If you thought swashbuckling pirate adventures ended with the age of sail, think again.
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Format: Trade Paperback
Format: Trade Paperback
Sterling Stevenson opened his eyes and groaned. He hurt everywhere. He looked around, but he was in a dark room and couldn't see much. Light began flooding the room through a clear portion of the floor, quickly building to blinding intensity, then just as quickly fading to once again plunge the room into near-total darkness. Sterling struggled to crawl toward the place where the light had come from, feeling his way as he tried to adjust his eyes to the darkness. He had almost made it when the light came again, quickly building until he had to cover his eyes or go blind, then once again fading away and leaving him blinking in the darkness as his dazzled eyes struggled to adjust.
"It's a star. I'm in orbit. The station is rotating," he said aloud just to hear the sound of his own voice. He hadn't heard any other voices, nor had he seen anyone in the room with him before the light became too intense to see. "How long?" he asked, then rolled onto his back.
His back hurt like hell. That made sense if the memories that were finally crowding to the surface of his mind were correct. He'd been grabbed by enforcers from the Flaming 'O' Lounge and beaten for his transgressions. I should have known that winning in the casino and leaving with the money wasn't going to sit well with someone he thought. He felt his face and winced in pain, then felt his pockets as well. They were empty. They had robbed him in addition to beating him, not that it'd do them much good. His credit chip was life-locked, and had to have his bioscan, his live bioscan, to be opened. They were never going to get their money back.
The light was building again and he held up his hand. When the light hit the tips of his fingers he closed his eyes and started counting, "One one-thousand, two one-thousand," as light burned outside his eyelids. When the darkness came again he opened his eyes and continued counting. He'd only reached three-hundred seventy-six before the light began to build again. He again raised his hand and waited as he continued to count. He said, "Three hundred ninety-seven," just as the light touched his fingers.
He closed his eyes and began trying to figure it out. "Three hundred ninety-seven seconds is six and a half minutes. A six point five minute rotation generating about," he lifted his hand and tried to gage the apparent gravity, "point seven five G gives me--my head hurts too much for this. This place is small to be rotating this fast and not making more than one G." There weren't many habitable satellites that small. Maybe he was near the central hub of one of the smaller stations. He rolled over and looked out the darkened window, but there wasn't a lot to see.
No planet swung into view, but that didn't mean much. The planet could be above or below him and he wouldn't see it until the gyroscopic rotation of the station and its orbit turned the window toward it again. He laid back and tried to take stock of his situation.
He didn't think anything was broken, but his ribs were sore. He'd been beaten on the back with something hard, and maybe kicked in the kidneys. His head hurt, and he felt a matted section of his hair that proved that he'd been bleeding at some point. A few teeth were loose, but none missing. All in all, it wasn't the worst beating he'd ever received.
He was still trying to determine his condition when a generic female computer voice said, "Prepare for acceleration. All personnel prepare for acceleration in one minute." Acceleration? On a--It's a ship, not a station! That thought sent his mind sliding into gibbering panic. He was on a ship bound for who-knew-where, beaten and broke, and alone. The light was building again and he climbed to his feet as he desperately searched for the arrow that would tell him which way was ship-up. He was still looking when Newton's Law pulled the floor out from under his feet. His head smacked the floor and darkness engulfed him again, but this time it was the darkness of unconsciousness.
A gruff voice said "Get up!"
Sterling felt a boot nudge his ribs.
"You're alive and awake, so get up," the voice snarled and the boot pushed into his ribs again.
A woman's voice snapped, "Don't hurt him, Olaf. He may have broken ribs."
Sterling heard the boots retreat a step.
"Open your eyes," the woman's voice commanded and he complied, squinting against the light behind her head. He managed to keep one eye open and held his hand out to block the worst of the light that was ripping at his dark-adjusted retinas.
"Where?" he asked in a barely audible croak.
"You are on the privately owned cargo ship Jolly Jane. I am Captain Denise Stabenow. You will address me as Captain Denise, Captain, or Ma'am from this point forward. Is that understood?" she asked as she glared down at him.
"Yes, Captain," Sterling answered automatically, his Navy training overriding everything else as his befuddled mind tried to catch up.
"You learn fast. Good. Your situation is this: you've been shanghaied. You pissed off some very powerful people back in Hobson's Planet orbit, and they wanted you dead, or at least out of their sphere of influence. Pahna Mah of the Flaming 'O' was in favor of dead. He took a sample of your DNA to culture a wad of flesh to prove that you 'died' in an airfoil accident, and took your credit chip to collect the damages since you lacked the forethought to buy insurance before you went flying."
Sterling blinked and rolled over, struggling to sit up, and a strong hand grabbed his shoulder to help. He looked up at the face of the man named Olaf but didn't smile. Thanking someone who had just kicked you in the ribs really wasn't reasonable. "Why am I here, Ma'am?" he asked as he looked up at Captain Denise.
"A records search showed that you hold a Stellar Navy navigator's certificate, as well as a current SN captain's certificate. You were also sharp enough to beat Pahna Mah's crooked games and smart enough to leave while you were ahead. Well, maybe that wasn't so smart, but you didn't know that at the time."
She smiled and he finally noticed that she was an attractive woman when she wasn't scowling. She was a redhead, like Ann-he stopped that thought. Remembering his ex-wife was a quick path to depression.
She continued by saying, "I need a smart hand with your experience, so I paid the local--entrepreneurs--for you. You cost me a thousand Confederate Credits."
Sterling was surprised by that. "That's all?" he asked, then hastily added, "Captain?"
"That's quite a bit in these situations. The fee was for the disappointment Pahna Mah felt from not getting to see you placed in an airlock and having the air slowly pumped out." She paused as he digested that thought for a moment. "What's your name?"
"Sterling Albert Stevenson, from New Kashmir, Ma'am," he answered as the vision of slowly suffocating ran through his mind.
"Not anymore," Captain Denise said with a slight smile. "Sterling Albert Stevenson is dead, and no one will ever believe that you are really him. My name wasn't originally Denise, and this lump's name wasn't Olaf either. Most of the crew came aboard like you did. Some did so voluntarily. None of us use our real names. Since your name was Sterling, we'll call you Silver from now on. Got it?"
"Yes, Ma'am," Sterling said as he worked his way to his feet. "I don't suppose there's anything I can do about it, is there?"
"Unless you have a better name in mind, no," she replied with a slight smile.
"I meant, I don't suppose there's anything I can do about being shanghaied. Ma'am."
Olaf drew his attention by placing his hand on an old-fashioned contact stunner that was tucked into his belt. "There's always the airlock."
"That's murder," Sterling hissed.
"You're already dead," Captain Denise said in a gentle tone. "Even if you went back, you'd be accused of being a clone after the late Mister Stevenson's money. Now, are you going to be Mister Silver, my new navigator, or are we going to cycle the lock and ship out short-handed?"
Sterling took a deep breath to calm himself then answered, "No, Ma'am. I wasn't all that fond of my old life, anyway, so a fresh start may be what I needed." He shifted his position to ease the pain in his back. "As for the name, Sterling Silver is an old nickname of mine from--it doesn't matter. Why do you need me as a navigator?"
Captain Denise shrugged. "I do our navigating, but I need a backup. That backup has to be a real navigator, since getting lost in hyper or hitting a star isn't how I want to die. That's why you're still alive. What condition are you in?"
"There's nothing broken as far as I can tell, Captain. I hurt like hell, though," Silver replied as he held his ribs.
The captain scowled at Olaf for a second, then turned back to Sterling. "Good. Olaf will show you to your quarters. You're about the same size as Varin was, so you should be able to wear her clothes. Our uniform, such as it is," she said with a smile, "is ship's coveralls with your new name and position on the breast. Olaf will get you the patches. Varin's environmental suit is in your quarters, and there is a conversion kit to switch the plumbing connections. It's standard Navy issue, so you shouldn't have any trouble."
"Yes, Captain," Sterling said automatically as he considered the puzzle of a civilian ship having Navy-issue space suits. She turned away and left Sterling and Olaf standing in the little room. "And your position is?" he asked as he looked at the man.
Olaf looked him straight in the eye as he replied, "First Mate--in all the connotations of the term. Follow me." He turned away and led Sterling toward the bow, rotating clockwise around the hull three times to reach all of the access ways.
