’t it?”

Berl barely nodded as her comm set buzzed.

“Funny how all the clues go that way, “Kel continued before he realized his employee wasn’t listening.

After a couple minutes of subvocalizing, the Elf said, “Alright. Keep me updated if anything else comes up.” She thought a few heartbeats before asking, “What would you guess for time of death, based on our experiences with corpses?”

He shrugged, “Within the last hour?”

“That was my guess too,” she shook her head in frustration, “So our Riven’s off the hook. Port says he left around 1710. They forgot to call because of a fireball streaking across the tarmac about five, ten minutes later. And the shoot out alert.”

“Launched with a robot pilot to throw us off?”

Berl grimaced, “And leave himself stranded on a planet with one settlement and no means of leaving? Doesn’t make tactical sense. I’m thinking our Riven pulled the BCC job and someone else is doing these. Tam’s best guess said six Riven planetside, now one’s been executed and one left, so what have the other four been doing? They’re supposed to be bodyguards . . .”

“Convenient way to bring a hitman planetside. Director Wroth might send out an Imp hunter, Dane definitely wouldn’t. The others, who knows. I’ll see if Tam can’t track who the other four work for, but I’m guessing they’ll all be anti-Imp directors or neutral on that alliance. Unless Mrs. Dane’s was a warning to others.”

“Think Warrl’s hiding one or more? I wouldn’t put it past him, but can he afford it?”

It was Kel’s turn to shake his head. “If you’re talking about hiring one, I doubt Warrl could afford it. Our contacts say he’s mostly flash these days. Unless he’s got some good sales going on without our knowledge. Is he harboring one and looking the other way? Could be, but our informants can see most of his income. If they’re as strapped as we think, I can’t see Warrl passing up significant bribes, even if he’d normally do it gratis to hurt the Imps.”

The Elf nodded, “That’s what I hoped. So, maybe the Riven’s a bad route, unless the BCC pan out.” Which just left about three quarters of the rest of the city’s populace with a grudge against the Imps. Thinking tactically, who’d stand to gain from the Imps and Salma going at it? Again, nearly everyone. No revise that. The ILF and Pop Front had not means of off-world travel, so most ILF foreign support was smuggled through Salma or Warrl’s. Neither the ILF nor the Republic would want the Imps taking Salma port. Pop Front could gain thanks to Imp and Warhawk pressure. But they were a trumped up street gang, they lacked the training and organization.

Probably two factions out. Warrl, though, would gain from anyone directly fighting the Imps, especially Salma. He had his own port and could increase income from the ILF and PF with Salma port closed or destroyed. Some BCC factions too, an open fight could drive more support to the pro-Imp faction. But no one stood to gain territory except the Imps . . . no, Colonel Daack wouldn’t authorize attacking his own troops. His subordinates, well they might be another story. They were corrupt enough, she decided as the clean up crew did its job, but they also benefited from the smuggling that went through Salmagundi, most of them actually funded the smugglers. Warhawks could gain territory too. A couple years ago, she’d dismiss them immediately, but they seemed to be moving away from their Imperial masters. And they had Imp funding. But she’d heard Monty say Commander Shiva was using Salma to negotiate with the BCC, maybe even Warrl, so there was neutral territory to lose. Unless Shiva’d joined with Warrl to split Salma and oust the Imps, with BCC factions as local support . . . that alliance might protect them from the ILF-PF alliance that would be certain to come.

Local politics were a matter of survival, one didn’t survive long without paying attention to the factions.

Assuming the theory was sound, and assuming Warrl would frek Shiva once the dust settled and vice versa, where would that leave things? Three options came to mind. She tapped her comm, “Tam? Realizing this is a silly question as I ask, can you find out how many mercs have landed at the ports in the last three days?”

“You mean better than ‘a couple hundred,’ I s’pose?”

“Right. And assume Warrl’s people are lying. Tell the Imps it’d help our investigation.”

“Will do. Should have it by morning.”

She signed off too. One route, but not the easiest. Option two was one of the four remaining Riven, their original theory. The last would have to be corpsec, one of Warrl’s partisans, or a Hawk. If Warrl was unleashing sorcerous assassins all over, they were in trouble. Corpsec were unlikely, even with outside talent. The kind of talent they’d need would cause a blip on the rumor radar, and if they had a native that good, everyone would know by now, she guessed. Then again, who knew what experiments the corps were conducting. A cybernetic killer could probably do it, with Imp level cyberware, and get away in seconds. That might be Dane’s area of expertise, maybe. One of Warrl’s people might do it with sorcery helping, maybe an enchanted item or two.

The elf came to life and snagged a member of the crew. “Just get the body, leave the rest for now,” she ordered, “and keep the body and its personal effect locked up, not even the doc, until Kel and I come by. Same with the apartment.” As the cleaner jogged off, Berl shrugged, contamination and possible theft of evidence could happen. She wasn’t certain how sorcery worked or might help, but it was something. She turned toward the bar and called Kel on the way to berate him about their lack of a staff sorcerer.

Half an hour later, Berl was back outside the apartment with her boss. Both were watching a young Goblin mumbling to himself as his hands ran over the door frame. In a stage whisper, to keep from distracting the sorcerer, she asked, “And why is it that we don’t have a sorcerer on staff?”

Kel looked mildly uncomfortable, “Lazi’s never trusted them, after the first two applied, word got around. We haven’t has a sorcerer apply in four years now.”

“Maybe the policy should be reconsidered.”

“Maybe. By now the other factions know about our lack. Bring it up at the next staff meeting, call it a hole in security. She might buy it.” His tone said he wouldn’t be going blue in the face over his wife’s agreement, but it was an opening.

Whole sorry business could have been done already, the Elf thought, and we could be checking other intel. Not that she like sorcerers much either, but they could be useful. Like this one who might narrow a broad list of suspects. She’d run through her mental to do list and collection of theories three times before the Goblin rejoined them. The lack of excitement on his face answered her unasked question, but she asked anyway for the details.

“Nothing unusual,” the sorcerer confirmed, “Someone set up a ward around the apartment a year or two ago, against divination and scrying I think, it’s hard to tell for certain after so long. It wasn’t meant to be permanent or long term. I would guess it lasted six, maybe seven, months. Cheapest possible ward that a sorcerer will cast for pay.”

Kel must have given him a look, Berl thought, when he continued.

“Anything shorter term isn’t cost effective, can’t make a profit. But, no active sorcery on or in the apartment. Nothing in the last six months at least.”

“If someone cast a spell on themselves before going in, would it leave a trace?” Berl asked, to be sure.

“I don’t think so. Even if it did, it would be so faint that, well, I don’t think there are even a dozen sorcerers in the galaxy who could detect it. I can think of two or three off hand, but they would require a fact to face meeting to even consider any offer you make. And they all work for mid-six figures, Commonwealth, or more.”

The Elf nodded, “So no shot in Orell. Would you mind checking over the victim’s body and personal effects? For the sake of thoroughness?”

He looked at Kel, who nodded. “Sure, it’s your credits. And there might be something, but only if he’s picked up a recent enchantment. Anything less would have rubbed off on the apartment over time, say a month of living here.”

“And it looks like he was shot in the head at close range with a blaster, so chances are no one used a spell on him, but I would like to know for sure.”

Nearly an hour later, Berl stretched and stifled a yawn as she and Kel left the office of the doctor who moonlighted as Salma’s coroner. Kel paused to light a rolled paper filled with, well she didn’t really want to know. The smoke that rose from the end was faintly sweet, a decidedly positive change from his usual. After a couple pulls, he looked her way, “It was a good idea. Just didn’t pan out. Not sure what we’d do if it had, mind.”

“We haven’t proven Warrl’s people weren’t involved,” she countered, “just that they might have covered their tracks better than our hound. Or only used their spells on their assassin.” There, call it what it was, even if she still preferred to think of the opposition as guerilla fighters. Which they were, to an extent, too. After all, they’d only targeted soldiers and spies so far. The fact that the Imperial refugees who’d come to Salma weren’t targets told her nothing new. Nor did the systematic approach they seemed to be using.

Kel’s shoulders heaved with his resigned sigh, “Probably should’ve pushed Lazi harder on a sorcerer or two. Let’s hope Warrl’s not involved, or things might step up a few notches if the mundane is caught.”

“Let’s hope. Somehow I have trouble seeing the Imp’s giving us sorcerous protection out of gratitude,” the Elf looked at the sky, “Go on home, sir. I’m going for a walk. See if that helps clear my head. If not, helping a patrol might.” After parting pleasantries, she watched her boss until he was out of sight. Then she picked a different direction at random and walked into the night made day bright by warehouse, casino, tavern, and brothel lights.

A Medley of Burkes (pt. 1) (2008)

Salmagundi.

The place was, despite its non-threatening atmosphere, a den and a black hole. It drew in every smuggler, mercenary, and bounty hunter within a hundred lightyears. And then there were the locals: dark, sneaky, eager to make a credit, cunning . . . and they had many other fine qualities too, Berl thought as she scanned the room. Over there, for instance, a Troll, an Elf, and two Humans chatting with a local, Ged. Good kid. Probably about some data cracking, not that it was any of her business. Besides, the money he made went to helping a widow in his building, not that he’d ever admit it. A couple tables over, a few planetside smugglers also chatting with a tourist. Under the table deals went on all over. So long as they kept the noise down and the blasters away, she didn’t mind. Even the arms dealer in the back corner was fine . . . sheis, and on Imp night too.

Berl touched the comm set hooked over her pointed ear. “Boss, we’ve got a Riven,” the Elf reported and listened, “Table forty-two. On his own. Doesn’t look like it. Copy.” She glanced at her watch as two other security personnel shifted through the crowd to get a better view of the target. Only a couple minutes until the weekly Imp patrol usually arrived. Mixing Riven and Imps was a recipe for a messy day for patrons and security. Monty claimed he’d seen a couple Riven working in the Imp zone a couple months back, but no one seriously believed him. There was too much bad blood there.

The bosses said they’d handle it, but since there wasn’t much else to do, Berl touched her comm set again. “Tam, anything?”

Tamseen’s rough voice was marginally distorted by her ear piece, “Not yet. Just the usual squads along the border.”

Well, that was something at least. She switched the comm to receive only and made her way toward the bar. It probably wasn’t necessary, but the Elf made a habit of filling in the staff when the possibility of trouble arose. Especially with new staff like Alyi.

The Human spotted her and had a glass of fruit juice waiting. One of security’s rules, no alcohol while on duty. Kept the wrong types from applying for the job. Berl accepted the drink and murmured, “Keep your eyes open. Imps’re overdue and we’ve got a Riven inside.” Alyi nodded sagely, obviously lost but not willing to admit it. The Elf really didn’t blame her. Kid was Commonwealth raised and might not have reason to know. Gods, she was raised Commonwealth too, but the Elf community . . . “Guy at forty-two. Riven’re either genetically engineered warriors or a warrior cult from the Alliance,” she explained quickly, “from the early Alliance-Empire wars.” She watched as understanding lit the other woman’s eyes. There was no one dense enough not to know about that, and Alyi really wasn’t dense. Otherwise the bosses wouldn’t’ve hired her. “No major worries, bosses say they’ve got it covered.”

Alyi visibly relaxed as she moved on to a customer.

That’s it, the Elf thought, trust mom and dad. Trust your siblings. We may not be blood relations, but this den is home and it’ll do. Speaking of which . . .

She slipped through the crowd toward a side table occupied by a couple. Fingers tapping the worn duraplast handle of his blaster, Berl cleared her throat and smiled at the pair. “Sir, I’m sorry, but if you want that, you’ll have to go to the Outpost down the street,” she explained, with a barely perceptible gesture to the head of her backup, “Thira, you know better. The deal’s that the bosses let you pick them up here, but you’ve gotta take them elsewhere for anything more.” She locked eyes with the Elven male while Thira did something under the table, pretending not to notice. At least the whore had the decency to sound contrite. And her companion to be was sober enough to realize he wasn’t in a position to object. As they started to leave, Berl added, “That’s two, Thira. One more and you’re banned for life.”

She watched until they’d both left the establishment before returning her attention to the Riven and the problems he had the potential to start. Kel and Lazi’d better come up with something soon, she thought as Tamseen reported an Imp patrol crossing the border. They only had twenty minutes at most, well maybe a bit more since the mechanized infantry never got sent. Stubby Dwarf legs might add a few minutes.

