Book: The Pirate Queen

The Pirate Queen

Christopher Nuttall

All Comments Welcome!

Dear Readers

The four books in the When the Empire Falls series were written in 2008 and represent my first major attempt at creating a space opera. (The other major attempt, the Democracy’s Right series, can also be found on my website for free.) As you will see if you read them, elements that eventually became part of The Empire’s Corps were first explored within these texts.

I have been working on revising this universe and eventually writing them out again, using what I have learned in 5 more years of writing. If enough people think that there is potential in the storyline, I will return to it. As these are very much drafts (with spelling errors and other problems) please don’t let me know about problems in the text. I will do a complete rewrite if I return to this universe.

I don’t feel comfortable offering these books for sale. However, if you want to tip me, please visit the cookie jar -

Have fun!


Cover Blurb

Pirates in space!

When their cruise liner is attacked by pirates, Timothy and Tiffany Keck are split up; Tiffany is captured by the pirates and taken away to be a slave, while Timothy is rescued by the Imperial Fleet. Each one unaware of the other’s survival, they find themselves forced to fit into their new lives; Timothy enlists with the Imperial Fleet and dedicates his life to hunting down pirates, Tiffany starts to climb within the pirate hierarchy, eventually becoming one of their leaders.

And both of them are heading towards a final desperate confrontation…

And only one of them can survive.


There is one rule concerning combat between pirates and the Imperial Fleet.

No quarter.

Chapter One: The Attack

Tiffany Keck was in the observation blister when the attack began.

The Max Capricorn was massive, easily large enough for a fourteen-year-old girl to hide herself as she considered her future. Her parents had bought the entire family tickets as a break from their normal lives, colonising a homestead on Taurus, but Tiffany wasn't sure if she wanted to go back. She’d been nine years old when her father had moved the entire family – herself, her brother, and his wife – to Taurus…and she had spent five years hating it. It wasn’t as if they had to farm, as their father owned the general store, but she still hated it. Taurus might have been under development in the wake of the Grey War, but she saw no advantage in the vast distance between Taurus and Earth, to say nothing of Centre.

“There are fewer rules out there,” her father had said to her mother, and won the argument. “If we stay here, the family won’t rise any further and we won’t have any chance at a title of our own. If we get in on the ground floor of a new colony world, we could become big fish in a small pond.”

Tiffany remembered that as she stared out of the observation blister, into the airless vacuum of deep space. The stars might twinkle on the surface of a planet, but out in space they burned steadily, shining pinpoints of light towards the starship. The ship itself was slowly powering its way out of the Equinox System, heading towards the next destination; the asteroid moons of Dayton. She’d heard so many talks about them, from the crewmen to the handful of people who were rich enough to use the Max Capricorn as a general transport, that she was almost looking forward to seeing them. Almost.

Nothing took her mind away from the truth. Taurus was…boring. Oh, she was indeed a big fish in a small pond – her father’s ownership of the general store was guaranteed popularity – but it was boring. There were few opportunities for her to be anything other than a storekeeper, or a farmer; she had already had a string of young boys, or even men, offering her a share in their farms. She had given some thought to applying to work for the civil service, which would at least have offered her something that would have led towards real power and excitement, but the truth was that even that would be boring. She had, thanks to genetic engineering, an estimated lifespan of one hundred and fifty years…and she didn’t intend to waste any of them trying to raise a family of screaming brats, or slaving away for the local government, such as it was. Taurus, like so many planets out on the Rim, had little in the way of local law…

And there were no other opportunities, apart from the Imperial Fleet…which might not even take her on. She was old enough to enlist, but the Imperial Fleet only maintained a small facility on Taurus, and she wasn’t sure if she wanted to devote at least twenty years of her life towards being a crewman on a starship. She’d spent her time on the Max Capricorn trying to find out what it might entail, from the crewmen on the starship, but none of it sounded interesting. She would have a chance to mustang as an officer if she served as a crewman, but it was chancy…and there was no certainty of success. She had even risked approaching the Captain of the liner and offering to enlist, but he had turned her down, as kindly as he could. The liner couldn’t afford an untrained crewman running around, no matter how pretty she was…

Tiffany chewed on a long strand of hair as she peered out into the darkness. She couldn’t see her reflection in the transparent metal that allowed her to stare out into the darkness, but she knew what she would see; a girl right on the edge of womanhood. Her red hair framed a heart-shaped face that had already attracted admirers and fell down on a body that promised much, even though she thought her breasts were too small. She was perfectly healthy, thanks to the genetic engineering that was her birthright, but there was only so far that beauty would take a person in the Empire. The only other option was to attach herself to a rich traveller and hope to go with him into the inner worlds of the Empire, but she had too much pride for that.

“Damn,” she said, softly. There was no one else in the blister or she would never have risked speaking aloud. “What am I to do?”

Spacers – the handful she’d met, on Taurus – had talked of sometimes seeing…things out in the darkness of space, but she saw nothing, but the stars. It chilled her and made her feel tiny at the same time, a gesture of just how tiny any individual human was, out on the Rim. They were at the very edge of civilisation, an expanding wavefront of settlement that would one day reach the very edges of the galaxy, a location that was endlessly fascinating…to people with starships and the ability to travel from world to world freely. There were artefacts out on the Rim…but not on Taurus. There were strange alien races…but not on Taurus. There were wonders and glories untold…

The starship shook violently. Tiffany found herself falling to her knees and banging her legs against the carpeted deck before she quite realised what was happening. For a moment, brilliant light flared in through the observation blister, before the blister faded to darkness as it compensated for the sudden illumination. Tiffany blinked water out of her eyes as she rubbed at them, trying to get rid of the purple afterimage that flickered across her eyes, even as she pulled herself to her feet. The starship shook again and this time pushed her against the blister itself; she fought to even remain on her feet. The blister seemed to glow with an eerie light and she shrank back against the deck; what was going on?

Her mind raced, trying to understand. The Max Capricorn was larger than most superdreadnaughts, and they’d never had any sense of motion; the compensators would have seen to that. The month they’d spent on the starship had taught them a great deal, not least that they could remain in their cabins and never feel a thing; what was happening now? Had the starship suffered an accident of some kind? Out on the Rim, the odds of any help reaching them were low; Equinox would take hours to send a rescue ship out to meet them, even assuming that one was present in the system. She’d read the emergency briefings…and, because she was smart, she’d read between the lines; if something went wrong out in deep space, they were almost certainly dead. She whimpered as the ship shook again and started to crawl towards the hatch, hoping to return to her parents and see them again before they all died.

The intercom burst into sudden shocking life. “This is the Captain,” it said. Tiffany remembered the Captain, a tall man with a white beard, white hair, and very dark skin, and felt oddly reassured. The man was very impressive, almost like an older and wiser version of her father; he would be able to get them out of this mess. “The Max Capricorn is under attack.”

Tiffany felt her panic start to rise again. It was more than thirty years after the Grey War; who would be attacking them out on the Rim? All of a sudden, some of the claims about strange starships encountered out on the Rim made more sense; the rumours of black ships, as black as the darkness of space itself, might actually be real. The Imperial Fleet rubbished them, but maybe the fleet had missed something, or maybe the reports from the patrols had simply been dismissed as the result of drunkenness. She’d read an article about it once; from time to time, bored and isolated stations along the Rim would come up with nonsensical stories to panic newcomers.

“We have sent a distress signal to Equinox, but it is unlikely that help will arrive in time to prevent the pirates from raiding the ship,” the Captain continued, and Tiffany could hear the bitter resignation in his voice. “All passengers are to return to their cabins and keep the doors closed, unless the pirates demand that they be opened; do not attempt to offer any resistance. The pirates have warned us that if there is any resistance, the Max Capricorn will be destroyed before they leave the system.”

Tiffany felt her blood run even colder. The starship was still shaking, but it was a different kind of shaking, one she had felt before. It took her a moment to remember the time when the starship that had carried her family to Taurus had docked with another starship, but the thrumming – the interaction of two drive fields – had been exactly the same. The pirates were coming in to dock, somewhere along the hull of the starship, and there was no way of knowing where they were! She couldn’t even get back to her parents.

“I must inform you that insurance will cover all losses to the pirates,” the Captain concluded. “Please do not attempt to offer resistance and we will be able to endure this without any loss of life.”

Tiffany listened for a moment, in hopes of hearing something useful, but the Captain had fallen silent, along with the thrumming. That meant, she suspected – feared – that the pirates had docked, but where? She had only a basic memory implant, one that she had updated with information on the cruise ship, but it couldn’t tell her anything useful. The pirates could be near her, or they could be at the other end of the starship, five kilometres away from her. She tried to work out how long the pirates would be staying, but there was no way to know. It depended on how safe they felt, and if there was anything in the Equinox system capable of hunting them down and catching them in the act, or at the very least extracting revenge.

The blister had faded back to transparency and she pulled herself over to the viewport, peering out along the hull of the Max Capricorn. The starship’s hull was normally lit up like a funfair, and even now, there were still lights playing over its hull. She looked along the hull and saw what looked like a black spider attached to the hull, large enough to hold an entire regiment of pirates. The starship was going quieter by the minute; she might have been imagining it, or some of the starship’s systems might have failed completely. It took her a moment to realise that the pirates were far too close to her…and when she realised it, she almost panicked. She couldn’t stay in the blister; it was unlocked. Acting more on instinct than thought, she leapt over to the control panel and ordered it to lock the blister, but it refused. She hit the control again, but instead of carrying out the order, the screen reformatted itself into an image of a skull and crossbones, laughing at her. The entire system, she realised, had been taken down by the pirates.

I can’t stay here, she thought, with a last glance at the black ship. The pirates had to be making their way through the starship, looking for people to rob, and Tiffany had only two things they might want. The first was a heart-shaped locket that held pictures of her family; the second was herself. Life on Taurus might be boring, but her father had drummed caution into her; there were parts of the planet that were almost lawless, and with a total population of seven thousand, some of them were likely to have criminal inclinations. Hell, some of them even were criminals, offered a chance to redeem themselves rather than simply being executed or jailed for a long period of their lives. Her father had wanted them all to be dumped on a different continent, but the colony government had parcelled them out to various farms, just to get as much work out of them as possible.

The hatch was loose as she pushed at it; she wasn’t sure what she would have done if the hatch had been jammed. She didn’t have any implants for enhancing her strength, or even her endurance; breaking out of the blister might have been impossible if the hatch had been jammed. She cursed her choice of outfit as she slipped into the corridor and listened carefully; a skirt and shirt wasn’t the best outfit for sneaking around. The ship still seemed quiet, but there was something wrong; it took her a moment to realise that the air processors had gone offline. She almost panicked again, wondering where her family was and if she would ever see them again, but a cold core of determination took control and she started to slip down the corridor, determined to hide somewhere and survive. The starship’s corridors were hardly full of places to hide; short of breaking into a cabin and hiding under the bed, there was only one place she could think of to hide, somewhere that might keep her alive if the air processors were really offline. There were emergency supplies in all of the cabins, but a quick check revealed that every cabin was firmly locked, hopefully with people hiding inside. There would be no way of obtaining a skinsuit, unless she went to one of the public halls, and the pirates might already be there…and if they saw her, they would catch her and do horrible things to her.

“Keep moving,” a voice said, ahead of her. Tiffany almost cried out, flattening herself into a hiding place beside a massive and obscene statue, before she realised that the pirate wasn’t talking to her. She watched as two old and fat people, two of the richest people in the sector, were herded down the corridor by a pirate, a man dressed in an outfit that would have made her brother blush. Timothy was under the illusion that he had discovered girls and had been dressing up to attract their attention, something that Tiffany thought was unlikely; Tim had been her brother too long for her to see any redeeming features in him. “Keep moving and you won’t be hurt.”

Tiffany kept quiet, forcing her breathing to remain as low as possible, as the three passed. The couple had been obnoxiously loud on the starship, proclaiming their wealth to the skies…and she had disliked them. Even so, it was easy to guess what the pirates intended to do with them; they would ransom them back to the remainder of their family in exchange for money or goods. She looked at the pirate and shuddered inwardly; she wouldn’t have fancied her chances if he caught her. She slipped out of her hiding place and kept moving, heading down the corridor towards the hydroponics section. She could hide there, if she was lucky, and unless there was a major breach in the hull, she would be safe from running out of air as well. The passengers had called it the forest and it was certainly large enough to hide her if she managed to get into it without being seen.

The corridors no longer felt friendly, she realised, as she crept through them. She heard pirates, from time to time, and tried to steer away from them, but they seemed to be everywhere. She passed a handful of cabins that had been left open and peered inside, only to see darkness; whatever the pirates had done had included turning out the lights. Only the fact that she would certainly be trapped if she entered a cabin kept her from trying to use one to hide, even though she might be able to find emergency equipment within one. She kept moving…and then she stumbled over the dead body.

She screamed; she couldn’t help herself. The body lay there, mutilated beyond all recognition, but there was no mistaking the fact that it was a body. The man – if man it had been – had been struck with an energy weapon that had literally cooked him alive, crisping his body as if he had been nothing more than roast meat. The smell assailed her nostrils and she vomited on the deck, trying to break away from the body, but the sight held her eyes…

“Come here,” a voice barked. She glanced up and saw a pirate, taking aim at her with a strange weapon; she jumped back and ran as he fired a burst of green energy towards her. It missed, but she felt a wave of heat anyway; she ran down the corridor with no thought, but that of escape, of getting away from the barely-seen pirate before he caught her. She hadn’t seen him very clearly, but her imagination filled in details; he was a monster, he wanted to hurt her, he wanted to eat her alive…

Something struck her back and her muscles locked, sending her sprawling to the floor. Her body hurt, but she couldn’t move, not even to scream. She crashed down hard enough to knock the wind out of her, but she could barely breath as her body settled down into a puddle. No matter how hard she tried to move, she couldn’t move at all, or do anything apart from breathing. She fancied she could smell the pirate as he came up behind her, his feet tap-tap-tapping on the deck, but she couldn’t move or escape. Strong hands picked her up by her feet and her perspective changed rapidly as the pirate placed her over his shoulder, and then she found her face bumping against the pirate’s back. He was taking her somewhere…where?

Mercifully, she blacked out.

Chapter Two: The Atrocity

Timothy Keck had been sleeping when the attack began.

“This is the Captain,” the intercom blared, and he started awake. He had been more tired then he wanted to admit, partly due to a meeting with a handful of other teens his own age, and partly due to some emotive compounds he had experimented with in their company. He had been family with drinking, of course, but drugs were something new…and he had been delighted at the chance to experiment. Unlike his sister, Timothy wanted to spend the rest of his life on Taurus with a girl, once he met the perfect girl and moved out with her to a homestead, but he had no qualms about experimenting.

He listened to the Captain’s message in disbelief. He knew very little about the political situation surrounding the Fairfax Sector, but it defied belief that anyone would dare attack the Max Capricorn. He’d spent time learning everything that he might need to know to be a farmer, even to the point of apprenticing out with farmers and mechanics, and he knew enough about the universe surrounding Taurus that it seemed unlikely that anyone would even try to attack. The Imperial Fleet would punish them…wouldn’t it? His mentor had served in the fleet, he knew; he had told Timothy tales about adventures in space, before he had retired and started to live on Taurus as a simple mechanic.

“You have to learn to tell the difference between what you think and what you know,” he’d said, before using what he had sworn blind was a traditional method in the fleet to illustrate the point. He’d given Timothy a gun and Timothy – in his innocence – hadn’t checked his statement that the gun was loaded. It hadn’t been…and Timothy had spent that evening eating his dinner on a cushion; weapons safety had been drummed into him from an early age. Taurus was boring, in Landing City, but outside the city limits, there were all kinds of predators, some of them walking on two legs. “If you can’t check something, you don’t know it.”

He forced himself to think, just as the door hissed open; he didn’t have a weapon of any kind. Teenagers on Taurus could have a weapon, provided that they were properly trained in its use, but he had been forbidden to bring his pistol onboard the starship. He was also realistic, in his own way; a single pistol wouldn’t have made much difference if the pirates had boarded with violent intentions…although if they had just aimed at destruction, they could have blown the starship up before anyone knew what had hit them.

“Timothy,” his mother burst out. “All you all right?”

“I’m fine,” Timothy reassured her, biting down the smart remark that came to his lips. His mother was…scared, he saw, and his father wasn’t much better; the fear in his eyes surprised Timothy. His father had never been scared, not even when a gang of thugs had tried to hold up the general store, but he was scared now. Timothy had always looked up to his father, even if he felt no inclination to follow in his footsteps; what could scare a man like him? “Dad?”

“We stay here,” his father said. There was a harsh note in his voice that rarely appeared; whenever it made its appearance, Timothy and his sister knew to keep a low profile. He hadn’t heard it since he had passed his exams and he, along with a gang of friends, had had a drunken party that had resulted in the police being called. “Whatever happens, we stay here.”

His eyes alighted on the emergency supplies. “And we get into skinsuits,” his father continued, as he examined the emergency compartment. “Timothy, you first…”

Timothy opened his mouth. “But what about mum…”

“You first,” his mother snapped. She was forty-seven years old, but still pretty; like almost everyone on Taurus, she would look around twenty-five years old until she reached the eighties, thanks to the genetic engineering that had been woven through her body. The note of fear in her voice almost scared Timothy worse than his father’s concern; he reached for the first skinsuit almost without thinking, before he pulled it on over his normal outfit.

He cursed mentally, hating the skinsuits; everyone hated them, particularly the ones that hadn’t been custom-made for a particular person. They smelt of burnt rubber – even through they were hardly made of rubber – and they felt as if he was pulling on a condom. He pulled the hood around his head, but refused to use the breather; if he used the oxygen supply within the skinsuit, he would have nothing left if the starship actually lost it’s integrity and all the air flew into space. His father nodded grudgingly as he completed the process, activating the computer built into the skinsuit’s wristcom and trying to connect to the Max Capricorn’s central processor. It took him a moment to realise that there was no connection…or information being uploaded from the starship.

His mother made the connection at the same time. “Where’s Tiffany?”

“I don’t know,” Timothy said, truthfully. His sister had been drifting around the starship, rather than spending time with him, or time with anyone their own age. He’d actually had some requests to pass on to her, offers of a date, mainly, but she hadn’t been interested. He couldn’t see it himself; he’d grown up with his sister and while she was smart and clever, she was also an annoying pain in the butt. “She went off to…”

A thought struck him and he checked the direct link to the ship’s main computer, a console that had been fixed neatly into one wall. It should have allowed him direct access to part of the system, even if the remainder had been taken down or out by the pirates, but there was almost nothing left, but the image of the skull and crossbones. He had his mechanics qualification and he knew something about computers, enough to guess that the pirates had inserted a controlling program of their own into the matrix, but nowhere near enough to dig information out of the corrupted system. He’d read the information the operators had provided, but even with that, it was nowhere near enough to suggest a way of rebooting the computer network. Even if it had been, the passenger consoles had been hardwired to prevent someone from actually accessing the main system – he couldn’t even bring up the locator subroutine that would have found Tiffany for them.

“I’m sure she’ll be fine,” his father said, as he placed a hand around his mother’s shoulders. “She’s a bright girl; she’ll get to the emergency units and remain there until all of this is over…”

Timothy stood up and made to go into his cabin. “Stay here,” his father snapped. “Don’t go off on your own!”

Timothy rolled his eyes. He had been on two starships in his life and the Max Capricorn had the Astrotrain beaten, hands down. The crew of the latter had only worried about getting the colonists to Taurus safe and sound; their level of happiness hadn’t really mattered to the crew. The crew of the Max Capricorn wanted everyone to be happy; instead of boxy cabins, they actually had four rooms in their stateroom, one for Timothy, one for his sister, and one for his parents, as well as a basic lounge. The lounge held the door to the remainder of the starship, allowing him and Tiffany to slip out whenever they wanted to slip out, but now…his father might as well have tied him to a chair. He didn’t like watching the fear in his parents’ eyes, or sensing the strange feelings running through the deck; what was happening out there?

The lights flickered and faded for a moment, before coming back on, but he had enough time to realise that the emergency lighting systems weren’t active. A starship was a very dangerous place for anyone, particularly someone who didn’t know what they were doing, but he’d read that the Max Capricorn had dozens of back-up systems protecting it’s passengers and crew. Time was ticking past slowly; he glanced at his watch, trying to figure out how long it would be before the pirates had to leave. How safe did they feel? They obviously hadn’t decided to risk taking the Max Capricorn in tow, but they might have decided to place a prize crew onboard and sail the starship back to their lair, where they would strip her and her crew at leisure. His mentor had told him tales of pirates and what they did, out in the darkness; who knew what they would do to the passengers, or…Tiffany? Timothy didn’t always like his sister, but he loved her; what would the pirates do to her when – if – they caught her?

“An hour,” his father said. He held Timothy’s mother tightly, trying to prevent her from becoming hysterical. The edgy note in his voice didn’t help. “An hour…what are they doing?”

Timothy had no answer. The starship was as long as an average superdreadnaught; ten kilometres long. The pirates could have started at one end and they’d still be working their way through the ship, but not all of the starship was actually passenger space. There were sections for the crew, sections for the engines and support systems, and the bridge. The pirates might have decided to take over the bridge first, or they might be focusing their attention on the richest passengers; it wasn’t as if the Keck’s were really worth very much. Who would ransom them?

A banging at the door brought his attention back to reality. “Open this door,” a voice snapped, through the door’s intercom. Timothy noted with detached amusement that that seemed to be working fine. “Open the door or we will burn it down.”

“Stay there,” Timothy’s father said, as he stood up and pushed the ‘open’ button. The door hissed open and three pirates stepped through, the leader pushing Timothy’s father back with a gun, aimed right at his head. Timothy recognised it at once, as he was meant to; far from firing energy bursts, the pistol would fire bullets. There had been hundreds of weapons like it on Taurus; it was hardly a surprise that the pirates had some of their own.

“Stand in the centre of the room, hands on your heads, and don’t move,” the leader snapped. Timothy reluctantly complied as the pirates started to search the cabin. He wasn’t sure what they were looking for, or why; they searched through the different cabins and ransacked their luggage, finding almost nothing of value. Timothy would have been upset to lose some of his clothing, but he couldn’t see the pirates really finding it of any use. Some of his father’s papers were examined, along with a credit chip, but there was nothing that the pirates could actually use for their purposes.

The leader rammed his gun under Timothy’s father’s chin. “What do you have that’s of value?” He demanded. “What do you have that we can use?”

“There’s the personal computer in my case,” Timothy’s father said. “You can take the credit chip if you like…”

The pirate knocked him to the floor. “There’s hardly enough there worth taking,” he snapped. “Still, your bitch can pay us…”

He grabbed Timothy’s mother by the breast. She screamed, his father rose to his feet, fists clenched…and the pirate shot him through the head. Timothy screamed as his father, the man who had brought him up, taught him to be a man, loved him, disciplined him…fell to the ground, the skinsuit hood no protection against a shot from close range. The pirates reacted swiftly; before he could do something, anything, one of them punched him hard in the stomach. He staggered…and his tormentor caught him, dragging him over to the corner and holding a knife to his throat.

“Get on with it,” he snarled, towards the other pirates. “We don’t have much time left.”

“You’ll get yours,” the leader said, as the two remaining pirates started in on Timothy’s mother. Timothy twisted and turned his head, trying to avoid seeing what was about to happen, but his captor held his head firmly, forcing him to watch. His mother struggled, but the two pirates were much stronger; they beat the resistance out of her and forced her facedown onto the ground, before the leader forced his way inside her. Her screams tore at Timothy’s ears and he struggled even more to just escape the sight, but there was no way to escape. The strong arms held him firmly pinned down…

“I’ll kill you,” he screamed, no longer concerned about his personal safety. “I’ll fucking kill you and…”

The leader laughed. “You’re going to die on this ship, pretty boy,” he said. The other pirate was taking his turn now. “Aren’t you lucky that Piggy there is only into kiddies?”

The mockery lanced into Timothy’s soul. “I’m going to fucking kill you, I swear,” he shouted. A pair of fingers pressed neatly into his throat and he found his breath being cut off slightly, forcing him to gasp for breath. He couldn’t shout anymore, or even whisper; he forced himself to concentrate on glaring at the pirate, trying to communicate telepathically his hated and rage.

“No, you’re not,” the leader said. He looked down at the body of Timothy’s mother. “Would you like a go?”

Timothy thrashed, even more desperately. “I’ll take that as a no, then,” the pirate said. “You know…you could come with us. We could make a real man out of you.”

“Fuck you,” Timothy snapped, as the pressure on his throat loosened slightly. “I won’t…”

“No,” the pirate agreed. “I think that you…”

He broke off as his communicator buzzed. “It’s your lucky day, I guess,” the leader mocked. “We’ve just been recalled to our ship. You will die here when the air runs out…” He paused. A new, darker, note entered his voice. “And say goodbye to your mother.”

He reached down with a knife and cut his mother’s throat. Timothy tried to scream as his captor tossed him across the room, leaving him lying there as the pirates walked out, closing and locking the door behind them. Timothy felt himself crying helpless tears as he fought to get to his feet, but it seemed impossible to move; his entire body and soul hurt. He lay there for what felt like hours, before cold determination he hadn’t known he possessed forced him to stagger across the deck, avoiding the bodies as much as possible as he tried to reach the door. It took three tries before he managed to stand up long enough to hit the open switch…and then he realised he’d made a terrible mistake. The air was racing along the corridor, heading towards what had to be a breech in the hull…and the lights were fading. The pirates hadn’t just raped the Max Capricorn, he realised; they’d killed her. Darkness whispered at him, calling him to eternal peace; he never knew how he managed to trigger the skinsuit’s hood, sealing himself and drawing on the suit’s internal oxygen reserve.

I’m going to die here, he thought. After everything, it seemed a fitting end; a body floated down the corridor as the gravity failed, drifting towards the space where the air was blowing out of the ship. He wondered, deep inside, what had happened to Tiffany, but he feared very much that he already knew; if the pirates had raped his mother, they wouldn’t have hesitated to rape his sister as well. If she had been lucky, she might have been killed during the boarding, maybe spared the trauma of being raped. The thought of revenge blazed through his mind, trying to keep him alive, but cold logic told him that it was only a matter of time before he died. The Max Capricorn was dead…and the parasites who had lived inside her would die when the last reserves of air ran out. Maybe some of the crew had survived, but how would they know to find him?

A light flickered along the corridor; he felt, vaguely, the sensation of pounding boots. He felt as it he were hallucinating, imagining things; there was no way that anyone could find him here, trapped within the starship. It was sheer luck that he hadn’t gone out into space, with no doubt hundreds of the crew and passengers; part of him hoped that he would just die and put an end to everything. He was sure that he could hear voices, but he had to be imagining them; the vacuum of space didn’t carry sound. How could someone be talking to him?

Strong arms grasped him and shook him awake. He stared as his body was manhandled around, coming face to face with a small group of people wearing black combat outfits. The sight awed him and terrified him; there was no way he could pick out a face from within the black garments…and they might be pirates, coming back to take him and kill him personally. A figure leaned close to him and bumped helmets; he heard, clearly, a voice.

“It’s all right,” the voice said. It echoed oddly through the touching spacesuits, but even so, it had a reassuring note running through the words. “Your life signs are weak, but you will recover. You’re safe now.”

Timothy struggled to find words. “Who are you?”

“It’s all right,” the voice repeated. It had the sort of calming tone that made Timothy want to trust it. It reminded him of his old mentor, someone who might have been able to help in any situation. He forced himself to examine the featureless black suits, and then saw the single name written on the forehead of the lead man; HMS Fury. “We’re the Imperial Fleet. You’re safe now…”

Timothy laughed…and then blacked out completely.

Chapter Three: The Prisoner

Tiffany awoke on a hard metal deck.

There were voices, nearby, but it was hard to even focus enough to hear what those voices were saying. Her body felt as if every part of her body had been kicked repeatedly; even though it was hard to move, it was all-too-easy to feel the strange lethargy flowing through her body. She felt as if she had been drugged, or as if there was something very badly wrong with her mind; it took her what felt like hours to even realise that the reason why it was dark was that her eyes were closed. She concentrated and forced them to open…and then closed them sharply as light flared in through her opening eyelids and reached right into her brain.

“You’ll get used to it,” a voice said, very close to her. It took Tiffany a moment to realise that she wasn’t alone in the room. “The nerve janglers they used have nasty after-effects.”

Tiffany forced her mind to focus. “Water,” she said, as clearly as she could. “I need a glass of water.”

“We don’t have any,” the new voice said. Tiffany carefully opened her eyes, just a crack, and saw a pair of concerned blue eyes looking down at her. “They’ve put us here and God alone knows what they are going to do to us.”

Tiffany glanced around as the headache started to fade slowly. The pain in her right wrist was explained by the presence of a metal cuff, attached around her hand and securing her to a metal rail on the wall. She pulled at it, experimentally, but there was no way that her arm could break it; it was much more likely that she would break her wrist trying. The room itself was larger than the cabin the family had shared, back on the liner; it was full of people, almost all of them passengers from the Max Capricorn. She peered along the lines of people, almost around a hundred prisoners, but didn’t see any sign of anyone she recognised, although she was sure that one of the teenage girls had been with her brother…

“My family,” she gasped. “Where are they?”

“There’s no way to know,” her new friend said. “If they’re not here, they might be on the ship in another cell, or they might have died back with the ship.”

They’re dead, Tiffany thought, feeling it sinking in through the layers of her mind. The dull pain brought her back to herself, slightly; she saw, now, that all of the prisoners were firmly secured to the wall, male and female alike. The men had been stripped down to their underwear; the same, she realised with a shock, was true of her and the other women in the cabin. The pirates had taken them all prisoner, but why? She looked, desperately, for something that linked them all together, but found only hints; the rich couple she’d seen before they had captured her as well were secured over in the far corner. They could be ransomed, she guessed, but what about her? What about her new friend?

She turned to him. He looked young, barely eighteen at most, and his eyes were young as well. That suggested, to her view, that he actually was eighteen, rather than an older man playing at being young. He would have been handsome without the scar that ran down his face…and his eyes were pale and worried. He tried to give her a reassuring smile, but there was no disguising the fact that their predicament was almost hopeless.

She smiled at him wanly. “What’s your name?”

“Alan D’Ella,” he said. Tiffany blinked; a name like that suggested that he had been born into a noble family somewhere, although that didn’t have to mean anything. “Midshipman Alan D’Ella of the Max Capricorn…what’s left of the starship.”

The pain in his voice surprised her. “What happened?” A man demanded, from the other side of the room. “How could you let this happen to us?”

“And what are they going to do to us?” A woman demanded. “What will they want from us?”

Alan tried to answer. “They just came out of nowhere and slammed a missile into the ship’s shields,” he said, his voice almost breaking. Tiffany almost flinched at the bleak hopelessness in his voice. “They were on us before we knew they were there, and before we could react, they were demanding surrender, and the Captain had no choice, but to surrender or they would have just destroyed the ship.”

His voice broke. “They came in the airlock, killed the Lieutenant and stunned me,” he said. “I don’t know what happened next; I found myself here, chained to the wall.”

The other passengers, Tiffany realised, had similar stories; most of them were rich people, or in one case a known industrialist who had a series of patents to his name. The main exceptions were a dozen teenage girls, including Tiffany, who seemed to have been scooped up for no reason…apart from looking pretty. The thought made her smile, grimly; some of the girls looked bruised and broken…and while she couldn’t see herself, she doubted that she looked much better. Alan didn’t seem to be showing any reaction to her near-nakedness, after all.

The older man glanced around the room. “What are they going to do to us?” The panic in his voice was terrifying. “What are they going to do to me?”

“There’s no way to know,” Alan said. He lay back against the wall. “We can only hope that they intend to ransom us back to the Empire…”

Tiffany felt her blood run cold. Her family, everyone she had had, had been on the Max Capricorn. No one would ransom her…and even if by some miracle her father had survived, there was no way that he would be able to raise the kind of money that the pirates would demand to make ransoming her worthwhile. He might have been a big shot back on Taurus, but Taurus was perhaps the poorest world in the Fairfax sector…he wouldn’t have the credits the pirates would demand for the return of his daughter.

There was a hiss from one wall; a door, invisible in the half-light, was slowly opening, revealing a pair of humanoid forms. The Fairfax Sector was fairly cosmopolitan, with more races than just humans, but only humans would have scooped up human girls for nothing other than their beauty. The Imperials, who had founded the Empire, had forbidden inter-species sexual intercourse, but judging from the appearance of most aliens, Tiffany suspected that they needn’t have bothered. The two men facing them were clearly human…and clearly convinced that they were in charge.

The older man leaned forward. “What the hell do you fucking think you’re going to do with us?”

The lead pirate pulled a whip from his belt and cracked the older man with it, sending a shower of blue sparks cascading into his body and sending him screaming back into the wall. The pirate looked around, studying them, and Tiffany forced herself to concentrate on him; his scarred face and cold eyes worried her. The man would never have passed inspection as a fleet crewman, but she refused to believe that he was an idiot, just because he looked slovenly.

“I am Jarvis, First Mate of the Bloody Hand,” the pirate said. He didn’t bother to introduce his companion. “Under Captain Donnelly, my word is law on this vessel, and you are all under my command. If you disobey orders” – he nodded towards the writhing form of the older man – “you will be punished. If you displease us, or fail to prove yourselves useful, you will be thrown to the crew, who will use you until it kills you.”

His voice, harsh and cracked, but underlined with steel and confidence, rolled out over them. “You are prisoners onboard a vessel heading away from the Empire through Phase Space,” he said. “Rescue is impossible, escape is impossible…you exist completely at our mercy. Your lives depend completely upon us; even if you somehow managed to escape, you don’t have the command codes for this ship and you will be lost forever in interstellar space. If you don’t understand that, understand it now; you will remain with us until we choose to let you go.”

His eyes flickered across the room. Tiffany had seen the way some guys looked at her, but she would have preferred that to the cold, dispassionate look that took her measure before flickering away to the next prisoner, analysing each of them in turn. It bothered her, at some level; he didn’t recognise that her existence had value, even as a slave.

“I’m glad you understand that,” Jarvis said, his lips tightening into something that might have been charitably called a smile. “We’re going to get along famously. Any questions?”

Alan looked terrified, but he leaned forward. “Sir,” he said carefully, “we need food and water, particularly water.”

“Do you,” Jarvis said, making it a statement. Alan nodded anyway. “Very well, you will have food and water…although I must add that if you want to continue being fed, you’d better find a way to make yourself useful.” He paused, just for a long second. “Each of you will visit the Doctor and then you will have a little face-to-face with me, just to find out how much help you could be to us. If you are not willing to be helpful, just say so…and we will throw you to the crew, before ejecting you out the airlock.”

He withdrew, leaving them alone again; moments later, two crewmen – both hardly any older than Tiffany or Alan - entered and started to distribute a small amount of food. Each prisoner got a bottle of water and several bars of a prepared food ration, something that tasted vaguely like cardboard, but Tiffany knew that it came from vat-grown foodstuffs. No one actually starved in the Empire, but it wasn’t uncommon for people to live on nothing, but vat-grown foods and purified water. Anyone who could afford anything else wouldn’t eat the vat-produced foods if there were a choice.

“They want us to make ourselves useful,” Tiffany said, as she ate half of the first bar. “How can we do that?”

“Lie back and think of Fairfax,” Alan said, bleakly. “You might be the lucky one. In my case, they will either put me to work, or just get rid of me.”

An hour passed before the pirates disturbed their prisoners again, this time a pair of pirates who selected a prisoner at random, unhooked her from the wall, and escorted her out of the door. Tiffany watched her retreating back and wondered just what was going to happen, feeling apprehension rising up within her as the pirates returned and escorted a second prisoner away, and then a third…without bothering to return any of the prisoners. The other prisoners fell silent, some of them muttering quietly to the people they knew, as the pirates returned…this time, selecting Tiffany. She felt one of them unhooking the cuff around her wrist, before they took her arms and escorted her out of the room.

The interior of the pirate ship looked…unclean. She couldn’t have said how she’d picked that up, but compared to the Max Capricorn, it looked dull and tarnished. The corridors were almost empty, but every time they passed a male pirate, he leered at her, raping her with his eyes. Her two escorts touched her from time to time, but they were clearly under orders not to hurt her or to even play with her too much; they contented themselves with little touches that might, under other circumstances, have been accidental. She knew better; it was a way of reminding her that she was completely at their mercy.

The pirate’s doctor, when they came face to face, surprised her. The woman was old, in appearance as well as mind; a grey-haired woman with spectacles – something that she had never seen before – and a wan smile on her face. Her escort announced their presence and she looked at them as if she had seen more interesting things on the bottom of her shoes, before ordering them both out of the room.

“I am Doctor Abigail Richards,” she said, shortly. Her voice wasn't unkind, but it was tired and old, the sort of voice that might embrace suicide as a means of solving all problems. “Take off your remaining clothes and lie down on the table.”

Tiffany hesitated. “Doctor…”

“I know what you’re feeling,” Abigail said, without looking around. “I felt it too, back when I was first forced onboard a pirate vessel. You’re wondering if I mean you harm, or if the examination is only going to be a precursor to some greater humiliation, or even if the minute you take off your remaining clothes, you’ll be jumped on by a dozen horny pirates. I know just how you feel…but you don’t have a choice; if you don’t do as I say, I’ll have to make you do what I say before Jarvis makes you do it.”

Tiffany held her dead eyes for a long moment, and then slowly stripped off her remaining clothes and lay down, trying to cover her breasts and thighs. Abigail ignored her attempts to cover her private parts as she ran a series of scanners over her, all of them looking older than the ones that Tiffany remembered from Taurus, when she’d gone for her latest check-up. They hadn’t required her to strip down, but she vaguely remembered that older systems did require their subject to be naked, for some reason that escaped her at the moment. Abigail was professional, professional enough for Tiffany to relax as she examined her breasts, and clucked at the marks that her escorts had left on them. Tiffany hadn’t realised that the marks were that obvious, but her pale skin looked red where they had touched.

She concentrated on trying to gather intelligence. “How did you end up here?”

Abigail’s face didn’t change – much – but Tiffany sensed, somehow, a flicker of guilt within her mind. “I was a Doctor on Cerruti, during the War,” she said. Tiffany guessed she meant the Grey War, which had concluded fifteen-odd years before she was born. “The planet was raided and then occupied by Captain Morgan, who took me prisoner and transferred me around his ships, serving him as a Doctor. A few years after Morgan died, Captain Donnelly bought my contract and put me here, working for him and him alone.”

Tiffany winced. “You don’t want to be here?”

Abigail leaned forward and placed her hand gently over Tiffany’s mouth. “Don’t – ever – say anything here that you might regret,” she whispered, her mouth close enough to Tiffany’s ear for her to whisper. “This ship is riddled with spies and people eager to curry favour with the Captain, or Jarvis; if you make statements like that, you will be overheard and someone will report you to the Captain. If he decides you’re not worth the effort involved in keeping you alive, he’ll throw you to the crew; they won’t have seen such a good looking woman since they last hit one of the independent asteroids.”

She touched Tiffany’s chest slightly. “Understand,” she breathed, “you don’t have any rights here. You have to earn a place and keep it; I only get some protection because I’m the only doctor on the ship and the only one who can be trusted not to hurt one of the patients…unless they hurt me first. So far, Jarvis and his people will be trying to figure out if they can use you for something, or if they can get a ransom for returning your pretty ass to your family, but if they decide you’re useless, you’ll be tossed to the crew. No one will come forward and save you.”

Tiffany felt cold ice congealing around her heart. “What are they going to do to me?”

“The crew or Jarvis?” Abigail asked. She let go of Tiffany’s mouth and wandered over to examining the large display of medical information, surrounding a three-dimensional representation of Tiffany’s naked body. “No health problems, love, one implant in your head…a basic memory implant, if I make my guess…and it should be safe to leave it there. One implant in your vagina; I guess being a farm girl has some advantages…do you have a young man back home?”

Tiffany shook her head. The implant had been standard practice for all young men and women within the Empire; it would prevent her from having any children until she turned twenty, at which time she could have it renewed or just allow her body to break it down and expel it over the next few months.

“No,” she said. “You didn’t answer my question.”

“You’re a virgin,” Abigail observed. There was a note of surprise in her voice. The implants the children had allowed them to experiment as much as they liked without fear of consequences, but Tiffany had never found a boy she wanted to allow to put something inside her. “What can you do?”

Tiffany tried to answer, but the more she said, the grimmer Abigail looked. Nothing she had done back on Taurus seemed to be of any use to the pirates. They wanted people who could help them operate their ships, or fight for them, or people they could ransom back home, but Tiffany didn’t fit into any of those categories. All she had was her body, and, as Abigail pointed out in grim detail, she didn’t even own that anymore.

She tried to remain calm. “What are they going to do with me?”

There was a note of sympathy in Abigail’s voice. “You’re young, beautiful, and a virgin,” she said. Somehow, Tiffany was sure that those were no longer desirable attributes. “I have a nasty feeling, my dear, that they will sell you into slavery.”

Chapter Four: The Imperial Fleet

“Overall, Captain, there is relatively little actual damage,” a voice said. It was young and female. “The boy’s body was beaten, but there was no concentrated attempt to do him harm.”

“His lucky day,” a second voice said. “Chief, your thoughts?”

“We found him in a skinsuit,” a third voice said. Timothy liked it on first hearing. It was old and wise, very like his father…the memories came flooding back and he remembered. “The passenger manifest lists him as Timothy Keck, one of the second-class passengers; he’s an unlikely candidate for having sold out the ship.”

“True enough,” the second voice said. “Doctor, how long until he will be fit to be interviewed?”

“He’s awake already,” the first voice said. There was an amused note running through the voice. “Timothy, can you hear me?”

Timothy found himself fighting to speak through the haze. “It’s dark,” he said, slowly. “What’s happening to me?”

“You’re in a regeneration field,” the first voice said. Timothy could hear her tapping commands into a console; the strange feeling of tiredness faded slowly away as light started to shine through his eyelids. They hurt, as if someone was pressing down on them, but the light faded rapidly, allowing him to see properly. He was looking up at a ceiling, but it wasn’t anything like the Max Capricorn’s ceilings; it was much more orderly. “You’ve been healing from various small injuries.”

Timothy forced himself to focus on her as she peered down at him. She was clearly young, wearing a uniform he recognised as being from the Imperial Fleet and doing very little to hide the figure under the outfit. She had short brown hair – no, he saw as she turned; it was long, but tied back in a ponytail – and faintly coloured skin. Her eyes were strange, red instead of blue or brown; just for a moment, he wondered if she was human.

“I’m Doctor Lesley Finney, HMS Fury,” she said. Her voice was very comforting. “How much do you remember?”

Memories, seared across Timothy’s mind, flared back into his soul. “They…they…”

He couldn’t find the words. Part of him wanted to deny that it had ever happened, but he couldn’t; it was almost like trying to hide again behind other memories. He had once downloaded a chunk of truly disgusting porn and had felt dirty and soiled for a few hours, but this was worse, far worse. His father had been killed as if he had been nothing, his mother…he didn’t want to face it, not again.

“We know,” the third voice said. Timothy turned his head slightly, to see a clearly older man standing there, his old features creased in a slight smile. His hair was black, as black as Timothy’s own, but the sense of age was overwhelming. He had seen everything twice and hadn’t been impressed the first time. “We found the bodies, Timothy; did they make you watch?”

Timothy nodded, trying to close his eyes and forget. It didn’t work. “Where am I?”

“You’re on HMS Fury, a Home Guard starship on loan to the Imperial Fleet, Fairfax Sector,” the second man said. The note of command in his voice was very clear; the man, whoever he was, didn’t have the slightest doubt that he was in charge. The voice softened slightly, very slightly. “We need to interview you thoroughly, Timothy; we have to find out what happened.”

Lesley shook her head. “He’s been through a traumatic experience, Captain,” she said, her voice firm. “He can’t know anything that will make catching the Bloody Hand any easier; if he knew that, they would have killed him or taken him with them. It’s been two days; how can he know anything that would still be valid?”

Timothy found himself focusing on her words. “Two days?” He asked. Another memory snapped back into his mind. “My sister!”

The third man shook his head. “We haven’t found her body,” he said. The grim note in his voice made Timothy flinch. “We found you and the other survivors through the starships sensors, once we were able to access them after the pirates fucked them so thoroughly, but everyone else is most likely dead; we’ve pulled several hundred bodies out of the ship. There are hundreds of other bodies heading away from the wreck at speed, thanks to the atmosphere venting, so we may never find her body.”

“They’re all gone,” Timothy said, softly. He wanted to lie back and never wake up; his father…dead. His mother…dead. His sister…dead. “What happened?”

The Captain leaned forward. “The Bloody Hand boarded your ship,” he said. “They apparently stole several million credits worth of goods and other luxuries from the ship, perhaps kidnapping several dozen passengers as well, and then they started to…take other things from the passengers. We got lucky, or so we thought, and started to sneak up on them, but…they must have caught a sniff of us and fled, venting the ship behind them.”

Timothy closed his eyes. “How many survived?”

The Captain’s voice was as cold as the grave. “Seven,” he said. Timothy felt his eyes snap open; there had been over four thousand passengers and crew on the Max Capricorn. How could only seven of them have survived the boarding and subsequent venting of the starship? Had they not climbed into skinsuits themselves? “There may have been others who didn’t have the air to survive, but by the time we were able to actually start looking for survivors, only seven were still alive.”

“He needs to sleep,” Lesley said, firmly. Her voice held a note that suggested that she would be dangerous to cross. “Captain, he has to rest and he really needs some proper counselling for what he’s gone through. Please leave him some room to breathe…”

Timothy didn’t want to be alone, all of a sudden; he didn’t want to do anything, but just lie there. “Don’t,” he said. “I need to talk.”

“You’re in no state to talk,” Lesley said, either not recognising or choosing to ignore the underlying request. Don’t leave me alone. “You need to relax and sleep.”

“I’ll stay with you,” the third man said. He reached out and placed a hand on Timothy’s shoulder. “You won’t be alone.”

Timothy felt himself spiralling into darkness…which faded, within what felt like seconds. For a long moment, he lay there, trying to think, trying to understand…and then the tears came freely. His father was dead, and his mother…had been raped and murdered. The same inherent self-honesty that his mentor had beaten into him came to the fore, forcing him to remember; the pirates had forced him to witness as they had violated his mother…and they might have done the same to his sister. He was the last survivor of his family.

He was alone.

Cold rage burned through him as he fought to think clearly. He didn’t have anywhere to go, not now; the closest relative he had was a second cousin, back on Old Earth, thousands of light years away. Where could he go where he could forget? There wasn't anywhere, there was nowhere where he could dig a hole and forget; he couldn’t even go back to Taurus. He could have reclaimed his father’s store, even through he hadn’t technically reached his majority, but what good would that do? The pirates might come to Taurus and sack the planet…and he would be caught up in their madness, again. What could he do?

The older man leaned over his bed. “How are you feeling?”

“Cold,” Timothy admitted. He smiled. “I don’t even know your name.”

“Senior Chief Crewman Markus Wilhelm,” the man said. “I was the man who pulled you out of the wreck and brought you here, just in time. A few more hours and you would have died on the ship with the remainder of your family.”

Timothy nodded slowly. “They’re all dead, aren’t they?”

“We recovered the bodies of your parents,” Markus said. He lowered his gaze for a moment. “We didn’t find your sister’s body and we won’t be doing any more searches of the wreck, not now that it’s impossible for anyone to have remained alive on the hulk. We’ll tow it back to Equinox and they’ll finish the task of pulling out the bodies there; we could only focus on those that were related to the survivors.”

“Why?” Timothy asked. Markus, sensing that he didn’t mean why the hulk was being returned to Equinox, remained silent. “Why did they do this?”

“The pirates?” Markus asked. “It rather depends on who you ask.” He laughed bitterly. “There’s little in the way of law and order out here, on the Rim; the bastards have too many people too scared to oppose them, or too many people who somehow benefit from their presence…such as the fences who take what they steal and sell it onwards. There are too many starships that fell into the wrong hands, or even a handful of crews cut off from the Empire by the Collapse, or black colonies that want – need – supplies from the Empire they can’t get any other way. All the criminals in the Empire prefer the Rim to the inner worlds…they don’t have so many chances of being caught out here. We got lucky with the Max Capricorn and we could only chase the bastards away, rather than catching them and throwing them out of the airlock.”

He snorted. “And then there’s the independence movements, the independent grey colonies, the handful of warped people left over from the Grey War, the thousands of warped people who can’t get their kicks any other way…and only a handful of starships to oppose them. We can smash any pirate nest we encounter with overwhelming firepower, but finding the bastards is pretty difficult when they have so many allies and we have so few people willing to take the risk of helping us.”

Timothy stared at him. “But that means that it’s going to go on,” he protested. “Can’t anyone stop it?”

Markus sighed. “We can smash any pirate we find,” he said. “The problem is that we don’t have the numbers to patrol every potential pirate hotspot, let alone escort every starship that needs escorting. Hell, the Max Capricorn should have had an escorting destroyer at the very least, but the company refused to wait up for one, which the Captain thinks is pretty suspicious.”

Timothy saw the connection at once. “They might have sold the starship out for the insurance?”

“They might have,” Markus agreed, “or they might have merely wanted to ensure they actually got their profits by sailing on schedule, rather than waiting for an escort. Like I said, there are too few ships around to escort starships…and too many of them.”

“I see,” Timothy said. He pulled himself to a sitting position. “Can I get up?”

“The Doctor said you can leave her sickbay if you like,” Markus said. He held out a hand and Timothy leaned on him gratefully as he placed his feet on the ground, feeling the deck moving under his feet for a few seconds as his body struggled to cope with the feeling of walking again. “The Captain has ordered the opening of a cabin for you, nothing quite like that of the Max Capricorn, I fear, but it’s a place to live while you decide what you want to do next.”

Timothy smiled. “What do you want to do with me?”

“Good question,” Markus said, as the sickbay door hissed open and they walked out into a long corridor. “The Captain doesn’t want you to be running around on your own for a while; you’re a potential witness for any charges that might be brought, assuming that we actually manage to prove that the Max Capricorn’s owners were somehow involved in the attack. I doubt that they’ll find anything, to be honest; if they were caught by the fleet, they would be put in front of a wall and shot. Even so, the one place you would be safe is onboard a fleet ship; everyone on the Fury would protect you, rather than let them kill you to silence you.”

“But I don’t know anything,” Timothy protested.

“They might think you do,” Markus said. “It’s never a good idea to take chances.”

Timothy fell silent as they walked along the corridor. The Fury was very different from the Max Capricorn, not least in the decking, which was cold metal rather than carpeting. The handful of crewmen he saw were all dressed in uniforms, rather than the gaudy outfits of the passengers of the Max Capricorn; they all seemed to be busy, but not rushing around. They passed a line of running soldiers, all running in perfect step and carrying weapons slung over their shoulders, chanting to themselves as they ran. Timothy had seen soldiers before, but this small group impressed him more than the soldiers who had been stationed on Taurus; they gave the impression of knowing what they were doing.

“The Marines stationed onboard the ship,” Markus explained, at his questioning look. “If we have to board a pirate ship, which doesn’t happen that often because most of the time, we operate under shoot on sight instructions, they’re the ones who’ll have to do it. They’re the toughest bastards in the fleet, which is saying something; if you spend more than a week or so on the ship, you might want to see their Sergeant about getting some exercise and training with them.”

Timothy looked at him. “They’d teach me their tricks of the trade?”

”They teach anyone who has the guts to ask,” Markus said, as they reached a small door. He pressed his hand against a scanner and the door hissed open. “Almost everyone in the crew spends time with them learning to fight hand to hand, time with the doctor learning basic medical treatment, time with the engineer learning how to repair the ship if something goes wrong, time with the…”

He broke off and smiled. “We’re shorthanded, Timothy,” he said. The grim note had returned to his voice. “There are too few of us and too many of them.”

The cabin itself was barely large enough to swing a cat, but Timothy didn’t mind that; it was a mercy to have somewhere, finally, to feel safe. Markus showed him how to use the computer, the head and the handful of other systems, before warning him not to go wandering around the starship. The Fury wasn’t the Max Capricorn; unlike the cruise ship, the Fury was a military starship and everything had to be in its place. That, Timothy found, included a handful of civilians who had been pulled out of a wrecked starship.

Markus had suggested that he get some sleep and allow his mind time to heal, but Timothy didn’t feel like sleeping, not when he could use the computer to explore the Fury and examine the starship and its mission in greater detail. The computer system was comparable to the ones he had used back on Taurus, but there were some areas that were firmly closed to him, including more than a basic overview of the starship itself. The Fury was a light cruiser, currently based at Fairfax along with the Fairfax Sector Fleet; Fairfax itself had been upgraded into a major billet for the Imperial Fleet…at least in theory. Reading between the lines, it was easy to see that Markus had been right; the Imperial Fleet was badly shorthanded, in both ships and men. The basic political overview of the sector revealed unorganised chaos; half of the major worlds in the sector wanted independence, or at least some clear limits on Centre’s authority, now that the Imperials were gone.

He shook his head and turned his attention back to the Fury itself. Surprisingly, it was easy to access the records of the attack on the Max Capricorn…and images taken directly by the starship’s sensors. The Max Capricorn remained floating in space, looking surprisingly intact, but closer inspection revealed that the starship had been killed and left for dead. Timothy looked at the drifting ship for a long moment, and then turned back to the Fury; he wanted to know everything. The light cruiser, crew of two hundred, had been through the scrapes of the Grey War before being assigned to support the Imperial Fleet…or something like that. The entries relating to that particular agreement were vague to the point of complete incomprehension. Since then, the Fury had chased down and caught several pirate ships, had been damaged twice by pirates too dumb to know when they were beaten, or smart enough to know that the Imperial Fleet would show them no mercy, and had been on random patrol when it had detected the distress call from the Max Capricorn.

Timothy forced himself to concentrate as he dug deeper into the computer files, not exactly knowing what he was looking for, but hunting almost by instinct as a plan started to congeal in his mind. The files he wanted were completely unrestricted, but they were long and complicated; the regulations that governed the Imperial Fleet had been written by Imperials, who loved rules, regulations and fancy protocols. No one had seen an Imperial for thirty-odd years – and Timothy had never seen one at all – but there was no denying the way they’d stamped their rule on a third of the galaxy. The sheer size of the Empire proved that…

It took him nearly four hours of concentrated searching before he found what he was looking for, and another hour to build a case that – he hoped – would stand up to scrutiny. Markus had told him that he would take him to the mess for the evening meal, in hopes of tying his body clock to the ship’s time. When he entered, Timothy was ready.

“I have been looking up the Imperial Fleet’s regulations,” Timothy said, after Markus had enquired after his health.

“You must be the first person to do that of his own free will for years,” Markus said dryly. Timothy smiled, despite himself. “Why did you inflict such torment on yourself?”

Timothy hesitated. “I was looking up the rules,” he said. “Markus, I want to enlist.”

Chapter Five: The Slave Market

They hadn’t touched her, not once.

Despite herself, Tiffany found that ominous. She might have been a virgin, but she knew enough about men to know that most men had a tendency to think with their sexual organs, chasing women as if nothing else mattered in the world. The Empire had very little in the way of sexual discrimination, but even so, she had been warned that some men had no regard for normal conventions. Free of the Empire’s laws, some men would prey on women as if they were nothing, but sexual creatures…and, from what Abigail had said, she had feared that that would be her fate.

The interview with Jarvis had only made her feel worse. Her education, such as it was, hadn’t been of any use to the pirates. She knew the basics of colony life – everyone was taught that on Taurus, just in case there was a real disaster – but that was little use in space, not when all the rules she knew involved living on the surface of a planet. He’d asked her about spacecraft technology, mechanical aptitude, weapons training…anything that might have come in handy for a pirate’s life, but she hadn’t been able to please him. She had kept her mouth shut about knowing to use weapons – her brother’s mentor had taught her as well – on the theory that it would be better if Jarvis knew nothing about that, but she hadn’t had any bargaining chips at all.

“You seem to be worthless,” Jarvis had said, scrutinising a passenger manifest from the Max Capricorn. The pirates had gloated, from time to time, about the person back on Equinox who had sold them the information on the course and speed of the passenger ship. “You don’t have any relatives who might pay for you, you don’t have any skills, you don’t have anything, but your body.”

Tiffany, who had given serious thought to claiming to have an entire series of rich uncles, kept her mouth firmly shut. “You’re going to be sold at Gotha,” Jarvis had informed her. “You should bring us some money and make keeping you alive worthwhile. If you behave, we’ll try and sell you to someone who will be nice to you; if you don’t behave, we’ll sell you to someone who wants more flesh for his brothel.”

She looked around the small set of cabins again as her mind returned to the present. There were seventeen teenage girls who had been determined as useless…and they had all been put into the same series of interconnected cabins. They had once been quarters for the crew – the starship itself had once belonged to the Imperial Fleet or one of the Home Guard forces – but the pirates had turned them into a cell, even through they weren’t chained up or tied to the floor or restrained in any other way. She’d hoped that that was a sign of incompetence, but it hadn’t taken more than five minutes to determine that the only way out of the cell was through the door; they had no weapons, no tools which might allow them to burn through the wall…and even if they had, where would they go?

We’re self-caring animals, she thought bitterly. It all made a certain kind of sense; the pirates had given them the tools to take care of themselves, from water showers to soap and towels, even some makeup, and expected them to use it. Tiffany had wondered, back in their first cell, what would happen when they needed to go to the toilet, but now it was up to them if they went or not. Jarvis had reminded them, rather dryly, that if they wanted to mess up the room, they could…and if they wanted to mess themselves up, they wouldn’t be such an investment for the person who bought them. She hated that – it was on a par with the logic that said that it was fine to exterminate people you didn’t like – but there was no denying the fact that he was right; she’d seen something like it back on Taurus. The colony world hadn’t had any slaves, but farmers had taken much better care of rare and expensive animals than they had of cheap and prolific animals. They had also tried to exterminate rats and cockroaches, to say nothing of the rabbits, that had gotten loose on the planet…and Tiffany suspected that the same logic applies to their slaves.

The cold core at her heart grew colder the further they travelled. The Max Capricorn had been an advanced ship; it had been almost impossible to tell if the starship was actually in motion or not. The Bloody Hand, by contrast, was an old ship…and a poorly maintained one, at that. She could almost hear the thrumming of the Phase Drive as it powered the ship further and further away from Equinox, and she knew that the further they travelled, the further out into the Rim they must be going. She knew the basics; the further out the Empire had spread, the further it had pushed the various rogue colonies and pirates into the galaxy. She vaguely remembered legends of starships from Old Earth, just after the Imperials had added Earth to their Empire, heading away from Earth to the other side of the galaxy, trying to hide from the Empire. The Rim was a lawless place…and if the pirates wanted to harm her, they could do whatever they wanted to her…

That simple fact kept drumming through her head, time and time again; she was at their mercy. Abigail had visited the girls from time to time, checking up on them, and she had made that fact clear to them. If they didn’t cooperate in their own enslavement, if they made the pirates tired of them, they would suffer and die in one of the most horrific manners imaginable. Abigail herself was a slave, of sorts, but she had earned a little respect; Tiffany knew that there was no time for her to earn such respect. She hadn’t missed the fact that there had been twenty-one teenage girls in the original compartment…and that only seventeen of them had been shoved into their shared imprisonment and told to wait.

“One of them had knowledge that Jarvis thought would be useful,” Abigail had said, when she had forced herself to ask the one person who might know and give them a straight answer. “The other three were rewards to certain members of the crew who did a very good job in the last few raids; they’re going to be their personal slaves now.”

The sheer casual brutality made Tiffany wince, but there seemed to be no escape…and as the hours wore on and on, their distance from the Empire only grew. She had a basic memory implant only, but one of the other girls had a timing implant in her head and she swore blind that it had been at least a week since they had been captured, long enough to be hundreds of light years from Equinox. She worried at the problem, knowing that the remainder of her family were dead, but she lacked the knowledge required to calculate even a rough location for the ship…and what good would it have done, really? As the noise of the Phase Drive faded, she felt cold dread spreading through her body; they had reached the endpoint of their journey.

It wouldn’t be long now.

The door hissed open. Jarvis stepped inside, a gesture of power that was childish, banal, and a reminder that it could be a great deal worse. Tiffany had hated it when Timothy walked in on her dressing, which had happened more than once, but Jarvis did it as if he really intended to catch them undressed. It was childish, in its way; there was nothing stopping him from just forcing one of them, or all of them, to strip, but she understood the lesson that was being hammered into their skulls. They had no rights, no hope…so they had better behave, or else.

“We are now making our final approach to Gotha,” Jarvis said, his eyes skimming over their underwear-clad bodies. “Here are your instructions; you will shower completely, washing every part of your bodies, and then you will be escorted off the ship to the market, where your buyers will see everything you have.”

It took Tiffany a moment to realise that he meant naked. “Gotha is not a nice, safe, asteroid,” Jarvis continued. There was a gloating note in his voice. “You may think of escaping, but believe me, you’ll be lucky if we recapture you; some of the denizens of the asteroid are too poor to go to the brothel. The higher the price you fetch, the more likely that you’ll be treated well, so do try to look as if you’re willing to do whatever they ask.”

A series of dull rumbles ran through the ship. “You’d better hurry,” Jarvis said. “It’s a bad idea to keep Captain Donnelly waiting.”

Tiffany wanted to protest, she wanted to scream, but there was no choice. Two of the girls got hysterical and Jarvis zapped them both with his whip, which shocked anyone who was touched by it. Reluctantly, she washed herself and stepped back out of the shower, allowing the gust of hot air to dry her, looking away so that she didn’t see the looks on a few faces. The pirates looked…as if they wanted to rape them all now, while the girls either looked broken, or determined to make the best of the situation.

“Line up, keep your hands on your head, or we’ll tie them behind your backs,” the pirate leader said. It was all Tiffany could do to comply; she had never been so naked in her life. A handful of girls couldn’t do it and had their hands tied; Tiffany watched as Jarvis manhandled the girl in front of her and felt another part of her soul grow cold and die. “Follow us now, remain in a line.”

The starship felt different now, as they marched through it’s corridors, passing leering pirates who called out obscene comments and remarks as they passed, or a handful who looked away from the helpless girls. Just for a single nightmarish moment, she saw Alan and their eyes met, before he looked away from her. She hadn’t seen him since the first day on the Bloody Hand; she guessed that he had been conscripted into the pirate ranks, rather than sold into slavery. It made her wonder if he would have a chance to buy her, but cold logic suggested otherwise; they wouldn’t let someone they barely knew purchase a slave.

A hand, at her neck; she almost flinched as a man fixed a silver collar around her neck. Captain Donnelly – he had to be the Captain because he was wearing the Captain’s Hat; Abigail had told her that only the Captain got to wear such a hat – didn’t look like much, until she saw his eyes. They didn’t leer, they didn’t dismiss her as an inferior, they just…were too cold and disciplined, but tinged with a core of madness. Captain Donnelly was mad, in Tiffany’s unprofessional judgement; the heavy collar she now wore at her neck was proof enough of that. Two more girls started to panic and had their own hands tied; Tiffany forced herself to remain calm, even as part of her mind was screaming. It would be so easy to just give up, but her core refused to surrender; the pirates pushed them through the airlock, through a connecting tunnel, into a massive cavern. The noises that greeted them almost forced her back; there was a massive crowd of people, mostly men, staring at her and the other girls. Captain Donnelly was displaying his wares, she realised; even as they walked onwards, trying to appear as useless as possible, the word was already spreading. Captain Donnelly had seventeen girls to sell, she guessed; the people who would be interested in buying her would be coming to see them all.

Free advertising, she thought bitterly. Part of her mind couldn’t believe that this was happening to her; not even in her deepest, darkest fantasises had she wanted anything like this to happen to her. The rest of her mind was growing colder and colder as she glanced from side to side, taking in the pirates; some of them, the women, looked worse than the men. They wore outfits out of nightmare, cut to show off and distract any possible male opponents, safe in their status as the most violent people on the asteroid. They were the people, she saw now, who succeeded in the pirate community, the people who took their chance and ran with it. She would have to be like them to survive…

They were herded into a small pen and told to wait. The pen wouldn’t have been able to hold sheep, let alone humans, but the crowds surrounding them ensured that they were trapped. Some of the watchers, mainly young boys, tried to touch the girls, only to be struck by Jarvis’s whip. Tiffany wondered just what became of any children unlucky enough to grow up among the pirates; did they become pirates themselves, or did they end up being lucky enough to escape the asteroid? Somehow, she doubted it.

A man was talking; she could see him, standing on a small platform. “Captain Donnelly has seventeen young fillies to sell,” he bawled, his voice echoing out over sudden silence. “Seventeen young girls, half of them virgins, good for nothing, but fucking!” There was a low rumble of conversation through the crowd. “Captain Donnelly has placed a price of fifty thousand credits on the entire batch; do I have any takers?”

There was a long pause. “No takers?” The man asked. “Going…going…gone!”

Jarvis caught one of the girls by the arm and pushed her up onto the platform. The crowd cheered and catcalled as the girl shrank back from their view, but there was no way that she could cover herself from their gaze. The man shouted for quiet and called for bids.

“Ten credits,” someone called. There was a roar of laughter and then someone else shouted out a higher bid; the bidding raged higher and higher as more bids were tossed in, finally ending with seven hundred credits. Captain Donnelly shook hands with a tough-looking young man, before taking the collar off the girl and passing her over to her buyer, who led her away before she could protest.

“Next,” the auctioneer shouted. Tiffany watched in dismay as three more girls were rapidly sold, one to a Captain like Captain Donnelly and two to a fat woman wearing a black outfit, who hooked the girls up to a pole and returned to place more bids. She tried to tune out his voice, but it was so hard; it cut right into the very heart of her soul. “Next…”

Before she quite knew it, it was Tiffany’s turn. Jarvis caught her arm and pushed her onto the stage; she cringed back as she took in the sight before her. It was all she could do to keep her hands on her head; the crowd stared at her as Jarvis swung her around, showing off everything she had.

“A prime young farm girl,” the auctioneer said. “Smart, sexy, obedient – see how she’s keeping her hands on her head – and very healthy…and, I must add, a virgin.” The leer in his voice almost made Tiffany faint. “Who will be the first to place a bid?”

“A hundred credits,” the fat woman roared. She had bought five of the girls, Tiffany saw; she couldn’t understand why she would want so many girls. “A hundred credits and ten vouchers!”

“Fuck you,” someone called, to general amusement. “One hundred and fifty credits!”

The bids kept rolling in, some of them in credits, others in goods and services that Tiffany didn’t fully understand, although she guessed from one shouted comment that the fat woman was the owner of a brothel. It made a sick kind of sense, but as the bidders warred with one another, she felt cold; if she went into a brothel, she sensed, somehow, that she wouldn’t come out again.

“One thousand credits,” the fat woman shouted, spittle coming out of her mouth. She looked as if she was going to have a heart attack on the spot and Tiffany found herself praying that she would; she didn’t want to be bought by her. “One thousand credits, Captain Donnelly…”

“One thousand and one credits,” someone else shouted. There was a roar of good-natured laughter from the crowd.

“Piss off,” the fat woman shouted. “One thousand and two credits!”

“If we could kindly have serious bids only,” the auctioneer said, probably to head off someone calling out one thousand and three credits. “I have one thousand and two credits…”

“One thousand, one hundred,” someone called. Captain Donnelly waved towards a half-seen figure in the gloom; Tiffany followed his eyes to see someone wearing a Captain’s Hat. She smiled towards him as best as she could. “I need someone now!”

“One thousand, two hundred,” the fat woman called out, not to be outdone. “You can get yours at Momma’s, cheap at twice the price.”

“One thousand, three hundred,” the new Captain snapped. “Your girls all have the pox anyway!”

“Oh, fuck you,” the fat woman snapped, and cancelled her bids. “You’ll be selling her back to me soon enough!”

“I have one thousand, three hundred,” the auctioneer said. “Are there any advances on one thousand, three hundred?” He waited for nearly a minute. “Going, going…gone!”

Tiffany looked over at her new master as Captain Donnelly removed her collar and passed her over to the newcomer. “This girl is well worth your while, Captain Blackbird,” he assured the new Captain. Tiffany didn’t smile; Abigail had warned her that the pirates tended to pick their own names. “We must talk later about a joint raid, somewhere private.”

“Of course,” Captain Blackbird said. His gaze passed over Tiffany with a wry amusement that somehow made her flinch backwards. “Until then…come along, my dear.”

Chapter Six: Enlisting

Captain Lord Daniel Venture stared down at the holographic image of the Max Capricorn for a long moment, and then he dismissed it with a wave of his hand, the display automatically returning to the planet below. Equinox was a fairly normal world as far as the Empire was concerned, with a handful of genuine tourist attractions that were about to lose a great deal of cash. Once the news about the Max Capricorn got out around the Empire – and Equinox was one of the handful of worlds in the Fairfax Sector to possess an FTL communicator – the tourist trade would take a major hit. The planetary governor knew that, which was why he had been calling Captain Venture almost consistently, almost begging him to put off informing Fairfax – and Admiral Johnston – for as long as possible.

It was sickeningly typical of politicians, at least in Captain Venture’s opinion, to be more concerned about upsetting their people than the safety of the Empire as a whole. The Fairfax Sector was a strange place, true, but it wasn’t the job of any sector politician to dictate policy to the Imperial Fleet, not when it involved pirates and the danger they presented to shipping. Captain Venture had been born Lord Venture, third in line to the Lordship that controlled a vast amount of the Empire’s shipping in the Human Sector, and he understood that, better than anyone. His family had wanted to get rid of him, considering him incompetent or worse, and they had pulled strings to ensure that he had a command in a place where incompetence could cost lives.

He had surprised them, Captain Venture thought, when he considered it; the Fury might have been an old ship, but she was tough. He had gone out expecting it to be a death sentence, or at the very least an excuse for them to disinherit him, but he had found that he cared. He’d walked through the remains of starships, asteroid settlements and planets hit by pirates and found that he, along with almost every Imperial Fleet officer stationed along the Rim, that it had become personal. He could have gone back into the inner worlds, where competence wasn't such an issue, but instead he had determined to stay and hunt down pirates until the day he retired from the Imperial Fleet. He liked to think that his family would be proud of him, but he no longer cared about their opinion, not when he saw the faces of people who had been saved from pirate attacks.

Not, he grimly conceded, that the Max Capricorn affair would ever be rated as a success. It should have been a success; he’d done everything right, but the pirates had still been spooked. It had been suggested that they might have been warned about the Fury by someone on Equinox, but that was impossible…for the very simple reason that no one on Equinox had known that the Fury was in-system. He had planned to sneak up on the pirates, blow their drives away and then they could surrender or die; instead, they had to have caught a sniff of the Fury and fled, rather than stand and fight. That decision, unfortunately, was rational; the pirate ship would have been no match for the Fury, had they tried to fight. Hell, the system patrol boats might have come out to join the fight; their firepower would have been welcome.

He glanced down again at the report from the survey crews. Several hundred passengers remained unaccounted for, including almost all of the crew; the only member of the Max Capricorn’s crew who had been accounted for was dead, killed in the early moments of the boarding, according to the Doctor. It was possible that they were drifting out somewhere in space, along with hundreds of others, but there was no way that they would ever be found. Imperial Intelligence would have to keep an eye out for them, just in case; one of them might have sold out the Max Capricorn and her passengers. The political situation in Fairfax was so confusing that there were times when no one, not even the planetary governors, seemed to be on the Empire’s side. Admiral Johnston had a dozen superdreadnaughts, spread out over the three most important worlds in the sector, but superdreadnaughts were lousy for patrol work. They needed light units, hundreds of them, and Centre had too many other problems to assign them out to Fairfax…

A chime at the door interrupted his thoughts. “Come in,” he said, and hit the door release. Senior Chief Crewman Markus Wilhelm appeared at the door. “What can I do for you?”

Markus saluted, something that warned Captain Venture that this was more than a social call, even though Imperial Fleet protocol didn’t apply so much to the smaller ships. Fury had only two hundred crewmen, three quarters of them crewmen rather than officers or Marines, and Markus was the senior crewman. It was Markus’s job to handle the crewmen and their problems, something he normally did very well…along with his other duties. The shorthanded Fury kept pressing its crew into duties that would normally be outside their written responsibilities.

“Captain,” Markus said. “I would like to request a Captain’s Audience.”

Captain Venture blinked. It was one of the odder traditions of the Imperial Fleet that any crewman could request a formal meeting with his Captain – a Captain’s Audience – at any time, provided only that the ship wasn't in the middle of a battle or something else that inarguably kept the Captain from seeing to the request. It was also a tradition that if any crewman wasted the Captain’s time with such a request, the Captain would be quite within his rights to assign punishment without any normal review, or indeed any restraints. The formal request was very rare; indeed, Captain Venture had never been asked for one before, by anyone.

“Granted,” he said. If nothing else, it would take his mind off the Max Capricorn and the planet below, and, besides, Markus had always been responsible. “Stand at ease…in fact, take a seat if you would like.”

Markus came right to the point. “I have been spending time with Timothy,” he said, shortly. Captain Venture nodded; he had ordered Markus to see to it personally, but it was just like him to actually handle it himself, rather than pass the duty on to another crewmember. “The young man would like to enlist as a member of Fury’s crew.”

“I beg your pardon,” Captain Venture said. “He wants to enlist as a crewmember?”

“Yes, sir,” Markus said. “He doesn’t have anywhere else to go.”

“I see, I think,” Captain Venture said. “What about his family?”

“None left, now, apart from very distant relatives,” Markus said. “His three main family members were killed on the Max Capricorn, two of them right in front of his eyes, and his mother…”

“I understand,” Captain Venture said. The Doctor’s brief analysis of Mrs Keck’s body had made it very clear that she had been raped. It wasn't technically permitted to enlist people who might want revenge, or had a motive besides serving the Empire, but if that rule had been enforced, at least half of the fleet’s entire personnel list would have to be sacked. “And he wants to enlist with us?”

“Yes, sir,” Markus said. “Like I said, there’s nowhere else for him to go.”

“I was intending to keep him on the ship for a few more weeks,” Captain Venture said, speaking more to himself than to Markus. “The Governor wanted the witnesses to be landed on the planet, but I’m not sure I want to do that, not with the way he’s acting…”

He shrugged. “Does young Mr Keck qualify?”

Markus hesitated. “He’s got some training in areas any Midshipman needs to cover,” he said. “He doesn’t have the specialised training of any of the specialised positions, or the more focused training of any of the training centres that we would normally expect any midshipman to possess, but he’s bright and he’s willing to learn. We could teach him what he needs to know to hold down a Midshipman’s billet within a few months, while any further promotions would have to be on merit.”

He paused. “There are two problems, sir,” he continued. “The first one is that he doesn’t have any formally accredited training in starship life; Taurus was not intended to start sending recruits to the Imperial Fleet for another couple of hundred years. The second one is that he’s fourteen…and really young for the role.”

Captain Venture steepled his fingers and considered it. The Imperial Fleet would normally recruit someone between thirteen and twenty-one to be a Midshipman, but anyone who came in below their first Majority – sixteen – had to do it with parental approval. The younger someone was when they became a cadet, the harder their lives would be; a Midshipman was, very much, the lowest of the low. A crewman would have specialised training to make up for not being in the chain of command…and any crewman could apply to become a mustang if they wanted to rise further in the fleet. A Midshipman – and there were only five on Fury – would be expected to do anything, whatever it was, and their careers could be halted on a whim.

“He doesn’t have any parents,” he said, shortly. Did Markus have a solution to that problem? “It makes the legalities a little complex…”

“I am prepared to adopt him, formally,” Markus said. Captain Venture lifted an eyebrow. “It is unlikely that Carola and I will ever have children, not after…” His voice broke off, reminding Captain Venture that apart from him and his Midshipmen, almost every member of his crew had good reason to hate pirates. “That might cause problems, Sir, so I was going to suggest that you declared him a Ward of the Fleet.”

“Interesting thought,” Captain Venture conceded. If Markus had adopted Timothy directly, he would have faced charges of favouritism, particularly from bureaucrats who had never met either of them. Technically, it was within his authority – the Captain had nearly limitless authority when in space – to declare Timothy a Ward of the Fleet, but it was very rare…and it would look bad. “It won’t be easy for him at all, Markus; does he understand what he’s asking?”

“I put him through hell over the last couple of weeks, sir,” Markus said. “He understands just what he’s asking for, and he stood up very well. He can do it, sir, and where else can he go?”

“There’s more than just him at stake,” Captain Venture reminded him dryly. “Are you willing to devote hours of your own time to teaching him? What about others of the crew? We don’t have all of the academy’s training equipment out here; what are we going to do about issues we can’t cover onboard?”

“I spoke to the Senior Midshipwoman, Lieutenant Commander Kurt Taub and Lieutenant Lance Hinton,” Markus said. “They are all prepared to spend some time, at least a few hours a week, working with Timothy. You would be within your rights to put a freeze on his seniority, even treat him as a cadet, until he passes the basic tests, but I believe that he will be capable of mastering them fairly quickly.”

Captain Venture nodded slowly. “You’ve clearly through this though,” he said, with a trace of very real approval. A thought struck him and he smiled. “I take it he’s waiting outside?”

“Yes, sir,” Markus said, rather sheepishly.

“Then please bring him inside,” Captain Venture said. “Let’s see how this young man shapes up to your statements, shall we?”


Timothy had been waiting outside, silently grateful that very few crewmen or even junior officers would come into Officer Country, not unless they had some important reason to be within the handful of cabins that held Lieutenants and the handful of senior crewmen. He was nervous, even though he tried to remain calm; Markus had put him through almost all of the protocol lessons he’d need, and he'd learned more from the handful of Midshipmen he'd met, but he was still nervous. The cold fire burned within his soul, but if the Captain refused…what then? What could he do without his Majority or any relatives?

“Timothy,” Markus said. Timothy almost started; he had been so wrapped in his thoughts that he hadn’t heard the door hissing open. “It’s time to meet the Captain.”

Timothy had seen the Captain before, but it was different facing him in his element; the office that the Captain used for his paperwork when he wasn't on the bridge. Captain Venture looked…unfinished, in a way, a man with a weak chin, but a sense of cold determination that kept him going, whatever happened to get in his way. Markus had told him that the Captain, like everyone else on the ship, loathed pirates; he might be sympathetic to Timothy’s request. He came to attention and saluted – Markus had hammered that into him – and remained firmly at attention, his eyes staring right ahead.

“Stand at ease,” Captain Venture said. Timothy relaxed, barely. The Captain’s voice held a hint of aristocracy underlying the firm note of command. “Senior Chief Crewman Wilhelm wishes to inform me that you would like to enlist as a Midshipman onboard my vessel.”

“Yes, sir,” Timothy said. Markus had warned him to limit his answers as much as possible; the Captain would ask more questions if he wanted more information.

“Good,” Captain Venture said, slowly. “There are some things we need you to understand. You are not trained to academy standards; if you choose to enlist, we will have to train you and we won’t have the time to allow for mistakes. It will be hard, difficult, and perhaps dangerous. It will be better – for us – to find out now if you can’t handle the pressure. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir,” Timothy said.

“You won’t be a Midshipman at first,” Captain Venture continued. “You will be enlisted as a Cadet – although you will sleep in the wardroom with the Midshipmen – and you will be treated as one. If you do well, within a month to two months, we will promote you to Midshipman and then you’ll join the normal promotion rate and start acuminating seniority. If you don’t do well, we will eventually return you to Taurus or somewhere else within the Fairfax Sector, maybe with a recommendation that the local fleet academy takes you on.”

His voice softened slightly. “It will be difficult,” he said, again. His eyes held Timothy’s eyes for a single moment, assessing, judging, and making a choice. “If you want to back out, this is your final chance.”

Timothy said nothing. “Very good,” Captain Venture said. He stood up and walked over to a small cupboard, set within the wall; he opened it and pulled out a small brown book, placing it on the table in front of Timothy’s eyes. “Do you recognise this book?”

“No, sir,” Timothy said. The script on the front looked like Imperial One, the language the Imperials had used, back when they had founded the Empire, but he couldn’t read it. As far as he knew, no one on Taurus had spoken anything, but Imperial Seventeen; English. The book looked…old.

“This is a copy of the Precepts of the Empire,” Captain Venture said. “It contains everything that serves as the foundation of the Empire, from commands for relations between races to acceptable tasks and missions for the Imperial Fleet. There will be times when this little book is your best friend and times when you’ll quietly – very quietly – ignore it and take a calculated risk. A new copy is created for a new Captain, who will keep it with him until he is promoted or retires, in that case passing it on to his protégée. This copy belonged to my grandfather and his father before him.”

He paused. “All of us, from crewmen to Fleet Admirals, have sworn to uphold this book and the laws that govern the Empire, not something that is so easy now that the Imperials are gone. Are you willing to swear to uphold the book and serve the fleet until you die or retire?”

“Yes, sir,” Timothy said.

“Place your hands on the cover,” Captain Venture ordered. The cover felt of nothing, but leather, but there was a faint spark of…something hanging over the book. Timothy wasn't sure if he was imagining it, but the Empire was over three thousand years old…and perhaps all those years were looking now, down over his shoulder. There had been thousands upon thousands, of a hundred different races, who had served the Imperials. “Repeat after me; I, Timothy Keck, of my own free will…”

“I, Timothy Keck, of my own free will…”

“…Do swear to uphold the values and traditions of the Imperial Fleet, to defend the Empire to the last drop of blood, to place myself between citizens and any harm, to speak truth and stand above politics…”

Timothy finished the oath. The Imperials clearly hadn’t believed in mincing their words; building a massive empire hadn’t given them much patience for those who would threaten what they’d built by failing to uphold their traditions. They had given them something to uphold and now…Timothy, along with anyone else who had taken the oath, would have to uphold the oath, or die trying. He didn’t feel different, except now he was committed; he had committed himself of his own free will.

“Congratulations, Cadet Keck,” Captain Venture said. There was a new note in his voice now. “Senior Chief, please escort the Cadet to his new quarters and start the program for his training.”

“Yes, sir,” Markus said. There was not a trace of compassion or concern in his voice now. He’d warned Timothy that that would happen, but even so, it was still a shock. “Cadet, follow me; you’re in the fleet now.”

Chapter Seven: The Captain

“There are two things I want you to bear in mind at all times,” Captain Blackbird said, as soon as they had walked away from the slave market. Behind them, Tiffany could hear the manager proclaiming the sale of other slaves, including someone described as a farm boy and a mechanic who had been caught with his hand in the till. Naked and alone, she listened carefully; it might save her life. “The first thing is that you work for me and me alone. The second thing is that I can do anything to you.”

His lips twitched into a smile that didn’t quite touch his cold eyes. “If you intend to kill me and escape, please bear in mind that if you don’t kill me in your first strike, I will certainly kill you, or sell you to Momma so that you can enjoy the rest of a short life lying on your back, tied to a rack, and being fucked by hundreds of men in a day. Do we understand one another?”

Tiffany nodded once, trying to prevent tears coming to her eyes.

“Good,” Captain Blackbird said. His voice softened slightly. “What’s your name?”

“Tiffany,” Tiffany said. She wondered if it was a moment of sympathy, idle curiosity, or something else. “Where are we going?”

“The shops,” Captain Blackbird said. “Follow me.”

Tiffany studied Captain Blackbird as he led her back into the main part of the asteroid. He was tall, taller than her, but moved as if he was the largest man in the hall. He wore a simple outfit, but treated the Captain’s Hat as if it were a crown; the people who saw him scrambled to get out of their way. His body, what little she could see of it under the outfit, seemed fit and tones; his face was handsome in a vague kind of way, topped by an unruly mop of dark red hair. The colouring wasn’t that much different from her own hair; it made her wonder if he’d bought her just because of her hair colour, before she remembered that anyone could change their own hair colour to anything they might want. Even on the asteroid, there shouldn’t be any problems with basic cosmetic adjustments; God knew that there hadn’t been any such problems on Taurus.

But it was his eyes that caught at her mind. They were bright blue, but cold, very cold. He had smiled at her…but his eyes had remained cold. The eyes scared her, in their own way, and they seemed to scare others; people scattered out of his way as he passed through a long series of stalls and marketplaces. Tiffany had seen her father’s general store – she’d even worked in a second store – and that had been orderly; the asteroid market was organised chaos. Hundreds of men, women and even children thronged around, arguing, fighting and even shouting at each other as they bargained for one sale or another. The stores themselves seemed strange; one store promised drugs to delight any jaded palate, another promised weapons, a third promised valuable electronic components lifted from the Imperial Fleet. The people she passed looked at her, taking in her naked body…and then they took in her owner, and flinched back. Captain Blackbird wasn’t just respected, she saw now; he was feared.

The clothing store itself was massive, easily ten times the size of her father’s store, but it was disorderly. Some parts seemed to be nothing more than material – with a sign advertising a service for producing clothes – other parts seemed to have hundreds of different clothes, all mixed together with all the enthusiasm of a cut-price sale. Some of the items were bizarre, from the waistcoat to the pair of panties that had a massive hole cut in the underside, some items were just…enough to make her blush. Naked as she was, she would have almost preferred to remain naked, rather than wear something that looked like it was designed to call attention to her in the worst possible way.

“Find enough clothing for a fortnight,” Captain Blackbird ordered shortly, and settled back to watch. Tiffany was aware of his regard as she hunted through the various piles of clothing and bins of older clothes, sensing his gaze as it followed every movement of her body. He was clearly admiring his purchase, but at least he hadn’t simply raped her at once; it gave her some hope for the future. An older woman, one with a grim look in her eye, appeared and glared at her, before Captain Blackbird snapped his fingers and she turned to helping Tiffany.