They finally stopped at a pressure hatch and Olaf opened it. "All of the cabins are independently pressurized. This tub is too old to have a self-sealing hull. If the hull is breached outside your quarters, you have airlock controls inside the door. If it's breached inside, you'll find out what happened to Varin." He pulled open the door and waved Sterling through. "It's clean, and her suit wasn't touched. You're actually a bit smaller than she was, so other than the cut of the uniform, everything should fit. There's a sewing kit in the bulkhead locker if you want to alter your coveralls. Suit's in the rack. The plumbing kit's beside it."
Sterling nodded and turned to face him. "Aye, aye, Mate. If I'm not going to get beaten for asking, what business is the captain in?"
"Private enterprise. Legitimate hauling, mostly, with occasional forays into the black market and smuggling. She doesn't deal with drugs, though. Hates them."
"And our crew?"
"Captain, First Mate, Navigator, Chief Engineer, and Load Master."
Sterling looked at him and raised an eyebrow. "Five of us? That's it?"
"Yep," Olaf replied, then he gave Sterling a lopsided grin and shrugged. "The Jolly Jane is a small ship. I hope you can cook. The four junior officers take turns. Varin was a great cook," he finished in a soft tone with a trace of real sadness in his voice.
"I haven't poisoned myself yet," Sterling replied.
"Change your suit's plumbing first, then change your clothes," Olaf commanded. "You can store those if you want, but it'll be a long time before you wear them again. Will, the Chief Engineer, will craft up a set of identity papers for you with the proper name and stamps for a merchant spacer. He'll make you a Navigator's Certificate with your new name as well. It'll be a real University of New Switzerland certificate, signed by the dean. We transported thirty cases for them once and a case was 'destroyed' by a sanitary tank leak."
"Uck!" Sterling said as he looked at Olaf.
"Not really, you dolt," Olaf replied with a laugh. "We just delivered a box of waste paper soaked in brown water and sealed in a plastic container. They didn't open it to check and we paid the penalty without question."
Sterling shook his head slowly. "And what is my last name? Or has the captain decided yet?"
"You choose, just don't choose your old one."
Sterling considered his options for a moment, then sighed. "Mom's maiden name was Garand. Dad's name was Llewellyn. Silver Llewellyn Garand. Lords of Space, what a moniker."
"Not as bad as some, Silver," Olaf said with a laugh. "Not as bad as some." Then he left and closed the hatch.
Sterling sat on the bunk and stared at nothingness for a few moments before going to the suit rack and checking out his environment suit. It was indeed Navy issue, old but serviceable, and it was a matter of uncoupling two quick disconnects and plugging in the male attachments to make the plumbing change. He stripped down and tried on the suit and coupled himself up, remembering the training that had been drilled into him unmercifully twenty-eight years in the past by a CSS Marine drill instructor. He adjusted the straps and tanks for comfort, then stripped out. A set of ship's coveralls with Navigator on the right breast was laid out on the bunk and he squirmed into them.
Varin, it turned out, had had a big butt and what must have been an impressive chest. She had also been at least five centimeters taller than Sterling's one hundred and seventy-nine centimeters. The coveralls hung on him like a sack.
Sighing, he pinched the fabric at the waist and chest. Take this in, pull this up, tighten it a bit here his thoughts rambled as he tried to make the coveralls fit. He finally gave up, grabbed a cargo strap that was meant to secure items to the bulkhead and wrapped it around his waist as a belt, then folded the cloth under his arms and tied it down. He cuffed his legs up six centimeters and checked himself in the mirror. I look like a little kid in his dad's clothes he silently complained, then opened the hatch and stepped out.
"Turn left and go up one deck," a voice said and he turned to find himself facing a small man in a nicely tailored set of coveralls. "I'm called Jeremiah, Silver. Load Master, in accordance with requirements of the Confederate Government. Will is already up in control with the captain and mate."
Sterling turned and started walking, with Jeremiah right on his heels. "Are you a voluntary crewmember, or like me?" Sterling asked without turning.
"Oh, like you, I suppose. Some people wanted me dead on New Portugal a while back and old Captain Jim took me off their hands. It's been ten Confederate Standard years since then. You're the first new face Captain Denise has brought aboard. She was Navigator when I came in."
"And Captain Jim?"
"Lost a bar-fight on Roma Gratia. Captain Erin was after him. Lost her mind to synthetic heroin. That's why Captain Denise hates drugs so much. It's only been three CS years since then. Hurry up. It doesn't do to keep the captain waiting." Jeremiah motioned for Sterling to hurry and they climbed up the stairs at a near run.
Captain Denise looked up as they emerged from the stairs and a sudden grin flashed across her face but was quickly suppressed. "You need to do some sewing, Silver. Take a seat. You've met everyone except Will," she said, motioning to the man at her left. He nodded but didn't say anything. "He'll have your name tag done later in the day. Ship time is 1330, by the way. You're fortunate that Will was cooking today. Take your seats and we'll begin."
Sterling and Jeremiah moved toward the two open seats with Sterling hanging back a little to let Jeremiah pick his seat. When they were seated, bowls of food were passed around and they served themselves. Sterling found that the smell of the food was enough to remind his stomach that it had been a long time since he had last eaten.
The food was standard space fare: dried, canned, reconstituted vegetables with dried, canned, reconstituted meat-textured soy protein. Will, it turned out, had a flare with spices that made the food actually taste good. The food vanished from Sterling's plate quickly and the others around the table chuckled. "Have more if you want," Captain Denise said and Sterling didn't have to be invited twice.
After the meal, Sterling found himself pressed into service doing the dishes. "Figures," he muttered under his breath as he quickly saw to the minor chore. When he was done, he returned to find charts on the table.
"We're carrying a shipment of bovine embryos to New Texas for the Arvantan Beef Cartel. I can't wait. New Texas is the only planet in the Confederacy where we can afford real beef instead of textured soy or some other animal protein. Have you ever tried it?" she asked, turning toward Sterling.
"No, Ma'am," he replied with a shake of his head. "Until I left the Flaming 'O' I never had the money, but it was on my agenda. I wanted to see what all the shouting was about. What's our trip time?"
"Nineteen days ship time in hyper, plus acceleration and deceleration. While we're in hyper I want you to get to know our navigation suite and refresh your memory on the charts, and especially the charts for New Texas. We don't have to land on the planet, so all we'll need is a good orbital vector when we arrive." She smiled as he nodded his understanding. "New Texas Space Terminal Control will guide us the last few million kilometers. We just have to get there."
Sterling obeyed the captain, but his mind was on other things. How did I get myself into this? And how do I get out again? He knew at least part of the answer to his first concern. When he'd signed the divorce papers he'd lost his will to do anything but simply survive. Ann had been his life-and he'd let her slip away. As for getting away, This old tub doesn't have the legs for a really long journey. I can always jump ship somewhere with a large population. What are they going to do, complain to the authorities?
Sterling found himself suffering from something of a split personality for a few days. He didn't always recognize that someone was talking to him when he heard the word silver. It took nearly a week before he began thinking of himself as Silver instead of Sterling.
There were other changes as well, though he was only peripherally aware of them. He was turning into a full member of the crew, and losing the shanghaied sailor mentality that he'd started with. He started thinking of the Jolly Jane as his ship, and the crew as his crew. Most importantly, he began thinking of Captain Denise as his captain.
The ship emerged from hyperspace outside the New Texas system and began decelerating in order to match orbit with the planet. Silver plotted the course and passed velocity recommendations and course corrections to Captain Denise. She passed them to Olaf, which was unnecessary since Olaf was between her and Silver, but that was the way things were done on the Jolly Jane.
They had been in-system bound for nine hours before they were contacted by the New Texas authorities. The communications center had been set to the New Texas Space Terminal Control frequency long before they left hyperspace and the message was expected.
"Ship entering New Texas space, this is New Texas Space Terminal Control. We have you entering on a least time vector to make orbit. Please transmit your documentation as soon as you receive this message. New Texas STC out."
Captain Denise pressed a stud on the arm of her chair and the proper information was immediately sent to the STC. "And now we wait. How long until we make orbit, Mister Silver?"
"Seventeen days, nine hours, and thirty-nine minutes, Captain," Silver replied.
"Very well. It's your turn to cook. I'll take over Nav while you fix lunch."
Silver nodded and stood, pushing the toggle that transferred his station to the captain's console. "Light or heavy, Ma'am?" he asked as he headed toward the galley.
"Light," she replied absently. "I'm not all that hungry today." Silver nodded and descended to the galley.
* * *
When they reached the inner system, the mess orders changed. "We're all going to be very busy unloading our cargo for three or four hours after we arrive, so fix something hearty and filling. We won't have time to stop and eat again until we're done."
