Stellar Buccaneers (pt. 3) (2008)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alphei seemed to notice Warn for the first time.

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

The wererat jumped, “What?”

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

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

Warn shook his head rapidly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll take your word for it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Stellar Buccaneers (pt. 2) (2008)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Veng?  Any power readings from the probe?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, he leaned back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

After a moment, he let out a low whistle.

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

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

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

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

“What kind of classified?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warn glanced at Veng as Robbyn left the hold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man seemed to lose tension without any physical change.

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

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

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

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

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

The captain nodded and surveyed the collection.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No prob. Patrol on yet?”

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

“What’s cap’n want then?”

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

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

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

Stellar Buccaneers (pt. 1) (2008)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Heard anything, Stenn?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Captain’s voice came on the internal comms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So what’s next,” he asked her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s what the comp boys say.”

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

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

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

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

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

He glanced at Veng for confirmation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A while later, Veng tapped his shoulder.

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

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

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

Final Exams (pt. 3) (2008)

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

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

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

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

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

The sniper watched their target and security go past.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His thoughts were interrupted by Kaly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Exams (pt. 2) (2008)

There were some odd looks from the new neighborhood’s guards, and they had secretly left a few bravos unconscious in corridors, but since they were better dressed than most Nyd denizens, Singe managed to convince the guards that they were Radlet pirates. Her story about meeting gangers in Nyd to unload substandard junk on the local rubes met with knowing chuckles. Raphe almost lost control and grinned. Guards were the same everywhere, bored and easily distracted. And these were easier thanks to Sargasso politics and internal jingoism.

Once they were far from the checkpoint, they found a place to stay in the manufacturing neighborhood. It was loud and smelled like year old eggs, but it was cheap and near enough to Yar’s Tiger, as well as Gerlan and Feohold. Fortunately, it seemed that people rented rooms in different neighborhoods on a regular basis. Probably station size and cross-neighborhood business.

The pair resisted celebrating—Talo said that was only appropriate back home after a successful mission—and settled in. Both hoped to be reunited with their squad and to complete the mission soon. Even so, they prepared to be on site for several months, if need be. Even if they found the target quickly, an opportunity to complete the mission may not arise. And then there was opportunity for extraction.

With these thoughts in mind, both crashed for much needed sleep in something more comfortable than a cockpit seat.

Morning found the pair aboard Yar’s Tiger pretending to be visitors interested in their supposed home’s history.

As they moved through the section devoted to the drift’s earliest days, Raphe took in the architecture and the artifacts. Based on his education, he guessed the museum was once a Republic destroyer. Singe confirmed the suspicion during a hushed conversation, adding that the design went obsolete over a century in the past. After looking over obvious replicas of old artifacts, the Humans wandered toward the Feohold section. The rooms contained more paintings, busts, and friezes of famous captains and dictators than artifacts as such. With no sign of their teammates there or in the Radlet section, the pair left the museum ship an hour after their arrival. To allay suspicion and keep from standing out, they left a token donation in the appropriate box by the door.

Once they were back in their room, Raphe watched as Singe broke out most of her gear, such as they’d been able to smuggle in. He had gone over his own minimalist gear before the meeting.

After a few minutes, he rose, saying, “I’ll see what I can find out. See what you can find in the neighborhood. Meet back here at three for Starhorse.”

After her distracted nod, he moved into the station and navigated the corridors back toward Feohold. His eyes roamed subtly even as he seemed to move with purpose. Raphe took in his surroundings and the locals, mildly impressed by their adaptation of the old ships. Of course, he thought, Sargasso was probably one of the largest stations in the Five Nations. Due to its construction, it was probably one of the most vulnerable too.

He slipped across the Feohold-Ethelridge border, maintaining his Radlet persona.

Once over, the Mehleen sought out a taphouse or caff bar. The briefing said Feoholders were predominantly traders. Therefore, he reasoned, they heard a lot of the drift’s business. And he could play to their desires, especially the base ones. Gathering intel was part of his brand of infiltration. If Mehleen information was correct, the Feoholders of Duria’s Fire were most interested in news and least interested in morality or ethics. Probably a good place to start seeking answers.

So it was that Raphe found himself sitting outside a bland caff bar that opened onto an old cargo hold. He occupied a surprisingly well crafted “outdoor” table and chair simply listening to other customers at first. In the process, he obtained a good idea of what was going on in the neighborhood and its neighbors. He also got to practice Leton’s trick of picking up accents. Most of the news consisted of the trifles commonly discussed by merchants. Raphe tuned those aspects out. Local politics gained his attention briefly, parsing out likely biases from actual fact occupied his mind until a possible informant came into sight.

Soon, he was having an animated, if roundabout, conversation with a young man from Discovery of Aesctown. Raphe couldn’t help but be pleased with his prospects. The kid, actually not much younger than the Mehleen, seemed to be the archetypal cloistered academic. Raphe learned quickly that he’d been sent to Feohold to shop for his master. And it was his first time away from the learning focused neighborhood. The kid, he forgot the name as soon as he heard it, was apprenticed to a sorcerer-historian, apparently once of some repute in Aesctown. Since he detected no concern about his lack of recognizing the master’s name, Raphe assumed she was only known in that neighborhood.

A couple hours and two lunches later, the Mehleen excused himself and reminded his young companion that he was late.

As the apprentice ran off, Raphe casually strolled back toward Ethelridge. He replayed a modified and condensed form of the conversation in his head on the way. Still, a part of his mind was aware of his surroundings, as he was made conscious of when his attention was drawn to a face across a market hold. Nothing looked out of place, but as he thought about it, Raphe swore he’d seen a familiar face. Which must have been a random pattern recognition illusion. After all, he’d been in the Collegium training program for the last six years and had little memory of his pre-training life, beyond his family. And there were no Mehleen on Sargasso beyond his squad.

He took a breath and exhaled to clear his mind and regain focus.

Although details could be helpful and coincidences were rarely coincidences, dwelling on them could be paralytic. And he needed to go over his information with Singe, hit the Starhorse, and scout out the station’s night life. Contacts on station would be good and there was some gear they could use that couldn’t be smuggled in. With luck, they’d meet up with the others, then he could pool resources with Leton.

Raphe arrived at the apartment a little before three. He had to wait for a few minutes before Singe returned.

Before he was conscious of moving, Raphe was in position offline to the door, his air-powered and silent needlegun in hand. She held up a wait sign and appeared to be listening at the door.

After a couple seconds, the demolitionist relaxed. In rapid succession, she signed a warning and possible tail. Raphe nodded, and knew not to speak about their business. The apartment may no longer be secure. Even without bugs, there were microphones and cybernetics that could pick up conversations from a distance.