“Try this,” she said, passing Tiffany a small outfit. It was a basic skirt and pants outfit; Tiffany tried it on without regard to hygiene or any other more normal concerns. It fitted; the woman dug through a set of bins and found more items of roughly the same size, before selecting a set of underwear that made Tiffany blush again. The small pile of clothing was growing larger, some of it practical, other parts clearly intended for private wear only. “Will you be wanting a skinsuit?”

Captain Blackbird answered before Tiffany could say anything. “Not at present, thank you,” he said. “Tiffany, put on one of the outfits; have the others bagged up for transport to my ship.”

“Of course,” the woman said. She fuzzed around Tiffany for a long moment, helping her to get dressed, before passing her a small makeup kit and winking at her. Tiffany kept her face blank through a major effort of will; the woman, despite her smile, knew exactly what she was and was helping her to look nice for her owner. It showed her just what was required to get ahead in the pirate world; compassion and respect seemed to be null issues on Gotha. “It is always a pleasure doing business with you, Captain.”

“Of course,” Captain Blackbird said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small necklace, laden with strange glowing gems. “I trust that this is sufficient payment?”

“Of course,” the woman said, bowing almost low enough for Tiffany to look up her dress. “I’ll have the items sent over to you in an hour, once the boy gets back from lunch and that whore he’s seeing in the brothel.”

Tiffany had no time to wonder at what she meant before Captain Blackbird pulled her out of the shop and started to lead her back through the asteroid. Now that she was dressed, she had more of a chance to look around and take in the sights, wondering at whoever would run an asteroid in such a manner. The asteroid settlement she’d visited, in orbit over Taurus, had been very clean and tidy; this asteroid was dirty, in a charming sort of way. The people themselves were strange; some of them wore shocking outfits, walking around as if they owned the place – for all she knew, they did – while others were walking around in drab clothes, keeping their heads down. One girl, chained on her knees, met her eyes for a moment; the despair and hopelessness in her eyes chilled Tiffany to the bone.

“She tried to cheat her Captain,” Captain Blackbird observed, following her gaze. His voice took on a dark undertone of amusement. “He beat hell out of her, knocked out all of her teeth, and chained her there to give a blowjob to any man who wants one for free. If she tried to refuse, the man could always force his way into her…I trust that you are drawing the right lesson here?”

Tiffany felt sick.

The asteroid settlement, she realised as they left the open-air market far behind, wasn't a conventional settlement; the spaceport wasn’t counter-rotating, but simply connected to the asteroid through a set of tubes, which reminded her of something. She tried to remember, but every time she tried to think, the thought was pushed away by the memory of the girl kneeling there, with her mouth nothing more than a bloody mass. Captain Blackbird had wanted her to see that, clearly; it was a threat and a promise…and a lesson. If she did anything stupid, she’d better make damn sure she got it right first time…

They passed through a set of airlocks and finally reached a single hatch, which hissed open, revealing four people standing there. All of them snapped to some semblance of attention as Captain Blackbird made his appearance; he stared at them, one by one, before nodding slowly and lifting his hat slightly above his head. They all relaxed slightly, but watched their Captain with wary eyes, as if he was a dangerous animal they had somehow been unlucky enough to be trapped near, without any hope of escape.

“This is Tiffany,” Captain Blackbird said, without preamble. He pointed to each of his people in turn. “First Mate Robert” – a short man with a permanent scowl – “Second Mates, Jadis and Erica” – two girls, wearing outfits that showed a lot of cleavage, one of them pale as snow, the other as black as the night – “and Jade, who is my personal manager.” He smiled, as if there was a joke there that Tiffany didn’t understand. “When I am not around, they speak with my voice; understand?”

“Yes, sir,” Tiffany said, staring at the women. The two Second Mates caught her attention and held it; they were clearly very confident in their positions and everyone knew it. They were striking, handsome rather than pretty; their eyes suggested that they had seen everything and had been burned by it, with all conventional weaknesses burned away, leaving them as pure ice. “I understand.”

“Good,” Captain Blackbird said. “Jade; escort Tiffany to my cabin and help prepare her for this evening. The rest of you, we have some planning to do; I picked up some information from one of the information brokers and there’s a chance that it could make us independently wealthy for life.”

Jade’s appearance, in its own way, was as striking as either of the Second Mates. She was short, but almost classically Chinese in appearance, so classically Chinese that Tiffany was certain that she had been genetically engineered to keep that basic appearance, whatever entered her bloodstream or impregnated her mother. She didn’t look bad, not compared to any of the handful of aliens she had met, but she looked odd; in such a cosmopolitan age, it was strange to meet someone who had been designed to be a throwback to some mythical pure racial appearance, back on Old Earth. There were worlds where that was common, such as New Brooklyn or Mao, but she was surprised to see it out on the Rim.

Her outfit was striking as well. She wore a very revealing outfit, one that showed a great deal of leg and chest, but unlike Tiffany, she held herself as if she had value on the ship. Her brown eyes were soft and warm, topped by long dark hair – spacers rarely had long hair, Tiffany had observed – and overall, Tiffany liked her on sight.

“Come on,” she said. Her voice was almost perfect Imperial Seventeen. “I’d better start getting you ready.”

Tiffany allowed her to lead her onto the ship and through a long series of corridors, chatting all the while, talking about everything from the crew of the starship – mostly on Gotha at the moment, getting drunk, getting laid, or picking fights – to the handful of raids she’d seen, ever since she had been sold to Captain Blackbird’s predecessor. Jade’s story about how Captain Blackbird had, one day, killed his former commanding officer in a pirates duel made Tiffany smile; apparently, any First Mate had the right to challenge his Captain, and the duel could not be refused. Jade pushed her, gently, on what Tiffany had been doing before she came onboard the Knife Edge; when she heard that Tiffany was a virgin, she laughed.

“You won’t be that for much longer,” she said. “The Captain will want to use you tonight, my dear.”

Tiffany felt her insides curdle. She knew about sex, of course, but she had never anticipated losing her virginity like that. “What’s the Captain like in bed?” She asked, as bluntly as she dared. She’d heard whispered stories from slumber parties, where she’d shared secrets with other girls, about what some boys liked them to do. “What does he want from you?”

“Good question,” Jade said, touching her lips with one finger. She refused to say another word until they had entered a large set of cabins, decorated in a style that suggested an ordered mind. “This is the one place on the ship where no one, but no one, would dare to place a few bugs or any other surveillance devices. Me, the Captain and the First Mate are the only ones with permission to enter; the Captain will clear you to enter soon enough, or else you’ll be trapped her.”

She paused. “I don’t know what the Captain is like in bed,” she admitted. “The First Mate is a boring sort of lad, if you know what I mean; he comes, summons me to his bed, and then just wants a simple session. He takes, from time to time, girls from ships that we’ve captured, forcing himself inside them, but he doesn’t get off on them being hurt, or anything like that. He doesn’t do much for me” – she winked a wink that would have gotten her arrested on some of the more conservative planets – “but he doesn’t make me scream either, not like some of the people on the lower decks.”

Tiffany felt cold. “But you don’t have to worry about that, sweetie,” Jade assured her. “You’re the Captain’s Woman. As long as you make him happy, you won’t have to worry about making anyone else happy, if you’ll catch my drift.”

Tiffany took a breath. “Tell me about the Second Mates,” she said. “What are they?”

“They’re interested only in themselves,” Jade said. “No one is actually sure if they’re lovers, sisters, or whatever. They were found on a ship that was captured a while back – the remainder of the crew having fought to the death – as infants, so the Captain who captured them adopted them and brought them up as a couple. They’re the most ruthless people on this ship, the most willing to start fights and finish them with extreme force, and the most loyal to Captain Blackbird. A set of guys – a rape gang – on an asteroid jumped them and tried to rape them; they beat hell out of seven men, before cutting off their balls and eating them, right in front of their eyes.”

She paused for a moment. “If the Captain is displeased with someone, or wants information extracted from an unwilling donor, he’ll let them handle it,” she said, grimly. “They get off on hurting people, particularly people who don’t want to be hurt; if they were men, they’d have a reputation that would terrify anyone into stark submission.”

Tiffany hesitated. “But would they teach me things?”

Jade looked at her for a long moment. “Are you trying to be useful?”

Tiffany nodded, touching one of her breasts with one hand. “The Captain won’t want me forever,” she said. The plan was growing stronger in her mind as she thought through it with care. “What happens when he finds another woman?”

“The last one was plotting against him,” Jade said. Tiffany blanched; had Captain Blackbird shown her the woman he’d been bedding before bringing her to his ship, or was he merely playing mind games with her? “If you can make yourself useful, then more power to you, but believe me…you might not want to be noticed by anyone on the ship.”

She rubbed a nearly-faded bruise on her side. “And don’t ever forget this,” she said, her voice falling to a hush. “You are at their mercy, always; they can do anything to you and you can’t stop them. Show him one hint of disloyalty and you’ll be lucky if he just snaps your neck in bed.”

There was a long pause. “But never fear that for the moment,” she said. “I’d better get you ready, before the Captain comes down to deflower you.”

Tiffany found the next half hour to be both fun and nightmarish. Jade knew everything about preparing someone for the Captain’s bed; she got the impression that she’d done it before, several times, as one of the Captain’s junior workers. She could see why, of course; Jade wasn’t interested in anything, but keeping her head down and not drawing attention. If someone took Captain Blackbird’s place, then she would be safe…but anyone who was too loyal to the old order would be the first to be thrown out of the nearest airlock. As she was washed, dressed and perfumed, Tiffany reflected on that; if she struck, she would have to be certain of both escape and success. She would need time to plan.

Jade glanced down at her wristcom. It had been implanted directly into her arm. “He’s on his way,” she said. Tiffany, dressed in lingerie that would have earned her a trip over her mother’s knee if she had seen her wearing it – somehow, the thought of her mother didn’t cause her much pain any longer – took a breath. Her heart was beating rapidly; her fears and apprehensions were driving her on, but she was barely able to move. She wanted to run, but she knew that that would be futile; where could she go where he couldn’t find her? “Sit on the bed and wait.”

Jade withdraw back into the living room; moments later, Tiffany heard voices on the other side of the door. She tried to make out what they were saying, but she couldn’t hear anything, until the door hissed back open, revealing Captain Blackbird. He was naked; her eyes were drawn, helplessly, to his penis. It was the first one she’d seen in her life…

“Come here,” Captain Blackbird ordered.

Tiffany obeyed.

Chapter Eight: The Cadet

Timothy’s bottom hit the ground hard enough for him to feel the jar right up his back.

“So tell me,” the Marine said, “do you still feel like trying to rape me?”

Timothy pulled himself to his feet, ruefully aware that the Marine could have kicked him in the chest, or the testicles, while he had been down on the ground, or even kicked his skull literally into pieces. She didn’t look impressive, and Timothy had been worried about hurting her when they’d started to spar, but the first time they’d stepped onto the mat, she’d knocked him down in barely five minutes. It had been more than a little humiliating, but as the Sergeant had pointed out, that was something of the point.

“I didn’t want to rape you in the first place,” he said, rubbing his behind as he managed a glare at her. He pushed as much injured dignity into his voice as he could. “I assure you that now raping you is the furthest thing from my mind.”

Elf gave him a mischievous look. She looked elfin – the Marines gave themselves nicknames and stuck to them while they remained at the lower ranks – and almost preteen in her body; when he’d first seen her, he had wondered if she was a child. She looked like jailbait, and while she was over eighteen years old, it was hard to take her seriously…until she’d knocked him down and smiled an angelic smile at him. Blonde curls, shaven close to her head and a body that looked as if it would ripen within the next few years completed the picture; the first time he’d seen her, Timothy had almost wanted to give her a hug.

“A pity,” she said. She’d told him that a handful of Marines had a habit of going through bars and picking fights with would-be rapists, although he wasn’t sure if he believed that. The Marines on Fury didn’t often get shore leave, any more than the other two hundred-odd crewmen on the starship; there was too much work for them to do. “It’s so much easier to work up the determination to flatten someone when I catch him with evil intentions.”

Timothy rolled his eyes and followed her through the showers and out into the Marine restroom. The Marines – all twenty-one of them, led by a Sergeant – would normally be more or less segregated from the remainder of the crew, something designed to keep them on their toes and concentrated on being Marines, rather than crewmen. That wasn’t possible on a light cruiser and so the Marines also handed a variety of shipboard tasks as well, some of them surprisingly complex, including damage control. The Marines also taught some of the tricks of their trade to the crewmen; Markus was almost rated equal to a Marine in hand-to-hand combat – and picked a weekly fight with the Sergeant in command of the tiny Company – while others merely wanted refreshers for their basic training. Elf – who was only a few years older than him and on her first deployment – was more than happy to fill his ears with horror stories about how terrible Marine training actually was, even though she swore blind that there was no better role in the Imperial Fleet.

He kept his eyes firmly off Elf as they showered together. The Marines were used to each other; he was much less used to female nudity, even after spending nearly a month sharing a single wardroom with five Midshipmen, two of them female. It had taken some getting used to before he had learned to hide his reaction, even through it had provoked ribald jokes rather than threats or abuse. He pulled on his uniform – the white uniform of a cadet, marked with the red stripes of a cadet vying for a commissioned status – and waved to Elf as he strode back into the restroom.

“Not too shabby,” Master Sergeant Robin Garrison said, as he stood up from where he had been sitting. He had been sitting almost at attention; standing up, he looked formidable beyond words. Timothy had watched him go head-to-head with one of the other Marines the week after he had formally enlisted as a cadet and neither of them had given up until they had both battered each other into a bleeding wreck. “You’ll need to practice more on your close-combat technique, particularly when she pulled out that knife…”

“You didn’t tell me that she was going to have a knife,” Timothy protested. He didn’t want to think about where Elf might have hidden it. “You said…”

“I told you that people will search for every advantage and take every opportunity they could get to hit you as hard as they can,” Garrison said dryly. “When I made Sergeant, I was sent back for a week of hard training at the Somme. On one mission, we were told to take a hill or they wouldn’t bother to feed us, so we took the hill. Half of the Company got killed – simulated, of course – but we took the hill.”

Timothy waited. The Master Sergeant didn’t tell many stories and the ones he did tell had a point to them. “The day afterwards, we did it again; same hill, same bunch of stupid defenders, same positions…and we took it. We lost less people that time. We did it again the day after that without losing a single life…and the day after that?”

He paused, dramatically. “We had the shit kicked out of us,” he concluded. “Do you know why? Because for the first three days, all the defenders remained in the same positions, and so we kicked their arse. We knew where they were, so we got careless…and on the fourth day, they moved everything and we walked into a trap, because we’d known that there wasn’t anything that could hit us…until it was too late. The moral of this story…?”

Timothy considered. “Don’t assume anything?”

“Damn right,” Garrison agreed. “Oh, in a formal match, Elf would have been dismissed, disqualified and disgraced for that little stunt, but there’s no point in whining about Marquis of Queensberry rules when you’re out in space, not when there are plenty of people willing to slit you open while you raise your fists for the first blow. There are no rules out there and if you want to win, remember that.” He shrugged. “You’re coming along fine with the weapons and armour; I can see signs of you having been taught by someone who actually knew what he was doing, which makes something of a change. Half the people back at the training centre don’t know their arse from their elbow…and don’t know that they don’t know it. I suggest regular practice on the firing range and maybe some additional competitive training in the lair, but I wouldn’t hesitate to sign you a weapons certification now, at least for basic weapons.”

He glanced down at his wristcom. “Are there any questions?”

“No, Sergeant,” Timothy said. He’d learnt to address almost everyone as ‘sir’ while he was a cadet, but the Sergeant was the only real exception. “Thank you for the training session.”

Garrison eyed him for a long moment. “You are dismissed,” he said. “I’ll see you tomorrow for organising that additional training.”

Timothy saluted and left Marine Country, pausing only to wave to Elf as she emerged from the shower. He guessed that she’d waited so that he could talk to the Master Sergeant in privacy, or what passed for it onboard the Fury; he appreciated that thought, even as he took in the sight of her wearing standard combat dress. She hadn’t worn that the first time they’d sparred, he remembered; he was sure that he wouldn’t have underestimated her quite so badly if she’d been wearing a combat uniform. The Marines had briefed him quite thoroughly on what the outfits meant – even though the Marine decorations were still a mystery to him – and he knew what they could do. Even without powered combat armour, a Marine in a combat uniform was difficult to stop without extreme force; the uniform absorbed most of the blows directed at it by an enemy.

He nodded briefly to a handful of crewmen – engineering, by the look of them – as he passed. The Fury was a very tightly-knit community, from the Captain on the bridge to the lowest of the low; he understood that he was trying to fit in as a newcomer, and, worse, one without any real qualifications. Everyone had been more than willing to help – and he guessed that some of them were actually enjoying teaching him – but it made the situation awkward. If he qualified as a Midshipman, he would be – in theory – superior to any number of crewmen, apart from Markus himself. In practice, as Markus had explained in considerable detail, the crewmen would be vastly more experienced in their own specialities and probably most of the other specialities as well, than any newly-hatched Midshipman. A cadet might be low, but a Midshipman had to learn as fast as possible that he or she didn’t know everything…and most crewmen never encountered a cadet outside the occasional training run. On a larger ship, there was more social segregation, but on a small ship like the Fury, everyone knew everything. He couldn’t have done anything wrong without everyone on the ship, from the Captain to Elf herself, hearing about it.

He reached the wardroom and pressed his hand against the panel, allowing it to identify him before it hissed open, allowing him entry. The wardroom was tiny, with space for only ten bunks, a pair of showers and a set of washbasins. Each of the five Midshipmen were responsible for their own bunks, their own care…and, to some extent, their own pecking order. Senior Midshipwoman Hannah Yakov, as the Midshipman with the longest term of service, was in charge of the wardroom, but past that the various Midshipmen competed for status and occasionally bargained for plum assignments. Hannah had treated him fairly well, but she’d been insistent that he learn to do everything perfectly, including spending an hour on making up his bunk, cleaning the wardroom, and other tasks designed to impress upon him the importance of getting everything right, first time. He checked his schedule, reassured himself that he had several hours of free time before he was required to report to the bridge, and lay back on his bunk. He needed a rest, desperately.

It had been the hardest month of his life and the most exciting month. He’d spent the first week just getting to learn everything about the ship and the life of a Midshipman, with Hannah as his guide. She’d shown him everything, from the shortcuts through the starship to the rooms that were set aside for the different disciplines on the ship, and taught him the basics of being a Midshipman. They had been fairly simple; obey orders, carry out your tasks as quickly as possible, but with due care, and learn as much as you can about the ship. She’d also briefed him about sexual matters, her blank face in stark contrast to his own blushes, when she told him that he couldn’t sleep with anyone as a cadet…and he could never sleep with anyone of a significantly higher or lower rank. If he did, they would be lucky to be transferred to different ships; sex confused the issue too much. After that, it had been tactical training with the tactical officer, helm control with the helmsman, fighting training with the Marines and hundreds of other courses. A cadet who had gone through the academy would have at least a solid background in various fields of study, but Timothy didn’t have that…and so he had to make up for lost time.

He was awakened by a noise; Sharon Bedford, one of the other Midshipwomen, had returned and was undressing quickly, before taking a shower. She was an attractive young girl, but he turned his head away from her; she reminded him too much of Tiffany. The memory of his sister brought a tear to his eye, reminding him of why he was doing it in the first place; the pirates all had to be hunted down and destroyed. Sharon muttered an apology as she realised that she’d woken him up; Timothy glanced at the timer on the wall, realised that it was almost twenty minutes until he would have had to awaken anyway, and shrugged. It didn’t matter that much.

“Sorry about that,” Sharon said, as she pulled herself into her own bunk and closed her eyes. The Midshipmen handled different shifts; normally, two of them would be off, two of them would be on, and one would be on reserve. Hannah had noted that once he received his Midshipman’s badge, he would be able to take some of the strain off the rest of them, although there was a running series of bets on who would be the first to be promoted to Lieutenant. A Lieutenant had a cabin of his or her own, along with more responsibly and a chance at reaching command rank; most Midshipmen gained promotion within five years, unless they screwed up royally. “You can wake me up later if you like.”

“No thanks,” Timothy said, as he stepped into the shower and washed himself again, before donning the basic cadet’s uniform. He’d been given three of them to wear; washing and preparing them for the duty shift was his own responsibility, although the wardroom tended to share out such duties to give the Midshipmen as much free time as possible. “I’ll see you later.”

The lights in the main corridor were slightly dimmer now, a way of informing the crew that it was nearly evening by the ship’s clock. Starships in Phase Space rapidly became slightly out of touch with Imperial Standard Time; human-crewed ships followed Earth’s twenty-four hour clock, but with conversion equipment to allow them to talk directly to other Imperial Fleet ships. There were no transports for the Fury – it was hardly large enough for the engineers to bother – so Timothy walked from the wardroom up onto the bridge. It still took his breath away every time he saw it, even if it was much simpler than the bridge of the Max Capricorn.

“The console is set up for you already,” Lieutenant Commander Kurt Taub informed him, from the command chair. He was the officer on watch; even in Phase Space, regulations insisted that the bridge be manned by at least two officers, although Captain Venture was stretching a point by allowing Timothy to count as an officer. “Good luck; good hunting.”

Timothy nodded as he took the chair and peered down at the console. He checked it, quickly, to ensure that it actually was running a drill, before starting the program. A Midshipman had to learn to be proficient with all of the basic requirements of handling the ship – even if they couldn’t have explained how the ship worked to save their lives – and so he studied each of them in turn, learning how they all interacted. The console paused…and then the display lit up, revealing a tactical problem; an enemy starship was closing in, preparing to attack…even as he watched, it unleashed a spread of missiles towards the Fury.

His hands danced over the console. No human mind could handle the speeds involved; he designated the targets, the computers picked them out and assigned them to different point defence systems, designed to protect the Fury from incoming enemy fire. The mission got more and more complicated as the session went on, from a single duel between two starships to a massive fleet engagement, although the old Fury had no place in such a clash of the titans. If they got involved in a fleet battle, he’d been warned, the Fury would be nothing more than a manoeuvrable point defence platform for the larger ships. They wouldn’t have to do anything; the combat network would tie all the starships into a single entity and coordinate their point defence. He would only have to act if the tactical network went down…

“You have been destroyed,” the computer said. There was a smug undertone in the voice; Hannah had told him that every cadet in the academy fantasized about hunting down the woman who had provided that voice and strangling her. “Your performance was rated as acceptable.”

A voice spoke from behind Timothy. “Only acceptable?”

Timothy was out of his seat and snapping to attention before his thinking mind had quite caught up with the fact that the Captain had been standing behind him, and he hadn’t saluted. Salutes were forbidden in combat, for various reasons, but a training simulation wasn’t enough of an excuse, or so Timothy feared. The Captain returned the salute and motioned for him to stand at ease, but Timothy only relaxed slightly; as far as the Fury’s crew was concerned, Captain Venture was God.

“I have been reviewing your progress,” Captain Venture informed him. His face was blank, betraying nothing of his feelings; Timothy realised, suddenly, that both Markus and Garrison had joined the Captain, and he hadn’t saluted them either. “The general feeling among the officers who have supervised your progress is that it is…acceptable.”

His lips twitched slightly. Timothy fought down a suicidal urge to ask for more information. “I have confirmed their recommendation that you be rated and ranked as a full Midshipman, effective immediately. Give me your shoulder.”

Timothy, dazed, could only comply. The Imperial Fleet Commissioned Officers used a shoulder tab to mark their ranks; the Midshipman’s badge was merely the first of twenty that an officer could wear in his or her career. It looked like a simple golden coin, but he had never seen anything finer; his previous uniform had been completely unadorned.

“Congratulations, Midshipman,” Captain Venture said, as he shook Timothy’s hand. “I have ordered the wardroom to be supplied with a small flask of medicine” – he meant a small bottle of alcoholic drink – “and your new compatriots will be expected to report for duty at 0900 tomorrow, when we reach our next destination.”

Timothy, on cloud nine, barely heard the remaining congratulations.

Chapter Nine: The Coup

It had taken nearly a week for Tiffany to pluck up the courage to put her plan into action, and only because she was certain that Captain Blackbird would eventually tire of her. She had spent that time trying to learn as much as she could about the Knife Edge, along with trying to understand the strange dynamics among the crew of the pirate ship. It was a nightmare, given shape and form; only her status as the Captain’s Woman gave her some protection. If she had come onboard without protection, of any kind, she suspected that she would be dead within the week.

The ship was…strange. The Captain held court on the bridge, surrounded by people whose combined loyalty could barely fill a teacup. The First Mate was both the Captain’s loyal ally and the main plotter against him, the only one, according to the strange pirate code, who could challenge him for command at any moment. The two Second Mates eyed the pirates below them with disdain, more than willing to put a fist into a face at any moment, while the general run of crewmen below the command crew looked ready to mutiny at the slightest sign of weakness. The doctor, the engineer and the other department heads – if such an orderly term could be used – held their own courts; they seemed safe as long as they didn’t become involved in the politics on the ship. The others…

She had only looked into the whores’ quarter once and never intended to go there again; the ship had a small number of whores onboard, all of them devoted to satisfying the lusts of the crews. The handful of women onboard the ship were either complete bitches, like Jadis and Erica, or whores; the only exception was Jade, who seemed to fit neatly into no clear pattern, perhaps because the First Mate was putting something in her. The crew were animals, savages out of nightmare; the mess hall might have once belonged to an Imperial ship, but now…now, it was like the den of a mortally wounded animal. It was a disgusting sight, even to her eyes; her father would have had a fit if she had kept her room a thousand times neater than the pirates’ den. Pirates came in, ate, and then left, their eyes flickering around as if they expected someone to stick a knife in their backs at any moment. On the Knife Edge, Tiffany thought, that was all-too-likely.

She took a breath and then wandered over to the table at the rear of the room. The two women sitting there didn’t look as if they were in a hurry to leave; in fact, they looked as if they would be quite happy sitting there all day, daring their male counterparts and subordinates to try their luck. They were striking, wearing outfits that would have shamed a whore…and Tiffany was starting to understand that that was something of the point. If a man wanted to try to take either of them, the outfit was both a challenge and a warning; have your will drawn up and signed before you risked something you might not be able to stop.

“The Captain’s latest toy,” Jadis said. Her voice was cold, without inflection; something had burned all of the human feeling out of her and it showed. Jade had said that the two Second Mates were loyal to the Captain, but hearing Jadis’s voice made her wonder; where did the two girls really stand? “What does he want from us?”

For a moment, Tiffany wondered if she really meant what the Captain wanted from Tiffany. It wasn't that he had simply raped her as soon as he had her at her mercy, or that he had demands that hurt her to try to comply with, but he wanted her when he wanted her and her opinion didn’t matter. She wasn't allowed to actually sleep next to him, not as a wife might sleep next to her husband, but when he called, she had to service him at once. It hadn’t hurt, much, after the first time, but it had meant getting used to a lot of new feelings very quickly. She remembered Jade’s comment about the First Mate and realised that the same was true of the Captain; his pleasure was, in the end, all that mattered to him. Her pleasure…well, she’d be lucky to have even a chance at orgasm.

“He doesn’t want anything from you at the moment,” she said, carefully. Jade had warned her to be careful around the two girls; they had survived, in such a dangerous environment, through being tougher and more ruthless than their male counterparts. She had decided to be direct, but standing near them, it was hard to concentrate. It was like standing next to a snake, watching as it prepared to strike. “I want something from you…”

“Do you?” Erica said. Her voice was just as cold as that of her…partner. “What do you have to offer us?”

Tiffany looked down at her. “Nothing, at the moment,” she admitted. The two pirates looked at her, their gaze passing over her body as if they had seen it all before, and then they looked back at each other. It was almost telepathy, in her opinion; they seemed to come to a decision without speaking aloud. “I might be in a position to help you later.”

Jadis’s eyes swept across the room before coming back to rest on Tiffany’s eyes. “You may be in a position to repay us for anything we do for you,” she agreed, touching a necklace at her throat. Tiffany’s eyes widened as she saw it; she was sure that the necklace was made of human bones. “On the other hand, the Captain may not be inclined to listen to anything you have to say…”

“Unless it’s you pretending to have a good time when he’s inside you,” Erica said, leering. Her voice had taken on a slightly lighter tone; her hand gently touched Tiffany’s right breast. It was all Tiffany could do not to shudder and cringe away. “There are other things you could offer us…”

Jadis slapped her partner’s hand. “Maybe,” she said. “That won’t happen unless our little friend here is prepared to risk the anger of her owner, and you’re not ready for that yet, are you?” Her mouth twitched into a humourless smile. “And you might be dumped at any moment and end up like the poor bitches down below. Why do you even want us to help you?”

Tiffany decided to risk being honest. “I’m useless on this ship,” she said.

“There are nearly three hundred men who could think of a use for you,” Erica said dryly. “It might take their minds off buggering each other…”

Jadis’s eyes held Tiffany’s. “You’re useless,” she said, slowly. “Why should we help you?”

“Because I don’t want to be useless once the Captain tires of me,” Tiffany admitted. Held, like a mouse facing a cat, it never even occurred to her to lie. Jadis’s personality was too powerful. “If I know things that might be useful, I could carve out my own place on the ship, just as you two have done.”

“Most people in your position would ask the Doctor, or hope to get into a position that no one actually wants, like Jade,” Jadis observed. There was still no tone in her voice. “If you were to become a qualified Doctor, you would have a position, but one that wouldn’t get you very far.”

But the Doctor is still a slave, Tiffany thought. She didn’t dare quite say that out loud. The Doctor on the ship had examined her with considerable care and attention, but it had been obvious that she was powerless on the ship, even if she was too valuable to simply flog if there was a problem. She’d given Tiffany some good advice on keeping a man happy, but in the end, Tiffany would find herself out in the cold.

“One moment,” Jadis said. She stood up, marched over to a pair of crewmen who were fighting over something, and smashed the first crewman in the face. Blood cascaded down from his nose; his friend had barely drawn a knife when Jadis punched him in the chest, and then brought her knee up into his groin. Jadis returned, as calm as anything, and smiled for the first time. “Did you see that?”

Tiffany nodded.

Jadis reached out and touched her, very gently, between her legs, and then sent her hand running up her body, over her breasts, and then finally coming to a rest at Tiffany’s neck, curving out as if she intended to use her fingernails to cut Tiffany’s throat. Tiffany stood very still; in Jadis’s case, that was all-too-likely.

“I know what you want,” she said, very softly. “We can give you want we want, but at a price; one day, we will ask you to do something for us, and whatever it is, you will do it. It might be something simple, it might be something hard, it might involve betrayal and unspeakable evil…and you will do it. Do you understand?”

Tiffany didn’t dare, almost, to breathe. “I understand,” she said, very quietly. “I’ll do whatever you want.”

“Good,” Jadis said. She pulled Tiffany with her as she headed over to the entrance, pausing long enough to kick one of the felled pirates in the groin again. “Then I think that we’d better start now, don’t you?”

The next three weeks had been harder than anything else Tiffany had ever had to do. Jadis was a good teacher, but she was also as hard as nails; if Tiffany made a mistake, she wouldn’t hesitate to flay her with scorn, or even hit her hard enough to make her hurt. Tiffany had had basic weapons training, but Jadis knew far more about fighting dirty, very dirty. Her fingernails, she had explained, were loaded…with a deadly poison she could release into anyone’s body…if they tried something stupid.

“Every time a monkey” – it seemed to be her favourite term for the male pirates – “tries to take our place, the moron tries to rape us,” she explained, after one particularly violent training session. “It’s not enough to just shoot us in the back, it’s not enough to cut our throats when we’re helpless, it’s not even enough to stun us and then take us, they have to force their way inside us with their little sausages.”

Her face tightened slightly. “One guy actually got up behind me, held a knife to my throat and pulled down my pants,” she said. “He thought I’d have no choice, but to use my hand to help guide him inside…and I injected a set of poisons right into his dick! You should have seen his face as he realised that he was being slowly poisoned; first, he was paralysed, then he went limp, and then he died.”

Erica laughed. She certainly seemed to be the most approachable of the pair. “He was already limp,” she explained, mischievously. She had apparently spent more time with men than her partner had. Tiffany blushed; her body might hurt, thanks to the pounding that Jadis had handed out, but she felt surprisingly good about herself. “Tiffany, dear, why don’t you do some more exercises before we have to be on the bridge.”

Tiffany winced. Despite herself, she had almost forgotten what sort of ship she was on, or what it’s crew did for a living. An hour later, she had been brusquely ordered back to the cabin to wait for Captain Blackbird, while all around her the starship shuddered and moaned in pain, signalling that it was taking a beating from an enemy starship. Part of her hoped that the enemy starship would destroy the Knife Edge and win the battle, part of her remembered that she was on the Knife Edge and hoped that Captain Blackbird won the fight. That evening, he wanted her bent over the bed; clearly, he felt that he had something to celebrate.

“I have an offer for you,” someone said, the next morning. Tiffany could have spent the remainder of the voyage in the Captain’s cabin, but cabin fever would have driven her mad before too long, or she would have started to realise that all she was – now – was a receptacle for the Captain’s lusts. “How would you feel about earning your freedom?”

Tiffany looked sharply at him. He was bald, with light coloured skin and blue eyes, almost interchangeable with most of the other crewmen on the ship. He wore a weapons belt and carried several weapons, but there didn’t seem to be any rank badge, much less a Captain’s Hat. If she understood the pirates correctly, that meant that he was an ordinary crewman…and therefore not someone who could really buy her freedom.

“I would be interested,” she said, carefully. There was always the chance that Captain Blackbird was testing her loyalty, although quite what loyalty she could be expected to have to him escaped her. “What are you offering?”

“I want to kill him,” the crewman said. Tiffany felt her eyes go very wide. The man had either gone mad, or believed that he had some reason for trusting her. She couldn’t imagine why he would feel that he could trust her; she was, literally, sleeping with the enemy. “I think that you could get me into his cabin…and we would make it worth your while.”

“We?” Tiffany asked, suspiciously. “Who’s ‘we’?”

“Crewmen who want a chance to rise higher,” the crewman said. Tiffany realised, for the first time, that she was in very real danger; if she said no, he would have to kill her before she could tell Captain Blackbird, or any of his loyal command crew. In fact, who was to say that it wasn’t Robert, the First Mate, who was behind it? “The Captain is keeping more of the loot for his senior staff than we agreed beforehand when we decided to sail with him. Once we get back to Gotha, we won’t have a chance to take what he owes us.”

He paused. “And if you cooperate, you will be given your freedom,” he said. “What do you choose?”

Tiffany considered. The truth was that she was tempted, but natural suspicion pushed her against it, not least because she had no idea if she could trust any of them. The man might be lying, and he might be the only one in the plot, or he might be part of a cabal that had vast power within the ship. Who could she trust to be not on their side? Only one name came to mind…and he would ask a lot of hard questions, questions she didn’t want to answer. It would be difficult…

She favoured him with a very real smile. “I choose to join you,” she said. “What’s the plan?”

That evening, she waited patiently until Captain Blackbird returned to his cabin, and then prepared his food for him. The crewman had dreamed up a good plan, one that might well work; the Captain might be protected against poisons, but something that was a natural sedative might just get through his defences…and even if it didn’t work, it was something that it would be difficult to prove was actually intended as a hostile move…

The Captain wasn't interested in eating with her, or using her as anything other than a servant; as soon as she had delivered his meal, she occupied herself in cleaning up the cabin, carefully placing a handful of items within reach for later. When he called her, she was almost finished; her growing excitement drove her forward, to the point where she actually gained some satisfaction from their loveless coupling. He lay back on the bed after he had spent himself and she went back into the living room to wait. At the appointed time, she opened the door and allowed the crewman entry…

“In there,” she whispered, in the gloom. He nodded, carrying a pistol in one hand, and a small device in the other, and advanced on the Captain’s door. He opened it and started to step through…and Tiffany brought her weapon down on his head. The Captain had picked up the weird looking sword from somewhere back on Old Earth – or so he said – and he took care of it with almost religious devotion.

“Don’t move,” Captain Blackbird barked. Tiffany hadn’t known that he slept with a pistol under his bed; the lights came on at the same moment, revealing the crewman lying on the ground, his blood pooling out across the deck. Tiffany knew that she looked terrible, but as the Captain came forward to check on his work, it was easy to collapse on top of the body…and slip a small item under the dead man. “What happened?”

Tiffany stammered out her story. “He just came in and shoved me aside,” she said, gasping for breath. Captain Blackbird pulled her off the body and pushed her aside. “Who is he…?”

“Crewman Vlad Jones,” Captain Blackbird said. He sighed grimly, before his eyes alighted on Tiffany again. Their scrutiny seemed to pin her firmly in place. “You seem to have saved my life.”

“Yes, Captain,” Tiffany said. She could only hope that she had made the right choice. “I just took the sword and hit him with it.”

“Without leaving any chance to find out who he was working with,” Captain Blackbird said. It was lucky that he wasn't looking at her at that moment; Tiffany knew that she looked, beyond any doubt, guilty. It struck her, then, that she had killed a man and she started to shake. “I owe you something, then; what would you like?”

The cool regard in his voice shocked her out of her trance. “I want a position on the crew,” she said. Captain Blackbird lifted a single eyebrow. “I want a share of the loot as well.”

Interlude One: Fairfax

“Sir, Carola Wilhelm is here for her appointment,” his aide said. “Shall I send her right in?”

Port Admiral Sir Simon Johnston, supreme commanding officer of the Imperial Fleet within the Fairfax Sector – and therefore the third most powerful person within the sector – smiled to himself. It was unlike Imperial Intelligence to ask for an appointment, even with someone as senior as a Port Admiral; it was much more common for them to barge in and demand an immediate meeting. Carola Wilhelm, he acknowledged with the experience of nearly a hundred years on the job, was easy on the eye…but she was also disconcertingly smart. She didn’t think like a fleet officer.

Of course, he ruefully considered, she wasn’t a fleet officer.

“Send her in, please,” he ordered, taking his desk and using his implants to send a mental command into the desktop processor. A holographic starmap materialised above the desk, a reminder both of his limited time and vast responsibilities, and of the problems facing the Fairfax Sector. There were hundreds of worlds, settlements, tiny colonies and suchlike within the sector…and he had barely two hundred starships to patrol them all. The remainder…the remainder was often prey for pirates, rebels, and smugglers who existed on the margins of Imperial society…and, after the chaos of the Grey War, had had a chance to establish themselves in the fabric of the sector.

His gaze flickered, as it always did, to the three red stars of the Homer Association. Alone among the stars marked on the chart, they burned the dull red of independent worlds, worlds that had been settled by refugees fleeing Earth…and had only been rediscovered just before the chaos of the Grey War. The Imperials, whose attitude to independent worlds was that they could negotiate the terms under which they would enter the Empire, but not that there would be any doubt about them entering the Empire, had been preparing an operation to suppress them…and then the Empire had gone through the Collapse. The Grey War, the Retreat of the Imperials…by the time the new Imperial Council had started to put the Empire back in touch with its myriad separate parts, it had been almost too late for the Fairfax Sector. Now, with the political firestorm in the inner worlds and hundreds of pirates running amok in the outer worlds, the Empire didn’t have the time to carry out it’s mandate and absorb the Homer Association.

He looked up as Carola entered. “Thank you for coming,” he said, before she could say anything. “I don’t have much time, so I suggest that we skip formalities and get right down to business.”

“Of course, Sir Simon,” Carola said. She was a brown-haired girl, very pretty in a classical sort of way, but her face hid a mind like a steel trap. It had to be bad, Johnston realised; Imperial Intelligence was normally more inclined to run covert operations without notifying the Fleet, and then relying on the Fleet to pull their chestnuts out of the fire when they got burned, forcing him to scramble to put together a task force that could handle the growing disaster. He hadn’t forgotten a botched operation on Mao, one that had triggered an insurgency, and forced him to make a major commitment just to keep a lid on the unrest. “I’ll come right to the point.”

She pulled a small datachip out of her bag and pressed it into the processor. “As you know, Imperial Intelligence has been working to rebuild networks of intelligence operatives right across this general area of the Empire,” she said, referring not just to Fairfax, but several other sectors as well. “In time, various pieces of information were put together in the office on Fairfax, leading to a rather disturbing conclusion.”

“I haven’t had my bad news for the day,” Johnston said, annoyed. He should not only have known about the intelligence networks, but also about the covert operations that were taking place under his nose. Imperial Intelligence disagreed…until they needed him. If he had been given enough warning to station a starship nearby, then…he dismissed that line of thought with a shake of his head. “What do you have to tell me?”

“There are a number of starships, pre-Collapse, that we cannot account for,” Carola said. Her husband was out with the fleet somewhere, Johnston recalled suddenly; did that have something to do with her new attitude? “As you know” – Johnston was starting to really hate that phase – “the sector fleets, pickets and so on were given orders to try to hold the line and as much of the Empire together as possible. Some sectors succeeded, such as Earth, others fell into civil war, and at least one idiot decided to poke the Kerr and lost an entire battle fleet. Imperial Intelligence is, for obvious reasons, very interested in figuring out what happened to each of those ships…and where they are now.”

“Of course,” Johnston said. “Where are they now?”

“We don’t know,” Carola admitted. “There were upwards of seven hundred starships stationed in this sector when the Collapse happened, ranging from superdreadnaughts to destroyers; thirty superdreadnaughts, to be precise. There are seventy starships unaccounted for now, ranging from a triad of superdreadnaughts that were on deep space patrol, to seventeen destroyers that were on picket duty.”

Johnston looked at her. “And you’re sure that the Greys didn’t get them?”

“It’s impossible to be sure, but there was only one reported Grey attack in any of the affected sectors,” Carola said. “The odds against them successfully ambushing one of those ships, let alone all of them, in a place where we wouldn’t learn what had happened to them, is a little…unlikely.” She tapped the console and a line of starship names appeared in front of them. “As you can see, that's enough firepower to put together a serious challenge to the sector fleet.”

“Assuming that they’re all together and in peak condition,” Johnston said. He counted ships and classes for a moment. The sector fleet was more modern, but spread out…if…if those ships came calling, the only world that could hope to stand them off would be Fairfax itself, which was heavily defended. “Where do you think they are?”

“It’s impossible to say,” Carola said, ignoring Johnston’s glare. “Truthfully, we didn’t know that we had a problem until we started crunching the numbers, and even then…we don’t have any way of knowing if the ships are even together. If they had fallen into the hands of pirates, if they could find the crew to run them, we would have seen them by now, pointed right at us. If they had been taken by the Greys, I think we would know about it. If someone else had taken them…”

She nodded towards the Homer Association stars on the display. “They’re the most likely candidates,” she said. There was a grim note in her voice. “If they had those ships, they would have the ability to dictate terms to us, unless we called up more ships from the inner worlds.”

“And with the situation on Centre like it is, no one is going to be willing to send us some reinforcements,” Johnston said shortly. He looked back at the glowing red stars. “But if they had them, why aren’t they dictating terms to us?”

“I don’t know,” Carola said. “I would like permission to probe their systems…”

“You’d have to talk to the Governor,” Johnston said. He stood up, dismissing her. “I’ll put the warning out, but my gut feeling is that the Governor is going to decide that we have too many problems to risk poking them, particularly if they actually do have a large fleet hidden up their sleeves.”

Chapter Ten: Birthday Treat

“We are gathered here today, on this momentous occasion, to celebrate the life of one of our own, Midshipwoman Hannah Yakov,” Hank Collins said. The tall midshipman winked at Timothy as he made his pronouncement, exaggerating every word. “A girl – dare I say a woman? – who has saved my life and whose life I have saved in return, who has finally…”

“Jesus,” Hannah interrupted. “You make it sound as if I’m being killed tomorrow, not simply being promoted.”

Sharon elbowed her. “Promoted, you might as well be dead,” she said, sipping from her drink. “Just think, tomorrow you’ll be in a cabin of your own, on your own, while we’re still in our wardroom, companionably wondering if we’ll ever have your help and guidance ever again.”

“Well said,” Hank said. He laughed and the others joined in. “Hannah, whose contributions to keeping the wardroom clear haven’t gone unremarked” – a certain amount of grumbling was traditional – “and whose bravery is renowned, has finally been sentenced to the cold life of a lieutenant by our noble Captain. Her heroic sacrifice will not go unrewarded when she opens her latest pay slip and discovers that we’ve nicked half of it to pay for the drinks.”

“Not unless you want to be spit-cleaning every shuttle in the shuttlebay for the next few years,” Hannah said. “Seriously…”

“I feel that we, as her former friends and allies, can only wish her the very best of luck and cry crocodile tears over her bunk,” Hank concluded. He lifted his glass dramatically, beer dripping over the side and washing down over his hands. “Ladies and Gentlemen, Lieutenant Hannah Yakov!”

“Lieutenant Hannah Yakov,” they chorused back.

Timothy leaned back as the wave of congratulations and not a few snide comments swept around the table. The Fury had been involved in a series of escort missions, which had been boring, but Markus had warned him that boring missions were good. Hannah had distinguished herself on one of them, when she’d caught several smugglers trying to use the convoy to smuggle stolen goods from one world to another without passing through any checkpoints, and Captain Venture had announced that she would be promoted tomorrow. The announcement, unlike his own promotion to Midshipman, had been made in advance, so that Hannah could have one last night with her friends before she was elevated to the point where Imperial Fleet regulations prohibited much in the way of social contact between ranks. She would probably be assigned to a new ship pretty quickly, just to ensure that the smaller Fury didn’t start to suffer from nepotism or any of the other woes caused by someone being promoted ahead of their compatriots.

He took another sip of his drink and winced slightly at the taste. The bar on Roland – named for one of the Emperors back on Old Earth – had been almost completely taken over by the Imperial Fleet, who used it as a drinking place for their crewmembers and the support staff who were based on the planet itself. Roland was only a hundred or so years old – he couldn’t be bothered looking up the exact dates – but it was far more cosmopolitan than Taurus had ever been; he’d even seen a few hundred aliens scattered within the city. His gaze flickered around the bar itself; someone had spent time and effort on creating an ideal drinking place and it showed. There were hundreds of people in the bar, all of them – apparently – having a good time.

“Now, I think that Hannah should say a few words,” Sharon said. She grinned in a manner that was almost comically spiteful. “Hannah?”

Hannah smiled. “You scum,” she said, twisting her voice into a furious tone. “From now on, it’ll be floggings from dawn till dusk, and all of you will be kissing my ass for a mention in the daily updates from command.” They laughed, rather spoiling the effect. “Seriously, thank you for everything; you’ve been a great bunch of wardroom mates and I wouldn’t change any of you for anyone.”

Her smile grew. “I’ll miss your snoring and I’ll miss Elf kicking my ass around the mat,” she admitted. “Hank, you still owe me those credits, so you can buy this round.”

“I can still kick your ass until you become a Commander or higher,” Elf said, dryly. The Marine chain of command was different from the Commissioned officers and their chain of command; Elf did not, technically, have to salute any of them until they rose a bit higher up the chain. “Every so often, I need an easy victory to remind me that I’m the best.”

“Up yours,” Hannah said. She lifted her own glass in the air. “All Midshipmen, everywhere.”

Timothy drank to that as well. “And thank you for everything,” he said, seriously. Hannah had been a great help. “I hope that you rise even higher in the future.”

Hannah nodded. “Now,” she said, examining her wristcom, “we have several hours left before we have to report back to the shuttle. Tim, I take it that you still want to explore Roland, or at least Landing City?” Timothy smiled; it would be first new world he’d landed on since he’d sailed on the Max Capricorn. “Elf will be going with you, so don’t do anything that’s not very violent…and have a good time.”

“Thank you,” Timothy said.

“And don’t forget to be at the shuttle by 1800, our time,” Hannah added. “If the Captain has to turn the ship around to look for you, he’s going to be rather…unhappy, don’t you think?”

Outside, Landing City was bustling with life. “You don’t have to come with me if you don’t want to,” Timothy said, as Elf followed him out of the door and onto the street. “I’d understand…”

“I don’t have anywhere else to go and you don’t know enough about the dangers of a new world,” Elf said, without rancour. Her face twisted into a vague smile that hid a grin. “Someone has to look after you until you’re ready to walk about on your own; there are a lot of bastards out there who prey on vulnerable young crewmen. Back when I was going through training, a young male Marine trainee got in way over his head and got raped near the base.”

Timothy gulped. “Really?”

“The Sergeant hunted the rapist down and beat seven different kinds of shit out of him, but that didn’t help the poor bastard get back together,” Elf said. Timothy couldn’t tell if she was joking or not. “This is a place where there are starships to everywhere in the sector, so there is a very high crime rate and very little in the way of effective patrolling. You see those guys over there?”

Timothy followed her gaze and saw three men, walking along wearing strange uniforms. One of them was running to fat, the other two looked as if they really couldn’t muster the motivation to get out of bed in the mornings, let alone patrol the streets. They carried weapons on their belts, but the way they moved suggested that they didn’t have the slightest idea what they were doing with them.

“I see,” he said, puzzled. “Who are they?”

“Local self-defence force,” Elf explained, as she pulled him further from them. “Some of those units are worth the money they get paid, some of them are barely capable of taking a piss without instructions in triplicate and a small bribe. Old Marines and other ground-pounders get paid extra to sign on with those units and teach them some of the tricks of the trade, but that bunch…”

She leered cheerfully in his direction. “I’d bet half my pay check that that bunch never had a day of real training in their lives,” she said. “As you can see, this Landing City is not a hotspot of military action or adventure.”

Timothy nodded to himself as she led him further into the city. Landing City wasn’t unique; there were thousands of places all over the Empire called Landing City, much to the annoyance of the people charged with keeping all the starmaps straight. The Imperials had found a name they liked for the cities and stuck with it, or they were playing one of their infrequent jokes on their subjects; regardless, it was a headache for almost everyone involved. The worlds that boomed tended to move their capitals to a new city, with a unique name, as quickly as they could; the worlds that didn’t boom ended up stuck.

The city puzzled him, in a way; it had a quirky, almost unfinished look surrounding it. The buildings were half prefabricated units landed when Roland was first colonised, half buildings created from materials on the planet, but all of them looked as if they had been pasted onto the planet’s surface. There was a vague sense that if there was a strong wind, or a rainstorm, all of the buildings would just wash away, while the people seemed to have almost no investment in their planet. They passed shopping malls that seemed to cater to everyone, selling everything, and places of worship for half a dozen religions, half of them seeming to be on the verge of closing down. Roland, unlike any of the colonies founded on a religious basis, seemed to have hardly any religious faith at all.

“That’s hardly a surprise here,” Elf said, when he pointed that out. She had caught onto his arm, as if she was his girlfriend, when they had passed a set of prostitutes; since then, she hadn’t let go. Timothy was barely fifteen – he’d celebrated his birthday on the Fury – but even he hadn’t wanted to spend time with the women. “This is a place for people from hundreds of different worlds. If you want to know more about Roland, go somewhere outside Landing City.”

Timothy grinned at her. “Do we have the time?”

“No,” Elf said flatly. “Let’s see…we have three hours left, so where would you like to go?”

“I honestly have no idea,” Timothy admitted. They reached a tourist map and examined it for a moment; there were only a handful of places marked on the map, from the original landing site to a zoo, promising animals from all over the Empire. There were a set of places to eat, but he didn’t feel like going for a meal, not at the prices he’d seen as they passed cafes and restaurants. “The landing site?”

Elf smiled. “Why not?”

The aircar they hired took them to the landing site, right in the centre of Landing City, and dropped them off there. Elf glanced around as she took in the tourists – Timothy had noticed that she was always uncomfortable in crowds, for some reason – and then led them up a long path to the original lander, positioned neatly in the centre of the park. Judging from Taurus, the landing site would have been used as a base until the newer buildings were constructed and turned into the government centre of the planet; Roland’s colonists had been quick to build Roland City – showing imagination barely superior to that of the Imperials – and move over to the much more comfortable quarters there.

Elf laughed and Timothy blinked at her. “What’s so funny?”

“It’s a fake,” Elf said, her eyes glittering in the sun. It struck him, for a moment, that she was pretty. “That craft is a Marine lander from three hundred years ago; they wouldn’t have used something like that to settle a planet, not when there were hundreds of other designs around. I wonder what happened to the real lander…?”

“Stolen, perhaps,” Timothy said, as they entered the Landing Museum. It was long on flowery words and short – very short – on detail; the great heroes had landed, set up their city…and somehow had expanded to the point where Roland had over four billion lives on the planet, most of them human. There was apparently a settlement of aquatic aliens somewhere in the seas, and a small settlement of isolated aliens on one of the continents, but Roland was mainly a human world. “Don’t they have anything better to do with their time than fake an exhibit?”

“They may want something to cling to,” Elf said, her tone, for once, serious. “We talk about great Marines who ate steel for breakfast and nails for desert, who then went out and kicked the crap out of the bad guys, but we also know that that is impossible. The Sergeant would kick the crap out of me if I tried to eat nails…but that’s not the point. The point is to have something to cling to, and Roland is a very young world, even by the standards of this sector.”

“I see,” Timothy said. “Why don’t they just…?”

His communicator buzzed before he could finish the sentence. “Timothy, Elf, return to the shuttle at once,” Hannah ordered, her voice sharp and clear. “Don’t hesitate; return to the shuttle as quickly as possible.”

“Come on,” Elf snapped, leading him quickly towards an aircar. The driver was starting to load several passengers onboard, but Elf flashed her ID card in his face and he reluctantly offloaded the passengers again, before flying them to the shuttle and breaking several speed limits over the city. Timothy, still surprised at how quickly their afternoon had been ruined, didn’t protest; as the aircar swooped down outside the landing field, he found himself wondering just what was going on.

“I don’t know,” Elf said, “but they wouldn’t have recalled us unless there was a serious problem, so we can’t pretend we didn’t hear their call.”

Hannah was waiting for them by the shuttle, motioning them onboard, along with a pair of Marines who were carrying heavy bruises on their lips. Elf exchanged quick greetings with them, Timothy smiled at them, guessing that they’d been caught up in a fight just before they’d been called back to the shuttle. He wondered if that had been the reason for calling them back, but he doubted it; the Marine chain of command would have handled it, not the Captain.

“The Captain issued a recall command,” Hannah said, when Elf asked her. The shuttle lurched into the sky and raced up towards the Fury; Roland was far too small to have a proper orbital tower. “We’re being called back to the ship at once.”

Elf glanced at her two fellow Marines. “Are either of you to blame for this?”

“No,” the taller one said. “We had just won the fight and then we were recalled before round two could break out.”

“The Fury is already moving,” Hannah said, her voice dismayed. Timothy pulled himself up so he could see out the viewport as the shuttle rose up above the blue-green globe of Roland, racing to catch up with the Fury. It was the first time he’d actually seen the ship from a distance, rather than through EVA, and it was stunning; the triangular Fury looked to be the most powerful ship in the universe. It was an illusion, he knew, but it looked as if nothing could destroy it, or even challenge it for mastery of the universe.

The shuttle shook as it passed through the Fury’s drive field, before coming in to land in the main shuttlebay, passing through a second force field that kept the atmosphere inside the bay. A handful of Marines were already preparing an assault shuttle, others were scrambling around the deck, tossing weapons and equipment around with a casual abandon that worried Timothy, even through he knew that the Marines were always professional. Elf and her two fellows didn’t hesitate; as soon as the shuttle’s hatch opened, they were out of the shuttle and running to join the remaining Marines.

“Come on,” Hannah said, as she yanked Timothy and the other Midshipmen out of the shuttle. She tapped her communicator as she ran. “Sir, we’re all back on board…”

“Assume battle stations at once,” Lieutenant Commander Kurt Taub ordered. The tactical officer sounded harassed. “Yourself and the new lad are to report to the bridge; the others are to report to their normal postings at once.”

Hannah, through greater practice, beat Timothy to the bridge by a hair. “Reporting for duty, sir,” she snapped, as she came to attention. The bridge was bathed in the dull red glow of red alert; the main display was showing the starship racing away from Roland as fast as it could move. “All personnel on shore leave have been accounted for.”

“At ease,” Captain Venture said. His gaze swept over their civilian outfits, somehow managing to signify both disdain and understanding; it was easy to forget that he too had been a Midshipman once. “Take your consoles and prepare for action.”

He sat back down in his command chair. “All crew, this is the Captain,” he said. “We have received a report that a heavy freighter is under attack by pirates. We are proceeding at once to drive off the attackers and recover the freighter.” He paused, just long enough for the memory to stick in Timothy’s mind. “All hands, prepare for action.”

Timothy took his console automatically, his mind spinning. Pirates! They had killed his family, they had killed his sister, they had changed his life forever…and now, he would have a chance to hit back. The red-hot desire for revenge burned through him. Pirates!

Chapter Eleven: Accommodation

Tiffany paused, just once, and peered into the mirror. The small cabin was technically hers, even through she spent most of her nights sleeping in the room adjacent to the Captain’s cabin, and it held the small number of possessions that belonged to her. The mirror itself was booty from one of the pirate raids, something carried off because it was there, and there had been a time when she felt guilty about using it. That time had passed months ago, when she’d set out to kill…and that dull memory reminded her of what she had become. She had planned someone’s death in a manner that was almost as cold-blooded as anything Captain Blackbird had done, and the fact that it had gained her a position on the pirate ship overshadowed what she’d done.

Naked, she stared into the mirror, hardly recognising herself. Her body held a series of scars from her training sessions, despite the small amount of quick-heal drugs that had been injected into her body; new muscles rippled down her arm as she moved. One of her breasts was scarred after the Captain had bitten it, maybe by accident, maybe not, and her red mane of hair cascaded down almost as far as her buttocks. The Captain had refused to let her cut her long hair, despite its rapid growth, even though he had insisted on her removing all hairs below her neck. Her appearance was a strange mixture of styles; sexy, for the Captain, and cold for the crew. No one had tried to rape her yet, but Jadis had warned her that, sooner or later, one of the crew would try to put her in her place. When that happened, she had to win; whining to the Captain was no longer an option.

She dressed slowly, feeling her body change as she pulled on the black outfit that she’d had made for her, back on Gotha. Jadis and Erica had escorted her on the asteroid, during one of their infrequent visits to the pirate base, and they’d helped her choose an outfit for day-to-day wear. It wasn’t as stunning or distracting as the outfits the girls wore, but it served its purpose, keeping her safe from harm. A skin-tight black suit, made from the same material as skinsuits, it would actually provide some protection from a knife or a blaster shot in the back, assuming that anyone tried to just kill her. It still worried her that she didn’t know who the crewman she’d killed was working for…or if the Captain had deduced that she’d been the one to allow him entry to the Captain’s cabin.

The memory slid through her mind. It had been easy to slip the entry-coder under the crewman, providing a valid reason for his entry, but even so…she had been terrified. The Captain’s cool regard had held her pinned, until he had grabbed her and fucked her right on the floor, next to the body. Danger had excited him, in a manner that had surprised her, but given the life he led, was that really a surprise? If he miscalculated at the wrong time, any number of enemies, from the Imperial Fleet to his own crew, would try to kill him. At times, they had come far too close to succeeding.

She checked her appearance one final time, hooked her pistol onto her belt – the mark of real status onboard the ship – and left the cabin, walking up through the decks towards the Captain’s briefing room. She’d always been sent to her quarters before the Captain launched a raid, either through a desire that she be ready for him when he wanted her, or out of residual distrust of her and her motives, but now she had been informed that she would participate in a raiding operation. The Captain had been planning something, she knew; he’d gone to Gotha, spent several hours somewhere on the rock, and then returned, ordering the crew to set a course back into the Fairfax Sector. She wasn’t allowed anything to do with the navigation systems, a security precaution that irked her as much as anyone else on the ship, but she had gathered that they weren’t going very far inside the sector. The Captain had clearly found a target worthy of their time. He also wouldn’t tell them anything about it until he was ready; information, on the Knife Edge, was power.

There were seventeen pirates in the briefing room when she arrived, the First Mate, the Second Mates, and a handful of crewmen under them. The pirates didn’t have a very structured hierarchy, as far as she could tell; the crewmen would have to sort out their own pecking order, rather than having an order imposed on them from above. She guessed that that explained how the starship was in good working order…while at the same time looking as if no one had scrubbed the decks and smelling as if the toilets had never been washed in their entire voyage. The slaves tended to handle such tasks and they never bothered to do a very good job.

“Sit,” Captain Blackbird said. In public, he treated her like any other member of the crew; in private, he could be tender one moment and harsh the next. One night, on the bridge, he’d just bent her over a console and taken her roughly; the next night, he’d treated her almost as a queen. “I have found a target that may allow us to purchase an additional starship, if we manage to snatch it successfully and make a clean getaway.”

He paused. “The target in question consists of a set of Fleet-standard drive motivators and their controlling systems,” he continued. “For various reasons, a planetary government has decided to purchase these on the quiet and use them to equip their own system defence force, rather than rely on the Imperial Fleet. The Fleet doesn’t know anything about this and as long as it stays that way, we can be reasonably certain that no one is going to bother escorting the freighter to its destination.”

A ripple of cold anticipation ran around the room. There were two ways of locating targets, Tiffany had gathered; random searches and targeted strikes. There was enough shipping in the Fairfax Sector to be fairly certain of finding something, but not every starship was worth attacking; an ore miner was hardly likely to defray the costs of the attack, let alone make them rich. The second way was to have access to information that made targeting a strike easy, but that carried the risk that the Imperial Fleet would have tipped off the pirate sources – people they knew to have loose lips – in hopes of baiting a trap. The Fairfax Sector itself was strange; there were planets that were quite happy to deal with pirates, selling them information in exchange for goods or merely buying protection, and others that wanted the pirates to smuggle in weapons and defence systems for a forthcoming insurgency against the Empire. Captain Blackbird might know who had tipped him off…or he might not know who was right at the back of the targeted strike…and there was no way that he would share that with his crew.

Information was power.

“The target is a bulk freighter,” Captain Blackbird continued. His gaze swept the room, silencing mutters of protest. Tiffany had learnt that the best targets were ones that could be captured, moved beyond the Phase Limit and taken somewhere where they could be raided in peace and security. The worst targets were ones like the Max Capricorn, where they couldn’t be moved in time to escape a furious Imperial Fleet. One point that Jadis had made clear, very clear, was that if the Imperial Fleet caught her, she would be simply executed once they’d stripped her mind of anything useful. “Fortunately, we know which pallets to claim and we can take them once we neutralise resistance and either transfer them into the hold or drag them along with a tractor beam.”

He paused. “There is good reason to believe that this is not a trap, but there may well be Imperial Fleet units within the system, so if they come after us, we’ll have to run,” he concluded. “We’ll cloak as we drop out of Phase Space; assuming that the shipping schedules are exact” – a word with its own meaning when interstellar flight was concerned – “we’ll have a chance to watch out for any unpleasant surprises before we engage. Tiffany, you and Erica will be on the tactical console.”

Tiffany was so surprised by his sudden comment that she barely realised that the pirates were exchanging significant looks between them. Something had happened, but what? The pirate meeting broke up, some of the pirates sharing grins at the thought of raiding, others calmly contemplating what they knew about the target, and considering how it could be turned to their advantage. Jadis nodded once to Tiffany and swept out majestically; Robert, the First Mate, was barking orders towards the boarding party. It all looked like organised chaos.

“I trust that you do know how to work the console?” Captain Blackbird asked. He didn’t seem to be in a horny mood, just contemplative. “Failure will not be tolerated.”

Tiffany nodded, suddenly too scared to speak. She’d seen the Captain literally flay the skin off a crewman’s back for daring to answer back at the wrong time. She didn’t want to think about what her punishment might be, if something went badly wrong. She barely heard him leaving the room, leaving her alone with her thoughts, wondering if she was really prepared to do whatever was necessary to survive. She’d killed – once – and Jadis had told her that it got easier, but was she willing to kill innocents?

An hour later, the lights dimmed as the starship dropped out of Phase Space, on the edge of an industrialised system. Tiffany hadn’t lied when she’d said she knew how to use the system; the pirates seemed to have designed their computers and operating systems on the assumption that anyone who would want to use them would have to be an idiot. They were very simple to use, very capable, and programmed by a professional paranoid; the computers had to know where they were, in the Fairfax Sector, but they refused to tell her more about the system then that it was a G2 star with nineteen planets, three of them radiating signals that suggested that they had been colonised.

“It seems clear, sir,” Erica said, as she worked her own console. The Knife Edge was poised to leap back into Phase Space and run if they encountered anything, but so far above the system plane, it was unlikely that anything would be close enough to trouble them. Most shipping would remain within the system plane, just to make rescue easier if they actually did run into trouble. “I am detecting several hundred starships, but none of them are within attacking range of us.”

“Break them down,” Captain Blackbird said, calmly. “How many of them are military ships?”

“Five,” Erica said. “Three destroyers and two cruisers, going by their drive fields, although if there are any ships that have their drives deactivated…”

“We wouldn’t know about them,” Captain Blackbird agreed. “Jadis, take us in towards our target. Keep the cloak active and steer us well away from any ship, military or civilian. If one of them catches a sniff of us, he’ll scream like a bastard.”

An hour ticked away as the solar system built up in front of them. Tiffany watched as the information was updated, revealing a large bulk freighter on the course that Captain Blackbird was expecting…without any escort. As the Knife Edge slipped closer, noting the reduced speed of the bulk freighter, Tiffany found herself wondering if the Captain was wrong and if it was actually a trap. The freighter drew closer and closer, the image building up in front of her; a blocky construction that revealed no hint of any design philosophy, or anything beyond simply utility. It could never have hoped to land on a planet.

“There’s no turbulence that might suggest the presence of a second ship,” Erica said. Her voice was, for the first time, showing some very real tension. “I think we’re alone out here.”

The Captain touched the communicator by his side. “Robert, I hope you’re ready to go,” he said, and waited for the acknowledgement. It came back quickly; Robert and the remainder of the assault force were ready to make the leap over to the bulk freighter. “Tiffany, target the first and second points, if you please.”

Tiffany felt her blood run cold. She’d done it already, but now, she was looking down at a real starship. The first target was the drive at the rear of the bulk freighter, which had to be disabled rather than destroyed; the second target was the command pod at the prow of the craft. The first would certainly damage the ship – if she fucked up, it would destroy the ship – but the second would kill people. There would be no way to avoid it.

“Targets selected, sir,” she said. It was as if a stranger was speaking through her voice. “Weapons are charged and prepared to fire.”

“Excellent,” Captain Blackbird said. He stood behind her, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. “Fire the first sequence.”

Tiffany hesitated…and then pushed the button. The Knife Edge fired a single burst of energy from almost point-blank range, targeted directly on the drive structure; there was a faint haze as the target’s drive field tried to interdict, and then the drive field vanished as the weapon cut into the hull.

“Good shot,” Captain Blackbird said, his voice almost loving. Tiffany felt sick, deep inside. “Fire the second sequence.”

Somehow, Tiffany suspected that hesitation would be fatal. Hating herself, she pushed down on the console…and the beam of energy cut right into the command pod. She watched through eyes that burned with unshed tears as the command pod glowed red under her attack, almost separating from the main body of the ship as she fired. The burst was precisely timed; inside the hulk, the energy would have wrecked everything that might have helped the crew to coordinate a defence. If there were any crewmen still alive, they would be isolated and facing their own nightmares.

“Launch the assault force,” Captain Blackbird ordered. He clapped one hand on her shoulder. “Excellent work, Tiffany.”

He strode back to his command chair as the assault force, a stolen military-grade shuttle, was launched directly towards the hulk. The crewmen onboard all knew their targets and what to take, they would get in through the tear in the hull, find the emergency systems and release all the pallets from their magnetic holding clamps. Once released, the pallets they wanted could be picked out and then they could retreat from the system, before something with the firepower to stop them appeared and challenged them.

Jadis leaned over. “Good work,” she said, her voice as cold as ever. Her face twisted into a humourless smile. “And now, sweet Tiffany, you are committed.”

Tiffany realised, too late, that it had been a test. If she had refused to fire, she would have been killed at once, or broken, while the ship would have continued the assault without her. Now, however, she was committed; the Imperial Fleet would have forgiven her everything, up to taking part in an attack. There were dozens of ways that she could have broken the cloak and revealed the Knife Edge’s presence within the system, but she had done none of them. Instead, she had participated in an assault and killed people; she had blood on her hands. Jadis was right; now, she had nowhere else to go.

“We have penetrated the hulk,” Robert said, his voice echoing through the communications link. “Most of the crew are dead, but life-sign sensors are revealing at least three down towards the rear of the ship. I think they’re actually trapped there; we blew out the connecting pressurized passages and they don’t seem to have skinsuits. They can’t harm us, so we’re going to leave them and release all the pallets.”

“Understood,” Captain Blackbird said. He glanced down at the clock. They’d planned for only being close to the freighter – and therefore effectively stationary – for only half an hour at most. “Seven minutes and counting…”

“Captain, I have a drive signature,” Erica snapped suddenly. Tiffany felt her blood run even colder as a new red icon snapped into existence on the display. “One Imperial Fleet light cruiser, no IFF tag apart from the standard identification harmonics, on an intercept course.”

Captain Blackbird muttered a curse under his breath. “Time until interception?”

“Seventeen minutes, maybe nineteen if his acceleration falls off,” Erica said. Her voice tightened slightly as the sensors picked up more information. “I think they’re a modified ship, so they will have a short acceleration curve and…”

“Enough,” Captain Blackbird said, thoughtfully. Tiffany could hear the irritation in his voice as his mind examined all of the possibilities. A lesser man would have fled, but the inflexible laws of space combat would determine if they still had a chance of pulling the raid off and escaping before the newcomer came within weapons range. It was daring and they might still succeed in taking their target, or they might have an engine malfunction that would leave them at the mercy of the Imperial Fleet…which showed no mercy to pirates.

He made a decision, activating his communicator. “Robert, we have company, one fleet ship. I need you out of there within ten minutes, understand?”

“Understood, Captain,” Robert said. Tiffany felt concern for a second time; how would Captain Blackbird want to blow off his frustrations after this near cock-up? Would he want more from her than just sex, or would he hurt her, or would he ignore her while he fought to control the disaster and the blow to his prestige that losing the target would cause? “We’re working as fast as we can.”

On the screen, the red icon of the Fleet starship burned brighter as it came closer.

Chapter Twelve: Confrontation

There was no real problem to basic navigation, particularly not inside a solar system, and Timothy had picked up the basics quickly. Drive fields took away all the messy fumbling with rockets that humans had tried, before the Imperials had arrived and introduced humanity to the wider universe outside Earth’s atmosphere; as long as the starship didn’t actually hit anything, they wouldn’t have any real problems travelling across the system. It allowed Timothy a chance to calculate, from his station, how long it would be until they intercepted the pirate ship; ten minutes.

“All stations report ready, sir,” he said, when the Captain looked at him. The Marines – he felt a brief pang as he thought of Elf – were loaded onboard their assault boats, ready to launch if the situation demanded it. The weapons and sensors were charging up, preparing to engage the pirate vessel, and the shields were raised. It didn’t look good, however; unless the enemy was stupid, they had to know that they had another five minutes before they had to break off if they wanted to escape…and that gave them some extra time to pillage the freighter.

He heard Lieutenant Commander Kurt Taub speak to the Captain. Taub served as a First Officer, without the rank that went with the station; as a light cruiser, Fury didn’t have the status to have someone else of command rank onboard, not with the crewing shortages running through the Imperial Fleet. He liked and respected the tactical officer, who had a positive genius for dreaming up unpleasant scenarios, but the man was tired and overdue for a promotion of his own.

“I wonder why the Governor got his panties in such a bunch,” Taub muttered, just loud enough to be heard. “Do you think that he knows something he’s not telling us?”

“Perish the thought,” Captain Venture said dryly. Timothy couldn’t tell if he was being sardonic, or seriously meant the comment. “There hasn’t been a pirate attack in this system for a few months, so he’s been telling the electorate that it’s all his doing…and now this has happened.”

He paused. “Midshipman Keck, has there been any update from System Command?”

Timothy glanced down at his console. “Ah, nothing beyond the first warning that there was a pirate ship in the system,” he said, checking through the communications log. A combination of time-delays and simple equipment limitations meant that the people back on Roland wouldn’t know much more than the crew about what was going on in the outer solar system. “The pirate target sent out a distress call, but there was no sign of anything that might attract the attentions of pirates.”

“Interesting,” Captain Venture said, stroking his beard. “Gunny, I want you to take a careful look through that ship once we secure it, just on the off-chance that someone is pulling a fast one.”

“I understand,” Garrison said, over the intercom. The Marines, among other things, had the duty of searching suspect ships. “Do you want us to try to board the enemy vessel?”

“I don’t think so,” Captain Venture said, as the icon of the pirate ship started to head away from the bulk freighter. There might be people alive on that ship, Timothy realised, just as he himself had survived the Max Capricorn, but would the pirates seek to destroy the vessel before the Fury could secure it and search it to find out what the pirates were so interested in taking that they had risked coming so far into the system? “I suspect that we won’t have a chance to take more than a few passing shots at him.”

Timothy, on impulse, called up the records from the Max Capricorn and compared them to the drive fields of the pirate ship ahead of them. They didn’t match, to his private disgust; he wanted, deeply, to avenge his family. The pirate ship was smaller, but it was actually more lethal than the starship that had killed his family…and it was turning to flee. He did the maths in his head and swore under his breath; the Fury could have taken the enemy ship, if they had stood and fought.

“One minute to weapons range,” Taub said. His voice was grim. “I suspect, however, that we will have to get very lucky to score a hit.”

A stern chase is always a long one, Timothy remembered, as the pirate ship started to pick up speed. It would be able to outrun Fury, given its head start, unless the commander was stupid…and, so far, he seemed to have timed it well. A superdreadnaught could have smothered the pirate ship’s point defence, but the only superdreadnaughts in the sector were hundreds of light years away. The pirate seemed to have timed it perfectly…

The Captain’s voice was as calm as if he were ordering dinner. “Midshipman Keck, transmit a standard greeting to the freighter and ask them for an update on their status,” he ordered. Timothy’s hands danced over his board. “Sergeant Garrison, prepare for the launch of assault boat one, standard suspect ship mission.”

“Understood,” Garrison rumbled.

“No response,” Timothy said, as the seconds ticked by. Either they were dead, or they couldn’t reply, or they were actually working with the pirates. It wasn't impossible that someone on the freighter had sold their fellows out, or worse, there were some pirates left behind on the freighter. That, too, was hardly impossible; the crewmen most pirates used for boarding operations were rated as expendable. “There’s not even a beacon.”

“Mr Taub, fire as soon as they enter weapons range,” Captain Venture said. He steepled his fingers in front of his face. “Sergeant, launch as soon as the first missile is fired.”

“Entering weapons range in ten seconds,” Taub said. His hands had stilled their motion; the computers, now, would be updating the missiles with their targeting data, informing them of their targets. “Five seconds…missiles away, I repeat, missiles away.”

The starship thrummed twice. “This is the shuttlebay,” a new voice said. “Marine One has been launched.”

On the display, the missiles lanced out towards the pirate ship.


“The assault team has all returned to the ship,” Erica said, her voice calm as the red icon of the Imperial Fleet starship closed in on them like a bat out of hell. The Knife Edge had used a tractor beam to yank a set of pallets right into the starship’s hold, disdaining any thought of further looting. The presence of the Imperial Fleet starship had been an unpleasant surprise, although if the crew had decided to try to sneak up on the Knife Edge instead, they might have brought her pirate career to an end. “The First Mate would like to inform you that he picked up the correct pallets and they’re onboard the ship now.”

Tiffany said nothing. It was redundant information, but Robert was making a point; he, and he alone, had captured the pallets. If they brought the crew as much as Captain Blackbird seemed to think they would, he would have a claim to their loyalty as well…while if it turned out to be a bust, he would be able to claim that he was just following orders. It made her wonder if she had the ability to form her own clique, although the pirates were considerably more lethal than the ‘in’ girls at her school; she had never been much of a joiner.

But at least all they can threaten me with is death, not becoming a social outcast, she thought, and surprised herself with a smile.

An alarm bleeped on her console. “Missile separation,” she snapped, as the console kept updating. The enemy – it was strange to think of the Imperial Fleet as the enemy, but they were, now – had launched a spread of missiles, chasing the Knife Edge as she tried to flee the system. “I have three missiles inbound.”

“They’re desperate,” Captain Blackbird said, calmly. Tiffany could see his point; the missiles were chasing them, which meant that their point defence had a good chance to handle them before they became a real threat…and that their drives would burn out, leaving them thousands of kilometres behind the Knife Edge in a split second. “Bring up the point defence, but do not engage until the missiles enter terminal attack position.”

Tiffany lifted an eyebrow, but didn’t protest; she knew what the penalty for disobeying orders under fire was in the pirate community. She’d simply have her throat cut, even as her console was redirected so that Erica or even the Captain himself could handle it, while the path of the battle would be unchanged. The sensors kept picking up more and more details on the Imperial ship, enough to intimidate her; it might be small, but it possessed more firepower than the Knife Edge and a crew that probably wasn't lashed with whips from time to time. Its shields were stronger, its point defence was stronger…in a head-to-head fight, they would be worsted quickly.

“We’re trying to get away from them, not pick a fight,” Jadis muttered, from her console. The helmswoman had programmed in a slightly evasive course, to make the task of the enemy harder, but it was rapidly becoming a stern chase. If the Imperial Fleet ship failed to catch them before they crossed the Phase Limit, they would use their Phase Drive and escape; if the enemy succeeded in disabling them, they would be rapidly disabled and either captured or destroyed.

The enemy missiles closed in; one of them vanishing somewhere as it’s drive fields burned out, the others closing in and entering terminal attack patterns. Tiffany didn’t hesitate – it was her life on the line as well – and hit the firing key; bursts of plasma and smaller counter-missiles launched from the Knife Edge, heading back towards the missiles. Space itself seemed to be glowing in the display, although she knew that that was just an optical illusion; it was only a matter of time before there was a hit…and at those speeds, even a marshmallow would be deadly.

“One missile gone,” she said, slowly. She paused as the display updated again. “The second missile has been hit as well.”

“Good shooting,” Captain Blackbird said dryly. He seemed to sense her puzzlement and lowered himself to issuing an explanation. “We don’t want them getting too good a look at our point defence, or they might be able to program their missiles to strike at us and take advantage of our weaknesses.”

“Yes, sir,” Tiffany agreed. It was the safe thing to do. “What happens now?”

Captain Blackbird smiled. “It’s very simple,” he said. “They will try to hit us and we will try to hit them; if they hit us hard enough to take out the drive field, we’re fucked. If we manage to knock out their drive field, we can make a clean break…and if neither of us manages to knock out the other, then it depends on if we can escape across the Phase Limit before they manage to whistle up any help.”

He settled back in his chair. “Missiles are valuable, but so is my life,” he said. “Tactical” – the look on his face, as he looked at Tiffany, would have shamed a crocodile – “open fire on the enemy ship.”


“They have opened fire on us,” Taub observed, as the icon of the enemy ship seemed to give birth, launching a spread of missiles towards the Fury, which was racing to try to catch up with the pirate ship. “At least seven missiles; I make them early Mark XXI’s, perhaps left over from the War.”

“Imprudent, aren’t they?” Captain Venture observed. There was a hard note to his voice; Timothy remembered that almost every member of the crew had good reason to hate the pirates and shuddered at the tone underlying his words. “Return fire; concentrate on knocking out their drives.”

Timothy watched the duel grimly, his mind racing as he tried to keep up with the display. The pirates had an unfair advantage; their time-to-target was much less than that of the Fury, but at the same time, their missiles were almost primitive. They might have come from pre-Collapse stocks, assuming that a stockpile had fallen into pirate hands, but they had clearly been indifferently maintained, at best. Taub could take them down, all of them, given enough time, but the closer they got to the pirate craft, the less time between shot and impact. He smiled as one of the pirate missiles detonated for no reason in particular, and then cursed as the pirate ship’s point defence took down a spread of the Fury’s missiles. Worse, as the pirate’s acceleration curve topped out, he was going to slowly start opening the range, unless their drives happened to fail at a convenient moment. It was something to hope for, but there was no real hope of it happening, unless the pirates hadn’t bothered to even maintain their drives…

His console blinked an update. “Captain, Sergeant Garrison has reported back from the hulk,” he said. “There are no pirates, but three survivors of the ship’s crew, one of them badly injured. He reports that the hulk is secure and is requesting an update.”

“Inform him that we will return to pick him up once we have settled the outcome of this contest,” Captain Venture said calmly. “Has there been any update from System Command?”

“None, sir,” Timothy said.

“That’s odd,” Taub commented. “Normally, they’re swarming us with instructions and orders, most of them completely impossible.”

“As you were,” Captain Venture said, although there was no real sting in the comment. “Midshipman Keck, send back an additional instruction; no one, but no one, is to board that ship without my direct permission.”

“Yes, sir,” Timothy said, wondering just what the Captain had in mind. His console chimed. “Sir, we are receiving a request for an update from System Command.”

“No response,” Captain Venture said. He studied the display for a long moment. The missile duel was still raging on, and both sides had scored hits, but neither of them had managed to knock the other one out of the fight and, despite himself, Timothy suspected that neither side would be able to score a decisive victory in the battle. The pirates start would be just enough to get them out of the system, unless there was someone in a position to intercept them, but there was no one in position. “Mr Taub, secure your weapons; Mr Hinton, disengage us from pursuit and take us back to the wreck.”

“Yes, sir,” Lieutenant Hinton said. Timothy could hear the anger in his voice and knew that the entire crew shared it; a pirate ship had thumbed its nose at the Fury and gotten away with it. The starship seemed to shake under the strain of decelerating so rapidly, but the old ship could handle the effort and altered course. “Do you want a least-time course to the wreck?”

The Captain switched the display back to the general system display; four ships were already converging on the stricken bulk freighter. “I think that would be a good idea, Mr Hinton,” he said, his voice flat and expressionless. “I want to know just what was so important that a pirate risked everything to get at it.”


“Enemy ship is breaking off,” Erica reported, as the Imperial Fleet starship fired a final spread of missiles, before decelerating and turning to break contact. The final spread of missiles came closer to scoring a direct hit that might have really damaged the ship than any other attack, but Tiffany allowed herself a moment of pure relief as they failed to damage anything important. She felt awareness returning slowly to her body and realised that she was drenched in sweat, running in waves down her back and pooling in her trousers. “I think they’re returning to the wreck.”

“Good,” Captain Blackbird said. He studied the display thoughtfully. “Erica, keep a careful sensor watch ahead of us and alter course randomly ten minutes from the Phase Limit, just in case there’s something waiting for us under cloak. Tiffany, how many missiles did we launch?”

“Fifty-two, sir,” Tiffany said, after a quick check. “We scored seven hits on their shields, but it wasn't enough to do any real damage.”

“No, clearly,” Captain Blackbird agreed. He sat back and waited. “Keep a close watch on your systems and wait for the word.”

Tiffany tried to relax, but it was impossible; the nightmare of what might be waiting them at the Phase Limit kept her alert. The entire mission, she was surprised to discover, had taken over seven hours; it had felt like minutes. The engagement with the Imperial Fleet ship alone had taken over an hour…and it had felt like seconds. She’d heard that time seemed to slow down when someone was by turns excited or scared out of their minds, but how had she lost so much time?

“Making random course change now,” Jadis said, as the moments ticked away. “Erica?”

“There’s no sign of anything waiting for us,” Erica said. “The closest possible hostile starship is several hundred thousand kilometres away.”

“Then take us into Phase Space as soon as we cross the limit,” Captain Blackbird ordered. Time seemed to slow down as the moment stretched out. “Now!”

Space flickered, flared, and was replaced by the eerie lights of Phase Space. They had escaped. “Excellent work, all of you,” Captain Blackbird said. He smiled once and then stood up. “Jadis, you have the bridge; take us out at the first waypoint, then select a second waypoint before we return to Gotha. It’s unlikely that they managed to attach anything on to us, but just in case, I want several waypoints to confuse them.”

“Understood,” Jadis said, her voice as cold as ever.

“Your first mission,” Captain Blackbird said. It took Tiffany a moment to realise that he was addressing her. The note of gloating triumph in his voice scared her. “You’re one of us now.”

Chapter Thirteen: Aftermath (Timothy)

The bulk freighter rose up in front of Timothy as he steered the small EVA unit towards the prow of the ship. From a distance, it had appeared to be only one ship, but closer up he could see that it was really a set of modules and pallets, constructed around a central hull. It hadn’t been particularly easy on the eye at any time, from the moment when it had been assembled from different components at the yard, to the moment when the pirates had attacked it, but now it looked as if it was drifting helplessly in space. The command pod, placed firmly at the front and vulnerable to enemy fire, was melted and ruined, as if the metal had run even in the cold of space.

He passed through the force field the Marines had set up and removed his hood with a sigh of relief. Space wasn’t a place for the unprepared, even now; there were people who had very real problems coping with life in space, particularly when they weren’t in a large and powerful starship. If you could handle floating alone in space, Hannah had told him, you could handle anything; Timothy hadn’t had any problems at all learning how to use a skinsuit and manoeuvring unit in space.

“Welcome onboard,” Hannah said, and winked at him. Timothy wasn’t sure if he should salute her or not – she hadn’t been promoted yet, even though technically she should have been promoted a few hours ago – but chose to take the safer course by saluting. “This ship hasn’t even been named, can you believe that?”