"Aye, Ma'am," Sterling replied and headed aft to start cooking. Half an hour later he delivered steaming hot dishes of what could almost pass for stew to each member of the crew at their stations, then sat down to eat as well. When he finished eating, he started collecting the dishes and washing up. As Navigator, he was the only member of the crew who wasn't needed at their station right now. Even Load Master Jeremiah was busy preparing to unload.
Silver returned to his post and resumed control of the navigation systems, then did a quick sensor sweep. There was nothing ahead of them, so he sat back and relaxed. A buzzer alerted him three hours from orbit. "Minus three hours, Ma'am. Initiating ten second sensor sweeps for debris." He toggled in the necessary command and sat back again.
At one hour to orbit New Texas STC contacted them again. "Space Vessel Jolly Jane, you are directed to follow trajectory three-five-five by zero-one-seven to Orbital Dock Eight, Port Seventeen. Do not unseal your hatches until cleared by dock personnel to do so. Failure to obey this regulation is punishable by up to ninety days imprisonment and a fine of five-hundred thousand credits."
"Which means we'll obey," Captain Denise said to the room in general. "Olaf, send the message to our consignee that his cattle have arrived. It'll take longer for us to get through Customs than it will for him to reach orbit, but he can wait for a while."
The next hour was full of carefully executed maneuvers to avoid ships that were drifting at anchor and maintain the STC's approved course. At fifty-nine minutes from the one hour mark the Jolly Jane matched velocities and came to rest relative to the space dock, and the unloading umbilical extended toward them.
"And now the fun begins," Captain Denise said as she stood up from her post. She pressed a stud on her chair arm and spoke to the cargo deck. "Jeremiah, has Station Health Services and Customs contacted you yet?"
"Their probe is in the hull as we speak, Ma'am," Jeremiah's voice answered. "Customs is examining our manifest through the viewer, but they seem satisfied so far."
"Very well. I'll be down in a moment to finalize our delivery." She let go of the stud and headed for the access way. "Let's go gentlemen. The sooner we unload, the sooner we get some real beef."
The process of unloading the small ship was complex and time consuming simply because the ship was so small. The cargo containers had to be manhandled to the hatch because none of the port handling equipment could fit inside the hold. Rolling hydraulic jacks, rail-mounted chain hoists and muscle power were all the cargo handling equipment that the Jolly Jane boasted.
As the captain had predicted, it took almost four hours to unload all of the frozen embryos and collect their payment from the Arvantan representative. She immediately paid their fees, and the ship was refueled and the stores replenished, which left them with only fifteen thousand, five hundred and sixty-two credits profit.
"That seems like a slim margin, Ma'am," Silver commented when the tally was in.
Captain Denise nodded. "That's our life: on the margin. This is actually a good profit for us. Some trips we barely break even, though we've only had one losing trip under my command. It was only two hundred and ten credits, but it hurt to have misjudged that badly. Now we can get some real food. There's a chain of restaurants called Carlie's that service the space docks in New Texas. They are owned by one of the consortiums and have the best prices for beef in the system--in orbit, at least. There are places groundside that are cheaper, but you have to get there first." She flashed a smile at her crew and led them off the ship, pushing the control at her waist to lock the ship behind them.
Carlie's Steak House was half way around the station from Port Seventeen, and Silver was impressed by the shops they passed along the way. It seemed that just about everything was available on the space dock. It was just too bad that his credit chip was seven parsecs away and probably delivered to Ann by now. Captain Denise led them into the restaurant and they were immediately met by a man in a strange hat, pointed-toed boots, leather leggings and vest, and the biggest belt buckle Silver had ever seen.
"What can I do for you hombres?" he asked in a strange accent.
"Five for the grub line, pardner," Captain Denise replied in nearly the same accent.
"You from 'bout these parts, Ma'am?" the man asked, looking at her suspiciously.
"New Pecos, out Dry Gulch way," she replied and received a huge grin from the man.
"Thought so. This way, Ma'am," he said and led them to a table. He handed out menus, but Captain Denise shook her head. "Five Big John steaks, with the fixn's. Rare for me."
Olaf nodded and said, "Me too."
"Medium," Will said without looking up.
"Medium rare," Jeremiah said with a grin.
"What does that mean?" Silver asked, looking around the table.
"First timer," Captain Denise told the waiter with a grin, and then turned to Silver. "It's how the beef is cooked. Rare is cooked the least, well done is cooked the most, but for you I'd recommend medium. Ordering well done has been known to get a body thrown out of this place, and rare--rare in here is damn near raw."
Silver looked at her out of the corner of his eye, then said, "Medium," to the waiter.
The waiter nodded. "And to drink?" he asked, looking back to the captain.
"Beer?" she asked, looking around the table. At the unanimous nods from her crew, she said, "Five Stony Mountains."
"That'll do. Be up in a jiffy," the waiter said and hurried way toward the back.
"Are you really from this planet, Ma'am?" Silver asked, looking at his captain with more than a little suspicion.
"Yep. Born and raised on a ranch near Dry Gulch. I learned to hate cattle, horses, and cats at an early age. That's why I'm in space instead of married to some ranch hand back home." She smiled and shrugged as Silver considered that bit of information.
The beer was delivered within moments, and Silver took a small experimental sip. "Beer" was a generic term for brews of varying quality and composition throughout the Confederacy. No two planets had the same biology, so no two brews tasted the same. This brew was better than most, and tasted like it had a lot more alcohol than was legal on New Kashmir.
"Stony Mountain is a brewery in the Stony Mountain range of New Pecos. They produce enough beer for the local demand, but not much of it leaves the planet. The local demand is pretty high," Captain Denise said with a laugh. "Beef and this beer are about the only things I miss about home."
The steaks arrived just moments later and all conversation was suspended as they ate. Silver found the beef to be a remarkable change from what he thought of as meat. Terran beef didn't thrive on many planets other than Terra. New Kashmir didn't have any at all. Meat there was mostly from goats or sheep. Or pigs. Pigs had been taken to every planet that humans had colonized, and thrived wherever humans could live. Silver had always thought there was something poetic about that.
"Well?" Captain Denise asked and he looked up from his plate.
"I like it. I've never tasted anything like this before, but I definitely do like it." Sterling took another bite and chewed thoughtfully.
"Part of that is how the meat's cooked. They use a special wood to precook the meat groundside, then flash-freeze it and bring it up here. You can't have an open fire on a space station, so it's heated back up in an electric grill with more wood chips for just a touch more smoke after you order."
Silver said, "You know an awful lot about this place, Ma'am."
She grinned. "Worked my way though Spacer College grilling beef groundside," she replied with another laugh. "There was a time when I couldn't stand the smell of this place, but now it's one of the things I miss the most."
"Maybe you can clarify this for me then, if you would, Captain," Sterling said, looking at Captain Denise with his head tilted to the side. When she nodded her assent, he continued. "Why did we bring in embryos if beef cattle do so well here?"
"Mutation," she answered. "The cattle do well, and can eat the local flora, but it causes a change in them. After three generations they are born sterile. The embryos are from Terra or New Argentina, and are replacement stock for the infertile heifers. That's what the females are called. The embryos are selected to be mostly female. One bull to a hundred heifers keeps the line going."
They finished their meal in silence. The meat was accompanied by cornbread, beans, and something called "spuds" that had absolutely no relationship to Terran potatoes. Captain Denise finished first, sitting back and sipping her beer while her crew cleaned their plates. When all of them were sitting back with their beers, she addressed the group.
"This was a good trip. Silver has proven himself a capable navigator and is flexible enough to be permanently granted partnership. Dissent?" She looked around at the three older members of her crew. When no one said anything, she looked at Silver. "You've been on probation, Silver. If you hadn't proven adaptable enough we would have left you here. Since you did, you are entitled to ten percent of the profit, minus your cost. That leaves you with just five hundred and fifty-six credits. Next trip should be better."
Silver raised his eyebrows as he looked at her. "You'd have abandoned me here?"
"Yep. The Jolly Jane is too small a ship to have a crewman who doesn't fit in. It wouldn't have been too bad for you. Your papers are sufficient to get you a place on another freighter, and you wouldn't have been totally broke. I still would have paid you your share."
"It beats what you had back on Hobson's, doesn't it?" Olaf asked and Silver had to nod.
"It does indeed. So what's next, Captain?"