Alyi only just managed to refrain from ducking out of sight when the squad of Dwarves entered Salmagundi. She had to remind herself that Humans outnumbered Dwarves here, and they shouldn’t recognize her with a casual glance anyway, not the light troopers anyway. It wasn’t like she was in Weste’s situation, the only crime she’d committed was illegally leaving the Empire, well and buying and using falsified papers in the process. Even then, like tens of thousands of others, she hadn’t gone far. Hadn’t technically even left imperial territory, just gone where they had no real authority. The sight of the half armor still awoke buried responses that had once been learned by rote to the point of being instincts. Where looking suspicious was defined as walking on the wrong side of the street or being a non-Dwarf . . .

She repressed the thought so she could pay attention to the present, especially tot eh Troll at the end of the bar waving his empty glass.

Her eyes kept darting between the man Berl had pointed out and the Imperials. At least this time they’d sent a sergeant, Alyi noticed with relief, and an older one too. The young lieutenants, and even captains, they sometimes sent usually meant trouble. The sergeants knew how things worked and weren’t likely to be reassigned before they retired.

Still, the bartender didn’t relax until she surveyed the room and picked out half the day’s security at inconspicuous points around the place as she filled a mug. Setting the drink in front of a customer, Alyi caught Kel Evsli’s wink as he came out to deal with the squad. His reassurance removed some weight from her shoulders, in spite of Berl’s warning.

And business as usual continued at the bar cum eatery, she thought, which meant the people at table ten probably wanted their drinks. Signaling Monty, the house techie filling in for a sick tender, Alyi took a tray with five drinks and wove through the tables. She tried to skirt the Imperials without looking like it, knowing that acting suspicious would make her stand out in their eyes. A thin line of sweat beaded on her forehead by the time she set down the drinks. An Elf, a Troll, and two Humans . . . they were missing one. When she inadvertently overheard the Elf say “. . . for get away if the sheis hits,” Alyi turned off her ears and started back toward the bar. They could figure out the fifth drink, the bar had a reputation for being a place where anyone could conduct any business. Lack of employee discretion could find her in the stockroom or fired. Probably hundreds of thefts, illicit transactions, and murders were planned in the bar daily. Not to mention the number of agents from the other factions that she never saw enter, drink at, and leave the establishment. Selective loss of senses and memory were part of the first week’s training.

She flashed a smile at Monty to reassure him that she was alright as the troops left. Alyi glanced over to see the Riven had vanished at some point, when she recalled Berl’s concern. Her finger unconsciously depressed a button under the bar twice, the al clear signal for Weste. A couple moments later, the Dwarf came out of the back room to announce, “Heater’s working perfectly again.”

“They were pretty quiet. Just talked for a few minutes,” Alyi informed him, “Berl was concerned, said a Riven was here.”

Weste paled visibly, “Sheis. And things stayed quiet? What troopers?”

“Light patrol, half-Druuge armor.”

“And the Riven?”

“Dunno. I didn’t get too good a look. But he was gone by the time they left.”

“Frek . . . well, let’s just hope he waits until they leave our turf before trying anything. We don’t want blame for that squad.”

When it was clear Alyi was lost again, Weste added, “My granddad told me lots of stories about fighting Riven. From the two I’ve met, I believe him. If he does anything, the squad’s gone, and its probably not one the garrison wanted to eliminate.”

“But, aren’t we neutral?”

Weste barked in laughter, “As granddad said, that makes no never mind to a Riven. They left the Alliance centuries go and haven’t much use for politics since.”

Before Alyi could reply, the Dwarf’s belt comm squawked. He unclipped it, listened for a few seconds and shrugged apologetically, “Sorry, they need me on the roof. Staff lift’s buggy.”

The next hour was routine at the bar, for a moderately busy day. That is, until Berl approached the bar. Alyi continued wiping down glasses as the Elf leaned on the bar. After a moment, she asked, “Tamseen and I are heading over to Fisher Street for a vid, maybe food after. You want to come?”

Alyi glanced at the bar clock. “Sure, but I’ve got another hour,” part of her hoped they’d wait, another hoped they wouldn’t. She hadn’t been out in a couple weeks for one reason and another.

“No hurry. First decent night off we’ve had this week, we’re happy to take it slow.”

As she walked the six blocks to the holo-vid theater, Alyi looked up at the night sky. The stars were blotted out by city lights, even on the clear night, but she could still see where they should be from memories out the viewport on her arrival a few months ago. Tamseen’s deep rumble of laughter brought her attention back to her companions. Berl must have told a joke she missed. She flashed both Elf and Troll an apologetic smile, “Sorry, still a bit distracted.”

It looked like Berl was going to try for more detail, but they’re reached the theater’s ticket office. Tamseen strode up, raising his fingers, “Three for . . .”

He looked over his shoulder at the Elf, who had just put a finger to her ear and was holding a muted conversation. After a few seconds, Berl’s voice rose, “Alright. We’re on our way.”

She lowered her hand with a louder, “Sheisfrek! Tam, Kel needs us over on Larr. It’s bad.” She apologized to Alyi and took off with the Troll. Berl decided she had to give her friend credit, he waited through a whole block of jogging before wanting an explanation.

“Really bad,” she said, “Kel’s got a squad of Imps, all shot up. Medium troopers, no survivors.” Which meant armor like a light battlesuit. Not something a random mugger was likely to penetrate. Not that either of them thought mugging or robbery likely, there were easier pickings out there.

When they reached the scene, Berl spotted Kel Evsli immediately. The ex-bounty hunter turned bar owner stood out in spite of his best attempts. She also noted with satisfaction that a dozen other security personnel had formed a ring to keep back spectators. The Elf followed Tamseen, letting his bulk clear a path through the small crowd to their boss. Once through the ring, a quick glance told her a lot. Five dead, all Dwarves, all regular troopers. That last was something at least. They weren’t special forces, there were only three spec force units on the planet anyway, and their sources kept tabs on all three.

While the Troll surveyed the buildings to either side, Berl took a knee by Evsli. Without preamble, he waved around, “You can see it all. First guess, a team hit them. My guess, popular Front, it’s too precise and coordinated for the ILF.”

She snorted at the last group. Bunch of ganger amateurs. They were better at improvised explosives and getting themselves killed. “Take a look at this, Kel,” she pointed to the bodies, “Three with big holes, two with narrow elongated . . . a blaster and a laser? Probably high power pulse for the latter, with their armor.”

The Human nodded, “That’s why I’m thinking a team. You’d have to with how well trained and equipped these guys are.”

“No, that’s not right. Look, the two with the laser wounds are twisted, but are both on one side and the bodies . . . someone came down in the middle of the squad and shot,” she replied, certainty filling her tone. “You’ve already looked around. No witnesses?”

Kel flashed a wry smile.

“Of course not. Probably supports the theory, then, there was that Riven earlier today.” She let the implication hang.

“I suppose . . . is that possible, though?”

The Elf shrugged, “From what I’ve heard? Easily. From reality? I have no idea. All I know is rumor bordering on legend.”

“Same here,” Kel paused for a few heartbeats, “I might know someone . . . Lazi and I’ve been trying for a census of the permanent Salma citizens since we officially became a faction.” Berl nodded, she knew this. “There’s someone on the list, can’t think of his name. He’s a sorcerer and biologist. I think Khary got him on the list. As I recall, he’s Alliance born and interested in the Riven. Might help to pay him a visit. Take Monty. I’ll tell Lazi and see if she can’t call up the info by the time you get there.”

She sketched a mock salute to her boss, and another to Tamseen. On one hand, she’d rather have the Troll than the techie. He was solid and his size was useful for intimidating information out of people. That size also made the Trolls ideal for crowd control, though, so Kel probably needed him more. Besides, she thought, this sorcerer probably wouldn’t be easily intimidated by size and strength. She’d yet to find anyone who wasn’t intimidated by Monty’s technobabble, once he really got started.

An hour later, she stood on the street with the young Human to her left. Honestly, the kid had so much gadgetry it was hard to tell where they stopped and he started. Take the HUD glasses he was using to check the address with Salmagundi’s database, for starters. Berl shook her head, she’d never been comfortable with HUDs. Probably one reason for the outdated comm, she reflected, alongside the fact that it was cheap. At least she’d managed to talk Monty out of bringing the modified blast carbine he’d been eager to field test. That was all she’d need, a piece of jiggered gear blowing up on what should be a sedate, quiet inquiry. All the same, she checked her lone blaster and knife.

“Satisfied?”

He nodded, “The address matches . . . doesn’t look like the place for a sorcerer, thought, ya know?”

The Elf glanced over the aging housing complex and shrugged. “And Salma’s the proper looking house for a bounty hunter, one of the best techies in the hundred lightyear neighborhood, and a great cellist?”

“Point, set, and match,” Monty grinned, “I bow before the mistress.”

Berl shook her head with a matching quirk of her lips. When she’d crossed the street he followed in his electronic cocoon while she relied on unaugmented senses. Everything felt alright, she decided. They weren’t being set up or followed. Probably.

As they climbed stairs that had seen better days, past flaking paint, the Elf privately admitted she had to agree with the kid. A sorcerer should be able to do better. Just to be safe, she avoided the railing as they continued to the sixth floor. Fortunately, their data was confirmed a few doors down by a faux-brass plate:

Arferus T.

Sorcerer, Diviner

7-7 all week

Ring buzzer for

The rest was scuffed into obscurity. She grinned and grimaced at the idea of ringing a buzzer, but pressed the button anyway.

They waited nearly two minutes before the door creaked open just wide enough to reveal an ice blue eye surrounded by flushed flesh. After a few heartbeats, before Berl decided she’d have to start the conversation, the door opened all the way. It revealed an older Human, Berl guessed mid-sixties, though with a sorcerer that likely meant much older. Grey-white hair fell to his shoulders and, she decided, he could use a month or so of good exercise to lose some of his pudginess. His voice was confident and firm when he asked, “What can I do for you? You’re from out illustrious protectors, yes? I recall you from my last visit,” he nodded at Berl, “You, though, young man, I do not recall.”

The Elf nodded, impressed. She couldn’t remember ever seeing him. “Arferus? Berl Olken and Monty Beal, yes Kel sent us by. We’d like to ask you a few questions. As an unofficial, but well compensated, consultant. Regarding your historical interest.”

“How well compensated?”

The Elf pretended to consider, “Six hours’ fee for one hour’s talk.”

“Nine,” the sorcerer shot back, “at sorcery rate.”

“Eight, at diviner’s.”

“Come in,” Arferus stepped away from the door, “and have a seat.”

Once they were comfortable, Berl got straight to the point, “What can you tell us about the Riven?”

The sorcerer steepled his fingers and smiled, “For what you are paying? Not much. I have paid much for what I have learned of them, and not just in money.” And even among her own kind there were few who knew so much, especially on this rock, went his unspoken addition. Even among the Alliance-born who knew the most.

“Most of it’s extraneous anyway,” Monty chipped in, “we only really need to know how to find and kill one.”

Berl almost smacked her partner out of hand. But, she did notice the sorcerer edge forward in his seat.

“Yes,” she added, her face carefully controlled, “there’s on in town.”

“You’ve seen it? What color is the armor?” The eagerness in his voice almost edged out the hint of fear.

“Black,” the Elf spotted her opening, “mottled with grey. Why?”

Arferus leaned back and shook his head. “That is very bad for you, child,” he ignored the other Human’s shocked look. A sorcerer, well, he had been around much longer than her two centuries. “According to my research, only the most elite, once special forces, covert Riven wore that color. They are the best and are virtually unpredictable. Now red, green, you would have a chance because you could predict the methods of a vengeance or justice driven Riven. But, even other Riven fear mottled black and grey, although they would never admit it.”

Monty interrupted, “Hey, the stories I can find say they were Alliance soldiers. Wouldn’t they have uniforms?”

“That was before they left the Alliance. Since then, every Riven chooses a color representing his or her motive for donning the armor . . . except the black and grey.”

“And why would Riven fear other Riven? I know they sometimes hire out to opposing sides, but,” the Elf interjected.