Timothy shrugged, taking the opportunity to have a look around the control room. Somehow, he was sure that it didn’t deserve the title of bridge. There were a handful of consoles, all ruined, melted, or simply vaporised, all crammed into a very small space. The pirates hadn’t used a very high-powered weapon to carry out the attack, but even so, it had burned right through the hull material like a hot knife through butter. The heat of its passage would have burned up all the atmosphere in the compartment, suffocating anyone who was lucky enough to survive, but judging from the Marine reports, no one had survived on the bridge. The only survivors had been in different sections of the ship, literally kilometres from the control section.

“I guess they didn’t think it was worth the bother,” Timothy said, after a moment. The freighter would practically be rebuilt after every trip; it wasn't like the Fury, or the Max Capricorn, both of which would remain intact for years. The Fury alone was over forty years old…and, thanks to careful maintenance, was still almost as good as new. “It’s not as if this ship had any real soul.”

“True enough,” Hannah agreed, as she led the way into a second compartment. Timothy saw the body almost before she pointed it out, a body that had once been human, but now was so burned by the passage of the energy burst that it had been damaged beyond recognition. He couldn’t tell if it was male or female; for the first time, he smelt something other than burning metal in the air. “The Captain wants us to investigate the ship and find out what the pirates were so interested in taking.”

“Yes, sir,” Timothy said. The crewmen would handle most of the investigation, but he had his own tasks to do. Hannah had been given the responsibility of taking the lead, which meant that the Captain already considered her a Lieutenant, as he had several other officers who could have taken the lead. “What would you like me to do first?”

Hannah passed him a set of code keys. “There’s an intact computer access station down in section G483,” she said. “I want you to pull up a manifest, dump all the data back to Fury, and then find out just what was in the pallets the pirates took.”

“Yes, sir,” Timothy said. He hesitated. “Should we not ask the crewmen?”

Hannah smiled thinly. “There seems to be something of an issue over that,” she said, nodding out towards the rent in the hull. There were four other starships present, two of them belonging to Roland and the other two belonging to certain commercial concerns. The latter had informed the Fury that they were intent on recovering their own goods from the stricken freighter, but Timothy guessed that they might have other motives as well, including some scavenging. “The Captain would prefer to have answers to the questions before we actually have them.”

Timothy saluted again and headed out of the control room, following a long passage through into a different compartment. It felt strange compared to the Fury, as if the freighter was on the verge of falling apart; he checked his breath mask almost without realising that he had done so. The smell in the air grew thicker the further he walked, down into a larger room that held a pair of armed Marines and several crewmen, who were having their wounds tended to by the Doctor. The Marines – Elf wasn't among them – didn’t blink; they were working. Timothy realised that they were guarding the boarding party from the ship’s crew as much as they were protecting the crewmen…who had to be terrified that the pirates would return.

His gaze flickered over them; five men, all looking shabby compared to his crew. Two of them were wounded, the others were glancing nervously at the Marines, or at the Doctor, wondering what she would find. Timothy had been told that independent freighters operated under few laws, but freighters that were bonded to a particular shipping corporation were governed by the company’s regulations…and the crewmen might have been breaking them before the pirates attacked them. Spacers were always in short supply, but if they were caught dealing illegal drugs on a freighter, they would be lucky just to spend the rest of their lives on a penal world. Just for a moment, his eyes met one of their eyes…and he saw nothing, but fear for the future within them.

He continued down the corridor and found the data access point. It looked surprisingly new, compared to those on the Fury, but it used the same operating principles. It also seemed to have stricter rules on classified materials; unlike the Fury, it didn’t inform him that some materials were secret, it just refused to even display a warning. There were times when it became ridiculous; half of the pallets on the ship were only numbered, not marked with any name at all…as far as the crew could access. It struck him as odd; the only reason he could think of for the information to be concealed was to prevent the crew from knowing that they were transporting something dangerous, like antimatter…

Or prevent them from informing the pirates of what they were carrying, he thought, and pulled out the first of the code keys. They were technically forbidden to everyone outside the Imperial Fleet, but he was starting to realise that that meant that there were probably a few million of them running around in criminal hands. He slipped the code key into the computer and waited for it to work its magic, testing and challenging the computer protections worked into the system. The ship’s commanding officer had been killed in the strike against the control room, so he couldn’t be simply ordered to unlock the computers…if he could. He’d been told that Captain Venture, whose powers onboard Fury were virtually unlimited, could authorise almost anyone to do any shipboard function without reference to higher authority…but somehow he was convinced that that wouldn’t be true of the freighter.

Someone moved behind him; his hand dropped to his sidearm. “Don’t panic,” a voice said dryly, “it’s only me.”

“Markus,” Timothy said, before remembering himself and saluting. “Sir, I…”

He saw Markus’s grin and knew that it would be all right. Markus had briefed him carefully on the relationship between commissioned officers and enlisted men during a boarding and investigative operation; generally, let the enlisted men get on with it and take all the credit later. By the time he’d made Lieutenant, he’d been assured, he would know enough to actually issue orders, but until then, he had to allow the enlisted men their head, under their senior officer.

“Don’t worry about it,” Markus advised dryly. “What have you found?”

“The computers on this ship are locked,” Timothy said, as he tried the second code key. “Why the hell would they do that?”

Markus favoured him with a droll look. “Why do you have a lock on your own personal drawer in the wardroom?”

Timothy smiled. “To keep people from looking in,” he said. He thought about it. “But anyone senior to Midshipman could open the lock with or without my permission.”

“True enough,” Markus agreed. He tapped the deck with one foot. “A ship like this, Timothy, is large enough to hide more than a few items that would bring in millions of credits, under the right circumstances. I bet you half my pay for this month that if we took the ship to pieces in a dock, we’d find over a million credits worth of smuggled goods, from bottles of Old Earth Plonk to illegal small pieces of technology.”

“No bet,” Timothy said, as the console bleeped at him. “We’re in!”

He skimmed through the manifest with a growing sense of irritation. The classified listing wasn't much better than the declassified listing, although most of the items had been given details, rather than just numbers and the odd warning about handling them carefully. There seemed to be very little of real interest; items on the ship ranged from farming technology – he remembered Taurus with a surprisingly pang of homesickness – to components for repairing starships. The Imperial Fleet tried to recycle and rebuild components, but most components, when they failed, were completely ruined. The items in the freighter’s hold could have allowed more starships to be repaired and sent back into space.

“Curious,” Markus said, peering over his shoulder. Part of Timothy wanted to tell him to get lost, part of him wanted his advice; he had the feeling that he was way out of his league. “Look at those components there.”

Timothy’s eyes skimmed over them. “I don’t understand,” he said. “What do you mean?”

“Those components are used in…well, almost every starship in existence, the Fury included,” Markus said. He reached down and examined the item list thoughtfully. “If they had taken them, they would have been able to fence them onwards and gain back enough profit to give everyone a fun time; hell, we could pay Fury’s operating costs for a month with that sort of money.”

His gaze met Timothy’s. “So why didn’t they take them?”

“That’s not the important question,” Timothy said, speaking to himself. Markus lifted a polite eyebrow. “What did they take instead?”

“Interesting thought,” Markus said. He glanced down at a small terminal he held in his hand. “Check out Pallet #4763 to Pallet #4765.”

Timothy ran through the search briefly. “It doesn’t say what they are,” he said, slowly. “They’re marked out with a single code and then just…hell, the crew have been ordered to leave them alone.”

“It wouldn’t be easy to inspect them without a yard or a dock,” Markus commented. Timothy poked the computer in hopes of uncovering a hidden layer of information. “I don’t think there’s anything else, but the coding, which means that whatever the pallets were, they didn’t want anyone to know about it.”

Timothy frowned. “So, what do we do now?”

“We approach the problem from a different angle,” Markus said. He tapped a command into the console and watched as the results came up. “By law, every freighter has to keep an exact record of when it makes landfall, and when it brings onboard a particular cargo. This ship made only three landfalls before coming to Roland; one at Fairfax itself, one at Equinox, and one at Castle.” He paused. “Castle’s an independent asteroid in the Equinox System; it’s a major manufacturing station, which suggests…”

He paused. “That suggests that our mystery cargo came onboard at Castle,” he said. He cross-referenced the system. “And I was right.”

Timothy checked the results. The mystery cargo had been loaded onboard at Castle. “They can’t have simply faked the records?” He asked. “If they were trying to confuse any investigators…?”

“It’s not that easy to fake a black box recording,” Markus said. He shook his head slowly. “I suppose it would be vaguely possible for them to do as you suggest, but they’d have to account for thousands of little details, while the merest mistake would set off alarms ringing all over the system. When all they would have had to do is keep the name of the cargo off the records, there are easier ways to do it; hell, we wouldn’t have noticed a thing unless they made a mistake when off-loading the junk.”

Timothy grinned. “You mean we’ve caught some smugglers in the act?”

“Not quite,” Markus said, clearly sharing some of the same excitement. “We don’t know how the pirates knew to take those pallets, or why. I think that someone in the system knew what the pallets were and tipped off the pirates, which means that we –the Fleet – now has a possible line in to finding the bastards.”

He clapped Timothy on the shoulder. “Good work, Midshipmen.”

But I didn’t do all of it, Timothy thought, but said nothing.

“We’d better take this to the Captain,” Markus said, apparently unaware of what Timothy was thinking. Timothy, who was starting to suspect that Markus hadn’t come along to help through pure coincidence, kept his own counsel. “He’s the one who will have to handle the legal issues involved, order a full interrogation of the crewmembers, and then follow up with the local authorities to find the person responsible for the attack.”

He paused. “Like I said, good work,” he said. “There’s just one thing that bothers me…”

Timothy blinked. “What bothers you?”

“The pirates have practically given their source to us on a platter,” Markus said. “Why would they do that…unless they didn’t need the bastard any more?”


“Well done, Midshipman,” Captain Venture said, an hour later. Timothy saluted once, feeling tired and worn; he’d faced the hostile glares of the freighter’s crewmen as the Marines hustled them into the shuttle and then transported them back to the Fury for an investigation. Markus had commented that the crewmen were probably innocent, but they had to be investigated anyway, and if they had been up to something that would draw the wrath of their employer’s down on them, that too would come out in the interrogation.

“Thank you, sir,” he said, fighting to remain upright. He was not going to fall asleep in front of the Captain, but he had been awake for what felt like days, maybe months. The implants within his body could handle only so much.

“This will have to be followed up with the local authorities,” the Captain said, “but I want you to remain within easy reach if I have to follow up other lines of enquiry on my own. Return to the wardroom and report for duty at 1000hrs tomorrow, unless I call you.”

“Yes, sir,” Timothy said, saluting. He turned and marched out of the door, only sagging when the door had firmly hissed closed behind him. All the strength faded out of his body and he almost collapsed, before he pulled himself together and walked slowly down the corridor, back towards the wardroom. The ship seemed to be thrumming with activity, just as it had done when he had first boarded the Fury, but now there was a more relaxed note to it. He had gained experience…and now, he knew that the Fury wasn't always in a state of panic, or organised chaos.

The wardroom door hissed open, revealing an empty room; Hannah’s bunk, he noted bleakly, had already been stripped of its bedding. She would have a bigger bed in her cabin, now that she had been promoted; he didn’t envy her at that moment. He didn’t bother to undress; he merely lay down on his bunk and closed his eyes. It seemed, at that moment, that he was back on the Max Capricorn, watching as the pirates forced their way inside his mother, his dad’s body cooling under their feet. In his dream, he watched and screamed helplessly, silently, as they raped her…and then he was offered the chance to rape her himself…

And he found himself reaching for her…

Timothy sat bolt upright in his bunk, cracking his head against the upper bunk. The nightmare refused to fade so quickly; he found himself glancing around, noticing Sharon lying on her bunk, and in his delirium, thinking that she was his mother. Sweat was pouring down his back as he pulled himself to his feet, feeling the reassuring sense that the starship was surrounding him with its comforting drive field, and leaned against the bunk, shaking.

He’d had nightmares before, during his first week on the Fury, but the wrecked freighter had brought them all back. The pirates had attacked the freighter, just as they had attacked the Max Capricorn, and they had killed a dozen people. They had killed his family, they had killed thousands of others, and they would kill thousands more, unless they were stopped. He found that he had clenched his fists hard enough to hurt; it took a real effort just to release them and start to undress, stumbling towards the shower. His body hurt, as if he’d been in a fight; he was surprised that he hadn’t woken Sharon with his screams…if he had screamed. It was so hard to tell.

We should have destroyed that damn ship, he thought, and felt cold fury burning through him. We could have wiped out one pirate crew.

Chapter Fourteen: Aftermath (Tiffany)

Tiffany hurt.

It wasn’t that Captain Blackbird had been frustrated at the outcome of the raid – they had achieved their goal, after all – but that she had blood on her hands. He’d taken her hard enough to hurt after they had slipped into Phase Space and escaped, but she had almost welcomed the pain; it had numbed her slightly. Afterwards, when she’d washed his seed from her body, it had struck; she had blood on her hands. In the shower, she had scrubbed at her hands almost hard enough to draw blood, but it hadn’t helped at all.

She had killed, according to Robert, seven people…and maybe more. He’d added that as an afterthought, but it had also been a warning; now, she was one of the pirates. Jadis had made that point, Captain Blackbird had made that point…and they had all been right. She might have killed the would-be assassin without much in the way of concern, or remorse, but now she had struck down and killed innocents. The Imperial Fleet wouldn’t forgive her for that, nor would anyone else; there was nowhere left for her to go.

Her body didn’t look much different to when she’d last looked in the mirror, what felt like years ago, but her eyes were different. She could see traces of her soul dying, changing, altering…to allow her to live in the pirate world. She had killed, and she had blood on her hands…her mind kept repeating it as a mantra, mocking her into submission. She almost wished that she had been raped and murdered, or died on the Max Capricorn, but some traces of a fundamental self-honesty reminded her that she was glad that she had survived, so far, being captured, being sold into slavery, and life as a sex toy for the Captain. She had carved herself a place in the pirate world now, both as a crewmember and someone of proven willingness to kill…and all it had cost her was…blood on her hands.

And she was alone. Her father, who’d brought her up, was dead. Her mother, who had given birth to her, was dead. Her brother, who had been with her since they were both born, was dead. There had been times when she’d hated him, there had been times when she’d loved him to bits, but now he was gone, there was nothing tying her to her old life. The girl who had wanted to escape Taurus, no matter the cost, had succeeded, although never in her wildest nightmares had she dreamed of escaping to the pirate life. There had been no room for delusions about pirates on Taurus; girls back in the inner worlds might dream of being swept off their feet by a handsome pirate, but in Taurus everyone knew what would generally happen to someone unlucky enough to fall into pirate hands. She had been lucky, very lucky, and the cost had been a small price to pay. In hindsight, she had managed to succeed against very steep odds; if Jade was any indication, she had managed to do something that very few slaves – and she had no illusions about her former role – had managed to do.

And all it had cost her was…

She pinched herself hard on the thigh. It didn’t matter, not any longer; she wasn't in a place where she could make moral judgements that would allow her to find a way through the maze without committing any crimes, or doing anything that was even remotely morally unsound. All that mattered was survival…and prospering. Her mind had already considered how the pirates had launched the attack, but she also knew how close they had come to disaster. Captain Blackbird’s intelligence had been good, but far from perfect; if that cruiser had shown up just a few minutes sooner, they would have failed to take their target…or been caught at point-blank range. She’d watched the firing patterns from the cruiser – and its point defence – and she could put two and two together; if they hadn’t run for it, they would have been destroyed. Was there any way in which they could gain their target without so much risk?

Her mind tossed the concept around as she dressed, pulling on each of her garments in turn, this time adding a pair of black gloves to hide the marks on her hands. She had been grateful beyond words that the Captain had allowed her to shower first before taking her; her body had been coated in sweat. The outfit was normally cool to wear, despite its skin-tight design, but the stresses of the battle had made her sweat. It had been both the most alarming event in her life…and the most exhilarating. As she stepped back into the corridors, passing groups of crewmen celebrating with their private stashes of alcohol and drugs, she felt her nose winkle at the smell. If she ever ended up commanding a pirate ship herself – and now that was quite possible – she would make certain that the ship was clean and tidy, rather than looking like a mad combination of a sewer and a children’s play area.

The two guards on the hatch to the hold looked at her; she looked back at them. Moments later, they stepped aside and allowed her entrance, their faces blank and featureless. They had been extensively modified by illegal clinics, with weapons and sensors implanted into their flesh, but unlike most such procedures, they wore their implants on the outside of their flesh, glorying in their mutilation. It reminded her of the Greys, who had done the same with their own bodies; thirty years after the Greys had come and gone, they were still the most fundamentally wrong race in human eyes, creatures that touched on humanity’s deepest phobias.

“Tiffany,” Jadis said, as Tiffany stepped inside. Her voice was as flat as ever. “Your work has brought this to us.”

Tiffany had never stepped inside the hold before and, now she had the chance to look around, she felt perversely disappointed. She had half-expected massive piles of gold and jewels, even though the former was pretty much worthless these days, but instead the hold was just a massive room within the ship, right next to the hull. She fancied that she felt cold, knowing that if someone overrode the security systems, they could all be dumped into Phase Space and be lost forever. There had already been one attempt to kill the Captain…and his most loyal Second Mate was already with him in the hold. Tiffany suspected that killing her wouldn’t even register on the plotters concerns, if there were plotters…

It’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you, she reminded herself, as she took in the pallets. Up close, they were larger than she had expected from the sensor readings, large enough to fit around a hundred humans in without much effort, maybe even twice that if they were pressed in firmly. They were clearly designed to be sealed and closed to anyone without the required security codes, but the entry-coder in the Captain’s hand revealed that those precautions hadn’t been anything like enough. He nodded once to her and pointed to an open container; Tiffany peered inside and saw…

Boxes, lots of sealed boxes. Her puzzlement must have shown on her face, because Captain Blackbird pulled out one of the boxes, opened it, and showed her a component box for a starship…or whatever it was actually for. The Imperials had designed their ships on the principle that the person using them might be an idiot, so they had ensured that repairs could be made as simple as switching a damaged component for a new one from stores. The anonymous box might be anything from a computer to a weapons-control system…and it was marked with the logo of the Imperial Fleet.

She found her voice as her stomach seemed to lurch. “We’d better make sure that they don’t have any unpleasant surprises programmed into those things,” she said, as Captain Blackbird replaced the component within its box. “What do you intend to do with them all?”

“Some of these can be fitted into the Knife Edge,” Captain Blackbird said, his voice mischievously amused at life. Tiffany looked into his eyes and wondered if that was a good idea; if there was some hidden software on the components, the Knife Edge might be crippled before they could realise the problem and pull the infected component out of the ship. “Don’t worry; we will check them first for any…surprises.”

Jadis spoke from her corner of the hold. “The issue is making more money,” she said, in her taut voice. Tiffany knew her well enough by now to know that that meant trouble. “We fired off enough missiles to make replacing them an urgent priority and some of our components burned out in the midst of the action. If they had hit us a few more times, they might have brought us to a standstill. The ship needs repairs and that will come out of the profits from this mission…”

She stopped. She didn’t have to spell out the rest. If the crew felt that they had been placed in danger for anything less than a vast sum of money, they would mutiny; at best, suppressing the mutiny would take time and effort. At worst…well, Tiffany was already all-too-aware of how some crewmembers looked at her; she knew what would happen if the mixture of fear, greed and respect that controlled the crew failed. No matter how much Captain Blackbird had hurt her, it would be nothing compared to a gang rape, followed by having her throat cut.

“One of these containers could bring us several billion credits, at the right place,” Captain Blackbird said, his voice confident. Jadis lifted a single elegant eyebrow. “All of them together would bring us at least ten billion credits, although at this time, I think that we might be better off holding some of them back for future use.”

“The crew isn’t going to like that, Captain,” Jadis said, dryly. She crossed her arms over her breasts. “They won’t want to hear about the future when we can live for today.”

Tiffany frowned as she looked at the pair. “What are these components actually used for?”

Jadis laughed at her. “Starship space parts, mainly,” she said, dryly. “Take a few of these on your ship and you won’t have to spend years crawling back to an inhabited world because of a broken Phase Space Modulator. The crewmen are often too dumb to perform such precise repairs, or they don’t have the training and equipment provided by whoever they work for, and so the sum total of their knowledge of how to make a repair is to take out one shoddy component and shove a slightly less shoddy component in the hole.”

“And God help you if you don’t have the right component at the right time,” Captain Blackbird added. “Our buyer was very keen that we picked up these components, although that won’t stop us charging him through the nose for them, particularly given the lack of warning about that cruiser.”

Tiffany said nothing. She knew enough about basic space navigation to know that the cruiser might have been delayed, or it might have come early, or unannounced, and there wouldn’t have been any time for anyone to warn the Knife Edge…particularly not if they were so desperate to get their hands on the components. People like that, she suspected, wouldn’t care if the Knife Edge was destroyed…and might even wish for it, should the deal go foul and the crew possess evidence that could be used for blackmail. If Jadis had taught her one thing, it was that the Rim was a treacherous place…and that it was far too dangerous to go around without someone watching your back. No wonder Jadis and Erica stayed so close together.

“Most of these components are pretty advanced, post-war work, at a guess,” Jadis said, as Captain Blackbird turned to leave the hold. “I’m not sure that they would be worth as much as you think?”

Captain Blackbird favoured her with a look that would have had Tiffany on her knees; Jadis seemed unaffected. “And what makes you think that?”

Jadis’s voice remained flat. “Most of these components, Captain, are modern; modern enough to make me wonder if they can really be patched into ships that we might find at Gotha,” she said. “The question is simple; what do the people who provided you with the information want with them?”

Captain Blackbird shrugged. “I hardly think that that’s any of our concern,” he said, dryly. Tiffany had to smile. “The issue at hand is getting as much as possible for them and having a celebration on Gotha or one of the other asteroids.”

“True enough, I suppose,” Jadis said. She looked over at Tiffany, specifically asking her to join in. “What do you think?”

“I don’t know,” Tiffany admitted, choosing the neutral ground until she knew more about what was going on. The dynamics of the relationships between the senior pirates fascinated and repelled her at the same time. “As long as we get paid, does it really matter what happens to the components?”

Jadis shrugged, tossing her long hair back. “I’ll see you in the gym in thirty minutes,” she said, reminding Tiffany of their appointment. They had kept up their practice sessions, but recently, Jadis had turned to reminding Tiffany of their original bargain; Tiffany would learn from the two female pirates, in exchange for doing something for them. Tiffany didn’t think that that was a good sign. “Captain, be seeing you.”

Captain Blackbird nodded as she left, and then turned to Tiffany. “She worries too much,” he said, his face twisted in a strange grin. Anyone else, on the crew, he could have just ignored or blown off…or flogged for daring to ask questions at the wrong time. With Jadis and Erica, it was dangerous to play such games, not least because they were the most loyal members of his crew…and anything that weakened that loyalty might come back to haunt him. “She’s been through a lot with her lover and they check everything before doing anything that exposes their pretty asses to anything.”

He paused. “Speaking of pretty asses…”

Tiffany took the hint and pushed a stud on her outfit, causing it to open and fall away from her body. The first time he’d taken her away from his cabin, she had been terrified that someone – anyone – would see them, but now she was used to it – besides, the hold was almost completely empty. As he pushed her against the container – gently, but with the unsubtle reminder that he could force her to do anything – she felt her mind wandering; what was so important about those components?

And, if Jadis were right, who would want them?

“Men,” Jadis observed, half an hour later. Tiffany knew better than to be late for any of their appointments; the first time she had been late, Jadis had shown her just how much she had to learn about fighting. Tiffany had been punished before, by her parents, but there was something humiliating about being tossed around like a little girl. “What possible use do they have?”

Several answers came to Tiffany’s lips, but she bit them all down. A year after meeting Jadis, she was still scared of her, like living next to a cobra that might take it into its head to bite her. Naked, apart from a throng, Jadis still represented menace and deadly danger; as she sparred with Erica, Tiffany could see just how capable she was. Pirates settled their disputes through duels, hand-to-hand bouts in which there were no rules, and the girls were past masters of the art. Erica had once told her that there were few sights as unwelcome or distracting as a naked woman…and told her to use her body to the best advantage she could get. If she lost control, just once, it could be fatal. Weakness in the pirate strongholds wouldn’t last long.

“The trick to fighting naked is to remember that you don’t have any weapons,” Jadis said, as she separated from Erica. Her face twisted into something that vaguely reassembled a conspiratorial grin. “Unless, of course, you’re prepared to get…creative about where you hide them. There was a guy who fought in a duel on Tan, one of the asteroid settlements, and he hid a blade up his bum. When the time came, he was knocked on his ass and…”

She threw back her head and giggled. It was a rather disturbing sound. “Just remember, if you’re fighting a man, he’s probably tracking your breasts with at least half of his attention, so keep waggling them in his face while you prepare your blows,” she continued, as she showed Tiffany what she meant. “It’s a little harder if you’re fighting a bitch, unless she’s a dyke, because she won’t be so distracted and the best you can hope for is that she will feel jealous of your tits…but if you count on that, you’re going to have your ass beaten – again.”

Tiffany flushed slightly at the reminder. She was growing better at hand-to-hand fighting, but Jadis could still beat her; she actually suspected that there were some tricks that Jadis was keeping for herself, just in case. Erica, who seemed to remain hidden in Jadis’s shadow, was more forthcoming, but even so…knowledge was power on the Knife Edge.

“So concentrate on taking the target down as quickly as you can,” Jadis said, after she showed Tiffany one neat trick. “Don’t try to be smart, don’t try to be fancy, and don’t rely on any fancy augmentations you might have hidden away in your body. Sharp, nasty, and no mercy wins the day – always.”

She grinned. “And if you do really well, I’ll take you to a bare-naked fight on Gotha and let you see how the professionals handle it,” she said. The reminder that they were heading back to Gotha made Tiffany smile bitterly; she still had unpleasant memories of the place. “Just don’t place any bets until you know more about what you’re doing, or you’ll be skinned alive.”

Chapter Fifteen: Court of Judgement

“Stand at ease,” Captain Venture said, as he peered at his five midshipmen. Standing as straight as he could – few midshipmen would risk relaxing too much in the presence of the Captain – Timothy wondered what this was all about. The last time they had all faced the Captain had been after there had been a near-disaster with one of the shuttles, but nothing had happened since they had beaten off the pirate attack on the bulk freighter, or at least nothing that could reasonably be blamed on the Midshipmen. “There have been important developments.”

Timothy kept his face carefully blank. The Fury had returned to Roland after they had found the missing pallets – or, rather, they had found a lack of information on the missing pallets – and the Imperial Fleet officers on the planet’s surface had gone though the ship with a fine-toothed comb. He’d heard on the grapevine that the governor of the planet had pressed the Captain to simply hand the ship over to the local authorities and continue on their patrol route, but Captain Venture had remained in orbit, where the Fury had been joined by four other Imperial Fleet starships. Rumours had been flying around like crazy, each one stranger than the last, from a shipment of arms to insurrectionists on the planet below, to a secret collection of Greys, held in suspension until they were ready to burst out and start attacking the Empire again. The Captain and the other senior officers had been playing their cards very close to their chests, however; whatever was going on, the midshipmen hadn’t been told.

“There were a number of illegal items within the ship, all of which have been seized,” the Captain said, as his gaze swept over the assembled junior officers. “The important detail, however, is that the starship was deliberately sold out by their superiors on the planet below, who passed on information to people who were apparently linked with the pirates. They not only passed on that information, but they passed on very precise targeting orders; the mystery pallets were specifically targeted for the pirate attack.”

Timothy considered it as the Captain continued speaking. The Imperial Fleet had vast powers to combat piracy, which suggested that the Captain either knew what the pallets were and had chosen not to share the information, or no one who had been swept up by the sweep on the planet had been in the know. That was…odd; if they had known what they were, they would have had to tell the interrogators, but if they hadn’t known, how had they known to tell the pirates what to attack? They’d gone through the manifest carefully; the pirates had ignored items that would have brought them millions of credits, just for items that were of unknown value. No, he corrected himself; the items had to be of very real value. They just didn’t know what they were…

“The local authorities understand that fleet has primacy in any pirate-related investigation and the local force of Marines investigated and swept up several hundred people, all of whom were interrogated,” the Captain continued. “Most of them were innocent and were promptly released, but several of them were clearly guilty of aiding and abetting the pirate attack that killed nine people, two of them vaporised to the point where we were barely able to pick up any of their remains. Those people will face a special court, to be convened on Fury, and you have been selected to serve on the jury.”

He glanced once at Timothy. “Those of you who are unaware of the protocols in such a situation are advised to look them up,” he said, rather dryly. Timothy might have had a very practical education on the Fury, but the more obscure sections of fleet’s voluminous regulations had escaped his study, for the moment. He had been reading around the various precedents and commentaries on the regulations, but he had concentrated on the more interesting parts. Pirates were generally shot without bothering with a trial. “For the moment, I am obliged to remind you that you have the right to decline this duty and it will not be held against you, should you decline.”

Timothy remembered the carnage in the wrecked freighter and said nothing. “I understand,” the Captain said, his voice softening slightly. No one had declined the responsibility. “The trial will be held at 1700hrs this afternoon, so attend there in your dress uniforms; Midshipman Keck, you are advised to make a special study of the protocols. Midshipman Collins” – with Hannah promoted, Hank was the senior Midshipman – “will oversee your education and serve as the lead juryman. Midshipman Keck, if you change your mind, please let me know by 1500hrs.”

“Yes, sir,” Timothy said. His mind was spinning. Would they really have time to review everything before the trial began? The Imperial Empire had been in existence for over three thousand years; there were protocols and precedents going all the way back to the time before Jesus Christ.

“Dismissed,” the Captain said. “Collins, Keck, you are excused all further duties until after the trial.”

“You’d better concentrate on the overviews,” Collins advised, as they walked back towards the wardroom. His face looked concerned; Timothy guessed that he was considering all of the possible precedents that could be brought into play, and worrying about them. “Look up the procedures first, and then decide if you actually want to go through with it, or if you would rather decline the duty.”

Timothy had wondered about that. “Why did he give me the extra time?”

Collins gave him an evil look. “You don’t know what you’re getting into,” he said. “I had to go through this at the academy.”

An hour later, Timothy was starting to suspect that Collins had a point; the entire basis for the trial was set down in the regulations. The accused had had their guilt proven, through lie detectors and truth drugs; there was no doubt about that. As civilians, they had the right to try to convince a jury that their crimes had been justified, or that they had intended something other than what had happened. As Timothy skimmed through the precedents, he saw how other trials had worked; sometimes, the defender had managed to plead that he had thought he was doing the right thing, in others, the defender had basically broken down and begged for mercy. One question, at least, was answered; the midshipmen onboard any given vessel were normally given the jury duty because they were the closest thing the fleet had to civilians.

He rolled his eyes as he ploughed through yet another precedent. “Why don’t we just shoot them?”

“Because they’re civilians and have to go through a civilian trial procedure,” Collins answered, midway through reminding himself of the procedures. “They committed crimes against interstellar order, so the fleet has primacy, but they’re not actually the ones with blood on their hands, so they don’t get to be shot on sight.”

He paused. “There’s also the more interesting point,” he said. “The people who sold out the ship – the people who knew what the fuck was going on – were all low-level people within the company, but they didn’t know what the ship was actually carrying, unless they managed to hide something from us.”

Timothy skimmed down one of the briefing notes. “The final member of the cabal was tracked boarding a starship the day after the attack and hasn’t been seen since,” he said. “How much would you like to bet that that starship never reaches its destination?”

“No bet,” Collins said. His eyes looked as if they were starting to glaze over. “I never take sucker bets.”

Timothy had taken the opportunity to snatch some sleep on Collins’ advice, before catching something to eat before heading down to the entertainment room. It was normally crowded with off-duty crewmembers, trying to relax between shifts, but with Roland turning slowly below them, the Captain had authorised a small amount of shore leave for the crewmen, while the room itself was converted into a makeshift courtroom. He almost didn’t recognise the room when he stepped inside; the table that was normally used to play various games had been turned into a table for the prosecutor, while the Captain himself sat on a higher chair, facing the room. Armed Marines – including Elf – guarded the prisoners, who had had their hands manacled, just in case. It looked like overkill, but the reviews of past cases had noted that it was quite common.

The prisoners themselves didn’t look like much. Four of them were men, the leader middle aged and fat, which suggested that he hadn’t had the money to have his body reshaped. The others looked young and achingly handsome, which suggested in its turn that they had lived well beyond their means, while the women looked surprisingly pretty. Prison garb didn’t suit them, clearly; their faces had been wiped clear of makeup. They took their positions on the bench without comment; their hands were rapidly secured to the bench, keeping them firmly down. He’d read that more than a few prisoners, back in the early days, had had augmentation that had allowed them to harm people in the courtroom, but after a few years it had become tradition.

He caught, for the moment, the eye of one of the women. She looked young and desperate, her eyes pleading with him; he remembered what might happen to her if she was convicted and his doubts warred under his skin for a long moment, before he remembered the dead bodies on the ship. She might not have known what she was doing…except she had known what her part in the cabal was, and she had to understand what that had meant as a whole. His sympathy faded and he concentrated on studying the wall.

“The court will now come to attention,” Hannah said. Her new uniform suited her, Timothy decided; he hoped that she would remain with the Fury, rather than being transferred out. “Captain Lord Daniel Venture is presiding.”

“You may be seated,” the Captain said. The small audience, mainly people from the surface of the planet, as well as one of the survivors from the wrecked ship, took their seats and looked expectant. The prisoners, who hadn’t risen for obvious reasons, looked up and tried to look repentant. “The prosecutor may speak.”

Lieutenant Lance Hinton stood up. Timothy had read, according to the regulations, that the senior crew would play the roles of prosecutor and defender, unless there was some pressing reason to exclude one of the crewmen. The procedure had also had almost all of the civilian formalities stripped out of it; instead of florid speeches, the military officers would concentrate on the facts.

“My Lord,” Hinton said, with a slight nod towards the Captain. “The accused worked in seven different capabilities within the system, two of them working in middle-grade positions in two different companies, four of them working within the civilian system command itself and one of them working directly for the local defence force,” he said. “During that time, they were contacted by someone who went by the name of Owasso, who apparently held a position within a third company. Mr Owasso was identified leaving the system on the starship Glad Tidings and has had ample time to make an escape at the next destination of the starship.”

He paused. “According to the testimonial of the accursed, during that four-year period, they were in a position to supply information relating to shipping schedules and manifests, some of them particularly damaging, that were passed on to Owasso. At least nine starships that were so marked by the suspects have either vanished without trace, or have been raided by pirates who have wrecked their usual havoc on the system. The combined death toll stands at well over a thousand.

“There is no convincing way in which the defenders can claim not to know what they were doing,” he concluded. “The information they provided could not be used for anything else than, at the very least, industrial espionage…and as they were aware of each other’s existence, they must have been aware that they were serving as part of an intelligence network linked back to Mr Owasso. Their own words condemn them.

“There are ways to handle such an approach from people who are linked into pirates,” he said softly. “The accursed, rather than choose to take advantage of the chance to serve their people, chose instead to ensure that lives would be lost and companies would be ruined. I have no hesitation, My Lord, in asking for the ultimate penalty.”

He said down. Timothy allowed his gaze to drift across the accused, watching their reactions. Four of them looked to be on the verge of breaking down, three of them looked unrepentant; he wondered, vaguely, if it had been wise to try them as a body. Thousands of deaths…even if that was an exaggeration, it was still a number that was hard to comprehend, let alone place it in perspective. The Max Capricorn had stopped at Roland; had one of the accursed had a hand in the attack that had killed his parents and his sister?

“My clients do not attempt to deny the charges that have been brought against them,” Lieutenant Commander Kurt Taub said, his voice very flat. He was normally animated in conversation, enough to make Timothy wonder if he had accepted the duty against his will, perhaps out of loyalty to the Captain. It wouldn’t be an easy task for him; he was taking the stand in defence of people who had supported mass murderers, and there would be people who would point their fingers at him. “Indeed, in the circumstances, it would be foolish to deny them. However, I must bring to the court’s attention circumstances that may excuse, or migrate, the seriousness of their crime.”

He pointed at the first defendant. “Mr Mathew Debus was tricked into providing the first bit of information by his mystery contact,” he said. The prisoner looked grim under his outfit. “After that, he was committed; the contact warned him that if he didn’t cooperate, they would betray him to fleet and he would be punished for his involvement. For Miss Jessie Surita and Mr Guy Haines, they were both blackmailed into supporting the pirates; in the case of the former, the pirate agent had found information that would have ensured her death at the hands of her relatives. For the other four, they were all deeply in debt after gambling away their pay and faced an unpleasant fate at the hands of the gang who owned their debts. For all of them, the first steps were easy; they were entrapped into providing information, that could now be used to blackmail them into continuing to provide the information.”

He carefully didn’t look at the midshipmen. “They committed crimes, yes, and they should face punishment, but they are not evil enough to deserve the maximum penalty for their crimes,” he concluded. “We plead guilty, but with special circumstances.”

Hinton raised his hand; when the Captain nodded, he stood up. “We have long been aware that the pirates sought to establish spy rings within the various possible targets for their attention, some of them set up with the knowing cooperation of various merchant factions within the system,” he said. “The Imperial Fleet has, in fact, operated on a basis of providing limited amnesty to people who might have served as part of a spy ring…on the understanding that they would provide information that had been vetted by the fleet, and in some cases tampered with. This policy is actually well known, to the extent that there are no less than seven people within this system who have concluded their service and have been provided with a new identity and a new place to live.

“The fact that none of them committed a serious offence, not even Guy Haines, makes their refusal to use the amnesty offer completely bizarre,” he continued. “We would have provided safety from gang members and relatives alike, we would have been able to help them recover their lives, we could have done much for them…but instead they chose to cooperate and, of course, to receive huge cash payments. We have traced the funding back; six of seven, in fact, went into massive spending sprees. This would, eventually, have drawn our attention anyway.”

He glared over at the prisoners. “They had a chance to gain amnesty for their actions and they refused to take it,” he said. “The blood of over a thousand people lies on their hands. I ask for the maximum penalty.”

The Captain spoke, after Taub had remained seated. “Mr Taub, do you wish to offer any further statements?”

“No, My Lord,” Taub said, his face a mask. “I have brought all the facts before the jury.”

“Duly noted,” the Captain said. “Jurymen, you have been asked to determine the facts of the case. There is no question that the defendants are guilty; they have pleaded guilty themselves. Do you choose to accept the defender’s plea?”

Timothy knew what happened now; there were five midshipmen, and three of them voting together would settle the decision. They couldn’t discuss the issue, not where their personalities might decide the issue; they had to decide for themselves. He felt, just then, the weight of responsibility crashing down around his neck and he closed his eyes, thinking, judging…they had had their chance. The fleet might shoot pirates out of hand, but if any of the defendants had come to the fleet, they would have been forgiven their crimes if they proved themselves useful.

And they had known that.

And they had known what they were doing.

The Captain’s voice was almost gentle. “All those who find the defendants guilty, raise your arms,” he ordered. Timothy raised his arm…and saw, not to his surprise, that all four other midshipmen had joined him.

“The judgement is passed,” the Captain said, very calmly. Timothy heard death hiding in his words. “The sentence will be carried out as soon as possible.”

Chapter Sixteen: Cold Rock Hard

Tiffany had wondered how she would feel when she was alone on Gotha; the odd thing was that she didn’t feel much of anything. The asteroid wasn't that much different to the place she’d been unwillingly brought as a slave, but as a free person, it looked almost like any other asteroid. Only the presence of other slaves, some of them as naked as she had been, reminded her that Gotha had a very dark underside, one that consumed everything it touched. The crowd of pirates, fences, black colonists and others still milled around, but no one seemed to recognise Tiffany. She didn’t think that that was surprising; they had only either seen her as a naked slave, or in the company of Jadis and Erica, people who tended to attract attention. Now, on her own, Tiffany was almost ignored.

She was glad of it as she moved through the stalls and up into the other parts of the asteroid. Gotha didn’t have a spin of its own, she’d learned; instead of generating gravity naturally, it had a gravity generator built into the rock. It was an odd design, or so she’d heard; it consumes much more power than anyone thought it actually needed to use. It also meant that it was confusing, which might have been the point; anyone trying to storm the asteroid would have found it difficult to navigate through the rocky corridors. She found that oddly reassuring.

She looked up and realised that she had come to the slave market. The same man was there, selling people; again, most of the people being sold were young girls. Now, with a more practiced eye, Tiffany could pick out the two main types of bidders. One, the brothel owners, bid on every girl without fail, sometimes merely running up the price before abandoning the bid. The other, the black colonist, was clearly looking for breeding stock. It made her shudder; if she hadn’t been bought by Captain Blackbird, she would have ended up either a whore, or an unwilling wife to a black colonist. It made her wonder, as she looked up at the cowering – weak – girls, what would happen to them. Would they end up like her, or would their lives come to an end within the week?

Time to leave, she thought, as she turned away from the market. The eyes of the newly-enslaved girls haunted her much less than they should; unlike her, they didn’t have the ability to take advantage of their circumstances and make a new life out among the pirates. Tiffany knew that she was one of them now…one with a flush credit chip. Captain Blackbird had sold most of the components onwards to his mystery bidder…and all of the crew loved him for it. It wouldn’t last, of course, but while they all had money on their chips, they would follow the Captain wherever he led. Part of the money had been used to repair and rearm the Knife Edge, but the remainder of the money had been shared out among the crew, and almost all of them had gone onto the rock to find what they could in the way of entertainment. It was possible that some of them would be trying to purchase their own girls…

The stone corridors, hacked through rock by energy weapons, gave way rapidly to a second set of caverns, marked with a medical red cross. The guard barring her way peered down at her with an electronic eye until she held up her credit chip, allowing him to scan it and prove that she actually had the money to enter the doctor’s surgery. It was a far cry from either Taurus or most of the Empire’s worlds, where basic medical care was always free, but she had expected no less of the pirates. They wouldn’t be interested in free care; they would charge the people who wanted it as much as they could pay, unless they had kidnapped a doctor and set him or her to work. Jadis had told her that the doctor within the surgery owned herself, so that she had a fairly independent life on the asteroid, which made her reliable. She kept her mouth closed and had no loyalties to anyone that might have gotten in the way.

“Take a seat,” the receptionist said. Tiffany had to smile at the banality of the comment. “The Doctor will see you in a moment.”

The waiting room looked like every waiting room across the galaxy; cold, sparse, with only a handful of newspapers and magazines. Naturally, all of them were hopelessly out of date; she guessed that they had been taken from raided merchant ships and transported to Gotha in hopes that they would bring in a few extra credits. Just as naturally, there were over fifty magazines…and none of them were of any interest to her; she sat back and waited, knowing that she was safe for the moment. Gotha might be a wretched hive of scrum and villainy, but even it’s inhabitants wouldn’t dare to raid the surgery, not when there were so many people in debt to the Doctor…or at least wanted to keep quiet about the various augmentations that went into their bodies.

“Come on in,” the Doctor said. Tiffany took a moment to study her without making it obvious; she was clearly old, over a hundred years old, and looked it. It was odd for someone to wear their age like that – basic rejuvenation techniques were available almost everywhere – before she realised that it was a mark of confidence. The Doctor didn’t need to turn herself into a goddess to wield power within Gotha; she knew far too much for that. “I am Doctor Jones. What can I do for you?”

Tiffany waited until the door had hissed firmly shut before speaking. “I want to be augmented,” she said, and outlined some of her requirements. The Doctor’s face remained immobile; in a very real sense, Tiffany saw, all she could do was smile. “I understand that you can augment people here.”

“Of course,” Doctor Jones said. Her face crinkled for a moment, a smile that touched her eyes and lit her entire face right up. “I should note, however, that all of the augmentations you have mentioned require several weeks to bed down in your body…oh, and as a minor matter, they will also cost a great deal of credits.”

“A very minor matter,” Tiffany agreed dryly.

“Of course,” Doctor Jones said. “What sort of implants do you have already?”

“A memory implant and a contraception implant,” Tiffany said, after a moment’s thought. The Doctor on the Knife Edge had injected her with nanites to help protect her against contamination, but anything further remained within the Captain’s remit…and she hadn’t wanted to ask him to let her be augmented. “Will that cause a problem?”

“It shouldn’t,” Doctor Jones said. “Those implants are actually designed for limited access to your brain; they don’t really have any connections with the remainder of your ability to think. I can rewrite some of the programming of the implant you’ve already got to allow you to control the new augmentation, but if I can’t, you’ll have to have a new receptor implanted in your brain. If you don’t, you won’t be able to control the implanted weapons, which would make them nothing more than expensive junk.”

“I see,” Tiffany said. She pulled out her credit chip and laid it on the table. “How long will the process take?”

Doctor Jones studied the chip, her face barely twitching at the amount of money loaded onto the chip. “Around two and a half hours, unless I have to give you a second receptor,” she said. “When were you thinking of having the procedure done?”

“Now,” Tiffany said. She didn’t know when Captain Blackbird would decide to go hunting again, but she knew the longer they remained on Gotha, the more chance of him deciding to leave the next moment, before she was ready. “Can you do that now?”

“I have no other appointments,” Doctor Jones said. She stood up and led the way into a smaller room. “This is my preparation room,” she explained, as she pulled out a small set of scanners. “Strip off and lie down on that table; leave everything down there so that it doesn’t get in the way.”

Tiffany obeyed, feeling strange; she had been so used to stripping upon command that it felt odd to be stripping for someone else, even if it was a doctor. Doctor Jones ran several scanners over her body – she felt a brief twinge from her implant as it responded to a query ping from the scanners – and frowned; one of the results wasn't perfect. Tiffany kept still and watched as the doctor carefully checked her hands, and then her thighs; there would be time for a discussion later.

“You’ll have to have a new receptor,” the Doctor said. “This one is ROM-designed, which makes a great deal of sense if you were never expected to have any other implants. I’m guessing that you came from a new colony, somewhere where they wouldn’t have implants, or that they thought a time machine meant a watch.”

“Somewhere like that,” Tiffany agreed dryly. “Can you go ahead with the procedure?”

“Five thousand credits,” Doctor Jones said shortly. Tiffany sucked in a breath; that was almost everything on her credit chip. “That includes several check-ups to be carried out at monthly intervals from today, just in case something goes wrong. Are you still interested?”

Tiffany didn’t really have to think about it. “Yes,” she said, shortly. “What do I do now?”

The Doctor held a strange-looking tool up for her to see. “Lie down on the bed and go limp,” she ordered. “I don’t like having people watching while I work on their brains and only an idiot would want to watch while I worked on their brain anyway.”

She pushed the tool against Tiffany’s head. Blackness.

There was no sense of time passing; one moment, Tiffany was lying on the table, the next…she was still lying on the table, but she felt strange. Her body felt heavy and bloated, as if she wasn't entirely used to moving at all; it was all she could do to lift her head slightly and look down at her breasts and the flat chest below them. There didn’t seem to be anything different about her body, but then, her augmentations hadn’t been supposed to be obvious. Her implant felt different as well; she concentrated, called up a menu in her head…and a second menu appeared as well.

“That was four hours,” Doctor Jones said. She didn’t look any different, apart from changing her outfit slightly; she had clearly allowed Tiffany to remain out of it while she made the final preparations. “How do you feel?”

“Heavy,” Tiffany said. “Did you put everything inside me?”

Doctor Jones shrugged. “That’s an illusion,” she said. Her face crinkled up into another smile. “There are people who think that they feel things from their implants, despite the fact that they aren’t connected into any part of their body, but the brain. Your bodyweight really isn’t that much higher than your prior bodyweight at the moment, despite all senses to the contrary; almost everything added by the implants has been compensated for by removing some parts of your body. Some of the implants, in fact, are actually dug into your bones.”

Tiffany gazed down at her hand. It didn’t look any different. “It’s not meant to look different,” the Doctor said, as if she had read her mind. “No one will be able to tell without a very invasive body-scan that you have those implants, although I would be careful with the data receptor in your brain. If you ping the wrong node around here…well, it’s not as if we’re in the Empire, know what I’m saying?”

“There might be an unpleasant surprise attached to the node,” Tiffany agreed. It was one of the nightmares of modern life in the Empire, despite the fact that most implants were impossible to hack, or alter more than on a very general basis. “How long until I can learn how to use them properly?”

“Most of the learning is already part of the implants,” Doctor Jones said, as she helped Tiffany to stand up. The feeling of heaviness faded as she carefully walked across the floor and picked up her panties, pulling them on as the doctor talked. “You’ll have to spend some time practicing with them, so that you know exactly what they can and cannot do; I recommend practicing in private, without anyone around who might see them. These surprises tend to work only once.”

She passed over a small briefcase, sealed to Tiffany’s thumbprint. “There are the remaining items you will need,” she concluded. “I’ll expect to see you back here after a month, but if there are any problems, feel free to com ahead and make an early appointment. The money has already been deducted from your chip.”

Tiffany smiled. “Of course,” she said, shaking the doctor’s hand. She had already decided to refrain from practicing until she was safely back in her cabin onboard the Knife Edge. “Thank you for everything.”

She nodded to the guard at the door as she walked out and chose a different route this time, trying to remain away from the main body of the asteroid until she was confident that she could walk properly. Her implants didn’t seem to be interfering too much with her walk; she moved slowly, but with increasing care. The more she walked, the more her implants responded to her, showing her images of what was surrounding her. She’d chosen a simple addition to her senses as one of the implants and…

The burst of energy took her completely by surprise; before she could react, or cry out, she was falling to the ground. For one nightmarish moment, she thought that the implants had completely failed and fried her nervous system, before she realised that someone had shot her in the back with a stun charge. It wasn't like the paralysis she’d felt before; this time, she felt able to move, but only barely. She hit the ground hard enough to hurt, her arms and legs falling like jelly; the pain flared along her body, mocking her. She’d gone out of her way to be alone…

Stupid, stupid, stupid, she thought, screaming at herself as a shadow fell over her. A hand caught her and lifted her up, pushing her forward with no apparent effort, until her had her trapped against a table, forced to bend over it. Her body was still stunned, refusing to move; even the cold horror of feeling hands slip into the wristband of her pants and pulling them down didn’t manage to shock her out of her stupor. She heard a dull, distasteful chuckle as hands groped at her breasts; she heard a zip as someone unfastened his trousers. A hard penis pushed against her bum and she realised, in horror, just what her attacker mean to do. He wanted to do more than just rape her, he wanted to ruin her as well, for all time. Weakness wasn’t tolerated within the pirate ranks; if she were found to have been raped, she would almost certainly be assassinated by one of the crew. It was quite possible that it was one of the crew who was trying to rape her…

She couldn’t move as hands pushed her buttocks apart…and then a shot rang out behind her. Her attacker jerked forward and crashed against her, before falling to the ground; Tiffany forced herself, through sheer force of will, to straighten up, determined to fight if she had to fight. Her saviour might just have saved her in order to rape her himself. That wasn’t unknown amongst the pirates.

“How are you feeling?” A voice asked behind her, with an odd accent. For a moment, Tiffany thought of Alan, the young crewman who’d been taken from the Max Capricorn, but the voice was different. “That man won’t be troubling anyone any more.”

Tiffany forced her lips to work with some difficulty. “Good,” she said. It was growing easier to move as the shock wore off; she was all-too-aware that she was still exposed to anyone wanting to take her from behind. She managed to pull up her pants quickly, before turning slightly to see a man standing there, with long dark hair and a faint smile. He had clearly been admiring the view, even if he hadn’t just jumped on her…what did that mean? “Who are you?”

The man held out a hand. “Gunnard Fredrickson,” he said, as they shook hands. His voice was rich and warm, but with that strange accent running through it, an accent she couldn’t identify at all. His body – the outfit he wore would have shocked any mother – was strong, fit, and very toned; part of Tiffany ruefully acknowledged that if she’d met him on Taurus, she would have gone after him with her tongue hanging out. “I’m new here, from one of the other asteroids.”

That, Tiffany decided, explained it. Gunnard probably hadn’t realised that saving a rape victim wasn't the done thing on Gotha. “Thank you,” she said, as she shook off the last effects of the stunning charge. She couldn’t spend too much time with him; he’d either become one of the boys on Gotha very quickly, or he would end up with his throat slit in an alleyway. There was no room for compassion on the asteroid. “I guess I owe you one, my knight in shining armour.”

“Thank you,” he said. “Would you like a drink?”

Tiffany considered it, just for a moment, and reluctantly shook her head. “I have to be getting back to the ship,” she said. He was nice, and easy on the eye, but she could tell he was missing something between the ears. “I’ll see you around sometime.”

“Yes,” Gunnard agreed. “You will.”

Chapter Seventeen: The High Cost of Living

“Penny for your thoughts?”

Timothy looked out into the darkness of space, not turning his head to look at Elf as she sat down next to him. The stars seemed to be shining brightly, without the twinkling that they would show from the planet’s surface, but there wasn’t anything romantic about them. They were cold and harsh, casting their light down over the starship as it floated in orbit around Roland; he knew that, out there, there were planets orbiting the stars that had pirate bases on them, or other people hostile to the Empire. It made him wonder…

“I was wondering if the Imperials looked out on the stars and saw only potential threats,” he said, only part truthfully. “The history of the Empire is one of endless expansion until recently; all worlds that had a native species were brought into the Empire, regardless of their own will. The Fairfax Sector was colonised by humans at Imperial behest, other humans went much further away from the Empire…”

He allowed his voice to run down. “Really,” Elf said, her voice very droll. “And what is really bothering you?”

Timothy answered a question with a question. “How do you know that something is bothering me?”

Elf smiled. It lit her entire face up. “This is the observation blister,” she said. “If you were angry, you would have come to Marine Country and taken it out on a sparring partner, who would have helped you to overcome whatever you were angry about. If you were trying to cuddle up to someone, you would have gone into one of the privacy modules.” She smiled as Timothy blushed. “If you were tired, you would be sleeping your ass off in the wardroom…and if you were just bored, you would be trying to find something to do.”

Her hand touched his briefly. “And instead, you’re sitting in the blister, looking out into space,” she said. “The only reason for people doing that is that they…you know, are feeling depressed. So, darling, what’s bothering you?”

Timothy quirked an eyebrow. “Darling?”

“You’ve been promoted,” Elf said, teasing him. “Do you want to talk about it?”

Timothy looked back out at the stars. “Yesterday, I sentenced two people to death, and five people to permanent slavery,” he said, his voice dull and flat. “The people who died were the ones who had the most choice about what they were doing and the Captain sentenced them both to death. The others…I should have looked up what would happen to them, if their pleas failed…I thought they would all be shoved out the airlock naked. Instead…”

He didn’t want to look at her. “They were implanted this morning with control implants,” he said. “They’re going to be sent out as slaves for wealthy men who can put a bid in for their use, without anything, but their upkeep; they won’t be paid, they won’t have any protections…hell, I know what most men would do if they had a girl who had no choice, but to obey every order they gave. If they’re lucky, they’ll meet someone who might actually take care of them, but what are the odds of that happening?”

Elf didn’t answer directly. “The vote was unanimous,” she said. “Even if you had voted against, Timothy, they would still have been convicted and punished…and, because they were guilty, they would still have faced some kind of punishment.”

“I shouldn’t have taken part in the trial,” Timothy said, feeling guilt clawing around his heart. “I should have taken the out the Captain offered me, I should have refused to take part, or claimed that I just didn’t know enough to pass judgement, or…”

“There’s an old saying,” Elf said. “He who is not a socialist before he reaches his twentieth birthday is without a heart; he who is still a socialist when he reaches his thirtieth birthday is without a brain. You, all of you, had the heart that the senior officers or the Marines lacked; you heard their pleas, you heard their positions, and you voted with that in mind.”

“I don’t understand,” Timothy admitted. “Because of me…”

“Fuck that,” Elf snapped, her face showing traces of genuine anger. She ticked points off her fingers as she spoke. “First, the punishment for such activities is laid down in the regulations and the legal codes governing piracy and no one, even the Captain, had much in the line of legal ground to alter them on a whim. Second, you did not pass judgement on them or lay down the punishment; the Captain made that choice, following the articles in the regulation. Your job was merely to decide if their pleas had merit. “Third…”

Timothy tried to interrupt. “Elf…”

“Third,” Elf continued, as if he hadn’t spoken, “they were guilty. There was no question of that. They were guilty. You know, in the Corps, anyone can leave the training ground at any time and no one will stop them? It’s a quid pro quo; the instructors know that they can put you through hell, in the certain knowledge that if you didn’t have the stamina to learn from the experience, you would be able to leave freely. Those people…could have made contact with the fleet, could have offered to serve as double-agents or even informers for us, and they chose not to. Instead, they chose to accept further rewards for their actions and just…kept doing it.”

She shrugged. “You think the Gunny’s a pretty dangerous man?” Timothy blinked; he hadn’t yet been given permission to call Garrison by the title that almost every sergeant on active duty received from his subordinates. “He’s not the most dangerous man I ever met; the most dangerous man I ever met was someone who looked nice and normal, until it was too late for his targets. Those people who were in the dock looked nice, but they were serving the pirates, knowingly serving the pirates. They weren’t held at gunpoint, they weren’t under threat of death from the fleet…”

“You’ve made your point,” Timothy snapped. “I shouldn’t waste my time feeling sorry for them when they have left a trail of chaos and death behind them.”

“I was on a clean-up mission on a world that was actually raided directly by pirates once,” Elf said. “The Marines, when they attack a world, tend to concentrate on precise strikes against ground targets, but the pirates didn’t have the time to play it nice. They landed an army, rampaged through the Landing City there, and then left before anyone could stop them. In their wake…there were bodies, thousands and thousands of bodies, some of them raped before they were killed.”

Her voice hardened. “And you know what? I don’t think that many of them took back anything that was actually worth the effort,” she said. “It was a farming world, not unlike Taurus; there was hardly anything in the way of orbital defences to slow them down, and nothing on the surface that was really worth taking. They attacked anyway and, we think, took a few hundred girls prisoner. If there had been a unit of Marines on the surface, we would have hurt them, but there was nothing, but a barely-armed militia to stand in their way. They got killed; those who tried to surrender were simply shot anyway. Fuck alone knows who tipped the pirates off to the fact that there wouldn’t be a visiting starship for a few months, but whoever did it has the lives of thousands of people on their hands. If they get caught, I want to be there when the sentence is passed and I want to shoot them myself!”

Timothy said nothing, staring out into the darkness. “There’s no point in beating yourself up about it,” Elf said, softly. “Or is there something else that’s bothering you?”

Timothy sighed. “How far does the rot spread?” He asked. “I read through all of the interviews; the people who compromised the accused had contacts everywhere. Why the hell did they serve the pirates when they knew what would happen?”

Elf leaned back. “Truthfully?” She asked. Timothy nodded. “This place is pretty complicated; in fact, it stinks like Limburger…whatever Limburger actually is. The sector took a beating during the Collapse and never really recovered, allowing the planetary governments to claim more independence than they would normally be able to claim. The shipping lines collapsed, so the former ship crewmen went into business for themselves; now that the lines have come back into Fairfax, they’ve been waging a quiet undeclared war on the independents. There are several thousand groups out there that want varying levels of independence from the Empire, what seems like several million groups that exist only to commit crime of one kind or another, and God alone knows what happened to the ships that belonged to many of the local defence forces.”

She paused. “No, I know as well,” she admitted. “The pirates got them.”

Timothy had wondered about that. He’d gone so far as to actually look up the details, discovering the fact that most pirate ships came from former Imperial Fleet ships – including a handful that had gone rogue after the Collapse – the remains of various planetary defence forces following the Empire’s attack on their worlds, modified civilian ships and some ships that had come out of black shipyards. Despite the best efforts of the Imperial Fleet, there were some shipyards that existed outside their control or supervision, including some that actually turned out very good ships. Worst of all, however, were the former system defence ships…which were sometimes sold to pirates by local authorities in exchange for a share in the loot.

“We’re running around and trying to stamp on them as much as we can, but we don’t have the starship numbers here for a major offensive,” Elf observed. “Hell, we can swat any bunch of pirates we catch under most circumstances, but we don’t know where to attack. If we locate a pirate base, we can hammer them into submission, but all the bastards have to do is take a few basic precautions and we’re unable to track them back to their bases.”

She laughed. “Think about it,” she said. “If one of the bigger lines should accidentally on purpose tip off a pirate to one of their rivals, a starship travelling alone, what do you think happens?”

“I can guess,” Timothy said. He looked back out at the stars. “Why don’t they just work with us to prevent further attacks?”

“Different reasons for different people,” Elf admitted. She shook her head slowly. “If they wait for us to provide escorts, they can end up losing profits and going under. If it becomes known that they are cooperating with the fleet, the pirates may try to strike back at them to rub the fleet’s nose in its problems, assuming that they actually bother to think as a group. It’s like trying to fight a hydra; every time we cut off one head, three more appear and start to try to kill us.”

Timothy rubbed his chin. The pirate civilisation – and civilisation seemed to be the only word for something composed of an unholy triad of pirates, black colonies and fences – was a strange world indeed. It was composed of people who didn’t work together very well – which was fortunate, because that meant that the pirates would have problems running larger ships – and who tended to verge towards the sociopath-limit in their behaviour. It was hard to control a pirate crew, which considered looting, raping and burning their right for exposing themselves to danger; only the most violent, brutal and intelligent of the pirates could control a crew for long. The legendary Captain Morgan had become a pirate king, controlling an entire attack fleet; his rule had been one of fear, carrot and stick. Morgan was dead now, but Imperial Intelligence worried about a successor appearing out along the Rim…

And, in the meantime, people died.

“You’d done very well,” Elf said, changing the subject. “The Gunny was quite pleased with your performance in the last bout…”

“You kicked my ass, again,” Timothy said, annoyed. He should have seen that trick coming. “How the hell am I meant to graduate if I can’t win a bout?”

Elf winked at him. “Timothy, darling, I have been though the training centre on Somme, and several bouts of actual experience,” she said. “I went through the naked fighting test…”

“I’d pay money to see that,” Timothy teased her.

Elf cocked a fist and waved it in his direction. “I have been doing this for years,” she said. “If I can’t beat you, then something is very wrong with me, and if I let you win…Gunny would take my ass out onto the training mat and kick the shit out of me. We train like we fight and fight like we train; one day, I’ll try and show you the training centre if we ever go back to the Human Sector. They have this really cool space station that we have to board and storm…and other Marines playing the role of the defenders. Each class has to take the station before they can pass…and do you know how long it takes to learn to beat the opposition?”

Timothy shook his head. The Imperial Fleet had a nasty habit of coming up with tactical problems that looked simple…and turned out to be deceptively tricky to solve. One famous tactician had referred to battles as puzzles to solve and while Timothy regarded that as simplistic, he could see that the old Admiral had had a point. Some of the simulations relied upon the player getting everything right first time.

“No idea,” he said.

“Years,” Elf said. “The whole simulation is completely random. The defenders have all the time in the world to prepare, the unit’s intelligence officers show their skills by trying to gather what they can rather than any formal briefing, and the whole thing has to be completed on the fly, with masses of improvising rather than any proper planning…everyone learns a lot from defeats, and believe me, there are a lot of defeats.”

She placed a hand around Timothy’s neck. “And it all becomes worthwhile when we have to board and storm a vessel held by the pirates,” she said. “You won’t ever have to do that, not when you’re an officer sitting back and waiting for us brutal bastards below decks to do all the hard work for you, but we’re the ones who see just what the pirates do…and we’re the ones who know the reason why ‘no quarter’ is the battle cry for the endless struggle against the pirates.”

Timothy remembered what had happened on board the Max Capricorn. He’d discussed the nightmares with Doctor Lesley Finney, who had only really been able to advise him to take more sleep and wait them out. The sight of the wrecked freighter had brought all of the memories back into his mind, from the sight of seeing his mother raped, to seeing his father killed…and the cold bitter knowledge that he hadn’t had a chance to say goodbye to his sister. The memory brought tears along with it, and a cold bitter anger; Elf was wrong. They all had their reasons for hating pirates.

“Tomorrow, we leave orbit for escorting a few ships,” he said, slowly. He didn’t expect that they would see any action, but the pirates were crafty enough to fake one attack in hopes of drawing the escort off the ship it was trying to transport. A thought occurred to him and he started to wonder; what would happen if…? “If we had a few hundred more cruisers and tin cans, we might actually have a chance at preventing the bastards from taking so many ships…”

Elf laughed. Somehow, they had ended up leaning together; he was suddenly very aware of her femininity. He didn’t want to move, he didn’t want to ruin the moment, but part of him was still terrified of getting close to anyone. Elf could take care of herself, but what would happen if, one day, he lost her? He would almost rather that she broke his arm for trying an advance than have her and lose her.

“That is way above your pay grade,” she said, dryly. Timothy had to laugh; she was right. A Midshipman might become an officer one day, but he was only a larvae compared to a full-grown officer, even a lieutenant. Hannah had been given responsibilities before she had been given promotion, just to prove that she could handle them, but even she had been small fry, compared to the Captain. “Why worry about things like that?”

“Good point,” Timothy said. It was silly, in a sense, for him to worry about it; he didn’t have any way of affecting what would happen in the future. Maybe if – when – he reached Captain rank, he would be able to change things, but until then, he could only bring his suggestions before the Captain…if the Captain was willing to listen. “What should I worry about?”

Elf gently pulled at him…and it was the most natural thing in the world for their lips to meet. Timothy found himself overwhelmed by a sudden wave of emotion; it was all he could do to maintain enough control not to push too hard into her lips. For a long moment, they were both lost in sensation, before breaking apart. He saw her face, saw the shining light in her eyes, and knew that it was reflected on his own face.

“Worry about the universe later,” Elf said, as she pulled him down for another kiss. Timothy felt her hands pressing against his body and almost lost control completely as his hands encircled her back. He sensed more than felt her hitting the door lock with a foot, before pulling him closer to her. “It can take care of itself for an hour or so.”

Chapter Eighteen: Devil’s Due

Captain Blackbird had vanished off somewhere into the depths of the asteroid, so Tiffany actually found herself with nothing to do, apart from testing her new implants and washing herself thoroughly after she had returned to the ship. It bothered her, on some level, that she had actually been more concerned about the impact on her status of being raped rather than the act of being raped itself, although she conceded that she should be used by now to having an unwelcome penis shoved inside her at random intervals. The black humour made her smile as she examined her hands, noting how the tiny needles, almost invisible to the naked eye, extended out, ready to cut someone’s skin. Jadis had told her about how she’d used such a needle to kill someone; the edges of the needle were so sharp that the slightest touch would slice through skin. The poison, to add to the lethality of the implant, was also touch-based; a doze on the skin would be enough to kill almost anyone.

Her lips twitched humourlessly. She was immune to it, of course; she suspected that many of the other pirates would have purchased themselves enough nanotechnology-based protections against poisons and even small body wounds. Doctor Jones had been tight-lipped about who had purchased implants and augmentations from her, but her catalogue included several devices that had surprised Tiffany when she’d seen them, including a booster implant for a penis. The thought made her smile; what sort of weapon, really, could be implanted in a penis? She was still smiling when there was a chime at the door.

On instinct, she snatched up her pistol before opening the door, holding it half-concealed behind her back. The cabins were normally private – only the Captain could force his way into any crewman’s cabin – and most socialising, such as it was, was done on one of the entertainment decks. The slaves had no such rights, of course, but even they had some privacy, as long as they obeyed orders. The door hissed open – the viewscreen that should have showed her who was present was broken, of course – to reveal Jadis, who stood there and waited for Tiffany to step out of her way. Reluctantly, Tiffany complied with the unspoken request; she had already decided that if Jadis wanted something, she would have no choice, but to surrender whatever it was. No one crossed Jadis or Erica without updating their wills first.

“I never said think you for the fight,” she said, as the door hissed closed. Jadis had taken her to a bare-naked fight on Gotha, the day they had arrived; the sheer brutality of the conflict had surprised her. Naked men and women had fought violently, a handful of the women fighters, after having been beaten to a pulp, had been raped…and the crowd had loved it. One of the men had been raped as well; the crowd had mocked and catcalled the man after he stumbled away from the court. “That was an interesting thing to witness.”

Jadis strode over to the chair as if she owed the room, dumped a small pile of clothes on the floor, and sat down, steepling her fingers in such a manner as to call attention to her breasts. Even sitting, dressed in a leather outfit that would have shamed a barbarian girl, she was a strikingly dangerous presence; the leathers, Tiffany knew, were made from the skins of endangered animals. They were illegal across the Empire, in a sense; technically, owning them was not illegal. Jadis would have so many charges brought against her if she was caught that that charge, at least, would fall by the wayside.

“When you came to us and asked for training, you made an agreement with us,” Jadis said, after a moment of eyeing Tiffany like a snake might eye a mouse. Tiffany had tried to hold her eyes, but had been forced to lower her own eyes moments after they had joined in silent contest. “You got your training, as your scars attest, and in exchange you agreed to do something for us, whatever we wanted.”

“Yes,” Tiffany said, feeling a lump in her throat. She had half-suspected that Jadis would ask her for sexual acts, but as she had come to know Jadis better, she had realised that Jadis would hardly throw away so vital a card merely for a quick and unwelcome fuck. She could go to the brothels on the asteroid if she felt the need for violent or perverse sexual acts. “That was the agreement.”

She fought hard to keep her voice level, but she could hear a quiver in her tone and knew that Jadis could hear it as well. The core of what passed for civilisation among the pirates was the debt-obligation, the repayment of debt. If a pirate did something for another pirate, that pirate had to repay him, whenever the marker was called in. A pirate who broke his or her word and refused to repay a favour would, at the very least, never be trusted again. Pirates had been known to hoard favours for years, just on the off-chance that there would come a moment when repayment best suited their interests. The more numerous gangs enforced the obligations and punished defaulters with death, or worse.

Jadis leaned forward, every inch a queen on her throne. “You have to kill someone for us,” she said. There was absolutely no give in her tone; Tiffany almost felt her heart stop. She’d killed…but she didn’t want to kill again…but she had no choice…and she would have to kill again. “There is a person we want dead, but we cannot kill them ourselves, not when there is so much at stake. We need you to kill him for us.”

Tiffany ran one hand through her long red hair. “I understand,” she said, knowing that she was committed. If she defaulted, she would make a major enemy out of Jadis…and her lifespan would be measured in hours. “Who do you want me to kill?”

“Robert,” Jadis said, her voice as flat as ever. It took Tiffany a moment to realise what she’d said. “We want you to kill the First Mate.”

Tiffany stared at her. “Why?”

“That is none of your concern,” Jadis said. Tiffany stared at her, trying to project defiance and determination, but she suspected that Jadis was more amused than scared. “He decided that the ship would survive much better in his hands, rather in those of our dear Captain, and that you would be much nicer in his bed than in the Captain’s bed.”

She could be lying, ran through Tiffany’s mind. She thought about it, all-too-aware of Jadis watching her; if she was telling the truth, then she had no choice, but to strike against Robert. She could have been lying, but if she had, she had come up with a lie that would push Tiffany forward into trying to take Robert down. Jadis might look like a warrior queen, or a barbarian girl, but there was a brain inside her skull. She might have been warped and twisted by her life, but she knew people all right, she knew how to push buttons. Jade had told her that the First Mate was boring in bed, rather than painful, but even so…Tiffany’s status depended upon Captain Blackbird.

A thought occurred to her. “Why not tell the Captain?”

Jadis gave her the kind of look that would be reserved for a particularly stupid moron. “The Captain is unlikely to believe me if I put forward a case that would lead him to taking action against Robert,” she said, carefully not saying that she would almost certainly get the job of First Mate. “Even if he did, there is a faction of the crew that is behind him, so it might spark off a mutiny at the worst possible moment.”

“But if he dies on Gotha, it will look like an accident,” Tiffany said, following her argument. “Or, at worst, like he got careless at the wrong time and got killed.”

“How true,” Jadis agreed. She stood up, somehow effortlessly towering over Tiffany. “Are you prepared to carry out our request?”

She meant her and Erica’s request, unless they had a faction of their own amongst the crew…and Tiffany wouldn’t have been surprised if they had. She closed her eyes and thought for a long moment; it was quite possible that Robert had been behind the crewman who had asked her to allow him entry into the Captain’s cabin…and whom she had killed before they had been able to ask him any questions. She couldn’t have had him telling the Captain who had allowed him into the cabin, not after she had gone to all the trouble of faking a plausible reason for his entry…and if that were true, she was probably on Robert’s shit list. She would be lucky to be just murdered if Robert gained control of the Knife Edge.

“Yes,” she said, knowing that there was no choice. “Where is our esteemed First Mate now?”

“I have no idea,” Jadis said, as she paced over to the door. “I’d try the Madagascar myself; when he’s here, he tends to spend much of his time in the brothels.”

Tiffany watched her go, resisting the impulse to give her back the finger, and concentrated on testing her implants for a long moment. Her mind was racing, considering ways of killing Robert without tipping off anyone that she’d been involved; it helped that Gotha, being a wretched hive of scrum and villainy, had nothing in the way of a real police force. If Robert – or anyone else, for that matter – decided to wander around without a bodyguard, it was his own stupid fault, as far as the management was concerned. Captain Blackbird was respected and feared enough to maybe convince them to mount an investigation, so she would have to ensure that there was enough confusion to avoid implicating her…

It took two days of careful observation before she felt ready to act. Like most of the officers and crew onboard the Knife Edge, Robert had found himself a small room in the asteroid, a luxurious room in which his every need could be catered for, while a string of prostitutes took care of his urges. It was odd, given that he had full access to Jade while he was on the Knife Edge, but while Captain Blackbird seemed content with just one Captain’s Women, his First Mate seemed inclined to spread his seed around a bit. Tiffany wouldn’t have bet money that the girls he was seeing had either contraceptive implants or their majorities, but that hardly mattered to the pirates. There were some practices, she’d heard from Jade, that disgusted even the greater mass of pirates. Most of them involved children.

The Madagascar itself was carved out of the asteroid rock, a security precaution that was slightly ruined by the series of emergency exits scattered around the hotel, just in case of any emergency, such as the Imperial Fleet arriving in a bad mood. Tiffany had gone to the shops and gone wild for cosmetics, purchasing several items she would never have worn on a good day, and used them over her body. Her hair was now a golden blonde, her eyes were now blue, and her breasts were boosted forwards by a bra that generated its own force field. Her original plan had been to wear a polka-dotted bikini, but the thought of the reaction she’d get when she walked through the asteroid had forced her to wear a simple gothic outfit instead, one that drew attention to her chest and directed it away from her face. It might not work – she wasn’t sure how well Robert knew her features – but it wasn't Robert she had to fool. As she approached the guards, their eyes alighted upon her breasts…and never lifted up to her face.

She could have killed them both. Instead, she merely held out a small untraceable credit coin, one loaded with enough money to keep them in drink and girls for a few weeks. The guards took the coin and waved her onwards – she could feel their eyes trailing slime all over her ass – as she hunted through the hotel for the right door. She’d found a map of the hotel, but it proved harder than she had expected to find the right door; when she tapped at it and it opened, she almost sighed in relief.

“A present for you,” she said, in her best girlish voice. If he recognised her, he would assume that the Captain had sent her; if not, he would still assume that Momma or one of the other brothel owners had sent her along. Tiffany had observed several prostitutes going into the hotel, called by Robert; her new implants provided her with amazing hearing. His heartbeat had skyrocketed in the last few seconds. “How do you want me?”

“Oh, yeah,” Robert said, as he took her in. He sat back on the bed, his eyes dancing around the room, looking at various sex toys. Tiffany almost quailed inside; she could see handcuffs on all four corners of the bed, and being tied down had never been part of her plan. Jadis had lectured her on always planning ahead, but she hadn’t taken that into account. A person breaking handcuffs only happened in bad movies with a sympathetic scriptwriter. “Why don’t you strip for me, baby?”

He hadn’t recognised her, Tiffany realised, as she slowly started to undo her top, moving in a way calculated to hold his attention. Robert himself wore only a towel; the evidence of his arousal was very plain as his eyes followed her every movement. She moved, slowly, tantalisingly, to reveal her breasts, and then lifted her skirt, moving to push her rear forward…

He slapped it and laughed. Tiffany winced and carefully removed her skirt, before feeling his hands pulling her closer to him. His breath smelt funny and she guessed that he had been taking several different drugs before she arrived, some of them ones that could cause a person to become immobile, or worse, leaving them vulnerable. It explained why he didn’t risk doing it on the ship; if someone knew he had such a habit, his life wouldn’t be worth very much at all. If Jadis had known, she wouldn’t have had to manipulate Tiffany into doing her dirty work for her; she silently cursed Jadis under her breath as Robert started to kiss her chest, before yanking her panties down and kissing down between her thighs.

Jade had been right, Tiffany thought, as she shifted slightly to allow him a chance to actually do something for her. Robert had no sexual skills at all; instead of giving her anything, he was just taking, marking his presence and his control over her. As he pulled the towel away, revealing his penis to her eyes, she felt him pushing her to her knees, forcing her to go down on him. His penis tasted…unpleasant in her mouth, but she sucked it long enough to send her fingers stroking up his chest, rubbing just a little neurotoxin into his body. There was no prick, not even anything he could feel as she worked on his penis; by the time he realised something was wrong, he would be half out of it already. She worked him, calling on all the experience she had gained from servicing the Captain, to keep him on the brink…until he came and toppled backwards in the same moment.

The first time she’d tasted the Captain’s seed, she’d almost been sick; now, she hardly felt anything at all. Robert looked as if he was asleep and he was, even through the poison would have killed someone without some nanotech in their blood, protecting them from the ills of humanity. She’d calculated that he would remain out of it for at least an hour, but she didn’t waste any time; as soon as she had pulled on her clothes, she touched him with the second surprise. She’d had the idea from Doctor Jones and her neural simulator; a device that could put someone out effortlessly could be used as a murder weapon…and given that Robert had been using several different drugs at once, it would look as if they had interacted and caused a major mental collapse, rather than something caused from the outside. His body started, once – for a moment, every zombie movie she had seen flashed across her eyes – and then fell back, brain dead. By the time anyone found him, it would be too late.

“Burn in hell,” she muttered, as she cleaned up and found a few packets of drugs. She scattered them near his body and left them for someone to see, before pulling on a cloak to hide her outfit. The most distasteful part came next; she wiped down his hands and penis, everywhere where she might have left genetic material, and pocketed the cloth. The floor was an automatically-cleaning floor – the hotel believed in spending as little money as possible – and there was nowhere else she’d left traces. As an afterthought, she used the cloth to pick up the ‘DO NOT DISTURB’ sign and hung it on the outside of the door before leaving, walking past the guards and out back into the asteroid. The guards didn’t even notice her leaving.

She’d hidden a few supplies in an isolated room; changing back to her normal appearance was simple…and no one would know about the disguise. The murder really hadn’t bothered her that much…and she was tempted to stay around the asteroid for a while, but she didn’t want to risk anyone noticing that she was gone from the ship for a long period. Jadis might provide her with an alibi, or maybe not; she was risking herself, after all.

She was back on the Knife Edge before she began to shake.

Interlude Two: The Opposition

Every time that Evgenia Agathe approached the massive door that hid the Council of Five from the public’s gaze, she felt a certain amount of trepidation. The Council of Five controlled almost everything about the Association, their power and sheer massed weight rolling over such little things as elected leaders and the public will. The men on the Council – and ‘men’ was the operating term – ruled the world…and knew it. Evgenia, as their intelligence chief, had power in her own right, but even she was nothing compared to the heads of the families. They owned the world.

Or at least their small part of it, Evgenia thought, as she passed through the sensors and entered the hall. The lack of security was an illusion; no one, but no one, would be permitted entry into the building without going through a security check that would examine every millimetre of their bodies. The paranoia was not ill-founded; Evgenia’s organisation had picked up considerable information about how Imperial Intelligence ran operations, enough to know that if the Imperials had even suspected the existence of the Council of Five, they would devote every last part of their resources to identifying it’s members and crushing them like bugs. Evgenia knew the balance of power as well as anyone else – or at least anyone who was as well-informed as she was – and knew that a direct confrontation with the Empire would be disastrous. Even the Greys, vastly more powerful than the Council of Five, had lost their war against the Empire; the thought of what would happen to their world if they lost appalled her. The potential for disaster was too high…

But they couldn’t just submit either.

The Council focused their collective masculine gaze on her as she took her place in front of them. Her world was not known for equality of the sexes; Evgenia had reached her high position through being better, brighter and often more ruthless than her male challengers and it showed. She had to be much better than them to have any hope of reaching high authority, and she had succeeded; in her own way, Evgenia quietly appreciated the system. A system that treated men and women as equals might not have allowed her such scope for sharpening her claws.

The leader of the council spoke first. “Exactly how much did the Imperial Fleet find out?”

Evgenia had been expecting that question. The rumours had prompted the council meeting. “They cracked one spy ring operating on Roland,” she said, her lips quirking as she remembered the mission to the Human Sector. She’d met the young Emperor and his common-born wife on that trip. “They may have suspected something from the targeted nature of the pirate strike, because they pounded away ay everything until something broke, and located several of our agents.”

“Incompetence,” a second council member snapped. He had never been one of her fans. “What is to prevent them from telling the Imperials just where to find us?”

“They don’t know anything about us,” Evgenia replied coolly. “As far as any of them knew, they were working directly for the pirates and all of their information was being directed towards the pirates, rather than anyone else. The one person who knew differently on the planet escaped when the freighter was investigated by the Imperial Fleet and is on his way to a safe location. He won’t be talking to anyone.”

She watched as the council members nodded to one another, silently sentencing the man to death. Evgenia found it hard to care; death was always unwelcome, but the secret had to be protected. If the worst happened, she had contingency plans in place, but with the full power of the Imperial Fleet probing around, they might find all manner of unpleasant surprises before she was ready to have them found. Hundreds of men and women, some of them probably innocent, had died to preserve the secret.

The council leader coughed. “Do the Imperials have any idea of what we took?”

Evgenia had considered that point carefully. “It’s unlikely,” she admitted. “The people who originally ordered the components have some good reason to keep quiet about what the pirates took, and there were few records of just what the freighter was carrying. If, by some unlikely chance, the Imperials do manage to figure out what was on the ship, they are unlikely to connect it with anyone beyond the pirates, who would have some strong motives themselves for taking the components.”

She was careful to keep quiet about one detail; if she had faced the fact of a pirate attack taking something that seemed useless, like farming equipment, she would have looked at the records much more carefully, trying to figure out why they would bother. The pirates had taken a risk, but as long as everything looked reasonable on the surface, there would be no incentive for them to look deeper…but Imperial Intelligence had been around for a very long time. They had a sheer breadth of understanding and experience that awed her; given enough red flags, they might start charging around like an angry bull. If they picked up the wrong rock at the wrong time…

“Overall, the plan remains on schedule,” she said. She’d built in enough of a fudge factor to allow for losing more components or waypoints than she privately expected to lose, even if some of her planners considered her unreasonably paranoid. “Judging political developments on Centre is not easy, but if some of the projections should prove accurate, there will be several potential windows of opportunity within the next five years. There is no reason to believe that anyone suspects anything; shipping numbers within the Fairfax Sector have remained stable, ever since we began watching them. If they were aware of the plan, they would almost certainly have deployed more heavy units into the sector, or launched a pre-emptive strike of their own.”

She allowed her lips to draw back from her teeth in a grin. “I believe that our prospects for success remain high, as long as we continue to prepare without drawing attention to ourselves,” she concluded. “There should be no difficulty at all in meeting the first launch date in two years.”

Chapter Nineteen: Birthday Treat (II)

The wrecked freighter had been avenged, Timothy thought, as he stood on its bridge, but it hadn’t been enough. It had been sheer luck that a sensor crew on the Fury noticed an attack in process, and then even more luck that they had managed to creep up to attack range without being detected, firing on the pirate vessel and inflicting appalling damage on its hull. The Captain had given the order to board the enemy ship, but before the Marine assault boat could be launched, the enemy ship had exploded, blowing itself into a sheet of billowing superhot plasma. All that was left was their target.

Timothy Keck, seventeen years old, stood on the bridge. The pirates had made a tiny, but fatal blunder when they’d attacked the freighter; they’d hit the Seagoon’s drive units, crippling the ship. Instead of being able to move the ship somewhere where they could plunder it in peace and quiet, they’d been faced with the impossible task of moving the fabricators on the ship into their own ship…and they had taken their frustrations out on the crew. The men had been lined up against a wall and literally shot to pieces; the women had been beaten down, raped, and then left for dead. When the pirates had tried to fight, they had blown the atmosphere out of the freighter…and the surviving crewmen had suffocated. Their bodies had been left where they had fallen.

Happy fucking birthday, Tim, Timothy thought coldly. It was an illusion to believe, even slightly, that the pirates had attacked the Seagoon just to celebrate his birthday, but it was hard to miss the coincidence. The charnel house that the freighter had become reminded him all too much of the Max Capricorn, years in the past, but an ever-present nightmare at the back of his mind. His other birthdays had been on the Fury – apart from shore leave, he had hardly left the ship, even after being promoted – but now, instead of spending time with Elf or one of his other friends, he was staring down at carnage. There was little point in assigning blame, now that the pirates who were responsible were dead, but even so…he would have voted for their deaths without the slightest twinge of conscience.