Captain Denise smiled serenely. "We'll be taking a shipment of beef to some small outpost. We make this trip twice a year, bringing in something small and taking beef out. We're just big enough to haul a profitable mass to out of the way places where the big freighters don't want to go."
They returned to the ship to find a message packet waiting for them. Captain Denise opened it and smiled. "Contract to deliver thirty-six metric tons of beef to Fredrick's Station in orbit around planet Germanicus in the Von Habsburg System. Contact the Arvantan Beef Cartel rep for acceptance. Germanicus, huh? Silver, go look it up. Start plotting a course and look for anything unusual about the planet that we should know. I'll contact Arvantan and accept the shipment."
"Yes, Ma'am," Silver snapped and sat at his navigation station to review the charts. Germanicus was the fifth planet of the Von Habsburg system, and was only a six parsec trip. That was four light years closer than Hobson's Planet and his old life. The planet was a lifeless, rocky body with no atmosphere. Fredrick's Station was the orbital shipping port for the automated mines that extracted the abundant minerals from Germanicus' crust. Orbital and planetary population was listed as nine hundred and sixty-three. He paused and considered that for a moment. Why ship in thirty-six tons of beef for less than a thousand people? Something about that seemed wrong to him. He shrugged and plotted the course. It was the captain's business what they took where.
The intercom at his elbow crackled to life and Olaf's voice said, "Silver, finish the plot later. The shipment's coming up the dock and we need you to help load."
"On my way," Sterling answered, pushed the button to lock in the course, and then headed aft.
Loading the ship was far more complex than the unloading process had been. Jeremiah was like a gnat, flitting about to check the balance and plan the next container's position. It took six grueling hours to make the load secure for acceleration before Captain Denise and the Arvantan rep were satisfied and the hatch was sealed.
Captain Denise was no less wrung out by the process than anyone else, but she announced, "I'm cooking," and vanished into the galley. Soon interesting aromas started everyone salivating, and not long after that she shouted, "Come an' get it!"
Everyone hurried to the table and found round patties of fried compressed meat and round bread rolls. The usual condiments for "burgers" were present as well, and Silver almost sighed in disappointment. He had thought, just for a moment, that it was going to be beef again.
Everyone else was grabbing their plates and making their hamburgers hurriedly, and he joined in, though with little of the enthusiasm that the others were showing. That changed with his first bite.
A new flavor that he'd never dreamed of flooded his taste buds and he hardly breathed as he finished the burger. "What is this?" he asked as he reached for a second burger.
"Real beef hamburger, like they originally served on Terra. I always get as much as the freezer will hold when we put in here. There are some steaks as well. I told you: this is the only place where we can afford to get beef. I, therefore, being the kind, wonderful captain that I am, get as much as I can. It doesn't last long, though. Damn freezer is too small." She grinned at his expression. "You're hooked. I can tell."
"Yes, Ma'am!" Silver replied with a grin. He then used his mouth for the far more important function of devouring his meal.
The trip to Germanicus was routine. Once the ship was in hyperspace there was nothing to do but wait until it came out. Changing course in hyperspace was considered a "Bad Thing" and was done only in the direst of emergencies, because if that happened there was no way to get back on course and no way to tell where you were going to come out. Several planets had been found in that manner early on in the era of stellar exploration, but more often than not the ships were lost without a trace. Tragically, there were recorded incidents where later ships had emerged too close to a star and had been unable to avoid it. Their radio messages were required listening in the Navy for all bridge officers and enlisted ratings.
They had been in hyper for fourteen days when the emergence alarm sounded. "Prepare to transition to normal space," the captain announced and everyone took their seats. "Olaf, drop us out of hyper," she commanded and Olaf deactivated the hyper drive. The transition was as smooth as could be asked for, and they began plotting an intercept course for Fredrick's Station as soon as they had a position fix.
They had been in normal space for just a few moments when a radio message crackled from the speakers. "-eat, we are under attack. Raider identity unknown. The ship is painted black. No transponder. All ships avoid Fredrick's Station unless you are armed. If armed, please come immediately." There was a pause, and then the message began again. "All ships! All ships! All ships! This is Fredrick's Station Control. We are under attack. Repeat, we are under attack. Raider identity unknown. The ship is painted black. No transponder. All ships avoid Fredrick's Station unless you are armed. If armed, please come immediately."
"Nav, get us a course out of here!" Captain Denise ordered.
"Nearest inhabited star system is Duquesne, Ma'am," Silver announced. "Course takes us toward Von Habsburg. Next is system is Westin. Course of six-five-eight by three-six-six."
"Plot for Westin," she ordered. "Prepare to change course." She pressed a stud on her console and the canned acceleration warning that Silver had first heard echoed through the hull.
"Captain, may I have coms for a moment?" Silver asked when he finished laying in the course.
"Done. Why?" she asked.
"Disinformation, Ma'am. Just a little disinformation," he replied as he typed commands into his console, then keyed in a broad-band transmission. "Attention Fredrick's Station and all ships. This is the CSS Kiev, in-system bound at point three 'C' on a vector of three-six-two by four-seven-three." He keyed in a sequence of numbers on the console that tagged a false transponder signal onto the transmission. "Fredrick's Station Control, feed us your sensor data on the intruder so we know who to shoot."
"What the hell are you doing?" the captain asked.
"You knew I was in the Navy, Ma'am," Silver replied without turning. "You should have asked where. One of my posts was as Communications Officer for the Kiev, and I remember a few tricks as well as her transponder codes. In just over an hour that message and tag are going to hit Germanicus. It's just a hunch, but I bet that raider is going to haul ass out of here at his maximum acceleration as soon as he receives that transponder signal."
"What is the Kiev?" Olaf asked.
"Heavy cruiser. Sixty thousand tons of whup-ass in a seven hundred meter hull," Silver replied with a grin. "My last cruise was a search and destroy mission against raiders in the Tibet systems. Six ships destroyed, admiral's award for the crew, and a presidential commendation for the captain."
"Hold course," Captain Denise said with an answering grin. "Keep updating your course correction to Westin, but we'll wait to see what happens when the message is received."
Two hours later the radio message changed. "CSS Kiev, this is Fredrick's Station Control. Sensor data will follow this communication. The raider has broken off and is fleeing on course three-six-zero by five-seven-nine." The squeal of compressed data followed and Silver captured and decoded it immediately.
"Raider is," he said, pausing as he scanned the information, "a little bitty thing. She's only sixteen thousand tons? That can't be a warship of any kind. Maybe it's an armed freighter, but it's not any configuration that the databanks on Fredrick's Station can identify."
"Watch that 'little bitty' crap, Silver," Captain Denise snarled. "We're only about twenty thousand tons."
"We're not raiding anyone, Ma'am," he said with an apologetic grin. Turning back to his console he keyed his microphone. "Fredrick's Station, this is Kiev. We are altering course to intercept the raider. If we can overtake them before they go into hyper they will be destroyed." He again tagged the message with the Kiev's transponder code and sat back.
"You don't think they'll notice that we haven't altered course?" Olaf asked, turning in his seat to look at Silver.
"Their course is almost directly away from us. I doubt the real Kiev could catch them, but it'd be close. Orders, Ma'am?"
Captain Denise smiled and then started laughing. "Maintain course to Germanicus. Estimated time till orbital arrival?"
"Seven days, six and one quarter hours, Ma'am," he immediately replied.
"We came out too close. If we weren't so small that could have been a disaster. Watch your calculations more carefully. I'd rather spend more time decelerating than risk hitting a star. When we are in range of the station, switch to directional laser and tell Fredrick's Station Control who we really are. I'll leave communications in your hands for a while. I had no idea that you were such a sneaky bastard." She grinned at him, and he and Olaf both laughed.
At half an hour to orbit, Silver powered up the communication's laser and contacted Fredrick's Station. "Fredrick's Station Control, this is the cargo vessel Jolly Jane, inbound with a cargo of food stuffs. Requesting vector and docking instructions."
The answer was immediate. "Jolly Jane, this is Fredrick's Station. Where did you come from? We were under attack until the CSS Kiev contacted us. Were you on the same vector as she was? Why didn't you contact us?"
"Fredrick's Station Control, that was us, not the Kiev," Silver replied. "I remembered the Kiev's codes from my Navy days and didn't think you'd mind a little white lie under the circumstances."
"Under the circumstances I don't think I mind at all," the Fredrick's Station communications officer said with a note of relief in his voice. "Come to course three-six-one by four-seven-one. Dock at Port Three. You'll be met."