“Heh. After they broke with my homeland, those who chose black and grey, or were chosen for it, have acted as the enforcers of Riven tradition and law,” Arferus said, “And that is all that I can tell you. Good day and good luck, although I suspect it is too late for the latter.” As he spoke, the door opened of its own accord. Berl recognized the sorcerer’s will when she saw it.

She took in Monty with a look and gave the sorcerer a nod. “That has been enlightening, Master Arferus,” she said as she guided her temporary partner out the door. Probably more so than you’d wanted, she added to herself as the door shut a hairsbreadth behind them, and still less than we’d really like or probably need. Maybe the information would look better after they reported to Kel and got some sleep.

As the morning light slid into the room and battered its way past her eyelids, Berl attempted to recall the previous evening. The entire night was fuzzy and out of focus, except for the attacked Imp patrol and the visit with the sorcerer. Kel’d kept the full security force on alert and patrol from the time the patrol was discovered through one in the morning. Lucky for her, she’d gotten off just after midnight, after the boss had debriefed her and Monty. She glanced at the bedside clock, saw it was about quarter past five, and rolled over to get another hour or two of troubled rest.

After a stubborn half hour of tossing around and trying to get comfortable, the Elf gave up. By the time she got downstairs, Berl found that there’d been a meeting of most of the staff before the place opened. Kel took the seat to her left at the bar while she ate. He waved off a drink before saying, “I want you to keep on the investigation. You’re off regular duty until it’s solved. Lazi wants Weste on it too. Cover both Elf and Dwarf angles.” He held up a hand, “I know, you’re not alliance and he’s a refugee. Still, you two are the best we’ve got in that regard. I’ll see what my contacts come up with, but I can’t promise anything, same with Lazi. But, you can call on anyone you want from Salma, just figure this out before the Imps come after us too hard.”

“How bad is it?”

Kel shrugged, “Right now? Not bad. We’ve weathered worse here and Lazi’s running interference. In a few days, maybe a week? We could be in a full lockdown with Imps knocking at the door. Maybe Warhawks too, depends. BCC’d probably stay out of it, but who knows. Warrl would probably help us, we’re sending out feelers there, but we can’t count on the other two. Lazi can probably squeeze a couple days to a week out of the Imp colonels. They’re comfortable and getting fat on bribes, ready for retirement, so they really don’t want an all-out fight.”

But there was pressure from above, below, and pride to consider, Berl finished. “Alright, I’ll want full direct access to Monty and Tamseen, if necessary,” she decided, “on call. That sorcerer, Arferus, knows more than he told us last night. It’d help to have someone try for more info on the Riven. That on in here yesterday seems like the most likely suspect. He’d have the training, talent, and hardware, from what the sorcerer told us.”

“Done. Tamseen’s schedule is clear, he’ll hang out here as redundant floor security. Monty, I could use, but I’ll keep him here on call. He can work in back.”

“Great. So where’s Weste?”

“In back, the break room. I’ll send Tam and Monty back in a minute.”

The Elf was intent on figuring out how to proceed as Kel left the bar. She’d done some detection work before, years ago, but gave it up. Even then, she’d never been more than an amateur playing at being professional. Might be better to approach it like a security breech, she thought as she went behind the bar. And there was the Dwarf maintenance man in the small break room.

Berl walked to lean against the opposite wall as he greeted her. She flashed a wan smile. “So, you’ve heard Kel’s dumping this in our laps?”

“Can’t say it doesn’t make sense,” Weste acknowledged, “Though I’ve never been an investigator.”

“Right. To start, I think it would be best if you felt out the local Imp refugee community. I’ll take the Alliance folks. Our best lead’s the Riven, so maybe someone here hired him. If not, maybe someone heard something.”

“Could take weeks. The refugee community ain’t exactly small, maybe a quarter or third of Salma’s population.” And that was the smallest section of Burkeport, which was still big.

“I know, the Alliance population’s not small either,” she said, “and they’re even more closed to outsiders. But it’s the best start we’ve got, I think.”

The Dwarf shook his head, “No argument there, just being sure we know this won’t be overnight.”

Before she could reply, the Human and Troll came in. Tamseen nodded to the Dwarf, “Kel said you wanted us, Berl?”

“Kel’s dropped last night’s investigation in my lap, and Weste’s,” always get to the point when possible, she thought, “Since we don’t have many leads, I have some favors to ask. Monty, whatever Kel’s got you on, try to take some breaks to work with the coroner on the Imps before the bodies are transferred. Probably tonight. See if any of your gadgets can get us any more clues or ideas.”

“No problem. I can get a couple hours in today, but it might take a day or two to analyze any data.”

“Not that we have much time, but fine. Work it out with Doc,” as he left, she turned to Tamseen. “Tam. Think you could check the port records? Find out when and where our Riven arrived?”

“Salma port’s easy. Warrlport’s master owes us a few favors for some gambling debts, so she shouldn’t be a problem,” the Troll mused, “BCC could be rough. Depends on who’s watch it is. And I guess we can rule out Imp port. Heh. Should be able to check the first two by noon. BCC’ll probably take longer.”

With that, the Troll left the room to start his search. Since the bar was also the seat of the neighborhood government, it had all sorts of unusual features. It was also no stranger to being under siege, so there was even more oddity. Both included a secure communications room with reasonably near state-of-the-art equipment.

Tam parked himself in front of a bank of long range comms and started making calls. Since it would be the most involved, he contacted BCC port first. After an hour of being shuffled around, he finally got someone who agreed to try to check the main port and a couple private corporate landing sites, but didn’t promise to forward the information. A bit of questioning determined that the woman was probably part of an anti-imperial faction of the BCC.

Nearly two hours later, he contacted Salma’s port and got through to the port master.

“Riven in black and grey? Might be . . . just a sec, lemme check the records.”

A couple minutes later, he came back on the vid-comm. “Thought so. He landed yesterday, 0917. Registered as Loren Tal, but half the names we get here’re faked. Stood out ‘cause he came in a modified Argen Z-974 shuttle. Well, I assume modified. Had to have jump drives added at least, we had no reports of ships big enough to carry that type in the system at the time. At least no new ones.”

“Great,” Tam paused to consider, “Put a launch block on it. I don’t want that ship to get flight clearance. Not that it will matter. If it takes off anyway, call me and Berl, then tell Kel. Make those standing orders for whoever is on duty at the moment. But don’t engage the pilot or try shooting down the ship.” The last a cautionary afterthought in his mind.

“Will do, boss. I’ll get that in the log. Want a tracer on the ship? Or anything else? Scan and search?”

The Troll shook his head, “No, keep your distance and leave it alone, unless he’s got any special orders, fueling, or whatnot on it. And thanks.” He clicked off the set. Who knew what defenses the ship had or what detection devices a Riven might access. And there was a slim chance that they could be wrong.

He called to report in almost immediately.

Berl was halfway through her list of Alliance Elves she knew would talk to her when the comm buzzed. She excused herself from another fruitless interview to take Tamseen’s call. “Go, Tam.”

“Got a lead on the Riven. Modified Z-97 series shuttle at Salma port. I’ve got people watching it and a flight block on it, for what good that’ll do.”

She nodded, although he couldn’t see her. “Sounds good, best they can do. You have some other idea, right?”

The Troll chuckled, “Of course. I’ve already put out some feelers to see how many Riven are here. None in Salma, ‘cept ours. BCC and Warrl’s should get back in a couple hours. Red tape. ILF will be longer, Warhawks knocked out their records in that raid last week so they’re on tertiary backups.”

“Good idea. Pop front’s pointless, unless they got a major lottery win.”

“Exactly. Kel’s latest intel says the PF can barely pay their bar tab.”

And since the thugs never paid for anything . . . “So they’re off the hook. Alright, keep me posted.”

She keyed off her comm and glanced at possible contacts. Lastun. Well, he was always a long shot, but so were all the rest. There weren’t many other options. Not many Alliance types planetside who would have the kind of information they needed. Their home was far off and there weren’t many opportunities or benefits for them in what was technically Imperial territory. And most Alliance expatriates with money went to the Commonwealth.

A few hours passed by with empty leads before Tamseen reported in again. She glanced at the sky as she answered. The sun was well past its zenith, but not nearing dusk. “Go, Tam.”

“Got those numbers. Warrl’s people report no Riven, but could be lying. BCC contacts report five as bodyguards, until this morning.”

“Oh?”

“Apparently Director Liaea Dane, who owns Girma, had a Riven guard. He was assassinated between two and four in the morning.”

“Girma? Robotics firm?”

“Yes. And Director Dane is a Dwarf. My contacts say her security has determined that the guard, not Mrs. Dane, was the intended target. And no collateral damage.”

“Interesting, the sorcerer . . .”

Kel’s voice interrupted on the comm. “Security alert, level three readiness. Reports indicate a firefight in Warhawk territory a few blocks from our border. Hawk troops are responding.”

Sheis. Better go help out, Tam,” the Elf decided, “just in case. I’ll stick to this unless things get bad.” Like the Warhawks blaming them for the fight and using it to mount a mini-invasion, she thought as Tam left. She had enough to think about in the meantime.

As Berl wandered aimlessly, walking to give her mind time to piece things together, she did exactly that. So, assess the facts as she knew them. In the last twenty hours or so a Riven landed and drank at Salmagundi. Soon after, an Imperial squad was found decimated near the factions’ border, on the wrong side of the gates. And apparently one attacker did it. Riven hated the Empire and were widely considered to be the best combatants in the galaxy. They certainly had the tactics and gear to take down a squad. And the one they’d spotted was apparently a judge and executioner within their society. Then there was the dead Riven in BCC territory. So. Was the job related? If so, was it a cover job for another that targeted the Empire? Or the other way around? Maybe they were unrelated . . . coincidence? Not likely. And the squad was definitely planned, not spontaneous. No one took on an Imperial squad for fun, certainly not before they could react.

There were too many missing pieces, but the Riven in Salma was still her best guess and the evidence pointed that way.

Zapanauts (pt. 3) (2008)

By the time they were ready to come out of jump, Sed was back on the bridge. He checked his own gear and stowed his Intech Mk. 7 blast carbine after making sure Orri’s EM-17A and Behr’s carbine were similarly locked down. Any time now, he thought, as he took his seat and took over tactical from the troll. His eyes moved over the display to note she’d kept sensors and picked up comms. Sensible move. She had PR and Orri’d have her hands full if there was traffic in orbit. Last time there hadn’t been much, but the Alliance’d also been actively attacking the Empire then. They weren’t now.

“Exiting jump in five,” the elf announced. She scanned her displays, one hand gripping the ship’s control yoke. She flexed her fingers around the handle, working out the kinks and ignoring their momentary clamminess. “Three.” Her left hung loose at her side, ready to hit controls or grab the yoke as needed.

“Two.”

Behr keyed the comm to broadcast the moment they went STL. The pre-recorded message declared their intent to land in neutral territory. Her hands hovered near the board in case anyone decided to question their neutrality.

“Jump.”

The Zapa returned to STL as close to Burkeport’s planet as was both legal and safe. Orri breathed a sigh of relief as Behr reported that their signal was broadcasting. Her eyes swept across the secondary sensors, noting scores of corvettes and frigates with not a few destroyers in orbit. There were civilian ships as well, freighters too big or old to make planetfall, but those were none of her concern except as obstacles to avoid. “Behr, IDs, a-sap, who’s out there?” she ordered, and offered up a silent prayer that their signal would be accepted. If she were a smuggler regularly, she’d send out false intent and change course once she was low enough.

“Signals claim a mix of Imperial, BCC, Warhawk, and . . . Freehold, Boss.”

“Sed?” For the moment she ignored the last faction, likely a fly-by-night local.

“No weapon locks or signs of immediate interest.”

Behr broke in, “Empire still controls the orbital territory, half the signals are claiming Imperial registry.”

“Two corvettes just raised shields and turned our way.”

“Got it,” Orri shifted her flight path to avoid the newcomers, “If they get too close, Sed, dissuade them.”

“Surface is responding, transmitting flight path from Salma,” Behr reported as she sent the data to the elf.

“BCC corvette’s breaking off,” Sed noted, “Warhawk corvette’s still on approach.”