He was older, and slightly wiser; his hair a slightly darker shade of red. Tiffany would have been a real beauty by now, if she had lived; the thought reminded him that he had unfinished business with the pirates. The Imperial Fleet had killed over a hundred pirate ships in the years he’d spent with the fleet, several of them killed by the Fury, but the bastards seemed to spring up like weeds. They had been an ever-present nuisance after the Empire had been founded, but ever since the Collapse, it had been much harder to dislodge them and gain a foothold that could be used to eradicate them from the universe. There were theorists who talked of fighting an insurgency, but the pirates were nothing more than simple criminals, people who wanted only money and power. They would raid at random, without even the ghost of a political cause or a political solution; their actions could only be predicted within very wide limits. He would have almost been happier with terrorists…

“This is the Captain,” his communicator buzzed. “Several system command craft are approaching our position. Can you give me an assessment?”

Timothy glanced around the ruined bridge again. “We’ve located forty-seven dead bodies, thirty of them confirmed as belonging to members of the crew,” he said, wincing. The Marines had gone through the freighter carefully, just in case a handful of pirates had tried to survive and escape, but they’d found nothing. “The remainder have all been identified as pirates, which leaves three of the crew unaccounted for; the records suggest that they were in the drive section when it blew.”

“Understood,” the Captain said. Timothy scowled; the pirates had denied some of the crew a proper burial. It was also possible that the missing crew members had actually betrayed their fellows and had been transported over to the pirate craft…and had died there when the Fury had attacked the ship. The post-battle assessment teams on the planet would go through the wreck with a fine-toothed comb, but he suspected that no one would ever know for sure just what had happened on the ship. What they did know about the final moments of the crew was bad enough.

The Captain’s voice altered slightly. “Bring your people home,” he said. “We’ll wait on station until the system craft arrive, and then we’ll resume our patrol.”

“Yes, sir,” Timothy said. He looked down at the wristcom, which was showing the location of everyone who had come onboard the freighter. “We’ll be back onboard the Fury within twenty minutes.”

Markus had been in the ship’s eating hall, organising a group of four crewmen to sort out, bag, and preserve the bodies of the ship’s crew. Timothy envied him his ability to take carnage in stride; even years after being on the Max Capricorn, he hadn’t really been able to get used to such pitiless and pointless slaughter. The crewmen could have been ransomed back to their companies, they could have been enslaved, hell, with a little persuasion, they might even have worked for the pirates! The pirates had been so frustrated that they had spent their time tormenting the crew, rather than wrecking the cargo and frustrating the insurance bureaucrats.

“Not a good days work,” he said, grimly, when Timothy appeared. The body of a male crewman – or, rather, his torso, arms, and part of a head – had just been loaded into a bag. The females had been luckier; they, at least, would be buried intact. In death, they had all been stripped of dignity. “This bunch were pretty nasty, even by normal pirate standards; they actually opened one woman up with a knife and…”

“I don’t want to know,” Timothy said. The assessment team would go through everything, cataloguing every wound, act of violence, or worse, before publishing a five hundred page report that no one would ever read. There were just too many reports for anyone to follow, and the fact that the guilty party had been blown to radioactive plasma would prevent a full investigation from being carried out.

“You should, sir,” Markus said. They would always be more than just senior and subordinate; Markus, who had years in the fleet, would always know more than Timothy about the practicalities of living and serving with the fleet. “That guy there had a small collection of pictures of that girl there naked in his pocket when he died. That girl had an engagement ring. That man, barely even a boy, had letters – real physical letters – from a girl on him; one of them was stuffed down his mouth, choking him.”

“Enough,” Timothy snapped, feeling anger burning through his body. “I know all of this has a human cost, but…we can’t swat the bastards without more ships!”

“There’s no easy answer,” Markus agreed, as the crewmen packed up and prepared to return to the shuttle. “But if we’re lucky, these images will touch someone’s heart at Centre and they’ll send us more ships to patrol and defeat the pirates through escorting every starship with a real warship.”

Timothy said nothing as they completed their evacuation of the freighter, boarded the shuttle, and returned home. The Imperial Fleet had been warning of the dangers of arming merchant ships…and many merchants had started to ignore the fleet and arm their ships anyway. Ships had always been armed, but few civilian craft were armed with enough weaponry to stand off a pirate attack…and even if they were, it took more than a few weapons and sensors to make a warship. If the Seagoon had been armed, the pirate ship would still have won the engagement, unless the Seagoon got very lucky. It was hard to imagine that their fate would have been much worse.

The Fury rose up in front of them as they approached the ship, heading right towards the docking bay. There was no real hurry and Timothy couldn’t even muster the energy for some dangerous and exciting flying; he brought the shuttle into the landing bay and landed neatly on the deck. The starship was clearly in no hurry to move, or the bay doors would have been sliding closed behind them, but even so, Timothy only wanted to go back to his cabin and sleep. He checked the mental list of duty slots; he wasn’t due on duty for the remainder of the day. The Imperial Fleet preferred to give people who had to inspect the remains of a pirate attack busywork, to keep them from thinking about what they’d seen, but that wasn’t really an option at the moment.

“Go get some rest,” Markus said, as the shuttle’s systems deactivated themselves and the crew started to examine it, looking for post-flight problems. “The post-battle teams might want to talk to you and they’re linked with the insurance people, so they will be certain to try to trip you up as much as possible.”

“Bastards,” Timothy said, as he stumbled out of the shuttle and up towards the cabins. The insurance rates in the Fairfax Sector were exorbitant at any time, a gamble for the larger companies and often an impossible expense for single-ship owners. The Captain had once speculated, in Timothy’s hearing, that if they wanted to wipe out the pirates’ spy networks, the best way to do it would be to shoot all the insurance salesmen, as they had an interest in ensuring that uninsured ships were attacked.

His cabin had become home, much to his private surprise after living in the wardroom for nearly four years; in the first few days, he had wondered if he would ever get used to sleeping alone. Elf spent time with him in his cabin, but she rarely stayed overnight; Gunny might allow her to spend time with him, but not to place any relationship ahead of her duties. Rumour had it that Elf was slated as his replacement; she didn’t want to do anything that might impinge upon that. He ignored the small pile of presents that had been left outside the door – no one, but the Captain, had the authority to enter a cabin without it’s occupant’s permission – and stumbled into bed. He was out before his head touched the pillow.

“Wake up, sleepyhead,” Elf said, what felt like moments later. Timothy struggled to awaken through a haze of fog in his brain, to see a naked Elf leaning over his body, kissing him. “Happy birthday.”

“Fuck,” Timothy said, too dazed to think. “What’s happening?”

“The Captain apparently wants to see you in an hour,” Elf said. Her voice reflected nothing, but playful innocence; Timothy wasn't fooled in the slightest. “Get undressed, get a shower, and get back here…hell, why wait? I’m getting in the shower as well.”

“Bitch,” Timothy said, rubbing his head. It hurt, but that was fading already as his implants compensated. Elf stuck out her tongue as he checked his personal communicator and found the message, informing him that the Captain wanted to see him at a certain time. That, at least, was something of a relief; if the Captain had wanted to see him for the express purpose of ripping his head off, he wouldn’t have bothered giving him an appointment. He’d have sent a crewman around to drag Timothy out of bed. “What does he want?”

“I have no idea,” Elf said, pulling him out of bed and tugging at his clothes. “Come on, we don’t have all day…”

An hour later, Timothy felt nervous as he pushed his hand against the sensor on the Captain’s office. Elf had been as fun as ever in the shower, and they’d opened his presents together, but he had been concerned about why the Captain wanted to see him. He was still junior as a lieutenant, so he doubted that he was being offered promotion, and he hadn’t blundered badly enough to deserve a tongue-lashing for incompetence, which meant that he didn’t have the slightest idea of what was going on. As the door hissed open and he saluted the Captain, he was surprised to note that the Captain, too, looked oddly nervous.

“Ah, Lieutenant Keck,” the Captain said, as Timothy saluted. “Happy birthday, young man; please take a seat.”

Timothy felt, if anything, even more uneasy. It was starting to sound like real trouble.

“Thank you, sir,” he said. He could relax more as a Lieutenant, but even so, he felt tense. Part of him wanted to press the Captain, to ask just what was going on, but he knew that that would be futile. The Captain would tell him in his own good time.

“I have been asked to provide a volunteer – a set of volunteers – for a mission,” the Captain said, very slowly. “Imperial Intelligence has dreamed up a scheme which it believes will allow us a shot at capturing a pirate ship more or less intact, with all the intelligence benefits that that would gain us. The good news is that the scheme is fairly simple; the bad news is that it will be extremely dangerous.”

Timothy said nothing. “Intelligence has come up with a modified freighter, armed with a set of weapons that might be useful against the pirates,” the Captain continued. “As you will know, there have been more armed freighters entering the shipping lanes recently, but this one has been camouflaged to reassemble a normal freighter as much as possible.” He paused to allow Timothy to work out what that would mean for active shields. “The only real difference is that it carries heavy weapons, a pair of assault shuttles…and has been prepared with internal weaponry, rather than actual cargo. Officially, it is going to be carrying full-level nanotech fabricators, which as you know will provide a tempting prize for any pirates willing to take the risk of launching an attack. Unofficially, it will have a dozen crewmen to run the ship and a Company of Marines to snatch the pirate ship.”

He held up a hand before Timothy could say anything. “I won’t lie to you,” he said. “The odds would be seriously against you, right from the start. If the pirates aren’t fooled by the ruse, the best that will happen is that you will have a boring voyage. If they’re determined to check everything out before they close in, you might not escape their scrutiny and you will be at a serious disadvantage when – if – they enter weapons range. And, if you lose in the first moments, you are likely to face the same fate as the crew of the Seagoon. Are you willing to take on the mission?”

“I don’t even have to think about it, sir,” Timothy said, and meant it. “I would be honoured to take on the task.”

“Imperial Intelligence can’t always be trusted to know everything,” the Captain warned. “In the event of something going wrong, you would be helpless and well beyond any conceivable assistance. You would be commanding the dummy freighter with only a few crewmen to back you up, and if worst came to worst, you would be trapped without any means of doing more than blowing the ship up and calling it a draw. They have promised that if you succeed, they’ll reward you with additional seniority, which would more or less guarantee a promotion within the year, but the odds of you living long enough to excite the jealousy of us older folks are very low.”

“So it’s a highly-paid suicide mission,” Timothy said, dryly. The Captain gave him a reproving look, but didn’t reprimand him, which was the surest possible way of determining that the Captain agreed with him. “Exactly how much authority do I have?”

“You get to ask for the volunteers from among the crew and Marines of this ship,” the Captain said. “I would recommend against taking any of the other senior officers; if the pirate spy networks get a hint that the Fury is down a few officers, they might start to wonder why. Past that, you have the mission, the resources, and the authority to determine how you actually carry the mission out.”

Timothy nodded. That was par for the course in the Imperial Fleet. Senior authority would issue a task, or an objective, for junior officers; those officers would have discretion over how they actually carried out their task. It hadn’t been that long since FTL communications had been invented – or, more accurately, stolen off the Greys – and even now, most worlds didn’t have an FTL communications station in orbit. They were too expensive. The Imperial Fleet trusted its people to operate on their own, not least because it could take months to get instructions from Centre, if something actually went wrong along the Rim.

The Captain snorted. “Intelligence will probably have come up with an over-complicated shell game or something to dupe the pirates into believing that you’re a harmless little virgin waiting for her rapist,” he said. “You have the authority to ignore their instructions and I would advise you to do so; the paper-pushers come up with hundreds of clever plans that never work in the real universe. Come up with something simple, something that would be easy to believe, and then run it by your people before you actually put it into operation.”

He stood up. “Are you still willing to accept this mission?”

Timothy nodded. “Yes, sir,” he said. Several questions came to his lips, but he forced them down; it wasn't the time to ask questions. “I won’t let you down.”

The Captain shook his hand. “One final point,” he said. “Imperial Intelligence asked for you specifically.” Timothy stared at him. How had they even known about him? “I don’t know why and they won’t tell me, but be careful; there is often a shortage of intelligence in Intelligence.”

Chapter Twenty: Path of the Fury

“No,” Jadis said, very calmly, “bend her over and take her up the ass.”

Captain Blackbird smiled as her voice echoed across the bridge, almost drowned out by screams from the unfortunate woman and noises made by the pirate – the male pirate – who was trying to carry out Jadis’s instructions. Tiffany, sitting at the tactical console, was much less amused, but there was nothing she could do. Ever since becoming First Mate, Jadis had indulged her sadistic tendencies on the helpless crews they’d captured, in this case giving one of the male pirates instructions on how to rape a woman.

“I’ll give you the code,” a second voice said. The freighter Dominic was a family-owned concern, not unlike the store Tiffany’s father had owned, with a family living on the starship and operating it. It had been a random find, but Captain Blackbird had attacked at once; the ship’s commander had surrendered after the first nuke detonated off the port bow. The commander – the father and patriarch of the family – had locked his computers, however, and Jadis was making him talk. “Just let her go, please!”

“Very well,” Jadis said, without even a hint of gloating triumph in her voice. The male pirate sounded much less happy about pulling out of the girl and letting her go, but no one would try to defy Jadis when she was in one of her moods. “Your daughter is free, although rather sore; unlock the computers now and allow us access.”

The man tried to bargain. “Will you let us take a lifeboat?” He asked. “We don’t have any other way of reaching the planet…”

“There are five hundred men on our ship,” Jadis lied smoothly. “Your women are chained up, completely unable to provide any resistance; if you don’t cooperate now, we will have to take them, rape them, and sell whatever’s left as slaves. You will have the pleasure of watching before we finally kill you…”

Tiffany suspected that she was bluffing. Children who had grown up on a starship would know instinctively things that children who had grown up on a planet’s surface would have to learn. It was possible that Jadis would choose to keep them alive; as slaves, or press-ganged crewmen, they would be useful, useful enough to rate protection. Like her, they might be forced into bloodying their own hands; like her, they might have the cold-hearted determination to survive when all hands were turned against them. She remembered Robert and shuddered; his dead body had allowed her access to her own position, even though that had been an accident. The real point, she suspected, had been so that Jadis could become First Mate.

“Here,” the man said, and recited a code. His voice was cracked and broken; Tiffany guessed that he suspected that even giving Jadis what she wanted wouldn’t be enough to save his nine daughters, from five to eighteen, from rape. She wondered if it would really be enough; it was quite possible that Jadis would see potential in the girls, or maybe she would just have them all killed. “Now, please let us go…”

Tiffany shook her head at such cringing behaviour. “Captain, we have a contact coming towards us at some speed,” she said, as her console chimed. A red icon had appeared on the display in front of her. “It’s reading out as a destroyer, and it’ll be on us in thirty minutes.”

“Way too late,” Captain Blackbird said. He tapped a button on the side of his chair. “Jadis, have you gotten that ship’s computers unlocked yet?”

“Yes, Captain,” Jadis said. “The bastard was most cooperative.”

“Excellent,” Captain Blackbird said. “We have company due in thirty minutes, so set a course to the rendezvous point and let’s get out of here before the fleet ship catches us.”

“Understood,” Jadis said. Her voice could be heard as she turned back to the ship’s commander. “Your lucky day, bastard; you get to live with us for a while.”

Tiffany glanced back down at the icon for the Imperial Fleet starship as it came haring up…too late. The ship’s commander had to be tearing at his hair as the Knife Edge and the Dominic slowly inched across the Phase Limit…and vanished into the flickering lights of Phase Space. There was no longer any live feed from the Dominic, but now the ship’s commanding officer and his family had outlived his usefulness, she suspected that he was watching his daughters being raped, one by one. The crewmen used for the boarding missions were the worst of the pirates, from people without a care in the world to people with serious disorders…and they were all considered expendable. They knew that if the Imperial Fleet came too close, their Captain wouldn’t hesitate to abandon them, and that had spawned more violence than even she cared to think about. There was a cold place where her heart had once been, but even so, it was…inefficient.

The Dominic was a small freighter, barely large enough to carry something worthwhile, unless by some dark miracle it carried one of the few small items that were really worth a lot of credits. Most items, like the components they’d captured years ago, had been in bulk; only a few items fetched vast sums of money on their own. It was possible that the ship carried wine from Old Earth, but judging by the condition of the ship, she doubted that it would ever have had the insurance to carry bottles worth millions of credits. They had spent credits on the understanding that they would make credits, but now…she doubted that there was anything, apart from the ship itself, that was worth the effort.

“Returning to normal space,” the helmsman said. The flickering lights faded, to be replaced by stars and empty space, seven light years from their former location. The entire Imperial Fleet – every starship in existence in the galaxy – could search for them and the odds would be vastly against success. They hadn’t been close enough to the Imperial Fleet starship for it to even pick up a rough vector, and even if it had, the odds would still be against them.

She glanced down at her console. “No sign of enemy ships detected,” she said, although she would have been astonished to locate anything. The largest registered artificial artefact outside a solar system had been an Ancient Artefact that had been stumbled over by sheer chance. There were a handful of asteroids and comets that had somehow broken free of their parent stars, but apart from that, interstellar space was normally empty and as dark and silent as the grave. “I think we made it.”

“I should hope so,” Captain Blackbird said. He had been growing more distant from her recently, only summoning her to his bed from time to time. It was odd and somewhat worrying; when she’d first been purchased, she’d had to spend time with him almost every day, and sometimes he had just taken her away from his cabin. Now, she had the sneaking suspicion that as she gained in power, he was shutting her out of his life. “Is there any sign of anything wrong about the target?”

“No, Captain,” Tiffany said. The Dominic was definitely intact and it’s power curves seemed optimal, although it was clearly a very old ship. “They look intact and ready to be looted.”

Captain Blackbird’s lips pulled into a humourless smile. “Jadis, report,” he ordered. “What’s happening on the ship?”

“We have complete control and the crew has been secured,” Jadis’s voice said, hissing and cracking over the link. “I suggest that we link the ships together, bring the prisoners onboard the Knife Edge” – there was a howl of protest in the background – “and then search the ship before we sell it onwards. I don’t think it can really be adapted into a raiding ship, but you never know.”

“Helm, dock us with the target,” Captain Blackbird ordered. “Tiffany, you’re with me.”

A group of guards, using the same type of augmentation as the other guards, waited for them at the large airlock. Ships the size of the Knife Edge rarely docked with other starships, but when there wasn't much time, or too many items had to be transhipped, it was the only practical way of speeding up the process and saving on the shuttles. The guards didn’t have any carried weapons, but they hardly needed them, not with the obviously augmented arms and inbuilt weapons. One guard had even had his hand replaced by a blaster, something that made Tiffany smile to herself; what would sleeping with him be like and how would he shoot his load? Would any girl feel safe sleeping with a man who was effectively a walking weapon of mass destruction?

“Open the lock,” Captain Blackbird ordered. Tiffany felt her hand slipping onto the pistol at her belt as the airlock started to open, then recoiled at the sudden wave of stench from the Dominic. It wasn't a real smell, but the smell of the ship’s planet of origin; it took time for people to become used to differing environments. The early human spacecraft – before the Imperials had arrived to show mankind just how pitiful their dreams had been – had had to stink to high heaven.

The first prisoner, an older woman who looked to be around forty years old, was manhandled forwards by the remainder of the boarding party. Her tunic was ripped and torn in all the obvious places, exposing her breasts to the gaze of the guards, who didn’t hesitate to show their appreciation. Four more girls followed quickly, one of them still a child, but they had all been torn and ripped; one girl, a year older than Tiffany herself, was missing all of her clothing. The only thing she wore were the handcuffs that kept her hands firmly secured behind her back. The remainder of the crew, led by a man who had been broken, followed; the remaining sisters and the brothers of the family. They all looked weak…for a moment, Tiffany’s eyes met the eyes of one of the girls…and then she smiled. There was no room for weakness in the pirate world.

“Have them escorted to the prison cells and secured,” Captain Blackbird ordered, calmly. His voice showed nothing, but polite interest, but Tiffany could hear a note of vast amusement hidden underneath the tone. “Once secured, the crew may have access to them, provided only that no permanent harm is done. If there is, I’ll have the bastard’s balls cut off.”

“Yes, Captain,” the guards said, already clearly marking out the girls for their attention. Tiffany caught the eyes of a second girl and saw…disgust, and horror, and fear, all competing with a desperate desire to escape. Tiffany shook her head, very slightly; even if the girls did escape, where would they go? The smart ones would probably try to find protectors from among the pirate ranks; the child…would be lucky to survive the first day. There were some among the crew who would be happy to amuse themselves with her.

Captain Blackbird led the way into the Dominic and Tiffany followed, wrinkling her nose at the smell, which was joined now by other smells, some epidemic to human fear, others to human sexual congress. It was easy to tell where some of the girls had been raped; blood and other liquids lay on the deck, while a railing that defied Tiffany’s imagination had been used to secure the menfolk while their women were raped. Outside the area where they had been kept, the ship was surprisingly clean, far cleaner than the interior of the Knife Edge. Here, she would have bet her share of the loot that no one, not even the baby, was allowed to defecate in the corridors; it happened too often on the Knife Edge. The bridge of the small ship didn’t look impressive, but Jadis and three of her people had occupied it; Jadis smiled and bowed to Captain Blackbird as he entered.

“The ship is completely in our hands, Captain,” she said, her face twisted into a smile. Somewhere down the line, she’d picked up a scar that ran down her face and that moved as she smiled, creating a profoundly intimidating effect. Her hands were marked by blood where she’d hit someone, tricking down her sleeves and onto her trousers. Most women – and most men too, for that matter – would have been annoyed at the bloodstains; against Jadis’s leathers, it would be hard to spot them once they dried. “The crew has been subdued – right bloody load of useless idiots that they were – and we have full access to the ship’s computers.”

“Good,” Captain Blackbird said. He peered down at the helm console with magnificent disinterest. “Is there anything interesting on the manifest?”

Tiffany felt her implants ping the computer of the Dominic and, much to her surprise, there was a response. The Dominic’s former owner had opened all of the computers to their inspection; she felt a rush of data into her implants as the computers, eager to please, provided her with all of the information. The Imperial Fleet insisted that freighters kept good records and Tiffany skimmed through them, reading the manifest fast enough to pick out keywords and return to them later.

“I don’t think that there’s anything of interest to us personally,” Jadis said, relaxing into the command chair and crossing her long legs. It was both a sign of confidence and a sign of security; no one who wasn't absolutely confident in their own abilities would risk such a display in the heart of the pirate organisation. “The main body of cargo was some advanced farming equipment and medical equipment, nothing that a fairly competent fabricator couldn’t provide. The ship was apparently going to Taurus” – she ignored Tiffany’s start at the mention of her homeworld – “and was bringing equipment that would have put the planet more in hock to the developers than they might have preferred.”

Tiffany kept her face blank with an effort. The Imperials had been keen on urging all of their new colonies to become self-sufficient, at least in basic foodstuffs and equipment, so they rarely set up a colony that was an industrial powerhouse from the start. It was also a form of insurance; a place like Taurus, often with unwilling colonists, might revolt…and there would be nothing to attract pirate attacks. Taurus had lacked the industrial base to actually produce many of the goods her father had sold, in his store; they had had to be shipped in from Fairfax, at rip-off prices. If a starship ran into trouble and ended up stranded in the Taurus system, it was stuck there until another starship arrived, and then went to collect a spare part unless one of its spare parts could be adapted for the stranded ship.

“A complete fucking waste of time, then,” Captain Blackbird said. Tiffany winced; the last time he’d spoken in such a tone, he had taken it out on her rear. The pain of the belt cutting into her buttocks had shocked her. “We needn’t have bothered to risk exposing ourselves to Imperial notice!”

“Maybe not,” Jadis said, calmly. “Quite apart from the bitches, who will be useful when we sell them off to the brothels – which is all they will be good for apart from the child – the brats might just make good crewmen. The father…I think he’ll have to be disposed of, unless someone wants to have some fun with him first, but I don’t think that that will be a real concern. The crew will have their fun as well with the girls…and Erica might want the little girl. I gave orders that she was to remain untouched.”

Tiffany kept her face very blank. Was Jadis actually developing maternal urges? “But it’s the ship itself that is worth the credits,” Jadis concluded. “Once we get back to Gotha, we can sell it onwards and make sure it gets into the hands of someone we want doing us a favour at some later date. The ship won’t make a warship, but it might become a raider if someone was prepared to spend a lot of time and money rebuilding it.”

“That might be beyond the capabilities of any shipyard we know that would actually do such work,” Captain Blackbird said thoughtfully. His hands touched his beard thoughtfully. “There are some shipyards that might be willing to do the work, but only after we pay them a lot of money; I think we’d be better selling it off as is, rather than trying to spruce it up ourselves.”

“Sir,” Jadis said. She bowed her head for a long moment. “Do you want to take it to Gotha?”

“We’ll take it to somewhere we can leave it until we get permission to bring it to Gotha,” Captain Blackbird said. His lips curled back into a sneer. “There’s no profit in spooking everyone into thinking that we’re bringing the Imperial Fleet back with us, is there?”

“No, sir,” Jadis said. She stood up and stretched, a motion that drew attention to her breasts, items that Captain Blackbird ignored. Tiffany had allowed herself to fantasize that fucking Jadis would be like fucking a humanoid scorpion – which was ironic, as there were races that did look like humanoid scorpions – but the Captain was clearly smart enough not to expose himself that far to Jadis, even if she was loyal. “We wouldn’t want that at all.”

Captain Blackbird nodded. “Have the remainder of the ship carefully searched,” he ordered, as he turned to return to his own ship. “Let me know if you find anything interesting. They may have something onboard that we can sell for a little extra profit.”

“Of course, sir,” Jadis said. “I’ll get right on it.”

Tiffany privately doubted that they would, but held her peace.

Chapter Twenty-One: Merry Prankster

There were two curious elements about the Granaid System, Timothy read, as the shuttle approached the modified starship. The first one was that it was composed of a red giant…and a gas giant that was poised perfectly on the verge of becoming a brown dwarf, hanging right at the edge of the system. The two massive stellar objects, between them, dominated the system, their combined gravity having long since shredded almost every other planet or body within the system. The asteroids that were all that remained of the system’s other bodies drifted at the point of balance between the two massive giants, enough rock and ore, according to the briefing notes, to form several planets the size of Earth. The second curious element was even more interesting, although, to a seasoned spacer like Timothy, it was rather alarming.

The shipyard that floated by the asteroids was, in its own way, almost as remarkable as the remainder of the system, a complex that had been founded barely ten years before the Collapse and had been developed since then into a mainly commercial shipyard, servicing civilian starships from across the Empire. A chain of developed asteroids, half of them habitats, the other half mining camps or weapons platforms, orbited the shipyard; it was, saving only Fairfax itself, the most heavily defended system in the Fairfax Sector…and even it had pirate problems.

He frowned as he finished the briefing notes and winked at Elf. She didn’t respond – she never did when she was on duty – and they were on duty, even through they were merely being transported to their next assignment. The second odd thing about the system meant that pirates had much more room for operations anyway…and if they never dared to come within range of the patrolling ships protecting the shipyard, they were quite prepared to skulk along the Phase Limit and ambush ships from time to time. The Imperial Fleet escorted most ships to the Phase Limit – a convenient excuse to inspect them and their crews, under the theory that many people who would use the docking facilities would be smugglers – but it was much harder to have escorts ready for ships that appeared out of nowhere, at near-random locations. The pirates might not have a vast degree of success, Timothy knew, but they certainly had an undeniable track record of scoring embarrassing blows against the Imperial Fleet – or, rather, the ships the fleet was supposed to protect.

“We’re coming up on the docking slip now,” the pilot called back, as she activated the viewscreens, revealing the view of the outside universe as seen through the shuttle. The term ‘docking slip’ was something of a misnomer when dealing with something as vast as the shipyard, because the ships and their supporting units could float anywhere without much in the way of supervision. Timothy had heard that some of the traffic controllers for shipyards went insane trying to control everything; most of them ended up taking early retirement from the Imperial Fleet. “If you pay attention to your screens, you’ll see the Merry Prankster.”

Timothy rolled his eyes, wondering who had thought of that name and then attached it onto a ship, just before looking down at a vague shape that was taking on form and substance. Space was dark, but there were running lights on almost all starships, and it was easy to pick out a rectangular shape against the gloom. The lights grew brighter as the shuttle grew closer, allowing him to pick out a rough hull and a thin grey coating of paint covering the entire hull. Starships weren’t smooth, except in some very special cases, but the Merry Prankster had gone out of its way to look dented and bruised. The ship was a basic Hauler-class hull, but that design was so old that there had been countless upgrades and modifications over the years, some authorised and even performed by the Imperial Fleet, others carried out by individual ship owners, integrating different components into their ships in the hope of squeezing out a few extra ergs of energy from the drives.

He had to smile. The Merry Prankster looked like a brick – a particularly useless brick – but he knew enough of the history of the class to appreciate the choice. Six hundred meters long, carrying enough cargo to feed an entire colony for a month, there were thousands of them in service and most of them had some unique feature or two surrounding them. Any pirate who painted a radar map of the hull would have problems trying to figure out what was what, let alone what might be part of a weapons system, so unless he decided that discretion was the better part of valour, they would have to get very close just to decide if the Merry Prankster was worth picking on or not.

Timothy closed his eyes for a moment as the shuttle swept towards the docking bay. Q-ships were rare in Imperial service, mainly because of practical problems with the design; no matter how many weapons the shipyard had stuffed into Merry Prankster, she could neither outrun nor outfit a genuine warship. She would move like an overweight wallowing pig, she would barely be able to generate enough power to shield her hull from one direct hit with a nuke, and she would be a sitting duck. A regular warship could be turned on a centi-credit; a merchant ship was lucky if it could turn with enough space to fit an entire fleet of superdreadnaughts. There were a handful of ships rigged out to look civilian and have military-grade systems, but all of them had one great drawback; if they actually used any of their fancy new systems, the pirates would see them coming and evade or, if they were feeling particularly ballsy, put a missile into their hull while they were still trying to raise their shields.

He subvocalised a comment to Elf. “Talk about a poisoned chalice,” he muttered, knowing that she would understand. If he succeeded, they would promote him…but the odds of them recovering enough for them to pin a rank badge on would be…rather low. “Are you sure you don’t want to get back to the Fury?”

Elf subvocalised in a voice that made him shake. “I can take care of myself and I volunteered,” she reminded him. “Honestly, men; if it wasn’t for the few hours of sex you get out of them each day, what use would they be?”

Timothy decided that that comment was better left unanswered as the shuttle landed gently in Merry Prankster’s docking bay. The shuttle was an Imperial Intelligence-designed ship, a copy of a certain class of assault shuttle that had been sold widely, far too widely. Several of them were known to be in pirate hands; there were thousands out among the commercial ships trawling the Rim. On the inside, the Merry Prankster looked as if it had been well cared for by its crew, something that wasn’t a surprise at all. Timothy had once read a sociologists report on pirate culture, or at least what passed for pirate culture, and it had concluded that the pirates didn’t keep their ships clean because they knew they were criminals, fouling their own nests, so to speak. It would have made more interesting reading if the writer hadn’t gone on to talk about wild animals and masturbatory metaphors, at which point he’d given up and tossed the report across the room.

“All present and correct, sir,” Markus assured him. The senior crewman had been the second – Elf had been the first – to volunteer for the mission. Timothy was glad to have him; they would all be rattling around inside the Merry Prankster, and his experience would come in very handy. They would be appallingly short-staffed if they got into real trouble, but if they got that far up shit creek, Timothy had decided, they were dead anyway.

“Stand at ease,” Timothy said, keeping his face blank. The two Midshipmen, three Crewmen and seven Marines relaxed slightly, showing him just the right amount of respect for a very green Lieutenant. It felt vaguely silly lecturing some of them – they had more experience than he had years alive – but there was no choice. “The first order of the day is to familiarise ourselves with the facilities on board – with the help of the caretaker crew – and then prepare for launch. The Merry Prankster is booked in for an escort slot this evening, with millions of credits riding on our success…so we are going to make that slot.”

He smiled thinly. “A great deal of effort has gone into preparing the grounds so it looks as if we’re a nice innocent stupid merchantman crew,” he continued. “If we can’t make our launch slot, this entire exercise is going to be worse than useless, so we’re not going to fuck up, ok?” He glanced at them all and then nodded to himself. “You all know what we have to do” – they’d discussed it on the shuttle – “so get to work and report in to me by 1700. The launch slot is at 2000, so we’ll have dinner together…if there are no problems.”

The group dispersed; one of the Midshipmen and the crewmen to the engine room, the Marines to their quarters, and Timothy and the other Midshipman to the bridge. She was actually a Midshipwomen; they both were, something that had worried him when he had realised just who had been the first to volunteer. He had wanted to refuse them – all of the Midshipmen had volunteered – but they had been the first, and tradition said that the first to volunteer got the job, unless there was some pressing reason why they should not be spared from their normal duties. The possibility – certainty – of rape wasn't a pressing reason.

The interior of the Merry Prankster was a maze; even with the plans of the ship in his implant, it was a nightmare finding their way to the bridge. The ship was large enough to have an intership car, but instead of such a comfortable support system, Imperial Intelligence had rigged up a series of traps designed to make boarding the ship difficult, if not outright hazardous. The pirates would try to burn into the hull as close to the bridge as possible, but the bridge wasn't where it would normally be on such a ship; it was right at the centre of the vessel. Quick escape would be impossible, but so would be any rapid raid on the bridge, aimed at gaining control of the vessel.

“Welcome onboard,” the caretaker said, when they arrived. “What do you think of her?”

“I think that she needs more weaponry,” Timothy said, honestly. He wasn't sure if he should address the man as ‘sir’ or not; the Imperial Intelligence agent didn’t wear any rank badge, nor had he even bothered to identify himself. That wasn't too surprising, either, but it was irritating. “Some more speed would be useful as well.”

“True,” the caretaker agreed. “However, we have to work with what we have.”

They spent the next hour working through the systems. To make up for the outside appearance, Imperial Intelligence had splashed out on the interior, from a computer that wouldn’t have been out of place on a superdreadnaught, to enough automation that the ship could practically run on its own. The Imperials had forbidden the development of genuine Artificial Intelligence, but even without that, the computers were still capable of learning and carrying out orders. The crew would be in serious trouble if something went wrong – the Imperial Fleet gave it’s large ships massive crews just to ensure that there would be people on board to fix anything that might be a problem – but as long as they didn’t try to use the ship for longer than a month, they should be fine…until they actually got into a battle. Then, they would see…

“It seems fine,” he conceded, grudgingly. He didn’t like the caretaker and he suspected that the feeling was mutual; the Captain had warned him to remember that he was in charge and not to let himself get bullied into making mistakes because of pressure from the Imperial Intelligence officer. “What information do you have on the spread of pirates within this system?”

“There’s at least three ships probing the system, as of the last time we picked up any sniff of a pirate ship,” the caretaker said. “I would strongly advise you to use the plan we devised…”

Timothy looked at him, refusing to back down; the original plan had had so many holes in it that he could have flown the Fury through some of the larger ones. The pirates would either miss it altogether, or conclude – correctly – that they were being played; there were just too many complicated elements to the plan. It had involved losing the escort, having a coincidental disaster on the other side of the system…and hoped that the pirates would believe that the commander of the Merry Prankster was an idiot. Timothy’s plan was much simpler; the Fury, which had been slated to accompany the Merry Prankster, would develop a problem that would keep it back at the yard, while he would decide that his success or failure rested on getting the supplies to the destination system. He would ignore the Imperial Fleet’s advice and set sail, taking advantage of the system’s second curious element to ensure that the pirates had as long a window for attacking as they could possibly require.

“I am the one charged with carrying out the plan,” he said finally, and turned back to the display. The pirates wouldn’t fall for such a trick…except it happened all the time. The insurance people really hated it and their agreements were being amended to insist that all ships were actually escorted, but he suspected that that would fail. There just weren’t enough ships. “My plan is much simpler.”

“Humm,” the caretaker said. His face showed little sign of any real emotion, but Timothy guessed that he was annoyed. “Good luck, then.”

Leaving Midshipwoman Cianna Cleveland on the bridge, Timothy wandered through the Merry Prankster, taking in everything about his new – if brief – command. It was a major investment, speaking, more than anything else, of the Imperial Fleet’s desperation; if they failed, they might as well sail on to their destination and stay there. Everything depended upon the pirate intelligence network picking up the ship’s cargo, the sailing time…and the failure of the Fury to accompany the Merry Prankster. They could find out the last through careful observation from a cloaked ship, but they had to be convinced that there wasn't a cloaked Imperial ship escorting the Merry Prankster. The Imperial Fleet had tried such tricks before; the pirates had learned to be wary of temping targets that were nothing of the sort.

“I think we have a good chance of success,” Markus said, when they met in the engine room. “This crate has more power than I expected and more weaponry, some of which would do serious damage to Fury if they were caught by surprise. How are you feeling about your first command?”

“Nervous,” Timothy admitted. Markus was like a second father to him; it was the only reason he lowered his guard so much. There was always Elf, but she was busy with the Marines. “Are you sure you don’t want to go back to the Fury?”

“If you insult me one more time, I shall demand the satisfaction of a duel,” Markus said, his face twisting into a warped grin. Timothy laughed, a laugh that turned rapidly into a giggle; the thought of the pair of them duelling over that was too funny. Some of the tension vanished from the air. “Now, what about dinner?”

The Merry Prankster’s dining room was bare, but they’d taken the precaution of bringing some pre-heated rations along and eating them in the small room. The ship was meant to have a larger crew, but thanks to the modifications, the large room seemed almost empty. They huddled together around a table, eating and drinking, chatting about nothing as they waited for the time to tick away to nothing. Timothy had a chance to share a few words with Elf; she thought that the Marines were ready for their part of the mission as well. For all of them, it was a little payback…

“We can do this,” Timothy said, thirty minutes before they left the shipyard. “The bait is set, the pirates must know what we’re supposed to be carrying, so…let’s make damn sure that they think we’re a simple merchant, staked out for the crabs, before we spring the trap. Good luck, everyone!”

The bridge felt different as he took the command chair. Perhaps it was the knowledge that they would almost certainly be attacked, perhaps it was the fear of screwing up, or perhaps it was the thought that the Merry Prankster was his first command…and if he failed, it would be his last. He issued orders and waited for the shipyard to give them clearance to depart, feeling a hard knot of tension unravelling in his stomach. He’d done everything he could; the next move was now up to the pirates.

“The shipyard is asking us to confirm if we wish to proceed without escort,” Cianna said. Her face crinkled up into a smile. “Sir?”

“Inform them that we do,” Timothy said gravely. He leaned back in his command chair as the ship glided out of the shipyard, chose it’s heading, and started away from the shipyard and the endless field of asteroids behind it. Red light flickered over the ship as the drive field caught it, reflecting it everywhere; Timothy had no time to appreciate it. The hours ticked by and he felt his tension beginning to rise again; somewhere out there, the pirates were waiting…

A console chimed.

Chapter Twenty-Two: Friends and Enemies

“Buy the lady a drink?”

Tiffany glanced up in astonishment. She had been sitting in the bar, waiting patiently for Jadis to return from something she was doing, and she had generally been left alone. The Moe was the lowest dive on the asteroid that didn’t include naked women and gratuitous violence; the older pirates and their supporters loved it for that very reason. The late unlamented Robert had never set foot inside the bar; he’d preferred the Barf and Fart, where naked girls served the male clients and sometimes were taken right on the floor, in front of all the other patrons.

Gunnard Fredrickson smiled down at her. “Would you like a drink?”

“I could be tempted,” Tiffany said, sitting back and wordlessly inviting him to sit down. The privacy fields, her implants reported, were still in existence, or she would never have dared be seen with him for too long, but with his identity at least partly concealed, she felt fairly safe. “I haven’t seen you for a while.”

“Three years,” Gunnard said, his face still set in the handsome smile she remembered. She couldn’t blame it on shock and reaction now; she had to admit that she was powerfully attracted to the young man, but caution demanded that she take care. Since Robert had died, she had tried to investigate Gunnard, only to find out that he had come to the asteroid a few months ago and had spent most of his time listening to tales in bars, rather than trying to sign up with a raiding mission or making himself useful in any other ways. The information broker she’d visited – at Jadis’s recommendation – hadn’t been able to tell her much; Gunnard had come from one of the black colonies, occasionally buying items for them on the asteroids. “How could I forget how we met?”

He’d shot a man to save her from being raped, Tiffany remembered, remembering also how he had had her at his mercy…and apparently hadn’t even thought about just pulling down his pants and taking her for himself. That was…more than just unusual on Gotha, it was almost unprecedented. The only person who might have more than a vague interest in saving her from rape was Captain Blackbird…and he had been showing much less interest in her recently.

“I never forgot,” she said, smiling back at him. Her face said what she told it to say now, and yet some of her smile was genuine, recognising that she owed him a debt. She could have lost everything – would have lost everything – because of the man he’d killed. “I think I’d love to have a drink with you.”

Gunnard tapped the table, summoned a waiter and ordered two Screaming Orgasms. Tiffany had to smile – again – at the nerve he was displaying, although she had to mark him down for the choice of drink. She didn’t like drinking heavily, even though the nanites in her bloodstream would filter out the alcohol before it started to affect her; his choice of drinks was either a snide pass or a semi-serious hint of what pleasures he could offer. His blue eyes seemed to sparkle as the drinks arrived, promising far more pleasures…Tiffany realised, not for the first time, that he was trying to seduce her. The only question was simple; did she want to be seduced?

The conversation ran backwards and forwards for nearly twenty minutes as she pumped him for information and he pumped her back. Gunnard claimed to have been born on a black colony – he refused to share it’s name with her, which was fairly common in a universe where the Imperial Fleet could be expected to end the colony’s independence – and he had trained as an engineer and ship mechanic, something that should have allowed him to write his own ticket. Instead, he had had…difficulties with the senior leadership of the colony and had been sent to Gotha, in hopes that some pirate would slip a knife in his ribs and rid the colony of his presence.

“It’s pretty dumb,” he said, when Tiffany had finished laughing. “Here I am, doing work for them that none of their people could actually do if they had half the knowledge I do, and yet they send me out to get my ass shot off by your people.”

“Of course,” Tiffany agreed. “They could just have shot you and saved themselves all the effort of sending you out there.”

“If I had realised that the ticket was a one-way job, I might have stayed at home,” Gunnard said, dryly. “I can do anything here, except go home, and the one thing I don’t want to do is go home.”

Tiffany felt, for a moment, a flicker of kindred spirit. She wouldn’t want to go back to Taurus now, even if that were possible; she would have been rejected by the community. Her father’s store would probably have been taken over by someone else, her friends would have grown up, gotten married off and started churning out kids with their boyfriends, perhaps without actually waiting to get married first. They would know, somehow, what she’d done to survive and they would have turned their backs on her…and then the Imperial Fleet would put her against the nearest wall and shoot her for piracy.

She sipped her drink thoughtfully. “Do you never want to go home?”

“Not really,” Gunnard said. “Here is so much more interesting, don’t you think?”

Tiffany considered it. “I can honestly say that I’ve never been bored,” she said, with wry amusement. Gunnard was proving to be a charming companion, one with more assets than just the obvious one. A thought occurred to her and she smiled to herself. “What are you doing in the next few hours?”

“I thought I would spend them with you,” Gunnard said, his smile broadening out again. “Would you like to have dinner together?”

He’d taken the words right out of her mouth. “I think that that would be a pretty nice thing to do,” Tiffany said, prepared to enjoy herself for as long as possible. Her implants scanned him and found almost nothing; he had a memory implant and a neural access implant, but nothing else, not even implanted weapons. Clearly, whatever monies his home had given him hadn’t gone as far as implanted weapons; he carried one pistol in an obvious place and a second in his jacket, hidden from casual view. If he was an assassin, he hadn’t prepared for her implants, which suggested a certain failure of imagination.

He grinned like a small boy. “One condition,” Tiffany said. “I choose the place.”

She had given some serious thought to using the Madagascar, but it was vaguely possible that the guards would recognise her as the last person to visit Robert, before his unhappy brain death from a drug overdose. She chose instead a different place, The Loner, which gave the customers an individual room each and had food delivered to them through a complex system of small lifts and belts. The room they were given was almost perfect; it was tastefully decorated, it had no prying eyes, and it had a small sofa for later activities. She was astonished at her own daring, but felt, in a twisted way, that she deserved a chance to declare her independence.

“What would you like to eat?” She said, as she examined the menu. The hotel boasted food from across the galaxy, but she had a sneaking suspicion that most of the foods were actually algae-derived materials, cooked and basted by a very clever chef. There wasn’t a Hotel Imperial on Gotha – that wouldn’t happen unless the Imperial Fleet took over the asteroid instead of simply sacking it – but The Loner was the best on the asteroid. “I’ll have the fish and chips.”

Her lips twitched. It wasn't the most romantic of dishes, but at least it would make it hard for them to slip in an inferior substitute. Gunnard chose a simple meat dish, cooked in a sauce with unpronounceable words from an ancient Earth language, and they talked about nothing until the food arrived. The fish was surprisingly good, good enough that she was fairly certain that it was real, but if the chips had ever been anywhere near a potato, she would have been astonished. She ate it all anyway, slowly and carefully, her eyes meeting Gunnard’s whenever they felt like it. Both of them, she understood now, knew how the day would end…and she wasn't concerned.

Their eyes met as he finished his meal…and somehow she found herself leaning over the table, meeting his lips for a long kiss. She found herself pulling at him, kissing him again and again, enjoying the simple touch more than she had enjoyed most of Captain Blackbird’s attentions. He had never really kissed her, not really; he hadn’t been really interested in how much she enjoyed herself. If boys tried to make girls enjoy what they did together, because they were unable to get what they wanted without making the girls enjoy it, what would they do in an environment where girls could never say no? Somehow, she wound up on his lap, feeling his hands touching her breasts through her outfit, softly, as if they were a treasure, rather than something to which he had a right to use as he saw fit. Time seemed to slow down…

“I do have a motive for seeking you out,” Gunnard admitted, as the dishes fell away into the table, to be replaced by small bowls of ice cream. Tiffany rolled her eyes inwardly; it was such a discord that she seriously considered just getting off his lap and walking off, or injecting him with a small amount of something really unpleasant. No one would care, one way or the other, what happened to him; he was a nobody on Gotha.

Tiffany surprised herself by laughing. “I should have known better,” she said, softly, her eyes demanding another kiss. “What do you want from me and why should I give it to you?”

Gunnard met her eyes and looked sincere. Tiffany guessed he hadn’t wanted just a quick and guilt-free fuck, seeing he would have had that by the end of the day anyway, but something more serious. She remembered the crewman who had tried to recruit her – and had ended up being killed, by her – and wondered if he wanted something like that from her. She had killed Robert on Jadis’s instructions; who might Gunnard want her to kill?

“I’m bored here,” he admitted, “but I don’t have any real way of doing anything else. I want a slot on the Knife Edge.”

Tiffany felt herself tense for a long moment, and then relaxed slightly; she was still in charge. She ran through all the variables in her mind, trying to understand; if she took the request at face value, Gunnard’s behaviour didn’t quite add up. He’d tried to seduce her – hell, he had seduced her – which was understandable, but he also wanted something from her…something she might not even be in a position to grant. She might have been one of the Second Mates, but even so…Captain Blackbird might not listen to her.

“Really,” she said, dryly. “Why do you want that?”

“I’m bored,” Gunnard said, easily. He ran his hand down her back, stroking her as if she were a cat; she almost sighed in pleasure as his hands touched knots of tension and relaxed them. “I have done my duty on this asteroid, with touching loyalty, but the folks back home won’t be needing me for much longer. Once they’ve finished their work, they’ll cut me off and leave me here to starve…or have someone paid to get rid of me. If I am cut off, I will have problems surviving here…”

Tiffany nodded. That was a serious understatement. “That makes a certain kind of sense,” she agreed, dryly. She shifted on his lap, amused to feel that he had a very hard erection under his outfit, and reached down to touch it carefully. He was bargaining at a disadvantage…but did he know that? “That leads rather neatly to the second point; why should I care?”

His hands gently touched her breasts, and then slipped inside her blouse, stroking her bare breasts. “Because I can make you very happy indeed?” He asked. The ingratiating tone in his voice made her smile as she closed her eyes to follow the sensations better. “Would that be enough for you?”

Tiffany pretended to consider it. Most of the senior pirates were quite happy to take lovers from among their crews; it wasn't the Imperial Fleet, after all. There was, however, the question of how Captain Blackbird would react to her sleeping with Gunnard, even if he were losing interest in her. It would be a blow directed at his status on the ship, no matter her intentions, and he would feel as if he had to do something about it. There were other options, however; maybe Gunnard could be of use to her.

“It’s a thought, but I could use a dildo for the same effect,” she said, drawing away from him. It was much against her will; she hadn’t known that her body could feel any of those sensations. Just by touching her breasts gently, he had almost set her on fire; what could he do if she allowed him to touch her most secret places? “What else could you offer me?”

Gunnard leaned forward. “What would you like?”

Tiffany didn’t bother to mince words. Gunnard had spent years on a pirate outpost; he had to know how it worked. “You scratch my back, I scratch yours,” she said, very seriously. The pirates expressed it in terms of sucking cocks, but that was the last thing she wanted to think about at the moment. “If you get a slot on the Knife Edge, you do it as my agent, understand? You work for me first and foremost, you do what I tell you to do, you report to me on what’s happening below decks, and you always place my interests first.”

“It seems a reasonable deal,” Gunnard said. His hands were working their magic again. “I accept.”

“Do you?” Tiffany asked. “If I tell you to suck off a man’s cock, you will do it, or you will try breathing vacuum. If you don’t make yourself useful – to me – you will simply be killed in any number of interesting ways. I am going places and I can take you with me, but only if you understand, now, that I am in charge. If you try to fuck me up the butt, I will fuck you with a sharp razor, understand?”

Gunnard showed only a trace of fear in his eyes. “I understand,” he said, as she pulled off his lap and pulled him with her, pushing him towards the sofa. His outfit was designed for quick removal; as she pushed it in certain places, it started to fall away from his body. His hands were pulling at her clothes just as quickly; for a moment, she almost froze as her naked body was revealed, before he started to touch her with his magic touch. “I’ll work for and you alone.”

Tiffany pushed him down, enjoying the sense of being dominant for the first time in…well, forever, and impaled herself on him, riding him until she felt herself beginning to approach the edges of orgasm. His face was slack as she rode him, lost in his own pleasure; just for an instant, it reminded her of Robert, who had looked like that before she had killed him. She banished the memories with an effort. For the first time since the Max Capricorn, she was in charge, and taking a man of her own free will. When they came together, she thought she would faint…

“You have to prove yourself,” she breathed, in his ear. She had never thought of herself as a sexual predator before, testing and demanding, ordering him to worship her with his body, enjoying the sensation of pure power as it flowed through her. Was it how Captain Blackbird had felt, when he took her for the first time? Was it how Jadis felt, when she bent a man to her will? Was it how the Imperials had felt, when they invaded Earth and crushed all resistance? Was it…?

“Impressive,” she said finally, after they had spent themselves completely. She felt totally drained, unable even to move; it was a strain even to consider moving. Her implants sent a set of small charges into her body, awakening it to full wakefulness, and she staggered to her feet, her eyes meeting his eyes as she stumbled into the shower. Water cascaded down; for the first time, she felt as if she had gotten as good as she had given when she was with a man. There had been no submission, no pain, no control…just pure unadulterated pleasure. The water helped awaken her further, but even so, she felt as if she was both tired and on top of the world.

“We could sleep her and have more fun in the morning,” Gunnard said, opening the shower to peer at her wet naked body. Tiffany laughed, but shook her head. “Do I qualify for the slot, then?”

Tiffany considered for a long moment, but truthfully, her mind was already made up. “I think that I would have no problem getting you onto the ship,” she said, and meant it. A thought slightly soured her post-sex pleasure. “But remember, darling…you work for me first.”

“Of course,” Gunnard said. There was not a trace of irony in his voice. “I would not have it any other way.”

Chapter Twenty-Three: Merry Prankster (II)

The second interesting element about the Granaid System, Timothy reflected, was that it had a very weird Phase Limit. Phase Limits were normally perfect spheres surrounding the parent star, a field in which no FTL travel was possible and – more irritating for spacefarers – cast a gravity shadow into Phase Space. A starship that ran into such a shadow at FTL would be lucky if they were only smashed out of Phase Space; it was more normal for the ship that tried to offend the laws of the universe to vanish without trace. The Granaid System, however, had it’s massive star and it’s almost as massive companion…and the Phase Limit was more of a pear-shaped field than a sphere. The course he’d chosen for the Merry Prankster looked as if it was an attempt to shave a few hours of the journey time, but it included a longer stay inside the Phase Limit than anyone would have deemed wise.

“We have a contact,” Cianna said. Her voice showed no trace of the nervousness she had to be feeling; Timothy could only admire her as she worked her console as if nothing in the world mattered, but gaining the best information possible. “One ship, reads out as a light cruiser design, heading towards us.”

“No cloak?” Timothy asked. The pirates had to have been caught slightly flat-footed then – that, or it was an Imperial Fleet ship coming to ‘escort’ them without the slightest idea that they were meant to be without escort. “Can you identify the ship?”

“Not at this range,” Cianna said grimly. “It’s not transmitting any IFF or anything, so I think we can be fairly certain that it’s hostile.”

“Alter course,” Timothy ordered, giving a new heading. The Merry Prankster moved like a sluggish pig, but it would make it slightly harder for the pirates to intercept. It was also a way of telling the pirates that they had been seen…which meant that they would either break off or start threatening their target. The timing wouldn’t be on their side, not in so populated and protected a system, so the odds were that they would start the threats any moment now. “Don’t bother with transmitting any distress signals.”

Cianna smiled. It lit up her face, surrounded by red-gold hair, and completely transformed her features. “They might just think that we’re intimidated enough to cooperate in exchange for being let go,” she said, as she watched her console. Timothy nodded; it wasn’t unknown among civilians to refrain from screaming for help, even on an undetectable laser link, in hopes that the pirates would pillage the ship and leave them alive. It would also suggest that the captain of the Merry Prankster lacked a certain backbone, which was fine with him; the more they were underestimated, the better.

“Yes,” he said, as the display updated. The pirates would be entering missile range in twenty minutes, energy weapons range in thirty minutes. He suspected that they would be ordered to heave to at any moment, something that would cut down on the timing, but if the enemy commander was a particularly smart or ballsy commander, he might just settle for the longer intercept time, in order to keep System Command unaware of what was going on. “If we’re lucky, they might just think we’re idiots.”

He ordered two more course changes as the pirates grew closer, one of them even shortening the pirate intercept time, just to make it seem as if he was panicking. The pirates didn’t bother to communicate, or even launch warning shots; they moved closer and closer, safe in the serene knowledge that there was nothing that the crew of the Merry Prankster could do to them. Civilian sensors would barely pick up any information at this distance, but the Merry Prankster had military-grade sensors; information on the enemy ship kept trickling in. One detail made him smile; the enemy’s drives were poorly maintained.

If we kept our drives like that, the Captain would have had us all flogged, he thought, and surprised himself with a chuckle. It wasn’t unknown for the pirates to fly vessels that had been poorly maintained, but even so, to risk a catastrophic drive failed so close to a horde of Imperial Fleet warships was pretty ballsy. The enemy commander had some nerve, he decided, even as he picked his targets; the computers would update the targeting information automatically.

Everything depended upon the pirates playing ball now…and he felt himself tense as the red sphere of pirate missile range slowly caught up on and crossed the Merry Prankster. If the pirates, like the Greys before them, had aimed simply at wanton destruction, they could have popped off a spread of missiles and blown the Merry Prankster into so much flaming debris. They had to want what he was supposed to be carrying, he reminded himself, and watched grimly as the pirates grew closer. The problem would have been a great deal worse if the pirates hadn’t operated under that single restraint…

A console bleeped an alarm. “Missile launch,” Cianna snapped, as Timothy snapped around to stare at the console. “One missile, reads out as a modified Mark VII torpedo, on a warning shot.”

The enemy missile shot past the Merry Prankster and detonated a hundred kilometres off the port bow. It had been a warning shot, a way of informing the crew that the people closing in on them were ruthless vagabonds with a desire to take what they had…and that resistance would be futile. He smiled as he took in the full data, feeling a sudden wave of confidence; even for a nuke, a hundred kilometres was an excessive safety range. Perhaps the Captain didn’t trust his crew’s aiming skills.

“Send the message,” he ordered. “I want you to sound as cringing as you can.”

Cianna nodded. “This is the Merry Prankster, out of Taho,” she said, her voice quavering. She did amateur dramatics in her spare time, such as it was, on the Fury; she’d acted as Juliet and impressed everyone who heard her. Now, her voice sounded almost like a grown woman who had lost control of her life; the pirates had to be loving every moment of her performance. “Please stand off and identify yourself.”

There was a pause. “Incoming transmission,” the computer said, suddenly. “The transmission is audio only.”

“Put it through,” Timothy ordered.

The enemy message was in a voice that seemed to be both gloating and anticipating some real fun. “You are ordered to heave to, without powering down your drives, and prepare to be boarded,” the voice said. Timothy found his attention caught by an icon on the display; the computers had finally managed to match the drive signature of the craft to one they’d seen before. “If you behave yourselves, we will permit you to leave your ship and await pickup by another ship. If you attempt to signal for help, or resist, you will be shown no mercy.”

Timothy barely heard the final words; he was staring at the display. All of a sudden, he knew why Imperial Intelligence had wanted him for the mission…and it was nothing to do with relative youth. The ship had been sighted before, by the Fury, as it pulled away from the Max Capricorn. The ship that was approaching the Merry Prankster was the one that had killed his parents and his sister!

Cianna’s voice broke in on his thoughts. “Lieutenant?” She asked. She had to see his fury and blinding rage, the temptation to just slam his hand down over the tactical console and fire a spread of missiles large enough to blot a superdreadnaught from the skies, the anger that would deny the pirates any chance of survival. “Sir…?”

“Throttle back the drives,” Timothy ordered, feeling cold furious rage. He would take that ship intact, so he would have the pleasure of shooting each and every member of the crew himself, once they had been drained of all information. If they refused to talk, he’d hurt them and hurt them until they talked, and then he’d kill him. The burning rage had to be controlled, until it was time to let it loose, when he would break the enemy commander as if he was a twig. “They want us to be a nice naked virgin they can hustle away, then that’s what they’ll get.”

The pirate ship closed in, its sensors probing the Merry Prankster; Timothy found that oddly reassuring. The pirates would have been wiser to order him to stand down the drives, but for any normal Hauler, there would have been several hours before the drives could have been brought back up again, time the pirates wouldn’t have before System Command noticed that something was wrong and sent a cruiser out to investigate. They couldn’t tranship the fabricators to their own ship, at least not without much more time than they would have; they had to take the Merry Prankster more or less intact. He’d planned the mission to limit their options without them noticing that he had limited them as much as possible; they wanted the cargo, there was only one way they could get their filthy hands on it.

His lips twitched. He could have kept an superdreadnaught’s worth of energy weapon batteries charged up and ready to fire, and the pirates wouldn’t be able to notice the fluctuating power curves under the power curves from the drives. Their plan was obvious; they would come in and launch a shuttle, which would place a prize crew on the Merry Prankster, while their main ship was close enough to ensure that resistance would be harshly punished. Once the ship was secured – and the girls raped, he thought grimly – they would take her out of the system and loot her somewhere in peace and quiet.

“They’re about to enter energy range now,” Cianna said, very calmly. “I’m getting a whole series of pings from their computers, I think they’re trying to insert stuff into our systems.”

“Don’t let them in,” Timothy said, automatically. No computers would allow that to happen without direct access to the command codes and the crew of the freighter wouldn’t have them. Their company would rarely give them codes that would allow an unscrupulous crew a chance to sell their own ship, pocket the proceeds, and vanish somewhere within the vast Empire. “I wonder why they’re even bothering.”

He glanced down again at the tactical display. The first firing sequence was always updating itself; the second had remained unchanged since the pirate had entered weapons range. He hoped he wouldn’t need the second sequence – even though part of his soul called out for it to be used – but if the first sequence failed, he would have no choice, but to throw everything at the pirate ship and call it a draw. If the pirate survived both attacks, they were dead; the enemy ship would blow the Merry Prankster apart.

“Maybe they’re just hoping that someone left a backdoor open,” Cianna said. “It wouldn’t be the first time.”

Timothy lifted his communicator. “Elf, we’re preparing to fire in five minutes,” he said. “Are your people ready?”

Elf’s voice was perfectly professional. This was what she’d trained for. “Yes, sir,” she said. Timothy smiled thinly; a Lieutenant didn’t rate a ‘sir’ from a Marine. Elf might just be reminding him that he was in charge of the ship, reminding her people that she wouldn’t put him first, or maybe tension was getting to her as well. “Launch us as soon as you open fire.”

There was one part of the plan that Timothy liked; if it all went to hell, Elf would have a good chance at survival. The remainder of the crew, the ones left on the ship, would have almost no chance of surviving the encounter. The pirate drew closer, it’s sensors still probing; Timothy felt tension rising in his chest as the pirates scans passed over the ship, trying to pin down information that was proving frustratingly hard to locate. They matched course and speed, settling down next to the barely moving Merry Prankster, well within weapons range.

“We are launching a boarding shuttle towards you,” the radio crackled suddenly. There was no trace of nervousness or apprehension within that voice; Timothy hated it as it started to grate on his ears. “Do not attempt to resist.”

“Enemy shuttle launched,” Cianna said, as a smaller target separated from the bulk of the pirate vessel. It closed in rapidly on the Merry Prankster. “Do you actually want them to board us?”

“No,” Timothy said, ignoring her breach of decorum. He altered the targeting sequence one final time…and fired. The lights dimmed for a moment as seven massive energy weapons spoke as one, six of them targeted on the enemy drive section, burning through the light interdiction of their drive fields and cutting deep into the enemy hull. The seventh was targeted on the enemy shuttle, vaporising it with a burst that would have torn a hole in a superdreadnaught’s hull; Timothy found himself smiling as the shuttle vanished. “Launch the shuttles.”

There was no time to lose. “Open communications,” he ordered. The pirate ship had been hit badly, but they still had a chance to strike back and force a stalemate, the mutual destruction of both ships. “This is Lieutenant Timothy Keck of the Imperial Fleet. Stand down your remaining weapons and surrender; if you surrender, we won’t shoot you. If you do not surrender within the next sixty seconds, I will assume that you do not want to surrender and will complete the destruction of your ship. You have sixty seconds to comply!”

“The shuttles are inbound,” Cianna said, her voice just as tense. If the pirates still had even minimal point defence working, despite the fact that most of their drive section had been blown away, the Marines would suffer serious losses. Their shuttles couldn’t stand up to a direct hit, any more than the pirate shuttle had been able to survive. “They will make their ingress within eighty seconds…”

“We surrender,” a voice said, over the communications link. Timothy, who had been wondering if he had knocked out the enemy communications as well as their drives, smiled in relief. “We surrender!”

“Stand down your remaining weapons and prepare to be boarded,” Timothy ordered. He allowed no trace of his own relief to slip into his voice. “If you offer any resistance, you and your crew will be killed without further delay.”

The minutes ticked on by as Elf’s shuttles locked onto the pirate hull, burned through their hull material, and boarded the ship. Timothy’s mind filled in details; cowering pirates, a ruined ship, and dark-clad Marines rampaging through, using stunners and cuffs to bring the pirates to heel. Their ship would have to be secured and a damage control team would have to be detailed to see if there was any point in trying to salvage it, although privately he doubted that there was any point. The damage was too extensive.

“We have the enemy crew until control and secured,” Elf said finally, through the link. Timothy allowed himself a smile of pure relief. “There were ninety-seven people on the ship, at least forty of them with weapons, so we can assume that they were pirates. The others claim to be either slaves or people who were captured on various raiding missions; we have kept them separate from the pirates, but have secured them anyway.”

Timothy felt his breath catch in his throat. “What about their commanding officer?”

“Oh, we have him,” Elf said, her voice rich with disdain. “The bastard filled his pants the moment we caught him and his crew weren’t too impressed.”

“Have them all shipped back to the Merry Prankster and separated,” Timothy ordered, without pausing for thought. “Cianna, raise System Command, inform them of the success of our mission and request that they expedite a cruiser or something with some real firepower. If any other pirates think that we have a commanding officer under our control…”

He broke off as the shuttles started to return from the enemy ship. The Imperial Fleet had real problems tracking down pirate bases and settlements, not least because most pirates didn’t have the slightest idea of where they were. Their senior officers knew some details, but the juniors never knew anything that the Fleet could use against the pirates, no matter how willing they were to cooperate. If another pirate was out there and suspected that the Captain had been taken prisoner, they might just risk attacking them directly to preserve the secret.

He watched through the ship’s sensors as the pirates, stripped naked and handcuffed by the Marines, were separated rapidly; the ship, at least, carried plenty of cells. Imperial Intelligence might even have intended to use it as a prison ship once it’s cover had been well and truly blown. The pirates looked a sorry lot, each of them protesting their innocence and their horror at what had been done out along the Rim, protests which the Marines ignored as they escorted their guests to their new quarters. They would talk; nothing else could even be remotely permitted.

“Sir, I have received an update from System Command,” Cianna said. “The Fury and the Imperial Glory have been ordered to rendezvous with us to escort us and our guests back to the shipyard.”

“Good,” Timothy said. His hands stroked the hilt of the weapon he wore at his belt. “You have the bridge, Midshipwoman; I’m going to ask their commander about the Max Capricorn.”

Cianna stared at him for a long moment. “Sir…with all due respect, you promised you wouldn’t kill them,” she said, her eyes torn between obeying orders and protesting. “You gave your word…”

“Yes,” Timothy said. He drew his knife and watched as it glinted in the light from the ceiling. “I promised that we wouldn’t shoot them.”

Chapter Twenty-Four: The Other Woman

“Ah, more manflesh,” Jadis remarked, as Tiffany brought Gunnard onto the ship, found him a cabin, and gave him a brief introduction to the ship. Gunnard had never seen such a ship before, but he fitted in almost at once as part of the engineering clique, which had been kept busy repairing and replacing various components that had burned out or reached the end of their natural lives. As someone from one of the black colonies, Gunnard was surprisingly good with his hands, in more than a pleasurable sense.

Tiffany looked at her. It was the closest thing to girl talk she’d had with Jadis, although Jade made interesting conversation from time to time. “Is there anything wrong with manflesh?”

“Only when it’s trying to poke it’s way up inside you,” Jadis said, with a grimace. Her voice sounded more animated as she skimmed through the list of new crewmembers, most of them sponsored by her or Erica. “I trust he was actually worth the effort of convincing me to put him on the list as a new crewman?”

Tiffany found herself blushing. The crew of a pirate ship tended to fluctuate radically as pirates came, went, and sometimes didn’t fit into the crew, to the point where they were simply spaced as a waste of precious oxygen. The senior crewmen were able to sponsor new crewmen to join the crew, in exchange for some of their share of the loot, but such deals tended to fade very quickly. There was no sense of long-term comradeship on a pirate ship.

“He was…interesting,” she said, cursing herself. The men on the crew might have noticed nothing, but Jadis and Erica certainly had, even if they didn’t bother to inform their Captain. The temptation to go into his cabin and spend a few hours with him during the night shift had almost overwhelmed her; only the dictates of bare survival had prevented her from giving in to their temptation. “Don’t you think he’s handsome?”

“You’re acting like a teenage girl,” Jadis said. Tiffany decided not to point out that she was a teenage girl. Jadis had been more scarred by her experiences than Tiffany had ever been; broken, raped, treated as a slave…she had found the strength to break free, kill her captors, and find a new life for herself. There were times when she humiliated male members of the crew, or forced female members into bed with her; the only reason she hadn’t done that to Tiffany was because she was the Captain’s woman. “It’s not what he’s got that counts, so much as what he does when he’s part of the crew, understand?”

“Of course,” Tiffany said, unwilling to share the moment too closely. If Gunnard managed to piss off Jadis, or Captain Blackbird, he would be killed out of hand. She’d miss him, assuming that the Captain didn’t blame her for bringing him onboard, but there would be no choice. She couldn’t protect him from the wrath of the upper decks. “What about the others?”

“Some people who got tossed off another ship for being complete bloody psychopaths,” Jadis said. Tiffany giggled; she had thought that that was how someone got onto a pirate ship. “Apparently, their previous Captain used them to storm ships, but they did it too well; one of their captives, completely broken, somehow managed to escape and kill one of their people before he was killed. They got thrown off the ship and should count themselves lucky that they didn’t simply get spaced.”

Tiffany frowned inwardly. It sounded as if Jadis had brought them onboard because they would be loyal to her, rather than to Captain Blackbird, even though Jadis herself was loyal to the Captain. All of the senior pirates built up their own web of informers, allies and slaves – including her – but Jadis and Erica had an unfair advantage. They were lovers who truly loved one another. Neither one doubted the other’s loyalty to her personally.

“As long as they don’t do the same to us,” she said, reluctantly. If they were rated as complete bloody psychopaths by their fellow pirates, she didn’t want to know what they were like in person; they had to be worse than anyone else she’d ever met. “You’d better keep them under control.”

Jadis’s hand fell to the neural whip she was wearing on her belt. “They’ll behave themselves or I’ll have to give them some more treatment,” she said, her face twisted into a humourless smile. Tiffany felt her face wince; the last time she had been struck with such a weapon had been back on the Bloody Hand, back before she had been sold. The whip had hurt her beyond her endurance…and it hadn’t left a single scar. “If they cause more trouble, we’ll give them up as a bad investment and throw them into space.”

“Of course,” Erica agreed. She looked over at Tiffany. “What have you done about the supplies?”

Tiffany nodded. As one of the Second Mates, supplying the ship was her problem. “We should have enough supplies for two months of cruising,” she said, knowing that if worst came to worst, they could extend the supplies indefinitely through the use of algae-grown foodstuffs. “We have reloaded all the magazines and we have enough missiles to put up a fight if we have to fight.”

She avoided specifics; it was her bailiwick. She had also brought onboard some additional supplies of her own, ones that she had no intention of sharing, or even allowing Jadis to know that they existed. They would only have upset her. She had learned more than she had thought possible about how the pirate system worked, but she wanted – needed – to have her own plans. Safety lay in being indispensable.

“Good,” Jadis said. “I believe that the Captain intends to set out sooner or later on a random cruise, unless he has found another source of information that we can use to find a perfect target.” Tiffany scowled inwardly; the Captain had access to a source of information that he hadn’t shared with anyone, even Jadis. “Once he’s back onboard the ship, we will probably set off…and if anyone isn’t onboard the ship at that time, fuck him; he’s being left behind on the rock.”

Her communicator chimed. “Speak of the devil,” she said. She shared a significant look with Erica; Tiffany wondered what the joke was. “He wants us to meet him at the main airlock.”

Tiffany followed the two girls back down the corridors, past a crewman who was lying on the ground dead drunk – Jadis kicked him in the groin – and into the main airlock. The area was one of the most secure places on the ship; there were always a pair of guards stationed there, just in case one of the crew’s many enemies decided to try to board the ship and sneak a bomb onboard. The hatch opened and she felt her mouth begin to fall open, before she closed it sharply; she didn’t want anyone to see her shock.

Captain Blackbird stood there, with a girl held firmly in his hands; she remembered, suddenly, that Robert and Jadis had greeted her when she’d been brought onto the ship as the Captain’s personal woman. The girl was very different to her, with skin that was chocolate brown and eyes that were brown…and her hands firmly locked behind her back with handcuffs. She was naked, older than Tiffany had been when she had been brought onboard the ship; her body was marred and twisted by scars from whips. Her eyes held a certain fire with them; unlike Tiffany, she had clearly tried to put up a fight.

“This is my new woman,” Captain Blackbird announced, without any hint of apology in his voice. Tiffany was surprised at how much it hurt, even though part of her had expected it; she had been replaced. “She will be my woman from now on.”

Jadis’s voice was pure evil. “Welcome onboard the Knife Edge, dear,” she said. The new girl quailed. “If the Captain doesn’t break you, I get to play games and open your legs with a knife.”

Tiffany kept her face blank with an effort as the Captain took the new girl to his cabin and – she guessed – forced her into bed. She supposed that she should feel sympathy, but from what Jade said afterwards, the new girl had tried to fight the Captain and had been slapped around for her pains. She – her name was apparently Razia – hadn’t wanted to please the Captain, but had eventually had her resistance beaten out of her. The Doctor had seen her later, mending some of the scars on her body, but Tiffany doubted that Razia had the inner strength to survive her ordeal. She watched the girl in the mess and bided her time; it would come.

Two weeks passed as the ship left Gotha and hunted for targets. Captain Blackbird apparently hadn’t been able to make contact with his informants, or maybe the Imperial Fleet had rounded them up and executed them; the Knife Edge explored the verges of several systems, looking for worthwhile targets. Tiffany spent much of the time watching Razia and thinking hard; if Razia wasn't going to last very long – and she couldn’t see her as lasting very long – perhaps she could be used. She had enjoyed some protection on the ship by virtue of being the Captain’s Woman; now, with Razia in her place, that protection would no longer apply. Would one of the crew, seeking a senior position, move to challenge her?

They took two ships and lost a third when the ship’s engineer managed to overload the drives, blowing the freighter into a hot cloud of steaming plasma. Tiffany watched with some dismay, not least because it represented both the loss of money…and the failure of their policy. If they had allowed the crew to flee, what would have happened then? Few pirates allowed the crewmen to flee, but if they had, would the crewmen rig up the ship to explode – the normal excuse – or would they cooperate, in the certain knowledge that the pirates could still take their revenge on the shuttles if the starship exploded? If things changed, would they be able to collect more rewards, or would they merely lose crewmen to exploding starships?

Nightly, she tossed the problem around in her head, before finally coming to a conclusion; something had to change. She thought about bringing it to the Captain’s attention, but the Captain no longer looked upon her with favour, unless it was to remember how willing she had been and regret changing her for another woman. Perhaps he would take her back, or perhaps…perhaps he had broken her into being a pirate, and that had been the real objective of his treatment of her. Razia showed no signs of accommodating herself to her new life; instead of cooperating and making the best of it, she was trying to fight and losing.

Idiot, Tiffany thought, and decided to move as soon as possible. Razia normally ate in the mess, like the others on the ship, but she always ate during the time in which there were fewer pirates there; unlike Tiffany, she didn’t seem able to shut out their taunts and knowing looks. She was also naked all the time, a punishment for resistance, Tiffany guessed; she had tried to cooperate and had been rewarded for it. Razia…had tried to fight; alone, weaponless, she had tried to fight…and lost.

“Hi,” Tiffany said, deliberately keeping her voice casual. If Razia was anything like her, kindness would have become a scarce commodity in her life, not when she was so clearly in the Captain’s disfavour. She would be very likely to melt if she was shown a little kindness. “How are you?”

Razia’s eyes looked dead. “I hurt,” she said, her voice weak. Tiffany would have once felt sorry for her; now, there was nothing, but a cold desire to use Razia until she had outlived her usefulness. “I’m trapped in a nightmare and there’s no escape.”

“I thought that you would want to escape,” Tiffany said. It was rare, but there were stories of pirate slaves either escaping or killing their masters. She scanned Razia quickly, finding no implants that could be used for lethal purpose, but only a memory implant. She was naked, both literally and figuratively. “Is that what you want?”

Razia nodded, her eyes tearing up. Tiffany studied her back as she almost fell onto the table; it was marked and scarred by a belt. The Captain had clearly beaten her…he’d done more than just beat her. Judging from the marks around her wrists, she had been tied up and raped more than once; her legs, which had once been smooth chocolate, were marked with scars that suggested that he had sometimes forced her legs open with main force. It wasn’t as bad as some victims had suffered, not when they had had their legs broken by their captors for easier access, but it was the slow burning away of her determination. Tiffany had seen whores like that back on Gotha, girls who had been so brutalised that they had no reflex, but to offer sexual congress to every man they saw in their wretched lives. Razia would end up like that, if she lived so long, but maybe she could be used…

“Come with me,” Tiffany said, remembering how Jadis and Erica had mentored her. She didn’t say another word until they were inside her cabin. “Answer me a question; are you serious about escape, or do you want to stay here?”

Razia’s eyes lit up with hope. “I want out of here,” she said, before her eyes fell again. “But how can I get home and who’s going to want me now? I had a boyfriend! I had a family! I was going to get married and spend the rest of my life in his arms! Instead, I take a cruise and I end up in this…nightmare!”

Tiffany understood. “You don’t have any blood on your hands,” she said, after a long moment. “You could get home as soon as possible, if you help me; I can ensure that you’re in an escape pod the next time we enter a populated system, allowing the Imperial Fleet to pick you up and take you home. If you are willing to help me, I can even ensure that you have a credit chip with enough money to pay your way home, if you would like…interested?”

“He’ll kill me,” Razia protested. “You don’t know what he’s like!”

“I used to be his woman,” Tiffany said. She told Razia quickly about the toothless girl back on Gotha, who might have been the Captain’s Woman before Tiffany had come onboard the ship. “You can’t become a pirate and you don’t want to be beaten to death, or end up being thrown to the crew, so you want – you need – to escape. If you help me, I’ll get you out of here.”

She watched the complex interplay of emotions crossing Razia’s face, wondering if she would ask the obvious question; if it was that simple to escape, why hadn’t Tiffany done it? The answer, too, was obvious; the Imperial Fleet would have taken a dim view of her activities and she would have almost nothing to bargain with. The Fleet would either kill her, dump her on a penal world, or implant her with a slave implant and sell her to some pervert in the nearest local government. Razia, without blood on her hands, could escape…if she knew how to do it.

Razia finally looked up at her. “What would he do to you if he finds out that you helped me to escape?”

Tiffany spoke with studied casualness. “Perhaps he will simply bend me over and fuck me up the bum,” she said, watching carefully to see how Razia would react. If she was shocked at the prospect, she would be almost useless, and would have to be killed. It would be better if she expressed no concern over what happened to Tiffany. “Or maybe…I’ve felt his belt as well. Does it matter?”

“I just want to get out of here,” Razia said, grimly. Tiffany almost shouted in exultation; Razia had just committed herself, by proving herself selfish. Everyone was selfish, at the end; no matter what might happen to Tiffany, she would place her own escape above Tiffany’s survival. “What do you want me to do?”

“For the moment, I want you to be a little more cooperative with the Captain,” Tiffany said, calmly. Razia had just committed herself, she reminded herself; one way or the other, the plan was underway. “Yes, I know, you don’t want him inside you, but you don’t have a choice. If he gets inside you without a struggle, he might give you more freedom; he likes having his cock sucked, so do that from time to time.”

“But he might get me pregnant,” Razia protested. Her voice showed nothing, but absolute panic; she believed what she was saying. “I don’t have an implant!”

“Go see the Doctor,” Tiffany said calmly, her mind spinning. The Imperials had insisted that all humans had contraceptive implants until they were twenty and judged able to make decisions for themselves. Where had Razia come from where such laws were ignored? “She’ll help you get one implanted and mend up all your injuries.”

Razia’s eyes brightened only slightly. Tiffany decided not to mention that there was a good chance that she had already been sterilised by her captors, just to prevent her getting pregnant and disrupting the life of whoever ended up buying her. “And what do we do then?”

“Then?” Tiffany asked. She couldn’t trust Razia with specifics, not yet. “We wait for the right opportunity, and then you do something for me, and then we get you home.”

Chapter Twenty-Five: Marching Orders

The elderly woman was still held in manacles, despite a report from the Doctor that she had been brain-stamped; she couldn’t be trusted, although the facts seemed pretty clear. She hadn’t been a pirate, but she had had no choice, but to work for them. She reminded Timothy of the half-remembered figure of his grandma, before they had moved to Taurus. She had died years after they had moved away from Old Earth; the family had been unable to attend her funeral.

“She remembers the raid on the Max Capricorn,” Doctor Lesley Finney said, as Timothy peered at her through the privacy screen. Imperial Intelligence had taken the commander of the pirate ship into custody; Timothy had only regretted that he wouldn’t be able to watch as Captain Donnelly’s brain was stripped of everything it knew, before the quivering mass of jelly that would all that remained would be spaced. “She’s actually programmed to tell the truth to anyone who asks, which is not unusual for a pirate slave in such a sensitive position, but she doesn’t have anything reassembling mental stability.”

“Most of the pirates don’t have anything reassembling mental stability,” Timothy snapped, staring at the woman. Someone who had been brain-stamped would have no choice, but to obey the commands that had been stamped into their head; they also tended to eventually collapse from sheer mental tiredness, if not worse. Human brains would know that there was something wrong, and while a control implant could compensate for that, a natural brain would constantly try to rebel against implanted commands. “What does she remember about the attack?”

“Only that she treated some survivors,” Lesley said. “If you’re going to talk to her in person, please be gentle; she is a victim and needs a great deal of care before she can be restored to anything reassembling full working order.”

Timothy snorted and slipped through the privacy field, watching the woman’s eyes go wide as she saw him. It was as if she recognised him…and he felt a sudden tearing burst of hope. He and Tiffany were twins, or had been twins; her face had been almost the same as his, with the only real difference being long hair. Their bodies had been different, for obvious reasons, but they had been pretty similar. If they hadn’t been quite identical, they had sometimes been able to convince others that they were actually talking to the other twin, although that game had failed since Tiffany had grown breasts. What had happened to her? Her body had never been pulled out of the Max Capricorn

He spoke in a gentle tone. “You treated people from the Max Capricorn,” he said, slowly. “Can you tell me about them?”

The story spilled out; twenty-one people, taken from the ship, had gone through her surgery. Some of them had been press-ganged onto the Bloody Hand, some of them had been ransomed back – and they had either remained quiet about their experiences, something that the fleet would want a few cross words with them about – and the remainder had been enslaved. He knew what had happened before she explained that Tiffany, a worthless virgin, had been sold as a slave.

It was as if he had been punched in the stomach; he found himself recoiling, even as a wave of nausea threatened to overwhelm him. “What happened to her?” He demanded. “What the fuck did your people do to her?”

“They took her off the ship and sold her,” Doctor Abigail Richards said. Her voice sounded almost broken; she might have been saved from serving on the pirate ship, but she hadn’t yet been cured. According to the reports, she had tried to kill herself and had had to be forcefully prevented from suicide by a Marine. The pirates would have programmed her to kill herself before fleet started to take information from her. “They sold her…and I don’t know what happened next to her.”

Timothy left the room, unwilling to collapse in front of her; he knew what could have happened all-too-well. A pirate slave didn’t last long; they were normally sold into prostitution and used until they were burned out, whereupon they were killed. A handful sometimes reached senior positions within the pirates, but they were normally people who were press-ganged into serving on pirate ships and tricked into getting blood on their hands. Tiffany had been smart and capable, but how could she have gained any such position? She was almost certainly dead; he had believed that she had died on the Max Capricorn, a death that would have been clean in its own way. Instead, she had been taken by the pirates…and had almost certainly died in slavery.

“Bastards,” he screamed, feeling all discipline leave him. He ran through the images of the captured pirates, looking for the ones who had killed his parents, but he didn’t find them until he looked closely. They had altered their faces slightly, but it was them; they, too, looked terrified to be in the hands on the Imperial Fleet. His knife was in his hands before he knew what he was doing, marching right towards their holding cells; slitting their throats would be easy. They were only crewmen, almost certainly unarmed with anything that could be used to bargain with, who cared what happened to them? He would kill them…

“I’d rather you didn’t,” Elf said, grimly. She had been watching the outside of the holding pens, although against what defied Timothy’s imagination. “I think I’d have to take the knife off you.”

“They killed my father and raped my mother,” Timothy snapped at her, hating her in that moment. “My sister died somewhere out along the Rim; they have to die…”

“And they will, once they have been interrogated,” Elf said, softly. “Tim, I understand your feelings and I’m sure that the Captain would allow you to push the button that will space them once the intelligence pukes have taken all they can from their heads, but until then they have to remain unharmed. I’m sorry, but…”

Timothy opened his mouth to say something cutting, but his communicator buzzed before he could speak. “Keck,” he said. He listened to the message quickly. “Yes, sir, I understand…”

He put the communicator back on his belt. “The Captain wants to talk to me,” he said. “Elf, I’m sorry…”

“You’re tired,” Elf said, charitably. “Half the injuries Marines come up with are caused after the mission, when we take things out on each other, despite Gunny’s threats of the lash for any Marine who hits another outside of training sessions and the occasional bar fight. Go see the Captain, then get some sleep and I’ll see you when I get off duty. If you still feel like seeing me, that is…”

Timothy forgot discipline and gave her a kiss, before heading back to the airlock; the Fury had docked directly with the Merry Prankster. Two other starships, one of them belonging to Imperial Intelligence, floated near the modified freighter and the captured pirate ship, watching out for any attempt to attack and destroy the Bloody Hand before all of its secrets could be stripped from it’s hull. Timothy had heard some of the reports that filtered through the communications network; the pirates had not, apparently, run a very tight ship. The First Mate had been into pornography that would have given the collection of the late Bruno Lombardi a run for his money, although Timothy hoped that he wouldn’t have been interested in such material. They included images of girls sold into slavery and he wondered if they would include images of Tiffany; the thought made him snarl in rage. The Fury, at least, felt comforting as he stepped through the airlock; the Marine Guard saluted him as he passed.

“Thank you,” he said, knowing that he now had the respect of the Marines. That meant more to him than anything else at the moment. He paused long enough to take a stimulant to sharpen his wits, and then found his way into officer country, pausing outside his cabin before climbing up into the upper level and stopping outside the Captain’s Cabin. He pushed the sensor and pulled himself into a salute as the door opened; the Captain looked as if he had aged overnight.

“Captain,” he said, fighting a sudden sense of dizziness. He had been a commanding officer, if only for a day; it felt strange to be a subordinate again. “Lieutenant Keck, reporting as ordered.”