"Understood. Jolly Jane out." He punched in the slight course correction and looked over his shoulder. "Captain?"
"Change course, Mister Olaf. I can't wait to hear what the station manager is going to say about this."
The Health and Customs checks were expedited, but were as thorough as anywhere else. Disease doesn't discriminate. When the hatch opened they found a dozen men and women waiting for them.
"Who is the captain?" an older man asked as he stepped forward.
"I am Captain Denise Stabenow. Who are you, sir?"
The man smiled and stepped forward to take her hand and shake it vigorously. "I am Aaron Lewis, Station Manager for Germanicus Mining and Minerals. I am very pleased to meet you. Very pleased indeed. The legality of the trick you pulled has been discussed by the system board, and unanimously found to be well within the laws of this system. Not just legal, but damn clever. Please accept our thanks for your timely and effective aid."
"It was our pleasure, sir. I have a consignment of beef from New Texas. I was instructed to contact Sheilan Vardan," she said and one of the women stepped forward.
"I'm Sheilan," she said as she smiled. "This is a double pleasure for us. The beef shipment is always a time for us to celebrate. We'll get you unloaded and then celebrate your arrival."
A dozen station personnel joined in the unloading process while Sheilan inventoried the containers. At the end she walked over to Captain Denise and nodded. "Everything is in accordance with the manifest. Your payment is one hundred thousand sixty-one credits." She handed her memo-pad to Captain Denise for her signature.
"Thank you. I need fuel before we settle the account," she said. Fuel was always the most expensive portion of their consumable goods.
"Oh, that's been taken care of by Mister Lewis. The dockhands will top off your tanks and send him the bill. It's really the least we can do for you, after all."
Captain Denise stood still for a moment, and then nodded. "Thank you. Is there any chance for a cargo going someplace? Something small enough for us to carry?" she asked with just a hint of wistful hope.
"We mostly ship bulk, but I'm sure something can be arranged. Maybe one of the--I'll discuss it with Mister Lewis after we celebrate." She smiled and left quickly, her memo-pad clutched to her breast.
Station personnel in clean clothes soon came and gathered the crew of the Jolly Jane for an impromptu celebration of their combined good fortune. A blip of light from the direction that the raider had fled testified that they had indeed escaped into hyperspace, and everyone relaxed as the threat was logged away.
Mister Lewis was presiding over an electric grill, cooking for his people and laughing at the jokes that were tossed his way. Men and women were all over the station commons, some playing games while others just relaxed. The crewmembers of the Jolly Jane were toasted over and over again by strangers who only knew them as their saviors.
The party had been going on for several hours before Mister Lewis found Captain Denise. "Ah, Captain, there you are. Are you enjoying yourself?"
"Yes, sir. All of us are." She pointed to where Olaf and Silver were telling some outrageous lies about their pasts to a crowd of onlookers. "Those two are going to be an embarrassment."
"Not to worry, Captain. I don't think anyone there believes them. Shielan tells me that you are in need of a cargo. We only have one shipment that you could hold, but it's seldom carried by any ship that doesn't belong to the consortium."
"I understand, sir," Captain Denise replied, but she was stopped by his raised hand.
"I said seldom, not never, Captain. As it happens, I'm inclined to trust you. We do, after all, owe you far more than full fuel tanks. Therefore, I will allow you to carry this cargo to New Hispaniola and deliver it to our consortium headquarters." He leaned forward and spoke softly. "It's a very precious cargo, and not one that we advertise exists. You see, Germanicus has a better than average supply of platinum. That was what the raider was demanding, by the way. They blew up one of our cargo shuttles and killed four of my people as a demonstration of how serious they were. This shipment was supposed to go on our next mail courier, but I'll send it with you instead. It'll land you a good profit on delivery."
Captain Denise sat back as her eyes widened. "That is very generous of you sir, and I appreciate it from the bottom of my heart."
"Not nearly as much as I--we--appreciate your timely, if unconventional, assistance, Captain. Not nearly as much."
The next morning a single container was loaded aboard the Jolly Jane and secured in the middle of the cargo deck. "Not much of a shipment, Ma'am," Jeremiah sighed.
"Heavy metals, Jeremiah. They're valuable enough that we'll turn a profit and small enough for us to carry. We can't ask for much more than that," she replied, then slapped his shoulder. She wasn't telling her crew what they were carrying until they were safely away.
"And free fuel. I can live with that, I guess. Cargo bay is ready for acceleration, Captain," he formally reported.
"Noted. Prepare for departure." She turned away and headed up to the control room.
As soon as she reached the control room Olaf reported, "All ship systems are green and ready for departure, Ma'am."
"Begin departure sequence. Navigation, set course for New Hispaniola. Engage main drive as soon as we are clear of the station." Captain Denise sat back and smiled in anticipation. The reaction of her crew when she announced what they were carrying should be magnificent.
Captain Denise waited until they were in hyper before she told her crew what they were carrying. Olaf was the first to react. "Platinum?" he asked in a breathy whisper.
"Platinum," she confirmed as her crew sat in slack-jawed shock. "Five-hundred million credits worth, by the manifest."
The four junior officers of the Jolly Jane just sat and looked back and forth between one another. After a few moments Captain Denise spoke again. "It's a fortune, but what it means is more important. We're carrying a major cargo for a multi-system conglomerate. It's a foot in the door to better, higher profit cargos from other customers. After this delivery, we'll be available for another run for GMM, or one of their subsidiaries. It's our chance at the big time contracts, and we're not going to blow it."
"What's the margin, Captain?" Jeremiah asked.
"Straight delivery fee of three hundred thousand credits. Add in our payment and seventy-six thousand credits of fuel in Germanicus and we're way ahead. Even if we don't get free fuel in New Hispaniola, we'll be over two hundred thousand ahead."
"Ho, Captain, that's music to this old man's ears," Will said, a smile splitting his face.
"That goes for all of us, Ma'am," Jeremiah agreed and received nods all around the table.
She grinned as she finished her announcements. "And, since we did get free fuel in Germanicus, we cleared the full one hundred sixty-one thousand credits. Half to the ship leaves us with sixteen thousand credits each." She grinned at each of her crewmen. "Your pay transfers will be sent to New Hispaniola with the rest of our documentation."
The trip to New Hispaniola was routine, and only took ten ship-days in hyper to complete. They slipped out of hyper, slowing bit by bit to conserve fuel. Even if it had been free, Captain Denise was not going to waste it. "Ship entering New Hispaniola space, this is New Hispaniola System Control. Please broadcast your documentation as soon as you receive this message."
Captain Denise pushed the stud on her armrest and Silver added the Germanicus Mining and Minerals information so their customer would be aware they were coming. Four hours later they received a vector from New Hispaniola System Control and settled down for the eleven days of deceleration to match speed with the system. Six hours from orbit the expected radio message was received.
"Space vessel Jolly Jane, follow course two-seven-five mark seven-six-one to GMM Space Dock Madrid. GMM authorities will meet you there to receive your shipment. GMM New Hispaniola Control out."
"Well, that's nice. Mister Silver, lay in the course. Mister Olaf, make course corrections to bring us into sync with Space Dock Madrid." Captain Denise sat back and smiled in anticipation as she contemplated the profit from this run.
Once they were on course, Captain Denise addressed the crew while they ate. "Our contract with GMM has a confidentiality clause. Don't tell anyone what we hauled for them. For any reason. It would cost us a hundred thousand credit penalty. I don't expect it to be much of a problem here. Just keep it in mind while we're in port."
Three hours later the Jolly Jane used her maneuvering thrusters to gently make contact with the docking clamps at Space Dock Madrid. It took nearly an hour for the mandatory health and security checks to be completed, but they were finally allowed to unseal the ship and open the hatch.
Captain Denise froze when she saw the welcoming committee. Fifty armed men and women were lined up with assorted weapons all pointed at the crew of the Jolly Jane. A single man in a stylish suit stood in front of them.
"I am Javier Tavana del Rio, Cargo Master for Germanicus Mining and Minerals. Step aside and I will verify that our cargo is intact." He motioned imperiously and Captain Denise shepherded her people to the side as del Rio and five men entered the Jolly Jane. A moment later ten men with a pallet jack followed them, and then all of them returned with the sealed cargo container.
"The seals have not been broken. That is good. Your Captain Stabenow will sign for the agreed upon payment of three hundred thousand credits." He held out his memo pad and Captain Denise stepped forward. She signed and pressed her thumb on the DNA scanner, then handed the 'Pad back to del Rio. "Your payment is registered. You are now required to move your vessel to another port."