“Found a buyer for those chips,” he said aloud, nodding toward the door. His holdout weapon vanished just before they went into the corridor. “So, good news for Berratt.”

Singe shrugged, “Good for Berratt, if he’s got the goods. Pietre wants to see us at Starhorse asap.”

“Pietre?” Raphe gestured for her to lead. So, if she had been followed, the tail had a problem. They could be going to the park, or that could be a rouse. The tail could get more info, or lose them.

The two kept up inane banter through Feohold and Oslen, occasionally sending a surreptitious hand signal. Throughout the walk, Raphe never detected a tail, nor did Singe indicate one. He had to hope they’d lost anyone, but assume they hadn’t.

Once they reached the ex-freighter, the pair relaxed somewhat. Raphe’s shoulders rolled and lost their tension, his partner’s posture gained some slack. Perhaps, he thought, it was the plant-life. Or the prospect of re-uniting the squad. Whatever the reason, he found himself enjoying the park. The freighter had been gutted to minimal structural support and filled with plants. As his eyes roamed, Raphe absently wondered where they’d gotten the soil.

The pair fell into unspoken roles instantly, Singe looking for their partners while Raphe kept an eye out for anyone showing an unhealthy interest in them.

After an hour with no sign of their squadmates, they left.

Rendezvous on the next two days also failed, but Raphe began to acquire contacts in the Feohold underworld. They were tentative, but something. On one hand, he figured their insularity made acceptance difficult. On the other, that same insularity meant that his story of being a Radlet denizen representing some pirates was well nigh impossible to disprove. Even with the progress he’d made, another couple months would be ideal to really get connected and trusted. Which was time he didn’t have. At least, he hadn’t seen any more familiar faces. That was something.

Singe spent her time working Ethelridge, finding backup boltholes and places she could quietly acquire equipment she might need.

By the end of their third day, both were convinced that their target wasn’t residing in either neighborhood. That left Gerlan, if he was going the comfort route. The ship Centauros might be an option, if he had major clout and wanted security. The capital of the drift would make their job much more difficult, were it his hideout. They didn’t find Leton and Kaly until the morning of their fourth day on the station.

In the Radlet section of Yar’s Tiger, Singe was approached by their teammates. The Orc slipped a message into her pocket in such a way that no bystander, not that there were many, noticed. A short while later, Elf and Orc left, arm in arm. After a couple minutes, the Humans followed with Singe reading the message as if she were checking directions.

By the next hour, all of the squadmates sat at a table in a Feohold bar.

Over glasses of a local distilled concoction, Raphe and Singe filled the others in on their news. Kaly then explained that they’d been on site for a week, but had only been able to get away without a tail that morning. Due to their cover stories, both had been put to work stripping and categorizing the fruits of Radlet’s piracy. Leton took over to say, “One of the other workers overheard a trader from Gerlan complaining about some outsider guest of the Council.”

“The target?” both Raphe and Singe said simultaneously.

“That’s my guess. Especially if you two are certain he’s not in Feohold.”

Singe nodded, “And I’ve checked Ethelridge, he’s far from there. And Raphe’s Aesctown contact’s got nothing there.”

“Even with eight other possibilities,” Kaly opined, “based on his file, we can eliminate at least five other the others. Gerlan’s most likely. Not that I buy that he’s really a guest in the traditional sense.”

Raphe nodded in turn, “Unless he sneaks out. The only other viable option I can see is Centauros, but I think there’d be more talk if he was there.”

The Elf nodded, “Very likely. The worker I talked to has quite a bit of contact with traders. They’d be buzzing if he was in Centauros.”

Kaly surveyed her unit. “Raphe, Singe, check out Gerlan. Maybe move into Beorchard, it’s closest, your call. Because of the jobs we’ve been given, we can’t get out often, at the risk of breaking cover. You two will have to do the preliminary work. We’ll try for more rumors or direction when possible. A day or two before we act, we should be able to get out and case the place. First priority is to identify and track.”

“Talo’s Lesson Seven,” Singe grinned.

The rest joined in their own ways as Raphe added, “Variation of the Ergus scenario.”

Every squad ran that training scenario. Even after six attempts, it had a mere twenty percent pass rate. Their unit had taken four tries before their first successful run.

A short time later, the group broke up with basic plans laid.

Raphe and Singe elected to remain in Ethelridge, largely to allay suspicions. It meant more transit time, but was outside even a broad search around Gerlan. Even if the neighboring areas were inclined to assist in said search. Because movements could possibly be traced, they did take the precaution of changing identities and cover stories. Raphe became a Feohold gem dealer looking for trade in Gerlan while Singe made minor changes to become a vagrant freelance guard, looking for a personal or property protection job. He could catch rumors, she could hack an employer’s computer.

By noon, both were separately crossing Feohold on two different levels.

The infiltration specialist did his best to blend in with the crowd. A few days in Feohold had given him a good idea of common attire. Not as great as Leton’s knowledge would have been, but he hoped it was enough to pass a cursory look. He’d left all his arms save only the pocket needlegun and a flat, barely threatening, knife, both well concealed and immune to any detection short of a strip search.

His cover identity ended up aiding in the security issue. Apparently, the neighborhood guards were used to blustering Feoholder merchants who refused to be searched. He heard a few tales of small, valuable pieces of stock going missing in such searches. To allay suspicions, Raphe followed suit and threatened to go to the Gerlan council if he was searched, after complaining to Feohold’s dictator, of course. The guards waved him through, only halfway through the routine tirade.

A few yards from the border, Raphe veered to the left, across what was once the ballroom of a small liner.

He followed a few other dealers toward the neighborhood’s fine goods market. Due to the speed of creating his cover, he didn’t actually have any gemstones on his person, but supposedly he was a new employee sent to scope out the market. And within minutes, he was pretty certain that the market would be horrible and his fictitious employers would be upset. From what he saw, the entire neighborhood was the station equivalent of farmland. Or at least a good percentage was. Everywhere he looked there were hydroponic facilities, until he neared the center of Gerlan. There, Raphe finally came across shops and government offices, based on the signage and windows. Most appeared to be offering distribution services to other neighborhoods.

Noting a lack of his favorite places to acquire information, Raphe settled for entering one of the shops. He chose one near what he guessed was a government building. With a little luck, that meant the patronage would come from government servants. He realized that the place dealt in personal electronics, and their repair, after a few seconds. A quick look around netted the infiltrator a couple talking points. The moment that a young Dwarf entered the room, from a back area, Raphe made a snap decision.

“Is that really a Draan dynasty Imperial short range comm? Monus War era?” he asked, pointing to the device.