“Have a seat,” the Captain said shortly. He sounded angry, but it didn’t sound as if the anger was directed at Timothy personally. “I have read Intelligence the riot act over sending you to handle the mission; it seems that someone drew the connection between that ship and you and decided that you would be the appropriate person to handle the mission. Your history with the ship should have disqualified you from the mission and I have told them so in no uncertain terms.”

“I didn’t mind,” Timothy protested, carefully. “I was able to take the ship…”

“Intelligence was playing it’s own game, as usual,” the Captain said, his voice clearly annoyed. “They had some objective in mind that wasn't included in the orders that you were issued, but we don’t know what they were. They may have intended that you would destroy the ship, rather than take it intact, or they may have intended you to be blamed for destroying the ship if the attack triggered an explosion. I’m not sure just what they were playing at, but they had something else in mind…but never mind that. You will be pleased to know that you have been nominated for the Imperial Star, Second Class, and Vice Admiral Bob Argent will pin it on your chest in a week.”

He paused. “The second piece of information must remain between you and me, for the moment,” he continued. “Captain Donnelly – who attacked the Max Capricorn, as you know – has been squealing like a pig, once Imperial Intelligence got their hands on him. One thing he knew that we didn’t know beforehand was the coordinates of one of the pirate bases, an asteroid known as Gotha.”

Timothy felt that penetrate through the haze. The main problem with surprising pirates was that they used bases that were very hard to find; it was quite possible that the Imperial Fleet had flown through the system and missed the pirate base, assuming that the pirates took more than a few basic precautions. A solar system was a vast area to search; it would take years, at best, to search an entire solar system. Normally, the fleet would work to plant their own stations within suspect systems, or mining stations…

It didn’t help that black and grey colonies were more than willing to help the pirates, in exchange for a cut of the loot; they were often unable to obtain certain items legally. They had a great deal of experience at hiding, or at avoiding the inspections from the Imperial Fleet…and the pirates had been known to refit their ships there, hiding in plain sight. Once a base was located, as happened from time to time, the massed firepower of the Imperial Fleet would ensure it’s rapid destruction, but the pirates who knew where other bases might be located were often very good at escaping before the asteroid was stormed, or were killed by pirates who knew what they knew and wanted to frustrate the fleet.

He found himself smiling. “We do?”

“We do,” the Captain said, smiling back. Imperial Fleet officers enjoyed the rare chance to become proactive and destroy pirate bases. “Vice Admiral Argent has been massing a small task force, in the hopes that you would succeed in your mission, and that task force will attack the pirate base as soon as possible. Imperial Intelligence has already asked for a few days grace to send prowlers into the system, in hopes of detecting ships heading out towards other pirate bases, but the Vice Admiral doesn’t intend to give them much time to escape if they know that we captured the Bloody Hand.”

Timothy nodded. Moving an asteroid wasn’t easy, even with Imperial-level tech, and they would be unlikely to be able to get it somewhere where it couldn’t be found again, let alone out of the system, but if they reacted quickly, they would be able to get their people out of the asteroid and destroy it before Imperial Intelligence managed to get its prowlers in place.

“Sir,” he said, slowly, “is there a chance that they might know what we have done?”

“It’s impossible to be sure,” Captain Venture admitted. “There was no sign of any vessel trying to sneak up on you and your prize – incidentally, you will get a share in the prize money – but they might have been observing you on passive sensors while remaining in stealth or under cloak. There are always hundreds of starships milling around here, so one of them might have been perfectly legitimate, except they would be watching you and wondering just what happened when the Bloody Hand’s drive signature vanished.”

“I see,” Timothy said. He took a breath. “Sir…please could I transfer to a ship that will be part of the assault force?”

“It would be pointless,” Captain Venture said dryly. “This ship will be part of the assault force. We’re going to head out of the system, meet up with the remainder of the task force in interstellar space, and then move towards the pirate base at once. There should be no tip off to the pirates ahead of time, but we’re going to move with all dispatch anyway, just in case.”

He closed his eyes for a long moment. “You were told back at the start of your mission that it came with a reward,” he said. “You have now collected several years additional seniority, which should get you promoted within the year, perhaps away from the Fury, or perhaps into Lieutenant-Commander Hinton’s slot as de facto First Officer, now that he has been slated for a Commander’s rank on the Imperial Fury. You will have to be tested for that if you want to rise into command rank, but I believe that there was little wrong with your performance as commander of the Merry Prankster.”

Timothy nodded, feeling his heart racing. “Sir, what will happen to that ship?”

Captain Venture shrugged. “I dare say that Intelligence will reformat it to some degree, then send it out trawling again under a new name and a new cover,” he said, as if it wasn't important. Timothy didn’t show any real reaction, but it hurt, a little, to think of the ship being taken from him. “Your first command is always special, Lieutenant, but you don’t want to spend the rest of your life at Intelligence’s beck and call.”

“No, sir,” Timothy said. Truthfully, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do; if Intelligence offered the chance to hunt down more pirates, he wanted to do that, but if he did slip into Hinton’s slot, then there was a good chance that he would rise, in time, to be Captain of the Fury himself. Statistically, it would be more than a few years before he became a Commander, but First Officer of a ship like the Fury was a shortcut to command rank for smaller ships. He would be lucky to get anywhere near command rank of a superdreadnaught, but he didn’t want a superdreadnaught; he wanted something that could be used to harm the pirates. “I want to hunt down pirates.”

“You’ll get your chance,” Captain Venture promised him. “Go get a night’s sleep and report for your slot at the tactical console tomorrow, when we leave this system. Dismissed.”

Timothy was never sure how he got back to his cabin, showered, and fell into bed, but as soon as he closed his eyes, he was assailed by nightmares. He had tried not to think about it – and it had been easy to forget when the Captain had been talking to him – but the thought of his sister helpless in the grip of the pirates hurt him, at a very deep level. Tiffany would never have let him be the sort of overprotective brother who insisted on vetting every one of his sister’s boyfriends before they were allowed within a kilometre of her, or insisted on chaperoning her to every date and meeting, but he still felt responsible. He’d killed or captured the people responsible, but he still felt as if he had failed; what if Tiffany had been onboard the Bloody Hand when he had attacked the ship, or what if Tiffany had been onboard one of the other pirate ships that had been blown apart by the Fury. Where might she be?

He snapped awake and checked through the filed reports. The interrogators had asked about Tiffany, but only a couple of others remembered her…and yes, the First Mate had kept footage of her. Timothy refused to view that, preferring to remember her as how she had been before the Max Capricorn, but he read the report with some interest. She had been taken to Gotha and sold…and then nothing. The Captain of the Bloody Hand hadn’t cared what happened to her; the captives had been sold, he had pocketed a few thousand credits, and that was the end of the matter. She could be anywhere along the Rim, or dead, and no one would even know about it.

She was dead, she had to be dead, but there was no way to know for sure. The only thing he could do was avenge her death…and search Gotha to find out what had happened to her, if that were possible. If the owners of the asteroid decided to blow it up instead, it was possible that he would never know what had happened to his sister.

Timothy got very little sleep that night.

Chapter Twenty-Six: Strike First

The relationship between Gunnard and Tiffany had always been interesting, in the sense that it could get dicey or violent at any moment, but with the Captain having provided himself with a new woman, Tiffany found herself with much more freedom on her hands. Jade had told her that, from time to time, pirate slaves were freed, only to demand to go back into servitude, and while she had laughed at the time, she now understood how they had been feeling. In the week they’d spent returning to Gotha with their prizes, she had nearly been raped twice and killed once, in all three times by crewmen who wanted to open a slot at the top. The Captain might not have decided to throw her off the ship – although that was still an option – but the other crewmen had read the changing power balance and decided to strike at her. She remembered seeing the shock on a would-be rapist’s face when her hand had fired a burst of energy directly into his chest, burning a hole right through him and scarring the bulkhead behind him.

She had shook her head as the other two had begged for mercy, silently thanking a God who had turned his back on her that she had kept her implants a secret, an ace in the hole that had saved her life. The rapists would either had killed her or left her to a fate worse than death; her status would have plummeted from Second Mate to Ship’s Whore within seconds. The would-be killer might have violated her body afterwards, but he would never have risked coming so close if he had known about her implants; he would have blasted her down from a distance before she could react. She lacked the sadism of Jadis, who had once injected a would-be rapist with poison from her fingernails, but she knew that their deaths no longer mattered to her. All that mattered was life, power, and position.

“Did you enjoy your first tour, then?” She asked, as she relaxed in the aftermath of their lovemaking. Gunnard had kept his allegiance with her a secret, but Tiffany wouldn’t have put money on the secret actually having been kept; Jadis, at least, already knew that Gunnard had only joined the crew on her recommendation. “Did the money make up for spending so much time away from Gotha?”

“I think that there were other compensations,” Gunnard said, patting her gently. Tiffany stiffened automatically, before relaxing; Gunnard could hardly be blamed if he allowed the knowledge that he was bedding the Second Mate to get out, just to boost his own status. As long as no one doubted that she was in charge…she didn’t mind that much, even though he was trying to keep it a secret. If he were clearly identified as a member of her faction, his usefulness would degrade sharply. “I could get used to this lifestyle, eh?”

Tiffany shrugged. The fourth ship they'd hit – the last before they had had to return to Gotha – had contained something very unusual, an intact and preserved Grey corpse. Quite where that had come from puzzled her – the War had barely touched the Fairfax Sector, so perhaps it had been shipped into the sector to convince people that the war had actually taken place – but she had already recommended to Captain Blackbird that the artefact be ransomed back to the university that had requested it, rather than trying to sell it on Gotha, or to one of the black colonies. Just looking at the Grey had given her the creeps; the mouthless creature hadn’t looked dead, merely resting. It was all-too-easy to believe that one day it would sit up and start trying to take over the ship. It would be worth millions of credits, but all she could do was remember the Trojan Horse; the Greys had been full of nasty surprises.

“Good,” she said, softly. She pushed his mouth towards her thighs and let him work his magic. “I want you to start practicing on the bridge, so that once we get back to Gotha, you have more qualifications than just engineering ones. Bridge duty is how to get promoted, and if you get promoted, you get more of the loot.”

“Of course,” he said, as he found his way inside her. “I have to find some way of supporting my lifestyle back on the asteroid.”

“No, you’re going to spend it learning how to use the tactical console,” Tiffany said firmly. Gunnard would have to be used carefully; if she failed in the first step of her plan, he would have to be used to salvage the second step. She had worked it all out carefully, but if she failed, she would have to improvise with desperate haste. The last thing she wanted was to have Jadis on her tail. “I want you there to make me proud.”

“You don’t want me on a landing party, then?” Gunnard asked. Tiffany shook her head. Captain Blackbird, who probably hadn’t trusted Robert, had sent him on the raiding missions, but now he preferred to use Jadis for them. That was odd; one thing she had learnt from the pirates was that it was a bad idea to keep one’s enemies close, as they might take the opportunity to do harm. Sending anyone who worked for her somewhere where they could be quickly disposed of, and unable to affect events back on the Knife Edge, would be a…tactically unsound decision.

“I’ll make you proud of me,” Gunnard assured her, and moved in on her again. Tiffany pushed him back and rolled over on top of him, pushing down and impaling herself on him. The memory had to keep her warm for a few days; the most dangerous part of her plan lay ahead of her. She was practically raping him, but she no longer cared; she wanted, needed, something that she could only take.

It normally took a week to move from their hunting ground back to Gotha. Tiffany spent most of the time planning, running through her plans in her head, and considering every little detail. She had an unexpected piece of help from Captain Blackbird, who had explained one night that many pirates regarded the Grey with suspicious eyes, and therefore the body would have to be kept on the Knife Edge, which would not be allowed to dock at Gotha if anyone knew that it was on the ship. That particular secret wouldn’t last very long – the crew would probably spill it after the first few drinks – so the Captain wanted to keep the ship orbiting the asteroid, rather than docking directly until the body had been sold and transferred to the new ship. Tiffany had doubted that it would be sold, because no one who looked at it would want to buy it, but the Captain had assured her that there would be a bidding war. He had been pleased with her lately; she’d been teaching Razia some of the arts of love.

“She has been much more compliant lately,” he said, at the end of that conversation. Tiffany had half-expected Razia to have been thrown to the crew or merely out the airlock before the end of their voyage, which would have placed a cramp into her plans, and so she’d helped Razia to please the Captain as much as possible. “I understand that you have been teaching her some useful tricks…”

“I live to serve you,” Tiffany said, keeping her face blank with an effort. If Razia had told the Captain something else, her life was almost certainly under terrible threat, but so far the Captain didn’t seem to suspect anything. There was another good reason to teach Razia more; if she pleased the Captain, he wouldn’t beat her and force her to grasp for something – anything – that would make the pain stop. “I believe that she was merely ignorant in how to please a man.”

“She was a virgin when I bought her,” the Captain agreed, and the conversation went on to other things. Part of Tiffany’s mind wondered over just where Razia had actually come from, but there were more important issues at hand; she had to launch her own plan at just the right moment. “I will be selling the body within the week.”

The Captain had been swiftly proven right, once the ship had settled down into orbit around Gotha, and the information had been transmitted through the asteroid. Tiffany had been astonished by some of the requests to view and the monetary offers, but the Gotha administration had refused to allow the body onto the asteroid. The Captain had raged about that, apparently taking it out on Razia’s behind, but it hadn’t been unexpected and the offers did a great deal to make him happy. Tiffany watched and waited, seeing the offers rising to the point where they were even being offered a second starship; she wasn’t sure if there was a reason for it, or if people were trying to outbid their rivals.

“My colony wants it as well,” Gunnard said, one evening. “They even asked me to put a request forward.”

Tiffany shrugged. “Do you want it for yourself?”

“Not really,” Gunnard said. “How much does the Captain want?”

“You’d have to put a request into the bidding house,” Tiffany said, not much interested. She wanted him to deal with her tension, not bore her with talk about a creepy alien body. “So far, the highest bid is several million credits or a new starship.”

It was a week before she dared put the first step of her plan into operation, one in which she had worked hard to cut down the number of variables, but there would be still at least one in her way. The Captain had been receiving a vast number of gifts from various admirers – really, he'd told her, people hoping that he would look favourably upon their bids for the Grey body – and she had seen it as a chance; until the bidding war was over, the gifts were left in the Captain’s cabin. It was opportunity…

“He’s been much nicer to me recently,” Razia said, glancing around Tiffany’s cabin with a distracted air. Tiffany had to smile; the Doctor had worked her magic on Razia’s body, healing all of the scars and marks that her experience had left on her skin. She had been promoted, grudgingly, to wearing a bra and panties, but she still looked stunning. Tiffany would have felt jealous, if they were both on a normal world, but they were nowhere near a normal world. “He said I should learn more from you…”

“And you should,” Tiffany said. She smiled, catching Razia’s eyes with hers; dear god, was that how it felt to be Jadis? To see everyone as a potential threat or as a potential victim? “What did he think of my instructions in how to pleasure him with your mouth?”

“He was very pleased, I think,” Razia said. She hadn’t been beaten that night, Tiffany knew; it was quite possible that she was latching on to Tiffany as a kind of Stockholm Syndrome. Given too much time, she would latch on to the Captain; indeed, it was possible that Tiffany herself had done just that. “He gave me some clothes to wear and he wants me to dance for him every night.”

Tiffany laughed, particularly when Razia explained what the clothes were. The shop on the asteroid supplied all kinds of clothes, including an outfit that would be worn by a belly dancer. Razia actually suited it pretty well – she certainly had the right sort of body for it – and the Captain clearly loved it. If he had wanted it so often, it gave her a chance to use it against him…if everything went perfectly. If it didn’t, then she was dead, but she would be dead anyway soon enough, particularly if the plan failed.

“I have something new to teach you,” she said, pulling out a set of creams and showing them to Razia. “You may have noticed that the Captain gets tense from time to time, and then he takes it out on you.” Razia nodded, her eyes dark and shadowed. “This is a set of massage creams that help people relax; you have to rub it into his back. Lie down on the bed, face down.”

Razia obeyed. She was getting used to obeying Tiffany, jumping to attention as if every order was the order that she would carry out, and then Tiffany would send her home. Tiffany straddled her and removed her bra, before starting to rub some of the cream into Razia’s back, her fingers feeling out the tension and slowly rubbing it away from her. Razia sighed in relief, relaxing further than she had meant to relax one thing she didn’t know was that one of the creams was actually a light hypnotic drug, which, when rubbed into someone, helped them into a very suggestible state. It wouldn’t have affected the Captain, because of the nanites in his bloodstream, but Razia was defenceless. Tiffany would have enjoyed dominating her under any other circumstances, but this was too important to risk a diversion.

“I’m going to give you a special bracelet to make the Captain happy,” she whispered, feeling Razia trembling on the very edge of sleep. Her brain wouldn’t know the difference between Tiffany’s orders and her own thoughts. “You’re going to take it with you and put it on when he summons you into his cabin.”

“Yes,” Razia whispered, softly. She would forget anything at a conscious afterwards, carrying out the commands without any real awareness of what she was doing; the drug was very effective.

“When you see him and you’re wearing the bracelet, you will push down on all four of the jewels at the same time,” Tiffany said, feeling her fingers digging still further into Razia’s back. The crewman who had tried to use her to assassinate the Captain had exposed himself too far; she wouldn’t make the same mistake. “When you do that, you will make the Captain very happy.”

“I will make him happy,” Razia agreed, dazed. Tiffany had impressed that on her time and time again; she existed to make the Captain happy, and if she wanted to avoid beatings, she had to make him happy. It was the priority of her life.

“You will not mention the bracelet to anyone,” Tiffany concluded. She had to tie up the loose ends. She had seriously considered just giving her the bracelet, but if she gave it away through any thought or deed, the Captain would know that she had tried to kill him. “You will take it with you and not wear it until the Captain summons you into his room. You will not think about it; you will just carry out the orders.”

“I will carry out the orders,” Razia said. Tiffany gently pressed down still further, relaxing her, and then kissed her once on the back of the head. A damp cloth removed most of the cream from Razia’s back, but it was still almost half an hour before Razia returned completely to normal and stood up, her face looking as if it was at peace for the first time since she had come onboard the ship.

Tiffany smiled. “Did you like that?”

Razia smiled. “That was…amazing,” she said, her voice like that of a satisfied cat. Tiffany smiled to herself; Razia would have loved it without knowing what had really happened. The creams she’d used were more than just a basic hypnotic; they actually helped the muscles to relax and release tension without having any other effects. It wouldn’t have done for Razia to accidentally hypnotise someone else. “What do you want me to do now?”

“Get dressed, for a start,” Tiffany said. She produced a small box as Razia dressed, and then passed it over to her. “This is a bracelet for your dancing.”

Razia took the box, her eyes showing no real interest; she didn’t even look inside the box as she left the room and headed back to the Captain’s cabin. Tiffany followed her until she was inside the room, just in case something went very wrong, and then went into the mess, where she ordered a drink to stop her hands from shaking. The die was cast; she was committed now, just as she had committed herself to killing…how many had she killed now? The crewman, Robert, the people who had tried to attack her…

The Captain’s shuttle returned from the asteroid; Tiffany was on the bridge when it landed in the shuttlebay, half-hoping that the Captain might invite Jadis to join him for a session of erotic dancing. It was not to be; Jadis arrived on the bridge moments later, with orders from the Captain. They would be leaving in an hour, transporting the Grey body to a location where they would transfer to another ship, finally ridding themselves of the damned thing. Tiffany was halfway through checking the ship’s status when the ship shuddered.

Jadis was on her feet within seconds. “What the hell was that?”

“There’s been an explosion onboard,” Gunnard said, working the tactical console. Tiffany used one of her implants to keep her face under strict control; she didn’t dare show any reaction, not with Jadis so close to her. “First Mate, the explosion was in the Captain’s quarters!”

Jadis spun around. The look on her face, luckily, wasn't directed at Tiffany; if it had been, she would have been on her knees begging for mercy within seconds, even though Jadis would never have shown her any mercy at all. “What the hell happened?”

A second console started to bleep a warning. Tiffany checked it quickly. “Jadis, we have at least nine warships, inbound towards Gotha,” she said, horrified. The Imperial Fleet had just thrown a spanner into her plan. “They’re from the Imperial Fleet!

Chapter Twenty-Seven: Attack on Gotha

“We will return to normal space in two minutes,” the helmsman said, as the timer ticked down. The Fury was wrapped in the strange lights of Phase Space, but Timothy had no desire to stare at them for hours; his sister might be ahead of him! “All systems are reporting ready.”

“Bring us out as planned,” Captain Venture said. He’d made enough combat jumps to look as if he was used to the entire situation, although statistically the odds were vastly against jumping into a middle of a battle, or right into an ambush. The Greys had sprung a handful of ambushes in their time, but the pirates would be more likely to simply try to flee for their lives. “Tactical, launch the first probes as soon as we return to normal space.”

“Yes, sir,” Timothy said, staring down at his console. It was blank at the moment – nothing could be detected in Phase Space – but that would change soon enough. “All weapons and defences are online and fully charged.”

They ran through the remainder of the transit time and then the starship shuddered as it returned to normal space; Timothy tensed, his mind hinting that they might have just flown into an ambush, or the crew of the Bloody Hand might have misled them, or the asteroid might have been abandoned, or…he launched the probes as his console started to fill up with data.

“There are no enemy ships within engagement range,” he reported, as the probes sped away from the ship. “We’re in and clear.”

“Take us in,” the Captain ordered. The helmsman worked his console. “Establish a link with the other ships and confirm that we are ready to engage.”

Timothy nodded. The system ahead of them was centred around a red dwarf and a handful of asteroids, perhaps the remains of a planet that had been ripped apart in the very distant past, or perhaps chunks of rock that had never managed to force themselves into a planet. It was pretty much the most worthless system he had ever seen, which suggested why the survey teams had spent so little time on it, or why the pirates had chosen to use it as a base. Apart from the most radical and paranoid of the black colonists, few people would choose to live in the system; there was simply nothing that compensated for the lack of planet or gas giant.

The information built up around him as the task force accelerated towards the asteroid swarm. The Vice Admiral had decided to move in a starburst formation, which was asking for a quick and unpleasant defeat against a real enemy, but was the best possible one to use against the pirates. The pirates would have noticed their arrival by now, which meant that they would either stand and fight – and be ripped apart by superior firepower – or try to run for their lives. If they hesitated too long, they would be unable to escape without coming within missile range of one of the warships.

Gotha itself appeared on the display with an audible ting and he found his eyes being drawn to it. It was an asteroid, almost indistinguishable from the other asteroids in the swarm, apart from the tiny leak of artificial radiations and the handful of ship drive signatures near the rock. It was over two hundred kilometres long, drifting in space rather than spinning; he watched as more pirate ships appeared on the display. If nothing else, pirate confidence in their bases and their security was about to take a sharp dive; the asteroid, unable to move, almost certainly unable to shield itself, would be blown apart if it tried to resist.

“Captain, we have at least seventeen starships, all trying to escape,” he said, as the display updated. Three of them would come close to the Fury, although it was too early to tell if they would enter weapons range or not. One of them almost certainly would, the others might be able to evade if they manoeuvred quickly, without regard for anything else. “Two of them are confirmed as pirate ships; we’ve seen them before.”

Captain Venture smiled. “Transmit the message,” he ordered.

“Yes, sir,” Timothy said, and touched a command. The warning message blasted out ahead of them, reaching the pirate ships; it remained to be seen if they would actually heed the warning. Privately, he doubted that any of the original ships would listen, but maybe they would panic and surrender; pirates were cowards at heart. “The message has been transmitted.”

“Good,” the Captain said. His voice darkened slightly. “You are cleared to engage any targets that enter weapons range without striking their shields and drives.”

“Yes, sir,” Timothy said. The first pirate ship was getting closer. “All weapons are locked on target…and firing!”

Missiles lanced away from the Fury. The pirate ship – it looked to be a converted light cruiser – started to roll, trying to escape, but it was already too late; it didn’t have the latest in either ECM or point defence. The missiles impacted rapidly on the shields, blew through them, and blew the ship into dust. Other weapon signatures were flickering into existence as the other ships of the fleet engaged targets, refusing to be distracted too much from Gotha itself, and more pirate ships died.

Timothy launched a second spread of missiles at another target. This pirate was better armed and equipped, but hardly prepared for modern war; he should have either run or tried to close in on the Fury. The ship was badly damaged, it’s drive field billowing out of control, and then it went dead. Captain Venture muttered orders and an assault drone was launched towards the ship; there would be time to round them all up later. Gotha awaited them.


The voice blasted out over the communications link.

“This is the Imperial Fleet,” it said. It was cold, completely atonal; Tiffany guessed that it had been produced by a machine, rather than anything human or alien. “You are surrounded and completely outgunned. If you do not strike your shields and drives, surrendering your ships, we will fire on you without further warning. Those that surrender will be convoyed to a prison colony; those that fight will be slaughtered.”

“Bastards,” Jadis hissed. Her hand hit the communicator hard enough to dent it. “The Captain! What’s happened to the Captain?”

The desperation in her voice would have made Tiffany smile, were it not for the fact the Knife Edge was on a knife edge. She could work out basic patterns by now in her head and she could see the nine Imperial Fleet icons closing in on the asteroid, from several different directions. It was a gesture of both confidence and contempt, one that galled her as much as it worried her; if they didn’t get underway soon, they would be trapped and blown apart by one of the hostile ships.

“Jadis,” she said, as softly as she could, “we have to get moving.”

“Not without the Captain,” Jadis snapped. Two of her people had already been ordered to the Captain’s cabin, just to find out what had happened and what was left of the man. “We have to have him as well!”

Tiffany muttered a command of her own into the mix; get the engines and weapons fully charged and ready for them to depart. She doubted that there was anything left of the Captain; the device she’d used had been invented by Imperial Intelligence – according to rumour – and had a very nasty sting in the tail. It exploded with astonishing force, within a limited area…and it also pumped out a burst of high-order radiation with a very short half-life. She didn’t understand all the theory, but it didn’t matter how many nanites the Captain had in his body; he wasn't going to survive such an attack. He would have been both blown to microscopic pieces and irradiated; his woman would have died with him. She could take the blame.

“First Mate, the Captain’s quarters have been completely destroyed,” a new voice said, over the communicator. Tiffany saw tears – tears – in Jadis’s face; she’d loved the Captain, in her own way. They had been loyal to one another. “I don’t think there’s anything left of him larger than a bloodstain.”

Jadis turned slightly. “How did that happen?”

Tiffany decided to supply an answer. “Jadis, there were all kinds of gifts being given to the Captain,” she said, truthfully. “One of them might have been a bomb or some other kind of weapon.”

Jadis ignored her. “Helm, bring up the drives,” she snapped. “I want to hurt something!”

Tiffany felt her blood run cold as Jadis sat down in the command chair. She was the Captain now, in all, but name, but she wasn't suited to be a real Captain. This was a situation where running for their lives was the only practical option; the Knife Edge would have been lucky to survive an encounter with a destroyer, let alone the cruisers and battlecruisers that were bearing down on them. Other pirates, their courses not so carefully chosen, were being blown apart by the Imperial ships; those that surrendered would be left drifting until the Marines arrived.

“Yes, Captain,” the helmsman said. Jadis’s eyes narrowed, but she said nothing; Tiffany found her hand stroking the butt of her pistol. “We’re good to go.”

There were pirates, members of the crew, left behind on Gotha. Tiffany knew that there was nothing they could do for them; by the time they could be loaded back onboard the Knife Edge, they would be trapped against the asteroid and destroyed. She found herself running through contingency plans; she hadn’t counted on the Imperial Fleet arriving, or that Jadis would become a little irrational at the death of the Captain. She had always been…so cold.

“Take us towards the smallest Imperial Fleet ship,” Jadis ordered. The fear of her was so great that the helmsman only gulped before he started to comply. “Tactical, prepare to engage the enemy.”

Tiffany stared at her. “Jadis,” she said carefully, “if we engage them, we will be blown apart and that will be the end of us! This is sheer madness…”

Jadis snapped her whip towards Tiffany in one smooth motion; Tiffany screamed as every nerve in her body jangled in pain. The whips were banned on every known world – which was at least one reason why the pirates liked using them – because they had no redeeming features at all. They were instruments of torture; even with her implants, it was hard to remain upright, shutting out as much of the pain as possible. It broke through her defences and she fell to her knees, uncaring any longer of her status or her position in the crew, only caring that the pain stopped…

“We are going to engage the enemy,” Jadis said, very calmly. “Do you understand?”

Tiffany opened her mouth as she pulled herself back to her feet, but she never knew what she would have said; Jadis fell forward with a hole in her head. She glanced sharply over at the tactical console; Gunnard stood there, holding a small pistol in his hands. She’d mocked him for the tiny pistol when she’d seen it for the first time – it didn’t compensate for anything, although Gunnard hardly needed to compensate – but now…she ran forward, forcing her injured body to work, and checked Jadis’s body quickly. She was dead, unquestionably; she found herself wondering, grimly, what Erica would do when she found out.

“Helm, get us the hell out of here,” she ordered, settling down into the command chair before she collapsed. It was important, desperately so, that her authority be accepted, but after she had been whipped and then had her life saved, her authority would be dented. If she could get the Knife Edge out of its predicament, it would go a long way towards saving her life and future career. “Pick a course and hit it!”

There was only a slight sense of acceleration, but the Knife Edge altered course sharply, heading towards the largest gap in the Imperial formation. The enemy had played it smart, but with so many pirate starships trying to escape and getting swatted for their pains, there was a very good chance that the Knife Edge would be able to escape, provided they didn’t provide too much of a tempting target. The Imperials had wanted the pirates to panic and many crews were panicking, blundering around rather than fleeing with every last erg of power from their drives. A handful of ships had joined Jadis in her mad desire to fight and were exchanging missile fire with an Imperial battlecruiser; the enemy ship was returning fire in a desultory fashion. It wasn't a serious offensive; it hardly needed to mount one. It had been designed to fight real warships, not the aging pirate craft, and it cut through them like a knife through butter.

“I think we’ve made it,” the helmsman said, grimly. Tiffany relaxed slightly; the Imperials had probably considered them small fry, hardly worth the effort involved in chasing them down when there were so many other targets. A flight of drones had been launched from Gotha, trying to run cover for evacuation ships, but the Imperials blew them away and closed in on the freighters. Some surrendered; a handful tried to run and were destroyed. “Captain” – Tiffany felt a warm glow at his words – “where the hell are we going to go?”

“Pick a random destination as soon as we cross the Phase Limit,” Tiffany ordered. She’d have to give that question some thought; she didn’t know where any other pirate bases actually were. Erica might know, she hoped, but everyone else who was likely to know was dead, or behind them being slaughtered by the Imperial Fleet. If they captured someone who actually knew where another pirate base was, that base would last as long as it took for them to get a ship into the system and open fire.

She shrugged, projecting an air of studied unconcern. It was important to pretend to feel confidence, even if it was somewhat lacking. “We’ll pick a more formal destination later.”


“The Marines are launching their assault boats now,” Timothy reported, as the display lit up with the traces of the Marine assault craft. The Marine Transport Ship New Brooklyn, named for the largest ground assault battle of the Grey War, was launching it’s main assault force right towards Gotha. The asteroid had been armed with some weapons, but pinpoint strikes from the fleet had killed them before the Marines had been sent into the fray. Timothy found himself praying for Elf’s safety under his breath; almost every Marine on the nine ships had been added to the assault force, just to ensure overwhelming numbers. If the pirates had an antimatter bomb on the asteroid, a lot of good people were about to die.

“Good,” Captain Venture said. The space battle was dying off now, with only a handful of pirate craft left fleeing the system as fast as their drives could carry them. Two of the cruisers had remained behind, lurking along the Phase Limit; they would skim in and out of Phase Space to attack as many pirate ships as they could. The assault drones attached to the surrendered pirate ships would detonate if the pirates decided to attempt to escape anyway; no one would shed any tears over dead pirates. “Pull us away from the rock; we have to survey the remainder of the asteroids.”

Timothy understood the unstated reprimand and concentrated on his console. The remaining asteroid showed few signs of any life, although there had clearly been some mining for water and some trace components that would have been useful for repairing a starship. There wasn't much that was of any serious use, hence the fact that the Gotha system had just been ignored, but even so, it made him wonder. What would the fleet find if they devoted much more effort to revisiting surveyed stars every so often? It was one way to be proactive…

He shook his head. The fleet simply didn’t have the resources to revisit every suspect star, not even on a limited basis; the occasional fly-through was the best they could mount, and anything less than a serious survey wouldn’t turn up the pirate base. It was surprisingly easy to hide such a base from prying eyes; if they had surveyed the Gotha system, they might well have missed the base and declared the system safe. The fleet needed more units and maybe more FTL communicators, but there were too few of them around for the Fairfax Sector to equip each of its worlds with one, and the people to use it. Better intelligence would help, but how could they get so much intelligence? Half the pirates didn’t know anything that might be useful, a basic security precaution that had more than proven it’s worth…

“The Marines are reporting that they have secured the asteroid,” the communications officer said. Timothy felt a wave of pure relief; a ball of antimatter no larger than his fist could have blown the asteroid into dust and threatened the fleet itself. The Imperial Fleet only used antimatter in desperate circumstances – God knew, there was no sign that the Greys had actually disagreed with their logic – and anyone else attempting to produce antimatter faced an automatic death sentence. It wasn't much of a deterrent to a pirate; the only issue for him would be under which charge he was being put to death. “Admiral Argent has declared the system occupied; assault boats are being recovered and sent out to place prize crews on the surrendered ships.”

“Good,” Captain Venture said. He glanced over at Timothy. “Stand down from Red Alert, Mr Keck, and take us into a holding orbit around the asteroid. We have unfinished business here.”

Chapter Twenty-Eight: Knives in the Dark

Space was vast, dark and silent. Tiffany had never appreciated that, not completely, until she had spent a few minutes floating in interstellar space. The Empire drew star charts that showed the Empire as a vast area on the galaxy, but the truth was that the Empire controlled only the bubbles surrounding the stars. Anything could happen outside those bubbles, from strange sightings of aliens that bore no resemblance to anything the Empire knew to events that seemed to defy logic and reason. Spacers, even pirates, shared whispered tales of strange encounters, sometimes with vast black starships floating out in the darkness, sometimes with entities that seemed able to change physical laws in a heartbeat. Many of the tales were lies, or tall stories dreamed up by spacers in bars, but out in interstellar space, Tiffany found herself giving them more credence to them. It was so easy to believe in them…

The Knife Edge had jumped almost at random; flashing into Phase Space with the exit coordinates set so vaguely that anyone trying to track them would, with the best of all possible luck, have no real idea of where they had ended up within several light years. She’d ordered a second jump as soon as they emerged, in a different random direction, and then a third; if the Imperial Fleet could track them through that, they were dead anyway. She doubted that they had anything like that capability; if they had, they would have wiped out the pirates a long time before. There was a second reason for taking so many precautions; it gave her time to assert her authority. Her people held all of the important posts, the guards had sworn their loyalty to her, and the body of Jadis had been consigned to space. More importantly, Erica had been snatched up and secured by her people; she wouldn’t be causing any problems for her in the near future.

“Leave us,” she ordered the guards, as she stepped into the cell. It had been designed for hauling slaves and showed it; it was cold, lifeless, and designed for easy cleaning. Erica sat there, her hands manacled behind her and secured to the bulkhead, while her feet were chained to the deck. Tiffany had used one of her other surprises as well, a nanotech weapon designed to destroy implants; whatever weapons and devices Erica had had inside her body, they no longer existed. “How are you feeling?”

Erica looked up at her, her cold eyes lifeless. Blood was dried around her mouth; one of the people who had grabbed her had hit her there, although Tiffany had forbidden them to rape her. Her body would normally have healed quickly, but without her implants and nanomachines, she had to heal naturally, and that would take time. Erica was too dangerous to risk letting loose on the ship again, even broken; once Tiffany had learned what she needed from her, she would have to be killed. Oddly, Erica was the only person she would regret killing; there was no sense of fear surrounding her.

“I said,” Tiffany repeated, “how are you feeling?”

Erica smiled; it clearly caused her some pain. “I have pains everywhere,” she said, rather dryly. “How do you expect me to feel?”

Tiffany leaned forward. “Jadis is dead,” she said, confirming Erica's worst fears. “The Captain is dead. I’m in command now, as much as anyone is, but the ship is in serious trouble,”

Erica didn’t bother with any protests about how she was next in line for the captaincy; they both knew that after she had been chained up, she wouldn’t last a day without protection. “So you say,” she said, listlessly. “Why should that bother me?”

“The Imperials decided that it would be a fun idea to attack Gotha,” Tiffany said. “By now, they will have either captured or destroyed the asteroid, which means that we can’t go back there. That leaves us with something of a problem.”

Erica started to laugh, coughing up blood as she chuckled. “You don’t know where to go,” she said, in-between coughs. “You don’t know any other places where you can get the ship repaired, or where you can sell off your loot, or where you can let down your hair without someone strangling you with it. You don’t know…”

Her voice broke off as she coughed again. Tiffany reached out and cleaned her mouth before speaking, hoping that a compassionate gesture would help. “You’re right,” she said. She hadn’t been able to secure the coordinates for any other pirate base back on Gotha, although she had looked; those details were kept in only a few hands. Captain Blackbird might have known of a few more bases, but his body had literally been blown to dust. “We don’t know where to go.”

Erica started to laugh again. “And when they find out that you know fuck all about what to do next, sweetheart, what do you think they’re going to do to you?”

Tiffany had considered that; her plan, such as it was, was to find another pirate ship and ask for help, something that might come with a massive price tag attached. The odds against success would be very high, not least because the pirates had scattered following the attack on Gotha; they might only find someone who was in the same boat as they were in, trapped with nowhere to go.

“I need your help,” she admitted. Erica snorted. “You know where I can find such a base, so tell me where it is and I’ll see to it that you get off the ship alive and intact.”

Erica looked down, for a long moment, at her breasts, and then back up at Tiffany. “Oh, it sucks to be you,” she said, before she broke down into giggles. Tiffany remained impassive. “You know what’s so funny? I was never trusted enough to know the coordinates of another base! The Captain might have known, but Jadis and I…no, we never knew about any other bases. We know a few names, but actual locations…hell, no!”

Tiffany felt her world shake. “You don’t know anything?”

“Ha, ha, ha,” Erica said, pronouncing each laugh as if it were a word. “I don’t know where there is another base, so I think that leaves you rather screwed, don’t you? You could bring in some of the crewmen and put them to work hurting me as much as they can, you could inject me with truth drugs and even compulsion implants, but you know what? I don’t know anything for you to beat out of me! You might as well get undressed now and bend over for the crew; they’re not going to spare you once they realise that you’ve left them trapped and doomed to wander forever.”

Her mocking laughter followed Tiffany as she stepped back outside the cabin, sealing it behind her; the ship’s computers, at least, had recognised her as Captain. The two guards said nothing as they took their positions, armed with neural whips to prevent anyone who had hated Jadis taking a little revenge by proxy, but she wondered how much they knew. Her implants gave her the ability to see what was behind her and she found herself watching them; would they be the first to attack her, to hurt her in revenge for what she had condemned them to?

“Continue the repairs,” she ordered, as she returned to the bridge. They were almost certainly safe from attack in interstellar space and, in some ways, an attack would almost be a relief. She needed time to think, time to think of a way out of the trap, but was there any way of escaping? They lacked the knowledge they needed to escape, so they had to find it, but how could they find it? Her mind chased fleeting thoughts, trying to pull together a coherent plan, but…

She was only vaguely aware of Gunnard stepping onto the bridge. “Penny for your thoughts?”

She scowled at him as he looked down at her. “My thoughts are a credit apiece,” she said, more for the urge to say something than any need to make a joke. “I don’t think you could afford all of them.”

Gunnard ignored her sally. “She didn’t know anything, then,” he said. It wasn't a question. “That could be…inconvenient.”

“Your gift for understatement needs to be tempered,” Tiffany snapped at him. How long would he remain loyal to her once he knew just what she’d done? Would he be the first to humiliate her in front of the crew? “It is more than just bad, it is disastrous.”

“I suppose,” Gunnard said, as if it were a very minor matter indeed. “What exactly do you need?”

Tiffany gave him a look that suggested she couldn’t believe his stupidity. “We need the coordinates for another pirate base,” she said. “We don’t have them. Therefore, we are doomed to wander through the starry wastes forever…”

Her voice broke off. Gunnard had tapped a series of coordinates into the helm console and swung it around to face her. “The Tan Asteroid Base,” he said, very seriously. “It’s not that unlike Gotha; you’ll fit right in there.”

Tiffany stared at him. “Who the hell are you?”

“I’m Gunnard,” Gunnard said. “Who do you think I am?”

“You’re a pirate crewman who knows something he shouldn’t know,” Tiffany snapped back at him. She felt odd, to be complaining about him having saved her – again – from a fate worse than death, but too many things didn’t really add up. “How did you find out where that base is?”

“It’s a long story,” Gunnard said, very seriously. “We will discuss it, at a later date, but for the moment it might be more important to get the ship moving again before someone concludes that they have nothing more to lose and does something stupid.”

Tiffany felt a passenger on her own bridge as the starship returned to normal space, on the edge of a white dwarf system. The light of the star was almost impossible to see at their distance, but the sensors had no trouble in picking up the small horde of asteroids and the K-type planet that orbited the star, while the coordinates led directly towards the asteroids. Their sensors also picked up a few hints of other starships present within the system, but either Tan was less populated than Gotha, or the pirates were hiding in case the Imperials moved on to Tan and attacked there as well. The challenge came as they approached the asteroids directly; Tiffany answered it, explaining that they had come from Gotha and were looking for a new homeport.

“Take a docking bay and pay when you arrive,” the reply said. They didn’t seem too worried about her, or the condition of the ship; Tiffany guessed that the fee for docking would be exorbitant. She might have to sell the Grey body after all, just to pay it; she wondered how much Captain Blackbird had had to pay to dock at Gotha.

“Not very talkative, are they?” Gunnard asked, from the tactical console. “There are a few dozen starships pretending to be asteroids not too far from us, but they haven’t been hiding long and would do better to use a cloaking field until they cool down a lot more.”

The helmsman shrugged. “They’re pointing us towards a smaller docking bay,” he said. “Should we take it?”

Tiffany shrugged mentally. It wasn't as if they had anywhere else to go. “Yes,” she said, shortly. “Dock us there so that we can meet with the people in charge here.”

The dull thud of the docking echoed through the ship. “They want to meet with you directly,” Gunnard said, as he took over the communications console and worked it for a moment. “I suggest taking a pair of guards; it might impress them more than you going on your own.”

Tiffany nodded. He knew more than he should, which meant that they had to have a proper talk, but that could only happen once they had secured their right to dock at Tan. She found her way through to the airlock, checking on some of the crew as she passed; they all looked relieved at having found a new safe harbour. Tiffany hoped that they were right; everything looked legitimate, as far as that word could be applied to anything to do with pirates, but there were too many unanswered questions. The airlock hissed open, revealing a small portly man, one who had enough implants hidden within his body to almost qualify as a cyborg.

“Welcome to Tan, Captain Tiffany,” he said, looking her up and down. Tiffany guessed that he was more than a little surprised to see her; he might have been expecting to see Captain Blackbird. “I understand that you want a permanent docking space here?”

They said nothing else until they were in a small office. “Yes,” Tiffany said, without going into details. There were items she didn’t want to discuss until she was sure of her ground. “How much would that cost us?”

“I am Diondi Tan, Ruler of Tan,” the man said. Tiffany wondered if that meant that Tan had started life as a black colony before becoming a pirate base, or if it actually was a black colony, one that had branched out into basing pirates. It would be odd for them to be the latter, because it would guarantee no mercy from the Imperial Fleet when – if – they were discovered, but maybe they just didn’t care. “I understand that the Knife Edge has brought in many a credit to the crew?”

“Yes,” Tiffany said, wondering if he was playing with her. If he was trying to convince her that he was in charge here, the effect was slightly wasted; she already knew that he was in charge of the base. Men did like playing their power games, she had noted; almost every man she had met in her life since becoming a pirate had played games of power. “We have an unbroken record of vast success…”

“That is good,” Diondi agreed. “I believe that there are some…backers who would like to meet you here, but for the moment, we charge docking fees at a thousand credits, per month.”

Tiffany found her mouth falling into a laugh. “You must be aware that that is more than the ship could pay,” she said, laughing. “Would you like us to take our custom elsewhere?”

It was a bluff, she knew; they had nowhere else to go. “We are prepared, instead, to take a cut of your loot,” Diondi said, as if he believed her bravado. She wouldn’t have placed good money on it. “Twenty percent of your loot per voyage would be acceptable.”

Tiffany smiled. “Ten percent, once we have met our expenses,” she said. “The crew would not be happy with me for leaving them all paupers.”

“Fifteen percent, once expenses are met,” Diondi said. Tiffany saw his eyes and knew that there would be no further reductions, so she shook hands with him and made the agreement. “I look forward to doing business with you.”

Tiffany nodded. “My crew will be coming onto the asteroid to relax,” she said, shortly. “Once we have had some time to think and plan, we will be off again on our next raid.”

It was evening before she was back in her cabin, but as soon as she had a chance, she summoned Gunnard to her room. She wanted – desperately – for him to help her forget the nightmarish days, but there was no time for pleasure…or, rather, business had to come before pleasure. He clearly thought the same; as soon as they were alone, he pulled out a small bug detector and scanned the room for surveillance devices.

Tiffany was in no mood to be gentle. “Who are you?”

Gunnard answered the unspoken question first. “I work for…people who have an interest in supporting piracy,” he said, shortly. It was not a very detailed answer. “They ordered me to make contacts within the more…well-known and competent pirates, so that we could throw our support behind them, encourage them to work for us, and in short, gain us as much money as possible.”

“Really,” Tiffany said, lifting her eyebrow. “And just who, pray tell, are ‘us’?”

Gunnard shrugged. “People with an interest in supporting piracy,” he said, echoing his earlier words. Tiffany held his eyes with her own. “They have some interest in supporting pirates to take certain targets and, in particular, to ensure that certain items are recovered and put to a better use.”

That,” Tiffany snapped, “tells me nothing at all. Who are they?”

“Insurance people, mainly,” Gunnard said. Tiffany didn’t believe him. “People who have some interest in ensuring that there is a certain amount of instability in the sector, because that benefits them. People who want cargos that they cannot get legally. People who…”

Tiffany listened to the list and frowned. She could believe that someone would want to increase insurance premiums; it was, according to her father, just how insurance salesmen worked. She could believe that the black colonies would have some interest in supporting targeted piracy – to some extent, they were already doing it – but why would they have cared about her? Had Gunnard’s real instructions been to get onto a pirate ship?

“That’s very interesting,” she said, finally. “Why should I work for your people?”

Gunnard leered at her. “Because I’m very good in bed?”

“I could use a dildo,” Tiffany snapped, unwilling to joke. “Why should I?”

Gunnard grew serious. “Because we can offer you something that no one else can offer you,” he said, as he pulled a small chip out of his pocket and slipped it into her personal processor. “This, Captain, would be your weapon.”

Tiffany felt her mouth fall open.

The image on the display was that of an Imperial battlecruiser.

Chapter Twenty-Nine: Out of Ashes

“This is perhaps the strangest place I have ever seen,” Timothy commented to Elf, as he walked through what had once been a slave market. He had never seen anything like it anywhere else in the Empire, not even Imperial Intelligence’s holding cells for pirates matched the slave market for sheer horror. It had looked almost like a place where cattle were herded to be slaughtered; the forensic teams had gone through it and concluded that thousands of people, mainly young girls, had been sold as slaves. As for where they had gone…?

He glared down through the stalls towards a vast open area. Armed Marines stood there, watching a crowd of former inhabitants of Gotha, their weapons cocked and held at the ready. The former inhabitants had all been cuffed and now sat on the ground, awaiting their fate; he doubted that they would have anything they could actually bargain with, unless they had some knowledge that Imperial Intelligence could use. The Marines hadn’t hesitated, more than once, to club or stun any of the prisoners who got rowdy; soon enough, they would be marched off the asteroid and onto the prison ship, where they would be interrogated at length. The best they could hope for would be a penal colony.

His gaze flickered onwards. There had been no less than nine brothels on Gotha and all of them had been liberated by the Marines. The whores had been a mixed bag, from the handful of girls who had had their teeth removed, to the girls who had bent over as soon as the Marines had burst in, expecting that they would be just another gang of rapists intent on forcing their way into the girls. Given time, many of them might recover, others would have to spend the rest of their lives in care. A handful of brothel owners had tried to kill their girls, but it had been too late; the Marines hadn’t bothered to try to take those owners alive.

“This is what we try to protect them from,” Elf said, her voice almost a hiss. She loathed the asteroid as much as he did; once the place had been searched and everyone removed, Timothy guessed that the Imperial Fleet would push the asteroid into the sun and watch as it went down in flames. They might even chain up some of the pirates, those who got the death penalty, and leave them there to die in the remains of their former home. “We’d better see if they have any records.”

Timothy looked inside the small shop that had served as the hub of the slave market, hunting for a computer or something that could be used as a record keeper, and almost recoiled when he saw the images splashed out on the wall. The man who had sold kidnap victims as slaves had clearly been a man of vast and disgusting tastes; the Imperial Fleet was pretty tolerant, but some of the images were beyond the pale. They were all male-on-male sexual violence, something that made him smile grimly; that, at least, explained why the pirates trusted him with their female slaves. He wasn't interested in women.

“Here,” Elf said, finding a computer. Timothy supposed that he should wait for a proper investigative team, but he knew that there might not be enough time; all he was certain of was that Tiffany wasn't among the whores. He’d looked, his heart almost breaking every time he’d seen red hair, but none of the whores had been her. She might have fought and died, or she might have been burned out; who knew what had happened to her? The computer in front of them, a basic machine that dated back to before the Grey War, might hold the answers…and he was not going to wait.

He pulled out a small hacking chip and inserted it into the machine. Imperial Intelligence had all the best toys; the computer’s contents would be flash-dumped into another computer on one of the Intelligence ships, even before the hacking chip started to hack into the database. If something happened to the computer, like a suspicious security program, they would still have a copy of the billions of terabytes worth of information stored on the computer. It hadn’t been linked into the overall asteroid network, unsurprisingly; the pirates considered information to be power, after all.

“Yuck,” Elf said, as the first images appeared. The hacking chip had unlocked everything; it now flash-dumped the entire unlocked contents again, this time to a different computer. “This guy really was…meticulous.”

Gunny had used to use that as a compliment; Marines had to be meticulous, or they ran the risk of their equipment failing at a crucial time. Elf made it seem more of an insult; the slave dealer had kept more records than anyone had guessed. Timothy opened one up at random to see an image of a nude blonde girl, her hands and feet chained, standing in front of the camera. There were hundreds of pictures of the same girl, some of them almost identical, others where she was posed in different positions, almost as if she was a prize pig. Disgust welled up within him and he moved to the next set of images; they were no better.

“If this was a damned novel, I would have opened the right folder, first time,” he snapped, more to hide his disgust than anything else. He triggered the second program on the hacking chip and allowed it to skim through the pictures, comparing them all to the images of Tiffany he had stored on the chip. “This should work faster.”

“Maybe,” Elf said, darkly. “It was clearly a mistake not taking any pictures of your sister in the nude before you left Taurus.”

Timothy scowled at her, before glancing down at the display. It was taking real time to perform the search; back on the Fury, it would have taken seconds to skim through every file on the ship. He’d heard from Markus that some of the crewmen assigned to inspecting the computers came across, from time to time, porn stashes hidden in the computers. It wasn’t technically forbidden, but when the crewman responsible had left the ship and forgotten to wipe it, it became a problem.

“Marine humour,” he said. He rolled his eyes in her direction. “How would you have felt if your brother had taken images of you in the nude?”

“That would depend if I was captured by pirates or not,” Elf said, wryly. Timothy had to laugh. “If I was never captured by pirates, I would beat the shit out of him, although, to be fair, Marines do take naked pictures of each other.”

Timothy snorted. “Clearly I chose the wrong career path,” he said. “Is there some reason for that?”

Elf sobered. “Sometimes, on the field, there are only pieces of us left,” she said. “If you don’t have time to run a DNA scan or anything like that, it’s the only way to identify a person from their foot.”

Timothy nodded slowly. Marines tended not to last very long when on deployment; the stresses of their work and the prospects of some pirate or enemy alien killing them were very high. Elf and her people were lucky, in a sense; they were on a ship that needed them and made them part of the crew, other Marines stayed with Marines on larger ships, knowing that they could expire at any moment. The Marines had fewer regulations governing their behaviour than crewmen or commissioned officers; they tended to live for the moment, rather than build a long life.

The computer dinged. “Success, of a sort,” Timothy said. There had been several teenage girls unaccounted for from the Max Capricorn and it was logical that they would have all come to this slave market. There were seven matches identified…and one of them was Tiffany; he brought up one of the images long enough to check the face out, before closing it again. The record of what had happened to her was very clear; she had been sold to a Captain Blackbird…at which point the record came to an end. “Fuck it!”

Elf was more careful. “Find out what happened to the others,” she said, and checked through the files. Timothy paced away, unwilling to deal with more images of his sister, trapped and hopelessly violated by the imager. “Most of the girls were sold to Momma’s – that’s the whorehouse over there – and they might still be alive.”

Timothy nodded and allowed her to lead him out of the slave market, before they walked directly towards one of the medical centres. The whores had all been taken to a hastily erected centre, with trained medical personnel on hand to deal with any trauma or physical injuries, but he’d looked up the details and the recovery rate wasn’t high. The whores had been nothing, but sex toys for years; they had never had a day off, nor had they benefited through their own labour; they had served until the day when they finally died, or were killed. Maybe some of them would recover, but if not, the best they could do was make the remainder of their lives comfortable.

“Bastards,” he hissed, as Elf checked with the medical staff. They had taken a DNA sample from every girl; they would have been identified if some of them had been recorded as missing, or simply having been on a ship that had vanished without trace. Not every pirate attack left a drifting starship behind; some of the missing ships just vanished and no one – ever – knew what had happened to them.

“We have a stroke of luck,” Elf said, as she glanced over the heads of the various ex-whores. Half of them were naked, but making no attempt to cover themselves; their eyes were dead and cold. “That girl over there was on the Max Capricorn.”

Timothy studied her, running through his memory, but he didn’t recognise her…or the picture that Elf had pulled from the records. She had once been a purple-haired girl with an astonishingly large – and probably unnatural – chest; now, she was a weakened, broken shadow of her former self. Her breasts had fallen sharply; he could see her ribs through her skin, as if she had been starved as well as repeatedly beaten. She didn’t seem to recognise him, or anything about him except for his maleness; she flinched away from him.

“Stay back,” Elf hissed, and leaned closer to the girl. “Nancy?”

The girl – Nancy – looked at her with bleak eyes. “Yes?”

“We’re looking for someone who was taken with you,” Elf said, seriously. “Can you help us find her?”

Nancy made what might have been intended as a shrug, but she was too weak to move her shoulders more than a tiny amount. Elf held out the image of Tiffany as she had been, four years ago, and allowed her to see it; Nancy’s body seemed to shake slightly as she took in the image. Timothy felt a burst of hope; Nancy clearly recognised her.

“She was on the ship,” Nancy said, as if it was hard to speak. Timothy realised with a wave of sudden nausea that she had had her own vocal cords damaged, making it harder for her to speak. “They took her with us, put her on sale, sold her to a man wearing a hat and he took her away. I never saw her again.”

Her hand caught at Elf’s arm. “Ask Alan,” she said, as clearly as she could. “He was always good to me when he came; he tried to buy me, but Momma wouldn’t allow it, said I was too good for a simple slave to buy.”

Timothy puzzled over that as they checked with the Marines guarding the other prisoners from the asteroid. The records were cross-referenced with the Max Capricorn and ‘Alan’ was quickly identified, a former junior officer on the ship before it had been raided. He had apparently survived the period of captivity better than Nancy had, Timothy thought as he was hauled out of the midst of the captives and escorted off for a private interrogation; he looked healthy, at least.

He didn’t hesitate; he held up the image of Tiffany, only to see Alan start when he saw it. “I need to find her,” he said, not bothering to explain anything. “You recognise her, so where the hell is she?”

Alan’s eyes, he saw, were haunted as well. It was just a different kind of haunting. “They took me off the ship and put me to work,” he said, clearly. “I was on the Bloody Hand for a year before they decided to sell me to a mechanical shop here and then they used me to repair their ships. I didn’t have any choice; I didn’t want to do it, but I got beaten every time I tried to change things…”

“I don’t care about your experiences,” Timothy snapped, allowing some anger to leak into his voice. “I just want to know about her!”

“I want to bargain,” Alan said, his voice breaking. Whatever he had once been, he wasn't now. “I didn’t want to help them and I don’t want to die.”

Elf caught Timothy before he could start to strangle Alan. “It’s very simple,” she said. “You have information that my associate needs, and my associate is in a position to recommend that you be granted clemency for your actions while you were held in captivity. However, that depends upon your willingness to cooperate, by helping us with our enquires.”

Alan stammered as he looked up at her. Timothy wondered just how implicated he was; Nancy had said that he was kind to her. Had he really intended to purchase his fellow captive, or had it been something that he had told her, just to convince her that he meant well? What had he done in a place where everything went? Had he joined in the abuse of captives? Had he raped and murdered to get ahead? Or…was he someone who was merely the victim of circumstances and couldn’t be held responsible for his crimes? Just for a moment, he wondered how the Midshipmen would vote, when the captives were put on trial; how would they take his pleas?

“I was with her on the ship,” he said, his voice pleading. “They separated us after the first day; I didn’t see her again until she was taken off to be sold. She was naked and they led her off the ship…and that was the last I saw of her for a year.”

Timothy leaned closer. “For a year?” He asked. “What happened to her then?”

“I was sold back to Gotha and forced to work for the ship mechanics,” Alan said. “They let me wander through the asteroid from time to time, even paid me; I found one of the girls who had been taken with me and tried to bring her back to the place they had given me to sleep. I saw Tiffany from time to time…she had become one of the crew.”

Timothy felt his heart stop. “One of the crew?” He asked. “The crew of what?”

“The Knife Edge,” Alan said. His voice grew bitter. “It was one of the ships that came here; the Captain from that ship had bought her, or so I heard. She must have been a good investment; by the time I saw her, she was a crewwoman, and later Second Mate on the ship. Then you attacked and God alone knows where she is now…”

Timothy was still reeling. He didn’t want to believe it, he didn’t have to believe it…except the story seemed to hang together. Alan had no motive to lie; if he lied, whatever Timothy might have been able to do to get his sentence commuted or him pardoned would have been negated. How could it be true? Tiffany had always been the one who had wanted to leave Taurus and join the Fleet, or go sailing out among the stars on a merchant ship, but would she throw her lot in with the pirates?

Elf placed a hand on his hand. “You don’t know anything yet,” she said, sharply. She clicked her fingers in the direction of one of the other Marines. “Separate this fellow from the others and treat him as a possible friendly,” she ordered. The Marine escorted Alan away from the pair of them. “Timothy, you don’t know he’s been telling the truth…”

“I don’t know what to think,” Timothy said. It would have been easier to simply refuse to believe it, but fleet training had hammered just how dangerous that could be into his head. “She can’t have become a pirate, can she?”

“People handle pressure in several different ways,” Elf said, simply. “There are people who have trained in various planetary militias – right tough guys – who take one day to decide that they want to leave Somme and go back to their worlds, where they will brag about their experience on the training world and carefully not mention the fact that they washed out. There are Marines who do finger painting on the last days before a combat mission, or Marines who are big softies every moment of their lives, except when in combat.”

She held him close, uncaring of other eyes who might see them. “He might be wrong,” she said. Timothy wanted to relax into her arms and collapse completely, but only sheer determination prevented him from falling to the ground. He didn’t want to show such weakness in front of the Marines. “She might have merely been making a good show of her status…”

“You don’t understand,” Timothy said. The raw desperation in his voice shocked even him. “I swore – we all swore – to hunt down pirates…and now one of our targets is my own sister! What the hell do I do now?”

Chapter Thirty: The Pirate Queen

Tiffany glanced through the sensor and almost recoiled at the sight; there were no less than forty pirate Captains in the room, each one wearing their hat and glaring suspiciously around at their counterparts. The meeting had taken nearly a week to set up, and only a great deal of quiet pressure from some of the backers, fences and mechanics had helped to translate the meeting from a concept into something that might actually work. There were too many lowlifes in one room, she reflected; it wouldn’t be long before someone said the wrong thing and blows were being thrown. Once that happened, the situation would rapidly become disastrous…and the death toll would rise sharply.

She winked at Gunnard as she checked her appearance one final time – basic outfit, simple rather than colourful, with the Captain’s Hat firmly on her head – and then stepped out onto the small stage. It was important to establish at least a limited superiority from the start, and even through they would all regard her with a certain wary concern – as one of the handful of women to command a pirate ship – they would also be convinced that they should be in charge. She had some room to dominate them, but if she failed…

Her most impressive assert wasn't her body, she knew, as the image drifted over her head. Her most impressive assert was the former Imperial Fleet battlecruiser Storm Shadow, now renamed the Blackbird in honour of her former Captain. Officially, she hadn’t killed either Blackbird or Jadis, but unofficially, she knew that the Captains below her would suspect that she had done exactly that…and treat her with the deference someone who could organise such an assassination deserved. The sheer power of the battlecruiser, compared to most pirate ships, would back up her words; they might not be completely convinced, but it was much better to be on the winning side.

“Thank you for coming,” she said. She didn’t bother with any sentimental nonsense; the collective amount of loyalty in the room wouldn’t have filled a thimble. Perhaps that would change, but for the moment, she had to appeal to their heads, not their hearts. “A fortnight ago, the Imperial Fleet attacked Gotha, a world that belonged to us, and occupied it. Their jackboots trampled over the floors of the asteroid; their people took everything that belonged to us, and then they ruined the asteroid. Dare I say it? We were lax in allowing them to learn the location of the asteroid…and equally lax in our response to the situation. There was no evacuation, nor was there any chance at putting up a fight that might have deterred the Imperial Fleet from attacking the asteroid.”

That chance had been firmly squashed by overwhelming firepower, but she appealed to their pride anyway. “Let us face it,” she continued. “We are a society, a civilisation, in all, but name. We have a population. We have a space fleet. We have bases and planets and asteroids and…homes. We have all we need to dictate to the Empire on our own terms, but what do we do with it? We raid, we pillage, we rape, we bring home the loot…and all of our energy is seriously misdirected. How many of us have set out on a mission, only to find nothing worth taking, but slaves? How many of us have been lost because of the Imperial Fleet, our raids stalled because of daring and desperate resistance, until a warship arrived to chase us away? What could we do if we all worked together?”

So far, she’d given them mainly platitudes. Now, she had to convince them. “We have more firepower, I think, than the fleet knows or guesses,” she said, indicating the hologram of the Blackbird high above them. “We have ground soldiers. We have resources that are often wasted because we don’t know what to do with them. If we work together, we could build our own empire, allying ourselves with factions right across the Fairfax Sector and creating an area where there is only law, our law.

“We all know that the empire is weak, very weak, at the moment,” she continued. “They were once capable of flooding a sector with small warships; now, they can barely mount proper escorts for convoys…and even with the convoys, they are still losing ships because ship owners are having to send them on their own, unescorted, because they would lose money otherwise. They are even arming up their freighters now, in hopes of taking one of our ships down with them, when we could use what we have to forge our own empire. Individually, we are nothing more than pinpricks to the Empire; as a group, we could become so much more.”

She paused. “Protection money schemes never worked in the past,” she said. She’d researched them while they had been on Gotha. “Why did they never work? They never worked because no one had the control required to ensure that the scheme was actually enforced; they might pay off one pirate group, but another would attack the ships. Why should they pay protection when the ships got raided anyway? But, if we all worked together, if we collected enough money as a form of protection, we could make such a scheme work!

“It hardly stops there,” she said. “What else could we do? We could extort money and information from planets in exchange for not raiding them. If we have a battlecruiser, and we do, we could blow through most planetary defences without taking a single hit, or losing a single ship. How could the Imperial Fleet cover everywhere? They can’t; they can barely cover Fairfax itself and a handful of the other most vital systems. Back during the days of Captain Morgan, they actually abandoned a sector; if we push them, they might do the same here…

“If they can’t beat us, they may come to terms with us,” she concluded. “Shipping lines will pay us to leave their ships alone, or even deal us in for some of their deals. What might we be capable of if we had unfettered access to some of the civilian shipyards? What might happen if we demanded protection in the form of components or weapons that we need? What might happen if we even demand that politicians further muzzle the Imperial Fleet? What could we not do?”

She smiled. “Who would be interested in reaping the rewards?”

The pirate Captains didn’t discuss the matter among themselves; they spent time, instead, thinking about it. She could almost read their minds; some of them were wondering how she’d gotten her hands on a battlecruiser, others were wondering if she could actually put it off, still others were wondering about the consequences of not joining her…and they were all calculating their chances of benefiting from the arrangement. She was right on one point; even if they really did hack off the Imperial Fleet, it would be very difficult for the Fleet to locate their bases and hit back. Gotha, admittedly, had been destroyed, but there were plenty of others.

A Captain, Captain Vanson, finally glared up at her. He was one of the senior pirates, according to the briefing she’d been given, someone who had been around for years, but hadn’t made a fortune. He would both resent her for making it possible for him to actually earn something, and also want to take the opportunity with both hands. There wasn't much to him physically, but her sensors warned that he had at least nine different implants in his body, most of them lethal.

“This idea was tried before, by Captain Morgan, the Pirate King,” he said. Vanson was, in fact, old enough to have known Morgan. He obviously hadn’t learnt anything from Morgan. “It might work again, but who is to be the Pirate King?”

The stress on the male form was unmistakable. “You will never be a pirate king,” Captain Zora said. She was female, like Tiffany; a woman who reminded her more of Jadis than she wanted to admit. She fixed Tiffany with a look that almost made her quail. “Are you proposing that you should be our Pirate Queen?”

Vanson glared at Captain Zora. “She’s too young to be a leader,” he snapped. “The role should go to someone with some age and experience!”

“You mean, like you?” Captain D’Eath asked. At some point in his past, someone had tampered with his genetic code and it showed; Captain D’Eath was too thin to be natural, with dark eyes that burned like hot coals, as if he was permanently on the verge of falling down dead. “You have never brought in a proper batch of loot, have you?”

Vanson flushed. “She has brought in much less than I have,” he snapped. “I am sure that most of her success was due to Blackbird.”

“She also has the largest ship,” Captain Torkville injected, diffidently. He looked like everyone favourite uncle, until they saw his eyes; they were cold and very distant.

Captain Zora smiled. “You have been a pirate, a pirate commander, for years,” she said. “During that time, I don’t believe that you have ever brought in over a few thousand credits per trip. Time and time again, you are driven away by a single small Imperial ship, until your crewmen, one by one, leave you. Only the fact that you have locked the computers of your ship has kept you alive…”

“Liar,” Vanson thundered. “This girl is new and you want to place her as our queen?”

“No one will vote for you,” Captain D’Eath hissed. “The idea is sound, she knows what she is doing, so we will support her and serve her as long as she serves us well. She has also obtained a battlecruiser, which suggests that she has powerful allies, all of which suggest that she might be able to do much more for us than anyone else has done.”

“We would insist on a certain amount of shared control,” Captain Zora said, looking up at Tiffany. “You are, with all due respect, younger than we would prefer.”

“This is about new ideas,” Tiffany said, slowly, but conceded the point. Captain Zora was right. “The people who get in on the ground floor, as it were, will become part of my council.”

She kept carefully quiet about other details. It would be a snowball effect, of sorts; with a battlecruiser and some mysterious allies, she would have the influence and knowledge to hunt down and punish any pirates who thought that they could defy her. The protection scheme would work if she had the ability to ensure that anyone who broke her protections suffered for it; unlike the Imperial Fleet, she would be assumed to possess knowledge of the location of every major pirate base.

“And there is a final point,” she said, as she tapped a button on the side of her communicator. A new hologram appeared. “I am prepared to give these to the Captains and crew who sign on first.”

She watched their eyes as the new images, nearly two-dozen real warships, appeared in front of them. They had all been…mislaid during the chaos of the Collapse and the Grey War; fleet almost certainly considered them lost and probably destroyed during the War. Instead, Tiffany’s new backers had found them, refurbished them…and had offered them all to the pirates as a bribe. With such ships, it would be much easier to sweep the space lanes clear of shipping…and it would provide a powerful incentive to shipping lines to cooperate and collaborate with her. They would also act as enforcer; pirates who didn’t cooperate would be blown away by her new ships.

She watched their eyes…and knew that she had won.

Captain Vanson put it into words. “If you can provide us with such firepower, we would be happy to serve,” he said. Tiffany didn’t believe him for a minute; if he hadn’t been one of the longest lasting pirate Captains, she would never have invited him to the meeting. He would knife her in the back as soon as he dared, or thought that there was something in it for him. “To you, My Queen, I pledge my loyalty.”


“You do realise that you cannot trust Captain Vanson any further than you can throw this ship?” Gunnard asked, as he poured himself a drink from the set of canteens that had been sent to the ship from Captain Zora, who was trying to curry favour. Tiffany didn’t drink and she was naturally suspicious of any gift, but she had accepted it anyway. “He’ll work for you until he thinks he has the upper hand and then try to fuck you up the bum.”

“The thought has crossed my mind,” Tiffany admitted, as she lay back and relaxed slightly. She was still slightly dazed with how well it had all gone, although both the appearance of the battlecruiser and the loss of Gotha had probably shaken the pirates out of their confidence. It was easy, in such times, to forget that statistical calculation showed that Tan was safe; they had shown the same reassuring figures to Gotha’s inhabitants. “Tell me, do your backers have the same intention to fuck me up the bum?”

“Them?” Gunnard shook his head. “They want someone out there organising the pirates into a genuine force, not someone who they can screw over at any time they want. You don’t know anything that could be used against them, if you somehow fell into fleet’s hands, so they don’t have any pressing urge to screw you before you can screw them.”

He allowed his hand to drop to his crotch. “Me, on the other hand…”

“Talk first, fucking later,” Tiffany said flatly. Erica – who had now been dumped on the asteroid – had been fond of saying that. “I know that they have been planning this for several years…”

Gunnard lifted an eyebrow. “What makes you say that?”

“I thought about it,” Tiffany said. “You were on Gotha for quite some time, during which you saved me from” – she found it hard to say the word – “and never asked for anything in return. I think you wanted some credit for the moment when you approached a pirate Captain and asked them to take the lead in this great scheme of yours…”

“Apply logic and reason,” Gunnard said dryly. “You were a very junior crewman on the Knife Edge. Why would I know that you would end up a Pirate Queen?”

“You wouldn’t,” Tiffany said. She grinned in triumph. “I bet you one hundred credits that you actually had your eye on Captain Blackbird, not me, and when I took over, you just switched your attention to me. You saved me because it might make the Captain feel some gratitude to you, something that might make getting onto the ship easier…right?”

Gunnard lowered his eyes slightly. “Right,” he agreed.

“And we hit a freighter and what did we take?” She asked. She had almost forgotten the joy of working out puzzles. “Answer; we took components worth enough credits to buy us each a ship, but the Captain sold them on to you, who just happened to have a fleet of ships that could use the components to upgrade their firepower…right?” She pressed forward. “Gunnard, dear boy, just who do you work for?”

He said nothing. “Are you not going to share that secret with me?”

“I can’t,” Gunnard admitted. His voice sounded, just for a second, if he was in pain. “I have been…treated in a way that prevents me from giving any more information about the backers, even to you. If fleet had me, my brain would literally melt down into a puddle and that would give the bastards a dead end.”

Tiffany’s mind raced. For a moment, it crossed her mind that the mystery backers could be Imperial Intelligence, but they would have to be out of their minds to even think about considering such a scheme. Even if they had mined the ships, they wouldn’t have risked giving them to pirates, when the possible consequences of their plan could be disastrous. They had known where Tan was; if they had wanted to attack Tan and capture the pirates, they could have done so without an over-complicated scheme right out of a bad drama.

“Clever,” she acknowledged. She pushed the matter out of her mind for the moment. She would solve the remainder of the mystery later. “Tell me, does that apply to your penis as well?”

Gunnard blinked. “Of course not,” he said. He looked vaguely offended at the very suggestion. “That’s all mine.”

“Good,” Tiffany said, standing up. She wanted to enjoy herself before she got back to work; the battlecruiser wouldn’t ready itself for space. “Come here.”

Interlude Three: Signs and Portents

“There have been some worrying signs from Gotha,” Carola Wilhelm said, as she entered the Port Admiral’s office. “As you know, Intelligence went through the entire asteroid with a fine-toothed comb after the asteroid fell, interrogating everyone who was taken prisoner, even the ones who were apparently slaves.”

Port Admiral Sir Simon Johnston nodded impatiently. “I’m due to meet the Governor later today, Carola,” he said, shortly. “Can I ask you to get to the point?”

“There were several signs that someone was trying to pull together a new super-pirate organisation,” Carola said. “There were several hundred pirates, including several superstars, if you’ll excuse the term, who have just vanished from the normal ebb and flow of pirate society.”

Johnston eyed her suspiciously. “Are you sure we didn’t just kill them?”

“There were several pirates who we identified as having been killed in engagements with Imperial Fleet starships,” Carola said, patiently. “That would account for, at best, only seventy of the missing pirates. It’s quite possible that they would have simply gone hunting to pastures new, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason why they might have gone and left Gotha, not when the hunting was so good.”

She ticked a point off on her finger. “A second point,” she said. “There were definite signs of a highly-sophisticated intelligence network existing within the Fairfax Sector and indeed outside the sector. We don’t have any real indications as to who is actually feeding or controlling this network, but it’s light years ahead of anything that a common pirate might be expected to be able to found. It reminds me more of our own network, although there’s no way to tell – now – what’s bravado and what’s a real intelligence source.

“A third point, the quality of servicing at Gotha was higher than we expected,” she continued. “In our experience, that only happens when there are several pirate crews working together, which suggests that such a group was operating at Gotha. Several incidents of targeted strikes were recorded – including the mystery strike in the Roland System – and the stuff they captured went…where? We know that some of it went through Gotha, but we don’t know where it went and no one we captured was able to tell us what it actually was.”

Johnston frowned. “It seems that you’re weaving a mighty thin tapestry,” he said, after a moment’s thought. “If we actually have a second Morgan on our hands, Carola, that would make our problems a great deal worse.”

“I am aware of that, sir,” Carola said. “The one bright spot of Morgan’s regime was that it depended on him and his legend…and there is no such comparable figure in the pirate hierarchy, at least as far as we know. We interrogated the Captain of the Bloody Hand quite extensively and all he could tell us was that he got the intelligence on the Max Capricorn and it’s flight path from an information broker on Gotha, who was not present for the raid against the asteroid.”

Johnston scowled. “Warned off?”

“Perhaps, but I doubt it,” Carola said. “The captives all agree that they had no warning at all…and that sort of information would have commanded a massive price. We’ll keep going through the paper trail, sir, but I think that the next step is firmly in the hands of the pirates.”

“Bastards,” Johnston commented, with real hatred. His eyes fell on another report. “What’s going to happen to the remaining prisoners?”

“Those who are real criminals will be dumped on the penal colony,” Carola said, simply. “Those who were slaves or whores will be treated with more sympathy; those who are rather grey rather than black will be treated individually.”

“Good,” Johnston said. “Keep watching for further signs, Carola; we might want even to insert someone into the pirate crews to watch for trouble. Can you see to that for me?”

Carola nodded. “Yes, sir,” she said. Johnston heard the grimness in her voice and understood; many inserted agents just tended to vanish once they were inserted, either though being discovered or being kept firmly out of communications range. “We’ll do the best we can.”

Chapter Thirty-One: Stealth

“I think they’re finally closing in,” Timothy said, as he peered down at the vague results from the passive sensors. The active sensors could have lit up the entire area for thousands of kilometres around the starship, but the pirate ship would have known within an instant that they were there and started to run. The Fury, under cloak, might not be able to catch them before they fled across the Phase Limit – and, going from what power readings he had been able to pick up, he wasn't sure if he wanted to catch them without the advantage of surprise.

“So they weren’t imagining things,” Captain Venture said, steepling his fingers as the Fury slid closer, wrapped in a cloaking field that hid all of their betraying emissions from pirate sensors. The armed freighter Tony Jones had sounded the alert to System Command when their sensors, nearly military-grade, had picked up the contact closing in on their position; unbeknownst to them, the Fury had been close enough to cloak and sneak in as well. “Can you pick out any of the enemy ship’s power curves?”

Timothy hesitated. “Not exactly, sir,” he said, reluctantly. He didn’t like to admit that he wasn’t sure what he was looking at. “They’re clearly a heavy ship, but there’s been so many modifications down the years that I doubt that it matches any of the approved designs for heavy starships. The power curves, those we can detect at this distance, may suggest something as large as a heavy cruiser, or maybe something smaller trying to be larger.”

The Captain nodded. “Helm, keep us on an intercept course,” he said. “We’ll have to attack them from close range.”

Timothy concentrated as the enemy ship drew closer. The ship seemed unaware of their presence, which might not have been that surprising; the sensor scans he had detected suggested that they had skimped on their sensors, not unlike many other warship designs that civilians came up with. He’d seen some of the proposals and most of them gave excessive interest to weapons and speed…and hardly any to supporting systems. A warship could only shoot at what it could see, after all, and if it couldn’t pick up on any of the targets, it wouldn’t be able to engage them.

He scowled. That might not matter so much if the Fury failed to deal a crippling blow in the opening round. The factors that determined the outcome of most engagements in space were weight of broadside and defence; the more missiles one ship launched at its enemy, the higher the chance of scoring a significant number of hits. If the enemy ship could fire ten missiles for every missile the Fury could fire, they would have a very powerful advantage and if they had a competent crew, they would probably have a decisive advantage. It wouldn’t be perfect; any smart and reasonably sane pirate crew would prefer to escape rather than engage the Fury, not least because of the risk of catastrophic damage to the ship’s Phase Drive. There were other Imperial Fleet ships in the system and if the enemy ship was completely unable to withdraw…

“I’m picking up a second message from the Tony Jones,” the communications officer said. “They’re informing System Command that they don’t think that they will be able to avoid engagement and that they intend to make a fight of it.”

Timothy practically heard the Captain wince. The Tony Jones had been designed by a consortium of freighter owners who wanted a ship that could stand off a pirate attack and look actually capable of defending itself, something that the Imperial Fleet viewed without enthusiasm. Timothy had been puzzled at first – anything that helped to kill pirates should have been welcome – but Elf had explained dryly that Fleet didn’t want to give ships to their enemies and it was quite possible that a freighter crew, who tended to live on the margins, would turn to piracy if they felt that they had no other choice. Timothy wasn't sure if he bought the logic or not, but it was well above his pay grade.

But it might not matter, he knew; the Tony Jones wasn’t a real warship. Unlike the Merry Prankster, it had been originally built with an eye towards defence, and so it carried weapons, drives and sensors of a military-grade, even though they were inferior to the latest systems that had been refitted into the Fury. She might have been able to deter a pirate ship and she might be able to stand off a small ship, but a larger ship…? Hell, if the pirates were willing to sock up their damage and close in, they could blow the Tony Jones apart with their weapons. The only real protection the ship had was the theory – so far untested – that the pirates would prefer to avoid her on the grounds that she might damage their ships to the point where escaping the system became impossible, or that they would destroy their victim when they tried to take her.

The Captain had been scornful of the prospects when they had been briefed on the subject and Timothy couldn’t argue with his logic. The pirates might be provoked to simply wreck ships for the sake of wreaking them, or if they were angered at any defiance from the crews, they might take it out on them. It didn’t strike him that the pirates could do much worse to the crewmen they captured, but it was true that more pirates, in the years since Gotha had fallen, were allowing their captured crews to flee their ships, provided only that the ships were surrendered without a fight.

He curled his lips. If that was true, and there was certainly enough evidence to suggest that it was becoming a common theme, the Tony Jones might not even put up a fight. He watched as the freighter attempted to alter course again, trying to open the range between itself and the pirate ship, only to smile as the pirate ship looped after it, casually closing the range and preparing to enter missile range. If the pirates remained true to form, they would launch a missile towards the Tony Jones as a warning shot, or maybe fire one directly into it’s shields, just to be extra-threatening.

“Missile separation,” he snapped, as the console sounded an alarm. His hand hovered above the command that would cancel the cloak and snap the Fury’s shields into position – one favoured manoeuvre of the Imperial Fleet was for a particularly gutsy Captain to carefully pretend to have missed the hints of a cloaked ship’s presence, run a track, and then fire when the cloaked ship was too close to either bring up it’s shields or lock onto the missiles before they struck the ship – but the missile was definitely aimed at the freighter. “Captain, the enemy have fired on the Tony Jones.”

He watched, tensely, as the missile inched towards the Tony Jones, only to be struck by a burst of point defence from the freighter. He lifted an eyebrow – the point defence had been more effective than he had thought – and checked the power curves again; there was no hint that the enemy ship was surprised, or that it was intimidated by the Tony Jones.

The new Midshipman put it into words. “What do you think the pirates are doing?”

“Laughing,” Timothy said. Captain Venture gave him a reproving look. “Captain, I have three more missiles launched from the pirate ship, this time in sprint mode and…”

His voice broke off as one of the missiles stuck home. “They have scored a direct hit on the Tony Jones,” he reported, unnecessarily. “The freighter’s shields have been badly dented.”

“I’m picking up a message,” the communications officer said. “The pirates are demanding that the Tony Jones stands down its shields and drives, or they will be fired upon.”

Captain Venture glanced over at the helmsman. “Move us into attack position,” he ordered. “Is there any response from the freighter?”

“They’re asking the pirates what will happen to them,” the communications officer said. “The pirates aren’t responding.”

Timothy bit down a curse as they slipped close enough to take a proper reading on the pirate and the computers finally found a vague match. “Captain, I think she’s a TakChar-class heavy cruiser, dating back several hundred years at least,” he said. “The sensor readings are still a little vague, but I’m guessing she packs at least twice as much firepower as we do.”

“Target their engines and primary power links,” the Captain ordered. “Prepare to fire on my command.”

Timothy felt his hands moving almost of their own accord. The older ship wouldn’t have been a match for them if the pirates had left it with its original equipment, but the missiles, at least, had been modern. The older cruisers had been passed down to various system defence forces, or even sold on to commercial interests, and some of them had fallen into pirate hands. The Fury represented nearly five hundred years of future development in weapons, sensors and tactics, but the pirates would have refitted their cruiser as heavily as they could. The older ship…well, the Fury could have flown rings around her; the refitted ship…might be more of a challenge. The hull would have been good for a thousand years; the Imperials built to last.

“I have targeted their engines and presumed locations for their primary power links,” he said. The enemy ship might not be bothering with stealth any longer, but while engines were obvious targets, power links were not. The pirates would have refitted the ship to the point where anyone working from the original plans – as Timothy was – would get an unpleasant surprise if they relied upon them. “All weapons are ready to fire.”

“The Tony Jones has surrendered,” the communications officer said. “The pirates are launching their assault shuttles now.”

Timothy watched as four shuttles accelerated away from the pirate ship. A subroutine targeting program locked onto them and tracked them, but they would be out of energy range within moments…and they didn’t dare allow them to actually board the Tony Jones. That would have added an unpleasant new dimension – that of a hostage crisis – to the problem, one that he hoped the Captain wanted to avoid.

The Captain’s voice was firm, betraying no signs of any inner doubts. “Mr Keck,” he said, “open fire.”

The lights dimmed slightly as Timothy unleashed the full power of the Fury’s armament into the rear of the pirate ship. It’s shields, unprepared for such a pounding, failed almost at once and energy weapons cut deep into the rear of the ship, tearing into their drives. Timothy had no time to appreciate the firework display; he had to get the Fury ready in case someone on the other side was on the ball and fired back…

Fury rang like a bell as four missiles slammed home, sending the starship tumbling head over heels into space. The pirate ship had fired within seconds – someone over there had the reaction times of a cat – and the shields had barely been established when they had been hammered. Timothy found himself trying to work his console as the starship pulled out of it’s tumble, in time to see the Tony Jones firing on the pirate shuttles, blowing them into flaming balls of plasma.

“The Tony Jones took down the shuttles,” he reported. The pirate ship was still spinning, but it was still producing a power curve and power emissions; the odds were that it hadn’t been as badly damaged as he had hoped.

“Give me a damage report on the pirate ship,” Captain Venture ordered. He was listening to the engineer’s report on the limited damage to the Fury and his face looked very grim. No one, but no one, damaged the Fury and got away with it. “How badly did we hurt them?”

Timothy – at last – brought up the active sensors and probed through the haze in space. “I think that we took out their Phase Drive and some of their power sources, but others are clearly still active; they still have drive fields, shields, and I assume weapons.”

“I see,” the Captain said. The Captain rarely swore – it was bad for discipline – but Timothy was certain that he had thought a swearword, even if he hadn’t said it. “Communications, transmit a call for surrender.”

“Message transmitted,” the communications officer said. Timothy could hear the cold delight in her voice and shuddered; had he ever been that young? “There’s no response from them, but the Tony Jones is asking for orders.”

“Tell them to head back into the inner system and rendezvous with the battlecruiser Titan when it arrives,” the Captain snapped. The Tony Jones had no place in a battle. “Mr Keck, did we take out their communications?”