“Keep an eye on him. Starting descent.” Even with the Vampire on sensors, Orri kept watch on the shorter range secondary system. She picked up a bit more speed to gain some distance on the pursuer. It’d mean coming in faster than was technically safe for a ship this size, but the Zapa wasn’t exactly a stock model. At least Salmagundi was lenient on fines and virtually non-existent with customs. “Got it!” She barely noticed Behr’s shout, “Warhawks’re supposedly Imperial hired mercs, Boss. Data packet from Salma’s got the current sit, political and military.”

The instant they were in the atmosphere and safe to change angles, Orri started randomly dodging the ship to throw off the corvette. She remained roughly on the prescribed path, to land a few blocks from the bar that gave its name to one of Burkeport’s few durable factions.


Orri and Sed watched the door as a squad of well armored dwarves entered the bar.

Their human companion barely glanced at the newcomers. “Ignore ‘em,” he suggested, “Imps come by ‘least once a week. Like to flash the colors, pretend they have authority here. Don’t do nothin’n the staff let ‘em be. Even Imps don’t mess with this place . . . might get the other locals worried . . . Anyway, like I said, Tas, gimme a couple hours, mebbe a day or two’n I’ll get these copied. ‘Less they’ve got some serious defense, like AI prog’ed.”

The elf and vampire continued watching the troops, also noting a few bar staff inconspicuously placed at strategic points, as the mechanic kept the negotiation. “No problem, Ged, give us time to find our drop point,” Tas slid a few local credit sticks across the table. “The rest on delivery, friend.” The sticks disappeared, along with the crew’s datasticks. Then Ged vanished in the crowded bar.

After he’d left, Behr looked up from her computer display. “Sed, sunrise is five, so you’ve got about seven hours,” she stated, “Getting into the drop site should be easy, but the data I’ve found says the authorities don’t let outsiders bring in any kind of missile weapon. They don’t seem to mind blades, clubs, and the like. And they do supposedly random searches of all goods and persons . . . the four of us together’d definitely get their attention, Boss.” And they’d be at a serious disadvantage if the drop didn’t go as planned. Even worse off, she thought, if Sed had to stay back on the ship.

“Drop has to be by five tomorrow evening,” Orri consulted their directions, “or they claim they’ll assume we did a runner. When’s sunset?”

“Eight.”

“No good stalling then. Three hours plus travel time . . . not likely. Ok, Tas get here by four and get those sticks back, copied or not. Sed can coordinate from the ship or keep it running for get away if the sheis hits.” The elf looked over her crew, noting that none of them were happy. Truth be told, neither was she, but there wasn’t much choice. In fact, there hadn’t been much choice since the derelict.

Sed had little choice either. He almost suggested that he could hide out in the building tonight, stay out the day there in concealment. But, their employers had thought of that, had to, he decided. They’d chosen a parcel office. Cliché, sure, but the public section had lots of windows, not somewhere he could go during the day. Even if he was in the building, the vamp knew he’d be effectively absent if there was trouble. He nodded to Orri’s orders, resigned to being separated from the team and unable to help in a meaningful way, not much he could do a mile away without harming bystanders and drawing the authorities’ attention.

“So, we’re got a base plan,” Tas broke in after some discussion, “How do we get the sticks across the border without being searched? A few options come to mind, but too much depends on the guards.”

“Rig something up,” Behr said as she surveyed the room, “Sed and I’ll work the room, with this place’s reputation we’ve got to be able to find someone who smuggles things over the line. If nothing else, we can observe the border guards.” Between the two of them, they should be able to spot likely prospects, even if no actual bribes crossed hands. The problem would be approaching crooked guards in a short time. Finding inattentive ones would be a lot easier.

Orri gestured toward the room at large. “Alright, let’s split and do out thing. Tas with me to the ship to work on the plan. Sed, observation. See if you can’t find some patterns.” Or contacts, if possible, which he’d probably do. “Behr, have fun, here’s a hundred in local currency to lubricate the room.” She glanced at her watch then added, “Meet back at the ship at four. We’ll crash, compare notes, and Behr can go observe day guards, if necessary. I’ll check the local comm traffic and news in the meantime.”


It was four in the morning when Behr arrived at the Zapa.

She made straight for the galley, where the crew commonly met. In fact, Orri and Tasser were already there. The latter greeted her with a drink and a lingering feathery touch on her arm. As they sat, the elf came out and asked, “Where’s Sed?”

Behr shook her head, “Haven’t seen him. Could’ve lost track of time?” She didn’t bother asking if he was back. Dumb question that people only asked in holo-vids. The captain wouldn’t ask if he was around. “Maybe he had better luck. The locals were pretty quiet, I’m guessing trade secrets. I got a few leads, Boss, but they were all tentative and . . . well, I got the sense they were grudging. Probably less certain ones.”

“Alright. I’ll sit up for Sed,” Orri offered, “You two crash for a bit, then check out the possibilities and Tas’ device.”

Both troll and elf knew they’d been lucky with even questionably bribable guards. As she left with her husband, Behr replayed her hours of conversations in her head. Even in that bar, even as a troll, they probably thought she was a plant sent to ferret out disloyal guards. Honestly, new person in town, asking questions in a bar known as a smugglers’ haunt . . . yeah, that’s what she’d think too. The company was probably more racially open than their bosses, and who knew which other factions the mercs were allied with today. At least she’d learned the two current locals were a trumped up street gang calling itself the Independent Liberation Front and a supposed local government ‘in exile’ called the Popular Front. The Freehold ships were still a mystery though. All such thoughts fled as Tas started showing off his datastick smuggling plan.

“Freck,” Orri muttered to herself on the bridge a few minutes later. “What are you frecking up to, Sed?” she asked the empty room as she read over the secure, scrambled personal message for the third time. His luck was good, whatever he was up to. The message light started blinking a few seconds after she’d settled in. “And could you be any more cryptic,” she added aloud. The message itself was clear—scram 5 4pm park street point—but the intent behind it was something else entirely. In the more immediate moment, she silently cursed and fumed. She’d hoped to mine his, she assumed, covert experience in formulating a full plan. As it stood, the best that came to mind was everyone going across individually, staggered, and hoping Tas’ device worked. On the other hand, that could be his plan. Tas wouldn’t be ready to cross until half past . . . So he likely had an idea, but couldn’t communicate it on an open channel and apparently needed the night to prepare. Which meant it came down to trusting him and his experience. Orri already knew how the other two would decide, and they had valid reason since every member of the team’d needed to trust the others for years . . .

Over an hour earlier, across Salmagundi’s territory, a figure crouched out of sight on the roof of an apartment building. It watched the two Warhawk border guards as it had done patiently for the last two hours. Across the five lane road stood other buildings. With the wall cutting off lesser streets and the buildings’ windows filled to the seventh floor, they stood like the towers of some ancient castle. The gap wasn’t nearly wide enough to protect those towers from this intruder. He assumed countermeasures against hooks and harpoons, possibly against sorcery, but there was little they could do against his kind, especially one who only planned to stay a few seconds. Maybe pressure sensors on the roof or windows, if he was dumb enough to stick around and get caught.

After gauging the distance, he backed away from the edge. For the last two hours, neither man posted at the gate had shown the slightest inclination to look around. Three in the morning wasn’t exactly the busiest or most exciting time to be on duty. And virtually all the officers would be asleep, so no real threat of an inspection to keep them alert. He recalled similar policing actions. The two down there would be local recruits, given some training and a uniform to flesh out the ranks and leave the real combatants free to cover more important areas, like the border with more violently aggressive locals.

A good distance from the edge, the figure turned. He estimated his own weight with gear. The opposing roof was roughly level with his own, one reason he’d chosen his perch. So, it should be enough. He dropped into a sprinter’s stance and silently counted to three.

With a preternatural burst of speed, Sed launched himself across the gap between buildings.

He landed with a somersault to absorb the impact and was moving toward the far edge the instant his feet touched something solid.

Two rooftops later, the vampire lowered himself to the ground in an alley and took stock of his position. His hands moved in a blur, assuring himself that everything he carried was still there. Meanwhile, he surveyed nearby buildings. The two he was between seemed to be offices. He dismissed both. The last thing he needed was a lucky maintenance worker. Across the street though . . . apartments from the looks of it. This close to a border in the city, the building was probably mostly empty. Even in the relative dark, Sed picked out the telltale pits and pockmarks that showed the building had been subject to small arms and shrapnel. Broken windows were also visible on a few floors. Exactly what he needed.

After checking the street, he crossed openly as if it was high noon on a busy day, as if he belonged there. In an alley, he found a window covered in scrawled graffiti and listened. Certain the room and apartment were empty, he drove an elbow into the reinforced glass and immediately threw his whole body into the room. After that, getting to the windowless basement and finding a place to hole up was easy.

Tas came onto the bridge hours later to find his captain sifting through local comm chatter on the public frequencies. He paused for a few seconds, watching her absorbed in sorting literally hundreds of messages that the computer filtered and let through. And still no sign or word from Sed. Not that this was unusual on a job, though they typically agreed on comm silence before he left, not after. Must be nice, Tas decided, not for the first time. Even so, the Zapa’d get nowhere without its talented mechanic, if he said so himself.

“Cap’n?” he hazarded after a few more seconds, “Got an update on the sticks. Says four’re all copied, two’re halfway. He figures to have five full copies an’ one half by the deadline. Won’t get to the sixth . . . guess security was tough.” And Ged had been one of the best data crackers he’d known, probably the best. Not that he knew many, or any, depending on who asked.

The elf paused to nod her acknowledgement. “Alright. Plan goes ahead,” she instructed, “I’ll go on just before four, you two meet up and follow alone. Hopefully Sed’ll contact me before the drop.”

As she approached the Warhawks’ checkpoint, the elf kept an eye on the small line of others. She picked out a couple obvious mercs among the regular people, and a few parcel messengers moving between parts of the city. All wore at least two colors on the armbands enclosing their right biceps. Some, like her, had a full seven color band. That didn’t seem to mean much to the dwarf and human on duty. From what Behr’d said, and what she’d seen, they stopped one in six travelers, decent odds. And she learned from those ahead. When her turn at the gate came, Orri slipped her blaster out and directed the grip at the dwarf. As expected, they ignored her knife. The chit he handed over disappeared inside her jacket as she told the Human she was visiting to seek a job for her crew. True enough to pass a simple check, she thought, they’d need a job after this one was safely behind them.

She found a place to wait for whatever contact Sed was going to make. True to long training, the elf took up a position with a clear line of sight to the checkpoint and from which she could see the whole street. She double checked her comm to be certain it was on the team’s fifth scrambler setting, one of their more secure channels. Then she waited, scanning the crowded street and glancing at the time every couple minutes. Really, she decided after a bit, the populace seemed sedate and good natured and busy for a town under what amounted to martial law. Sure, they automatically cleared a path whenever a Warhawk uniform came into sight, but most had probably grown up under the company’s rule of this part of the city. And according to the Salma packet, it was the safest neighborhood in Burkeport, despite the natural proclivities attributed to mercs. The relatively early curfew probably helped.

At exactly four, her comm buzzed.

Orri held it to her ear for privacy. With a half second lag due to scrambling, she heard Sed’s voice. “Five in. Smoke’s hand. Zero,” and it cut out. She pondered a minute, mentally orienting herself. Then she looked up the street and across. A virtual tenement stood a couple blocks from her position . . . making it five in, on the right side. The last was obvious, where else could a vampire be during the day on a planet?

He sat in the dark, his comm back in his pocket. No lights were on, he wouldn’t risk it. That was one reason he’d contacted Orri specifically. Good as they were, neither Tas nor Behr were innately capable of great sight in the dark. Even the elf’s wasn’t as good as his, but that shouldn’t matter. He waited with a view of the stairs for the few minutes it took until she came down.

“Back this way,” he said, leading his captain to a concealed area, a store room that hadn’t been used in years if the layer of dust was any gauge. Inside, Sed gestured toward a shelf and turned on his flashlight. The thin beam illuminated three sidearms. “Two EM, one blaster, boss. I could only get one spare magazine each, but . . .” he trailed off as the elf inspected the weapons, “Got them from some dealers in Salma and brought them over the wall last night. Figured they’d even the odds a bit in a pinch.”

Orri started tucking the arms inside her jacket, better to conceal them. “Nice work. Any way to get back before dark?”