After a second of stunned incomprehension, the Dwarf nodded, “Repaired it last week.”

Raphe’s look of disbelief was not entirely feigned.

“Really,” the young man insisted, “Works perfectly now, it’s in great condition.”

“I didn’t think any existed anymore, not after the mark III’s primary plant was bombed near the end of the war.” In fact, the whole planet had been rendered uninhabitable for two centuries. Re-colonization had only just started a couple years before he’d entered training.

The Dwarf grinned. “Human off Indomitable brought it in a month ago, sold it as junk,” he said, a hint of price entering his voice, “I scavenged parts and rebuilt it. Might be the last working mark I in existence. Two thousand Drift creds, hard currency only, and it’s yours.”

“Sorry, friend,” Raphe shook his head at the price, “out of my range. The old bosses don’t pay enough for that.” He came closer and leaned on the counter. “Name’s Telyn. You have any other collectables a bit more in a working man’s range?”

“Satem, apprentice here,” came the reply, “If it’s Imperial comms you’re into, there’s a Koru-dynasty civilian short range around somewhere, third emperor, first decade, I think. Based on the markings and internal wiring. It’s missing a couple pieces, but should be fixable.”

Two hours later, Raphe left with an elegant and slightly old comm unit of Clanhold-Alliance design under his arm. He was still mentally sorting through the chatter, determining good information from chaff. The circumstantial evidence seemed to support Leton and Kaly’s theory. They hadn’t directly discussed the council or its guest, but the Mehleen picked up enough subtext to confidently state that something was out of place in Gerlan and it had an outsider at its root. And he’d say the outsider was a non-stationer with reasonable certainty, given the Dwarf kid’s familiarity with not only the other neighborhoods but with off-station tech. In fact, Gerlan as a whole seemed quite comfortable with the rest of the drift. Unless there was an inter-neighborhood political current he was missing, the disturbance had to originate with an off-stationer.

But, one source, even two, wasn’t enough to confirm things. Not on a mission this important.

He walked a fair distance from Satem’s shop to avoid being conspicuous before looking for another opportunity.

As he turned to enter a jewelers, Raphe’s attention was caught by movement in the corner of his eye. He was careful to make his change of direction seem to be a change of heart, as he’d been taught. After a quick glance, he decided that it hadn’t been a face that was familiar, it was a, well, a way of moving. Even as he surreptitiously scanned the crowd, the Mehleen couldn’t see anyone, but he saw where they’d been. His trained eyes spotted the signs of someone moving through the mass of people. It was what he experienced when he watched Leton, Kaly, or Singe blend and trail through a packed area. Whoever it had been was good, not a specialist, but good nonetheless.

The question was, did the person follow him or someone else?

Recalling Singe’s tail and his own odd encounter, Raphe had to assume the former. He continued into the jeweler’s with that in mind, the better to avoid too much attention. A couple hours and a few shops later, the Mehleen was certain he’d achieved his purpose. Generalized questions had confirmed Satem’s impressions and reinforced his own conviction that their target was in the neighborhood. And he’d gotten a good feel for the layout of Gerlan’s core ships as well as the local policing. Based on observation, he placed the latter as roughly equal to Commonwealth police forces in powers, equipment, and training. Better for security than the Alliance, worse than Imperials. So, not the best possible world for the team, but far from a worst case scenario.

The day’s reconnaissance complete, Raphe passed back through Feohold toward Ethelridge. Despite his best attempts to spot a tail, he saw nothing and no one out of the ordinary on his return trip. Once in the apartment, though, he swept the place for listening devices and other undesirables using a couple devices he and Singe had constructed from local parts. After her incident, they decided to keep the place and be careful, both determining that moving may be suspicious.

He just started getting some food out when Singe arrived.

A quick flurry of hand signs followed and indicated that she wasn’t followed, he wasn’t followed, and that he’d swept the place.

While he finished the meal, the other Human said, “I’m pretty sure he’s in Gerlan. Good news is the Council rooms aren’t his location. A few freelancers I talked to said the Council’s personal security shows up at Wond’s about every morning and escorts someone toward Rotse, and comes back the same evenings.” Apparently the stayover was a mid-to-high end place located a few decks from the neighborhood capital’s administration decks, on a different ship. After Singe gave him what information she could, Raphe passed on his own news, this time including his possible shadow.

She reacted with the question he both expected and had trouble answering.

“You think it was a local?”

Raphe shrugged, “What are the other options? It definitely wasn’t your tail from before, this was no amateur.”

“Where do we go from here? If there’s someone with our training following you . . .”

“Check with Kaly?” he suggested, “It’s her show. But, I’d like to try to catch my shadow, if it was even after me. And Wond’s needs to be cased, with the Council’s security pattern.” An amateur might just shoot the guy on the next morning, and wouldn’t survive beyond that point. Which was why there were professionals on this job. So, he wanted to see patterns and where there were weak points. Kaly’d make the final decision, but they all wanted everyone to have a chance to escape afterwards.

The other Human nodded. “Alright. You check out the place, I’ll meet Kaly or Leton. That way your tail won’t find them, if it hasn’t already. I’ve been working on some homemade shape charges as backup, so keep an eye out for places to set them as insurance. If all else fails, we can go amateur and blow the compartment or hull.”

He didn’t bother asking. Singe’d know the structural integrity of the Wond’s ship already, he bet, and knew her explosives.

Two days later, Raphe returned to the apartment to find his squadmate assembling what he assumed were the homemade bombs on the small place’s lone table. A quick glance told him that her procurement trips had been quite fruitful. Beyond the stuff that made tiny things out of large things, he spotted basic gear for Leton and Kaly, as well as upgraded firepower and close-in surprises. They all hoped to avoid a close up firefight, not least because those tended to get messy and draw the authority’s attention, but things rarely went according to plan. His own preference would be a long rifle from at least a hundred yards, not likely anywhere on Sargasso. So that left close up or indirect. The latter was uncertain, too many variables, and could get even messier than a firefight. Thus, the last option.

Final Exams (pt. 1) (2008)

Raphe crouched in the darkness and assessed his situation.

He still had eight of the ten shots in his blaster. Good. Eighteen opponents out of twenty were down, and he hadn’t actually shot any of them. Finesse and skill. The exit was a mere seventeen yards away . . . with both of his last opponents flanking it. They had body armor and carbines, openly worn. He had no armor and very little remaining beyond the blaster. A firefight was the obvious answer, hit one before they knew he was there. That would leave seven shots for the last one. He might even be able to pull off two clean head shots. The Ayma training blaster wasn’t as accurate as his preferred electromag rifle over distance, but it should be enough. But firefights were messy and lacked finesse. Even if he passed, Master Talo would be disappointed if the victory lacked finesse.