“It’s impossible to say,” Timothy said, checking his console. “We hit them pretty hard, but unless they suffered a complete power failure – which they haven’t – they should still have communications. We didn’t hit them badly enough to decompress the entire ship, so my best guess is that they’re hearing us, but they’re not bothering to respond.”

“Open a channel,” the Captain ordered. There was a pause until the communications officer lifted a hand. “Pirate vessel, this is the Imperial Fleet starship HMS Fury. You are unable to leave this system, nor are you able to generate a drive field with enough power to escape pursuit from us or the battlecruiser that is heading towards you from the inner system. If you surrender, we are prepared to transport you to a penal world instead of executing you out of hand. You are completely without options; surrender now, or die.”

He moved his hand across his throat; the communications officer cut the link. “Is there any response?”

“Nothing as yet,” the communications officer said. “They could be arguing over what they should do.”

“Perhaps,” the Captain agreed. It was as good an explanation as any. “Mr Keck, what is their current weapons status?”

“I think we knocked out most of their bow weapons,” Timothy said, carefully. He wasn’t sure that he entirely trusted the readings; their strike should have left the enemy ship completely powerless and it had failed, therefore the pirates had to have modified the ship, therefore it might still have surprises. “I’m not sure if they would be able to power energy weapons, but unless they’ve lost their targeting sensors completely, they won’t have any difficulty targeting and launching missiles.”

“Prepare a strike pattern to knock them down and take them out,” the Captain said. His patience was clearly nearing its limit; few people in the fleet would extend much in the way of mercy to pirates. It occurred to Timothy suddenly that Tiffany might be on that ship, but he forced the thought back down into nightmare; it was statistically unlikely. “Lock weapons on target as overtly as we can.”

“Done,” Timothy said. Now that they were using active sensors, they were slowing peeling away at the mystery of what the pirates had done to the ancient ship. It was actually quite an impressive piece of work, in its own right, but he wouldn’t hesitate to complete the destruction of the ship if the Captain ordered it.

“I’m picking up a transmission,” the communications officer said. “I’m patching it through now.”

The voice was that of the classroom bully who’s suddenly discovered that there was someone bigger than him in the world. “Don’t shoot,” he pleaded, his voice almost broken. “Don’t shoot; for God’s sake, we surrender!”

“Coward,” the Captain muttered, just loudly enough for Timothy to hear. “This is Captain Lord Venture, Imperial Fleet. You will lower your shields and power down your weapons. My Marines will board your ship and take you into custody. If you attempt to resist, the deal is off and you will be shot on the spot, understand?”

Elf – newly promoted to sergeant and ‘Gunny’ – would be leading the assault boats, Timothy remembered, watching as they were launched from the Fury and aimed directly at the enemy ship. He prayed for her safety, knowing that all he could do was avenge her death if something happened to kill the Marines, but nothing happened. Instead of a grand ‘fuck you’ gesture, the pirates surrendered and were rapidly transported back to the holding cells on the Fury.

“A good day’s work, Mr Keck,” the Captain said. Timothy’s promotion had made him the first officer, in fact if not in name, and the Captain brought him more into his confidence. “Secure the ship from red alert, place a prize crew onto the pirate ship and whistle up a tug from the inner solar system. Doubtless, Intelligence will want to go through that ship and find out everything they can about our enemy.”

“Yes, sir,” Timothy said. “I’ll get…”

He broke off as the communications console shrilled an alarm. It was the ‘all-ships’ alarm, a message directed to every starship and only used in absolute emergencies. The last time it had been used, if he remembered correctly, was back during the Grey War, when the Greys had come boiling into human space with bad intentions. It was never used in drills, no matter the drill; it was used once when a new ship was tested, and then never used again…

“Report,” the Captain snapped. He covered up the shock he had to be feeling very well. He was much older than Timothy, but he might never have heard the signal used before either. “What’s happened?”

“Something bad has happened on Taurus,” the communications officer said. Timothy felt his mouth fall open in horror. Taurus was his homeworld, even though he had never been back there since the attack on the Max Capricorn and joining the Imperial Fleet. What could have happened there that warranted an all-ships message? “We are ordered to head there at once!”

Chapter Thirty-Two: Blatant Act

“We are within ten minutes of emergence in the Taurus System,” the helmsman said, as Tiffany took the command chair on the Blackbird. The six hundred meter long battlecruiser was the largest ship she’d seen since the Max Capricorn and it was all hers, from prow to stern. She had enjoyed learning everything about it, from the vast engines that powered the ship to the weapons that allowed it to fight in a real battle…it could outfight anything that could catch it and outrun anything that could outfight it. The Imperials had designed battlecruisers for raiding operations; the handful of modifications that had been made to the ship had only made it deadlier.

“Good,” she said, sniffing the air. One thing she had insisted on when she took control of the battlecruiser had been hygiene regulations, some of them draconian by pirate standards, but the reward lay in the cleaner air. The older ships reeked with foul smells; she didn’t want to think about how she would react if she ever had to board one of them without nose plugs. The pirates had lived too long in their filth. “All stations, sound off.”

She listened as the various stations reported in to the bridge. She had ensured that her supporters from the Knife Edge were in places within the Blackbird, but the sheer number of positions that needed to be filled defeated her best intentions; sooner or later, one of her people would try to stick a knife in her back. Captain Blackbird had once, in a more philosophical mode, discoursed on how the primary mode of humanity was self-interest; they would support her and work for her as long as it benefited them to follow her. Sooner or later, one of them would want the trappings of real power…and make a move against her, in hopes of removing her and taking what she had for themselves. She glanced around the deck, keeping her face impassive, and wondered; who would it be first?

“The crew have all reported in,” Gunnard assured her, his voice as calm as ever. He wasn’t known as anything other than her lover and First Mate; no one else knew, as far as she knew, that he was her link to her mysterious backers. As long as she was the only one who knew that, everyone who wanted to get something from the pirate kingdom, such as it was, would have to go through her. “The ship is fully at your command.”

“Splendid,” she said, wondering if Imperial Fleet Captains felt the almost-orgasmic burst of pride and pleasure at commanding such nimble destructive power, with a crew that would follow their orders until death. It had taken nearly two years to establish herself and ensure that the crew of the battlecruiser knew what they were doing – and, in the process, drilling to levels undreamt of by most pirates – but today would prove if it would all come together, or if she’d fall on her face. “Take us in according to the plan.”

They’d paused, a bare eighteen hours out from the system, to check with a picket ship she’d ordered to visit Taurus and ensure that there were no unpleasant surprises waiting for them there. The only piece of worrying news had been the presence of an Imperial Fleet destroyer orbiting the world, but that possibility had been worked into her plan; in many ways, she had hoped that they would encounter such a ship. She would have seriously considered diverting to the secondary target if they had encountered anything heavier than a light cruiser, let alone a battlecruiser, but a single tin can wasn’t a problem. Not, at least, to the Blackbird.

Her eyes flickered to the display. They were invisible in Phase Space, of course, but the five smaller ships were packed with pirates whose only real use came with assaulting planets and asteroids. They were ignorant scum, basically, and completely expendable; if all of them were killed by the Imperial Fleet, no one would care in the slightest. Some of her Captains had wanted to transport them on the Blackbird, but she had refused; they might have had secret instructions to attempt to take control of the battlecruiser as soon as possible. That…would have been irritating.

“Emergence in twenty seconds,” the helmsman said. He ran down a countdown as they raced towards the system. “Emerging…now!”

Tiffany tensed. If someone had betrayed them, they would run right into a trap. “We seem to be clear,” Gunnard said, from the tactical console. “There are seventeen drive fields detected within the system, only one of them anywhere near us…and none of them are military-grade.”

Tiffany nodded. The new habit of arming freighters was becoming more than an irritation, but she didn’t have to worry about it on this mission. There were more important issues at hand. The clock was already ticking; Taurus might not rate an FTL communicator, but she would bet anything anyone wanted to put forward that they had already dispatched a fastship to anywhere where there might be some serious firepower…assuming, of course, that they knew that the Blackbird wasn't an Imperial ship.

“Take us in,” she ordered. She had thought about trying to pose as an Imperial starship, but she hadn’t been able to locate an IFF code that wasn't either completely unsuited or well out of date. The original IFF code would have set off alarms right across the sector; Gunnard had been tight-lipped, but if she read between the lines properly, the Blackbird had been missing since the Grey War.

Two hours passed before they received a challenge from Taurus’s System Command; she gave orders for it to be ignored. She loathed the handful of people she had remembered from her childhood; many of them, rather than appreciating what they did, had chosen instead to mock and belittle their work. They had tickets off the planet, tickets denied to the vast majority of the planet’s inhabitants, and they had sometimes flaunted those in her face when she had tried to apply for positions that might lead to escaping the dead end on Taurus.

“The enemy destroyer is powering up it’s drives,” Gunnard reported, after another hour had ticked slowly by. Tiffany had spent it carefully picking out targets for the small flotilla. “I think they’re going to come out to check us out, or maybe retreat and run for their lives.”

The smart thing to do would be to run, Tiffany thought coldly, and smiled. The Imperials might have hoped that the battlecruiser was friendly, even without an IFF, but paranoia had evidently caused them to start making preparations to fight. They didn’t stand a chance – they had to know that they didn’t stand a chance – but they were still determined to fight. Maybe, against a pirate cruiser, their stand would have worked, but against a battlecruiser…? They didn’t stand a chance.

“I am receiving a priority-one hail from the Imperial,” the communications officer said. Tiffany’s lips twitched humourlessly; a priority-one hail was only used in emergencies, a way of shouting ‘wake up you lazy bastard’ at an incoming ship. “I think they’re a little bit agitated.”

Tiffany watched as the red icon of the Imperial Fleet starship buzzed closer. “I think their next transmission will be rather more than a little agitated,” she said. The freighters were escaping the system as fast as they could move, but that, too, was part of the plan. “First Mate” – she saw the light in Gunnard’s eyes and matched it – “you may open fire as soon as they come into range.”

The Imperial Fleet standardized everything; it was an oversight that they were about to pay for, as the missiles lanced away from the battlecruiser. The destroyer’s missiles spat back a pitiful response as she attempted to return fire, coming in towards the Blackbird in desperate hopes of ramming or coming within energy range, but it was far too late for any such measures. Seven missiles slammed home…and the destroyer vanished in a burst of fire.

“We just stamped on the dragon’s tail,” someone said.

Tiffany nodded; they’d just thrown down a gauntlet right in front of the entire Imperial Fleet. “Open hailing frequencies and transmit the pre-recorded message towards the planet,” she ordered. System Command had to be wetting itself in shock; no one, but no one, had simply waltzed into the system and blown away a destroyer. “Let’s tell them what we’re here for…”

She’d recorded the message personally. It was very simple; the battlecruiser was here to take tribute from the planet, in the form of food, crops, and potential slaves. The cargo of the freighters and smaller settlements in orbit were forfeit as well; if the planet wanted to be spared further depredations, they would have to pay a certain amount of tribute each year, or it would be taken by force. The final command was simpler; they were to spread the message as far as possible across the sector.

“The message has been transmitted,” the communications officer said. “There is no actual response as yet.”

“I doubt there’ll be a response,” Tiffany said. She glanced over at Gunnard. “Clear away all the pesky little orbital defences as soon as they come into range, there’s a dear.”

Gunnard nodded, sharing her private amusement. “Of course, Your Majesty,” he said. The title sounded wonderful in his mouth, even though most of the pirates, at the very least, expressed some doubts. What happened today would settle the issue once and for all. “I already have targeting sequences lined up.”

She’d picked Taurus for two separate reasons; firstly, that it was an easy target for the battlecruiser, and secondly, because it had very little that was normally worth stealing. Pirates wouldn’t have raided a newly colonised world unless they were truly desperate for targets, or there was something there worth taking, but Taurus had nothing. There were food crops, of course, and slaves, but those weren’t normally worth the risk involved in raiding the system. Tiffany wanted to make a point; the rules, such as they were, had changed.

The battlecruiser thrummed as its energy batteries cleared away the orbital defences. Taurus had never been a wealthy world and hadn’t been able to afford really scary or advanced defences…and there hadn’t been any real need for them. The old rules had said that the planet wasn't worth raiding; if the Greys or another serious enemy had come along, the Imperial Fleet would have classed Taurus as expendable. She wondered how they would react now…and, more importantly, how the various planetary governments would react to her bare-faced challenge. What would they do?

“All orbital defences have been wiped out of existence,” Gunnard reported, his voice hiding an unholy glee. He was enjoying this as much as she was, maybe more; it made her wonder if destruction got him horny, “I am detecting no traces of any ground-based defence systems beyond a few skimmers.”

“There wouldn’t be,” Tiffany said. “Order the landing force to begin descending from orbit and start the raid. Remind them that they have an hour, no more; anyone who goes off chasing a bitch and doesn’t come back will be left to their tender mercies.”

She watched as the converted freighters fell from orbit, heading down towards the planet. Taurus was a fairly new world; apart from Landing City, the main settlements were spread out over the entire planet, mainly small farming communities of a thousand people at most. Aircars and some heavier transports – along with a sophisticated communications network – had kept everyone in touch, but even so, the social life on the planet had been a bit lacking. She’d lived in one of the larger settlements and her life had been boring; now, it might not be safe, but it wasn’t boring. It wasn’t going to be boring for anyone else on the planet within the next few minutes…

“The transports have landed,” Gunnard informed her. “The raid is in progress.”

Tiffany’s imagination filled in the details. The ships were small enough to land without any massive spaceports, or landing cradles; their drive fields flattening the ground to the point when the ships would land perfectly. The armed raiders would pour out of the ships, heading for the settlements; their weapons would cut through anything that the defenders might use to try to defend themselves. The residents of the outlaying settlements were meant to have weapons training and projectile weapons, but they wouldn’t be much good against the most dangerous animal in the universe; intelligent enemies. The militia might have time to mount a fight…

The raiders would snatch up anyone who looked useful, concentrating on the young girls and the older men, including anyone who looked to have any kind of spacer experience. The girls should be unharmed at first, although there might be a small amount of rape going on down on the surface; there wasn’t time for any proper fun. She wondered if the raiders would pick up anyone she knew, but it was unlikely; it had been six years since she had last visited the planet. Her own home town hadn’t been targeted.

“There were several thousand tons of farming equipment held in orbit,” the communications officer said. His voice became a droll snort. “Apparently, there was some kind of issue over payment and the freighters had to remain in orbit, rather than landing their equipment on the ground.”

“Put a prize crew on the freighters and have them start on the first leg of the journey,” Tiffany ordered. “Once the crews have surrendered their command codes, have them dumped into escape pods and left in space for the ground-based shuttles to pick up, or maybe they could just de-orbit themselves somewhere near Landing City.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” the communications officer said. He sounded much more respectful now that they had gotten so far without a serious challenge. “The ground forces are reporting that they have scooped up several hundred slaves, but they’re meeting resistance in several towns; they want orders.”

“Tell them to return to orbit with the slaves they have,” Tiffany said, all-too-aware of time ticking away. If the Imperial Fleet managed to respond, they might bring her little empire to a halt before she had even managed to get it up and running. “Gunnard, the towns that offered resistance…?”

Gunnard lifted an eyebrow. “Yes, Your Majesty?”

“Destroy them,” Tiffany said. The starship shuddered as the missiles, tipped with nuclear warheads that would barely be a firecracker in deep space, launched into the planet’s atmosphere. The warheads were clean, in the sense they wouldn’t leave any radiation behind – the Imperials had designed them that way, probably for the same use that Tiffany put them too – but they would certainly be disastrous on the ground. She doubted that any of the residents would survive the second set of strikes.

“All targets destroyed,” Gunnard said. If he had any qualms over killing over five thousand humans, he didn’t show them. “The freighters are returning to orbit now.”

“Transmit the second message,” Tiffany said. She waited long enough for the message to be picked up and understood. There was no longer any need to delay. “Launch the second attack.”

The starship shuddered again. “We scored nine out of ten precise hits,” Gunnard said. Tiffany nodded; given the variables involved, she had assumed that five of the kinetic energy weapons would miss their targets. They had done better than she had dared hope. “The targets have been destroyed.”

“Time to take our leave,” Tiffany said, calmly. She sat back in her chair and relaxed slightly. “Helm, pick a random course and take us out of the system, and then jump us to the first waypoint. Tactical, keep an eye out for any counterattacks or pursuit courses that anyone feels inclined to risk; launch a shell of drones, just in case someone is trying to sneak up on us.”

She smiled inwardly. The worst danger now was not an attack – no enemy attack could hope to make up for the damage to the planet - but that someone would try to sneak close enough to the Blackbird to try to track it through Phase Space. Difficult was not the same as impossible, she’d been taught; it had been done before, most notably to Captain Morgan…who, coming to think of it, had also possessed a battlecruiser. Morgan’s Kingdom had come to an end in the chaos of the Grey War; it made her wonder what would happen to her Kingdom in the future. She had tweaked Fleet before, but now…she might as well have smashed an armoured glove across Fleet’s collective face.

“There is no trace of anyone trying to follow us,” Gunnard reported, after a moment. Tiffany didn’t relax, even though she appeared calm; she wouldn’t relax until they had crossed the Phase Limit and were back in Phase Space. It could still go wrong, even if the odds of Fleet managing a successful interception grew smaller every second. “I think we made a clean break.”

“That was what we wanted,” Tiffany reminded him dryly. The idea hadn’t been to raid the planet, or engage in mindless destruction for the sake of mindless destruction, but to show that Fleet couldn’t defend the sector against her forces. The offer – the demand, rather – for tribute would spread…and people all over the sector would have to decide if they wanted to pay, or face destruction. Best of all, where could Fleet hit to strike back? If they knew where Tan was, they would have destroyed the asteroid long ago, rather than let her make her preparations in peace. No, they had been shown to be impotent…and they had had their faces rubbed in their impotency.

She smiled. “A good day’s work,” she said, as they crossed the Phase Limit. The sensor crews checked again, looking for telltale turbulence, but found nothing. They hadn’t been followed. “Get us out of here.”

Chapter Thirty-Three: No Universe For Old Men

“She’s your sister,” Captain Venture said.

“She’s no sister of mine,” Timothy snapped back. He hadn’t believed it – he hadn’t wanted to believe it – until the voiceprint had been confirmed. How could Tiffany have done such a thing? The damage to their own homeworld…how could she? “I don’t even know her!”

He glared down at the image on the display, unwilling to let the Captain see the hot tears that had flared in his eyes when he had first heard the news. Taurus…might never be the same again; seven townships had been struck by antiship missiles – missiles designed to be kept well away from the surface of a vulnerable planet – and had been completely destroyed. Smaller, more precise kinetic weapons had struck down as well; the Imperial Fleet office, such as it was, had been destroyed, along with six other targets that hampered rescue and recovery operations. The pirates – Tiffany – had wanted to make a point…

He found himself grinding his teeth in cold futile rage. The attack broke all the rules, all of the conventions that governed piracy and the way that the Imperial Fleet could respond to it; it was more of an act of terrorism than any real strike motivated by simple greed. Thousands had been killed, hundreds more – perhaps – had been taken as slaves; it would take years to confirm just how many people had died on the surface, rather than being taken as slaves…the people on the planet would never know for sure what had happened to their missing loved ones. Hell, he’d thought that Tiffany was dead.

“Timothy,” the Captain said. Timothy found himself straightening to attention – it was almost as natural as breathing by now – to meet the Captain’s eyes. There was no anger hidden there, no recrimination, no blame, no suggestion that Timothy was somehow untrustworthy because of what his sister had done…there was nothing, but compassion. “Timothy, I need you to talk to me.”

“Imperial Intelligence talked to me,” Timothy said. He hadn’t understood the disdain, if not outright hatred, that crewmen had had for the Intelligence agents, until he had been grilled by a trio of them. They had asked him questions that touched upon everything, until he had finally been rescued by direct orders from Vice Admiral Argent himself. “They asked me everything about her.”

The Captain said nothing. “They wanted to know everything about her,” Timothy said, unwilling to be silent. “They asked about her early life, about what she might have wanted from life, about who she loved down on the surface of the planet…hell, they even asked if she had a normal menstrual cycle. How the hell was I supposed to know that?”

“There is always a shortage of intelligence in Intelligence,” the Captain said. He’d said that before, Timothy remembered. Now, unlike back on the Merry Prankster, he understood the real reason for the statement. “Still, everything they could learn from you might come in handy for the profile they’ll build of her, just to see if they can predict her actions.”

Timothy laughed bitterly. “I was her brother,” he said, blinking away new tears. “I didn’t know – I didn’t predict – that she would do anything like this!”

“I know,” the Captain said. His voice was very gentle. “Tell me about your sister.”

Timothy found himself grasping for words. They had been twins, born almost together on Old Earth, their parents reluctant to tell them who was actually older. They had been taken to Taurus with their parents at a very young age and their parents, at least, had never looked back. The children…well, Timothy had wanted to establish his own farm, but Tiffany had wanted to leave. It was harder for a young girl on a farming colony, one denied the bright lights and easier society of Earth; Tiffany had become more withdrawn as the years went past, one by one.

“She wanted to join the fleet,” he said, grimly. The memory tore at him. Tiffany had studied the fleet, she had tried to learn as much as she could about being a cadet, a midshipwoman, a captain…anything, as long as it was off Taurus. She had wanted a life that didn’t include farming an independent farm, or taking up the store after her parents passed on or retired. “She didn’t want to remain stuck down on the surface of Taurus forever…”

It made him wonder; Tiffany had hated the place. Had she picked Taurus because it was a good target – and it was – or because she wanted a little revenge. Could she be tempted into making a mistake because of her hatred? Had she always been like that deep inside, or had her time with the pirates changed and warped her? Might she have been something different if she had joined the fleet?

“She loved games,” he said, remembering. Tiffany had been the expert at Chess, Risk, and other games of strategy. “She always wanted to play games with everyone, something to keep her busy when she wasn’t working for our father; she was the best player I ever knew, someone who loved her games. Some of the local boys used to take them up to play with her, in hopes of getting into her pants, but they never won.”

He laughed. “I think they hated that,” he admitted. “She always was a very isolated child.”

“And now more isolated than ever,” the Captain said. He leaned closer to Timothy. “As far I’m concerned, you still have my full trust and confidence, and have ever since you earned your midshipman’s badge. Under the circumstances, I could probably organise you a transfer to the Human Sector or another sector…”

“No,” Timothy said. Cold determination congealed in his chest. He wouldn’t allow her to escape justice, even if she was his sister; he would hunt her down if it took him the rest of his life. “I want to stay here. I have to stay here.”

“I understand,” the Captain said. “That does leave us – all of us – with the task of dealing with this pirate kingdom and the threat it poses to the rest of the sector.”

Timothy said nothing. Tiffany’s messages, by now, would be halfway across the sector, a combination of threats and promises. If the sector governors were prepared to work with her and pay tribute, pirate attacks would stop; if they refused to work with her, they would face worse attacks…and the black scars on Taurus showed just how far she was prepared to go. Worse, the loss of the destroyer would damage confidence – had probably already destroyed confidence – in the ability of the fleet to protect the sector directly from the pirates. All over the sector, people would be calculating the odds and making a few decisions about whom to support…and if they picked the pirates, how could they be blamed?

I can blame them, Timothy thought, silently cursing his sister under his breath. They would see the attack on Taurus as proof that fleet couldn’t be trusted to protect them, so they would try to come to an accommodation with her, even if it was one under the table. Fleet’s task, already hard, would become impossible; the sector would slowly, inevitably, fall under Tiffany’s control. The sheer…immensity of the scheme awed him, but at the same time, was there anything that could actually stop such a scheme before it started rolling? Captain Morgan had failed, but he had relied upon the Greys and failed to realise how little he – or any other human – meant to the utterly inhuman creatures.

A thought struck him. “Captain…surely this would get us some reinforcements from the inner worlds,” he said. A small flicker of hope alighted in his breast. “Couldn’t the Port Admiral forward a request for some additional battlecruisers and light units from one of the other sector fleets? If we could put a battle squadron in each system…”

He broke off at the look on the Captain’s face. He had known, intellectually, that the Captain was an old man, old enough not to ever be considered for more than a squadron command at best, but now he saw traces of that age leaking onto a face that might not have been youthful, but was mature rather than old. The Captain was over sixty years old, not unknown in the Imperial Fleet, but he looked much older in that moment.

“Remind me of something, Timothy,” the Captain said. “How old are you?”

“Twenty next month,” Timothy said. He didn’t want to break the moment, but part of him wanted to run; he didn’t want to hear what was coming next. “She’ll have her birthday on the same day…”

“I’m old enough to remember the Grey War,” the Captain said, slowly. “I’m old enough to remember the Empire before the Collapse. I’m old enough to know that the Empire I used to know is long gone, even if it hasn’t fallen apart; the loss of the Imperials has changed it beyond recognition. You’re too young for this, Tim; you’re young enough to still be idealistic…

“Back then, we knew where we stood,” he said. “The Imperials came along, beat hell out of Earth’s defenders, and imposed their own order. The various human nations were crushed, some of them being allowed to set up colonies as long as they worked for the Imperials and understood that the Imperials were The Boss, and human resistance proved futile. The Imperials had a long-term view and just kept going; humans were spread out across the Empire, some of them on approved worlds, others on worlds that they thought they could hide indefinitely. The Imperials set up the House of Lords, Parliament and the Royal Family, breeding humans as if we were sheep to create a long-term structure that served their interests, and then…

“I don’t know when the rot set in, but one day we woke up and discovered that the Imperials were withdrawing and the Greys were moving on from the other side of the sector,” he said softly. “We fought like mad bastards and won that war, but the Empire as a whole was too large to be touched easily, or even destroyed by the Greys. Parts of the Empire fell into chaos or civil war, others parts ended up as superpowers within the Empire, still other parts decided to try to make their independence stick…”

He shook his head as he ran his hand through his hair. “Back on Centre, people – humans, aliens, creatures so strange that we had no thought of their existence before the Imperials arrived – are trying to figure out some way of holding the Empire together, against so much inertia ripping the Empire apart. The Imperials…no one doubted that they were in charge, but even now…the Imperial Council isn’t even properly representative. I suspect that sooner or later they’ll settle down to a kind of federal structure, but that will only happen once everyone has found a compromise they can live with. The alternative is that parts of the Empire will try to grab sections of the Imperial Fleet and create their own Empire, and if that happens…”

“Civil war,” Timothy filled in, spellbound.

“Exactly,” Captain Venture said. He sighed loudly enough to be heard across the room. “Timothy, no one at Centre cares about what happens out here, at least not enough to convince everyone to put aside their differences and push out a new fleet of large units. We might get a few smaller units if we ask nicely, but a few new battle squadrons…forget them.”

Timothy stared at him. “Why would they not send us the help we need?”

Captain Venture laughed dryly. “You are young,” he said, not unkindly. “Think about it; here, we have something reassembling a proper infrastructure, a fleet that is fairly loyal to its commanding officer, and considerable distance from Centre. They might think that Port Admiral Johnston intends, in fact, to set up his own empire out here, so they won’t send him the ships he’ll need to defend the worlds because he might have his own ideas about who he should be defending them from!”

“Sir…Captain…would Admiral Johnston do anything like that?”

“I don’t know, Timothy,” the Captain admitted. “Back during the Collapse, people went a little funny, sometimes acting in ways that perplexed us. Admiral Glass led an attack against an Imperial Shipyard, just to give us a fighting chance against the Greys; I would have sworn that he would sooner have died than act in such a manner. Others did stranger things; one Home Guard commander stood and faced down an Imperial battlecruiser, daring them to fire on his craft. It was a strange time…

“Hell, and Earth was lucky,” he admitted. “There were places where humans and aliens found themselves at loggerheads. There were places where the Greys struck and exterminated all life for whatever reason made sense to those strange creatures. There was a place where some idiot of an Admiral decided to confront the Kerr themselves and lost an entire battlefleet. Yes, there were places where rogue Admirals attempted to set up on their own, so they might well believe that Admiral Johnston intends something like that.”

“I can’t believe it,” Timothy said. His voice rang with outrage. “People are dying out here.”

The Captain laughed. “What you will discover, as you get older, is that politicians don’t always care about the lives of people outside their spheres of interest,” he said. “They will be happier spending money to keep the folks at home happy than spending money on the light units that we need to patrol the Rim and this sector effectively.”

“Why?” Timothy demanded. He was vaguely aware that he shouldn’t talk like that to the Captain, but his own outrage drove him on. “Don’t they care about the people?”

“Dead people don’t vote, Timothy,” the Captain said dryly. “The billions of people in the inner worlds can and do, at every election. Everyone is selfish, everyone wants something for himself; the Imperials, who took the long view, could keep pirates under control because they didn’t care about upsetting constituencies back home. The people we have today…they don’t really care what happens to the people out here, not when they can gain more power back home.”

He remembered himself. “I think we’ll be stuck out here for the next few weeks,” he said. “It’s a useless mission, some hopes of the criminal returning to the scene of her crime, but the politicians down on the surface insisted. You can go down to the surface, if you want; I would understand.”

“No, thank you,” Timothy said. There was nothing there for him now, not on the planet or anywhere else. He had given up all thoughts of returning when he had joined the Imperial Fleet, ironically following the career path that Tiffany had planned for her own escape from Taurus. “I just want to resume my duties.”

“Not in your current state,” the Captain said. The new firmness in his voice made Timothy straighten back to attention. “You’re off-duty for the next week. If you can’t sleep, spend it thinking about how we can trap your sister before she does something that will rip this sector apart and send it spiralling down into civil war.”

Timothy saluted and left the office, his thoughts running in a demented spiral of nightmarish thoughts, trying to understand what had happened. Part of him still clung to the suspicion – no, rather, the desperate hope - that Tiffany wasn’t really to blame; the remainder of him found it all too convincing. How could she be stopped? If she was running the pirate show – and their hometown had been spared, which suggested that she was their leader in fact as well as name – how could he use what he knew to track her down? If it were that easy, the Imperial Fleet would have wiped out the pirates long ago; a few simple precautions and they could ensure that the fleet couldn’t follow them home…

“They must be able to insert a few people into their damned command structure,” he said, angrily. He found himself in his cabin, not entirely aware of how he had reached it, but happy to be somewhere where he could be alone. Imperial Intelligence drained a huge portion of the budget; surely, somehow, there was a way to insert someone onboard a pirate vessel. They’d captured Tiffany – it defied the imagination that she might have been working for them that long ago – and she had risen to the top. “They must…”

It wasn't that simple, he knew, as he called up the files and examined them. Imperial Intelligence had managed to get a few people into pirate ships, but those people hadn’t always been able to get back in touch, or hadn’t been able to avoid detection. Or, he thought bitterly, they might have gone native. He would have said that that wasn't possible, but now that Tiffany had become their leader, he knew that anyone could fall…and it wasn't as if pirate culture was devoid of temptations. They offered the deepest and darkest of pleasures, things that civilised man would prefer to forget existed, a world where you could do anything, where do what thou wilt was the whole of the law…

The thought struck him like a flash of light; something that they could use, if they were careful. It might be possible, because it depended on anticipating her moves, but if he understood pirate culture as well as he thought, a single failure would doom her monarchy. It would require some careful planning and not a little luck, but they might just be able to pull it off…

He hit the communicator before he thought better of it. “Captain, this is Lieutenant Commander Keck,” he said. His career was unlikely to advance any further anyway, so it hardly mattered that much. “I’ve had an idea…”

Chapter Thirty-Four: Monarch’s Rights

“I guess they love you,” Gunnard muttered through her communications implant as she walked down the middle of Tan’s passageway. The hordes of pirates there, from the ones who fought a reasonably civilised war against shipping – insofar as that term could be used – to the ones who were looked down upon even by other pirates, were cheering her. “They really love you.”

Tiffany kept her face in a smile with an effort. She would have preferred not to show herself in such a manner, but it was important, desperately so, not to show any fear. The pirates were, in some ways, like wild animals; if she could convince them that she wasn’t scared of them, she would be able to dominate them and control them, as long as she didn’t let her grip slip. It dawned on her, not for the first time, that there had to be safer occupations; lion-taming, perhaps. The cheers grew louder as she waved, but even so, she knew that if she showed the slightest sign of weakness, the crowds would be baying for her blood.

“My people,” she boomed, using a covert throat mike. It was over-staged and over-dramatic, but they loved it. Pirates appreciated a show as much as anyone else. “My people, we have won a great victory and smashed one of the ships that have killed so many of us, and then we have looted and pillaged a world!”

The former, at least, was impressive by pirate standards; the latter was nothing more than a waste of time, at least on first glance. She had explained the requirements to her council as clearly as she could, but the others might not understand it; the death of the enemy destroyer had given them something to love. Pirates were rarely able to understand that they warred with fleet because of their own actions; to see fleet lose a ship like that delighted them.

“This is, but the first step in establishing an empire for us across the stars,” she promised, hearing the echoes of her voice bouncing back. “We will own planets and stars and moons, when we are done, and the fleet will be, but a distant memory! The future belongs to us!”

The cheering followed her as she completed her walk and entered the part of the asteroid that had been set aside for the council. Several ships had left the asteroid – choosing not to be part of her empire – but others had joined her, bringing the total number of starships under her direct or indirect control to two hundred. It wasn’t a serious fleet – a superdreadnaught could swat them all in a stand-up battle – but it would give her the tools to start intimidating the other worlds in the Fairfax Sector, once the messages had spread from Taurus. The Imperial Fleet might try to prevent the message from spreading, but she doubted that they had a hope in hell of actually succeeding; she’d beamed the message to the ships that had been allowed to flee the system. They would pass it on before the Imperial Fleet even realised that it had a problem.

“A good days work, I think,” she said, as she took her chair. The other four members of the council – and Gunnard – nodded to her as she sat down. They wouldn’t show her too much respect, not when she was riding so high that a fall would bring her terrifyingly low. They would want to be associated with her, but not associated closely enough that if she fell, she took them down with her. “What’s the word on the asteroid?”

“It was a pointless endeavour,” Captain Vanson said, before anyone else could speak. The four pirate captains she’d picked for her inner council represented almost all possible views, but there were times when she considered simply disposing of Captain Vanson and placing someone else in his place. That had a downside; if she moved against one of the council, they would all move against her. “All you did was take a few hundred slaves, most of whom will be useless as anything, but whores.”

“It was nothing of the sort,” Tiffany said calmly. “We did destroy a fleet destroyer…”

“With overwhelming firepower,” Captain Vanson sneered. “What would have happened if you had faced a battlecruiser that actually belonged to Fleet?”

“Lost,” Tiffany said simply. There could be little doubt of that; even if, by some miracle, the Blackbird survived the encounter, the damage might well cost them the ability to jump out of the system. “The important thing, however, is that we have handed fleet the most one-sided defeat since the Grey War. All over the sector, they will be considering their next choice of action with that simple fact in mind; we smashed a fleet ship.”

She smiled, inviting them to share her amusement. “They used to be confident that if a ship was escorted, it was certain to get through the journey without being destroyed or captured,” she said. “If they had had enough escorts to escort everything, they would have been able to prevent us from gaining any ground at all, destroying us if we tried to raid more of their shipping. Now, however, they cannot rely on the fleet to protect them, and the odds are vastly against them finding something – anything – that they can hit back at to prevent us from striking at will.”

The table rang under the impact of Captain Zora’s hand. “The Queen has done exactly as she set out to do,” she said, very clearly. “I think that she has more than repaid our trust in her, don’t you?”

Captain Vanson looked down at her. “The raid was spectacular, I will grant her that,” he said. “The issue remains, however, that it did not pay for the expenditure on the raid or the risk involved in attacking the planet. The slaves, many of whom are useless, will be sold as whores…but that will not gain us more than a few thousand credits at best. It is all very well talking about the long view, but what happens when pirates cannot make up their shortfalls in the short term?”

Tiffany smiled. “We have already decided on a raiding program that will allow all of us to make substantial profits, assuming that all of the raids are a success,” she said. “Indeed, the new laws of raiding operations have been given to all ships, along with a promise of dire punishment if the laws are broken, and there would be a strong chance that because of the laws – which we have made public by transmitting them directly into the information networks of most of the worlds in the sector – there will actually be no losses from the raids.”

“If they obey the laws,” Captain Vanson pointed out. “If they don’t, then what will happen?”

“They have to learn to control their crewmen,” Tiffany said. She had constructed the laws with one aim in mind, minimising the ‘fight to the death’ reaction that was all-too-common among spacers facing a pirate attack. They feared, with good reason, that pirates would rape and torture anyone who fell into their hands…and that give them a strong incentive to fight. The new breed of armed freighters merely added to that problem; it was quite possible that a pirate ship might destroy a freighter, but end up stuck in a hostile system with Fleet breathing down it’s neck. “Those who break the laws will be punished.”

She paused for consideration. “We have an opportunity here to strike them hard enough to make them comply with us,” she said. “Some of our agents have made overtures to some shipping lines already, preparing to offer them protection in exchange for payment, while others have approached politicians on the surface of the worlds and offered even to fund them, if they agree to cooperate rather than to try to fight us. We will, we must, avoid a direct confrontation with fleet…”

“Because we would lose,” Captain Vanson agreed. Fleet’s firepower was overwhelming…if they had something to target. They might simply slag Tan if they ever located it, rather than try to take it and learn everything they could from the asteroid, but what could they do without that tiny, but vital piece of information? They could hardly scorch a world in their sector just because some of their people had decided to pay protection, could they? “How do you intend to avoid such a confrontation?”

“By not picking one until the time is right,” Tiffany said. They would never be able to match fleet for sheer firepower. “At this moment in time, we cannot afford to lose, even if the defeat is more of a stalemate than anything else. One mistake and we’re all dead.”

She allowed some of the bleakness of the thought to touch her smile. “It rather focuses the mind, doesn’t it?”

On that note, the council meeting ended.

Tiffany walked back to the Blackbird in a more thoughtful mood than she had been in since returning to the asteroid. She had studied a little history back on Taurus, but her teachers there had never made history come alive for her, not when they concentrated on nice harmless subjects like Taurus’s early history – boring, with people alive who had actually been there – and various aspects of Earth’s early years under the Imperials, but the battlecruiser’s memory banks included more information on human history – and the history of other races – than she could have studied in an Imperial’s lifetime. Some parts of it had directly related to her own position, other parts showed how far she still had to go; she could never hope, for example, to exercise direct control over the entire sector.

The Imperials had done it on Earth, of course, but they had had overwhelming firepower, a long-term perspective, and a complete lack of concern for human issues. The Imperial Fleet would defeat any attempt she launched to actually occupy a world; if she made such a mistake, it would be the last such mistake she ever made. At the same time, of course, the Imperial Fleet couldn’t wipe them out either; the network of hidden asteroids and bases would ensure that they would have some place to hide, regroup, and strike back. Many of the most successful human bandits – and she was honest enough to admit that that was what she was – had started by extracting tribute from places that had been unable to defend themselves; a few years later, they had been lords and ladies, and everyone else had gotten into the habit of bending the knee. The common people had always had the numbers, but the lord in his castle had been always able to pick the time and place of the engagement, while the commoners had never had the weapons to bring him to heel. Gunpowder had changed that by making the walls of the castle breakable, and the Imperial Fleet could certainly break Tan if they found it, but they had to find it first…

Her mind raced as she boarded her ship – almost empty as crewmen went on to the asteroid to celebrate and enjoy some relaxation before they went back out again – and hunted for other thoughts. Her real problem was that she couldn’t finish her opponent off; she had a weapon that could make the Imperial fleet crewmen and commanders hurt, but she couldn’t destroy them. She was a fly trying to bring down an elephant; she couldn’t strike deep enough to ensure success. They, by contrast, had problems hitting her…but when they did, they killed.

She smiled slightly as she saw the clean corridors. She had insisted on keeping the ship clean and tidy, and it showed in how much neater the corridors were. The laws she had started seemed to be odd to the pirate mind, but they had adapted and paid off, from the laws regarding the conduct of slaves on the ship to the laws about fighting below decks. She didn’t think, for a moment, that she would have prevented all challenges from occurring, but perhaps the Blackbird would never have someone killed and his body dumped down a lift shaft. Her implants responded to the ship’s computers; only nine people, including the crew on watch, were on the ship.

Perfect, she thought, as she entered her cabin. The Imperial Fleet might have tried to work as one big happy family, but there was no pretence to equality; the Captain’s cabin was almost palatial compared to the single large wardroom for the Midshipmen. She had decorated it in a very basic style, preferring somewhere she could rest and relax, rather than somewhere to entertain people; she had no intention of letting anyone, apart from Gunnard, into her cabin. His backers – and he was off consulting with them – would have insisted on him staying close to her under any circumstances, but he had other advantages as well.

A small report popped up on her computer and she scanned it briefly. If someone had told her that piracy included paperwork, she would have laughed at them, but even Captain Blackbird had had to handle some paperwork, just to keep his ship in order. There were thousands of pirates, now, who owed her some allegiance; some of them had directly pledged themselves to her, some of them had pledged themselves to other people who had pledged themselves to her…and all of them would keep their pledge as long as it benefited them to do so. Once they started to realise how she could be weakened – or if she made a mistake and was weakened – they would take action against her…and she might not survive. She liked to think that Gunnard would avenge her dearth, but even so, she was riding a tiger and she didn’t dare climb off.

She signed the report and sent it back, before turning back to her history lesson. She’d hunted for anything that could be useful, but there was little that could be directly related to her and her position. Captain Morgan had had the help of the Greys and a certain amount of good fortune with the Collapse of the Empire; she could count on neither. The Greys were gone and even if the inner worlds weren’t about to send any reinforcements to the sector, they weren’t about to abandon them either. The question was simple; on whose side, really, was time on?

There were other possible sources of information, from back in Earth’s pre-space past. One piece of information made her smile, even as she read through it carefully; she was not, by a long chalk, the first pirate queen in history. A woman called Cheng Yisao had been very, very, successful as a pirate queen, at first marrying into the business and then helping her husband to expand to the point where she had almost been a government in fact, if not in name. She had dominated the surrounding area of China – wherever China had been – and had even defeated the British and the Dutch, whoever they had been. She had, not unlike Tiffany, created a strict set of laws for her pirates, but she had also clearly had more effective power than Tiffany had. Given time, she might match Cheng Yisao, but until then, she had to move carefully.

She read through the remainder of the file with a great deal of care. Cheng Yisao had fought the government’s fleets directly, something that was impossible for Tiffany; even if she somehow got her hands on a superdreadnaught, she would find it impossible to man it. Something niggled at the back of her mind as she thought about it, and she spent nearly ten minutes trying to think of what it might have been, but she put it aside and returned to the report. Cheng Yisao had finally sought amnesty from the local government…and that, too, was impossible for Tiffany. The only question was under which charge they would actually execute her, once they caught her…

She laughed, suddenly, as the thought clicked into her mind. “Gunnard,” she said, as her mind started to outline the plan in her head, “come to my cabin at once.”

It took him only ten minutes to reach her; his meeting must either have been finished, or he had chosen to leave to come see her instead. Tiffany was tempted to spend some time enjoying herself first, but business had to come before pleasure. They were riding the same tiger together.

“I know where we’re going to hit next,” Tiffany said, and explained. “What do you think?”

Gunnard stared at her. “Are you insane?” He demanded. “That place is one of the most heavily defended places in the sector?”

Tiffany laughed. “Only from one point of view,” she said, and outlined her plan. His face changed from sceptical to halfway convinced. “We can pull it off…and if they thought that attacking Taurus was stamping on the dragon’s tail, they’re really going to hate this one.”

Chapter Thirty-Five: Captain’s Favour

The sector was on edge.

Timothy could feel it, even as he sat back in the command chair and tried to look as if he were calm, rather than on edge himself. He had proved himself, or so he had been told, but he still felt nervous every time he sat back on the Captain’s chair. The imperial Fleet regulations were clear – the senior officer on the bridge had to sit on the chair in order to avoid confusion – but it still felt as if he was committing an offence against his Captain. The regulations, at times, seemed to have been written for a very different time; he compared them with the Captain’s bitter comments about the state of the Empire and wondered just what the Imperials had been drinking at the time. He didn’t know if they could get drunk – what one race found intoxicating was often nothing to another race – but if they could get drunk, it would have explained a lot about some of the regulations. No one, reasonably, could doubt who was actually in command at any given moment.

He glanced up at the display again and winced. They were back in the Roland System, one which was normally teeming with starships, including commercial ships and military vessels. Now, there were only a handful of starships buzzing around, most of them with a very distinct air of peering nervously over their shoulders. The Fury had just completed the task of escorting one group of freighters to the Phase Limit, where they should be safe until they dropped out of Phase Space on the other side of their journey, where they should be met by other fleet units. Their arrival point was random, within a certain area; even if Tiffany – it still hurt to even think of her – had planned an ambush, she would have real problems locating their endpoint in time to bring her fleet into action.

But it didn’t matter. The Imperial Fleet had been introduced to the full horrors of commerce raiding by the Greys, who had aimed at simple destruction, rather than capturing their targets. Tiffany, or so Imperial Intelligence believed, wouldn’t have that luxury; she could bring interstellar trade to a standstill, but doing so would probably cost her all the power and prestige she’d amassed to make the switch from pirate Captain to Pirate Queen. Tiffany could have slipped several cloaked ships into the destination system, with orders to lurk until the freighters arrived, then either intercept them or leave them alone, depending on the escort. The battlecruiser changed the equation; just by existing, it altered the balance of power. If she used it like a weapon and remained lucky – and she wouldn’t need much luck to remain undetected by anything large enough to give her a fight – she could continue her campaign more or less indefinitely.

He brought up the star chart and examined it thoughtfully. There were hundreds of possible stars that could serve as a pirate base, most of them stars that had never been visited since the first survey fly-through had revealed that they didn’t have anything interesting, or worth investing in, orbiting the stars. There were a handful of worlds that held grey colonies – in the sense that fleet knew where they were, but didn’t care about them, rather than colonies held by the Greys – but few of them were actually likely to attract long-term investment. The odds were that they would end up breaking their seclusion once the advantages to being part of the Empire made themselves manifest, or the founding generation died off and the newer generation didn’t see the Empire as the horror that had to be avoided at all costs, and then they would be assimilated into the Empire itself. It made him wonder; did any of them have any links to the pirates?

Imperial Intelligence maintained stations on them, but even they had problems opening offices there, where strangers would be easy to notice and very easy to avoid. He’d read a report that suggested that black and grey colonies were the final endpoint of most of the otherwise useless goods – like farming equipment – that the pirates stole, but they would probably be reluctant to reveal anything unless there was an extremely intimidating superdreadnaught hanging over their heads. They might also buy ships from the pirates; one grey colony they’d discovered had actually set up a mining operation and a shipyard of their own, apparently because they’d forgotten the Empire existed. That had happened before – several colonies had been deliberately regressed to pre-technological states – but they had radiated almost nothing in the way of artificial radiation that might have attracted attention. Their discovery was a one-day wonder in the Empire – they had sometimes been ‘helped’ to forget that technology existed – but it was unusual, to say the least, for a high-tech society. In fact…

“Commander,” the sensor officer said, “I’ve got something on my sensors.”

Timothy smiled at the courtesy promotion. Apparently ‘Lieutenant-Commander’ was too much of a mouthful for a possible emergency situation. “What sort of ‘something,’ Alex?” He asked. She’d been on the Merry Prankster with him, so he tried to encourage her where possible; she had the makings of an extremely capable officer for the fleet. “A pirate ship?”

“I'm not sure,” Alex admitted. “I picked up a wave of transit radiation, as if something had jumped in from Phase Space, but it’s very vague. I’m not sure if it’s a ship or a random vacuum fluctuation from the Phase Limit itself…”

“I don’t believe in coincidence,” Timothy said. The Imperial Fleet, which hammered the KISS principle into the heads of each and every one of its officers lucky enough to approach command rank, rarely chose to believe in coincidence. “Helm, set an intercept course.”

“Yes, sir,” the helmsman said. “Course laid in.”

Timothy glanced down at his communicator. The Captain was sleeping, but procedure demanded that he be summoned to the bridge for any possible interception, and encounter with the enemy. He was tempted to let the Captain sleep, but it would have been a major breech of protocol and something that could have cost him his career; the Captain was the one with the final responsibility for the ship.

He touched the stud on the side of the communicator. “Captain to the bridge,” he said. “We have a possible contact with an unknown ship.”

“There’s something out there, all right,” Alex said, just as the Captain stepped onto the bridge. If he had been sleeping, if Timothy had woken him, his face showed no signs of it. “We have one ship, probably the same size as us, maybe a large tin can, heading in system.”

Timothy glanced over at the Captain. “Are they aware of us?”

“I don’t think so, not unless they have sensors much more sensitive than anything we have,” Alex said. She glanced up as Timothy vacated the Captain’s chair. “I think they’re trying very hard not to get noticed, but they’re not cloaked, which suggests that they want to get somewhere fairly quickly.”

The Captain settled back in his chair, allowing Timothy to take the tactical console and monitor the chase. The unknown ship was heading into the system at a fair rate, but it was barely showing up on the ship’s sensors, which suggested that it was heavily stealthed, even if it didn’t have a cloaking device. It could have belonged to Tiffany’s fleet, although he was half-inclined to doubt it; it was too advanced for most ships that had fallen into the hands of pirates. There was a chance it belonged to Imperial Intelligence, but they wouldn’t try to sneak into a system that they already knew was clear…or would they? Was it a trick of some kind?

“I want to intercept it before it enters the inner system,” the Captain ordered calmly. “Helm, forget about hiding and accelerate to catch up with them; tactical, light them up.”

“Yes, sir,” Timothy said, as he brought up the active targeting sensors. They were rarely required, but when they were used, they left anyone with any sensors in no doubt that they were being targeted. The sudden flood of information revealed that the unknown craft didn’t match any known design, or any possible variant on a known design; it was alien, and yet there was the sense that it wasn't really alien.

“Interesting,” the Captain said. He’d clearly been having similar thoughts. “Could this be a First Contact situation?”

He was speaking to himself, but Timothy wondered about it for a moment, before dismissing the thought. The Empire had run into – and conquered – several races that had cracked the Phase Drive on their own, but they had all been very alien; this ship was familiar enough to be disconcerting. He remembered his own musings about grey colonies and wondered if it had come from one of them, before deciding that that was unlikely; any grey colony founded anywhere nearby should have known that Roland was an inhabited world.

“They’ve seen us,” Alex said, very calmly. “They are now altering course and trying to evade us.”

Timothy shook his head. Whatever they were, they didn’t have the power to outrun the Fury, or the power curves that suggested that they had the ability to outgun the ship. The sensors peeled away layers of the emissions surrounding the enemy ship, one by one, and revealed more about it; it was more of an oversized destroyer than a light cruiser. If it wanted to put up a fight, the Fury would have a definite advantage…

“Open a channel,” the Captain ordered. “Unknown vessel, this is the Imperial Fleet starship Fury. You are entering a restricted area without permission. Heave to and prepare to be boarded. If you offer any resistance, we will fire into your ship without further warning.”

He glanced over at Timothy as the channel was cut. “Prepare to fire a warning shot,” he ordered. “Lock a missile on an attack pattern…”

He broke off as an alarm sounded. “Unknown vessel is locking attack sensors onto us,” Alex snapped. “Missile separation; four missiles launched towards us!”

“Point defence, engage the targets,” the Captain ordered. “Mr Keck, you are authorised to return fire.”

The Fury rolled in space, spitting out a broadside of missiles towards the unknown craft. Timothy worked his console as the enemy’s point defence capabilities were revealed, formidable batteries of close-in weapons, but there weren’t enough of them to take down all of his missiles. The enemy craft angled over and came back towards the Fury, spitting fire and death at the starship, and Timothy fired back with his own weapons. The Fury shuddered as a missile slammed into the shields, and then another, but then the enemy ship broke off as three of his missiles slammed into its shields.

“Minor damage to decks three to seven,” the engineering officer said. Timothy barely heard his report through working his own console; the enemy ship was clearly trying to recover and regroup. The enemy ship fought more like a practiced Imperial ship than a pirate ship, but it could have broken contact at any time, or just surrendered. Whoever was onboard that was not friendly.

“Enemy missiles read out as modified Type-X missiles,” Alex said, as her sensors fought to make sense of the much greater volley of information. “I do not have any recorded data on missiles like them; their acceleration is greater than that of our own Type-X missiles and only slightly inferior to our Type-XI missiles.”

They must have come from a black shipyard, Timothy thought, as the ship rang like a bell again. The enemy ship had taken a pounding, but they were still fighting, throwing missiles as if they didn’t care what happened tomorrow. They had recovered their drives and were moving in towards knife range, preparing to enter energy weapons range, when one of Timothy’s missiles popped through their shields.

For a moment, Timothy thought that they would survive…and then the enemy ship exploded in a billow of fire, a blast of energy that seemed much greater than anything he had been expecting. The enemy ship must have tripped a self-destruct, rather than surrender or try to fight off the Marines…or even try to trap the Marines in their own ship. It seemed absurd that the pirates wouldn’t want to kill as many Marines as possible, not least because their own lives were forfeit, but he was starting to suspect that they hadn’t been fighting pirates.

“Secure from red alert,” the Captain ordered, calmly. His voice betrayed none of his thoughts. “Send a signal to System Command and ask them to send a post-battle assessment team out here…”

“Captain,” Alex said, her excited voice ringing across the bridge. The Captain lifted a single eyebrow; junior officer didn’t normally interrupt their superiors. “Captain, they launched an escape pod!”

“Interesting,” the Captain said. “Mr Keck, launch a recovery shuttle; I want to see who – or what – is in that escape pod.”

The procedure for recovering a lifepod from a hostile ship was well understood; Timothy supervised it personally as two crewmen flew the recovery shuttle out, picked up the pod and opened it in the shuttle, rather than risk bringing it onboard Fury. The Greys had occasionally mined escape pods, using them to slip bombs onboard a ship; no officer would now risk bringing an escape pod anywhere near a ship until it had been checked carefully. If this meant that someone died because of the lack of any proper medical attention…

“There’s one person, male, human, of unknown stock,” Markus reported, as they inspected the escape pod. “There’s nothing special about the pod itself, but the crewman is clearly out of it for the moment; he’s completely blank.”

“Leave the escape pod out there for the post-battle team and bring the survivor onboard,” Timothy ordered. “I’ll meet you at the shuttlebay.”

The survivor turned out to be surprisingly handsome; dark hair, light-olive complexion, quite muscular and wearing a simple shipsuit. Timothy watched as the Doctor examined him without any particular haste, passing her sensors over his body and comparing the results to her database on suspect pirates. Markus exchanged a few short words with him as the Captain walked in, inspecting the person; Elf watched from her position, weapon in hand. Timothy smiled at her, but she didn’t smile back; she never did when she was on duty.

“This is odd,” Doctor Lesley Finney said. She had been on Fury ever since Timothy himself had been on Fury; he hadn’t thought that there was anything that could shake her. “This guy…has gone through massive genetic modification, somewhere in his past, and there are several dozen changes that make absolutely no sense whatsoever.”

The Captain looked down at the body. “Changes?”

“Yes, sir,” Lesley said. She pointed to a spot on the man’s neck, indistinguishable from any other spot as far as Timothy could see. “There are an entire series of strange nodes there, within his flesh, which seem to serve no real purpose at all. I’d be much happier if we put him into a stasis tube and stored him until we got him to a proper medical centre, even though I would be delighted to have a look inside him and find out what all those things did.”

“That may not be an option, Doctor,” the Captain said. “That…man was onboard a ship that fired on this ship. Do you have any idea at all what he is?”

“Someone has played around with his genes,” Lesley said sharply. “It’s not something that I have much experience with, but I can tell you that this is well within our own capabilities, if we had a reason to do anything like this. There seems to be no logical reason for half of the modifications someone has carefully spliced into his body and some of them seem to be just hack work, rather than anything...professional. I don’t know anything like this, or where it might come from; the closest thing I can relate it to is the interior of one of the Grey slave races, the ones that the Greys controlled for years…”

“The Greys,” the Captain said. “Do you think that they might be involved somehow?”

“I doubt it,” Lesley said. “Like I said, this is similar, not exactly…not anything like the same level of competence or bloody-mindedness. The Greys effectively used people like those poor bastards on New Brooklyn as human resources, whoever did this wanted to create their ideal of a perfect human without perfect tools. I would have expected some tech augmentation as well, but this guy is completely clean when it comes to tech; he doesn’t even have a memory implant.”

“I see,” the Captain said. “Are you sure that you can control him?”

It all happened very quickly. An alarm sounded…and the prisoner was on his feet at the same instant, coming towards the Captain and lashing out with a fist. Timothy ducked reflexively and drew his sidearm, but the prisoner knocked it from his hand, moving faster than anyone could who hadn’t been augmented, and snatched it up, turning to point it at Elf before she fired and blasted him in the back. For an insane moment, Timothy saw the prisoner with a giant charred hole in his back still moving, and then he fell forward, crashing to the floor.

“The Captain!”

Timothy barely heard Lesley as Elf fired again, confirming the kill; he bent down to examine the Captain’s body. One punch…and the Captain’s head had been literally smashed in by the force of the prisoner’s fist; there was no hope of recovery, even with nanites. How could they put something like that back together again?

“Take the body and dissect it,” Timothy ordered. His voice seemed to be coming from a great distance, as if he was operating by rote and wasn’t entirely aware of what he was saying. He felt as if the entire Fury had come crashing down on his shoulders. His voice was bleak and cold. “I have to inform the crew that their Captain is dead.”

Chapter Thirty-Six: Old Nightmares

Tiffany found herself taking a breath as the starship raced towards the system. It didn’t really have a name, not on the official star charts produced by the Empire, but everyone who had heard of it called it Deadend. There were several other names for it floating around, from Hellworld to Sing-Sing, but she herself preferred to think of it as Deadend. Most people preferred not to think of it at all.

“We are preparing to come out of Phase Space,” the helmsman said. So far, it was a near-perfect repeat of their operation on Taurus, but she knew that it was unlikely to last; once they were positively identified, the defenders of the system, such as they were, would fight to the death. “All decks are reporting ready and able.”

Tiffany glanced across at Gunnard. “The remainder of the fleet should be with us when we emerge,” he said. The Imperial Fleet preferred to jump in a tight formation when entering a possible combat zone – there was no logical reason for that, so Tiffany chalked it up to the Great God Tradition – but she had chosen to spread the fleet out a little. If Imperial Intelligence had gotten wind of their target, they would run smack into a fleet of superdreadnaughts, and no amount of coordinating their formation would save them from a pounding. “We confirmed jump coordinates before we left the final waypoint.”

“Good,” Tiffany said. “Take us out of Phase Space.”

The display flickered and changed, revealing the star ahead of them and a handful of tiny warning beacons, scattered around the system. The Imperials had used a modified Von Neumann’s Machine to produce the beacons; using the material from a dozen asteroids, the machine had created several companions and – over ten years – scattered an entire network of warning beacons around the system. It was a shame that the technique couldn’t be used to produce starships, but the techniques involved in forming a starship were well beyond those of most automated construction facilities. The beacons would be already flash-transmitting a message to Deadend about their intrusion – if someone wasn't already watching for a transit signature on the planet – but they had another purpose.

“We’re picking up a transmission,” the communications officer said. “It’s from the beacons.”

The voice was cold, metallic, and completely threatening. “Attention, unknown ships,” it said. “You are entering a restricted area of space, sealed under Code Thirteen, Imperial Standard Law, and enforced by the Imperial Fleet. Leave this system immediately or you will be fired upon.”

“You and what army?” Tiffany asked dryly. The beacons might have been armed, but it would have taken more material than the system held to create a wall surrounding the system, let alone one that wouldn’t be breakable at any point. Unless the Imperials had moved a larger fleet into the system than their intelligence suggested, they wouldn’t have any way of backing up their words. “Gunnard, sound off.”

“All of our starships have entered the system,” Gunnard informed her. “Their Captains are requesting orders.”

“Take us into the system,” Tiffany ordered. There were some signs of life from several of the worlds in the system, but only one of them was of any interest to her; Deadend itself. “Launch a sensor sphere and keep watching for surprises; they’re not going to leave this place completely undefended.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Gunnard said. She watched grimly as he worked her console, crossing her legs as she sat back in the sinfully comfortable Captain’s chair. They might well have more time than they had had on Taurus, but she didn’t want to give the people on the planet any chance to do something stupid. “We will be within firing range of Deadend within two and a half hours.”

Tiffany watched the planet as the sensors built up a picture of the world. She’d heard the story, of course, even if there was nothing official in it at all; the world suffered, badly, from variable weather and even more unpleasant predators, who had adapted themselves to eating human flesh with dismaying speed. According to the accepted version of the story, a particularly unlucky grey colony scout had happened across the world in one of its temperature phases had decided that it was an easy place to colonise, the colonists had landed, the ship had been sent into the sun…and then they’d discovered that their world gave ‘seasons’ a whole new meaning. By the time an Imperial Fleet scout happened along, ten local years later, the remaining colonists had begged the bemused Captain for transport off the world, rather than remain there a moment longer.

The darker version of the story – and the one believed by everyone who didn’t like the fleet – was that the fleet had come along, seen the world as perfect for their purposes, and evicted or slaughtered the colonists, depending on who was telling the story. Tiffany suspected, judging from the limited data that her sensors were picking up, that the first story was the true one; Deadend, literally, was a dead end. Humans simply hadn’t evolved to live there.

“We are picking up a challenge from the local System Command,” the communications officer said. “They’re warning us to leave the system unless we have suffered a terminal drive failure.”

Ironically, Deadend was, perhaps, the only place they could have pretended to be an Imperial Fleet starship, but the remainder of the fleet made posing hard. “Transmit the message,” she ordered, keeping her voice calm. If they wanted to put up a fight, or, worse, engage in mass slaughter, they wouldn’t be able to stop them. “Inform me the minute they respond.”

The Imperial Fleet had seen one use for the otherwise useless planet; it would make a good place to dump unwanted prisoners. They’d engaged in enough terraforming to make the world almost unliveable – as opposed to completely unliveable – seeded the world with enough human and alien food crops to make survival a possibility, and then simply dropped their prisoners on the world. They were an odd group; people who weren’t considered worth the effort of implanting them to make them body-slaves, people who had shown themselves to be unable to fit into the Empire, people who made deals in exchange for giving away information…and pirates. The fleet dropped former pirates on Deadend, rather than shooting them out of hand; she suspected, looking at the readings on the planet itself, that the prisoners would have preferred to be shot.

There were four continents, like Taurus, but that was as far as the similarities went; Deadend was the victim of a permanently shifting weather system and endless season changes that seemed to alter almost at random. The handful of natural plants and animals that had developed somehow down there were nasty; the plants dug their roots deep into the soil, while the animals would eat anything that moved. The prisoners got some weapons, mainly ancient projectile weapons that wouldn’t be any threat to armoured Marines, and that was the end of fleet’s involvement. If they formed a stable society, incorporating the newcomers as they arrived, maybe fleet would treat them as a civilised world…but there was one nasty sting in the tail. Everyone who went to that world, who ended up on it with no hope of escape, was rendered sterile. There would be no children born on Deadend.

She couldn’t decide if that was a mercy or a final twist of the knife.

“I’m getting emissions from the asteroid orbiting the world,” the sensor officer said. “I don’t think they’re just going to surrender.”

“I confirm,” Gunnard said. “I’m picking up encrypted orders to the automated platforms and I think they either have starfighters or drones on that asteroid. I’m guessing drones, but our reports were always contradictory; they could have beefed up the defences once they heard about your existence.”

“Open a channel,” Tiffany ordered. “Imperials, this is the Pirate Queen. We’re here for the prisoners. Stand down your defences, do not attempt to intervene, and we will not have to destroy you and strand any survivors down on the planet below.”

“No response,” the communications officer said. “I think the defences are mainly automated; they have plenty of communications, but most of it seems to be direct commands, rather than the normal orders given to starships…”

She broke off as the sensor officer spoke. “I have three hundred drones, launching from the asteroid and coming towards us,” she said, sharply. She hadn’t been in a serious fight before; Tiffany could only hope that the planet’s defenders hadn’t managed to summon help before they reached a position to engage them. “They’re locking weapons onto the transports.”

For a moment, Tiffany was blindsided, and then she understood; without the transports, she couldn’t hope to get anyone off the planet, not unless there were transport shuttles on the asteroids for her to capture. She doubted it; the Imperials had designed the planet to stand off a small attack, not a large one with enough mobile firepower to make the defences irrelevant.

“Order all ships to engage the drones,” she said. If the Imperials planned to move them up without the support of the orbital defences, it was fine by her; they would have a chance to deal with the drones without worrying about the orbital defences. Time wouldn’t be on their side; if there was a particularly ruthless Imperial commander on the asteroid, he might well think of simply bombing the settlements on the planet and calling it a draw. He would be killed, of course, when she blew the asteroid away, but she would have been spited and that would not…have looked good.

Space became a maelstrom of swilling energies as the wavefront of drones crashed into her fleet, firing as they came, willing to sacrifice their non-existent lives to destroy her ships, and her people fired back. Drones weren’t starfighters, and they lacked the ability of the starfighter pilot to be unpredictable; of all known players on the galactic stage, only the Greys had been known to use drones regularly, and even they had dumped them once a better alternate had come along. She would have placed starfighters on defence duty, even a squadron of battlecruisers, but it was easy to be wise after the fact. The Imperials would curse their failure to understand her, even as she put the newcomers in positions of power within her growing empire; hindsight would suggest that they should have guarded the prison planet more carefully.

The battlecruiser shook slightly as a drone rammed into its shields. She tensed, despite herself; if the drone had been loaded with antimatter – a common Grey trick – they would be free-floating atoms within microseconds of the detonation. Her ships couldn’t fight with the power and precision of the Imperial Fleet, and a force of starfighters would have taken advantage of that, but the drones lacked the ability to see her weaknesses and react to them. One by one, they died…taking two of the transports with them.

“Advance us forward and take out the orbital defences,” she ordered, ignoring the last few drones. They weren’t a problem at the moment; individually, there was little they could do against her ships, unless they rammed directly and every one of her ships was on the lookout for kamikazes. Her ship thrummed with power as more missiles were launched from the batteries, tracking down and wiping out the orbital weapons platforms; her ship shook as missiles from the orbital platforms hammered at her.

“Leave the asteroid alone for the moment,” she ordered. She had thought about taking the Imperial prisoner, or perhaps using them to send a message, but there was little point. She could have killed them at any moment and both sides knew it. “Is there any sign of live weapons systems on the surface of the planet?”

“Nothing detected,” the sensor officer said. “I’m picking up a handful of tiny emissions signatures, but I think they’re nothing more than some implants and maybe tracking systems.”

Tiffany shrugged. The settlements on Deadend were perhaps the worst places that she had ever seen; Taurus was a paradise compared to the prison world. If there had been children, perhaps the prisoners would have built something worth having, but without children, they would merely have places to stay while they struggled to survive, or gave up, depending upon what they wanted. The suicide rate on Deadend had to be astronomically high, and if they failed to remain focused on bare survival…it had to make the worst of the pirate asteroids look nice and genteel.

“Order the transports to begin to land near the settlements,” she ordered. The Imperials had, either in an attack of conscience or cold-blooded curiosity, had provided the settlements with water wells that tapped into and purified the great aquifers of water deep under the ground. “Remember, stick to the agreed rules; anyone who wants to come can come, but if there’s a crush, take anyone who might be useful.”

She paused. “But take everyone from Settlement Nine,” she said, after a moment. “That’s the important settlement.”

“I think the asteroid is pissed,” Gunnard said. Tiffany snorted. “They’re still trying to target us, but they’re not shooting at us.”

“That must be one frustrated Imperial commander,” Tiffany said, lightly. She could imagine the Imperial’s fists hitting the table in frustration, watching the prisoners escaping right in front of his gaze, but completely unable to do anything about it. “If we leave him here, he’ll spread the word as fast as he can…”

“We should capture them or destroy them,” Gunnard said. Tiffany looked sharply at him; it was the first time he had disagreed openly with her for years. “If they stay there, they could tell the fleet what happened here.”

Tiffany held his eyes for a long moment. “Fleet is already going to know,” she said. “Almost everyone who might want to attack this place, except us, would want to cover the entire planet in antimatter and piss on the remains. They will have emplaced other watching buoys around the system as well; we don’t have time to hunt them all down, and no guarantee that we would succeed if we tried.”

She glanced up at the display. “If I had set up this place, I would have placed a fastship somewhere we couldn’t see it and sent it out to Fairfax or somewhere with some mobile firepower at their disposal,” she continued. “We have barely seven hours before they could get here if they sent out the alarm through a Grey Communicator…and this is one place I’d emplace one, if I had a spare. We don’t have time to destroy all possible records, so taking them is a waste of time.”

“Ah,” Gunnard said, and returned to his console.

See if I let you have me tonight, Tiffany thought coldly, and wondered just what had prompted that exchange. Had he decided to question her to make others question her authority, or had he done it so that the others would have understood why they were leaving the Imperials there? There was no way to know…and it could have been both reasons, or something completely different.

“I need a progress report on the transports,” she said, glancing over at the communications officer. “How are they doing?”

“They’ve got several thousand people onboard, but there are several riots going on; everyone wants off this shithole,” the communications officer said. “The transport crews think that they have every chance of getting off the ground within twenty minutes, but there are more people than we have transport spaces.”

“That was anticipated,” Tiffany said, coldly. There was one settlement she wasn't going to even try to take people from, a settlement composed entirely of child abusers who wouldn’t have been safe with the other settlements. She thought that the Imperials had been wasting their time – the entire planet wasn't a safe place – but perhaps they wanted the child abusers to suffer before they died on Deadend. “Order them to expedite loading; we don’t have much time left.”

She waited, impatiently, until the final transport lifted off the surface of the planet and returned to orbit, and then she gave the order to leave orbit and head away from the planet. The transports set off at once for the first waypoint, while the Blackbird remained behind for a long moment, watching the asteroid and rubbing in a point. The Imperials had to be glaring at their icon on their displays, knowing that they couldn’t stop her from doing whatever she liked…

“Take us out of here,” she ordered finally, once the asteroid’s crewmen had gotten a good view. She had thought about tipping the asteroid into the planet’s atmosphere, just to confuse the Imperial Fleet when it finally arrived, but that would be pointless spite. There was no point in an act of random terrorism here. “Set a course for the first waypoint and take us there at maximum speed.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” the helmsman said. His voice was a great deal more respectful now. She would still have to keep an eye on everyone who had heard Gunnard’s questioning of her and her orders. “We’re on our way now and we’ll be out of the system within three hours.”

Tiffany nodded and smiled to herself. She’d had a manpower shortage, but most of the former pirates would be able to make up the shortfall…and they would be very loyal to her, which was something else into the bargain. The people from Settlement Nine might be even more useful in the long term; the Imperials had dumped them on the planet, when it might have been wiser to simply kill them out of hand. They were hardly people who might be dangerous, at least not in a physical sense, but the Imperials had wanted to make a point.

Her lips twitched. She had wanted to make a point as well.

Chapter Thirty-Seven: In Command

“All hands, this is Lieutenant-Commander Keck,” Timothy said, and stopped, trying to hunt for words. What could he say? The Captain was dead…and the crew had loved him, or at the very least they’d approved of him, and he was dead. How could he explain that to them? By now, rumours would probably have swept from one end to the other of the ship, most of them correct in essence, if not in detail. What could he say?

“All hands, it is my duty to inform you that Captain Venture was killed in action,” he said, looking for words and failing. A poet, or someone with even a slightly better grasp of words, would have been able to compose a speech that would have given honour to the dead, but Timothy lacked that ability. “I am formally assuming command of the Fury until we can report to superior authority and they issue us with clear instructions. Please attend to your duties until we have returned to Roland and reported in.”

He closed the link with a mental sigh of relief. It had been an awful way of informing them, even if it was what regulations demanded; the crew had to know that there was continuity of command. Timothy didn’t expect to remain in command of the ship – that would be a decision for Vice Admiral Argent – but until then, he was the legal commander of the Fury. It dawned on him, then, just how much he had to learn; had Tiffany felt the same way too, or had she accepted the challenge as if it were nothing?

“Helm, take us back towards Roland,” he ordered. They had been intended to return to the planet for convoy escort duties in any case, even thought part of him would have preferred to go AWOL rather than explain that he had lost his Captain to the Admiral. “Communications, transmit a burst report to Admiral Argent and further inform him that we are heading towards Roland and should make the planet in three hours.”

“Yes, sir,” the communications officer said. She wasn't calling him Captain, not yet; he was relieved beyond words at what some might have interpreted as a discourtesy. He wasn’t ready to be called by that title yet. The command chair had never felt harder to his back, now that he was the one with the full responsibility for Fury, and he realised now how the Captain must have felt. He had come to the ship expecting only to hold the command for a few months…and had ended up becoming the patriarch of the ship’s family.

“Alex, continue to scan for any more unknown ships,” Timothy ordered. If there were any others, he was tempted to simply engage them with extreme prejudice, but the Captain would have wanted to take them intact, if possible. Timothy suspected that it wouldn’t be possible – it was very difficult to do that without some cooperation from the crew – but he would have to try. “Inform me if anything moves at all within range of our sensors.”

“Yes, sir,” Alex said. She worked her console without further comment; Timothy watched her grimly, remembering how well she’d done on the Merry Prankster. They would all want to see the Captain’s body and to attend the funeral, once one was held; Imperial Fleet officers were almost always buried in space. He remembered, in a sudden burst of cold horror and grief, that he was the Captain’s legal executer, a tradition that had remained in place for years, even though he had barely known the man he had served.

He tapped his own console and brought up the Captain’s personal file. It would normally have been locked and sealed with a password known only to the Captain, but upon the moment of his death, Timothy would have been given automatic access. The Captain had been more or less estranged from his family, rather like Timothy, and what few possessions he had had been marked out for different people. Timothy saw, and almost burst into tears on the bridge, that he had ordered that his copy of the regulations and the protocols was to be given to Timothy himself. Other gifts had been marked out; the Fury’s crew as a whole would have the Captain’s saved wages, while Markus and a handful of others would get various other small items. He felt almost like a ghoul, looking into the Captain’s file, and closed it with a bitter curse, knowing that he would have to complete the Captain’s last requests soon enough. It was not something he could pass on to the Fury’s new Captain.

“Ah…Mr Keck,” the communications officer said. She had clearly sensed his mood. “The Admiral has requested that you tranship the body of the unknown man and yourself to the flagship at once.”

“I understand,” Timothy said, silently forgiving her for her breech of protocol. “Please inform the Admiral that I will be there directly.”

The order gave no room for delay, but he managed to catch a moment looking down at the Captain’s body, before escorting the other body onto the shuttle, and then flying it personally to the Imperial Fury. The battlecruiser, a more advanced ship than the one Tiffany had appropriated, felt strange to him as he boarded the ship; it felt much larger, and, in a paradox, less friendly. The Midshipman who escorted him to a refreshment area and asked him to wait while the Admiral read through the report of the first examination of the strange body was depressingly serious and earnest; had Timothy ever been that young? There was none of the comradeship that had bound the crew of the Fury together; he saw a group of Marines, sitting at their own table, and completely ignoring the crewmen around them. There wouldn’t be any Elf’s here, he suspected, or Sergeant Garrison-like figures; the Marines would stay in their own compartments and have very little to do with the remainder of the ship.

If I ever command a ship like this, that is going to change, he thought, as he sat back and waited. He hadn’t felt so nervous since the time he had waited, a mere boy and civilian, for the Captain’s decision to accept his application to the Imperial Fleet. The Admiral had every right to be annoyed at him for losing a Captain, he knew; a fair case could be made that he had failed in his duty by missing the danger from the strange person. He still didn’t understand it; one moment, everything had been fine, the next moment the stranger had almost killed five people…and had killed one. There had been no warning at all.

“Lieutenant-Commander Keck?”

Timothy looked up, to see a remarkably attractive black Midshipwoman. “Yes,” he said, shortly. He chose not to speculate on why she had been assigned as the Admiral’s aide. “That’s me.”

“The Admiral would like to see you now, sir,” the Midshipwoman said. “Please will you come with me?”

The Admiral’s office made the Captain’s cabin on Fury look small; the Admiral himself made Timothy look like a giant. He was a small man, with a face that seemed trapped in a permanently unpleasant grimace; his bald head gleamed under the light from the ceiling. Timothy stood to attention and saluted, only then becoming aware of the second person in the room, a dark-haired woman with a sharp face and unnaturally pale skin.

“Welcome onboard,” Vice Admiral Argent said, shaking Timothy’s hand. “I’m sorry to hear about the death of Captain Venture; he will be sorely missed.”

“Yes, sir,” Timothy said, finding himself lost for words.

“We have much to discuss, you and I,” Admiral Argent said, “but first, Doctor Lange has much to tell us.”

Doctor Lange spoke with a voice that held hints of an upbringing on a Chinese world, despite her appearance; Timothy guessed that she had been stationed there with her parents when she had been a child, or maybe she had been adopted or had chosen her appearance to become more fashionable, wherever she had come from. His mind raced around that point, trying to avoid what she was telling him, but it failed.

“The body was genetically-engineered, in fact, I would go so far as to say that it was deliberately over-engineered for whatever purpose the designers had in mind,” Lange said. “This is not quality work, or the ‘I don’t care about inferior humans’ mentality of the Greys; whoever did this did not have access to the full spectrum of tools at our disposal. Given those limitations, whoever did this had remarkable success, but I dread to imagine the human cost of the experiments.”

She paused for a moment. “The nodes that were identified by the Doctor on Fury, it seems, were somehow capable of supercharging the body for a short period of time,” she continued. “The body appeared to be completely comatose one moment, the next the bastard was already moving and lashing out with superhuman strength. I don’t know for certain, as the man was killed on Fury, but I would bet good money that whoever did this implanted a suicide trigger in the man’s head, and then when he found himself on Fury, the man’s trigger took over and he attacked the first people he saw. Given enough time, the violent rush sweeping through the body would have killed him anyway, so exactly why they programmed in such a violent response remains a mystery.”

“They wanted to discourage us from trying to take others alive,” the Admiral said. “Do you think that this was a planned assassination on Captain Venture?”

Lange stalled. “I am not an intelligence specialist,” she said. “I would hesitate…”

“That was not what I asked, Doctor,” Admiral Argent said. He pressed closer to her. “I need an answer and I’m not sure who to ask.”

“I don’t believe that it was,” Lange said, reluctantly. “They could not have hoped that we would take him onboard and then had the Captain so close to him; I suspect, judging from the footage of the entire incident, that the Captain was merely the closest person to him, rather than the actual target of a planned raid. If it was a planned attack, then surely they would have gone for something with a greater chance of success.”

The Admiral nodded. “Which leads us neatly to the second question,” he said. “Where does he come from?”

“One of the black or grey colonies,” Lange said, automatically. The Admiral lifted an eyebrow. “Admiral, the degree of work done on him, matched with the…essentially primitive nature of the modifications, suggests that the people behind him literally didn’t have any access to anything better when they started splicing changes into their gene structure. Any world that was part of the Empire would have access to tech or even advanced gene-engineering tools; they wouldn’t need this degree of hackwork. They’d sooner go back to leeches and burning people as witches, just because they have a wart in the wrong place.”

“Third question,” the Admiral said. He met Timothy’s eyes. “What were they doing here?”

Timothy had thought about that. “They were trying to sneak into the system,” he said. They’d been caught in the act, after all; he made a mental note to recommend that Alex got a commendation on her file, if nothing else. “They didn’t want to be noticed, and when they failed to out-fight the Fury, they destroyed themselves to prevent capture.”

“A neat explanation, although it doesn’t explain what our dead friend was doing in an escape pod,” the Admiral said. “The post-battle assessment team found nothing of any real consequence where the ship exploded, so the pod you found and the body are the only real pieces of intelligence we have, so far. Finding out who they worked for is probably the most vitally important question we have at the moment; your sister, someone else from the Rim, some alien race we don’t even know exists…?”

“Yes, sir,” Timothy said, keeping his face blank at the mention of Tiffany. He hadn’t wanted the Admiral to know about their relationship, but there had been no way of preventing him from making the connection. “The escape pod was barren of clues.”

The Admiral nodded at Lange. “Thank you, Doctor,” he said. “You are dismissed.”

Doctor Lange half-bowed and left the cabin. “Mr Keck,” the Admiral said, as soon as they were alone. “What are we going to do with you?”

Timothy looked at him. “Sir?”

“You’re in somewhat of a difficult position,” the Admiral said. “You were interrogated by Intelligence, to ensure that you were not compliant in your sister’s crimes, even though it would be hard to see how you could be compliant. The interrogation gave you a clean bill of loyalty and your service record speaks for itself. You have several moments of heroism to your credit; Captain Venture’s reports speak very highly of you.”

He paused, long enough for Timothy to gather his thoughts. He didn’t know what the Captain had written about him, but clearly he had thought well of Timothy. “You also have some credit from Intelligence, after the Merry Prankster episode and that counts in your favour as well, although Intelligence has noted a complaint that you didn’t follow their plan when it came to that incident.”

“No, sir,” Timothy agreed. The Admiral lifted an eyebrow. “Their plan was too complicated and would have gotten us all killed…or the pirates would have recognised the trap and stayed clear.”

“You succeeded in your mission, so that complaint is clearly ill-justified,” the Captain said. “The question does remain, of course, about what we are going to do with you…and the Fury. You must be aware that you should, technically, have left the Fury when you were promoted to Lieutenant, but owing to the endless problems facing fleet in this sector, you were permitted to remain on the cruiser, particularly since depriving Captain Venture of your services would have left him undermanned. It was also felt, according to your file, that your entire service was spent on a light cruiser and moving you to a larger ship might have adversely affected your performance.”

Timothy said nothing. “You were promoted, ahead of your time, to Lieutenant-Commander, but again, the Captain showed no inclination to get rid of you, tacitly accepting the possibility that you would one day end up in command of the ship. If he had doubted that you could handle it, he would have transferred you to a ship where a Lieutenant-Commander wouldn’t have been the de facto second-in-command, allowing you some additional time to develop before you got a shot at a command chair. His judgement, as your commanding officer, was the only one that counted…and so you got to remain on Fury.

“A small ship is much more of a community than any larger ship, like this battlecruiser, for instance,” he continued. “It is not always considered a good idea to simply insert a new commanding officer into a structure that has worked very well without any major changes. Obviously, no ship, not even a light cruiser, can remain in true stasis forever, but Captain Venture enjoyed good fortune in the choice of his senior crew and crewmen. He also clearly considered you his heir; had he considered you unsuitable for the role, he would have transferred you before too long.”

He sat back and sighed. “But you are young, Mr Keck,” he said. “You wouldn’t be the youngest commanding officer in the fleet, but the only major unit commanded by someone younger happened during the Grey War, under extraordinary circumstances. Your youth alone would make you a Captain of very low seniority; in fact, you would be a junior grade commanding officer. You are the best-qualified person we have for Fury, but at the same time, your youth tells against you.”

Timothy wanted to protect, but said nothing. “I have considered the issue, however, and I feel that the best option would be to promote you to Captain (Junior Grade) and give you Fury,” the Admiral concluded. “It won’t be an easy task, even if you are the Captain’s designated heir; your ship has suffered a major loss and it will take time to get used to all the duties of a new Captain. I’d like to promise you a long period for settling in, but we had the Fury earmarked for an operation that we cannot, now, assign to another ship. You will have to carry it out and so do while trying to make your mark as a commanding officer.”

“Yes, sir,” Timothy said. Part of him wanted to jump for joy; part of him wanted to run for his life and never stop. How could he replace the Captain? “I won’t let you down.”

“I hope you won’t,” Admiral Argent agreed. He tapped a hidden control and a star chart appeared in front of them. “These are the locations of each and every one of the grey colonies that we know about,” he said. “Your mission is simple; visit them, convince them of the Empire’s good intentions, and find out if they know anything about your wretched sister that we can use against her. It won’t be easy, so I think I might have to scrounge up a diplomat and send him along with you, but it is something that needs to be done. Captain Venture would have been ideal for the role, but you’d have the mission instead; remember, be diplomatic.”

“Yes, sir,” Timothy said.

“And you have a second assignment,” the Admiral said. He stood up and met Timothy’s eyes. “You’re the one who knows her best, so I want you to work out a way of finding her and destroying her fleet before she does something that brings the entire sector crashing down, understand?”

Timothy nodded. “Yes, sir,” he said. “I’ll think about it and inform you as soon as I think of a plan.”

Chapter Thirty-Eight: Politicians

If there was one thing Tiffany didn’t like, it was the waiting. She had imposed her will on thousands of pirates, convincing them to work together…as long as she brought in the goods, of course. If she slipped, the pirate coalition would tear itself apart; her only chance of building something that might outlast her lay in remaining alive long enough to do it. She wasn't sure if that was a good idea, because someone might then try to kill her secure in the knowledge that they might be able to slip into her shoes, but pirates would tend to act in their own self-interest.

She still disliked waiting, particularly out so far from interstellar space, somewhere where they would take years to reach another star system, assuming that something happened to the drive. She was still privately surprised that they hadn’t encountered a fleet of superdreadnaughts, but the absence of such a fleet was an encouraging sign; they hadn’t been betrayed. The people they had rescued from Deadend, three months ago, had done what they had been ordered…and it looked as if she had succeeded. The alternative, she thought dryly, was that she had failed completely…but there really was no way to know for a few hours longer. In fact…

Her thoughts cut off as a new icon flashed into existence. “I have a contact,” the sensor officer said. “It reads out as one dispatch boat, as per instructions, and it is transmitting the signal we gave them.”

“Good,” Tiffany said. “Hail them; inform them that one of our shuttles will be docking with them to provide transport to the Blackbird.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” the communications officer said.