"I had hoped to arrange another cargo with GMM, sir," Captain Denise began, but Mister del Rio held up his hand to stop her.
There was real anger in his eyes when he said, "Germanicus Mining and Minerals does not deal with tramp freighters."
"Sir, while the Jolly Jane isn't the biggest."
"You will leave immediately. GMM does not deal with the likes of you." Mister del Rio turned and stamped away, leaving the crew of the Jolly Jane facing the armed members of the greeting party.
"Return to the ship," the captain commanded in a subdued tone, and everyone quickly complied. "Seal up and prepare to depart. We'll get fuel at one of the commercial ports."
"So much for the big time," Olaf groused. "Still, that run alone will net us more than we make most years, Captain," he continued as he fired up his thrusters.
"True, but I had hoped--it doesn't matter what I hoped. Nav, contact New Hispaniola Orbital Control and get us a course to another port, then plot it."
"Aye, Ma'am," Silver replied. It was only a few moments before they received instructions to one of the commercial shipping ports. "Course laid in: ready for your order, Ma'am."
"Olaf, get us out of here," Captain Denise said and the ship immediately shoved away from the GMM dock.
The commercial space port called NHSP-1 was almost as old as the Jolly Jane, and just as shabby. Dozens of small freighters like the Jane were nestled into her ports like suckling piglets against a sow. Captain Denise's first concern was fuel, and shook her head as sixty-thousand credits worth of fuel flowed into their tanks. Then she registered with the local shipping companies and sat back to wait.
"This is the worst part, Silver," she commented as she signed for a day's fees at the port. "Every day we stay here costs us five hundred credits. That's why we fuel up first thing. We can always leave if there isn't a cargo here, but there are ships that have been seized because they couldn't move or pay."
"Yes, Ma'am. I request permission to go look around. Pick up some ship's coveralls that fit right. Eat someone else's cooking." He paused and smiled shyly. "Maybe find a--a friend."
She smiled at him and said, "Check your friend's health certificate first, Silver. I won't have any diseases on my ship and I will leave you here." Then she waved him on his way as she went back into the ship.
Silver walked through the port slowly, admiring the old artwork that had once decorated the walls of the passageways. It was shabby and faded, but there was enough left to show what it had once been like.
Ports like this one were ubiquitous throughout the Confederacy. Too old for the new ships, but too valuable to scrap, they handled a large portion of any planet's extra-system commerce. Especially the commerce between lonely spacers and those who gave them comfort for a price.
Silver found a likely looking bar and went in. It was drab, dark, and smelled of things best left uninvestigated. Just like home. He took a seat at the bar and got the bartender's attention. "Mulligan's Revenge," he said and put his chip in the slot. "Ten credits," the man said, and Silver pushed the buttons. A large glass of dark amber liquid rose in front of him and he took it quickly. A long sip later he set it down. "Ah, it's been too long."
"That long in space?" a female voice asked, and he turned to find a woman on the seat next to him.
"Yes," he replied. "Can I buy you.?" he motioned toward the bar, but the woman chuckled.
"I'm not for sale, but the rent's reasonable." She smiled what might once have been a winning smile, but that was years ago. "Let's find someplace more private."
"Can I see your slip?" Silver asked, and she pulled a standard health certificate out of her cleavage. He saw the date-stamp was only three days old and nodded.
The woman led him out of the bar and spin-ward around the station, then into an elevator. "I have a cubby on the 'E' ring," she said, snuggling close to Silver and using her hands to get him excited.
The bell for the 'E' ring rang and Silver looked toward the doors. When they opened the first thing he saw was a CSS-SN Admiral's uniform. Then he saw the admiral's face. "Ann?" he asked.
The admiral looked at him and blanched. She whispered, "Sterling?" then her eyes rolled back.
Silver lunged forward to catch her as the bar girl screamed. Two CSS Marines who were behind the admiral saw a stranger lunge at her as she fell back and immediately reacted. Trained reflexes drove iron hard fists down onto Silver's head.
Unconsciousness was the immediate result. The admiral hit the deck hard and was also rendered unconscious.
* * *
Silver came to his senses slowly, knowing something bad had happened again, but unable to remember what. Then the man in the chair beside his bed spoke. "You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say, do, or otherwise communicate can and will be used against you at your trial. You have the right to an advocate during questioning. Why did you attack Admiral Stevenson?"
"I didn't attack Ann. Did you say Stevenson?"
"Admiral Annette Stevenson, as if you didn't know. You attacked her as soon as the elevator doors opened."
Silver shook his head. "I didn't attack her. She was about to faint, and I was trying to catch her."
"That's not what the Marines who brought you in said," the man snapped and Silver looked closely at his face.
"You always were an ass, Hartley," he moaned as he sat up.
"You will address me as Captain Hartley."
"You're an ass, Kennet Hartley. A pretentious, pompous, self-centered, self-righteous ass." Silver sat up and rubbed his sore head. "Damn Marines."
"You may find that your attitude is insupportable in your present circumstances. You are charged with attacking Admiral Stevenson. Your actions were recorded and will be displayed at your trial. Now I ask you again: Why did you attack Admiral Stevenson?"
"That will be all, Captain. I'm quite all right," a woman's voice said and Captain Hartley snapped to his feet.
"Admiral, you shouldn't be up! This man's assault was."
".Not an assault at all, Ken. I simply fainted when I saw him."
The captain looked at the admiral and shook his head. "But Ma'am, the Marines said."
"The Marines were mistaken. It was just a shock to see my dead ex-husband-"
"Ex-husband? But I thought--Sterling?" he asked, finally looking closely at the man sitting on the bed.
"Yeah, Ken, it's me."
"Long story, Ken."
"Release him at once," the admiral commanded, and two Navy Masters-At-Arms moved forward to obey her order. "Come with me, Sterling. You have some explaining to do."
Silver ran his tongue around the inside of his teeth and said, "Yes, Ma'am," as he followed her out of the brig. The admiral was silent as she led him down corridors that were far too ship-shape to be on NHSP-1. He didn't need to ask where he was. The layout of a CSS-SN Carrier was all too familiar to him. A Marine saw them coming and opened the door she was guarding, before stepping aside. When they had passed she shut the door and returned to attention.
Admiral Stevenson turned and looked at Silver, then slapped his face as hard as she could. She shouted, "I cried for three days when they said you were dead, you bastard!" Tears welled in her eyes as she stepped back with both fists clenched at her sides. "You didn't change your beneficiary! They tracked me down. They chased me to Columbia, to the Army-Navy game! They told me that you'd been killed in an airfoil accident and that I was still your beneficiary! I had to sign for the million credits because you left no other heirs and now your credit chip was keyed to me and I was told that I owed some scumbag named Pahna Mah two million credits and--" She broke down then and walked into his open arms.
Silver held his ex-wife as she cried, caressing her back and making soothing noises. Wow she's really upset. I should have sent her a message. She finally calmed down and he eased his hold on her. "Ann, it was all a lie. Pahna Mah is a cheat and a liar. I beat his crooked games on the Flaming 'O', so he beat me and made me disappear. I was sold into servitude on a small freighter instead of killed, and he took my chip to get his money back. I guess the Bank of New Switzerland wouldn't break the encoding for him."
"Sterling, why didn't you."
"Because I'm dead, Ann. They cultured enough DNA to satisfy an inquest and proved I died. You know how hard it would be to prove that they were crooks and it was all their doing. I'd probably be charged with fraud for faking my own death. At the very least they would accuse me of being a clone or a construct. I have no desire to suffer through the tests that they would do to prove it. I have a new, sort-of legal identity now. Sterling Albert Stevenson died on Hobson's, and Silver Llewellyn Garand was born."
Ann looked into his eyes for a moment. "You could have sent me a message. I guess that explains a few things, like how your credit chip ended up with thirty million credits on it. So, what am I supposed to do with you now?" she asked as she stepped away from him.
"I'm the navigator on a good little ship. Really little." He grinned and chuckled. "The captain put up a thousand credits to keep me alive, and I'm inclined to stay with her and her crew for a while."
"What about Pahna Mah and his bill? I can't just ignore it."
Silver smiled and Annette stepped back a little. It was a truly evil smile. "Do you know where that geek Lohseph Carinvanter is?"
"You mean my Chief of Intelligence?" she asked with a hint of a smile.