Balanced on the balls of his feet, Raphe closed his eyes. He took a deep breath through his nose and slowly released it through his mouth as he’d been taught in order to calm himself and find his center.

There was a solution that would balance mission completion, efficiency, and finesse. He just had to find it.

A few more cleansing breaths passed before the solution revealed itself to him.

Seven minutes later, Raphe stood with the rest of his team before the board of instructors overseeing their exams. They’d been training together for so long that he could picture them while keeping his eyes on the masters. Leton, the tallest member of the team, would be standing with the bland mask of stoicism that only the long life of an Elf and years of training in the art of disguise could perfect. Fortunately, Leton’s beloved tech devices, Collegium designed and modified by the Elf, were stowed and silent. To Leton’s left would be Singe. The compact woman would be working to restrain her impatience. Probably deconstructing bombs in her head. He’d heard her solution to the final guards—probably a pound of explosives that she must’ve managed to smuggle into the exam. Impressive, since they’d been snatched directly from their bunks. Last, and to his immediate right, would be Kaly, their Orc and team computer expert. Not that she was a slouch with blade or fist. There was still a bruise on his chest from their last sparring session. She’d be quietly confident, hands behind her back, feet exactly shoulder width apart, a stance he tried to mimic.

The masters were another story. Seven of them seated in shadow and with hoods covering their faces. Very traditional.

Master Talo, their unit instructor, would be among them.

Maybe the one with its hood pointed vaguely toward Singe.

The silence stretched, obviously intended to see if they would snap or show signs of stress.

Or impatience, in Singe’s case.

Finally, the central figure cleared its throat. When it spoke, Raphe recognized the voice masker they’d trained with years ago.

“The board finds that Raphe passes, seven to zero. Kaly passes, seven to zero. Singe passes, five to two. Leton passes, six to one.” Which was why the board was hooded, no Mehleen could then know who voted against him or her. “As the highest scorer on all the tests over the last two weeks, the board officially names Kaly as team leader. You are all now named Mehleen, with all the benefits, duties, and responsibilities that come with this conferral of title. Conduct yourselves with the honor of your person, your families, and the People always in mind. Know that any team is replaceable and the masters will not hesitate to make examples of dishonored, weak, or failed teams and their members.”

Four voices answered as one, “We accept and understand, masters.”

The hooded figure on the end rose.

“You are all dismissed. Report to Kunil at dawn for your first assignment.”

Dawn found the team seated in one of the training building’s numerous briefing rooms. They took up half the desks, facing the instructor’s lectern and the display board. Not yet entirely wakeful after a night of celebrations, Raphe observed the rest of the team. Singe was clearly doing her best to surreptitiously nurse a hangover. Leton had his characteristically bland look of stoicism. To his familiar eyes, Kaly appeared tired and anxious. Her first command. He doubted anyone outside the team, except maybe Master Talo, would catch the signs or interpret just how anxious she was. A non-Mehleen would probably consider her perfectly calm, whereas she was easily the most agitated he’d ever seen her.

They only had to wait a few more seconds before a diminutive man, barely up to Raphe’s waist, entered the room.

All four rose automatically in the instant before the door opened. They bowed as one to the Gnome master as he strode to the podium. Master Kunil’s people were rare in the Mehleen, the most recent species adopted by the culture, but were no less respected than the others.

Once they were seated, Kunil brought up a photo on the display screen.

“Your first assignment will not be an easy one,” he said as preamble, “But as Mehleen, you knew that may happen as few assignments are easy. And you are aware that first assignments have a seventy percent survival rate. But this one is especially challenging. The man behind me is your target. We neither know nor care what he has done. The elders accepted the job, therefore they are satisfied. This target has eluded capture by the Empire, the Republic’s Patrol, and the CFL. He has survived at least three previous assassination attempts, all believed to be executed by the Republic’s foreign intelligence agency. This is likely why the Mehleen were contracted. All information regarding the target’s history, previous attempts, and his patterns have been loaded onto your comps. What makes this assignment notably difficult is his location. He has been traced to a place called Sargasso Drift. The Five Nations believe this station to be a pirate myth. We know where it is located and that data too is in your comps. This is an especially closed community, smuggling in most gear, including the vast majority of weapons, is quite probably impossible. In fact, most people brought to the drift are captives. How you manage insertion and extraction is your decision. A small converted freighter can be assigned to aid extractions, if you wish it. Any questions?”

The team looked to Kaly who asked, “Master, will we stand out without species disguises?”

“No. That is one reason your team was chosen. Humans and Orcs are the largest groups on the drift.”

At the Orc’s nod, Leton asked, “Do we have any of their captains who might be bribed to ‘capture’ a team?”

“A list of known Sargasso captains is on your comps. None have been open to bribes, but their usual territory is on the list.”

Raphe and Singe simultaneously added, “Is there detail on the place’s layout?”

Kunil nodded, “It has been loaded. Other questions?”

He surveyed the room.

“Then, you are dismissed. The contract specifies that the assignment will be completed within three weeks. Leave as soon as possible. Good hunting.” With that, the Gnome packed up his few pieces of equipment and left the team to deliberate.

Raphe and Leton had the drift schematics and description respectively called up before Kunil was out of the room. Their squadmates compared gear notes at the same time. All four were aware of the challenge they faced. Infiltrating a station was difficult at the best of times, but a paranoid and very insular station was worse.

They all came together about twenty minutes later.

Leton pointed to a pair of neighborhoods on the map. “Feohold and Radlet. Both neighborhoods are good insertion points, specializing in slavers and piracy. We should be able to set up a scenario in which to be captured.”

Raphe noted two others, “I’d favor Nyd Drift. It’s anarchic and near the fringe of the drift. Easy infiltration point. Better than Ing Landing which is too close to the drift’s center.”

The team leader thought things over before adding, “Singe would like to try to bring a fair amount of gear. I don’t need much. I’ll go with Leton and be captured. We can pass as tourists or something near a slaving or pirate point. Leton, start on identities. I’ll find a good ship for passage. Raphe, you and Singe will attempt infiltration at Nyd Drift. You two can bring us some gear with your own.”

Raphe nodded. A plan was forming as he considered the station layout. Its very structure, a conglomerate of old and new capital ships, could be used in their favor. He moved to sit with the demolitions expert and outlined a possible plan. With a Mehleen ship, a cramped, compact two-man shuttle, they could slip up to the drift. Especially with Singe piloting. Given the structure of the place, there were bound to be forgotten airlocks. And since the Nyd area had no central authority, the chances of organized and swift detection were slim. If they could rig the ship to move off to a safe distance under its own control, even better. They ought to be able to escape the neighborhood with their skills. And that would only leave smuggling gear across the neighborhood borders. Gerlan was the most likely place for their target to setup as home. The info portrayed it as a comfortable trade hub, a place where someone could hide out without giving up any creature comforts.