“I have seven more contacts now, all dispatch boats apart from one luxury yacht,” the sensor officer said. Tiffany felt herself tense in sudden concern; if anything else showed up, it would almost certainly reveal that it was a trap and they were about to have to fight for their lives. “There’s nothing else on the sensors.”

“Good,” Tiffany said. She forced herself to relax as the shuttles docked, one after the other, and picked up their human cargos. They would go through a full scanning process before she allowed them onboard the Blackbird, just in case one of them had decided – willingly or unwillingly – to be a hero and try to slip a tie-pin nuke onto the ship. This far from any star, they would be stranded even if the weapon failed to destroy the ship. “As soon as all the shuttles have landed, have them escorted at once to the conference room.”

She sat back and winked at Gunnard. “If you have the slightest clue that there is a fleet of Imperial starships about to land on our heads, jump us out without waiting for orders,” she said. She’d dressed to kill, just to stun the people she was about to meet, and she saw his eyes move in an appreciative fashion. “If not, keep us at this location until we are ready to leave.”

“Of course, Your Majesty,” Gunnard said.

Tiffany felt the guards falling in around her as she walked down the corridors, entering the conference room after the guests had all arrived. She would have preferred not to meet with them in person, but there was really little choice, not if she was to convince them to play along with her, rather than trying to resist or defy her. She would have preferred to deal with other pirates, really; pirates were honest, at least compared to most of the men in the room. Six of them were politicians, although not the most senior members of their governments; the other two were senior representatives from two of the main shipping lines. They were all, at a guess, expendable if everything went wrong and the Imperial Fleet caught them, but she knew full well that they were here with the full consent of their superiors.

Politics, she thought, as she smiled at them.

They all looked the same, all male, all human, their faces altered into the ‘supremely trustworthy mature man’ look that was popular among politicians, a face that the face-changers swore blind was something that most humans would find trustworthy. They all wore the same kind of suit, specially tailored for planetary-grade politicians; there were times when she thought that the Imperials had designed their outfits so they would know who to shoot on general principles.

And they had to know that she was dangerous. The people she’d pulled out of Settlement Nine, those who they’d met, at least, had been people who knew more than was good for them, or had been caught with their hand in the till. She’d spent a week learning what most of them had to teach her about their governments, before sending them home to carry her message. They hadn’t been betrayed, either; it had been depressingly predicable. Their eyes followed her as if she were a cat, stalking mice; there was little there, but concern and fear for the future. Her outfit, under the circumstances, had to strike them as terrifying; they had to know that she had no doubt at all as to the outcome of their meeting.

“Thank you all for coming,” she said. “You know who I am and you know what I can do. Dare I assume that you followed orders to the point where the Imperials have no idea where we are?”

They nodded, one by one. If one of them had betrayed them, he might have been safe, but the others would be likely to be dumped on Deadend, along with any survivors from Tiffany’s crew. They had to know that their only defence was secrecy, which meant that they would have taken every possible precaution against the fleet tracking them, knowing that their friends back in government would wash their hands of them if they were caught. It made her smile; clearly, there was very little difference between the pirates and the sector governments.

“The Governor doesn’t know we’re here,” one of them said, finally. His face gave the merest suggestion of a Chinese origin, lost in the mists of time, which suggested that he was the representative from Mao. “Our lives are in your hands, my lady.”

“They always have been,” Tiffany said, enjoying herself. They had to see her body and wonder how old she really was, but fleet’s reports would have made it clear that she was twenty, if rather older than that mentally. They had to be awed at her youth in a universe where power tended to go to the aged, but they also had to be thinking about how unpredictable teenagers could be…and what they could do if they had the destructive power of a battlecruiser at their command. “I do not like…diplomatic talking, or trying to hide my intentions behind a smile, so I will be blunt. I am the undisputed ruler of the pirates” – that was an exaggeration, but not by much – “and I have been able to impose my will on them. I am, to all intents and purposes, the ruler of another power in space.”

She paused to allow that to sink in. “I do not care about your problems, or your issues,” she continued. “My main interest is coming to terms with my power…and using it to expand my control. You have some interest in coming to terms with me, as you must know that I can interfere with your shipping to such an extent that your economies would come to a screeching halt. To all intents and purposes, you are at war with me, or caught in the middle of a war with the Imperial Fleet, whichever you choose to prefer. I would like to discuss terms for your surrender.”

One of the men burst into angry words. “You have got to be out of your mind, bitch,” he snapped. Tiffany guessed, keeping her face blank, that that man had been sent in the hope that she would dispose of him and save his government from an embarrassment. “What gives you the right to dictate to us?”

Tiffany pretended to consider the question. “Power,” she said, finally. “Superior power. This battlecruiser alone can defeat anything that can actually catch it, and the sheer volume of space involved makes it very difficult for the Imperial Fleet to bring me to battle. You must be aware that no one has ever really succeeded in wiping out pirates; how much more difficulty do you think they’d have with me?”

“Enough,” a different man said. “Sit down, Günter; let her say what she wants.”

Günter subsided, muttering. “Thank you,” Tiffany said, very dryly. “I want, I think, a certain amount of tribute from each of your worlds, along with basing rights and some recruitment rights. Naturally, I don’t want to deprive any of you of your chance to milk your people as you see fit, so I won’t be removing you, imposing my own people, or anything like that, as long as the tribute keeps flowing.”

She turned to the two representatives from the shipping lines. “The same goes for you,” she said. “We will guarantee that your ships will remain unmolested from attack, or the pirates responsible for the attack will suffer in ways that even the Imperial Fleet cannot match, in exchange for a certain payment each money and some help with maintaining our ships. You must recognise that this is a vastly superior arrangement to attempting to arm your ships to the point where they could hope to stand off an attack…and, for the record, any such ship that tries to fight will be destroyed out of hand.”

Their thoughts were visible on their faces. Arming freighters was a tricky preposition at best; it was expensive and time-consuming to produce a freighter that had the firepower even of a small destroyer, and even if they packed in weapons and sensors, they would have to increase the size of the power plant and therefore cut down on the amount of cargo that each ship could carry. They’d be better off producing private warships of their own, but the Imperial Fleet reacted harshly against such proposals, suspecting – probably correctly – that at least some of the ships would end up in pirate hands. They would be happy to keep paying protection, rather than lose more ships, but they would want something in exchange; they would want proof that paying her was worthwhile.

“An interesting offer,” one of them said, finally. His voice was rich, but very dry, suggesting that despite his appearance, he was in his later years. “How much would you want and how could you guarantee that you would actually be able to prevent other pirates from intercepting our ships?”

“I control most of the pirates in this region,” Tiffany said, ignoring the scepticism in his voice. He could hardly be blamed for it. Pirates were not known for working in groups, with the exception of Captain Morgan’s kingdom; they tended to distrust and work against authority figures. Perhaps he was calculating how likely her getting assassinated would be…or maybe he was just worried about paying her and losing the ships anyway. “If you pay me, within a month, the word would spread and your ships, the ones transmitting the new IFF code, would be left completely alone.”

She paused. “And, as for payment, I don’t think that ten million credits per month would be too small a price,” she said. “We would also want some supplies from you and access to your Yards from time to time, as our ships sometimes need servicing and we can’t do that for ourselves.”

He stared at her. “You are asking us to become compliant in your crimes,” he snapped. “Do you know what the fleet is going to do to us?”

Tiffany shrugged. “That’s your problem,” she said. “I do know, however, that your shipping companies are in serious trouble. How long will it be before you have to suspend operations in this sector? How long until the folks back home decide that pouring money into a black hole is a waste of time? And, tell me, just who will get the blame for that particular…failure?”

“You might be right about being able to damage shipping,” Günter ground out, through clenched teeth. “I don’t see you as being able to drive the fleet out of the sector. And what that means is simple; if you attack a world guarded by the fleet, you will lose. You may cost us money and ships, but you can’t take on and crack a planetary defence system unless you have much more firepower than you have shown us. We can grit our teeth, roll with your blows, and wait for fleet to locate your piss-ass asteroid hideaways and kill the whole fucking lot of you!”

Tiffany rapidly revised her opinion of Günter. Despite the foul-mouthed way he’d put it, his analysis was effectively accurate, based on what he knew. He was right, in a sense, but only in a sense; it assumed that she intended to play by the rules. She had no intention of doing so…

“In a sense, you are correct,” she conceded, gracefully. “However, you have made a simple fundamental error; if I bring the economy of this sector to a halt, your people will throw you out of office and your successors will come to terms with me. The longer it takes before they throw you out of office, the weaker your position will be, as those who have…accommodated with me will have had a chance to take over some of your markets for themselves. Even before I took control, there were parts of the sector that were right on the verge of a full economic collapse, and with a little push, I can bring it crashing down.

“But there is a second point as well,” she continued, allowing her teeth to show. “I cannot win a stand-up fight with the Imperial Fleet, as you well know, but I don’t have to even fight such a battle, let alone win it. If the fleet gets lucky, they might be able to take out one or two of my ships, but they would have to get astonishingly lucky to take our more than that. Worse, from your point of view, the fleet cannot guard every world in the sector with enough firepower to stop me from attacking that world at will, and if they do concentrate against me, they won’t be able to prevent me from picking off your worlds whenever I feel like it.

“And you must know what that means,” she concluded. “Very few of you can afford planetary defences that could stand off a battlecruiser. This sector was never very rich in real terms before the Collapse and you know that you can’t afford to build up defences…and fleet can’t help you to build up more defences. You might go back to your world, having told me to go screw myself, only to discover that your world is next on the target list. I can hurt you, and you all know it, so now you have to decide if you are willing to meet my terms, or get hurt.”

The first shipping representative stared at her for a long moment. “We would be willing to meet your terms, save only that you agreed to keep it a secret,” he said, finally. “We do not want fleet breathing down our necks.”

“Of course not,” Tiffany said, smiling to herself. She didn’t want fleet taking too close a look either; the larger her domain became, the more chance that someone would manage to pick apart part of her organisation and unravel enough of it to get a clear shot at her. Imperial Intelligence would be hacking away at every last hint of her organisation, just to try to stop her before she did something they couldn’t handle. “Shall we discuss the final terms?”

It took nearly an hour before they managed to hammer out an agreement, but at the end of it Tiffany was pleased; she’d gotten what she wanted out of the bargain. They’d clearly thought that she wasn’t experienced enough to bargain properly, but she hadn’t wanted half of what she’d asked for; her father would have recognised the technique. Ask for more, she knew, and watch as they scrabble to cut you down…unaware that you didn’t want half of what you’d asked for. They had bargained, and bargained, but she’d secured what she wanted and had been able to consider the rest of it a game.

“My people will escort you back to your ships,” she said. She didn’t want to admit it, but there were other meetings they had to make, and quickly, before Imperial Intelligence realised that something was going on. “It was nice doing business with you.”

She sat back and allowed her mind to interface with the battlecruiser’s computers, watching as the shuttles launched, carrying their human cargo back to their ships. Moments passed and she felt herself growing tense again, before the shuttles returned and Gunnard took the ship into Phase Space. She’d picked the location because it would make life difficult for Fleet if they had tried to trap her there, but even so…there was a good chance that one of them would betray her when Fleet started reaching for their interrogation equipment.

It hardly matters, she reassured herself, as Gunnard entered the conference room. She didn’t bother to talk, pushing him back onto the table and demanding worship, heedless of who might see them, or care. Afterwards, she allowed him to hold her, while she drew up the next plan in her mind; Fleet needed to be reminded about the basic equations of interstellar warfare…and why the attacker always had the advantage.

“They agreed,” she said, though the post-intercourse haze. “They committed themselves to me now, just as the others did, and they won’t have any other options left, but me.”

“Of course,” Gunnard agreed. “Isn’t that true for all of us?”

Chapter Thirty-Nine: Iceland

“I don’t think she likes me very much,” Elf said, as they sat together in his Cabin. Timothy would have preferred to have spent their time together in bed, but Elf was too much of a professional to let their relationship get in the way of work. Timothy had thought that he understood what being a Captain entailed, but sitting in the hot seat himself was different from being the first officer. No wonder Captain Venture had been going grey.

“Kady?” Timothy asked. The Admiral, for whatever reason he had had in mind, had insisted that Timothy take on a new first officer, rather than simply promoting one of the ship’s Lieutenants to the post. Kady Jones would have been pretty under any circumstances, but her mind was like a steel trap…and clearly focused on watching over Timothy. “What makes you say that?”

“She always looks at me as if I’m something she’s found under her shoe,” Elf said, dryly. Timothy gave her a mischievous look. “Every time she tries to talk to me, it’s as if she’s talking through a breath mask.”

“Perhaps she just grew up on a superdreadnaught and thinks that Marines are just dumb jarheads,” Timothy said. Kady’s file was closed to him, which was interesting…and instructive in its own right. He should be able to read any file on the ship without having to refer to the Admiral or anyone else, but Kady’s file was a closed book, literally. Whatever she had done, or whatever she had gone through, it had been classified. “Anyway, what’s the current status of your people?”

“We’ve been training non-stop since we left Roland,” Elf informed him, as he knew very well already. He just wanted to know what she had to say, so he could place it on the record. “We’ve had several new replacements to break in, but I think we’ll be back to our old standards within a few more weeks of hard drill, and then we can count ourselves ready for operations.”

Timothy shrugged. “As long as you’re ready for when we visit Iceland,” he said. “I’m not expecting problems, but a small force of Marines should be prepared for landing, as soon as possible.”

Elf gave him a reproving look. “You don’t have to nag,” she said, teasing him lightly. She was the only one he’d confessed to, after he’d had a moment to allow it to really sink in; he was terrified of not living up to the Captain’s legacy. If something happened to the Fury, hundreds of light years from any Fleet base, the Admiral would never know what had killed his ship. “We will be ready when you scream for help.”

“Good,” Timothy said, and stood up, glancing down the list of priorities. The Captain had somehow managed to meet with each of the department heads in-between commanding the ship and looking after his people. They were bare minutes out from Iceland, the first of their destinations, and he had barely met half of the people he wanted to meet. “I don’t anticipate trouble, but if there is trouble…”

“They’d have to be insane to offer any trouble,” Elf reassured him. Iceland’s unique nature made it almost useless as a base for operations; it was one reason why the colonists had picked it to land their little hidden colony. About the best that could be said of it was that it hadn’t been a Deadend-like disaster. “As long as you are polite, and remember not to try to pick up any of the women, you should be fine.”

Timothy strode onto the bridge, acknowledging the salutes from his command crew as Kady Jones stood up, allowing him to reclaim the command chair. She was competent, at least, and she was bound to have some combat experience out in the Fairfax Sector, but there was a question mark hanging over her abilities.

“The bridge is yours, Captain,” she said. It was a formality that Captain Venture had generally dispersed with, which suggested that her prior experience had been on a large starship, but there was really no way to be certain. “We are two minutes out from the Phase Limit.”

“I relieve you,” Timothy said, equally as formally. He settled back down into the command chair as she took the tactical console; he’d run her through drills and there had been nothing obviously wrong with her performance. “Helm, take us out of Phase Space when we reach the waypoint.”

“Yes, sir,” the helmsman said. “Normal space in…three, two one…zero.”

The flickering lights of Phase Space died away as the starship returned to normal space. “I confirm no traces of encroachments on our sensor sphere,” Kady said, without pausing for breath. Her hands danced over the console. “I am picking up a small amount of electronic leakage from the system ahead of us, but no trace of anything obviously hostile.”

“Transmit a permission-to-approach burst to the local System Command and take us in,” Timothy ordered. They were not, exactly, within space the Empire’s writ ran; the people orbiting the star up ahead might want to be sticky about their local independence. “Inform me the moment that anyone replies.”

“Yes, sir,” the communications officer said.

The solar system took shape and form ahead of them, one of the stranger systems that Timothy had ever seen; a gas giant, a small formation of moons surrounding it…and a small asteroid field. This system, orbiting a white star, had little chance of developing life of its own accord, although the reports did suggest that there were some native life forms on one of the moons. Personally, Timothy believed the cavorts at the bottom of the report; the system hadn’t been colonised long enough to confirm or deny the reports. It hadn’t been a priority for the colonists.

“I am picking up a signal,” the communications officer said. “The Prime Minister of Iceland welcomes us to Iceland and is inviting us to take up orbit.”

Iceland itself was a moon, barely smaller than Old Earth itself, covered in ice and heated by a molten core, deep under the surface of the planet. The original colonists had dug their first cities deep under the ice, seeding the seas with sea life that they could eat themselves, and had just expanded further underground. There were some asteroid mining missions launched from the planet, now that the colonists knew that the Empire didn’t intend to enslave them and their children, but it would be decades, at least, before Iceland was able to match the best the Empire could provide. The odds were that the curious little system would be simply ignored for a few decades; they didn’t have anything the Empire actually wanted, and as long as they stayed out of trouble, the Empire basically didn’t care.

“I am picking up a second transmission,” the communications officer said. “The Prime Minister, his assistant and the Ambassador would like to come onboard.”

“Curious,” Timothy said. He exchanged a brief glance with Kady, who looked utterly inscrutable as she looked back at him. “Inform the Prime Minister that we would be delighted to welcome him onboard this ship and enquire if he would like us to send him a shuttle.”

Half an hour later, the Prime Minister was shown into Timothy’s office, along with an astonishingly beautiful blonde-haired woman and a taller, darker man who was clearly from the Empire. Timothy had read his file, but it was almost as sparse as Kady’s; he’d been a trader who’d stumbled across Iceland, convinced the suspicious population that the Empire wasn't a threat to them…and had been appointed Ambassador to Iceland, although it wasn't clear if it had been intended as a reward or a punishment.

“Thank you for inviting us onboard,” the Ambassador said. “I’m Herkimer Branson, this is my wife, Vigdis Branson and this is Harold, the Prime Minister of Iceland.”

Protocol wasn't clear on what sort of honours should be offered to the leader of a grey colony, so Timothy saluted and then shook hands with all three of them. “Welcome onboard,” he said, as he took one of the seats in the room, watching how the Prime Minister took the other seat and the married couple took the sofa. “I wish I could spend more time with you, or visit your world, but I don’t have that much time…”

“You mean you want to be blunt,” Harold said. There had been no mention of a surname; according to the files, the Icelanders didn’t have surnames. “We’re normally a very blunt group ourselves, Captain, so please feel free to be as blunt as you like.”

“Thank you,” Timothy said. He had spent some time thinking about what he had to say to them. “I don’t know how much you know about what’s going on back in Fairfax – I have briefing chips for you – but the Empire is having serious problems with pirates at the moment. I have to ask you an important question; do you have any contacts with pirates, even ones that you don’t want to admit to, officially.”

Harold looked back at him. “Yes and no,” he said. He would have made one hell of a poker player; Timothy couldn’t read his face at all. “From time to time, we get a ship that arrives and offers to trade food for some supplies, or occasionally threatens us with force unless we give them what they want, but we don’t have a direct link into them, unless you count the Branson problems.”

Timothy lifted an eyebrow in the direction of Branson. “Someone has been raiding my mining ships,” Branson explained. “They just decloak, pick up the automated mining ship, and vanish again. We’ve fuck all that can touch them down here, and they’re attacking our economy…and causing us serious problems.”

Timothy felt his eyes narrow. “Why didn’t you ask the Empire for help?”

“You’re here,” Harold said. “When you asked about pirates, we thought that they had sent you out to deal with it, after we did ask them for help.”

“I never heard anything about you having problems beforehand,” Timothy said, grimly. He lifted his communicator. “Mr Jones, launch a spread of probes in the direction of the asteroid mines, watching out for possible cloaked ships sneaking in to the system.”

“Understood,” Kady said. The ship hummed slightly as the probes launched from the hull, heading out into space. “Do you have any reason to fear that someone might come along?”

“Maybe,” Timothy said, and turned back to the Icelanders. “How many people do you have here?”

“Around twenty thousand, dug in under the ice,” Harold answered. “Do you and your crew want shore leave?”

“The honest answer to that is yes, but we don’t have time,” Timothy said, with a wry smile. “We’ll watch the system for a week and see if anything turns up, but we can’t stay here for any longer, not with our schedule. If nothing happens, when I get back to the Empire, I’ll recommend that you get some additional help, but your problems are very likely to be on the bottom of the priority list. The entire sector might well be on the verge of collapse.”

It was four days before the probes picked up any trace of a cloaked ship, arriving from further out on the Rim, according to its trajectory. The Fury, by that time, had been stealthed, which suggested that this particular bunch of pirates didn’t have the system under constant observation. If they had seen the Fury, they would have almost certainly have opted to remain out of the system and wait until the cruiser left, rather than challenging her for control of the system.

“It reads out as a light tin can at best,” Alex said, as the Fury slipped closer to the enemy ship. It wasn’t the best that Timothy had ever seen; the cloaking device it was using predated the Grey War. It didn’t look as if it was running any basic precautions, either; he suspected, looking at it, that it might not have anything to do with Tiffany.

Either that, or she considers that ship and its crew expendable, he thought, and smiled to himself. The seed of a plan was developing in his head, not least because of how this particular set of pirates seemed to operate; they could have bombarded Iceland and made off with all the women, but instead they had just quietly, fugitively, stolen raw materials that anyone could pick up anywhere. Maybe they didn’t have the ability to refine the ore, which was as good an explanation as any; maybe they came from a black colony where refining the ore was somehow impossible.

“On my command, drop the cloak, raise shields, and tear their cloak to sheds,” he ordered. Kady blinked in surprise; they could have sneaked up and blown the enemy ship to shreds before they had a chance to react. Timothy wanted – needed – the ship intact. “On my mark…mark!”

The pirate crew had to have been shocked out of their collective minds. They couldn’t have known the Fury was there, he doubted that their sensors allowed them to pick up any traces of turbulence from the ship, even without their cloaking field getting in the way. His lips twitched as the entire ship seemed to jump; they had to know, now, that he could blow them away at any moment…and they knew they could expect no less. Their shock would help him…

“Open a channel,” he ordered. He waited for the nod from the communications officer. “Pirate vessel, this is Captain Keck of the Fury. You have been caught in the act of piracy, which legally entitles me to destroy your vessel and yourselves without further ado.” He paused, just long enough for that to sink in. “I am prepared, however, to make a deal with you. If you are interesting in making a deal, reply to this message within thirty seconds.”

He sat back. Kady’s eyes asked a question. “I have an idea,” he said, and waited. If the pirates didn’t reply, he lost nothing by completing their destruction; the ship couldn’t harm the Fury. “I think that if they are prepared to deal, then I have an idea…”

“Incoming signal,” the communications officer said. “They want to talk.”

The display altered, to reveal a middle-aged man who looked as if he had been shocked white by the sudden appearance of the Imperial starship. “Deal?” He asked, his voice shaking. He tried to sound confident, as if he had something to bargain with, but the waver in his voice betrayed him. “What sort of deal are you prepared to offer me?”

“Let me start by placing my cards on the table,” Timothy said, surprising himself by feeling a rush of cold-blooded amusement. “Your position is hopeless. Your ship can neither outrun nor outfight my ship. You cannot, in fact, hope to even score a hit on my ship before I blow your ship, and you, into dust. I want you to bear those factors in mind while we are talking, understand?”

He smiled at the pirate’s nod. “I am prepared to offer you a one-time deal,” Timothy said. “If you are not interested in the deal, say so at any time and we will be quite happy to blow your ship apart without further ado. You have two things I want, two things with which to buy your lives; if you give them to me, I will grant you a general amnesty for your crimes.”

“You’re lying,” the pirate said. His voice held desperate hope, mixed with an equally desperate need to cling to something – anything – that might have saved his life. “What do we have that you want?”

Timothy ignored the rustle running around his own bridge. “You have the location of a pirate base, perhaps more than one,” he said. “I want that location.”

“They’ll kill us,” the pirate protested. “You don’t know what they’re like!”

“They may kill you,” Timothy pointed out. “I, on the other hand, will kill you. Do you want to carry on our conversation?” The pirate nodded once. “The second thing I want is your ship. You will hand it over to me with all the computers unlocked and the safety systems disabled, and allow us to use it for one mission, after which it will be handed over to the people here for their use. What do you say?”

The pirate looked as if he was on the verge of a heart attack. “You can’t take my ship,” he protested. “Don’t you know that a ship is the heart and soul of her Captain?”

“Choose,” Timothy said. He allowed his hand to gently touch a prominent button on his command chair. “Do you accept my bargain, or not?”

“All right, damn you,” the pirate screamed, as Timothy’s hand stroked the button. He wasn't to know that it was for actually altering the position of the chair. “We surrender, damn you!”

“Sergeant Elf, take the assault boat and secure that ship,” Timothy ordered. He turned to Kady, who had been looking more and more appalled as the discussion went on. “Do you have a problem, exec?”

Kady’s voice was stunned. “Captain…with all due respect, what exactly are you doing?”

Timothy smiled. “We need intelligence,” he said. “That bunch of bastards over there knows the location of a pirate base, so we’re going to take their ship there and gather intelligence on the base, hopefully finding a way of actually catching her before she does something worse.”

He allowed his voice to drop slightly. “And that bunch of pirates, as far as we know, have never killed anyone,” he concluded. “If that’s true, then it’s the sort of behaviour we need to encourage, and if they get amnesty for their crimes, maybe others will fly straight as well.”

“I see, I think,” Kady said, her voice displaying her disproval. “And just who is going on this mission?”

“Me, of course,” Timothy said. “The others…well, I’ll ask for volunteers. Everyone on this ship, Kady, has a grudge…and if we can get the intelligence that Admiral Argent needs to just hit back, then it’s worth the risk.”

Chapter Forty: Convoy Raid

“The enemy ships are approaching engagement range,” the sensor officer reported, as Tiffany leaned forward in her command chair. The were lurking along the border of the Equinox System, where it had all begun, waiting for the targets they knew were coming. The Imperial Fleet had gathered a small force of convoy escorts to escort the convoy out of the system; what they didn’t know – she hoped – was that she had been tipped off to the convoy. Very few of the old pirates would dare take on such a convoy; she had to convince everyone that the rules had changed. “I am not picking up any cloaked escorts.”

“Good,” Tiffany said. The Blackbird was cloaked, all of its emissions dialled back as far as they would go, along with seven other ships. The Imperial Fleet had included a heavy cruiser in the escort and that could pose a problem. Although the cruiser should be no match for the battlecruiser, they could inflict enough damage to make repairing the ship a difficult task, particularly given the limitations of most of the pirate yards. “Prepare to engage.”

She paused as the enemy ships slowly entered missile range. “Fire when they enter the target zone, unless they see us,” she ordered. “If they see us, fire at once and don’t hesitate to hit them as hard as we can.”

The tension on the bridge rose slightly. If the enemy entered sprint-mode missile range, they would have a very good chance of hammering the enemy ship before it had a chance to fire back, even if the Captain had the reflexes of a cat. If they had to engage in a long-range missile duel instead, they would be operating at a disadvantage and they might want to simply destroy the convoy and retreat. That, Tiffany was determined, wouldn’t happen unless there was no other choice; half of her crew might be prepared to follow her anywhere after she had liberated them from Deadend, but the other half wanted loot. The contents of the ships in the convoy would go a long way towards paying their operating expenses.

She smiled to herself as she considered her crew. They’d gone through more drills than any other pirate ship and it showed; they were the most capable crew in the pirate fleet. The Imperial Fleet probably maintained a higher standard of professionalism, but her ship wouldn’t look too shabby compared to one of their ships, and as long as she avoided meeting an Imperial Ship that was her equal, she could carry on the campaign indefinitely. She was surprised herself with how she was enjoying herself, even as she brought the pirates under her control…and influenced the entire sector. The politicians she’d met might think that they had cheated a young naive girl, but it wasn’t as if she had the firepower to take and hold their worlds; the massed might of the Imperial Fleet would destroy any occupying army and force her to fight the kind of battle she knew she had to avoid. Instead, they would pay her tribute and consider themselves lucky; she could have killed them at any time.

Idiots, she thought, as the icons of the Imperial ships came closer.

“Captain, they’re about to enter the targeting zone,” Gunnard informed her. “Our missiles are locked on target.”

“Fire as soon as they enter the targeting zone,” Tiffany said, repeating herself. “I don’t want them to have a second’s worth of warning.”

“Firing,” Gunnard snapped. Every broadside fired at once, launching forty missiles towards the enemy heavy cruiser; the ship flipped over and fired the other broadside a moment later. The enemy ship was completely surprised; one moment, it had been flying into empty space, the next moment, there were nearly a hundred missiles bearing down on it. “Reloading and preparing to fire again…”

Tiffany felt her breath catch in her throat. Automatic systems had tripped on the Imperial Fleet starship, firing point defence weapons in a desperate attempt to save the ship, but it was already too late. Even as they launched a spread of missiles back towards the Blackbird, which was now wobbling out of cloak, the wave of missiles impacted on their shields and started to explode. The enemy ship, hammered, lost it’s shields…and exploded in a massive burst of plasma.

“Enemy warship destroyed,” the sensor operator said. “Incoming enemy missiles.”

The Blackbird rocked as the handful of missiles from the heavy cruiser impacted against its shields. “Minor shield drain, but no major damage,” someone said. Tiffany barely heard them over her exultation. “The other enemy ships are closing in to attack.”

“Order the remainder of the fleet to decloak and join us,” Tiffany ordered, calmly. The seven remaining Imperial Fleet ships were all destroyers, targeting her in the full knowledge that when she hit them, she would destroy them. She had to admire their bravery, even as the other pirate ships appeared, but it would be futile…unless they were hiding a superdreadnaught somewhere around. She didn’t dare remain in the system too long; there was a picket with more mobile firepower orbiting the planet and it would have started out at once in the hope of killing the Blackbird. “Communications?”

The communications officer glanced around. “Yes, Your Majesty?”

“Inform the Imperial Fleet ships that if they want to withdraw, they can do so,” Tiffany said, smiling to herself. If the Imperial Fleet cut and run, it would destroy confidence in them all across the sector, even though logically retreat was their best option. Anyone who could read a display would know that the ships were massively outgunned, but they didn’t show any signs of retreating; instead, they were boring in towards her ships, weapons and defences flaring. “Any response?”

“They want you to do something that is biologically impossible,” the communications officer said. “There’s no other reply.”

Tiffany shrugged. “No skin off my nose,” she said, as a light cruiser closed in rapidly. It had to want to ram her – it was the only way in which they could hope to destroy her ship – but she wasn't about to allow them to try that. Her missile batteries spoke together and the enemy ship was pounded into scrap. “Order all ships to engage the enemy at will.”

The battle took nearly ten minutes, but its outcome was a foregone conclusion; as soon as the final Imperial Fleet ship was destroyed, Tiffany turned her attention to the freighters. There were seventeen of them, four of them ones belonging to shipping lines that had paid her protection tolls, the others ones who had either defied her or hadn’t had a chance to respond. She allowed herself a moment to consider before she issued her first order; the ships that had paid protection were to be allowed to leave.

“Inform them that they can go,” she said. “Inform the others that we are launching prize crews and if they offer any resistance, they will all be killed.”

She watched as the assault shuttles sped out from her ships; the handful of ships that had paid protection, meanwhile, crossing the Phase Limit and vanishing somewhere into interstellar space. Back when she’d started her pirate career – had it really been only six years ago? – the assault would have included, as a matter of course, rape and slaughter. Now…under her command, the rape and slaughter would be saved for crews that refused to cooperate with her; those who did cooperate with her would be released. One by one, the shuttles docked and boarded their targets; one by one, their targets fell under their control.

“So far, everything seems to be working,” Gunnard said, subvocalising for her ears alone. Their communications implants kept their conversations secret from the crew. “No one is reporting any breeches in discipline, or anything other than a nice peaceful take over.”

“I guess word has spread,” Tiffany sent back. She’d ensured that the message about her rule and the laws she had created had spread into the sector, but she had also concentrated on convincing her people that the rules would be obeyed…and those who broke them would face the most horrifying punishments she could devise. She wasn’t bluffing either; if civilian crews could be convinced that their lives and virginities, such as they were, would be spared, they would be more cooperative.

She cleared her throat as she looked over at the display. “As soon as they have taken over the ships and their computers, the crew are to be allowed to board escape pods and are to be ejected out of the ship,” she ordered. The Imperial Fleet would pick them up, along with the handful of life pods that had been launched from their own ships; there was little point in destroying the helpless pods. Even pirates, she had been amused to discover, had their limits; the act of destroying a life pod was as near to taboo for them as it was for everyone else who worked in space. “Ensure that all crews report in as soon as possible.”

“All of the ships have been secured,” the communications officer reported. “There is only one problem; one of the ships has a computer that has been linked to one of the people, requiting him onboard for the computer to actually obey orders.”

“Put the remainder of his crew in pods and promise them that we’ll drop him off somewhere as soon as we’ve looted the ship,” Tiffany said. The display pinged a warning; three contacts were approaching, directly from the inner system. There was no mistaking either the acceleration or the power curves displayed by the new ships; they were all battlecruisers. “I think it’s time to take our leave.”

Gunnard nodded. “They’ll be in firing range in twenty minutes,” he said. “I recommend that we escape now.”

Tiffany favoured him with a sardonic look. “Thank you very much,” she said, dryly. “I would never have thought of that.”

She turned back to the crew before he could respond. “Order the prize crews to start their ships moving now, and then take us out of the system ourselves,” she ordered. “I want to be at the first waypoint before they reach us.”

“They’re on their way,” the communications officer said. Tiffany nodded; she had carefully not given the boarding parties anything other than the coordinates of the first waypoint, just in case the Imperials had hidden a few surprises on the ship, something that might tip them off to the location of one of their bases. “The Imperials are demanding that we stand down and surrender.”

Tiffany bit off a laugh. “Tell them…no, don’t bother to tell them anything,” she said. “Helm, take us out of here.”

Half an hour later, the fleet reassembled at the first waypoint, five light years from Equinox. Tiffany didn’t hesitate; the second set of coordinates was rapidly distributed around the fleet, and then they jumped out again. A day later, they made their third jump, and then a fourth; if they were being followed, as mind-bogglingly difficult as that might have been, they would have left their hunters feeling very confused.

“Not too bad a raid,” Gunnard said, as he examined the manifest from one of the captured ships. “One of the freighters was carrying pelts from various rare animals, doing them a service by making them rarer, I guess, and would have been in serious trouble if the Imperial Fleet had searched the craft.”

Tiffany had to laugh. Even naked, she still felt comfortable with Gunnard, despite the fact she had never felt comfortable with anyone else unless she was wearing clothes. It helped to know that she had implants that would have allowed her to kill him in an instant, if he tried anything stupid, but even so…she felt comfortable with him. It was an odd reaction, but unlike every other man she’d known since becoming a pirate, he hadn’t wanted to hurt her or had hurt her, deliberately or otherwise. His magical hands never failed to excite her body and convince her that there was more to it, much more to it, than as a simple receptacle for male lusts. It was a weapon, in a sense, but even that was unemotional; Gunnard could make her feel very happy just by touching her properly.

“He’s probably back there, thanking his gods that we came along and saved him from having to sell them on the black market,” Tiffany said. She took the list and skimmed through the remainder of it, looking for anything that might be useful or interesting; the crews had clearly been carrying a diverse cargo. Equinox had a surprisingly good local wine – which couldn’t be made anywhere else, for some reason – and the freighters had been carrying several thousand bottles of it to describing drinkers. Those could be resold once they were passed on to the fences, but the real prize was something very different.

“Weapons,” she said, happily. It puzzled her why they would have been shipping such weapons out to their destination, rather than simply making them on site, but even so, they would come in handy for later operations. Someone had clearly wanted to reequip one of the planetary militias; there were armoured suits, plasma cannons, high-velocity missiles, ground-to-air defence systems…there was almost enough there to fight a war if it got into the wrong hands. “I wonder how much we could get if we sold them on into the wrong hands?”

Gunnard smiled at her joke. “My backers would probably know people who would want such weapons,” he said. “They might not be quite up to the standards of Marine weapons and equipment, but even so, they would still be useful for the later stages of our project.”

“Your backers,” Tiffany said, reaching over and touching him in a very intimate place. “Who are your backers anyway?”

“Merely people with an interest in destabilising the sector,” Gunnard said, and reached out for her. Tiffany pushed his hand away before he could touch her breasts; her own hand was gently touching him. “I can’t tell you any more, as you know; it would kill me to even try.”

“Yeah, right,” Tiffany said, letting go of him. The thought worried her sometimes, in the darkness of the night – she had never been able to have someone share a bed with her overnight, even Gunnard – just who was she working for? They knew, through Gunnard, everything about her, right down to what she liked in bed…and she knew nothing about them. She had puzzled over it, putting together the jigsaw of clues with as much care as she could, but all she had was fragments. “Why don’t you ask them if you can tell me?”

Her mind raced. Whoever had done it had the capability to refit – almost rebuild – a battlecruiser…and that wasn’t a common capability, not when most pirate ships were former patrol ships or destroyers. The largest known pirate ship, apart from hers and Captain Morgan’s Grey-produced battlecruiser, was a light cruiser; it was very difficult to keep anything larger in constant service without endless refits. Offhand, she didn’t know of any black colonies with that capability…although, to be fair, if it were a black colony, would she know about it? Gunnard had introduced himself as coming from a black colony, back when they’d first met…and fallen into bed together. Had he been telling the truth?

“I could,” he said, his hand chasing her body across the bed. Tiffany doubted that he would; the essence of a black colony was hiding, and a shipyard that could refit a battlecruiser would not be easy to hide. They could, she supposed, build one inside an asteroid, but even so, it would be tricky to hide it from fleet if they had some reason to go looking…

Her thoughts were interrupted by a chime. “Your Majesty, we just had a report from The Rock,” the communications officer said. The fleet had paused at one of the waypoints to collect information before proceeding on to Tan. “There’s been an incident.”

Tiffany met Gunnard’s eyes. “An incident?”

“A group of pirates who swore loyalty to you have broken the laws,” the communications officer said. “They boarded a cruise ship, killed all of the men who couldn’t be traded for ransom, and then raped every woman onboard, even including the children. They went back to The Rock and boasted to the wrong person.”

“I see,” Tiffany said. She looked over at Gunnard; she would have to make a horrific example of them. If she allowed them to get away with defying her laws, the entire kingdom would fall apart into chaos. “Order the helmsman to set a course for The Rock; as soon as we get there, we will put them on trial.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” the communications officer said. Tiffany felt the starship’s engines start to power up through the hull. “We’re on our way.”

Chapter Forty-One: Tim On The Rock

I have got to be out of my mind, Timothy thought, as the Jolly Roger reverted into normal space and headed into the system the captured pirates had called ‘The Rock.’ Kady had been in no doubts that he was out of his mind and had almost gone so far as to threaten to relieve him, before he had talked her into supporting the plan. It sounded simple, when he thought about it from the comfort of the bridge, but when he was sitting at the helm of a captured pirate vessel, it started to feel like insanity.

“I have a link established with the Fury,” Markus murmured from his position. The laser communications link should be completely undetectable unless a pirate happened to break the link physically, and the odds against that happening were so vast as to be nearly incalculable. “They’re following us in at a safe distance.”

“Good,” Timothy said. The asteroid field ahead of them, orbiting a dull yellow sun, held a pirate base; as they grew closer, they picked up traces of emissions that signified the presence of a technological base. “Remind them to keep their distance and that we’ll be back in a week.”

His lips twitched. His final set of orders had been, he hoped, comprehensive. “Wait for a week,” he’d said. “If you don’t hear anything from us by then, Kady, declare yourself Captain and return to Roland, and come back with a large force. If the pirates detect you, break contact and return to Roland. If I order you to land on The Rock, leave the system at once and whistle up a superdreadnaught or two; do not, under any circumstances, land on the pirate base.”

“Yes, sir,” Kady had said. She had even volunteered to go on the mission herself, but Timothy had chosen to go himself; he would never have asked anyone to do something that he wouldn’t have done himself. There was another point; Tiffany was his sister and in a way, he felt responsible for everything she’d done. He wouldn’t let anyone else take the risks of challenging her if he could take them himself.

He glanced briefly around the bridge of the Jolly Roger. It had originally been called the Stalker and had belonged to a tiny crew of pirates, who were now resting in the Fury’s brig until they reached civilised space once again. The pirates had been very cooperative and had been more than willing to discuss everything that they might have needed to know, even to the point of telling them the password that would allow them a chance to dock on the Rock. After that, they were on their own; as new pirates, they could be expected to have to pay docking fees…and maybe pledge their loyalty to the Pirate Queen. If nothing else, they had succeeded in part of their mission; they had stumbled over one of Tiffany’s bases.

“If anyone wants to back out, it’s a little late,” he said, glancing around the bridge. There was himself, of course, Markus, Elf, and two crewmen; Martin Bennsten and Zachary Barnes, who had volunteered to go on the Merry Prankster, years ago. They were both tough men who spent time training with the Marines; they could also pass for pirates without much in the way of cosmetic modifications. They all wore pirate outfits, rather than their uniforms, but Elf looked more than a little strange; her outfit had been designed for a woman with a bigger bust and a nastier attitude.

“Respectfully suggest, sir, that we get on with it,” Martin Bennsten said, “before I get an attack of brains to the head and realise just how dangerous this is.”

Timothy smiled. “Understood,” he said, and pressed a button. The signal they’d picked up from the ship’s former crew – who had lived in quarters that made most pirate ships look like dumps, even if the newest midshipman on any Imperial ship would have been working off demerits for life if he had kept his quarters in such a condition – was supposed to be a simple handshake, proof that they were pirates and trusted enough by the former crew to be given the coordinates of the asteroid. If they had lied, they wouldn’t know about it until it was too late…and they were dead.

“I’m picking up a low-level response,” Markus said, working the communications console. The Jolly Roger might have been a tiny system patrol craft, but even so, it required a much larger crew than five people. No wonder the former commander hadn’t wanted a fight; his ship was barely capable of mounting an attack against an unarmed freighter. “They are clearing us to land at one of the docking bays and are warning us that if we deviate from the course they have set, we will be destroyed.”

“What a nice warm welcome,” Timothy commented dryly. “Remember, we’re nice well-behaved pirates, so keep one hand on your weapons at all times.”

“Arr,” Markus said, his face twisting into a scowl. “Pieces of eight, bugger the mate.”

Timothy laughed, feeling some of the tension vanishing as the ship came into dock at a tube extending out from the asteroid. It was an odd design, more like a fleet base than something civilian; gravity had to be provided by a gravity generator, rather than spinning the asteroid to create a gravity field. It was something that wasn't seen very often – if the gravity generator failed, the results would be…interesting, from a safe distance – but it made a certain degree of sense. If worst came to worst, they could shut down all emissions and hide from a starship, rather than spinning in a suspiciously regular pattern.

“Welcome to the Rock,” a man said, as they stepped out of the ship. It had been sealed – the captive crew had informed him that pirates wouldn’t search another pirate ship – but Timothy had left one of the crewmen onboard, just in case. “The fee for docking here is ten thousand credits, in money or in a share of your produce.”

Timothy blinked in surprise. Ten thousand credits was a great deal of money. “I take it that you cannot pay, then,” the man said. “You will have to come to an agreement about sharing some of the proceeds from your raids, under the rule of the Queen.”

Tiffany, Timothy thought. “That would probably be better,” he said. Their cover story was that they had come from a different sector and therefore couldn’t be blamed for not knowing the rules. “Who do we talk to about that?”

“He’ll find you,” the man said. He nodded towards a vast opening down the corridor. “Please do not try to leave the Rock without clearing it with him first, but feel free to spend as much time as you like browsing; we have some of the greatest markets this side of the Fairfax Sector.”

“Bloody hell,” Elf commented under her breath, once the man was gone. “Was he trying to sell us on staying here, or did he just was a cut of the profits?”

“Both, perhaps,” Timothy said. He led the way down the corridor. “I’ve never been to somewhere like this before” – a lie; he’d been to Gotha – “and I’m curious to see if it lives up to it’s billing.”

The first thing they saw as they entered was a massive image of Tiffany herself, staring down at them with a strange combination of mischief and sternness in her eyes. Timothy almost felt his heart stop as he took in the picture, barely managing to grasp the writing at the bottom, which promised vast rewards for anyone who served the Pirate Queen well and faithfully…and greater punishments for anyone who tried to go it alone. A copy of Tiffany’s laws was printed below and Timothy read through it, shaking his head; his sister was trying to change the very nature of pirate society. No rape, no harsh treatment, no slaughter unless necessary…if she had wanted to minimise resistance to her rule, she had certainly picked an interesting way of doing it.

“They want you to sign up with her or they’ll drive you out,” Markus said, very softly. The other pirates seemed to be ignoring them as they studied the rules, but Timothy was very aware of sidelong glances and sharp looks, some of them from people who were clearly wondering if they would sign up or not. Elf squeaked as a pirate squeezed her bum; she hauled off and smashed the pirate right in the face, sending him crashing down to the ground. His friends laughed out loud at him and carried him off, some of them even waving.

“I see,” Timothy said, ignoring the byplay. “Do you think that anyone who refuses to sign up actually gets to leave?”

Markus shook his head. Pirates rarely exercised any kind of supervision over their fellows, whatever they did, not least because if one group of pirates was dissatisfied, they could always betray the asteroid’s location to the fleet. They had posed as a single pirate ship, light-centuries from the area they had known; if they were killed, no one would raise a hand to defend them. Tiffany, at a guess, had moved in a force of her people and started signing everyone up to her band, or simply shot anyone who refused to go along with her.

They left the image behind and walked on into the main hall. It was massive, much larger than any football stadium, and packed with stalls. Gotha had to look like that once, back before the Marines had slammed into the asteroid and taken over for themselves, but this group of pirates didn’t seem worried about discovery. His eyes tracked from stall to stall, seeing some advertising food and drink, others advertising illegal drugs…and still others offering slaves. He stared, grimly, at the girls there; chained, as naked as the day they were born, and surrounded by leering pirates, bidding on them without any regard as to their feelings. Tiffany had gone through something like that, he knew, but she had somehow managed to become powerful in her own right; he suspected that none of the other girls would be so lucky.

“Bastards,” he hissed, too low for anyone to hear. Standing on the platform, the girls had been more than a little dehumanised, as if they were nothing, but property. The pirates could do anything to them and they had to know it, but there were no traces of mercy or compassion on the faces of the pirates; they jeered, leered, and bid, calling out figures and lewd remarks without a trace of human decency.

“We’ll be back,” Elf promised him, as they started to go through the remainder of the stalls. Some of them were selling books, much to his private amazement, and he had to force himself not to linger more than a few moments, looking down at the old books. Others were more interesting, selling information that was of value to pirates, ranging from shipping schedules to information on the latest armed freighters and what they might look like.

The storekeeper looked up at him. “See something you like, young man?”

“Ah…we’re new to this sector,” Timothy explained. The storekeeper was wrapped up in so many rugs that it was impossible to tell if he was male or female…or, for that matter, even human. “I was wondering if you had some idea of just what is actually going on and who the Queen is?”

“She’s the person in charge,” the storekeeper said, dryly. Timothy managed to look just a little embarrassed. “You want significant information, go see an information broker, like the gentleman in…well, if you want that, you’ll have to buy something.”

Timothy laughed. “I’d like a copy of the shipping schedules,” he said. The…person passed one over to him without comment, a simple datachip that Intelligence would love to get their hands on, once they returned from their mission, just to find out what the pirates actually knew. He paid the hundred credits the…person asked for without comment. “Where is this information broker?”

“Room 453,” the storekeeper said. “The bastard charges an arm and a leg, but I’ve never gotten anything from him that was inaccurate or useless or set up by the fleet to betray us.”

“Thank you,” Timothy said. They walked out of the main hall without further comment; the asteroid numbering scheme was, fortunately, easy to understand. They hadn’t been imaginative enough to invent their own scheme; they’d copied the standard Imperial scheme. “Is everyone ok?”

“Maybe I just want to get back to the ship,” Elf said, tapping her ears. Timothy nodded; there was a good chance that there were surveillance devices operating near them and they would have to be careful what they said. A computer armed with a list of keywords could scan weeks of conversation, looking for something that might betray the speaker to Imperial Intelligence. They wandered along the corridors until they found the area they were looking for, guarded by Marines.

“Elf, you and Martin remain here,” Timothy said, suspecting that they might need to split up. “Markus and I will go inside and meet with the broker.”

“Yes, sir,” Elf said.

Timothy was more worried than he allowed himself to look when they passed the two guards – men who had clearly been illegally augmented – and entered the office of the Information Broker. It was going too well; if they had somehow been able to manage something that Imperial Intelligence hadn’t been able to do, it suggested that they were lucky…and he knew that luck ran out eventually. Imperial Intelligence should have been much more capable of slipping insertion agents onto a pirate base, so why hadn’t they done it? Or, if they had done it, why had they failed?

The information broker himself turned out to be a tall, distinguished academic of a man, rather than the small figure that Timothy had been expecting. “Welcome, my friends from thousands of light years away,” he said, when he finally bothered to see them. He’d made them wait for ten minutes, just to convince them of who was really in charge. He’d clearly also done a little research on them. “You may call me Percy. What can I do for you and how much are you prepared to pay for it?”

Timothy leaned forward, trying to project a mixture of innocence and concern. “We had to leave our last home under something of a cloud,” he said, a story that the information broker wouldn’t find impossible to believe. “We fled into this sector and were lucky enough to encounter the Stalker, which pointed us in this direction. However, we know almost nothing about the Pirate Queen, or where any of the other safe bases are, and we don’t want to blunder around until we get killed.”

“How interesting,” Percy said. “I don’t suppose you have any detailed files on what it’s like in that sector, no? That would be worth quite a bit to me, I think…?”

“Nothing useful,” Timothy said. He shook his head slowly. “We had to leave under something of a cloud; an Imperial ship attacked the base and we had to flee, without knowing where to go. We faked an ID, got this far, and then ended up here.”

“The Queen herself is the latest in a stream of people who have tried to unite the pirates, although she has done better than anyone apart from Captain Morgan,” Percy said, thoughtfully. “That much information is common knowledge, so I can’t really charge you for it; almost anything else about her is largely speculation or knowledge that you will have to pay for, I fear. You will have to pledge loyalty to her when she arrives, or to her representative, but once they have accepted you, they will help you make a real profit from your work.”

“It sounds like a good bargain,” Timothy said, wondering how far he dared press matters. “Percy…what’s the catch?”

“You can’t break any of her rules, basically,” Percy said. “We have a group here that did that and something bad is going to happen to them, although we are waiting for her decision before actually doing anything to them. You might want to watch the trial, young man; you might find it instructive.”

“I might,” Timothy agreed. Tiffany was having a trial? “The only other thing we need is some other places where we can go, if we decide to reject the Queen’s offer…”

“Other bases,” Percy said. “You do know that that information never comes cheap?”

“We don’t want to become dependent on any one source,” Timothy explained. “How much would it cost us to learn the location of another base?”

“Ten thousand credits, each,” Percy said flatly. Timothy wondered, grimly, if he dared to purchase the locations, knowing that having so much money on hand rather gave the lie to their claim to be poor pirates, down on their luck. He made a decision and pulled out a credit chip, holding it up so that Percy could see the balance.

“Three bases,” he said, shortly. Percy wandered over to his des, fumbled through it for a moment, and then pulled out a set of navigation chips. “Thank you…”

“No, thank you,” Percy said, as the door opened. Timothy saw disaster before the first augmented gorilla poked his gun into the room; Percy had somehow triggered an alarm. He cursed his own mistake as he lifted his hands, trying to think of a way to draw his weapon before it was too late. “Only one type of person would want that kind of information, and when the queen comes here…no, don’t!”

Markus leapt forward, pistol in hand, and shot down the augmented man. A second appeared before he could react and shot him, sending his body crashing back against the ground, blood bleeding from a hole in his head. Timothy had almost no time to think as the augmented man grabbed him; all he could think of was that he had led Markus to his death, so far from home.

“The Queen is coming here,” Percy said, calmly. “I dare say…”

Tiffany is coming here?” Timothy asked.

Percy stared at him. “How did you know her name?” He demanded. “I never told you that!”

Chapter Forty-Two: Crime And Punishment

“We have arrived at the asteroid,” the helmsman said, as the battlecruiser dropped out of Phase Space and heading into the solar system. It was a very small and uninteresting systems, as systems went, but that was part of its charm. Someone with an eye for hidden advantages, such as the sheer worthlessness of the system, might find it an attractive sight. “They’re signalling for us to connect to a main docking bay.”

“Good,” Tiffany said. The ship that had brought the information about the pirates who had broken the laws had included some of the security footage from the ship they had captured and she had watched enough of it to steel herself for the task ahead. She had been forced to do all kinds of sexual acts with Blackbird, back before she’d killed him and taken his command, but there were limits. Blackbird hadn’t really beaten her to a pulp, nor had he taken a nine-year-old girl and…

She refused to think about it, concentrating instead on the coming trial. There were pirates who would be disgusted if they saw half of the footage, but there was no way that she could space them all for child abuse, no matter how disgusting it was. They would be tried instead for breaking the rules, after having agreed to follow the rules, and she could only hope that it would be enough. If enough pirates believed that she was becoming oppressive to their right to perform the occasional atrocity, they would group together against her and even the firepower of the battlecruiser wouldn’t save her life.

“As soon as we dock, I want the ship secured,” she ordered, glancing over at her security chief. “I want quads of guards to go to each of the strategic points on The Rock, coordinating with the people we already have there, and secure the entire asteroid, just in case someone has some bright idea about freeing them and letting them flee the asteroid. No one leaves the asteroid without my permission; if anyone tries to leave before I give permission, blow them out of space.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” her security chief said. He’d been trapped on Deadend when he had been rescued by one of her transports and he was very loyal, not least because of the simple fact that if Fleet caught him again, they would execute him on the spot. His crimes had been so appalling that he had been lucky not to be simply shot out of hand; for him, Deadend had been a mercy. He might collect the billions of credits that Fleet had placed on her head, not necessarily attached to her body, but he would never live to enjoy them.

The Blackbird docked neatly with the asteroid and Tiffany waited long enough for the guards to secure the ship, before leaving the ship herself, escorted by Gunnard and a dozen additional guards. The asteroid’s master, a man she’d only met once, came forward to bow before her, before he shook her hand and offered to escort her directly to see the prisoners. Tiffany graciously allowed him to escort her, keeping her face blank as the little man led her through halls so that everyone could see that he was in her favour, rather than being treated as an inferior. Tiffany smiled, but kept it off her face; it was very like being back at school. If you were popular, you were Someone; if you weren’t, you were beneath contempt. Gunnard walked beside her, glancing from side to side, while Tiffany kept herself in a very dignified manner. She was the queen and had to act like it.

The Rock was like a miniature version of Gotha, complete with stalls and slave markets, although the slaves weren’t cheering for her. They’d been lined up to be sold as a group, mostly girls who weren’t pretty or knowledgeable; she guessed that they would eventually go into one of the brothels. Naked, wearing chains that forced them to expose everything about their bodies, they still hadn’t been sold. It made her smile; she’d never visited The Rock before, but it was hardly unfamiliar territory. The Rock had prospered because of her and her rule…and the population owed her. They knew it too.

“We caught them after they started to brag,” the administrator said. He had introduced himself simply as Simon, a name that was so common throughout the Empire that statistically there was a good chance it actually was his real name. “Once we investigated their actions, we searched the vessel they brought back here and accessed the recordings the ship’s security camera’s had made. They broke the rules and so we arrested them and held them, pending your trial.”

Tiffany nodded once as they entered his office; Simon looked barely put out when Gunnard and the guards entered with them. “That’s good work,” she said, as calmly as ever. She kept a firm lid on the rage that threatened to overwhelm her; she had to remain calm, until she needed to release the rage. “Is there anything else you have to tell me?”

“We caught a pair of Imperial spies,” Simon said. Tiffany lifted an eyebrow; if the spies had managed to board The Rock, it suggested that the secret of its location was already lost. They might have to evacuate, but that would have to wait until the trial was concluded. “One of them was killed resisting arrest, but the other has been secured and jailed until you could decide what to do with him.”

“Leave him there for the moment,” Tiffany said, as the image of the four prisoners appeared in front of her. They didn’t look tough, to her eyes; they looked like a barmaid who had just been caught with her hand in the till, and was wondering what the bartender might demand from her in exchange for not throwing her into prison. She had never knowingly met a child abuser before, but these ordinary-looking men hadn’t been what she had expected; they seemed more terrified than anything else. “Have they been told what is expected of them?”

She’d created the trial formalities herself; they were stark, simple, and easy to understand. The defendants would be told what they were being charged with, whereupon the speaker would put the evidence in front of the judge – her. If they had a defence, they would have to make it then, or they would face summery judgement. The penalties would be harsh, as she didn’t have a jail or anywhere where they could be kept indefinitely; if they were found guilty, they would almost certainly be killed. In fact, she was sure that they would be killed.

“Of course,” Simon assured her. “We have kept them fully informed of all the charges and what will happen to them if they fail to mount a defence.”

Tiffany nodded once as she took in the sight of the men again. “That’s good,” she said, glancing at her watch. “I see no need to delay, so I think that we should have the trial in an hour or so, at 1700, if that is fine…?”

“Of course, Your Majesty,” Simon assured her, bobbing his head again. He had to be more than a little aware of the battlecruiser, her guards spreading through the asteroid, and what might happen if he defied her. “The trial room is already prepared as you ordered and we can move the men into the room within twenty minutes.”

“1700 will do,” Tiffany said, and allowed Gunnard to lead her out of the office. As soon as they were somewhere where there were no surveillance devices, she glanced over at him as the guards spread out. “You will present the charges against them.”

“Of course,” Gunnard said, looking as if he wanted to argue. “I must say, however, that the matter of the imperial spies should take precedence.”

“We have to punish them before they become a cause someone can use to rip us apart,” Tiffany said, very seriously. She would have liked to spend an hour wandering around The Rock, but that was no longer possible, now she was the Queen. All it would take would be one moment of grossly bad luck and her reign would come to a sudden end. “We cannot afford much more of a delay.”

They spent the next two hours meeting people, mainly pirates on The Rock who had signed up to her banner without ever having met her, or without any clear idea of what her long-term plans were. Tiffany spoke to each of them in turn, in some cases flattering, in other cases reassuring them, and in a handful of cases speaking quite sharply to pirates who chafed at some of the rules. Once they saw what happened to the captured pirates, they would become more amiable…or perhaps they would seek to rebel against her. It hardly mattered so long as they were individuals; the problems would come if they managed to form a group. Finally, however, it was time for the trial.

Simon had done a good job, she acknowledged, as she took her seat. She had been given a throne that looked surprisingly impressive, with a table and a hammer to beat on the table, while the prisoner’s bench looked sufficiently uncomfortable and unpleasant to her eyes. After the spectators had filed in and taken their seats, she gave the hand signal; the prisoners were to be brought in. The spectators booed and catcalled as the four pirates shuffled along, their hands and legs shackled, and were firmly attached to the prisoner’s bench. The designers had done a better job than she had realised; when they sat down, they were forced almost to bow their heads in her direction, even though one of them was trying to be defiant and glare at her.

“This court will now come to order,” Tiffany said, her voice ringing out with the aid of a tiny microphone. “The prosecutor will present the case against these four prisoners.”

The spectators cheered as Gunnard stood up. “Your Majesty, these four men accepted your rules and swore fealty to you back when this asteroid was brought into your kingdom,” he said, his own words echoing out around the room. There were more cheers, but he stared them down into silence, before continuing to speak. “These four men accepted the rules and set out to carry out their duty for you, following your rules. In the course of one mission, they found a small passenger liner, boarded it, and then they began to defy the rules. Despite the lack of resistance, they slaughtered all of the men onboard the ship, including people who could have been press-ganged into serving for us. If that was not enough, they raped and murdered every woman on the ship, from a young girl to an older woman, before taking the ship and the bodies of it’s crew back to The Rock.

“We know that the laws you have created ban such actions,” Gunnard continued. “The crew offered no resistance, but they were still slaughtered, causing others to know that they could expect nothing from us, but slaughter. How many more of us are going to die in the future, because of these four and their actions? How much could we have benefited from an intact ship and a captured crew? There were trained people on that ship who could have been useful…but these men decided to kill them all, without cause.

“Worse, they defied your laws…and thought that they could escape punishment. I can recommend nothing else, but the harshest punishment, in order to convince everyone that such crimes against the entire kingdom do not go unanswered.”

He sat down, to a series of cheers and a hail of rotten vegetables directed at the pirates in the dock. Tiffany nodded to one of the guards, who started to evict everyone who had been seen throwing rotten vegetables; she didn’t want the court disrupted.

“You have heard the charges against you,” she said, looking down at the four men. “Would any of you like to speak in your own defence before I pass sentence?”

“Your Majesty, we were merely doing what we have always done,” one of the pirates said, after a long agonising pause. His voice was strange, a mixture of a whine and a brave attempt at defiance, something that would have been more impressive if he had something to be defiant with. He was nothing, but a walking animal on two legs, almost certainly responsible for some of the most outrageous crimes committed by pirates, and even though Tiffany knew she could hardly feel superior to him, it was nice to have someone – anyone – around to feel superior to when she thought about it. “We were led to believe that there would be treasure on that ship and we found nothing, but the women, and so we decided that they should pay for trying to mislead us…”

His voice trailed off as Tiffany stared him into submission. “You agreed to follow my laws,” she said, very sharply. She had to make the case as clearly as she could, not for the four wretched pirates who wouldn’t last another hour, but for all the spectators. “You then chose to break them, placing yourselves, this asteroid and all of our little community at risk. There will be more resistance to us in the future, because of you; you showed them what they could expect from us…and you didn’t even think to disable the transmitter on the ship!”

She leaned closer as they tried to dodge her gaze. “You are guilty,” she said, as clearly as she could. There were pirates who wouldn’t have lifted a finger to defend a child from assault who would be horrified at the thought of the idiots chained before her leading the Imperial Fleet to the asteroid. “For your crimes, I sentence you to dead in the most horrific manner possible. Mr Fredrickson?”

Gunnard stood forward, holding a small injector in his hand and placing it gently against the neck of the lead pirate. There was a small hiss and then the drug was injected into his body, rapidly taking effect while he injected the other pirates. The leader looked terrified at first – Tiffany wrinkled her nose as the scent of his terror drifted across her nostrils – but then he seemed to relax as nothing happened.

“You failed, you bitch,” he said, laughing. The mocking note in his voice made Tiffany smile; he didn’t understand, not yet. “Nothing’s happening…”

Gunnard poked him with a finger and the pirate screamed in pain. “Actually, your nerves have just become super-sensitive,” Tiffany said, as Gunnard poked the second pirate, and then the third. Their screams drowned out her words for a long moment. “The slightest touch could make you hurt; a single poke would be like having a bullet passing through your body, a feather could burn out your brain if it tickled you…”

“Come and join in,” Gunnard called, addressing the pirates who were watching. Most of them surged forward to see what it was like; touching the convicted men gently and hearing them scream and press against their restraints, only to break as more pain flooded through their system. Tiffany watched, as dispassionately as she could, but even she was privately terrified. It had been picked as a method of death by torture…and she doubted that anyone who saw it would think about defying her again, at least for a few months.

She nodded once to Gunnard as the men finally expired. “Have their bodies destroyed and their ship put up for sale,” she ordered. Gunnard bowed. “Once that’s done, report back to my office. We have some Imperial spies to see to.”

Simon had given her an office, one that had been carefully swept for bugs, and as soon as they were there, she brought up the files. The first spy, the dead one, was nobody special; he looked about as old as Captain Blackbird, but she didn’t recognise the face, which wasn’t that surprising if he worked for Imperial Intelligence. The first rule of being a spy was that you had to remain a secret; whatever the dramas might say, if everyone knew who you were, your life expectancy would become almost nothing. The second spy…

Tiffany looked at the image and almost felt her heart stop. It could have been coincidence, it could have been an attempt by Imperial Intelligence to trick her into believing that he was who he appeared to be, but somehow she knew that that was wrong and the person she was looking at was the person he appeared to be. She hadn’t seen him for six years, not since their last night on the Max Capricorn, but there was no mistaking him; she knew it was him.

She strode out of the office, summoned the guards, and walked down to the prison cells. There wasn't much to them – there wasn't much of a police force on the asteroid – but they could hold one person for as long as necessary. There were two guards standing there, looking board; they saw her face, saw her guards, and jumped to attention with an audible snap!

“I am going to talk to the prisoner,” she said, shortly. One of the guards looked as if he would have liked to question her, but the sight of her guards made it clear that he wouldn’t dare. “Is there a surveillance device in his cell?”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” the guard said. “It’s…”

Tiffany cut him off. “Disable it,” she ordered, as she pressed her hand against the opening switch. “Remain outside and don’t disturb me for anything other than a dire emergency.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” the guard said, as he took in her guards. “It will be done.”

The cell was dark, but there was enough light to see; she sent a command into the local processor and the lights grew brighter. The face looking up at her was achingly familiar, a face almost exactly like hers…

“Hallo, Timothy,” she said.

Chapter Forty-Three: Sibling Reunion

Timothy tested his bonds carefully, feeling each and every one of the links, only to discover that they were unbreakable. The pirates had been surprisingly gentle, once they’d removed everything that could be a weapon, but they had taken no chances at all with him. They’d chained his hands behind his back and then chained him down to a bench, leaving him there to wait until someone came to interrogate him. He would almost have preferred to have been tortured, rather than being left alone with his thoughts, which endlessly ran round in circles. He’d gotten captured, he’d lost Markus…

The grief and rage almost threatened to overwhelm him and he forced himself to calm, using breathing and meditation techniques that he’d learned from Elf to control his emotions. The thought of Elf reminded him that she was still out there, somewhere; there certainly hadn’t been any sign that the pirates had captured her and Martin as well. He hoped – prayed – that they had had the sense to get back to the Jolly Roger and flee the asteroid before the pirates attempted to impound the ship, but if ‘Percy’ had known who he was, there was a good chance that they knew which ship he had come from and then they would almost certainly check it out to find out just what it was. Hours passed and he sat there, his body growing stiff and uncomfortable on the bench, waiting for someone to come. The thoughts of his own failure tormented him; he had, in his pocket, the information that Imperial Intelligence had been hunting for…and there was no way that he could get it back to the Empire. He hoped that Kady would obey orders and leave the system when the week ended, but by then…who knew what would have happened?

The noise of the door opening brought him back to himself; there was a strangely familiar silhouette standing in the doorway, looking down at him. The door closed; a moment later, the light came up, revealing the one person he wanted – and never wanted – to see again. She stood there, her face unreadable, but Timothy was her twin and could tell that she felt terrifyingly conflicted.

“Hallo, Timothy,” she said.

“Tiffany,” Timothy said. It was suddenly hard to talk, despite his pressing need to say something, anything. He didn’t have the words. “It’s been a long time.”

She sat down, squatting on her haunches, facing him. He studied her through the haze of memory, staring at her and trying to see his sister looking out at him from the face of a stranger. She was taller now, her body had changed from that of a developing girl to a full-grown woman, but there was still enough of the old Tiffany inside her to be disconcerting. Her face was the same, unmarked by any scar, but there was a new air of coldness, of ruthlessness, just under the surface. Her hair was long and neatly cut, falling down around her face and reaching down her back, but…maybe he was imagining it, in the low light, but was it a little darker?

He shook his head slowly as he took in her clothes. They revealed and hinted and tantalised, drawing the mind to imagine what lay under the clothing while never revealing too much, forcing his imagination to fill in the gaps. She was his sister and she was a stranger to him, a girl who would do anything to get ahead in the universe, a person without any sense of morals, with no law, but the one she had created. Elf was tough, a Marine had to be tough, but Tiffany gave the impression of being hard crystal; she was hard, but she was permanently on the verge of being shattered.

He managed a laugh. “You’re looking well,” he said, trying to keep the bitterness out of his voice and failing. “I understand that you’re the person in charge here now.”

Tiffany ignored his question. “I thought you were dead, back on the cruise ship,” she said, her voice somehow different. She had lost her innocence, he realised; she had lost both that and her zest for life. The girl he remembered, who had wanted to leave their homeworld and sail the stars, was dead and gone. “What happened to you?”

Memories flared in front of Timothy’s eyes. “They killed our father,” he said. Markus had almost been like a second father to him…and he, too, had been killed in front of Timothy’s eyes. “Mum…they raped mum, forced her down and…they did it right in front of my eyes!”

Tiffany’s face showed no reaction. “I was in a spacesuit,” Timothy said, grimly. “They left me there to die when the hulk ran out of air and my spacesuit ran out of air, but I was lucky enough to be saved by the fleet, so…”

“So you joined up and dedicated yourself to the task of hunting down pirates,” Tiffany said. There was no real condemnation in her words. “And here I am, the Pirate Queen. Funny how things work out, isn’t it?”

Timothy felt anger burst out of him. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“Surviving,” Tiffany said. Her voice was becoming more familiar. “I was captured and taken onboard a ship, sold to a man who raped me and found myself struggling to survive. I killed my first person, then my second, and then I used my body to kill a third, and then…I killed the man who owned me, I took his ship and ended up forming an empire from the pirates. How dare you judge me?”

“You hit Taurus, our homeworld, and killed thousands of people,” Timothy snapped back. “Some of them might have been cruel to you, but others never met you, never knew you, but they all died just the same! You have killed thousands more with your coordinated raids, some of them even hitting Imperial Fleet starships and…why?”

“Because this is where I belong,” Tiffany said, simply. “Because I can’t go back to being what I was. Because this place has shaped me even as I try to reshape it into the basis of an empire. Because…this is what I…”

“You don’t believe what you’re saying,” Timothy snapped. “These people killed our parents! I took the ship that had attacked the Max Capricorn and killed the crewmen, once we had had a trial, but what have you done to change this place? Every week, there’s a new attack, or series of attacks, and they leave dead bodies in their wake! Why?”

Tiffany’s eyes flared. “You don’t understand,” she snapped. “I have become one of them and I have started to build an empire. Back on Taurus, I had no power and no control; now, I have both power and control and that won’t come to an end!”

“Unless you lose one of the many encounters that you have been fomenting,” Timothy pointed out. He tried to wave his hands, only to remember that they were chained behind him. “This merry bunch of bastards won’t support you once you lead them into a battle and lose it, will you? How long do you think you can continue to defy the might of the Empire?”

He leaned towards her. “Tiffany, I was on Gotha after it was taken,” he said. “I saw the slave markets and I saw the images they took of you then; I knew that you had survived and I wanted to save you. I even found some of the other girls from the ship and they could only tell me that you’d been taken onto a ship. I never dreamed…I never thought you might have done something like this.”

“You never thought much of me,” Tiffany snapped. “You were happy on that world and now…look at you; you’re part of the frigging Imperial Fleet! You’re fat and happy and content, and happy to be where you are and no one is going to knife you in the back if you fuck up! You’ve probably got a girlfriend who is cute and cuddly and won’t knife you in the back when you show the slightest trace of weakness. Here, I have to rise or I will fall, sharply.”

Timothy thought about how Admiral Argent was likely to react to his mistake and wondered if she was actually right about him not having to worry about being stabbed in the back. The Admiral was likely to be furious, assuming that Timothy got back to report in, but that was perhaps the least of his worries at the moment. Tiffany…wasn't who she had once been; the girl who had studied her books and texts on spacefaring was gone, she had been replaced by the cold merciless pirate queen.

“And I can change this place,” Tiffany said. “There were people who committed obscene acts against children while under my rule. Those people have been killed though having their nerves burned out through pain. I can alter it so that the entire sector will come to respect me as their queen rather than pay homage to a crumbling empire.”

Timothy remembered her penchant for playing games and shivered. “It’s not a bloodless game,” he protested, trying to keep her focused on the issue at hand. “Every time one of your ships raids a world, it’s something that costs lives; you yourself claimed to have been raped, and now…you’re causing other women to suffer because of what you went through.”

Tiffany cocked an eyebrow. “Do they make you remember all that babble in the Fleet’s school of hard knocks?” She asked. “I do what I have to do to stay ahead and stay alive, no matter how much it costs me or others. Out here, on the Rim, it’s a whole different world, one that can eat someone and change them, like me.”

“Like you,” Timothy said. He tried to hold out a hand, but the chains prevented him. “Tiff…come with me, please. You could just leave this place and we could hide you from anyone who might want to catch you and extract revenge. You don’t have to stay here forever.”

“Yes, I do,” Tiffany said. She reached out and placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. “You don’t have to stay with the fleet, either. Join me.”

Timothy stared at her. “You have got to be fucking joking,” he snapped. He remembered the bodies floating around innumerable wrecked ships and shuddered. “Do you think that I would willingly join up with this bunch of bastards? Do you know what they do? Of course you know; you’re their leader!”

“I’m quite serious,” Tiffany said simply. She peered down into his eyes. “You have fleet training and you’re related to me, so you could rise quickly within the ranks to the point where you could command your own ship, perhaps one of the light cruisers we picked up from somewhere.”

Timothy lifted an eyebrow. “Somewhere?”

“I have backers, Tim,” Tiffany said. “There are people out there who want to change the face of the Empire.”

She had to be confident that he wouldn’t get back to the Empire, Timothy realised; she wasn't so stupid as to gloat if there was a chance he might be able to escape and save himself from a horrible fate. He felt a tear trickling at the back of his eye as he took in the stranger who wore his sister’s face, the girl who had once been his best friend, reduced now to something else.

“You’re not my sister,” he said. Tiffany’s eyes narrowed. “My sister wouldn’t do anything like this.”

“I trust that is you being silly and not trying to escape into madness,” Tiffany snapped. Just for a moment, she looked so much like their mother that his heart almost stopped. “You must know that there is no way out of here, so why not make the best of it and join me?”

Timothy looked into her eyes. “Why not join me?”

Tiffany, for a moment, seemed to fade. “I have blood on my hands,” she said, holding them up, as if the bloodstains could somehow be seen. The leathers she wore showed stains, Timothy realised; could it be possible that it was real blood? “I killed hundreds of innocent unsuspecting people on a freighter, at the command of the man who took me and made me his slave, whom I defended and eventually killed…and it’s marked me. I killed them all and I have blood on my hands and I killed them and I have blood on my hands and…

“Do you really think that fleet would tolerate you offering me amnesty?”

Her voice seemed to grow back sharply. “I don’t have much more time,” she said, grimly. “Will you join me?”

“No,” Timothy said simply.

Tiffany looked down at him for a long moment. “Why won’t you join me?”

“Because I don’t want to end up like you,” Timothy said. “Tiffany…don’t you remember when you were young and we both went climbing up the hill and down into the gorge? It was the best fun we’d ever had, even if Dad spanked us both for it, afterwards; do you remember just what it like to be a child? Do you remember the dance I had to drag you to and then you didn’t want to leave?”

“I remember that Ryan decided that it would be a good time to try to put his hand down my front,” Tiffany said. Her voice darkened. “Ryan would fit in well here; here, you’re either the person in charge or you’re the possession of someone else. And I can’t leave here, because I have blood on my hands, and…Timothy, join me.”

“I can’t,” Timothy said simply, feeling his heart break. “I will not become one of the pirates.”

“I see,” Tiffany said. She stood up. Her voice was that of a stranger. “It was nice seeing you again.”

Timothy looked over at her. “What’s going to happen to me?”

“I haven’t decided,” Tiffany said. “The pair of you came here alone, so there seems to be no need to panic quickly, so I dare say that you will be quickly executed and that will put an end to you.”

“You’d kill your own brother?” Timothy asked. “You’re not my sister.”

“So you keep saying,” Tiffany said. “And, given what you are, I have no choice, but to order you killed. I can’t keep you a prisoner indefinitely, but the only merciful thing to do is to have you killed, rather than tortured for information. Consider it a last sisterly gift.”

“Goodbye, then,” Timothy said. He felt bitterness flooding into his voice. “When fleet finally smashes your little empire, maybe you can tell them what happened to me.”

“Maybe,” Tiffany agreed, “and maybe I’ll force fleet completely out of the Fairfax Sector and claim it for myself. Already, I have people on half of the worlds in the sector, preparing to launch a terrorist campaign to further destabilise the sector, eventually forcing fleet to withdraw and allow me to take over as the only guarantee of stability. If that happens, I will try to ensure that fleet gets your ashes, although you do understand that I can’t have them delivered to Fairfax at the moment. It would be far too revealing.”

“Of course,” Timothy agreed dryly.

There was a long awkward pause. Tiffany broke it. “Tim…back on the Max Capricorn, when the ship was attacked, did my – our – parents say anything about me?”

“They worried about what had happened to you, but they hoped that you’d be safe,” Timothy said. He tried to push as much concern and regret into his voice as he could. “Goodbye, Tiffany; I’ll see you in the next world.”

“I should have you interrogated,” Tiffany said. Her voice was very soft, almost as if she was trying not to cry. “I don’t think we’ll meet again.”

The door closed behind her and Timothy felt the tears welling over his face, now that he was along, but there was no way that he could wipe them away from his face. She was mad, he was convinced of them now, or touched by her experiences in a way that had burned out her soul. His mind endlessly danced around a simple fact; the sister he knew was gone, replaced by…a megalomaniac. If she had meant half of what she had said, she would bathe the whole sector in blood before she was finally defeated…

If she could be defeated. Timothy had heard Captain Venture’s lecture on the state of the Empire and it made him wonder; what would happen if the harassment grew to the point where the worlds in the sector were demanding that the Empire withdrew? He didn’t know that much about what was happening in the inner worlds, but he did know that the Empire was caught between a reformation and a further stage of collapse, in which the individual worlds would split into independent states. Could Tiffany actually create such a disaster…and was there anything that could stop such a scheme, once it got rolling?

He laughed, bitterly, as he shifted position. There was an answer to that, but it wasn't going to be easy. In any case, he was thousands of light years from anyone who could help him put the scheme into place, and there was almost no chance of escape. Maybe Elf and Martin would be able to get off the asteroid before Fleet blew it into radioactive debris, or maybe they had already been caught, with Elf tied down, while the pirates took turns to rape her and destroy her…he would never forgive himself for risking her like that, even though she had volunteered…it was all his fault. How could he forgive himself?

The door opened again; he looked up bleakly. “Elf?”

“No one else,” Elf said, dryly. There was a dark undertone in her voice. “Do you want out of here or not?”

Chapter Forty-Four: The (Nearly) Great Escape

Tiffany managed to hold herself together until she reached her office, where she sat down on the chair and just collapsed. She had forgotten how to cry a long time ago, after she had become Captain Blackbird’s plaything, but now it came crashing back to her. Her brother…she had thought he was dead, but instead he was alive and working for the fleet. She was going to have to kill him, but she didn’t want to kill him, not after finding him again…and he was right.

She had told him that she was too tainted to ever go back to Taurus and she was right…although, she thought with a brief bitter smile, it was unlikely that they’d want her back. She’d created the pirate kingdom herself, with support from Gunnard and his mystery backers, and the Empire would never forgive her for that. She had nowhere else to go and the only thing she could do, for Timothy, was to ensure that he got a quick death, rather than being interrogated before he was killed. She just sat there, unable to move, her mind endlessly chasing it’s own tail…in a moment, her life had turned upside down, again.

There’s no choice, she told herself, finally, and turned to the console. It flickered and died, before displaying a chaotic image that made her blink and rub her eyes. Before she could react, or say anything, the lights flickered and died, followed by the sudden appetence of emergency lighting. She activated her implants and fired a query into the room’s processor…no response; she found her hand clutching the plasma pistol she wore at her belt before her mind quite realised that the asteroid was under attack.

The door opened and she took careful aim, only to see Gunnard standing there, moments before she would have pulled the trigger. “Your Majesty,” Gunnard said, alarmed. His voice was worried and she didn’t think it was because she had pulled a pistol on him. “Someone has dumped a virus into the asteroid’s systems.”

Tiffany swore. The original asteroid design had included a central computer that all of the inhabitants could have used; the pirates, not being trusting souls, brought their own computers and used the main computer net for only a handful of tasks, like running the asteroid. It wasn’t the most secure computer in the Empire – it had been nearly a hundred years old when the original builders of the asteroid had slotted it into the main computer centre – and almost anyone could hack it…particularly when no one could be bothered to fix the security flaws that had been found in the intervening years. They had concluded that if someone managed to hack into the asteroid, which could only happen from inside the asteroid, they would have taken the asteroid anyway, which meant that there was no point in wasting time and effort trying to fix holes.

Bloody brilliant logic, she thought, as she allowed Gunnard to lead her out of the office and up towards the command centre. Timothy had to be escaping, she realised; he’d had some help from someone on the asteroid, or he’d somehow broken his own chains and escaped on his own. It should have been impossible, but he was her brother and he had done astonishing things before, like surviving in the wreckage of a wrecked starship. They had both come a long way since the Max Capricorn.

“I see,” she said, as Gunnard finished filling her in. “Do we have an idea of who’s doing this?”

“The prisoner must be escaping,” Gunnard said, echoing her thoughts. That settled, rather neatly, the lingering question about what she should do with Timothy; she couldn’t just let him leave, not now. “I have taken the liberty of dispatching a squad of goons down to the prison cell with orders to prevent him from escaping, or killing him if he has somehow managed to obtain a weapon.”

“Good work,” Tiffany said, grateful for the half-light that helped her to hide her feelings. They reached the command centre of the asteroid and knew immediately that there would be no help there; the entire system seemed to have crashed. A dozen technicians were working frantically at one of the computers, but Simon himself was pacing backwards and forwards, his agitation infecting the technicians and forcing them to work harder…which was causing them to make mistakes.

“Your Majesty,” Simon said, his voice shaking. “We’ll have this problem sorted out within minutes…”

“I very much doubt it,” Tiffany said, taking in the faces of the desperately-working technicians, who had just found themselves pledged to an impossible level of performance. Their faces were terrified; they had to be wondering if Tiffany would end up shooting one of them to encourage the others. “Now, settle down and report; tell me what’s happened, calmly, if possible.”

Simon, even sitting down, was agitated. “Ten minutes ago, a virus of some kind was uploaded directly into our systems,” he said. “Before we realised that we had a problem, it had duplicated itself and infected every computers system attached to the mainframe, including various starship cores and all of the security systems. A minute after infection, it took down large chunks of the entire network…”

“And the starships attached to the network,” Tiffany said. The Blackbird hadn’t been attached to the network, but even so, a lot of starships were going to be out of commission until their computer cores could be disinfected, or, worse, would have to be replaced altogether. The virus would have infected every part of their networks…

A thought struck her. “Why didn’t they crash almost all of the network?”

“I don’t know,” Simon said, as if the question hadn’t occurred to him. Tiffany puzzled over it, wondering; was there some reason why the network hadn’t been crashed completely? Judging by the spread of the virus, there was no logical reason why it couldn’t have been taken down, which suggested that the person who had infected the network had a use for parts of it.

“You,” Tiffany said, eyeing a technician who had been looking nervously down at one of the consoles. She looked terrified, knowing that her protected status would come to an end if she failed to repair the damage the Imperials had inflicted to the system; her eyes failed to meet Tiffany’s eyes. “Check what they’ve uploaded and find out if they’ve contaminated the control routines.

She turned back to Gunnard before the technician could start her work. “Can you call your guards?”

Gunnard fiddled with his communicator. “I’m getting nothing back,” he said, grimly. “Whatever they’ve done has jammed up the communicator network as well.”

There could be an entire Imperial fleet bearing down on us and we wouldn’t know, Tiffany thought, feeling cold horror running through her blood. She wouldn’t get anything, but a bullet in the head if she was lucky; if not, she would be dumped on Deadend, where she would end up back where she had started. I have to regain control of the situation…

“We’re going to the Blackbird,” she said, shortly, and glanced over at the technician. “Have you found anything?”

“Ah…yes, Your Majesty,” the technician said. Her voice was still shaking, but Tiffany didn’t kill the messenger; she had learned that that was a bad idea. “I found some traces of…”

“You can tell me on the way,” Tiffany said. She clicked her fingers at the guards. “You’re coming with us to the Blackbird.”

The asteroid’s interior had collapsed into chaos; the emergency lighting lit up a scene from hell, or from a nightmare. Pirates were swarming everywhere, some of them fighting other pirates, while the slave girls, chained down, were screaming. One of them was being raped by a pirate, the others were desperately trying to remain some distance from him, even though it was hardly possible. Tiffany remembered, just for a moment, how she had felt standing in front of the men, her charms displayed to the world, waiting for someone to buy her and change her life, once and for all. The cold feelings of remorse, hidden deep inside her, grew claws and started slashing away at her heart; she drew her pistol and shot the rapist, before allowing the guards to lead her towards the starships.

“Your Majesty,” a guard said, as they reached the secured docking port. One of them had had the presence of mind to close the airlock – it was on its own independent control circuit – and opened it now as the small party arrived. It suggested that whoever was helping Timothy wasn't all-knowing, but even so, they had managed to cripple the asteroid, perhaps even destroy it. If the life support systems failed…it made her wonder why the gravity hadn’t vanished, or if they had left that on to convince the pirates that the remainder of the systems were still working, when in fact some of them had failed.

The interior of the Blackbird, at least, was brightly lit and warm. “We have to get to the bridge,” Tiffany said, glancing down at the technician. “What’s your name?”

“Sarah,” the technician said.

“Very good, Sarah,” Tiffany said, as they entered the intership car. “Now tell me, in simple Imperial Seventeen, what they did to the asteroid.”

“They infected it with a virus that replaced some of the control routines with new control routines,” Sarah said, her voice seemingly more confident as she realised she wasn't about to be thrown to the crew. “Once that happened, the virus mutated and spread into everywhere it could reach, crashing computer cores and disguising the first attack, which allowed the attackers complete control over the system.”