Silver chuckled. "Go see Pahna Mah, but take Lo with you. If I could beat the cheat, Lo should have no trouble at all. With that proof you should be able to put him out of business."
"And what about you?" she asked, caressing his reddened cheek softly.
"I'll ride this out wherever it takes me. Tell your mother I said hello when you see her. Unless you already told her I was dead. Then it might be just a little weird."
"I'll take her with me to the Flaming 'O' and let her gamble a little. With Lo at her side. Once she breaks the bank, I'll expose the crooked games. And Willy will be in close orbit in case they decide to try anything."
Silver stepped forward and hugged her tightly. "I've missed you, Ann. And I'm sorry I made you cry, but since Mom died I really don't have any other heirs. I should be getting back to my ship before my new captain decides I deserted--or got shanghaied again."
"What about your chip?"
"Keep it. Or give it away. It's keyed to you now, so it's yours to do with as you please." He grinned. "Let your mom use it when she goes gambling. If Pahna Mah sees that much money he'll come begging her to play his games."
She chuckled and nodded, then led him back through her ship. If anyone thought it was odd that the straight-laced, hard-as-nails Admiral Stevenson was walking through the corridors of her flagship cuddling under the arm of a strange man, none of them had the guts to say so. Not to her face at least.
Admiral Stevenson accompanied Silver back to NHSP-1 aboard her launch, but left him at the airlock. "I have to go to Hobson's Planet to pay back Pahna Mah. Stay out of trouble for a while, and stay alive. I don't want to cry over you again."
"Goodbye, Ann. I'll watch for you at our ports. Maybe we can have dinner sometime."
Silver watched as the hatch closed and the launch boosted away from the port, then turned and started finding his way back to the Jolly Jane. Captain Denise met him as soon as he reported aboard.
"I was informed that you had been arrested for assaulting a Navy admiral and were being held without bond. How the hell did you get released?" she demanded.
"It was all a misunderstanding, Captain. Just a misunderstanding." He collapsed at his station and called up an external view of the area. There, shrunken by the distance, was the CSS William the Conqueror, CVH-672, surrounded by her consorts. Even as they watched, she got underway, boosting hard away from New Hispaniola with her supporting units chasing her tail.
Silver chuckled. "It looks like Ann is in a hurry to go see someone about an unpaid debt. I don't think he's going to like the payment."
"Who?" Captain Denise asked.
"Rear Admiral Annette Fairmont Stevenson. My ex-wife," he replied, then stood and looked around. "Whose turn is it to cook? I'm hungry."
The black ship hung against the star-studded glory of the Milky Way, waiting. Their message drop was late, and the captain was beginning to get nervous.
"Hyper transit, Sir," the sensor operator reported.
"Incoming scrambled transmission," the communication officer reported just a moment later.
"Hyper transit again, Sir. They're gone."
"Decode the message, Coms. Let's see what our lords and masters have to say."
The audio message began playing just a moment later. "Captain Harris, I wish to congratulate you. You had almost succeeded in getting the shipment of platinum from Germanicus when a tramp freighter showed up and chased you away. I must applaud your sense of self-preservation. Oh, we understand about the game they played with their communications suite and the false transponder code. Everyone, especially GMM, is having a good long laugh at your expense. Now get your sorry ass to LaFontain and wait. We will send the mighty warship Jolly Jane to you. Do try not to let them trick you again. Destroy them and their ship. And don't bother with the cargo. It won't be worth the crates it's shipped in."
The message ended and everyone turned their eyes to their captain. "A freighter? A miserable little tramp freighter? We mistook a tramp freighter for a heavy cruiser? Nav, plot a course to LaFontain. Weapons Officer, I want maximum power to the weapons as soon as that ship appears. This time it's personal, and I'm going to enjoy it."
The men and women of the raider hurried to do their captain's bidding. They felt just as humiliated as he did by the Jolly Jane's trick and were out for revenge. Six hours later the black ship blinked into hyper.
* * *
Captain Denise wrangled a deal to haul a cargo to New Britannia. It was small and low value, as usual, but it would pay their fuel and a small profit, which beat sitting at NHSP-1 paying for air.
Captain Denise waited until they were in hyper before distributing the profits from their last job. "The three days we spent cooling our heels waiting for a cargo didn't hurt us much. We still managed two hundred and thirty-eight thousand credits, so we each receive twenty-three thousand eight hundred credits. I made the transfers before we departed."
Silver cleared his throat. "Ma'am, I meant to ask before, but why does the ship get half?"
"The ship gets half so we don't have to pay for repairs," Will answered for her. "Ship's account pays for repairs and spare parts. She's a sweet old gal, but she does break down occasionally. This way she gets a refit every year or two so we don't get stranded someplace."
Silver nodded his understanding and retired to his quarters. He had a lot to think about. Not including his winnings at the 'Flaming 'O' Lounge', he had more in the bank than he'd ever had before. More importantly, he knew Ann still loved him. That much was obvious. He started laughing softly to himself. Pahna Mah was about to learn a hard lesson about how vengeful Ann could be.
New Britannia was one of the oldest worlds in the Confederacy. It had been settled directly from Earth, only the third such colony established after the development of the hyperspace drive. As such, it was also one of the most developed of the colony worlds and was home base of operations for many of the big multi-system conglomerates.
The Jolly Jane was directed to Space Port Wales, Dock Sixty-Three. The shipment of routine documents for the Amberson Cartel was delivered and quickly replaced by a larger shipment of non-standard machine parts for their asteroid mining operation in the LaFontain System. Captain Denise smiled as she received the shipment and signed for it, but let her smile fade as soon as the lock was secure.
"Crap. Another null-profit run to the back of nowhere," she snarled as she turned to face her crew.
"Not null-profit, Captain. Nothing to brag about, maybe, but we cleared twelve thousand credits on the paperwork, and we'll clear more this time." Olaf smiled at her and finally received a grudging nod.
"Maybe so, Olaf. I had just hoped for better."
The little ship dove through the nebulous region known as hyperspace for twenty-six days ship time and emerged near the star LaFontain. They had been in system bound for three hours before they were hailed.
"Space vessel Jolly Jane, surrender at once. Cut thrust and maintain your vector," an unidentified voice said through the radio.
"Identify. By what right do you intercept this vessel?" Captain Denise immediately replied, all the while gesturing for Silver to find them a vector out of there.
"Who we are is of no importance. It is who you are, and who you claim to be, that is. Did you really think you could get away with pretending to be a CSS Navy vessel?" the voice asked.
"I have a visual on them, Captain," Olaf said, transferring his screen to the captain's. "Black ship, no markings. It matches the signature of the raider in Germanicus."
"We need to get the hell out of here," Silver said as he looked around. "Best vector I can give us is three-seven-three by seven-nine-one. It'll take us to New Tasmania. I figure we can jump again from there, Captain."
"Olaf," she began, but he was already working.
"Maximum acceleration. How long will it take them to follow us?" she asked, wanting an answer but dreading it at the same time.
"If they match what they showed us in Germanicus, we'll make hyper just half an hour before they do," Silver reported.
"So long as we don't get shot in the ass while we're running," Olaf muttered, but received no reply.
The Jolly Jane ducked into hyperspace and sped toward New Tasmania. It was only a three day trip, and Captain Denise gave her orders as soon as they emerged. "Best course to Nova Norway, don't wait for an order," she snapped. The little vessel slewed sideways in space as her hyper drive clawed at the fabric of space and time.
The raider burst out of hyper almost on top of them and went burning by at nearly twenty percent of the speed of light. "He's in a hurry, isn't he?" Olaf laughed as they dove back into hyperspace.
"He saw us go, and our vector. He'll follow again," Silver said as he looked over his shoulder.
"I know. Use your last fix and recalculate for the trip to Lung Chin. It should be very close to our current course." Captain Denise smiled as she sat back in her chair.
Silver turned around and started plotting the course. It was indeed very close to their course, only three degrees negative against the galactic disk. "Course is laid in, Captain. If it's not too much to ask, what are you planning?"
"Drop into normal space immediately, Olaf," she commanded by way of reply and the ship shuddered. "Change course to match the navigator's settings and go back into hyper." She looked at Silver and smiled serenely. "Getting lost in hyper is one of our main dangers, Silver. I'm hoping that whoever that captain is thinks we're a lost ship when he gets to Nova Norway. We should emerge somewhere near Lung Chin, not close enough to reach, of course, but close enough to plot. Then we're going back to LaFontain and make our delivery."