Kaly broke into their deliberations.

“We will rendezvous on Yar’s Tiger in the morning, after arrival. Backup site will be Starhorse in the late afternoon,” she said, meaning follow the pattern of returning to both at roughly the same time each day. Thus, they would find each other eventually, while seeking their target during the rest of the day. “Extraction plans can wait until we see what’s on the ground.”

The other three nodded agreement before they all left the briefing room to see about their own preparations.

The squad gathered at the facility’s dock the next day. Rather than leave from the community port and lose time, they planned to leave the afternoon after receiving their assignments, and from the nearest port. Raphe and Singe had authorization for a small ship that was barely more than an FTL drive with seats. The other two were scheduled to pick up a chartered freighter a few score lightyears away. Raphe looked over their gear and accepted responsibility for Kaly and Leton’s traditional Mehleen knives. It wouldn’t do for them to be caught with obvious signs of membership in what outsiders called the Collegium. He stowed them in his pack alongside a pair of hand sized holdout needle guns and other gear he was carrying for them. A few parting words had the Humans in their ship and their partners headed with civilian gear to their shuttle.

Raphe reviewed the plan as Singe did her pre-flight check. If all went according to plan, Kaly and Leton would pick up a chartered freighter and make its cargo and route enticing. They’d be picked up by Radlet based pirates, captured, and brought to that neighborhood. Meanwhile, he would lead Singe in infiltrating Nyd Drift. If everything worked, they should arrive on Sargasso at roughly the same time. Assuming the plans did not work, at least half the team should be on station to carry out the contract. In theory.

Any other plans would have to wait until phase one was complete, he thought as the ship took off.

The infiltration expert remained silent until they jumped. Since even a few days in the cramped stealth ship would try anyone’s patience, he didn’t want to get off on a bad foot with his normally constantly moving partner. Freck, the ship would probably try even his patience, and he’d been trained to sit in one place for days waiting for a perfect shot.

Once they jumped, he handed a packet forward over her shoulder.

“What’s our ETA?”

Singe snagged the drink pouch without looking.

“Three days to STL range, another day or two from there.”

Depended on the drift and its ship patrols. How much they had to dodge, of course. The first couple days would be dull and cramped. Raphe shifted in his seat, maybe half a hand’s breadth purchase when he totaled both sides. And all the gear was in stowage, only accessible when the hatch was open or by moving his seat.

He switched gears to take their minds off the trip and asked, “So . . . how’d you get that explosive into the last test?”

Singe’s bark of laughter preceded, “Kept it as a liner to my belt all week, and kept the belt on me all the time. Surprised no one noticed.”

He laughed along with her. “Oh, wouldn’t put anything past old Talo.”

“I did worry about him . . . thought he suspected once,” she said as he imagined her grin.

Raphe thought for a few seconds. Then, “You think Kien was on the panel?” The two were well known adversaries, which also included their students. Master Kien’s classes had always been the hardest for the team. As Master Talo’s were for Kien’s squad. A little healthy competition was encouraged, even though those two pushed things a bit.

“It would explain why Leton’s vote wasn’t perfect and why you weren’t named squad leader.”

The next couple hours passed in silence as Raphe considered the theory. Honestly, it made sense. Kien was known for his distaste for Elves. He wasn’t quite one of the purist wackos who wanted to turn the Mehleen back two thousand years to the all Humans days, but close. And Raphe had to admit that putting Kien’s star pupil to shame in the sniper trials over the last four years certainly didn’t put him in Kien’s good graces.

Not that he wanted squad leadership.

In fact, he’d been avoiding command and nudging Kaly and Leton toward it for years. That kind of responsibility was definitely not his thing. Never mind that old Talo’d said he was a natural leader and hoped he’d take charge.

Singe had evidently become bored with his silence. A quick glance over her shoulder revealed a novel on her screen. Probably one of those future stories she liked so much. They were about the only thing besides bombs that would calm her down. He’d never seen the appeal, preferring non-fictional histories himself, but had to admit that they worked. Give her one of those and Singe reached a level of absorption that he both envied and shied away from.

Still, she had a good idea. Better to read now while it was still novel enough to actually have the time.

Raphe called up a new history of the CFL that he’d been wanting to get to. The fact that they’d failed to catch the target was an added bonus. Maybe he could find something tangentially useful while reading for fun. With that thought, he got himself a drink packet and settled back to kill a few silent hours.

The next couple days reminded Raphe of Master Talo’s endurance exercises—twelve hours of sitting watching a target point from an uncomfortable seat. Any time they moved more than a fraction of an inch at a time, the whole class’ countdown reset. Once they went two days without food or sleep, resetting more times than he could count, before the master was satisfied.

Finally they came out of jump with indicators flashing. The last of several jumps.

Raphe checked his board while Singe cut their forward thrust.

“ECM is green,” he reported, “Scan’s showing a distance of . . . right on the mark. Nice plotting.”

Singe grunted, “Alright, all non-essentials are down for the next hour. The stealth hull and ECM should keep us out of sight for a while. And passive scan is excellent. Take your time and pick a target.”

The infiltration expert spent the next six hours doing exactly that. After mapping the section of the drift that he wanted, he pinpointed airlocks and other access points, setting the computer to track ship traffic near likely spots. Meanwhile, he knew, Singe would be studying the over all ship traffic, getting a feel for the rhythms and the holes. As an extra bonus, their target neighborhood seemed to lack much exterior coverage. Probably the disorganization of the neighborhood. Add in the closed, even clannish, nature that the drift’s inhabitants were supposed to have and it really wasn’t surprising. Which was exactly what he’d hoped for. Well, that and a hope their ships were running outdated ECCM. Very likely given the state of decay of Nyd Drift. They all assumed that Eohton would have the best military equipment.

After a brief reconstituted meal, he tapped the pilot’s shoulder.

“Whenever you’re ready. I’ve got three possibles, will map all on approach.”

Singe gave him a thumbs up and engaged the thrusters at their lowest practical level. The minimal power usage combined with the hull and high grade ECM should, Raphe thought, help them evade detection. The speed and their position added thirty-six hours to approach, but that was worthwhile.

Once Singe had them moving, all he could do was sit back and watch the incoming scan data.

Although they were virtually drifting to their target, Raphe felt the occasional bump as his partner corrected their course or dodged a ship from Sargasso. Their tiny craft only had minimal inertial reduction capability in order to leave enough artgrav to avoid bone density and muscle loss. A few hours into the careful flight, Raphe discounted one of his options. He made a decision on the other two sites soon after, based on their speed, trajectory, and ability to alter course. And the fact that several patrol ships had parked over one of them in the last nine hours.