If there was a pinch . . . “Thought of that, boss,” Sed gestured vaguely toward the back of the room, “The smugglers and spies here don’t use the streets all the time. Same with the local resistance groups. City’s honeycombed with tunnels that every faction digs and thinks are secret. This place has one that I’m sure’ll get back to Salma, maybe even to the port.” After that, well, he could stand the sun for a few seconds to dash across the tarmac. Any more than that was questionable.

“Right. Get back a-sap and do everything possible to get on Zapa,” Orri directed, fully aware of what that would take, “These’re great, but I want ears and eyes covering us on this one. Check your comm for three seconds, every five minutes, scram four, in case there’s trouble. Tas’ll do the same as long as we’re together, if we split, everyone will. That starts in . . . eleven minutes.” She watched for a second then added, “Go on. Move.”

As Sed vanished into the back of the store room, she shook her head and vacated the room. He meant well, of that the elf was certain, but sometimes he was a great team player, other times he didn’t seem to know what that meant. In a way, it was good, she thought as she stepped into the sunlight, kept everyone on their toes and adapting. And she understood that his one physical weakness was probably frustrating, especially with the team. But still . . . the elf let the thought fade away as she spotted Tas. Once she caught up, she simply asked, “Any problems?”

“None whatsoever, cap’n. The goods’re safe an’ sound, the goons never suspected anything.”

Sed moved through the tunnels as fast as he could. He was regretting calling them a honeycomb earlier, that implied a sense of order. Warren or maze, set up by a mad designer, would be better. He checked the comm and compass regularly. GPS would be more accurate, but the factions kept knocking out each others’ satellites as soon as they were launched. The vamp rushed as much as he could, painfully aware that Seetee would be monitoring comm traffic, but the ‘bot’s programming in that area was limited, it might miss something critical.

After a bit, he left the comm on receive, the white noise helped him concentrate. And there was the sound of Tas checking . . . and apparently leaving his comm transmitting because Sed heard Behr’s voice . . .

“Sheis! Down!”

A thump of someone being tackled.

Then the loud characteristic sound of blaster fire mixed with the soft crack of EM rounds going supersonic.

Sed started to run, trusting that he more or less had his bearings.

“I count six,” he heard Tas report, “four in the back, two outside.” A sizzle of ionized air followed as a blaster shot came in the comm’s range.

“Authorities have been contacted, sirs,” Seetee reported as Sed took a tight turn, “ETA two minutes.”

By then, everything would be over, the vampire thought as he found a straight tunnel and sped up.

The weapons fire and shouted orders continued until Sed found a door. Hoping it was the one, he figured he was near the port, he dashed through, not letting himself pause to consider what was on the other side.

An intense itching, burning sensation not unlike a full body sunburn started instantly as the light touched him. Squinting, Sed picked out the Zapa across the landing field, a couple hundred yards away. Within a few feet, his inhuman speed kicked in and he streaked across the tarmac, leaving a bit of smoke and black marks on the duracrete in his wake.

By the time he reached the bridge, Sed was bright red and on edge as every nerve ending fired messages to his brain. He’d need to feed soon, it would take a lot to heal. But, he was already starting to fix the damage as Seetee filled him in.

“They have managed to escape, sir,” the ‘bot knew better than to assume he’d rest, “Authorities are on the scene and have located five corpses of the six attackers. Exactly seventeen point eight five seconds ago they split up.”

Sed nodded. Behr was the most important to get back. She stood out a lot more than the rest. By now, all three should have ditched their temporary weapons. “Alright. Get me a channel to Behr on scram four. She should check in . . . half a minute. Once she’s in, we’ll get Tas. Orri knows enough to lay low for a bit.”

What happened then, who knew, he thought. The important thing was to get everyone home now.

Zapanauts (pt. 2) (2008)

Two days later the Zapa was making its approach to dock. The last day had been spent coming in at STL speeds, making sure they didn’t have an accident in the busy system. Every few decades some pilot with more guts than brains tried jumping in close to a station or planet in a high traffic area. Last reported case had popped inside a Republic warship. The pilot spent his life making restitution to a few thousand families. While Orri thought she was good enough to pull off that kind of jump in a pinch, she wasn’t dumb enough to try it without a damn good reason.

When the clang of docking clamps connecting to her hull resounded through the ship a moment later, the Elf released the controls with a tired sigh. For the next couple days they’d rely on the torus station for life-support and power as their own stores were replenished. She thumbed the comm and released her crew to liberty dockside. Not that any of them would find much entertainment, not after a haul-less run. They’d collectively be lucky if they could replenish supplies and still afford rooms at a sleepover instead of on ship. Another sigh passed through her body. Hopefully, they’d find a decent job or two this time.

Down below, the other three waited for the airlock and security door to cycle then hit the docks. Tas split off immediately to yell at the dock crew about supplies and fuel. Sed and Behr continued on toward the far side, the inner wall. They silently crossed the ring that was part hanger, part loading dock, and all mercantile cacophony. Their job was to find a different sort of noise, and there was no point in trying to have a conversation until the green section door closed behind them.

Once that happened, the Vampire and Troll found themselves in the familiar spacers’ section of the station. A quick glance around confirmed their bearings and where they’d expected to be. Nothing in the busy station section of bars, sleepovers, casinos, and store fronts had changed in the year since they’d last docked at Tae’s Station.

Behr clapped his shoulder and nodded to their right. “You’d better take Serret’s. Don’t think he’d be happy to see me,” she said, recalling the inadvertent brawl in the mercenaries’ bar. Sed shook his head, the troll’d been one of a few still standing, therefore the first to be blamed. “I’ll take the Nebula. Meet at Crystal Lee’s in . . . two hours?” The vamp just nodded and headed off to his assignment. Best that she takes the merchant pub, he thought, she had those contacts, he didn’t. Most of his connections were of a more paramilitary persuasion.

Both knew the drill. Go in for an hour, maybe a bit longer, listen for jobs, leave word with the barkeep or owner, head to the next place or home. If someone needed their services, they’d hear, and it wouldn’t be logged in the station comm network. Which didn’t mean the bar owners weren’t funneling news to station suits, he thought, but there were ways of dealing with that. And certain people were trustworthy.

Ninety-some minutes later, there was no hint of surprise in his voice as Sed called in to the Zapa. Serret’s was virtually empty, save only for Kuvos, a human who, it was said, walked into the place looking for work a decade ago and never left. Orri couldn’t say she was surprised either, the docks weren’t exactly booming, which could go either way for them. She passed on the name and address of their cheap sleepover before shutting down all but the most essential systems and leaving CT-721 on the bridge to relay comms. Once all the routine lockdown was done, the Elf descended to the airlock and out onto the docks.

She instantly spotted Tas a couple dozen meters away, engaged in overseeing the refueling. She strode across the deck toward him, veering around crates and cables she’d never consciously registered. The snapshot her mind took when she looked at a scene had served her well while flying and on the ground. If asked, Orri could still recall the day she’d learned that not everyone saw the world that way, where before she’d just thought her childhood friends were simply clumsy.

As she drew closer, she called out, “Tas, leave it . . . let the ground boys do their jobs.” Her tone left no room for argument, while also calling the tech over, a tone she’d spent years learning. She watched as Tas reluctantly left off and made his way to her. He smiled as he drew close, and she let herself relax and relent.

“They’ve got new Anderston couplings, boss,” he offered, “Wanted to be sure there’s a tight fit.” Or they’d be paying for waste fuel, she added for herself. Was she that focused these days?

“No luck for Sed. I doubt Behr had much either,” the Elf explained, “We’ll be here at least a few days, not much traffic in or out for the last week.” Even less scheduled for the next. It looked bad, but she’d bet it was just a cyclic lull in activity. Most stations seemed to get that from time to time. “We’re at the Evening Star for three nights,” she smiled wanly, “It’s not much, but we don’t have a lotta credit here anymore. Two rooms, I’ll share with Sed, unless you’d like to . . .”

Tas grinned and shook his head, “Tough choice . . . my lovely wife or Mr. ‘You-and-Your-Mortal-Frailties’? I’ll pass. ‘Sides, Behr’d take my head off.”

Well, Orri thought as they left the dock, if I’m predictable, at least they are too. Better work on that before we get another military contract. If we ever get another one.

Over the next few days, the whole crew fell into a routine. Practice and check on the ship before noon, visit the bars and other job sites fruitlessly before dinner. Eat frugally, have a couple drinks, turn in early. Just about every night, Orri fell asleep to the sounds of the traditional entertainment of the financially poor coming through the thin wall from her crew’s room. And she never once actually saw Sed sleep, despite several attempts to catch him.

After a week without progress, save at racking up bills, Behr woke her husband and their captain with two jobs. She barely glanced at Sed, who’d been sitting in a corner of his shared room apparently using the station intranet. Gracing them all with a toothy grin, the Troll wasted no time. “I decided to try out the third watch for the last couple days,” she started, “and it paid off. If we move fast, we’ve got a choice of two jobs. There’s a milk run of foodstuffs headed for the Union, only paying enough for a five, six percent profit. And there’s an undisclosed list of goods bound for the Empire, the current owner assures me they are small in size.”

She watched as Orri looked to their partners, gauging their reactions. The Elf got nothing either way from Sed. Typical. The Vampire never really seemed to care what jobs they took. She could see the scales balancing in Tas’ eyes, though. Food to the Union meant a nice easy, and legal, run, barring pirates or other unlikely surprises. A trio to the Empire, with unnamed and small cargo, on the other hand, meant smuggling. High risk, especially moving into Imperial territory, but also high pay. Which all of her crew knew. Tas was obviously, to Orri anyway, weighing the risk to his wife and friends against basic greed and Behr’s equally obvious desire to take the job. Freck all, they could probably use the excitement right now, keep their edge. And gods knew they could use the money, with the Commonwealth cracking down on all the low risk, high profit scams, not that her crew would do any such thing.

The nominal captain moved to flex her privileges and decide the matter before Tasser talked himself out of it. “We’ll take the Imperial job. Sixty-five hundred, plus expenses, including refueling and restocking food.”

Behr smiled broadly, “They’re wiling to go up to nine thousand and expenses, go for seven five? They’re just waiting on your call, boss.”

An hour later, calls had been made on personal comms, avoiding the station system, and Behr led her captain into a small shop off the main visitor strip. Negotiations had been swiftly conducted remotely, with Sed and Tas monitoring the comms for signs of tracing. In fact, as she and Behr entered the shop, Orri decided that they’d been a little too swift. Almost like their employer’d been specifically looking for them. At this point, a job was a job though and this one looked to produce a decent haul for half a week’s work. She veered off from Behr, both pretending to look over the shelves and barely registering the merchandise. After a few minutes, Orri noticed the Troll nodding, their prearranged signal.

Something had been deposited in her hand, Behr guessed it was only as long as one of Tasser’s fingers since it barely fit the width of her palm. A little thick and shifting, possibly a bundle. She subtly examined the object tactilely as Orri left the shop. A few heartbeats later, the Troll followed, convinced that she held a small collection of datasticks. Probably Republic, but Tas and Sed were the experts. In fact, she thought as she spotted her captain, that’s probably who Orri was talking to right now. She lengthened her stride to catch up before the Elf turned off the main drag.

“She just joined me now, Tas. The cargo seems to check out,” or her friend-comrade would have said something, “We’ll take a closer look when we get in . . .ten, twenty minutes.”

Tas leaned back at the little used comm station. The seat hadn’t been broken in yet, Orri preferred to operate in one crewperson mode. He sighed and flashed Sed a wan smile over near fire control. “Everythin’ looks good,” he relayed, “Cap’n doesn’t think they have shadows . . . doin’ a little extra research?” The last as he got up and spotted the Vampire’s screen.

“Just doing a little recon on our buddies,” Sed passed back, running his fingers along the touch screen, “A bunch of dead ends so far, but, well that says something itself. And no one’s reported our wreck in the last six years. About how far off the regular lanes was it?”

“Dunno. Ten, twelve thousand k, just out of standard shop sensor range. A little odd place for a hidden cache.”

Sed nodded, “That’s what I thought. Bit close for your normal dump, if there is such a thing. Only three reasons to put it there. If you’re afraid of losing it, if its temporary, or if you want to visit it a lot.”

“Dead in space with no noticeable drift. And the mil-grade bots’re strange for a place you’ll abandon in less than a year or two.”

“Exactly,” the Vampire frowned, “Seetee. How long would it take you to trace a . . . five jump trip, with a decent look at the ship you’re tracing?”