Silver shook his head and took a deep breath. "Yes, Ma'am. I sure hope you're right."
The Jolly Jane emerged from hyperspace three light months beyond Lung Chin, but that was a near miss considering their inaccuracies in plotting the course. Silver and Captain Denise both plotted the course to LaFontain.
Before emergence three days later, Captain Denise gave her orders. "Mister Silver, plot us a course to Columbia as soon as we are clear. Update it every ten minutes, including while we are in port. I'll be damned if I'll let that bastard put me out of business," she snarled and received grunts of agreement from her officers.
This time it took longer to be challenged. "Space vessel entering LaFontain space, please identify yourself as soon as you receive this transmission."
"They don't recognize us," Olaf observed.
"Why should they? They aren't expecting us this time, and I doubt that their system control got a good read on us before." Captain Denise sat back and steepled her fingers as she thought. "I just wonder who is behind this at Amberson's."
LaFontain Control sent them a course and instructions to dock at Alpha-7-India. The next nine days saw the crew of the Jolly Jane making the standard preparations to enter port. Docking was routine, but that was the last thing that was routine about the trip.
The boxes of parts were unloaded without incident until the last one was being removed from the Jane's hold. The port lifer failed and the heavy box fell, breaking open to reveal an assortment of trash.
"What's the meaning of this!" the dock supervisor shouted at the top of his lungs.
"That's a damn good question," Captain Denise snapped. "That container was sealed by Amberson's in New Britannia, and the seals are all still intact." She pointed to where the container's seal was still visibly holding the container's door closed.
"The cartel wouldn't ship us junk," the supervisor snarled back. "You stole our cargo."
"Your cargo is all present and accounted for. Maybe you should talk to your supplier."
The confrontation was getting heated when a junior manager came down. "I have examined the cargo. All of the boxes are full of junk. However, all of the boxes are properly sealed, and the micro circuitry of the seals is intact. Sign here," he said as he handed over a memo pad to register their payment. When she handed it back he sneered at her. "Now get out of here. I don't know what your part in this game was, but I'm not amused."
"We need fuel." Captain Denise began, but the dock supervisor cut her off.
"Get it someplace else. I won't fuel you."
"Exactly where else is there to get fuel? This is the only dock in the system."
The man smiled nastily and said, "Well ain't that just too bad for you." Then he turned and walked away while Captain Denise gaped at his back.
Olaf and Will were standing by the hatch as she turned around. "This is bad, Captain," Will said. "We barely have enough fuel to get out of this system."
"I know. I've always been afraid of something like this in one of these remote ports. Olaf, get with Silver and get a course plotted to the closest system. Forget about Columbia."
"Yes, Ma'am," Olaf said. He hurried away while Captain Denise and Will closed up the ship.
"We can make it back to Lung Chin, Captain," Olaf announced as soon as she entered the control room. "It'll be close, but it's doable."
"Very well. Set course and keep our acceleration low to conserve fuel. It might take a day or three longer, but we won't arrive with empty tanks and have to call a tug to catch us." Captain Denise collapsed into her chair. "Take us out, Mister Olaf."
The Jolly Jane had been underway for seven days when Silver started catching some strange signals. "Captain, someone is using a coded transmitter in the system. First from ahead, then behind, then ahead again."
"Can you decode it?" she asked, leaning forward to see his panel.
"No, Ma'am. The Kiev could, but that's just asking too much from this gear."
Captain Denise sat back and shook her head. "I don't like this. That raider knew who we were and when we were going to arrive. Silver, start scanning with the navigation sensors. That raider may be back, and if we're right about Amberson's they may be setting us up."
"Aye, Ma'am," Silver replied and immediately began scanning. It didn't take long. "Captain, I have a ship at zero-zero-one by zero-six-three. He'll cross our course in two hours."
"It's got to be the raider, Captain," Olaf said as he looked over his shoulder.
"Oh, Lords of Space," Captain Denise softly cursed. "Olaf, do what you can. Silver, can you think of a way for us to make it to a fleet base system closer than Columbia?"
"No, Ma'am. There may be an alternative, though."
Silver grinned up at her. "Ann took Willy and the boys to Hobson's Planet. It's not much farther than Lung Chin and the heading's not that far off."
"Plot it and change course, Olaf. Silver, record everything you can about the raider as we pass."
Both men said, "Yes, Ma'am," and began their tasks. Two hours later the raider was bearing down on them and made contact.
The close range radio beeped and a voice announced their choices. "Jolly Jane, cut your accel and prepare to be boarded. Or you can try to run and be blown into fragments."
"Silver, can we break free?" Captain Denise asked.
"It's close, Captain. We're almost up to point one C, and we're far enough out to break into hyper. Unfortunately, we're in his weapon's range. Germanicus recorded that very clearly."
Captain Denise sat back and closed her eyes, then pushed the button on her console for the ship-wide announcing system. "Crew, we're going to make a run for it. All hands suit up." She thumbed the button again and looked at Olaf and Silver. "You two get suited up. I'll go as soon as one of you gets back. Make the jump as soon as you are secure."
Silver and Olaf hurried to their quarters to don their environment suits. They were on their way back when the Jane suddenly shifted sideways. Olaf's shouted comment was cut off by the scream of the ship's emergency alarm. Both men rushed back to the control room to find the captain slumped in her chair.
"Denise!" Olaf shouted as he dove for her.
Silver dove for the controls. "Hyper insertion now!" he shouted and the ship lurched again just before the nebulousness of hyperspace enfolded them. "Olaf?"
"She's alive but unconscious. Help me," the first mate commanded and the navigator obeyed. They carried their captain down to her quarters, then, without regard to her feelings or modesty, stripped her down and hooked her into her environment suit. She remained unconscious during the whole procedure.
"I'm going to check the rest of the ship. We took two hard hits."
"I noticed," Olaf said without taking his eyes off Denise. "Get with Will and make sure the engineering spaces are in good shape. I'd hate to not be able to get out of hyper."
Silver left him and went aft. What he found wasn't encouraging. "Will, how are we? And how are you?"
"We're screwed, Silver. We are well and truly screwed," he replied as he gazed at the slagged remains of the primary engineering panel. "I have a few broken ribs, but I'll live. The auxiliary panel will get us to a port, but we're not going to be comfortable. How's the rest of the ship?"
"The captain's out cold. Olaf is with her. We're in hyper and on course for Hobson's Planet."
"What about Jeremiah?" Will asked and it suddenly occurred to Silver that he hadn't seen or heard from the loadmaster.
"I don't know. Let's go find him." The two started their search at Jeremiah's little office. It was empty, so they went to his quarters next.
Will pounded on the hatch and shouted, "Jeremiah! Wake up, it's your turn to cook!" he stood back and grinned, but there was no answer.
"Check pressure?" Silver asked, and Will headed forward to the control room. Once there he activated his internal instrumentation.
"Jeremiah's cabin is at vacuum." He reached up and keyed in a sequence to activate the internal security cameras. What he saw made him close his eyes. "He's gone. One of those hits was right on his cabin."
Silver closed his eyes and whispered a prayer for the little man's soul. He whispered, "We have to tell the captain," but her voice came from behind him before he could key his com unit.
"I heard. Ship status?" she asked and Will gave her the bad news. "Can we make it to Hobson's?"
"Yes, Ma'am," Will answered. "It's going to be uncomfortable, but we can make it in four and a half days."
"Thank the Lords of Space that ships can't use weapons in hyper," Captain Denise said in very soft tone.
Loren Jones lives near Tampa, Florida. He married Pamela A. Willis in 1983 and they have stayed together to this time, and have three adult children. A US Navy veteran, Loren served as a nuclear reactor operator on attack submarines for six years before his honorable discharge in 1986. Loren makes his living as an instrumentation and controls technician and writes because the stories won't leave him alone.
TTB titles: Inadvertent Adventures - SF
Stavin DragonBlessed series
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Inadvertent Adventures Copyright © 2016. Loren K. Jones. All rights reserved by the author. Please do not copy without permission.
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A special note to TTB readers. All contents of this web site are copyright by the writers, artists or web site designer. If you discover any artwork or writing published here elsewhere on the internet, or in print magazines, please let us know immediately. The staff of Twilight Times Books feels very strongly about protecting the copyrighted work of our authors and artists.
Web site copyright © 1999, 2000 - 2016. Lida Quillen. All rights reserved.
Cover art © 2015 Brad Fraunfelter. All rights reserved.
This page last updated 01-31-16.
Twilight Times Books logo design by Joni.