“Got a target,” he told his pilot, as he sent the lock’s location to her screen.

Singe acknowledged receipt with, “Got it . . . could you find a trickier landing?”

“Figured it’d be a cakewalk,” he shot back, “Since you’re the best pilot in the Collegium.” Not entirely true, but flattery never hurt.

“Hmm.”

“Can’t do it? The other option’s been crawling with patrol ships.”

“Well, at least it’s minimal course corrections,” she replied. “And it’s dead. No activity since we arrived.” The last added as Raphe fed over his raw data from observation. “Guess that’s it. Any ideas on the lock?”

He shrugged, forgetting that she couldn’t see him. Then, “It’s old, but our lock’s pretty near universal. And if all else fails, there’s the torch.” Not as fun as explosives, he knew, but the laser torch was more precise, quieter, and wouldn’t kill them.

Raphe settled back to watch the traffic and keep quiet as his partner set the ship into a slow spiral. One reason his entry of choice was tricky and had no traffic over it was its location. In another, larger, ship, he wouldn’t have suggested it. The old lock was on the dorsal side of one of the drift’s component ships, an old heavy freighter that couldn’t have seen service in the last two decades at least. Normally, this would be an easy insertion requiring only that they spin their ship since their own lock was dorsal. In this case, the ship was part of Sargasso’s second layer of three, linked to other ships by corridors, shared or removed walls, or, in this case, lifts. Singe would have to thread the space between the freighter and an equally old commercial transport located a few dozen meters above it. There was just enough clearance, he knew, if she calculated the approach right. And their ship would be well concealed there, with even a little luck, for potential extraction. Assuming no Nyd residents managed to get in and swipe it. The chance that they might not need extraction didn’t occur to him.

After a time, he went over to reviewing information about the drift, what little they had, with one eye on local ships.

Feohold appeared to be a likely place for their target. Predominantly a trade neighborhood of over thirty large ships, it created a lot of places in which to lose oneself, and a lot of escape routes. Their own insertion point was least likely. But, the Sargasso was immense and old. According to the records, each of the Five Nations had been trying to find the station for nearly a century. Presumably the place could move in STL and used misdirection to remain hidden. The lock they were heading for was on a ship that, if the scans were correct, was at least two centuries in age, Yiron’s Luck. The Mehleen database showed public records that the ship vanished, supposedly to pirates, and that searches gave up after a few weeks. Raphe absently wondered how many other lost or supposedly destroyed ships were in Sargasso Drift.

Much later, both Mehleen checked their gear for the third and last time in Yiron’s Luck’s airlock.

Pleased with the weight distribution, Raphe attached a small device to the airlock’s inner control panel. While it cycled through combinations, he placed another item on the inner door itself and glanced at Singe. When she looked at her wrist and shook her head, he nodded. Geophone was negative except background vibration, bioscan negative. There shouldn’t be anyone within sight of the lock.

He drew his palm sized air-powered needlegun as the geophone returned to a pocket, just in case. Singe drew her own as the lock device clicked open.

She ducked into the corridor and checked both directions as he retrieved the device.

The needleguns were silent and poisoned, but he still hoped not to shoot anyone yet. There’d be bodies to dispose of.

Fortunately, the hall was clear. It was run down, complete with missing wall and deck plates, exposed ducts and wiring, and rust, but no signs of life. Part of Raphe’s mind waited for their luck to turn. Skill could only account for so much of their success so far.

Technically in charge now that they’d left the ship, he flashed silent hand signs to Singe. Their own squad language sufficed to give her a direction, that was easy. They were on the outer edge and wanted to work their way inward. He took a left from the airlock toward a t-junction that looked like it went their way.

After a couple yards, the corridor turned again to reveal another dotted with empty doorways and trash. Coughs and groans, followed by shushing noises, came from the rooms. Raphe nodded and made the needlegun vanish, assuming Singe would follow suit. They proceeded to creep down the corridor, hoping to get by without attracting much notice. This seemed like the kind of place where people heard little and saw even less.

Similar areas went by until they were stopped short by a large open space.

From the looks of things, the pair concluded that the natives had converted the old ship’s hold into a marketplace. Singe guessed a hundred or two people moving around and Raphe had to agree. She was, he thought, better at assessing large group sizes. He focused on small groups, like guards, and individuals.

He glanced over the outfits that Leton had chosen for them. Nothing stood out screaming assassin or foreigner, so far as he could see. All their gear was stowed in concealed pockets, save only his NMT electromag pistol and Singe’s Cyntec R-17 blaster. Both weapons were common enough among pirates and smugglers and were likely expected in this neighborhood.

“All right,” he muttered more to himself than Singe, “First test. Just walk across, we’re local bravoes. And let’s hope Leton’s disguises work.”

Raphe saw his partner’s lips moving and allowed her the silent prayer before they stepped out into the open.

The moment they left the corridor, he blended with the motion of the crowd. Singe followed with a bit less fluidity and finesse, but managed to keep up. As they walked with confidence and just a hint of a swagger, they passed stalls offering all kinds of junk goods for trade. Or so Raphe classed it. The stuff he caught out of the corner of his eye wouldn’t make a credit in any other market. He led Singe, though, in looking over the wares of several stalls and unconsciously adopting the mannerisms of a few real toughs, probable gang lackeys, moving around them.

The key trick was to look like they belonged. Thus, years of training kept Raphe from glancing at his partner to see how she was doing in the masquerade. They also kept him moving at a sedate pace, neither too slow nor too fast, across the hold.

During one faked look at merchandise, he spotted an exit in the direction they needed. With an air of disgust that owed nothing to his acting, he steered their course toward the new corridor. Two stalls later, he was bumped by another bravo. Raphe’s hand dropped to his sidearm even as his brain said posturing. He growling at the Elf in broken Elven, noting that Singe had her eye on the guy’s Orc companion.

Some empty posturing later, the Mehleen continued on their way.

Raphe made a mental note to thank Master Talo for his infiltration training and Leton’s acting coaching.

After a couple hours, the pair passed across the border between Nyd Drift and Ethelridge.

Land of Shadows (pt. 3) (2008)

The Goblin recovered first.

Panting, he said, “Finally . . . been pounding for . . . ten minutes. Pinged the . . . sensors . . .”

“And found a third ship keeping its distance,” Edillae finished, “I enhanced the sensors a bit, they’re still passive. The blip wasn’t much, master, ‘cause they were trying to hide. Good ECM, probably stealth hull too. Least that’s my guess . . . to get what we did, well, it’d have to be a pretty big ship, master.”