The robot was silent for a few seconds. Then, “Impossible in 99.4% of situations, sir. There are too many variables. If I knew the ship’s drive capability that might limit the options, but there would still be, conservatively, several thousand possible destinations.”

“What if you had a decent scan and the ship was in a couple public registries?”

“Depending on record access and the ship’s patterns in the region, sir, the possibilities could be limited to a few dozen or a couple score within three days.”

Tasser caught up, “Are you thinkin’ . . .”

“Just exploring possibilities. With the right network of resources, up to fifty or sixty sites could be scoutable in a couple days,” Sed mused, “But too dangerous to go after anyone near a station or even planet where Commonwealth patrols might stray by. But a set trip that included time in international space . . . it bears some consideration.” He raised a hand to forestall Tas’ response as their crewmates appeared on an external camera. “It is only a suspicion. Tell your wife if you wish, I’ll let the boss know, if I get more solid evidence.”

The security lock released as they reached the door. Both women entered without breaking stride.

In the lift, Behr unwrapped the small bundle she carried and showed eight datasticks to her captain. They rolled nearly flat in her palm, seven a dull grey with black markings, the eighth a gaudy red of a brand marketed toward school kids. She looked askance as they reached and passed the second deck. “Red must be the instructions and drop point, you think?”

Orri nodded and took the odd stick as they reached the third deck. “Looks like it. Take Tas and lock everything down,” she instructed as they moved down the short corridor toward the bridge, “I want Sed and Seetee to look this over before we play it, but I’ll prep for launch.” She tossed the stick to the vampire, certain he’d heard her instruction since he motioned the robot over to a corner of the bridge. By the time Behr’d left the other sticks and taken Tasser to the rear, she’d slid into the pilot’s seat, called up the holo-HUD, and started negotiations with station control for clearance to leave. Her eyes scanned the modified room through the translucent screens as she checked supply statuses and made the switch from station to reactor power. All that met her gaze was Sed and the robot hunched over an un-networked computer terminal.

He ran a few basic test programs, CT-721 watching over his shoulder. The ‘bot was a better programmer by far, but he’d had long experience with a certain element of society, and they hadn’t yet managed a program for imagination or intuition. Thus he made occasional tweaks to the program as he figured out how to bring his suspicion to his captain-friend. Behr’s reaction, he expected, would be easily predictable. First she’d think, considering the challenge and excitement, then . . .

“But, he did say it was only a guess, right?” the Troll asked as she checked straps in the relatively bare cargo hold.

Her husband barely glanced at the quarter-full space while he checked seals, “Sure, but you know Sed.”

“He wouldn’t say anything unless he’s pretty sure? Right,” she jerked a strap around a case of food tighter, “And he wouldn’t agree to the job if he thought we couldn’t handle it, love, at least if he saw other options.”

“You think he knows more’n he’s lettin’ on?”

Behr’s bark of a laugh echoed in the empty space. “When hasn’t he held something back? Or Orri, or us for that matter?”

There was that. They’d come together years ago because lone mercenaries didn’t make it often and solo salvage work was too dangerous. And most of what they knew about their fellows, friends, came from reputations, rumors, and random chats. Tas was silent, lost in his thoughts. Sure, Sed’s background was one of those mysteries, but he himself hadn’t told anyone why he wasn’t working a cushy job for a tech firm, not through fear but because everyone needed some private secrets.

As they moved into position to jump and reports came up from Behr and Tasser, Sedge was still working out how to pass on his suspicion without losing too many secrets. The bridge was silent then, as Orri lost herself in the ship, achieving a trance-like state while they approached the countdown to jump. He watched her out of the corner of his eye, having never seen a pilot reach that state before he’d met this crew. At least, no pilot who lacked the cybermods necessary to wire his brain directly into the ship. An involuntary tremor went up his spine at the reminder of those man-machines. Fortunately, the fad had mostly passed after a few decades of spaced out pilots.

A flashing light brought him back an instant before Seetee pointed it out.

“Data’s coming up, Boss,” Sed relayed, his fingers dancing over a networked pad next to the station, “Sending over destination, now.”

The ship entered jump before Orri turned from her screens. “Burkeport?”

“Don’t know anything else there, Boss,” the vampire affirmed, consciously mimicking Behr’s name for the Elf, as he rose from the terminal, “Nothing else has been built there in . . . thirty years? We’ve got bigger problems, there’s a message you should see too.”

He monitored the new station while she silently read. After a couple minutes, Orri returned to her command station. Through the translucent HUD, she said, “As soon as we’re out of jump, get Behr and Tas to the galley. Tell them now, then get back up here and tell me everything you know or suspect, or get off my ship. I don’t pry, Sed, and I don’t work with someone for years without learning some tells. You’re holding back and this isn’t the time for it. So tell me, or get out and I’ll get it from Tasser.” She turned back to the screens, confident he’d follow orders. He’d probably told Behr, but that meant Tas knew. And Tas was easier to get to talk, easier than any troll at least. The Elf captain fumed silently, using her focus on the incoming streams of ship data to keep her face and temper composed.

A few hours later, Tas and Behr sat across from each other at the galley table when their hushed conversation was aborted by the arrival of their comrades. They covertly looked askance at Sed, who led the way. He didn’t reply, but both noted that his complexion looked more pale that its usual sun-deprived hue. Both donned expressionless looks quickly since their captain was right on his heels. As the vampire slid into a seat, Orri planted herself in front of the door and let her gaze roam over the three, appearing for all purposes like a stern mother with a group of wayward children.

She cut off Tas as he started to speak. “As you all know,” Orri started, skipping the part about her being last, “we may be working for the organization that owned the dump. Sed’s already obviously shared his suspicions with you. We need to get down to business, so we’ll refrain from discussing the problems there for now. Since we undocked, further possible evidence has presented itself. The instruction stick included a message. First, we’re only getting a third of the contracted fee for our services. Second,” she held up a hand to forestall comments, “that stick has a suspicious data set that could have been meant to hijack the computer. Third, supposedly one of the sticks has a homing device in it, probably mid-range though we don’t even know which stick it is. So, we assume we are being watched.”

“Dump the sticks,” Behr suggested immediately, though she assumed that had already been dismissed.

“No, not with an organization,” Sedge countered, “It might take a while, but they could have the resources to extrapolate our course.”

“No choice then. What’s the destination?”

“That’s the good news,” the Elf took over again, “The only good news. Burkeport. You still have contacts there, Tas?”

“Probably,” he allowed, “Guy I useta know worked at the Salmagundi few years ago, couple others joined him, cap’n. What’s on the sticks?”

Orri shrugged, “Who knows? If it’s an organization, I’d say fake ID, shipping schedules . . . doesn’t really matter, we can’t risk checking. Not even on the mute terminal.” For all she knew, the things would blow if they tried tampering with them, or might wipe their data. If either happened, they’d be in worse trouble. “We jump again in an hour. Tomorrow we should cross the Commonwealth-Empire border and be at Burkeport by noon.” Which left groundside customs.

“Salmagundi would give us a safe place to land, cap’n. And I could contact people about moving stuff through the city,” Tas added, “Any chance of duping the sticks?”

Sed shook his head, “Not with out equipment and my limited skill. I wouldn’t trust copying to Seetee either, takes a living touch to catch any insurance they might have. But, since we’re being frecked, Salmagundi’s as good a place as any to stop at. Might be we could find a good, reliable datarunner there.”

Behr nodded her agreement. “Beats landing directly in imperial or BCC territory . . . and who knows if the locals still exist.” In the volatile region, only three factions had remained reasonably stable for more than a few years at a time. Though they had worked for the Popular Liberation Party once, years ago.

“Salma it is,” the Elf captain agreed, outvoted. It was a logical choice and her first reaction anyway. “Make it five jumps, just to frek with the frekers. You two are free until then. Sed, consider yourself confined to quarters until we reach Burke’s system. And next time, tell me as soon as you suspect anything.” Honestly, it wasn’t much of a punishment for him ,she reflected on her way back to the bridge, but it was the principle of the thing that mattered.

Three jumps later, Orri took a break to study the Zapa’s long range scans. The ship was practically on the Commonwealth-Empire border. She skimmed the logs, looking for ships. Space was too vast for government patrols to stop every ship for customs checks, but the Empire gave its captains the right to search any ship they saw, especially in the region they were about to enter. The area was home to just under a dozen systems that the governments had been fighting over for generations. And the locals apparently didn’t want to join either nation. Rumor had it that the Republic was adding its own confusion by funding local resistance groups to keep the Empire and Commonwealth attacking each other. All in all, she thought as she decided to get some sleep, not the most stable region of space, even if Tas’ friends panned out. Still, it would be easier to smuggle things into the Empire there than it would be on a more stable planet.

Sed spent the trip in his small quarters, his body shut down in what the others often called hibernation, for want of a better word. Though his body was still, his mind worked feverishly. For a time, he wondered about his comrades. His thoughts focused on Orri. Behr and Tas were probably going at it like zarts, they rarely had the time when things got busy. So he ignored them. Even Orri didn’t draw too much of his attention, except peripherally. The vampire concentrated on ways he could ensure the success of the job and keep the team from losing any major limbs or organs. That would be his captain’s major concern, he knew, and therefore the best way to reclaim her respect would be to find answers to that question. Of his teammates, she was the one most likely to live longest, the last one to leave him through age. The ideas weren’t exactly flocking around him, though. It’d been decades since he’d last dealt with the Empire directly and felt like as long since Burkeport. No contacts, no idea what the current situation was. By the time the third jump ended, Sed gave up fruitless planning, at least until the crew was in orbit and they had useful info.

The next jump found Orri and Behr on the bridge. The pilot ran a few checks on her display. Tas, she knew, would be doing the same in the engine room. She glanced at the troll, “How’s tactical?”

“Everything’s charged, shields and targeting read in the green, Boss.”

“Great.” Orri cleared her throat as a text report came from Tas. She keyed the shipwide intercom, “Alright, people, we’re ready to jump into Imperial space. We’ll run silent and hope to avoid trouble. Once we’re out, we’ll have an hour til next jump, more if we get into a firefight. So, let’s avoid that. Sed, your punishment’s suspended for now, get on damage control.”

Toward the far end of the ship, Tas swung under a railing to secure one last, loose part, when he felt the characteristic sensation of the ship jumping. He absently hoped Sed had gotten stable in time as he started checking displays and making alterations in power distribution. If they got into a fight, he wanted to free up as much power as possible for the jump capacitors. Much as he liked the ship, there was no way the Zapa could stand an hour against an Imperial destroyer or cruiser. Good thing a battleship wasn’t remotely likely.

A short time later, the mechanic felt the jump drive cut off as the FTL trip ended.

“Sheis!”

Tas jumped as Behr’s curse exploded from the comm. Orri’s quickly followed, “Imperial transponder at the edge of sensor range.”

The troll cut in, “PDLs deployed, automatic. Railguns deploying.”

“Divert forward shields to the rear. Tas, get the jump drive any power you can.”

The mechanic’s reply was cut off by a deep, gravely voice on the comm: “This is the I.S.S. Interdiction. You’ve entered Imperial space, cut engines and prepare to be boarded for inspection.” The message began to repeat before Orri silenced it.

“Behr, no fire unless necessary. Knock out missiles, no offense. Tas . . .”

“On it, Cap’n, should be a few seconds.”

Orri nodded to herself, crew as efficient as she could hope. She started weaving the ship to confound any missiles they might try to launch. It had been a while since their last Imperial encounter, but everyone knew the dwarves liked missiles for some reason. She glanced at a time display running backwards. Still nearly an hour before the capacitors would recharge. “Behr, cut dorsal and ventral shields 50%, divert what we can spare to the capacitors.” Tas would, she was sure, already be getting as much power as possible.

Across the bridge, the Troll’s fingers flew over her own displays. She felt a small tremor as she cut power on two facings and the countdown cut fifteen minutes. That done, her attention went back to targeting, which was hopeless at this range. Without augmentation, the targeting sensor range was outstripped by weapon range, at least with modern energy weapons. On the upside, their pursuer didn’t seem to be gaining on them.

“Cap’n! Registry shows a Sturm-class frigate,” Tas came over the comm, “usually on patrols and scouting. About as fast and well armed as us.”

“Great. Sed, up on deck,” the elf ordered, “Nothing else on scan and the Imps don’t have stealth, so. Cut all shields but the rear, divert everything to the capacitors and engines. See if we can’t boost our lead a bit.”

A few moments later, Sed slid into the open bridge seat. He asked nothing, Orri’d already sent the sensor data feed to his terminal. His job was obvious; focus on scans while she did more important things. This wasn’t the time or the place to apologize or bring up the past. Besides, elves were notorious for holding grudges. He repressed a smile at a story that one elf once held a grudge over an imagined slight for well over a century. Hopefully, it wouldn’t take that long. He might have eternity, but even she didn’t, unless she became one of his kind. The vampire glanced up at his corner display.

Thirty-six minutes, Tas noted. Maybe twenty-four if he could get past the safeties and draw more power from secondary systems. Probably not enough time, unless gods forbid the Imps were scouts for a larger fleet. There was a faster method. He started moving around the mechanical room at a fevered pitch. His hands flew, manually disconnecting backup systems, most of them redundant necessities that crew’d added over the years as precautions. Just cut a few more minutes off and it wouldn’t matter if the whole freking Imp fleet was out there waiting in ambush.

Everyone watched the last few minutes countdown, each second passing slowly by.

Orri’s finger hovered before the holographic button that would start the jump drive. She’d pre-calculated their course. The STL distance they’d traveled was insignificant by interstellar reckoning. They just needed full capacitors. Thirty seconds to go. Twenty-eight.

Twenty-five.

Sed’s eyes were locked on the display where a dot representing the Interdiction grew stronger and began to inch closer. Probably pushing their thrusters beyond the safe limit. “Twenty second to intercept,” he informed his captain. Fifteen. They’d be cutting it close, if the Imps had lasers or particle weapons. Because they preferred missiles and railguns, well, hopefully no serious lasers.

Seven.

Sensor data fed to tactical and command diverted Behr and Orri’s attention as their eyes flickered between the readouts. Still the Imp ship crept ever closer. Orri silently sent word to her people’s gods. With luck and some intervention, the frigate’s power plant would blow. Or the captain would decide it wasn’t worth risking his ship over a light freighter. Two.

The frigate’s armament and shields came up on the scan computer terminal.

An instant later, the elf stabbed the holo-button and the Zapa leapt beyond the light barrier.

The crew let out a collective breath. They could be followed, the Imps could call ahead, but the captain couldn’t know where they were headed and tracking ships in jump was virtually impossible without a homing beacon.

Orri let her crew savor their reprieve for a few seconds, let them enjoy the adrenaline rush. Then she got them back to work. “Next stop, Burkeport. Behr, get the shields back online and powered up. Leave PDLs and railguns. Tas, nice work, get things secure down there. Sed, you’re still on probation. Transfer sensors to Behr’s station, then get everyone’s gear. We may need to be ready for a boarding, depending on who’s in space.”

Zapanauts (pt. 1) (2008)

Space travel has been good to my kind, he thought as he stared at the distant star. Stick to ships and stations, avoid planets.

A low buzz in the void brought him back to the present. He slowly tapped two buttons on the comm at his belt. “Talk to me, Sed,” a voice said, his captain, “What’re we dealing with?”

Sedge “Sed” Patche released a silent sigh into space. “Lots of dust scarring and pitting, Orri,” he replied, his soundless sub-vocalizations carried along a bone induction mike, “Good news is they have a Tessien-Havelor lock. Bad news is there’s a four digit key lock next to it.” Either someone was paranoid about securing their ship or the hulk wasn’t as abandoned as they’d thought. “ I can’t spot a maker on it,” he added, thumbing off his pencil thin light. “If Seetee can’t crack it, we’ll probably need Smoke to burn the door.”

“Copy. I’ll tell Behr to pull her out, just in case,” Orri’s smooth elven lilt came back, “Tasser’s sending the tube, you wanna hop in or keep exploring?”

The question took a moment’s thought. He really didn’t like dealing with Smokin’ Boots, their name for Behr’s pet blast rifle, it wasn’t precise and clean. And watching CT work would be boring. Still . . . “I’d better come in, I guess,” Sed replied, remembering a hulk thirty, thirty-two years back, “in case there’s a squatter.”

“Copy. Tasser’s easing it out nice and slow.”

Sed positioned himself to catch the slowly extending air lock tube. His kind, vampires, loved these old hulks, he thought as he waited for the creeping umbilical. They didn’t need life support, only minimal power to run a freezer. The more anti-social members of homo nocturnus felt right at home, far from a sun. He’d never understood that. He caught the edge of the tube and swung his weightless body inside.

A moment later came the familiar click-hiss of the tube sealing around the hulk’s airlock. Fortunately, the T-H was just an older model of their own Froulen lock, which was backwards compatible. Sed waited as the connecting tube built up gravity and air. His gear settled as the tube climbed slowly to half a gravity, in a few seconds the C.R.S. Zapa’s own lock would disgorge his friends/co-workers. He could already see Behr through the small window, the troll’s large shadow was unmistakable.

In the Zapa’s bridge, two decks up, Orri’s hands glided over the pilot’s control board. She had the display screen split between external sensor view and the ship’s lone airlock. A green outline appeared on her holo-HUD as the Zapa’s lock started to cycle. “Sed, I got the layout of Geci-class freighters,” she said, “The main bridge is on deck A center, but there should be a secondary bridge on G forward, in and ten meters to the left.”

“Got it, thanks.”

Orri swiveled slightly to catch another display. Weapons and shields were ready, excellent. She scanned the displays looking for anomalies. Pirates commonly used old derelict hulks as bait to catch salvage and merchant ships. “Sky’s looking clear,” she murmured to herself as her crew met down below.

The first to emerge was the bullet-headed chrome robot that served as computer tech and housekeeper for the freelancers. Sed nodded to CT and slipped out of his way, coming to rest near Behr. He smiled up at the big troll woman, got a toothy grin back through her helmet visor, and loosened the restraints on his long dagger and pistol. He saw a nod and shudder pass through Tasser. Both men shared horrified thoughts of the effect that using Smoke in the fragile tube would have. Their fletchette guns were much safer. And Sed was glad, yet again, that he no longer needed the vac suits, even if these were smaller than the ones he’d used decades ago.

“Gods, I hate salvage,” he muttered, forgetting the comm, while CT-721 started running code number combinations.

Behr focused on the door, but Tasser grinned. “Never happy ‘less you’re bein’ shot at are you, Sed?” he asked, joking, of course. Sed was rarely shot at. “Just been too long since I saved your ass, Tas,” he shot back. Behr barely grunted a response, too used to the jibes her human friends traded. Trolls didn’t seem to do much of that, Sed reflected.

Just as Sed and Tasser had time to lament opportunities lost to large merc companies, CT beeped in surprise. “Sirs,” it’d finally stopped calling Behr ma’am or mistress, “I’ve solved it, a variation on musical notes. B, C sharp, D flat on the Velaran flute, 3-5-2-1.”

How the bot knew that, none of the team really cared to know, though they didn’t have the heart to tell it.

Sed took charge, “Assuming its not trapped, Behr and Tas to the reactor, fuel. I’ll hit the secondary bridge and try to get life support online. Seetee, stay here, we may need some computer interfacing, depending.” If the ship had been out here too long, the system may have degraded. But, the bot would be in the way if things got nasty, despite his years with the team. “Captain, you ready?”

“Copy. Reading all transponders. Sky’s still clear. Go ahead,” Orri replied, watching her scans of nearly space and the drifting freighter. Each of her people was a different colored dot on the schematic. She watched as all four entered the ship and split into three groups. The elf winced as she called up the feed from Behr’s helmet camera, the ship wasn’t designed for trolls, obviously. “I’m thinking Alliance model, sound about right, Tas?”

The engineer-mechanic’s wry chuckle introduced his reply, “As if I’d know more about elven aesthetics, my dear cap’n? Decks’re too big for Imperial ships, too short for Union. Which makes sense,” he mused as he and Behr worked their way aft, “Gecis were the side project of Riath Aerospace, a Republic based corp. Haven’t been on trading terms with the Empire in decades. I don’t know enough to recall a public Alliance contract, so that don’t mean much. Could be.”

As he talked, half to himself, the human ducked around some hanging cables. Tas held up a hand to keep Behr from following. He pulled out a plastic handled tool from his belt and pushed the wires against the wall. “Don’t look live, but scan picked up a power source somewheres,” he explained as the troll did her best to slide by. Orri watched his hand reach out to steady his recent spouse and smiled, they’d only been together a year, after a long courtship.

“Alright, you two call if you need anything,” the elven captain decided, “I’m checking in on Sed.”

“Check,” was all Behr said, business-like when there was a job to do. Solid, something Orri’d latched onto, an attitude that didn’t change whether the objective was stripping a derelict or taking out an insurgent hideout. Thinking of which . . . if she knew Sed, he’s already be in the second bridge.

“Talk to me, Sed.”

“Looks good, Orri,” the reply came a few heartbeats later. He moved around the small room, one hand on the fletchette handle out of habit, the other on the consoles. “No damage here, door was wide open. The whole room’s powered down. I’m thinking Seetee and a power cell, a K150, I think. This thing’s at least thirty, forty years old is my guess.”

“Copy. I’m sending a drone to Seetee now, give him eight minutes.”

“Got it, boss.”

Necessities out of the way, Sed continued exploring the cramped room. Stations for five, about half the normal bridge crew, he guessed. Probably pilot, comms, navigation, captain and a backup station. Hopefully they’d all still work and at least one could access a ship’s log and manifest. Depending on how long it had been here, he thought, it could have been stripped bare already, though the intact consoles argued against that.

By the time CT-721 walked through the doorway, the vampire’d determined which was the captain’s station and which panel the power connection should be behind. He nodded to the bot and the small grav-lift drone floating over its shoulder. “Just a second,” he directed before balling his hand into a fist. A sharp sidearm blow silently caved in the top of the panel, enough to get purchase. Moments later, Sed sent the ripped off panel across the floor. “Power cell,” he subvocalized, and waited for the drone.

Three minutes later, the power in the room was back up and the comp bot was bent over a console. Sed called the Zapa, “Things look good here, Orri. Seetee’s finding life-support now.”

“Copy, Sed. Anything else?”

They’d worked together too long. “Not sure. It doesn’t feel like a crypt, but it doesn’t feel dead either. And the AG was going strong,” he replied, “That’d be the first system I’d shut down to conserve power.”

“Copy. Keep your eyes open, let us know if anything feels odd,” the elf instructed, “Sky’s still clear, comm’s clear. Behr and Tas’re almost at engineering. Sit tight.” She watched him give a mock salute through the drone’s camera. A smile passed across her lips, typically Sed, the second oldest of the crew, and likely to outlast them all. Orri’s eyes skimmed across her displays. She mentally ticked off options as her fingers flew across the control panel. Pirates would’ve attacked already. Sed said no vamps, and he was usually right about that. The hulk still had power, so it might be a recent derelict. Or it could be black ops. Or a shadow depot, but those were supposed to be legends. Still, you’d think there’d be watchers or alarms in those cases. A quick sequence of three buttons started warming up the Zapa’s jump drives, just in case.

“How’re you two doing?” she commed to the other team, switching gears.

Behr’s helmet cam showed Tas on his knees in front of an open panel. “Engineering door’s stuck,” the troll replied, “He’s trying the manual release, or something. The power source is showing stronger on rad scans, says it might be enough for a couple weeks on Zapa.”

“Copy. Sounds great . . . too great,” Orri checked her systems quickly, “Any idea why it’s still here?”

“Nope.”

“Alright. Listen, watch yourselves . . . Sed’s got a feeling, I’m inclined to agree with him,” she cautioned, catching the cam swing off Tas. Good, Behr was visually scanning the area.

“Got it. He’ll call when we’re in. Behr out.” She knelt facing outward, and tapped Tas’ ankle without looking. “Hear that, Gears? Sed’s gotta feeling, Orri’s sounding a tad nervous,” she passed on, eyes peering into the dark corridors. Without thinking, she’d flicked her rifle’s HUD sight on. While disconcerting at first, it let her look two ways at once.