“Such as?”

“Medium cruiser or better. I’d say big freighter or small liner, but only military or crooked ships warrant that kind of stealth, master.”

Says the woman raised around ships, Durias thought. Well, a wise man knows the limits of his knowledge and when to listen to others. She was definitely the expert on the subject. Still, he glanced at Myrlun, not to question his fellow apprentice but . . . the young man silently responded in the negative. Thus, their pilot truly knew nothing of this newcomer. Although not widely advertised, there were spells that could determine the veracity of reactions and statements. A reasonably well kept secret among sorcerers.

“They’re not broadcasting any military transponder signal,” Kailis said after catching his breath, “You’re looking at covert military ops or someone else.”

“Probably someone else,” Edillae jumped in again, “We caught an ECM hole that a covert military ship wouldn’t have. At least not if it was outfitted in the last decade.”

This brought a smile to the Elf. If his most recent apprentice spent as much time on her sorcery as she did studying the latest ships . . . including the secret government projects the Arcanum was not supposed to know about, like the rest of the public. But that obsession, and her years on docks, could be useful at times. Like this one.

“Who then?” he asked.

After a few seconds, she came to a conclusion. “Some sort of organized crime or good pirates. Could be mercenaries, but I doubt it. I’d go with pirates. If so, they’ll probably attack ships within the day. Mercs could go for the station instead, depending on their ship. Crime syndicate . . . could sit and watch or might do something. I’m not sure why they’d be out here. But those three’re most likely buyers for ex-miltech and ships like that.”

“I imagine they would be capable of sabotage?”

“That’d be my guess, master.”

“And sabotage would exclude mercenaries?”

“Prob’ly.”

“Then we will, I think, have to assume one of three things. This ship is a pirate, this ship is from a syndicate, or it is unrelated to the attempt to keep us from reaching this place,” Durias decided, “I find all three plausible. The residents of the station have, I believe, sufficient cause to be concerned about potential visitors, perhaps even enough to strand ships in empty space to allow crews to starve. They may even have the means to act out such possible preventatives.

Myrlun nodded, “So, do we watch the station or the ship?”

“Both.”

The Goblin looked between them all. “I’ll move the ship a bit each time we ping the active sensors. Be in a different place in case they fire on us. And this counts as combat pay, double if I have to take on a cruiser, mister sorcerer.”

Durias just gave him a serenely innocent look. He remained still, hands folded in his lap.

“And I choose when to run away,” Kailis added with just a hint of uncertainty as he left the cabin.

With Kailis gone, the Elf looked over his apprentices. “Is there any means by which we can determine the new ship’s intentions before it acts?”

“Contact the EL-7000 about this ship,” Myrlun suggested, “They might know something. Even if they don’t, they may be willing to help track it. Since they haven’t attacked or hidden from us yet.”

Edillae, the Elf saw, nearly rolled her eyes. “The freighter can’t see us, I don’t think. Kailis’ ECM is pretty high end and has been enhanced a touch. But the freighter really hasn’t taken any moves to conceal itself. Whether it can’t or chooses not to is the question.”

“A good suggestion. Followed by a wise question,” Durias decided. “Myrlun, you can alter the hand probe to work with communications. It should have enough range. Do so and eject it from an airlock. An escape pod would be better, but I do not believe Kailis has any of those.”

He dismissed the senior apprentice with a wave of his hand, confident that the devoted Human was both capable and would do as directed.

Once Myrlun left, he turned to his other apprentice. “You, I would like to compose a message to the freighter. I think we will let Kailis’ computer read it, a neutral voice. The message will be routed through the probe. And monitor Kailis’ communications.”

The woman grinned and produced a datapad.

“I started monitoring when we left, master. He’s been pretty discrete,” she explained as she handed over the device, “Just routine chatter and broadcasts until today. About two hours ago he sent a couple suspicious messages, encrypted more than usual. I haven’t been able to break ‘em yet, master. They could just be personal messages, if he thinks we might monitor. I’m not sure where they were going.”

Durias returned her smile. An apprentice certainly just paranoid enough to survive internal politics, but not cripplingly so. After a thought, he said, “Leave them on the table. I will endeavor to decrypt them in time. Normally, I would not test his trust, such as it is, but this discovery is far too important, if there is indeed a serious dimensional flux.”

After she left, he floated the datapad to himself and connected it to his own computer. Once the decryption program was running, with a few spells enhancing its processes, the Elf leaned back to rest as he awaited his minion’s return.

He had just slipped into a light meditative state when Sivaat rematerialized in the small room.

Durias came to full awareness in an instant and simply asked, “Well?”

“The protections are weak,” the entity began, “but the pull of the flux is great and aids them. Even the mighty Sivaat could not get too close. Even as great a being as Sivaat risked being pulled in and destroyed.”

“Into what, Great Sivaat?”

“The hold. The flux between dimensions.”

“So there is a rift? A dimensional hole or tear? Where?”

“Yes, somewhere inside. Sivaat knows not where, the station seems normal, but is made from a material that even Mighty Sivaat cannot see through. There is a village of mansions beneath the dome, though. And no entity will get close to the hole, even without the pitiful wards these people put in place.”

“Or ancient defenses that have faded,” Durias mused.

The entity blinked, “What?”

“Nothing,” the master sorcerer shook himself, “You may go, Great Sivaat. Two hours of freedom here, as promised.” He drew a symbol in the air to dismiss the being before collapsing into the cabin’s chair.

He had suspected the place bore a dimensional rift, or fault line, or some hole between dimensions. For a planar sorcerer that meant great power, especially with a stable rift. Summoning entities would be infinitely easier near such a rift. At a guess, judging by his limited knowledge of the art and this structure, probably only within the station’s walls. Even so, that would be a major hole. Powerful entities could be called up with much less effort, and possibly even bound better. And without having to expend so much energy to appear, they would be intrinsically stronger when they materialized. Not enough to be physical, of course, since all of his studies said that physically crossing the boundaries was impossible.

The location had to be protected from those who would misuse it.

He was still pondering how best to expunge the Arcanum records and track the information’s source when a double knock on the door interrupted.

The door opened to admit his apprentices and the Goblin again. Both Humans saw him and quickly covered looks of concern. They knew better than to ask. He did not generally take well to such things.

Myrlun bowed, “Apologies, master. The scanner is away. It should reach a good distance in an hour or so.”

“Speech is ready,” the other apprentice added.

“Good. Record it and send via the probe when it reaches a good distance,” he said, “Report with their reaction.”

Kailis started to speak as Durias’ computer chimed.

The Elf snatched the hybrid device and detached the datapad before their pilot could see it.

Edillae, over the Goblin’s shoulder, caught his eye and nodded. He responded with barely a flicker of his eyelids and watched her eyes close in concentration as he concealed the screen. He met Kailis’ eyes after the half-second exchange, “Sorry, friend. Arcanum business on the computer . . . you were about to say?”

“The station seems normal, aside from its scan problems,” the smuggler began, only to be interrupted by a loud repetitive beep from the cockpit.

Once he had shoved his way past the apprentices and Myrlun closed the door, Durias glanced at his screen then Edillae.

She flashed a barely sheepish grin. “Don’t worry, master. I just created a minor feedback loop in the main power line. Just enough to trigger an alarm. It’ll look like a brief malfunction.”

He really had to get her a technosorcery tutor later.

“Well, it seems our friend has made four encrypted communications since the sabotage attempt,” he said, referencing Edillae’s information, “The first to a Rinc Industries. No further contact. The other three were to a private line, and the system cannot decipher enough of a name to say who. Therefore, my supposition is that the private party’s name was coded, then encrypted.”

“Rinc makes ship parts, master,” Edillae noted.

“Ah. And he contacted them . . . while he was discovering the problem.”

“Filing a complaint?”

“A fair assumption,” he admitted, “That was also the easiest encryption, perhaps designed to decrypt itself upon receipt.”

“The other three noted our locations, didn’t they, master?”

“They did indeed, Myrlun,” the Elf smiled, “The last was sent three jumps ago. Conclusions?”

“He’s been informing someone, but not the warship,” Myrlun hastily answered, “And his next communication should then be soon. Obviously blocking or redirecting the next would be best.”

“I might be able to block his comms for a few seconds, but that’s it, with spells,” Edillae admitted.

“Can his communication be diverted to the probe and his systems fooled? Either by sorcery or more mundane methods?”

The woman considered before saying, “Maybe. If you can keep Kailis distracted and out of engineering for . . . half an hour. I should be able to do some rerouting of controls there and maybe plant some delayed spells for the computer.”

“It seems that there is a plan then,” Durias agreed, “We will distract Kailis at need. If long range communications can be isolated from short, do it before sending the message to the freighter. Otherwise, wait for a better chance.”

“I’ll draw attention first, master.”

The Elf nodded, already drifting into thought. He genuinely liked the Goblin smuggler and usually did not mind his opportunistic, often conniving, nature. It went with the territory. But this time, the stakes were too high. Therefore, determine a means of erasing the ship’s and pilot’s memories, and destroy the ship. Second, devise an escape plan before initiating the Breath’s destruction. The second was easier than the first. With a container and air, he could live indefinitely even with minimal initial air. One way or another they could drift or be propelled somewhere, if there was time to get to it.

By the time his apprentices returned with news of the work and communication a little over an hour later, he had the skeleton of a plan. Myrlun was sent to the cargo hold, ostensibly to find something in his master’s baggage. He actually sought an empty container for three and some food. Once he was gone, Durias listened to his other student.

“Turns out the freighter’s run by mercenaries out of . . . well, they weren’t too clear on that,” she reported. “I got the sense they knew but were trying to hold back. Which is probably a smart move. All they would say was that some criminal syndicate was after them, they didn’t name any names. Probably didn’t know for certain, master. There was something about being taken on some delivery deal and data leading here. I said we were explorers, from the Republic. That seemed safe enough at the time and isn’t too far from the truth.”

Lost in thought, making connections between data, the Elf was silent for a few minutes.

“I wonder,” he mused aloud. “Could this deal be the source of our own information?”

“I thought about that, master. They did not seem surprised by the warship info, but I don’t think they detected it on their own. So the possibility of a connection seems strong.”

“Lacking any other data, I agree. Now, here is what we will do about the situation . . .”

After a quarter hour, Edillae left the cabin and went about her assigned tasks. Meanwhile, her master sat upon his bunk witnessing the play of energy around him. Every so often he muttered a word or waved a pattern that twisted the strands of energy, rearranging them. In time, his subtle manipulations wove several spells around his person in such a way that they remained ready yet incomplete. A few simple gestures would activate all of them at once, perhaps buying enough time to reach the cargo hold, depending on many variables. He had never been good at reading the future, but seeing variables and attempting to minimize them took no oracular skill, just a pragmatic and possibly pessimistic mind, he reflected. Ultimately, the spells were the best he could do for himself and his apprentices. Perhaps if his natural talent had been above average, like Edillae’s appeared to be, rather than at the high end of average . . . no, there was no point in thinking like that. What was, was. Not even the most talented, powerful, and experienced sorcerers in the galaxy had yet figured out how to change that basic truth.

He was very nearly prepared when the ship’s warning lights and alarms went off an hour later.

Everything was bathed in red as the three sorcerers rushed to the bridge, Edillae giving her master the briefest of nods on the way.

Only the ship’s artificial gravity kept them upright as they watched Kailis twisting and turning the ship in any direction he could. The ship rocked, independent of his commands, every few seconds as something collided with its shields or hull.

Busy as he was, it took Kailis a couple seconds to notice his passengers.

“Warship spotted us and opened fire,” he shouted over the alarms. Another blast rocked the ship. “They got comms before I got the shields back up. And FTL’s not responding.”

Edillae took a standing station. “Drive’s got a power problem, probably secondary explosion. Shield’s at . . . twenty percent,” she told the others. “The freighter’s holding position. No, it’s moving off.”

“Weapons?” Myrlun glanced around as the ship went into a torturous turn that nearly overtaxed the artgrav.

“Minimal,” Kailis replied, teeth gritted as he pulled out of a dive, “Wouldn’t scratch milspec shields.”

A rapid succession of blasts hit the ship.

“Shields are gone,” Edillae reported, “Damage to outer armor, probably a pulse laser.”

“Escape pods?” Durias did not look like he expected a positive answer.

“None, lighter and faster without.”

“Outrun them?”

“They’ve got good engines and long range weapons.”

The Elf seemed to consider.

“Go toward the station, maybe they will assist us,” he said as Edillae reported the dorsal armor’s failure.

Kailis grunted, “Better’n nothing.”

“We will get out of your way and see what we can do,” the master decided, gesturing for his apprentices to leave.

Instead of heading to their cabins, all three ran down the corridor as fast as they could.

Halfway to the cargo bay, they met a headwind before a pressure door slammed shut behind them. Apparently there was a hull breech.

The trio had just reached the cargo bay when a series of explosions ripped through the ship, seemingly from every direction.

The station, freighter, and warship instantly watched a short lived fireball consume the Breath as its oxygen ignited and the whole vessel burst under the internal pressure and weakened hull.