“Huh?” Tas’ head popped back out, “Sed’s got something? Sorry, electrics’re messing with comms.” He dove back in, nearly finished. A man of science and practicalities, Tas had learned to trust the vampire’s feelings. They’d saved him and Behr more than once. With her on watch, he relaxed and double checked the connections between the door mechanism and the small power cell he’d attached to it. Better not fry the door, a week or two of fuel’d make the trip worthwhile.

Tas wiggled out of the wall and patted his wife’s shoulder. “All set,” he cautioned, slipping a fletchette gun from his left thigh holster. Behr silently responded by shifting position to the far side of the door. He smiled reassuringly as her eyes and rifle continued sweeping the corridor. Now, just power up the connector and . . .

“Got it, sir.”

Sed looked up from the small locker he’d discovered. He rose silently and ghosted up behind CT-721. “Great. Get life-support here through engineering up and see if they had any internal sensors,” he directed. Really, the ship’s log, manifest, and name were what he wanted, but something wasn’t right.

“Yes, sir,” the bot tapped some keys, “Life-support in engineering should be working, but there is a problem routing power here, sir.”

“Fine. We’ll deal with it later,” the vamp said, looking over his shoulder, “Try for sensors and get another console up, if you can.”

“Of course, sir.”

Sed flipped the comm while the robot worked. “Seetee says there should be air and heat in engineering,” he reported, “He’s looking for internal sensors now.”

“Copy that, Sed. Good hunting,” Orri replied, relaying the news to the other two.

“Pressure door on F should seal,” Tas acknowledged, “Door here’s open, we’re heading in.” Orri’s attention drifted to external scans as the pair moved on about their business. She was nearly through with the full globe around them to a few thousand miles.

“Sheis! . . .,” Behr’s muttered oath broke her concentration, “We’ve got company, five combat drones, class two threat. I don’t think they’ve spotted us.” Through the helmet cam, the captain spotted Tas hunkered down under an officer’s station. She noted with satisfaction that he’d shifted to his second M40.

“Copy. Any chance of backing out?” she asked, relaying the information to the other team.

“We’re moving now,” the troll murmured, letting Tas out while she covered the retreat. Just in case, she targeted the nearest drone. The blast rifle was powerful enough she could probably get two with one shot, if they were lined up right. But backing out and scrapping the operation was probably . . .

“Gods!” Tas interrupted her thoughts, “Three more behind.” He thumbed his selector to full auto without thinking. “One group or the other’ll spot us,” not that either Orri of Behr couldn’t figure that, “Hit ‘em both?” There wasn’t much other choice, but he waited for suggestions.

Behr nodded. In case they’d compromised the comms, she used hand signals to direct. He nodded, mimed a kiss through the face plate, and waited for her countdown.

Three. Two. One.

“Damn. Seetee, hold here, don’t move,” Sed ordered, “Get sensors, ship’s log, manifest, downloaded. We’re leaving.” He slid a wickedly curved fighting knife from his thigh sheathe. After poking his head out the door, he ducked back in. “Orri, we’ve got six up here. I can handle them, but I recommend pulling out fast,” he reported.

“Copy, Sed. Agreed,” she replied, “Engines are ready, send Seetee back and help the others.”

“Will do,” he whispered, already heading into the corridor. Before he’d taken two steps, Sed was moving inhumanly fast. His gleaming knife swept out, driven by supernatural strength, and bisected one of the egg shaped drones. By the time the machines registered the threat, he’d punched upward, sending a second drone crashing as its gravlifts were destroyed.

The Vampire spun clockwise as the first laser shots went off. He plunged the dagger’s blade deep into a third drone while throwing a star at another. That toy bounced silently off the drone’s armor, a glancing hit. By the time it fired, he’d already moved down the hall. Sed fluidly reversed his grip on the vibroblade. He switched it on even as he lashed out at the fifth bot, slashing through the drone’s side. Sparks silently flew into the hall for a second before the bot crashed. He came to rest in a crouch, dagger held normally, facing the remaining drones. Once he spotted an opening . . .

Now.

Behr and Tas took their corners. In the growing atmosphere, the blast from Smoke was clearly audible. Bright red plasma lanced out to spear two drones. As the others turned, Behr rolled under cover and tried to pick her next target. Because of the helmet, she couldn’t hear how her husband was doing. But, his posture seemed confident. Tas simply ducked around the corner and opened fire. The electromag gun spit a dozen high velocity pieces of lead with barely a whisper. The shots made more noise on the drone’s armor than they did leaving the weapon. He grinned as one blew up, shrapnel and other rounds causing minor damage to his other two drones.

He came back around into cover as Behr drew a lower powered blaster. She reached over her console, not bothering to raise her head. A sight on the weapon fed its view to her HUD. As red laser fire lit the space around her, the troll gently squeezed the trigger twice. She already took aim at the next drone before the dull thump told her both shots hit and her target exploded. She calmly fired again, both shots missing as the drone learned. Smart little bastards, she thought, looking at her partner and holding up two fingers. He responded with the same as Orri came on the comm.

“Sed’s clear,” she reported, “He’ll be there a-sap.”

She swiveled her seat to catch other displays. Half her team was pinned down, had been for a few minutes. At least the bot seemed to have info, and Sed could definitely help out. If he got there soon. By then, she hoped, Behr’d have everything mopped up. As the comp bot came onto the bridge, she rapped out a quick order to check the data for viruses. It would automatically start analysis if everything was clean, she knew. Her attention shifted to the indicator dot representing the vampire. He was at the F deck seal, good.

He shook his head as the hatch cycled. There was some atmosphere on the other side, so a couple red lights were going. Sed scanned the corridor to either side, impatient at the delay. Frekin’ shadow dump, he thought, should’ve guessed when the AG was on. Derelict would never have active AG. He shook his head again. Back to the now. They could assess the frek ups later, after Tas and Behr were safe.

Finally, the hatch cycled open. Sed’s hair wafted in the faint breeze of released air. If he noticed, it didn’t show as he jogged down the empty corridors, knife drawn and ready.

A short time later, he spotted the lights from his friends’ helmets along E deck. With a silent, airless, sigh of relief, Sed flicked his flashlight on. The thin beam stabbed through the darkness to settle on Behr’s chest plate. He’d already glided off position as a precaution, subvocalizing, “Are you alright?” Even in the darkness, his eyesight was good enough to see that Behr was limping, a patch on the right shin of her suit.

“We can make it,” Tas replied, his voice strained over the comm. Sed spotted a matching patch on his left arm. “Left one behind, got both of us. Blasted things’re smart,” the human explained, “Tactics adapted fast.”

The vamp nodded his understanding. “I’ll take her, you hurry on,” he directed, slipping under the troll’s arm and taking her weight. His knife returned to its sheath, useless with her on his arm. Tas looked like he was about to protest, but Sed cut him off. “No. Go. I can handle her weight, carry her if need be,” he ordered. After a moment, the mechanic nodded and took point, heading toward the hatch.

An hour later, with the Zapa’s autopilot set to take them to their second jump point, Orri left the bridge to join the others in the ship’s small galley. She stood in the doorway a moment looking over her team: the nutrient cast encasing Behr’s shin while she sat cleaning Smoke, her husband bustling around getting drinks with a blue bandage wrapped around his bicep, Sed sitting near the troll absently polishing one of his many daggers. A small frown played across her lips, then disappeared. This run had been costly, in more ways than one, with no profit. She managed a little smile when Tas noticed her.

“We’re all in one piece, Cap’n,” he assured her, “I just got grazed, should be fine in a day or two. The tank there’s a bit worse off, but give ‘er a week and she’ll be bright and chipper.” Behr flashed him a smile, though the elf noticed she kept the wounded leg straight and out of contact with anything.

“Thanks, Tas,” she said, moving into the room, “So, damage report’s done. How about assessment? What’d we find out there?”

“Just what we were discussing, Boss,” Behr cut in, “I didn’t recognize the make of the drones, but they had civvie weapons and armor.”

“With mil-grade brains,” Tas added.

“Not exactly pirate material,” the Troll continued, “Doesn’t fit the profile for black ops or covert either.” She accepted a bottle of something dark and alcoholic as Tasser returned to the table. He put another, matching, bottle in front of Sed. A third sat waiting for Orri. He tipped back a year old single serving bottle of cheap wine for himself.

“Probably enough fuel for a couple weeks on Zapa,” the engineer said lowering the bottle, “Damn stuff’s barely worth the price. Anyway . . . assumin’ no engines, weapons, or shields and that it was only providin’ life-support occasionally, it could last a lot longer.”

“How long?” Orri took the offered drink.

“A year or two. Depends on how often it powered up and how much recharge the drones need.”

“I see. Sed, you have a theory?”

Without looking up from the blade he’d been polishing, the Vampire simply said, “It was a shadow dump. The only other sensical option is a crypt, which it didn’t feel like.”

Behr gave him a quizzical look, “I thought those were a myth, something meant to scare new salvagers away from prime territory.”

“No, they’re real,” Sed replied, continuing to polish that already mirror finish, “but they were already rare about forty years ago. Most organizations decided they were too risky, between security, missing salvage ships, and the chances of police or military ships stumbling on them. That’s why I called the withdraw. Anyone still maintains a dump’s heavily invested in it and is pretty sure the authorities either won’t find it or won’t mess with it.”

He didn’t need to elaborate on what that meant, nor did he get a chance to, since CT-721 chose that moment to join the crew.

“Sirs, sirs,” the bot managed to sound excited, “I was able to acquire the entire log, and what I recovered is badly corrupted, sirs. But the registry came through, the R.C.S. Sereis. The manifest was corrupted too, but I think they only carried perishable foodstuffs, sirs.”

Sed finally looked up at the news. “The data’s probably being fragmented by the owners’ data. Probably didn’t waste time wiping the computer.”

“Seetee, you said the log was corrupt,” this from Orri, “Was any of it clear?” The other two team members nodded their understanding. The last minutes might shed some light, if they were recoverable.

The bot’s eyes blinked off and on once, its version of a nod. “Yes, sirs. It was recorded in an odd dialect from the far fringe of the Republic,” it started, ignoring or oblivious to the frustrated looks from its audience, “near the Alliance. The captain was, I think, an elf. Only a few minutes are clear after cleaning the audio, but they indicate an unknown simultaneous failure in the reactor and life-support. The last one I recovered is dated sixteen years, twelve days, and seven hours ago.”

Everyone looked at Tasser, expecting an analysis. Behr went so far as to ask, “Sabotage?”

Tas shrugged, “Without access to the systems . . . possible.” He wracked his brain, and limited knowledge of Riath’s usual ship systems, for an alternate conclusion. Sadly, none came to mind. Like the Zapa, most ships had a backup energy bank to take over life-support if their reactors failed.

“That’d make sense,” Sed opined, “for a shadow dump. Causing an accident to strand a ship exactly where they want it’s cheaper than finding a derelict adrift.”

The captain nodded, “Alright, makes sense. So, I guess the next question is, what’s a shadow dump, exactly. The name’s familiar and I’ve heard some rumors, but nothing substantial.”

Behr looked expectantly to Sed. After a couple minutes, the vampire heaved a silent sigh, “Usually they’re caches of weapons, food, IDs, and other equipment, possibly a secure comm. Normally they’re used by organized smugglers, or other illicit organizations, to re-supply or hide out for a while. This kind are only used by interplanetary orgs for obvious reasons.”

“But people don’t use ‘em anymore,” Tas stated, “right?”

“No, I said they were rare four decades ago,” he corrected, “Too problematic for most orgs and syndicates, though they’re a good idea and ground based ones are popular, or were. Since the drones looked new, either someone has a streak of nostalgia or thinks no one would expect a ship to be used these days.”

Orri flashed a glance at the Troll.

“That’s more’n I know, Boss,” the latter stated, “I’ve heard a few stories, but nothing more’n that.”

“Alright, let’s hope we didn’t get anyone too freked off,” Orri decided, “And I won’t ask where you found out so much, Sed.” Though it confirmed a few conclusions I’d already guessed, she thought, based on his natural talent for stealth. She returned the vamp’s understanding look, then went back to business. “Jump’s in twenty. Then we’ll do three more to Xeltae, see if we can get some work at Tae’s Station.”

A cautious approach. They could make the system in one jump, but extras may help throw off any possible pursuit. Assuming the former Republic civilian ship had become a shadow dump.