“Except the system has been infected and it has crashed,” Tiffany said.

“Not all of it,” Sarah said. “My guess is that we’re actually getting back false readings and we’ll have to shut down and disinfect more or less the entire network before we can place any confidence in it again.”

Too little, too late, Tiffany thought coldly. Her mind raced as the intership car stopped and they stepped onto the bridge. “Report!”

The helmsman, who had been on the bridge, looked relieved to see her. “Your Majesty, we have a ship breaking loose from the asteroid and heading out towards the Phase Limit,” he said. “They’re pulling as much speed as they can and we can’t catch them!”

Tiffany kept the smile from her face. “I see,” she said, as the display lit up. The escaping craft was a system patrol vessel, of which there were hundreds within the pirate ranks, but this one had clearly been modified so that it could pull almost as much acceleration as a tin can. “Find me a vessel we can send in pursuit and order it to move.”

Her mind raced; the virus had to have disabled the weapons on the asteroid…or had it done more than that? “Sensors, watch the asteroid,” she ordered. “If any of the weapons mounted on the asteroid start to power up, destroy them. Helm, cut us loose from the asteroid and prepare to leave this system.”

Gunnard blinked at her. “Your Majesty, why do you want to leave the system?”

“Because this location has just been hopelessly compromised,” Tiffany hissed. Her brother had done that…and if that little fact got out, she would be dead. It would be much better if Timothy’s ship was destroyed, rather than fall into the hands of a crew that might not have a reason to like her. “Have you found a starship that can pursue the enemy?”

“The destroyer Trouble and Strife wasn’t linked into the asteroid computer network,” the communications officer said. Tiffany allowed herself a moment of relief; perhaps they could preserve the location of The Rock and avoid having to evacuate the entire asteroid. “I’ve ordered them to stop that ship with all necessary force.”

Tiffany nodded as the second icon screamed away from the asteroid. “Contact Simon,” she ordered. “Tell him that I want a list of every ship that is still capable of moving and I want them prepared to evacuate the asteroid and everyone on it. The ships that have been infected are to be shut down; we’ll tow them to a location in deep space and work on them once this location has been evacuated.”

“Understood,” the communications officer said. He worked his console for a long moment. “There’s a lot of pissed commanders out there.”

Tiffany thought, just for a moment, of opening fire herself and removing the Rock and it’s inhabitants from the universe. It would benefit her, in hopes of preventing this tale from getting out, but there was no way that she could prevent some ships from escaping. A handful had already launched and were fleeing, despite her orders; they wouldn’t want to have to worry about taking other pirates on their ships. They would tell the remainder of the community what had happened…and she knew that her prestige had just suffered a blow.

“Your Majesty, the Trouble and Strife is just about to intercept the fleeing ship,” Gunnard said. His voice broke off in horror. “Shit!

Tiffany bit down her own curse as the light cruiser appeared on the display, launching a massive spread of missiles towards her destroyer…and forcing it to evade desperately. It wasn’t enough; before the destroyer could avoid all the missiles, some of them slammed into its shields, and sent it spinning across space. A second spread of missiles completed it’s destruction and blew the starship into a cloud of flaming plasma.

Oh, well done, Tim, she thought, as the Imperial Fleet starship fell into escort position, escorting the Jolly Roger across the Phase Limit…where they both vanished into Phase Space. She ran through the maths in her head; it would take them at least a fortnight to return to an Imperial Fleet base and whistle up some battlecruisers or a superdreadnaught to complete the destruction of The Rock, which meant they had that long to evacuate the base. They’d have to move faster, though; what would have happened if that light cruiser had been something heavier? Or what if there was a task force just light minutes away…?

“Gunnard, I want you to focus on handling the evacuation,” she said, as she sat back in the command chair and gained icy control over her emotions. “Coordinate with all of the captains of the active starships and just get them working on moving people out of here, concentrating on useful people first.”

“Of course, Your Majesty,” Gunnard said.

Tiffany paused. There was something she should do. “And send a team of guards to the slave market,” she ordered. “If there are any slaves still left alive after the riots” – and she thought dark thoughts about how many people were likely to be left alive on the Rock if the life support systems had failed – “I want them brought onboard the Blackbird.”

Gunnard lifted an eyebrow. “If that is your command,” he said. “Might I ask why?”

Tiffany might have trusted Gunnard more than anyone else on the ship, but that didn’t mean she trusted him entirely. “Not at the moment,” she said, remembering the pitifully chained girls back on the asteroid. She couldn’t admit to feeling a little guilt. “I just want them onboard this ship.”


“You know, I’m sure I said something about remaining out of any conflicts,” Timothy said, as he came onboard the Fury, half a light year from The Rock’s star. Kady regarded him expressionlessly. “But on the whole, I’m glad you decided to disobey orders.”

Kady kept her face blank. “I didn’t want to leave you where they could take you into captivity,” she said, shortly. “It would have presented a major security risk.”

“It did present a security risk,” Elf said, dryly. She smiled suddenly. “But, on the whole, we got out of it without any major problems, so I think we got away with it.”

Timothy remembered the dead bodies strewn around the prison cell and smiled. Elf might look harmless, but she was a fully-trained Marine, with a full series of augmentation and weapons implants built into her body. The pirates hadn’t had the slightest idea of what they were facing, even when their asteroid started to fall apart around them; Elf had gone through them like a knife through butter.

“There is a danger,” Elf said. Her voice was very grim. “Those chips you bought…there’s a good chance that they’re fakes. They should have taken the Jolly Roger and secured it, or at the very least left a heavy guard on the ship…and they did neither. Perhaps they didn’t make the connection between the Jolly Roger and ourselves, but I sincerely doubt it.”

Timothy wondered, just for a moment, if Tiffany had allowed them to escape. He’d thought, for a moment, that he was getting through to the girl he remembered, but it was so hard to be sure. Had she spared his life out of whatever sisterly feelings remained, or had she allowed them to convoy false information back to the Empire, or what?

And Markus was dead.

“Kady, set a course back to the Empire,” he ordered, remembering the sight of the man he’d thought of as a second father falling down, dead. He had wanted to take the body back to the Empire, but that had proven impossible. “We have to report in…and I have to sleep for a week.”

He was back in his cabin before he allowed himself to collapse onto the bed. The Admiral was not going to be pleased. Timothy had risked his life and that of everyone onboard the Fury in hopes of finding his sister, even if he had tried to tell himself that all he was doing was looking for a pirate base so it could be destroyed. Admiral Argent wouldn’t be pleased…

…And then he saw, remembering what Tiffany had said, how she could be beaten.

Chapter Forty-Five: Recriminations

“Answer me a question,” Vice Admiral Argent said, as Timothy stood to attention in front of him. “Why is it that I have an overwhelming desire to take you behind the woodshed and whale the stuffing out of you?”

Timothy said nothing. “I would be delighted to hear how you plan to justify your actions on the pirate asteroid,” Argent continued. “Why exactly should you not face a court martial for various errors of judgement?”

“I don’t know, sir,” Timothy said.

“Allow me to fill in the details,” Admiral Argent snapped. “You were sent on a diplomatic mission to Iceland and a handful of other grey colonies which might have had contact with the pirates. All well and good…and you actually manage to capture a pirate ship, so the Icelanders owe us a favour and I’m sure that that will count in your favour in later life, but for the moment…next, what do you do? Having taken a pirate ship and crew captive, you proceed to offer them amnesty in exchange for the location of a pirate base. Exactly how did you have that little brainstorm?”

Timothy took a breath. “We have a policy of offering amnesty to some pirates in exchange for their knowledge,” he said. “In this case, the pirates knew a fact we desperately needed to know, a fact that I was sent to see if the grey colonists knew – the location of a pirate base.”

“How true,” Admiral Argent sneered. “Having located a pirate base and having confirmed to your own satisfaction that it was a pirate base, you proceeded to board the pirate base, which was coincidentally playing host to your sister at the same time!”

“The records from the cloaked Fury make it very clear that the battlecruiser, formerly called the Storm Shadow, arrived after we did,” Timothy said, forcing his voice to remain calm. It wouldn’t help if he blew up at the Admiral. “That was an unexpected coincidence.”

“On the asteroid, you started to try to determine the location of more pirate bases, a line of inquiry that rapidly got you fingered – quite accurately – as spies and ended up with you being captured and Senior Crewman Wilhelm being killed,” Argent continued. “You were challenged by your sister while you were there, you shared a long chat, and then you were liberated by Sergeant Elf, who had been fortunate to escape capture. You fled the asteroid, giving the pirates ample warning to evacuate the base, and then you reported back here. Am I correct?”

“We paused at Equinox to send a trio of battlecruisers back to the pirate base to complete the task of destroying it,” Timothy said, coolly. “The pirates may not expect an attack so soon, while even if they did, the number of ships we left in a useless condition would ensure that their ability to evacuate the asteroid would be limited. Anyone left behind would be in a cooperative mood, for revenge if nothing else.”

“I see,” Argent said. He leaned forward. “You were more than carrying out your duties when you captured the pirate ship,” he said. “You were certainly carrying out some of your duties when you organised the raid on the pirate base…but tell me, just what were you thinking when you went yourself?”

Timothy opened his mouth…and then closed it again. “You are a commanding officer of an Imperial Fleet starship,” Argent said, his voice dripping red with fury. “Your main duty – hell, your only duty, particularly at your level – is to command your ship and ensure her safety, not to go haring off on a desperate quixotic mission that would have risked your capture. If you had been captured, what might have happened to you? You’re damn lucky you got away before they broke out the thumbscrews or the brain-stamper and got to work on breaking your will. You could have ordered Kady Jones to dock at the pirate asteroid, under their influence, and she might have found it wise to comply.”

Timothy glared at him. “I ordered Commander Jones not to accept any orders that would have imperilled the ship,” he said. “If I had been captured and tortured or implanted or was controlled in any other way, she would have known to break contact and run back here.”

“There was a case, a few years back, where a commanding officer issued similar instructions,” Argent said, his voice not budging an iota. “That officer’s subordinates obeyed the orders, only to find themselves charged with mutiny, a charge that was only quashed once their Captain returned and demanded that they be freed. The regulations get a little vague around that point; on one hand, the Captain has boundless authority, while on the other, the Captain issued orders that literally limited his own authority and therefore challenged regulation.

“You took a terrible risk and…”

Timothy spoke quickly. “Sir, with all due respect…”

“Why it is,” Admiral Argent wondered aloud, “why people say that before saying something that is completely disrespectful?”

Timothy coloured. “Sir,” he said, “permission to speak freely?”

“Permission granted,” Admiral Argent said, after a long moment. “I really would be curious to know how you intend to justify yourself.”

Timothy looked down at him. “I took the risk because it was necessary that someone take the risk,” he said. “I didn’t know how quickly I would be captured and I didn’t know that Tiffany would choose that moment to come to the Rock, but I now have both several sets of coordinates for pirate bases and a recording of a discussion with Tiffany which the researchers here have been pouring over for the last few hours. The pirate ships there – at least most of them – have been disabled for weeks, judging from some of the information Elf’s implants picked up, and we have a copy of everything that was in the pirate main network.”

He paused. “All in all, I don’t think that it was a failure,” he concluded. “Even if they started evacuating the base as soon as we left the system, it would have still have been a difficult undertaking, and we sabotaged many of the systems when we infected it. It was a risk, and I should have been more careful, but it wasn’t a failure.”

The Admiral steepled his fingers in front of his face. “That was not disputed,” he said. “There’s a case to be made that you should have handed the task over to Imperial Intelligence, but you’re right, it did give us an unique insight into her mind that we wouldn’t have gotten from anyone else. Even so…you chose to abandon your bridge in hostile territory and left the ship on your mission.”

He looked up at Timothy. “I do not believe, for the record, that you will face a Captain’s Board or a formal court martial over his, but I do think that it is unlikely that you will ever manage to be promoted to a position where you might take command of a larger ship,” he said. Timothy said nothing; he rather liked the smaller ships, rather than the massive superdreadnaughts. “It will be a black mark on your record, whatever else happens, and you will have to face some questioning over your other decisions in the future, but overall, you’re right.”

“Thank you, sir,” Timothy said.

“Don’t thank me,” Argent snapped. “I don’t think I’ve done you any favours and, if you were wise, you’d be careful to avoid notice for a while. You have a funeral to attend, I understand, so after that, I suggest that you and Fury stick to convoy escort missions.”

Timothy recognised the unspoken rebuke and refused to allow his disappointment to show on his face. “Yes, sir,” he said. “I understand.”

“Good,” Argent said. He leaned backwards and traced one finger over his beard. “Is there any other business?”

“Yes, sir,” Timothy said. Argent lifted an eyebrow. “I know how she can be stopped.”

“Oh, really?” Argent asked. “And how, pray tell, did you come to this particular conclusion?”

“I was listening to her when she was talking to me,” Timothy said. “Her empire, sir; it can only last as long as she does, and if we hit it hard enough, it would break apart.”

“Of course,” Argent said. His voice became savage. “If we could kill the bitch, it would make life a whole lot easier, but unless we have some hard intelligence on her plans and have a force lurking there in ambush positions, we couldn’t kill her without a great deal of luck.”

“I know,” Timothy said.

He talked quickly and concisely for nearly twenty minutes, with Argent interrupting from time to time to ask questions; he’d thought of nothing else since they’d fled the pirate base. He’d then discussed it with Kady, Elf and a couple of others, polishing off the rough ends to create a plan that might just work. Even if it failed, it wouldn’t be as if they were putting the entire fleet at risk, just a handful of ships.

“It might work,” Admiral Argent concluded, reluctantly. “Do you believe that she would take the bait?”

“If we made it convincing, she should be convinced,” Timothy said. “I believe that it offers the best chance we have to score a decisive victory.”

“Good thinking,” Argent said. “I’ll have to speak to Admiral Johnston first, but I can’t see any problems with launching the plan. One thought…you do know she’s your sister?”

“She’s not my sister,” Timothy said, bleakly. He remembered the stranger looking down at him from a very familiar face and shivered. “She’s not my sister any more.”


Three hours later, almost the entire crew of the Fury and several people from the nearby fleet base stood together in the centre of a jungle, pouring with rain. The scene struck Timothy as apt, as he watched the raindrops breaking up as they struck the force shield protecting them from the rain. The air smelt hot and wet and full of life; Markus had loved living things, even though he had never lived on a planet. His will had made his wishes clear; he wanted to be buried on a planet, the nearest one to where he had died.

The casket was empty, of course. That wasn’t unknown among the fleet, but normally bodies would be completely vaporised when their starships exploded, or they would be officially classified as ‘missing’ if a starship were overdue and vanished without trace. Markus, however…it still tore at Timothy that he hadn’t been able to recover his friend’s body, even if they had been trying to escape the asteroid at the time. He should have been able to save him, to bring him to rest in the jungle he had chosen as a last resting place, but in the end he had to be content with a symbolic gesture.

He straightened his dress uniform and began. “We stand here to honour the memory of one of our fallen comrades, Markus Wilhelm,” he said, grasping for words. The small group, wearing their own dress uniforms, looked back at him; Markus had been well-respected, if not loved, among the crew. “Like all of us, he took the oath to stand between the Empire and the chaos that threatened it’s very existence; like all of us, he did so in the knowledge that one day it could cost him his life. When he finally passed away, he did so in a manner befitting a true hero, and a loyal servant of the Imperials.

“He wrote his own words,” he continued. “Like so many of us, he left words behind for one of us to read when we gathered to celebrate his life.” He unfolded a sheet of paper. “My friends, if you are reading this, then I am dead and you are alive. Don’t think of yourself as having failed me, or that I died when one of you should have died; think instead of what I have done and you have done for me.”

Timothy blinked tears away from his eyes as he continued to read. “I cannot tell, now or ever, if there is something beyond this life,” he read. “My own faith was always a limited thing, a practical belief that God will help those who help themselves, a charming conviction that in the end, everything we do stands for something. We ride in starships that are tiny compared to planets and suns, we live such mayfly lives compared to the race that gave the Empire birth, and yet…and yet we can do so much. I hope I died well, but in the end, that no longer matters; my friends, what matters is that I lived at all. If I made an impression on your lives, if you made one on mine, then it was all worthwhile. Go forth, now, and live your lives…and never stop making an impression on people. That’s what makes the universe go on.”

He rubbed his eyes and pulled himself straighter. “Unto his last resting place, we place his soul and pledge that we will never forget him,” he said, as the casket started to lower itself into the grave. The small disruption field built into the casket pulled dirt and rock down on it, burying it below the surface, almost untouchable without advanced technology. “I ask you all now for a moment of silence, so that we can remember him in our thoughts.”

Afterwards, he mingled through the small crowd, reflecting suddenly on how alone Captain Venture must have felt. The Captain stood at the top of a pyramid of souls, each one able to find an equal to talk to and share notes with, but he was always alone. He had Elf, but she wasn’t really like him…and, as a Marine, she could never spend as much time with him as he would have liked. He wondered, grimly, how Captain Venture had coped; he had been the father to his crew, but Timothy was too young for that role…

“Captain Keck?”

Timothy turned his head to see a brown-haired woman looking at him. He didn’t recognise her, but somehow he was sure that he had seen her before, somewhere. She wasn’t classically pretty, but there was something about her and her figure that caught his eye, something soft and comforting. Her eyes were hidden behind spectacles, but somehow she gave the impression of studying him closely.

“Yes,” he said, shortly.

“I’m Carola,” she said, her voice soft and very distant. “I was involved with organising the Merry Prankster mission.”

Timothy, who hadn’t forgotten some of the more useless suggestions from Imperial Intelligence, eyed her suspiciously. “Pleased to meet you,” he said, although he wasn’t sure if that was true. He hadn’t met her then, he was sure; someone like her tended to stick in the mind. “That was a long time ago.”

Carola nodded. “How did he die?”

Timothy whirled around to stare at her. “Why do you care?”

“I’m his wife,” Carola snapped back. Timothy remembered, suddenly, where he’d seen her before; there had been a cube of images of her in Markus’s cabin. They’d been married, but then something had happened, or had their careers torn them apart? Markus had said almost nothing on the subject. “How did he die?”

“He died saving my life,” Timothy admitted. It felt good to pour out the entire story as the rain grew colder and the crowd began to break up, some of its members heading for the spaceport bars where they would drink endless toasts to Markus and probably get into bar fights. The Captain couldn’t do that. “Back there, on that asteroid, he died saving me.”

“That was like him,” Carola said, as they found an aircar. “He was always trying to save people.”

Timothy spoke softly as they flew back towards the spaceport themselves. “He brought me onboard the ship, helped me to gain a new purpose, taught me the ropes and stopped me accidentally blowing up the ship a couple of times…he was a good man,” he said. “Why didn’t you travel with him?”

“We met when we were both a lot younger and married, and then…well I had my career and he had his and we kind of drifted apart,” Carola said. Her voice was bitterly regretful. “We managed to snatch some time together from time to time, but in the end, we were only ships that were occasionally allowed to pass in the night.”

Her voice broke off as the aircar came in to land. “You brought back enough intelligence for us to consider a few strikes against the enemy,” she said, just before the door started to open. “For that, if nothing else, his death was worthwhile. He would never have forgiven you for losing yourself to grief.”

“No, I guess not,” Timothy said. He watched her as she strolled off across the spaceport field, into the main building, and then he walked back over towards one of the Fury’s shuttles. There was work to be done…and she was right; Markus’s death had bought them a chance to win the war before Tiffany brought the entire sector crashing down into rubble. He would not waste that chance.

“Take us back to the Fury,” he ordered, as he boarded the ship. “We have a new mission ahead of us.”

Interlude Four: Temptation

This time, the Council of Five were pleased with her, or at least as pleased as they ever got. Evgenia Agathe, who had worked hard to ensure that someone else – male – fell on their sword to account for the lost insertion ship, was privately amused; they had seen fit to keep her in her post because she was the best they had, male or female. It had to kill them, deep inside, that for all their posturing about how women were better off in the kitchen, or cranking out babies to expand the New Race, they needed her…and she needed them.

“Despite the seemingly accidental discovery of The Rock – which had very little to do with us – our Pirate Queen continues to dominate the sector,” she said, once all the formalities had been completed. She had bowed to them, rather than going on one knee; they had known why and they hadn’t protested. They knew they needed her. “Though a combination of terror tactics, bribery, manipulation and treachery, she has started to bring the sector under her control.”

“Which is to say our control,” the leader of the council said. His face, handsome in a way that had almost certainly been developed in a test tube, hardened. “Or is our little Queen under some delusion as to who is the ultimate beneficiary of her actions?”

“Our agents have been careful to honour such a delusion, should it exist,” Evgenia said. “She is a complex character, a stranger person than we understood when we began the program; I would remind you that we did not originally intend her for the role of pirate leader. We did not even recognise her existence until she was already in a position to make a bid for power herself; unlike some of our other operatives, she doesn’t have the sense of total dependence upon us, even though without our help, her modern ships would become inoperable very quickly.”

She paused. “The good news is that we believe we will have created the conditions for the next phase of the plan within the next three years at most,” she said. “Despite the pressure of the Imperial Fleet, the independence movements on the various planets within the sector have been growing stronger, with some of them embracing violence as a solution to their problems. Although some elements within the fleet suspect that the movements are being organised by an outside power, they do not yet have any trace on just who that power might be, and there are various factions within the inner worlds that might have their own interests in destabilising the power structure of the sector.

“The bad news is that fleet has been attempting to rectify some of their most significant problems,” she continued, grimly. “We have been informed that Admiral Johnston has managed to convince some people within the inner worlds, including Emperor Roland and several other senior figures back on Centre, to finally supply him with some reinforcements. They refused to send additional starships, but instead they’re sending additional orbital defences, including components that can be used to produce orbital weapons and fortresses. This may put something of a crimp in our Queen’s plans.”

“Rather,” one of the councillors sneered. “Can something not be done about them?”

“I have considered suggesting to the Queen that she attacks those convoys directly,” Evgenia said. “The problem is that those convoys will be heavily escorted and even with a battlecruiser and the other modern ships, she might lose the battle. If she loses the core of her fleet, her empire comes to an end.”

“In the end, she is an expendable tool,” the head of the council said. He glanced around at the other four men. “If the Empire does manage to fortify the worlds in the Fairfax Sector, proceeding with the final stages of our plan will become much harder, or almost impossible. Order her to attack the fleet.”

Evgenia took a breath. “The details of the convoy have been carefully hidden,” she said, grimly. “If we attack the convoy – if she attacks the convoy – they will eventually find one of our operatives. They may not know who they are working for, but even so, we will lose one of our windows into the fleet.”

“There’s little choice,” the head of the council said. “Evgenia, order her to attack the fleet.”

Evgenia bowed. “As you command,” she said, carefully creating a record that would see the blame shifted from her head to someone else’s head. If the operation failed, he would get the blame and lose his seat on the council. “I shall see to it directly.”

Chapter Forty-Six: Convergence

There was a moment of searing pleasure…and then it faded and died, leaving Tiffany lying on the bed, her mind filling up with a thousand and one things she had to do. It didn’t feel as it had once felt, not as if her entire body was humming in delight; she felt now as if she had nothing deep inside her, but a dark void. It made her think, as a way of distracting her from other thoughts; did the eternal pirate descent into depravity have its core in what they did? Was it the inevitable outcome of the life she had fallen into and reshaped into her own image?

Gunnard lay down beside her. He’d been gone a week, heading back to talk to his mysterious backers, but she hadn’t missed him as much as before. She’d felt herself losing something ever since she’d come face to face with Timothy, ever since she’d learned that he’d survived…and that their parents…had not. It had torn a new void in her, one that sex or the sheer pleasure of wielding the largest amount of power any woman had ever wielded in the pirate universe couldn’t fill; she just felt empty inside. She knew, now, that she could indulge any taste she chose, from simple tastes that the Empire banned to practices that would cause universal horror among her pirate subjects, but none of them would make her feel much better for long. She would end up as depraved as the men she’d sentenced to death…and she knew that she wouldn’t be healed by any such action.

His hand touched her breast lightly; she pushed it away impatiently. She heard his gasp of surprise – normally, she not only let him do things to her, but encouraged him to do them to her – but he was wise enough not to press the issue. She used her implants, trying to monitor Gunnard’s body and guess at what he was thinking, but the stranger modifications worked into his body defeated the implants. Gunnard might not have much in the way of implants – although he had joked that he had a penis booster – but she wasn't sure that he needed them.

“I wish I knew,” she said aloud, wondering what he would say.

Gunnard rolled over and looked down at her. “Are you all right?”

“No,” Tiffany snarled, feeling a sudden urge to just grab him and hurt him. The sheer force of her rage surprised her; she found her hands tensing into claws, barely managing to hide the implanted claws that would have extended from her body, slicing into his skin. “No, I’m not all right.”

His eyes were full of concern. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“No,” Tiffany said, trying to see if there was anything in his eyes beyond concern. She might trust him, but there were limits, particularly with his unknown backers behind him. “I don’t want to talk about it, I’m afraid; I’m just going to have to deal with it on my own.”

“I understand,” Gunnard said. She still didn’t know if he knew who Timothy had been; the virus that had gotten loose into The Rock had damaged all of the files, wiping them – she suspected – once the person responsible for unleashing the virus had copied them. That person, whoever it was, had been a very tough fighter; she remembered, with a shudder, the bodies strewn around the area where Timothy had been guarded by nine guards. “If you want to take it out on me, you are more than welcome…”

Tiffany smiled, but the sudden moment of dark humour failed to touch her soul. “I could beat you and that wouldn’t make me feel any happier,” she said. “I could rip you apart and that wouldn’t make it all better.”

He leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek. “Don’t worry,” he said, as his hands started to work their magic on her tense muscles. “I’ll make you forget everything for a while.”

“No,” Tiffany said. She pushed him back, hard, rolling over and impaling herself on him before he had a moment to react. She rode him as hard as she could, forcing him down and trying to drag every last moment of pleasure from him that she could, feeling the darker tinge of passion rising up within her body…and meeting the void at her core, only to fade away again. She forced her body to work harder, feeling him pushing deeper and deeper insider her, but even as the waves of orgasm faded, the darkness remained. She felt his hands touching her breasts, inflaming her, but nothing seemed to work…

She collapsed on top of him, feeling for the first time just how large he was compared to her, and felt tired. She had never dared to fall asleep next to him – or anyone else – but now, as his hands encircled her body, she was almost tempted to fall asleep. Perhaps she wouldn’t wake up, and part of her, buried under the ice, didn’t find that a bad prospect; did she, deep inside, want to die?

“Don’t worry,” Gunnard whispered, as sleep overcame her. “I’ll look after you…”

Awareness returned slowly; she found herself still lying in his arms, held tightly. She felt oddly comforted as he held her, feeling the deep breathing echoing through his body, and paused for a moment to enjoy it. No one had just held her for years, not since she was a small child, and the feeling almost warmed the core of cold ice at her heart. She wanted him and she hated herself for wanting him; her implants, trying to distract her, opened a channel to the starship’s processors and supplied her with a status update. The battlecruiser was holding it’s station where they had come to pick up Gunnard, from wherever he had gone to meet with their backers, and all of its systems were working at an acceptable standard…

I am the abyss, Tiffany thought, staring out through the battlecruiser’s sensors at the stars. They glared back at her, as if she profaned them by even daring to fly among them, their cold light shining on the battlecruiser’s hull. I am become death, the destroyer of worlds…

Gunnard stirred in her arms. “You’re awake,” he said, his voice concerned. There was no trace of anything else there. “How are you feeling this morning?”

“Grim,” Tiffany said, sending an order into the room’s processor. A moment later, Geeta entered, pushing a small tray of food for them; the girl had been plucked from being sold into slavery to serve her instead as a maid. It wasn't much of an improvement, but at least Tiffany wasn't interested in raping her as an appetizer. She waited while Geeta placed the food on the table, averting her eyes from their nakedness, and then left the room. The brown-skinned girl wasn't hard on the eye; she elbowed Gunnard as she sensed his gaze following Geeta’s behind as she left. “How are you feeling?”

Gunnard took a slice of toast and buttered it thoughtfully. “I think that was the first night you let me sleep with you,” he said, sipping a small cup of tea. “I feel honoured and impressed beyond belief.”

Tiffany looked at him. “Don’t count on it happening again,” she said, but knew that she was lying. If it were a way to banish the demons, for a time, she would have him sleeping with her again. “How was your meeting with your backers?”

“They want us to do something for them,” Gunnard admitted. Tiffany raised an eyebrow; she’d been expecting the other penny to fall sooner or later, but this was a surprise. She had known that eventually she would have to pay for what they'd given her, but part of her had expected repayment to be some time in the future. “The good news…it’s something that benefits you as well. The bad news…it could be a little dangerous.”

“They want me to bend over for them,” Tiffany guessed, mischievously. Gunnard looked suitably shocked at her words. “They want to take me from behind while you watch?”

“Not quite,” Gunnard said, with what Tiffany guessed was intended to be restraint. “They are not the slightest bit interested in your body, as nice as it is; they’re more interested in your help.”

Tiffany batted her eyelashes at him. “They’re only interested in me for my help?” She asked, working to buy time. “Goodness me, what is the universe coming for when people don’t want me for my tits and ass?”

“This is serious,” Gunnard said. He leaned forward. “They want you to hit an Imperial convoy.”

“We’ve been hitting convoys for ages,” Tiffany said, refusing to be serious. He’d been sleeping with her for long enough that he had to know that he was the only person she could relax with, the only person she trusted enough to lower some of her guard. Anyone else…and she might as well start writing her own obituary. “What’s so special about this one?”

Gunnard looked over at her for a moment, and then sighed. “The Imperial Council has had a sudden attack of balls to the brain,” he said. He paused. “Which is really funny when you think about it. They’ve decided to send out some reinforcements for the sector…and not starships, but orbital fortifications, components that will be assembled into orbital fortresses capable of taking on this ship in a duel. They’re going to assemble the first set at Taurus, but within several months they will have safeguarded every planet in the sector.”

“Fuck,” Tiffany said mildly.

“Indeed,” Gunnard agreed. “The good news, judging from the political firestorm that we have unleashed, is that if we manage to embarrass the Imperial Fleet enough in the next few months, the worlds in the sector will declare independence and put an end to the Imperial control over this sector. Even if the Empire does try to hold the worlds by force, they’re going to have to reckon with a nightmarish insurgency on several fronts at once, which will touch off suspicions in the inner worlds that the fleet intends to keep the Empire intact, by any means necessary.”

“It seems like a lot to rely on,” Tiffany said. “I assume that hitting the fleet is what would provide the final push?”

“The analysts think so,” Gunnard confirmed. “Of course, if they are wrong, the basic equation doesn’t change at all; we still have hidden bases, hidden support…and we can pick and choose where we strike.”

“There’s a second problem,” Tiffany said. She stood up and pulled on a robe. “If these components are as important as you say…”

“Maybe more so,” Gunnard said. “They’re not components that can really be produced anywhere in this sector.”

“Then they will be heavily guarded,” Tiffany said. “They might well send a small superdreadnaught force along with them, a force that could smash every ship that we could assemble, and if that happens we cannot hope to take the components.”

“That’s the really interesting bit,” Gunnard said, his mouth twisting into a grin. “They’re not keeping it a secret, so they’re sending the official convoy under heavy escort, but the real components are being sent in a different convoy; the official convoy is just a diversion. The real convoy will be lightly guarded and escorted; they will depend upon secrecy, rather than anything else.”

Tiffany scowled. “It sounds too good to be true,” she said. “Why aren’t they sending them under heavy escort?”

“The theory is, it seems, that a heavy convoy escort would cause them to attract attention; we’re not the only ones after it, it seems,” he said. He sounded as if he didn’t quite understand it himself. “The bottom line is that those components are worth billions of credits…but if someone with different ambitions to us could take them, they might change the balance of power elsewhere. Admiral Johnston has apparently ordered the official convoy guarded to the teeth; as far as everyone is concerned, it’s the real convoy.”

He paused, dramatically. “But we have an agent within the small group of Imperials who actually knows the truth,” he said. “She has found out the details of the second convoy – the real convoy – and has slipped the information to us. We burned her to ensure that we learned everything, so they are desperate to make the sacrifice worthwhile.”

“That raises another concern,” Tiffany said slowly. “What’s to say that this…this whole story about a second convoy isn’t an attempt to trick us into hitting the wrong convoy?”

Gunnard lifted an eyebrow. “You tell me,” he said. “Could we defeat three superdreadnaughts?”

“No,” Tiffany said, understanding his point. They couldn’t hope to hit the diversionary convoy either, unless they intended sheer destruction…and they weren’t that far gone, not yet. The more she thought about it, the more she realised that it was almost a perfect target, assuming that she brought along enough firepower. If the enemy intended a trap, they would have enough firepower to beat a retreat and escape…they would even have time to confirm that all the enemy superdreadnaughts were indeed elsewhere.

But something about it still worried her. “I don’t like it,” she admitted. It was almost impossible to state her doubts, but she had to try, somehow. “It sounds perfect, but nothing in life is ever perfect.”

“My principals are convinced that the information is fundamentally accurate,” Gunnard said, calmly. “The Imperials have been talking about reinforcing the sector since we hit Taurus; I guess they decided that it was time to put their money where their mouth is, before all hell breaks loose. If they manage to fortify the worlds, Tiffany, they will be able to free up more ships for convoy escort and aggressive patrolling of the Rim. We lost The Rock to a starship stumbling across it; what would happen if they stumbled across another place?”

“They might get luckier,” Tiffany said. She shook her head. “I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

Gunnard reached out and pulled her towards him. “Tiffany, my love…”

Tiffany laughed bitterly, cutting him off. “There’s no room for love in our world,” Tiffany said, softly. “You should know that by now.”

“Then I shall be blunter,” Gunnard said, pulling her down to sit beside him. “My backers have done you great service when it came to building your empire. Their support gave you this ship. Their support helped you to tie together dozens of asteroids, black colonies, and other groups. Their support provided you with the backing you needed to move from a regular pirate to a pirate queen. You owe them…”

His hands were fumbling with her robe. “You know the rules as well as I do,” he said, as he pulled her robe away from her body. “What you owe, you pay, even if you can’t afford it.” His hands were running over her body; she felt her implants preparing to strike him down, and she had to force them to keep in check. “You owe them this…and it won’t even cost you very much. If it is a deception and the heavily guarded convoy is the real threat, then you have lost nothing; if it’s real, you stand to gain a great deal by capturing those ships.”

She felt his breath on her neck. “Tiffany, you don’t have a choice,” he said. She knew, then, that that was true; she hadn’t managed to build enough of a separate power base to survive without him, not yet. She’d made a good start when they liberated Deadend, but even so, she wasn't ready to go it alone. “You have to work with us here, or they’ll have to punish you for breaking the rules.”

Tiffany felt the coldness return to her heart. She knew what he wanted, but she couldn’t give in, not yet. She had to surrender, but she had to surrender for the best terms she could get, and she wasn't about to allow him to throw it all away if something had gone badly wrong. His hands were still touching her, but now she felt nothing, but a cold disdain.

“I will plan the operation myself,” she breathed. She wasn't about to allow Gunnard’s backers, whoever they were, to plan the operation at a distance. Who knew what they’d come up with if they didn’t know what the situation was like on the ground? “If it is a division, then we will establish that and break contact; if not, we take what we want and then we go.”

“That’s all they’re asking for,” Gunnard assured her. He pushed her gently back down onto the bed. His hands pushed her, very gently, into relaxing and submitting. She could feel his hard cock pushing at her, pressing at her; he wanted her to give him what he wanted, rather than the other way around. It was a dominance game as old as humanity and she was tired of playing. “They just don’t want those systems reinforced.”

Tiffany lay back and opened her legs, knowing that she was submitting to him, for the moment. As he moved on top of her, her mind was able to focus and concentrate, planning for the future. He might think that he had her permanently under his thumb, but she would make him pay for that belief, just like Captain Blackbird. She knew, now, what she was doing…and how to gain her independence, once and for all.

Two days later, the pirate fleet set out toward Taurus.

Chapter Forty-Seven: Showdown, Take One!

Fury dropped out of Phase Space in a flicker of brilliant energies.

“I confirm that we have made transit,” the helmsman said, his voice absolutely focused on the task at hand. “All systems are reporting operational and ready.”

“Sound Red Alert,” Timothy ordered, as the howl of the alarm started to run through the starship’s hull. One way or the other, Tiffany had to intercept them here, at Taurus, or the plan had gone badly wrong. She might not have been fooled, or she might not have believed the diversion plan…or Imperial Intelligence might have been wrong about the degree of penetration that the pirates – and their mysterious backers – enjoyed. They might have missed the convoy altogether. “Tactical, report!”

“The remaining ships in the fleet have completed their own transit,” Kady informed him, as the display started to sparkle with points of light. “They’re linking up to our tactical systems now and preparing to proceed inwards.”

“Good,” Timothy said. There were only nine warships accompanying ten heavy freighters, each one almost the size of a superdreadnaught; they had to look like a tempting target to the forces that Tiffany had amassed. The olden days, before her, no pirate would have dared go after a warship…but now, it was almost routine. The Empire needed a victory, desperately…whatever the cost. “Can you detect any signs of our unwelcome guests?”

“Negative,” Kady said, after a long moment. “Space seems to be empty as far as we can detect; there aren’t even any traces of turbulence.”

“Understood,” Timothy said. Admiral Argent had warned him, as the person who had come up with the plan, that it was up to him to make it work. Three superdreadnaughts and twelve smaller ships had been diverted, burning up space to convince everyone that they were escorting a convoy that had to reach its destination; if that amount of effort was wasted, he might as well not bother going home. “Helm, take us into the system.”

Time passed slowly as the fleet crossed the Phase Limit, expecting an ambush at any second, knowing that they could be heading towards cloaked ships, just waiting for them to come within firing range. Fingers rested on triggers, automatic systems waited for the merest hint of an enemy attack to snap shields into existence, flight crew readied their ships, but there was no sign of an attack. Timothy felt the sweat trickling down his back; they had to be targeted soon, or Tiffany would have given up on all hopes of intercepting them before they reached the ships stationed in orbit around the planet. There were three battlecruisers there, tied down to Taurus and protecting the planet, and if they added their firepower to Timothy’s smaller task force, Tiffany’s plan would become unworkable.

Assuming that she has a plan, he thought darkly. He found his eyes drifting over to the tactical display as it built up an image of the system he – and Tiffany – had once called home. Tiffany had attacked the system, a homecoming he suspected they would rather forget, but now he had deliberately planned to lure her to fight him on terms that looked perfect for her…and weren’t. Would she take the bait?

He’d prepared a mental map in his head of the system. Any normal pirate would prefer to engage them just inside the Phase Limit, both to prevent them running and to be certain of escape, if it turned out that he had bitten off more than he could chew. They wouldn’t want to come within the inner solar system if they could avoid it, because then the ships protecting the planet would have to come out and fight…and they might manage to rescue the freighters before they were destroyed. Tiffany…wasn’t a normal pirate, but the logic still held true for her; if she lost her ship, her career would come to a sudden end.

“Contacts,” Kady announced sharply. Timothy felt a spark of relief; Tiffany had taken the bait. All he had to do, now, was win the battle. “I have twelve starships, no IFF signals, dropping out of Phase Space behind us!”

Timothy blinked. Why had Tiffany launched such an attack, rather than lurking in ambush? It made little sense, it might even have allowed him a chance to escape before he and his units, even the slow lumbering freighters, were brought to battle. He could understand waiting until she knew where he was going, but she already knew their final destination – Taurus itself. She’d risked failure…and then it struck him; she suspected a trap and wanted to be able to break off if she discovered that she’d bitten off more than she could chew.

“I see,” he said. “Raise shields; can you get me a breakdown on the enemy craft?”

Kady’s voice was faint; she hadn’t believed that the plan would work. “I have five system patrol craft, four light cruisers, two heavy cruisers…and one battlecruiser,” she said, grimly. “I confirm that the battlecruiser is the same one that was encountered back at The Rock; I confirm that we have seen two of the light cruisers and one of the heavy cruisers before under pirate control. I think they’re units that went missing during the Collapse and the Grey War, but they’ve fiddled with the drives and I can’t be certain.”

“We’ll find out when we board them,” Timothy assured her, shaking his head as he took in the display of pirate firepower. It was…horrifying and impressive at the same time; no one, not since Captain Morgan, had led so many pirates. The nature of the pirate beast, according to Fleet’s records, was to be eternally at odds with any form of society; cooperation, except on a strictly limited basis, was out of the question. The headshrinkers had clearly been wrong – again; Timothy knew that crewing such large ships was impossible without a great deal of cooperation. “Inform all ships; prepare for battle.”

He issued orders to the other ships, spreading his own command out to shield the freighters, even as they ramped up their own drives to flee into the inner solar system. Maybe Tiffany’s plan wasn't so bad after all, he reflected, as he ran through possible escape routes; they couldn’t get back over the Phase Limit and run, not without crossing through Tiffany’s field of fire. They had to head into the system…and as long as they were tied to the freighters, they couldn’t hope to outrun Tiffany.

“Captain, I am picking up a message,” the communications officer said. “It’s audio only, aimed at every ship in the fleet.”

“Let’s hear it,” Timothy ordered.

“Attention, Imperial ships,” Tiffany’s voice said. Timothy found himself tensing at her voice…and yet, was there something wrong with it? A sense, maybe, that she was right on the edge? “You cannot outrun us and you cannot outfight us; abandon your charges now and you will live. You have ten minutes to comply.”

Ten minutes, Timothy thought, glancing down at the display. It was easy to work out the equations; in ten minutes, Tiffany’s ships would come within long-range firing range of his fleet. They might not fire for a further two minutes, in which they would reach a more congenial range for a missile duel, but the timing made sense.

“No reply,” he said, as Kady quirked an eyebrow in his direction. “We’ll play this out to the bitter end.”


Tiffany had shouted down two protests by Captain Vanson at bringing the fleet in behind the enemy force, but she hadn’t seen any real choice, not with a potential trap looming in front of them. Gunnard’s insistence that they take the ships intact – if possible – had soured her; it struck her that they were assuming too much of a risk for safety’s sake, but he had made his position – and hers – clear. He might not have hurt her, and he had tried to make it up to her, but their relationship had changed sharply.

“Launch the probes,” she ordered, as the fleet shook down into formation. The battlecruiser shuddered slightly as it launched ten probes, the best that the pirates could obtain, towards the Imperial Fleet starships. This was overkill, but she knew just how dangerous the Imperial Fleet could be; if there was a squadron of superdreadnaughts waiting under cloak, she wanted to know about it in time to break contact. “Gunnard, inform me when the fleet is prepared to engage.”

“All units are finally reporting ready,” Gunnard said, shortly. He knew that he was in her bad books…and that someone on the ship might take it as an opportunity to stick a knife in his back. They should be presenting a united front, but he’d made that impossible, at least for her; sooner or later, she would kill him…or be killed by him. “The probes are reporting back now; there are no Imperial Fleet warships apart from the ships moving to try to cover the convoy.”

He paused. “One of them is the light cruiser that took out the Trouble and Strife,” he said. Tiffany felt her head jerk up as she remembered what had happened on The Rock. “Should we single out that ship for special attention?”

Timothy’s ship, Tiffany thought. It hadn’t taken much effort to establish, now that she knew where to look, what Timothy was to the fleet. He was a commanding officer himself, now, the man who had killed the people who had killed his parents in single combat…at least according to some of the rumours. He was building up quite a reputation, just like her; if they found out that they were actually related, the newsmen would have a field day.

Her lips twitched. “No,” she said. “Our priority is to blow them away from the convoy, not to engage in petty revenge; that can come later.”

She glanced over at the communications officer. “Transmit the signal,” she said. She’d recorded it prior to their arrival in the Taurus System, so there had been no time to add a personal appeal to Timothy, but really…what could she have said? “Let them know that they can leave if they like?”

Minutes passed; the enemy ships didn’t budge from their positions, forming up to cover the convoy. Tiffany was almost impressed, in one part of her mind; the other part was silently laughing at so many ships, all in a position where they were certain to die. No pirate would have selflessly placed himself between death and other ships, other people, even if there was a chance at survival; it was every pirate for himself. The Imperial Fleet was about to lose a lot of good men, for nothing; they could have fled, but instead, they chose to die.

Idiots, she thought. She was perversely disappointed in Timothy; he should have known better. He could have fled the scene of battle, but instead he chose to fight and die beside his fellow Fleet drones, sacrificing his life for nothing. It made little sense, to her; was Fleet really worth so much that good men and women would go to their deaths with a smile on their face, just for the fleet’s honour? That sort of camaraderie was unknown among the pirate ranks. I expected better from you…

“There’s no reply,” the communications officer said, as Tiffany glanced impatiently in her direction. Sarah, the technician she’d plucked off The Rock, had made a fair communications officer; she, too, was loyal to Tiffany personally. She had been shuffling crewmembers over the last two weeks, ensuring that everyone was loyal to her personally, rather than to anyone else. Gunnard was in for a surprise, in a few more days…or maybe he would surprise her. “What little transmissions I’m detecting are all encrypted and exchanged between the warships.”

“Never mind,” Tiffany said. She couldn’t see what the point was of exchanging messages; their tactics, the only ones they could use, were simple. They would place themselves between the convoy and the pirates and cover them as long as they could. It wouldn’t be very long. “Lock weapons on target…and open fire!”

“Firing,” Gunnard said, as the starship shuddered again. The fire crews had been drilled endlessly; they’d been composed of people she’d recovered from Deadend, people who were prepared to do almost anything, rather than return there. They’d been packing the brothels for the first month since they had been brought back to the pirate base – women had been rare on Deadend, where all the prisoners had reverted to base barbarity, and had been treated as chattel – but now they were a disciplined crew. “All ships are launching their missiles.”

“Good,” Tiffany said, watching as the missile icons raced ahead of her fleet, heading right into the teeth of Timothy’s fleet. She knew, somehow, that Timothy was the commander of the opposing force, despite his junior rank; it was his move now. “Continue to fire until they break and run.”


“They’re firing,” the sensor officer said. “I have one hundred-plus missiles, incoming on our formation, scattered across every starship in the fleet.”

“You don’t say,” Timothy said. The firepower disparity – the apparent firepower disparity – made victory unlikely, but they did have a few advantages of their own. “Order all ships to open fire with their point defence as the enemy missiles come into range…”

Space became a maelstrom of conflicting firepower as the starships wove a deadly web of point defence around their ships. He tensed as pirate missiles started to vanish; one advantage that the fleet had that the pirates didn’t – couldn’t – have was the network that wove all of their ships into a single entity, tying all of the point defence into a single structure that was much harder to destroy. They couldn’t hope to win a missile duel, but at the ranges that Tiffany was firing, they had a good chance of preserving their ships for as long as possible.

He felt himself relax slightly…just as the hammer of God smashed into Fury. The starship heaved like a rampaging elephant as the missile struck home, but there was no major damage; Tiffany didn’t seem to have singled out the Fury for personal attention. Other starships were being hit too; the Valiant, a heavy cruiser whose commanding officer had been friendly and understanding to the junior who had wound up in command of the fleet, was pounded by seven missiles in quick succession and fell out of the line.

“Get to the lifepods,” Timothy found himself muttering. “Get to the lifepods and…”

The Valiant vanished inside a bloom of fire. The pirate missiles, sensing their foe’s sudden confusion, sought to take advantage of the moment, but the data network rewove itself seamlessly around the remaining starships, forcing the pirates to take the starships down as a group. Timothy issued orders and the fleet starships worked to expand the range, catching up on the freighters and passing among them, the freighters’ marginal point defence adding to the hail of fire that tried to cover the starships.

He caught hold of his command chair as the starship heaved again. Tiffany had to be scenting victory by now, as her missiles systematically pounded his ships into scrap; Noble Cause, Gerald Hathaway and Striker exploded as her missiles slammed into suddenly unprotected hull. She wasn’t shooting at the freighters, thankfully; if she had, the entire plan would have failed rather dramatically. He felt himself smile grimly as another enemy missile struck his ship; she didn’t know it, but if she had fired upon the freighters, she would have ruined both of their plans.

“Take us ahead of the freighters,” he ordered, grimly. It wasn’t an order that the Imperial Fleet would have normally given, not when there were pirates bearing down on the ships, but there was no real choice and everyone on both ships knew it. What they didn’t know was that it had been planned that way from the start, luring Tiffany into a position where she wouldn’t be able to escape. “Concentrate our efforts on point defence.”

“Yes, sir,” Kady said. They had to look as if they were fleeing, as if they were abandoning the freighters, and it tore at both of them to even think about running away. There wasn’t a choice; the sheer weight of firepower bearing down on them made the outcome certain…and Tiffany might not let them escape. They hadn’t been able to score a single hit on her ship, but any sort of resistance might make her mad. She had been a ruthless opponent on the game board; what sort of commander might she make?

He waited as the minutes passed. Their time was rapidly passing. “Transmit the signal to the ships,” he said, finally. “They are authorised to launch Phase Two.”


Tiffany watched, without much surprise, as the Imperial Fleet starships decided to try to retreat. It was the only rational decision they could have made, but even so, it was something that was out of character for the fleet. They stood and fought, almost all of the time, but maybe they had decided to abandon the freighters and run. The freighters had to be the right target, surely? They wouldn’t have wasted so much firepower on covering them unless they were worth defending?

“Watch the freighters,” she ordered. Timothy – her opponent – might have decided to simply blow them up and spite her, calling it a draw. “I want boarding teams ready to launch as soon as we drive the Imperial Fleet starships out of range.”

“Of course,” Gunnard said. He worked his console. “Your Majesty…I’m picking up strange energies on the freighters….”

Tiffany felt alarm running down her back. “Strange energies?”

“I’m not sure,” Gunnard admitted. The puzzlement in his voice was striking. “There’s nothing I can identify, and yet…”

Alarms shrilled as the freighters seemed to come apart. Hundreds of small icons appeared on the display, spinning out from the freighters and coming towards the pirate fleet.

“Shit,” Gunnard said, his face paling. Tiffany took it in at the same moment. “Starfighters!”

Chapter Forty-Eight: Showdown, Take Two!

Tiffany felt her blood run cold. They’d sailed right into a trap; the enemy starfighters were already forming up and preparing to attack her ships. They were faster than her ships, they carried weapons that could harm her ships, and they were very hard to hit. She’d beaten drones before, back at Deadend, but drones were almost useless compared to starfighters…and there were more starfighters closing in on her ships.

“It was a trap,” she snapped at Gunnard, her hand dropping to the pistol at her belt. She could shoot him, now, and no one would object, but she needed him to man the tactical console for a few more hours. She couldn’t risk her ship being completely defenceless, not when they were going to have to fight for their lives. “Target those freighters and blow them away, now!”

The starship shuddered as it launched a spread of missiles, but Tiffany already suspected that it would be useless; the Imperial Fleet starfighters would have launched from their motherships faster than she could move to trap some of them in their bays, even assuming that she could have reacted in time. The starfighters were spreading out now, their weapons charging and preparing to make the first assault run on her starships, and she knew that they had no choice, but to retreat. Some of her captains – including Captain Vanson, she noted with cold amusement – had already come to the same conclusion and were turning their starships, trying to escape.

“Order all ships to remain in formation,” she ordered, tartly. They had to work together and combine their point defence, or they would all die when the starfighters took on individual ships, rather than a group of ships working as a team. “Transmit the authorisation code for linking the ships into one fighting unit and order the helm crews to prepare for an orderly retreat.”

Timothy’s ships had stopped, she noted bitterly; they were waiting for the starfighters to do their dirty work and cripple her ships. Maybe the Empire wanted her dead or alive, preferably dead, but she was sure that Timothy wanted her alive, if only to gloat. He had wanted her to come back to the Empire with him; surely, he would want her alive now. She thought about launching an attack on them, but there was little point; they’d have to close in on them and the starfighters would chop them to pieces.

“I have the defence systems all linked together,” Gunnard said. His voice was shaken, she noted with a flicker of amusement; maybe he would listen to her in future, assuming that she let him live. The others in the crew would know who to blame for the debacle and they would take it out on him…and her too, if she was unlucky. It would depend on how quickly she managed to get them out of the trap…if she managed to get them out of the trap. “What are your orders, Your Majesty?”

“You sound a lot more respectful now,” Tiffany said, rubbing salt into the wound. He’d doomed them all…or he would have done, if they lost the battle, and he would have to pay for that. “Target the starfighters as soon as they come into firing range, and scatter them; link all the defences together and order them to give priority to covering this ship.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Gunnard said. He paused. “Captain Vanson isn’t happy.”

“Fuck him,” Tiffany said, settling back into her command chair. The wave of icons was closing in on them rapidly. She would be a fool not to give priority defence to her ship, not just because she wanted to live – although she wasn't sure if she did want to live – but because if she didn’t, there would almost certainly be a mutiny. Besides, the Imperials would want to terminate the battlecruiser; as the largest unit under her control, it represented a major threat in and of itself. “Concentrate now…and open fire!”

The starfighters seemed to hesitate…and then they dived down on her ship in a swarm attack that seemed never-ending. She knew how they would work; singly, they would be almost no threat to her, but as a group, they would be capable of inflicting appalling damage on her ship. They would carry plasma cannons, which couldn’t do more than make the hull spark, and shipkiller missiles, which could knock down her shields and punch into her hull. They met her point defence fire as they dove through it, their flight paths darting, dodging, impossible to predict…and came right into the teeth of her fire. A handful were hit, their brief lives coming to an end in a spark of energy that was almost missed amid the other energies being released, others kept coming in and locking their weapons on target.

“They’re preparing to plaster the port shields,” the sensor officer said, sharply. Tiffany nodded; the smaller shipkiller missiles couldn’t knock down a shield on their own, nor could they inflict enough damage to permanently weaken the shield, but if they were fired in sufficient numbers, they would punch though the shield and allow the starfighters access to her hull. What they would do then would depend on what they had been ordered to do. If they wanted the ship intact, they wouldn’t bother with hitting the hull, but they would concentre on knocking out the drives and the defences.

“Concentrate our point defence on taking down the missiles once they are launched,” Tiffany ordered, knowing that no Imperial Fleet commander would issue such an order. Starfighter shipkiller missiles were launched at sprint-mode ranges; they would be almost impossible to intercept before they slammed into a shield. The Imperial Fleet doctrine for handling such attacks was simple; ride with the blow and keep scattering the starfighters. That wasn't an option for her; if she allowed them to hit her enough to knock out the drives, she was dead. “Keep focusing on getting us out of here!”

“Working on it,” the helm officer said. The starship was fighting to come around in a massive loop, rather than crashing to a half, spinning around, and trying to accelerate out of the system before the starfighters completed their task. “It’s going to take at least twenty minutes to cross the Phase Limit and escape.”

“Twenty minutes,” Tiffany said, grimly. She felt her hand stroking her pistol again. “Push us as fast as you can, even if there is a chance of significant engine degradation.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” the helmsman said. It was, again, an order that no Imperial Fleet commander would dare give…but they were trapped. Her mind raced; they were trapped, stripped and tied down; it wasn't the time to worry about the slight danger of losing their engines compared to the certain loss of the starships if they remained where they were. “I’m overriding the engine safety interlocks now.”

“They’re firing,” Gunnard snapped, as the starfighters finally launched their first attack. Tiffany accessed the battlecruiser’s computers and saw the missiles heading directly towards her, something tiny that might cripple a battlecruiser that was over half a kilometre long. She was imagining it, she had to be imagining it, but had the battlecruiser’s computers just gulped? Maybe it was just a way of warning the crew, she thought, in the last moments before the missiles impacted directly against the shield…

The battlecruiser rang like a bell. Tiffany felt herself gasp in pain as she was evicted from the starship’s computers as they started to fail, something that would have killed her if the safety systems hadn’t acted first; power surges were running all over the ship, damaging systems. She caught onto the command chair and held tight as the battlecruiser was shaken by an angry god, her crew praying desperately for survival, the very fabric of the ship screaming in outrage as it was hammered. It stopped, suddenly, and she found herself staring at a darkened bridge; moments later, the lights restored themselves, illuminated scared and awed faces.

“Report,” she snapped. It had been meant to be a firm voice, but instead it was weaker than it had sounded…weaker than she had ever sounded since Captain Blackbird had bought her from the slave market. “What’s our status?”

“Major damage to several decks,” the engineering officer said, though the backup communications network. “We took a pounding, Your Majesty; they were able to slam several missiles directly into our hull. They missed anything vital, which saved us from becoming free-floating atoms in space, but we’ve been seriously hurt.”

“Never mind the details,” Tiffany snapped. “We’re bare seconds away from being captured or killed; we have to get over the Phase Limit and escape. Can we still do that?”

“Yes, if they don’t hit us again,” the engineer said. “The drives weren’t hit, Your Majesty, but there’s barely any shield generators left because of the feedback. If they hit us again, we’re fucked.”

“Understood,” Tiffany said. She turned to look over at Gunnard. “What’s the status of the remainder of the fleet?”

“The Laser Sabre has taken serious damage and is falling out of formation,” Gunnard reported. Tiffany allowed herself a dark smile; at least Captain Vanson, her worst – or at least loudest – opponent wouldn’t survive the battle. The man might have been a pirate for much longer than she had been alive, but he had also been a coward…a stupid coward. “The Nightmare and the Stiletto have been destroyed.”

Tiffany winced. Captain Torkville and Captain D’Eath, two members of her council, had been killed. They hadn’t been too enthusiastic about supporting her, but they had accepted her rule and she had repaid them with more loot than they had ever dreamed of obtaining…until she had led them into a trap. They had accepted her word, too; it had only been Captain Vanson who had loudly protested at her decision. It galled her to admit it, but he had been right; her decision had been badly flawed, thanks to Gunnard.

She forced herself to look over at him. He’d wanted to make a point, forcing her to submit to him, forcing her to let him have her for the first time…and it had cost them their ship. It would almost certainly cost them their lives. Even if they were captured, she didn’t think that the fleet would be content to drop them all back on Deadend, not when so many had died at her hands.

“Keep moving us out of the system,” she said, as the starfighters started to regroup for another attack. They’d disrupted the battlecruiser’s drives and they’d lost some of their speed; by the time they built it back up again, the starfighters would be on them again, trying to slow them down and cripple them. “Gunnard, focus some of the antiship missiles on swatting starfighters; perhaps we can force them to keep their distance.”

Gunnard shook his head, his voice icy cold. He had to be using an implant to control his emotions. “That would only work if we had antimatter weapons,” he said. “We’d be lucky if we swatted a single starfighter with an antiship weapon. The little bastards can dodge.”

Tiffany glanced down at the timer on the display. “Only seven minutes left,” she said. “Hang on tight, everyone; we can still get away from all this.”

“The fleet’s breaking up,” Gunnard said. Tiffany wasn't surprised; the small collection of starships had been scattered when some of them had lost their drives, or had been destroyed. The remainder would be running for their lives. “I don’t think…”

He broke off as Tiffany glared at him. “Don’t worry,” she said. “We’re going to get out of this alive so that I can have the pleasure of roasting you over a slow fire and feeding you to the dogs!”


“They’re trying to recover their drives,” Kady said, grimly. The Fury had kept a respectful distance from the battlecruiser, but Timothy knew that if they failed to cripple the ship, they’d see it again – and again. “The starfighters are forming up for another pass.”

“Tell them to knock out the starship’s drives,” Timothy ordered, as he tracked the starships on the display. “As soon as they have knocked out the drives, they are to abandon the target and proceed to the other ships, knocking out their drives or destroying them. We want as many of them intact as possible.”

He watched as the starfighters closed in rapidly on their target, Tiffany’s ship. “Belay that order,” he said, after a moment. “I want them to knock out the battlecruiser’s point defence as soon as it’s drives are out and allow us a chance to approach the ship without danger.”

The starfighters swooped into engagement range. He'd used a starfighter simulator back on Roland, back when he'd been a Midshipman, and he’d found it terrifying. The depths of space were fine, but the starfighters had to zoom within touching distance of enemy starship, sweeping along bare inches from the hull and targeting the point defence blisters, knowing that if they were targeted, they would be hit before they had a chance to evade. He hadn’t been able to master the starfighter; the pilots, who had been pulled from Fairfax’s planetary defence squadron, were masters of their craft. Even so, they were the bravest men he’d ever met; he would sooner have tried to raid a pirate asteroid single-handedly than fly a starfighter again.

“They’re firing,” Kady said, grimly. Timothy watched as the missiles lanced home, striking the drive section of the battlecruiser, and exploding against the hull. The drive field surrounding the battlecruiser faded and vanished, leaving the battlecruiser drifting in space as the loophole in the laws of physics that allowed it to defy them closed. “They knocked out its drives.”

“Good,” Timothy said. The starfighters were swooping over the hull now, their plasma cannons, almost useless against the hull metal that shielded the interior of the ship, blasting at weapons and sensors, systematically rendering the starship blind and defenceless. “Move us in…”

He tapped his communicator. “Sergeant Elf, prepare to board the enemy vessel,” he said, keeping his voice calm. Not a trace of his real feelings emerged in his voice. “We need it intact, if possible…”


The lights flickered and went out; moments later, the emergency lighting came on. “We have been disabled,” the helmsman said grimly. Tiffany knew exactly what he meant; the starship was still thrumming with power, but only emergency power. The hull was shaking slightly, suggesting that someone was pounding the weapons and sensors on the hull…and the only reason for that was that they wanted to take the starship intact, complete with it’s crew. “We don’t have any power left at all…”

He swung around to stare at Gunnard, his hand drawing his pistol. “And it’s all your fault…”

Gunnard fired, quicker than Tiffany would have believed possible for someone who was unaugmented, a burst of plasma striking the helmsman in his chest and sending his body flying backwards as a charred mess. He nodded at Tiffany before she could draw her own weapon and she felt her body go limp, as if someone had stolen her will; she lay in the command chair, slowly falling off the chair and onto the deck. He’d drugged her somehow, she realised, dimly, but how…?

She heard Sarah shouting. “No, please…I’ll do anything!”

Gunnard shot her down, his weapon tracking from console to console, his hands moving faster than she had ever seen him move before, holding two plasma pistols in his hand as he fired, time and time again. Jadis – so long ago – had told her that few people could use two pistols, even though there were plenty of idiots that tried; it was hard to coordinate two weapons at once. Gunnard didn’t seem to have any problems; seconds, at most, after he started to shoot, the entire bridge was cleared of life…except her.

He stepped over to her limp body, peering down at her. “I’m sorry, for what it’s worth,” he said. She wondered, with a sudden moment of pure contempt, if he was going to just rape her there and then on the bridge. Jadis had told her about pirates who were that stupid, ones who wanted to degrade the female pirates among them as a way of weakening their prestige, but…surely there was no way out of the trap. The Imperial Fleet would kill him as well for what he had done to their worlds. Was there any point in doing anything?

She tried to speak and found that she couldn’t; whatever he had hit her with, somehow, was potent. “There’s a drug in your system,” Gunnard said, shortly. “My people researched for years, looking for some ways of hurting the Imperials – the real Imperials – and they found hundreds of others of interesting things. I didn’t want to kill you and I didn’t mean to lead you into a trap, but now, we both have to die. This ship cannot be allowed to fall into Imperial hands.”

Tiffany knew what he meant as he left her and wandered over to the console. He passed out of her view, but she could hear him working the console, trying to scare up a few ergs of power. It struck her as a waste of time – the drive section had been blown away, so he couldn’t override the remaining safeties and make the ship explode – but he didn’t have to, all he had to do was trigger one of the missile warheads. A nuclear explosion, inside the ship, would blow them all to atoms. She wanted to plead with him, to beg him not to destroy the ship…and she wanted to die with him. She tried to move, but it seemed impossible…


The battlecruiser floated in front of them, leaking energy and air from a dozen breaches in the hull. Timothy had hoped that Tiffany would have surrendered, but judging from the damage, there was a good chance they’d knocked out their communications as well as everything else. There was no choice…

“Land the landing force,” he said, grimly. The starship shuddered as it launched all three assault boats towards the battlecruiser. Elf – the girl he loved – would have to punch her way through the crew and secure the ship, which might be difficult. “Have my shuttle prepared.”

Kady stared at him. “Sir…?”

“I’m going over there,” Timothy said. Admiral Argent would be furious, but he’d just defeated the pirates, a decisive defeat that would prevent them from regrouping as a major threat again. “I’ll wear armour and everything, but it’s something I have to do. It’s not debatable.”

Chapter Forty-Nine: Showdown, Take Three!

There was nothing more eerie, to a spacer, than a derelict starship. Timothy wondered, looking down on the dagger-shape of the former Imperial battlecruiser, if the Max Capricorn had looked like that, from the shuttles that had landed on the hulk. Tiffany’s ship was of a very different design, but staring at it was a reminder that the Fury could end up just like it, drifting in space and at the mercy of its enemies. If there was too much resistance for Elf and her Marines to handle, he’d issued specific orders to Kady; the Fury would hit the battlecruiser with enough firepower to destroy it.

He listened briefly to the Marine transmissions as they shared their information with each other; the pirates were fighting desperately in some places, in other places they were either dead already from air loss, or trying to surrender. There didn’t seem to be anyone coordinating the defence, according to Elf; he wasn't sure if that was good news, or not. Tiffany might be dead, or she might be injured and unable to surrender, but what would happen if she were caught alive? He rather suspected that Admiral Argent hadn’t been joking when he said dead or alive, preferably dead. Alive, she was more than an embarrassment, dead, she was a sign of victory…

And she was his sister. He wanted, needed, to talk to her before her fate caught up with her. He wanted to talk to her, although he didn’t know what he wanted to say; perhaps, they could forgive each other before they died. The dark mass of the battlecruiser rose up suddenly in front of him and they docked near a breach in the hull; the hatch opened, allowing him to exit in his armoured suit. The pirates would probably have weapons that would allow them to kill him, if they succeeded in hitting him, but he intended to be careful on the enemy ship. They couldn’t afford to lose more Marines.

Elf’s voice sounded over a private communications link. “Timothy,” she said, using his first name. It was, technically, a breach of discipline, but he wasn't in the mood to care. “Why am I not surprised?”

“We have to get to the bridge,” Timothy said, shortly. There wasn't time for a debate, or an argument; Elf would understand if anyone would. “The shuttlebays on this ship have been destroyed and the remainder of the pirate fleet is running for it’s life, so there’s no longer any way to escape.”

Elf’s voice sounded doubtful. “What about the lifepods?”

“There’s a handful that have been launched,” Timothy said. “They’ll all be picked up, but I don’t think they’ll have her onboard. She’s either dead or she’s on the bridge.”

Elf sent a display into his HUD. “We’re cutting our way through what remains of the defenders now,” she said, shortly. Timothy watched as the Marine icons on the display moved further into the ship, sometimes seeming to do the impossible and walk through walls and bulkheads that simply weren’t there any more. The chart of the interior of the starship was being updated constantly as the sensors on the armoured combat suits scanned for any rearrangements caused by the starfighter attack. “We should be into the command section within ten minutes; can you believe that they didn’t even have half of their people in skinsuits?”

Timothy nodded. “How many prisoners do you have?”

“Forty so far, others who might have surrendered, but ran out of oxygen first,” Elf informed him. “As we keep opening sections that were undamaged, I expect that we will have more prisoners soon; that said, there has been some heavy resistance in some places.”

“I see,” Timothy said. “I’m coming with you.”

“You’re staying at the back,” Elf said, firmly. “This is my responsibility and I’m not letting you get killed out here when you could be warming my bed.”

Timothy laughed. “You make a convincing case,” he said, trying to remain calm. “We just need to get into that section as quickly as possible.”


“There has been a great deal of damage to the missile stocks,” Gunnard said, his voice distracted. “It seems to be impossible to access their core processors directly.”

What a shame, Tiffany thought, struggling against her drugged state. She didn’t understand it, not even slightly; she should have been immune to any kind of drug that might have disabled or killed her. The nanotech in her body should have swept it out of her body before it had a chance to do anything to her, which suggested that it was a new kind of weapon, but what? How had he even managed to get it into her body?

She’d fallen asleep in his arms, she remembered suddenly. It had felt good, but he’d clearly taken advantage of her, injecting something into her body that had crippled her. He shouldn’t have been able to get something into her, still, and then she realised in a flash of brilliant understanding just how it had been done. She’d learned about some old human diseases, pre-Invasion, that had been spread from man to woman by sex…and Gunnard had had sex with her, lots of times. Might he have injected himself with something that he had then sent inside her? The thought brought a sparkle of pure rage through her body, but it wasn't enough to overcome the lassitude that his drug had imposed upon her.

“The internal sensors also show that this ship has been boarded, probably by Marines,” Gunnard continued, as if he wasn’t even remotely aware that she could hear him. Or perhaps he knew it perfectly well; perhaps it was his way of apologising for what he was about to do to her. He had cared for her, in some way, even if he had betrayed her…but perhaps he had no choice, but to betray her. He’d been treated in a way that would prevent the knowledge of his backers from ever slipping out of his head; had they done something else to him as well? Pirates rarely blew up their ships, even when they were being boarded; Gunnard was coldly working to do just that. Was he a victim too? “It seems impossible for there to be any kind of coordinated resistance to their assault; indeed, apart from those who survived Deadeye, the crew may seek to surrender rather than try to fight.”

Cold rage burned through Tiffany as she accessed her implants. It took what felt like hours to focus enough concentration to access them, with the drug burning through her mind, but she was rewarded as the implants hummed back into life. Whatever he’d injected her with hadn’t destroyed the implants, but had somehow crippled her ability to make her body do what she wanted it to do. She used the implants to scan the nanotech in her body, trying to find out what had happened to her, but somehow it was impossible to even detect a drug within her system. That wasn't too much of a surprise, but even so, it should have been impossible.

“The only option left is to trigger the bomb on the ship,” Gunnard informed her, his voice almost apologetic. Tiffany was still focusing on making her body work properly, trying to use her nanotech to get something working, but she couldn’t think of a way to repair the damage. There didn’t even seem to be any damage. “This won’t be easy; we had to leave that particular control routine off the computer network, for fear that someone like her” – he nodded over at Sarah’s body – “would find it and wonder just what it was doing there. It will not be easy to trigger the weapon, but I think we have ten minutes at most before the Marines burst in here.”

He walked back over to Tiffany, picked her body up without any appreciable effort, and placed her down on the deck. Her body was limp, like a rag doll; the rage in her mind cracked one part of the mystery. Maybe whatever had knocked her body out of commission could be dispersed, if she flushed new chemicals into her body, forcing it to suddenly cope with a sudden wave of energy. Battle drugs were rare – the people using them tended not to discriminate when it came to telling the difference between friend and enemy – but she’d included a small phial in her implants.

She could see him, sitting down on her chair and pulling out a small neural link from the side of the chair. She’d known it was there, but she hadn’t had the implants to use it, none of them had…and Gunnard had no implants at all. This deficiency didn’t seem to bother him as he placed it to the side of his neck, looking for a node that wasn't there…but the link clearly worked. She saw him close his eyes in concentration and forced herself to make her move.

Jadis had warned her about the other dangers of battle drugs. The Imperials had experimented with them back in the early days of the Empire, only to discover that the soldiers tended to lose control of themselves completely, from failing to obey orders to indulging themselves with rape, murder, and torture. The drugs had stripped away everything that made them human and disciplined soldiers, replacing them with a nightmare out of humanity’s past; they might, one on one, be more than a match for an un-drugged soldier, but against a disciplined group, they wouldn’t stand a chance. There was no choice, though; she thought the command into her implant and gasped aloud as the energy flew through her body.

It was at that moment that Gunnard opened his eyes and looked at her.


Timothy had lived through a ship under attack before, back on the Max Capricorn, but that had been nothing compared to hacking their way though the battlecruiser’s innards. The battlecruiser’s crew seemed to have a split personality; half of them came out with their hands in the air, the other half fought like demons to prevent them from taking the ship. He found himself pressing back against the wall as heavy plasma cannons, intended for use against flying targets on the ground, were pressed into service by the pirates, trying to kill as many Marines as possible.

It was madness, brutal madness, and it was war. The corridors and passageways of the ship were being systematically torn apart as the Marines advanced, flushing out their targets and shooting them down with ruthless efficiency, tracking enemy soldiers as they attempted to sneak up and trigger an ambush. Marine drones, tiny machines barely large enough to see, flew ahead of them, locating enemy positions and warning the Marines before it was too late. From time to time, the pirates would engage in hand to hand combat, crashing into the Marines wearing pressure suits and repair mecha suits that had been hastily outfitted with weapons and defences; the Marines smashed through them and kept going. The air was rushing out of the ship, killing more of the crew before they could make the decision to fight or surrender; Timothy found it hard to care.

They were pirates; they deserved to die.

“I can’t access their computers,” one of the Marines said. She’d attempted to hack directly into the starship’s computer core, like Elf had done back on The Rock, but this group of pirates had evidently taken more in the way of basic precautions. “The computer is rejecting all my attempts to hack into it.”

“It hardly matters,” Elf sent back shortly. They had reached the inner core, the web of armour that had been crafted around the bridge of the starship. “Once we break into the bridge, we can hack the systems at our leisure.”

The fighting seemed to be dying away, at least to Timothy’s eyes. Direct boarding actions were rare, even though he had seen records from the Grey War; the Greys had fought with a suicidal lack of concern for the safety of the drones that made up most of their population. The pirates seemed to be fighting them as they encountered them; given the vast damage that had been inflicted on the starship, it was possible that most of them were trapped and would have to be cut out of compartments that were now sealed without power. They could surrender then, or die; Timothy didn’t care which one they chose.

“That’s the bridge airlock,” Elf said. She selected the private channel again. “Timothy, stay back, understand?”

“Yes,” Timothy said. His sister was on the other side of the airlock. “Please be careful.”

He wasn't sure to what he was referring.


They stared at each other for a long moment.

Tiffany felt strange, almost as if she was burning up inside, with energy burning right through her, but somehow blocked from finding any outlet. Her hands moved slowly, clenching and unclenching her fist as if it was the hardest thing in the book, but somehow she had the energy to do anything, if she could force her body to work. She was burning, she wanted him, she wanted to kill him…the wave of energy forced it’s way into her body. It hurt, somehow; whatever he had done to her, the effects hadn’t been entirely shaken off by the battle drug.

“Don’t,” Gunnard said, very calmly. She could see the fear in his face as he realised that she had broken his control, whatever he had done to her. “You must not allow this ship to fall into Imperial hands.”

Speaking took more energy than she had expected. “Fuck you,” she said, struggling to point at him. Lifting her hand seemed to be like trying to lift the entire ship on a high-gravity world. She laughed and it became a delirious giggle. “What do I owe you anyway?”

“Everything,” Gunnard said, his eyes flickering nervously down to the pistol he had placed in his belt. Tiffany saw him move, almost in slow motion, and wondered why she had never experimented with the drug before. Without the strange…effect he had managed on her, she would have been unbeatable; she could see every one of his movements…and she knew what they meant. He was scared, not just for himself, but for his backers. “What did we do to you?”

“You cost me everything,” Tiffany said. “I want…”

There was a noise at the airlock, like someone knocking on it; Gunnard acted in that moment of distraction, yanking out his weapon with astonishing speed, and bringing it up to shoot at her. Tiffany fired, a second too late, using the energy weapon she had had implanted in her finger, but Gunnard fired at the same time; a burst of superhot plasma burned into her lower chest. The pain was dulled slightly by the drugs, but even so, she had only a moment to realise that she’d hit him in the head and killed him before the pain struck her and she screamed.

The door burst inwards and three figures came crashing through, weapons raised and ready for anything, but what they saw. The others came in afterwards, trying to see what was happening, but she only had eyes for the final figure. She knew who he was, who he had to be…

Speaking, even with the help of the implants, was almost impossible. “Tim…”


Timothy looked down upon the body of his sister, throwing the armoured helmet to the ground as he took in the damage, and knew that she was certain to die. It had been a miracle that she had lasted long enough to see him, let alone had been able to speak; the damage was too great to allow her to live long enough to get to a medical centre. Her legs, her thighs, her groin, her lower chest…had all been burned and charred by a plasma burst.

“Tiffany,” he said, kneeling down. For a moment, she was the girl he remembered from so long ago, before the hardness returned. “I’m sorry.”

Tiffany seemed to be almost unable to speak. “Me too,” she said, gasping. It might have been intended as a laugh, but she started to cough up blood within seconds. He grasped her hand and flinched at the coldness spreading through her body. Her hand felt as if it were a claw, or the hand of a much older woman, rather than one belonging to a girl who had barely turned twenty-one. Her voice was almost delirious. “It wasn't your fault – I wanted to let go of everything. Don’t let them bury me on the planet.”

She caught his hand. “My cabin,” she said, as clearly as she could. Timothy felt his eyes widen as she held him close. “There’s a statue there, look at it, find the chip, use it however you see fit and…you can avenge me if nothing else…”

“I will,” Timothy promised. He wasn't sure what he was agreeing to, but he didn’t want her to go on into the darkness alone. He ignored the presence of the Marines, even Elf, saving every little part of his attention for his sister. He tried to find words to say, but there was nothing he could say. “Tiffany…”

“Don’t,” she said, her voice fading. Her body jerked once against his body, shaking with the effort of remaining alive and conscious. “There’s nothing to say.”

After a long moment, Timothy reached out and gently shut her eyes.

Chapter Fifty: The End Of The Beginning

A sheet of paper, handwritten, dropped down in front of Vice Admiral Argent.

After a moment, he looked up. “What is this?”

Timothy looked back down at him. “My resignation.”

The Admiral picked it up and read it, carefully. Handwritten notes were rare in the Empire and were only used for items of great importance. After scanning the brief set of lines, he took it in both hands and ripped it into shreds.

“Rejected,” he said shortly. Timothy blinked in surprise. “I expect you to oversee Fury’s refit and then return to your duties.” He paused, long enough for Timothy to leave, and then realised that the young commanding officer hadn’t left. “Might I ask why you are trying to resign?”

“I disobeyed orders and left the bridge again,” Timothy said. It had been nearly a month since he’d captured the Blackbird, three other pirate ships, and destroyed five more. The remaining three ships had made it across the Phase Limit and vanished. He’d found the lack of threatening notes from the admiral, or the formal notification of a court martial, rather worrying. “I had to do it, but…”

“Had I felt that there was due cause for a court martial, I assure you that I would have started the procedure to hold one as soon as I heard the first reports,” Admiral Argent said. His gaze met Timothy’s eyes for a long moment. “Yes, you left your ship and went into an area of extreme danger without any regard for the potential consequences to anyone apart from yourself. Yes, I did warn you that if you did something like that again, you might be forced to face a court martial. Yes…but in this case, it seems that there are few grounds for actually holding such a court.”

Timothy found his voice. “Sir, I…”

“You won the battle, Captain Keck,” Admiral Argent said. “You might not have noticed, but you may well have, single-handedly, have won us the war against the pirate kingdom. With your sister’s death, and the use of the information you recovered from her cabin, we have been able to mount several more raids against the pirate infrastructure. It won’t wipe the bastards out entirely, but by the time they managed to re-establish themselves, we will have fixed most of the damage your sister inflicted on us. You were the person who came up with the plan, you were the officer in command of actually carrying it out, and you were the Captain who boarded a pirate vessel personally.”

He held up a hand to prevent Timothy from reminding him that it had been Elf and her Marines who had led the way. “You’re a hero, Timothy,” the Admiral said. “I shouldn’t be too surprised if they raise statues to you right across the sector, and believe me, the newsmen love it. They’re barred from fleet bases as a matter of course, just to stop them from harassing your crew, but that hasn’t stopped them. You can imagine the stories; heroic Captain kills his own sister in single combat!”

“It wasn’t like that,” Timothy protested. “Tiffany was already dying when we burst onto the bridge!”

Admiral Argent laughed. “What do you think that matters to the newsmen?” He asked. “By tomorrow, they’ll be saying you took on twenty pirates armed only with a stick and a pair of old single-shot pistols. Within the week, they’ll be running a campaign to have you replace Admiral Johnston as the supreme officer in this sector. Within a year, they’ll want to elect you to Centre as one of the representatives from the Fairfax Sector” – his voice darkened – “and after you die, they’ll take great delight in digging up as many skeletons in your closet as they can find.”

“I didn’t know,” Timothy said. He’d been too busy nursing Fury back to the shipyard at Roland to look at any of the newssheets from the sector worlds. “I just…”

He allowed his voice to break off. “I saw her die, in front of me,” he said, softly, wishing that he had the words to make the Admiral understand. “I killed her, almost as if I had pulled the trigger myself, and…I lost her once and now I’ve lost her again. I don’t know if I can go on, sir…”

“I don’t think that Captain Venture would have had any time for self-pitying bullshit,” Admiral Argent said. He allowed his voice to soften slightly. “Listen to me, for a moment; you wear our uniform and you wear it well, well enough to retain your command. There’s no such thing as an easy choice for us, particularly not for people in the command chairs; you, more than most, have to make your own choices. The commanders of the battlecruisers in my task force can kick a decision up to me if they want to cover their own rears, but you didn’t have that option.

“Yes, what happened to you and her was tragic, and the newsmen will make sure that everyone thinks it is some kind of romantic story about you and her and how you had to kill her,” he continued. “You knew that you might have to issue those orders and you stepped up to it when no one would have blamed you for taking the way out. You took the responsibility and ran with it and no one, not even yourself, has the right to tell you that you did the wrong thing. There will be hundreds of armchair admirals who will tell you exactly that, because they wanted a happy ending to the story, but their opinion doesn’t matter. If you like, I will convene a Captain’s Board to consider your actions in the battle, but they will tell you exactly the same thing.”

He paused. “I should add that the other surviving Captains from the battle came here and sang your praises,” he added, thoughtfully. “They’re your peers, some of them have much more experience than you, and they thought you did the right thing. This is the fleet and being self-pitying is not allowed, so go back to your ship, finish the refit, and by then, we might just have a mission suitable for one of your great fame.”

Timothy nodded slowly. “Yes, sir,” he said. “And sir…thank you.”


“Under the circumstances, we were able to analyse all four captured pirate asteroids with considerable care,” Carola said, as she briefed Port Admiral Johnston. The datachip that Tiffany had left behind for her brother had been given to Imperial Intelligence, who had wasted no time in organising a set of raids for the various pirate asteroids, storming them and trying to recover as much information as possible, “Unfortunately, while we were able to seize the asteroids, we were not able to capture anyone who might have worked for Tiffany’s backers. They provided one hell of a lot of services to the pirates, but we still don’t know who they were.”

She paused. “We dissected the body of the man that Tiffany killed,” she continued. “It was someone of the same type as the unknown person who killed Captain Venture, but with some differences…and Doctor Lange went almost as far as to say improvements. I’m not happy with the concept of discussing humans as if they were churned out on an assembly line, but the improvements do suggest that whoever was making them has been getting better at it as they go along. Among other things, this one had a kind of organic neural transceiver that provided a link into a battlecruiser’s computers without anything that would trigger alarms.”

“Shit,” Admiral Johnston said. “Do we have any suspects at all?”

“A rogue black colony is the most likely suspect,” Carola admitted. “There’s also the possibility that we could be dealing with some rogue group from the inner worlds; Tiffany’s plan, to hive off the Fairfax Sector and turn it into a kingdom, would only have been possible with some help from the inner worlds. Hell, refitting the starships alone would have taken major yard works…”

“And that wasn't done in any yard in this sector,” Admiral Johnston said. “At least that's that threat over and done with.”

Carola shook her head. “No, sir,” she said. “We know that we lost around seventy starships; only thirteen, at most, were seen in pirate hands. The remained, including all three missing superdreadnaughts, remain unaccounted for. They might well have fallen into the hands of our mystery opponents, but without any clear evidence as to who owns them, we can’t really act.”

“The good news is that all the pirate activity has died down,” Admiral Johnston said. He ran his hand through his hair. “I want you, in particular, to concentrate on finding those damn starships, before someone decides to tell us where they are by opening fire.”

“Yes, sir,” Carola said.

“And please accept my condolences on the death of your husband,” Admiral Johnston added. “He didn’t deserve to die like that.”

“He died the way I think he wanted to die,” Carola said, biting her lip. “If those ships are still out there, somewhere in the sector, we’ll find them.”

Admiral Johnston looked up at the vast star chart and wondered.


The former head of the council knelt in front of them, chained to the floor.

The new head of the council spoke directly to him. “You chose to ignore advice given to you by our Head of Intelligence and sacrificed a pawn, for what?” He asked. His voice rang around the room. “The pirate fleet we built up, the one we created and funded for the purpose of destabilising the sector, the one that was doing an excellent job of destabilising the sector, was destroyed. They were lured into a trap…and you ensured that they would be lured into the trap.”

He paused; Evgenia Agathe hid a smile behind her hand. “Our chosen pirate monarch said that it was a trap,” he continued. “Your operative forced her into launching the operation anyway. You risked exposing us and, even though fleet doesn’t know who we are, we are suddenly much shorter of expendable assets. You have failed the Council and the New Race.”

“Mercy,” the former head said. His head bowed under the weight of the chains. “I didn’t know what would happen.”

“No mercy,” the new head said, and pushed a button. The chains seemed to flare with light as a powerful charge ran through the body and killed him instantly. “Have that body removed.”

He turned to Evgenia. “Are you certain that his incompetence has not cost us our security?”

“Almost all of our agents in vulnerable locations on the asteroids were able to escape before the assault fleets arrived,” Evgenia assured him. “Those who failed to escape, or failed to hear about the disaster before the fleets arrived killed themselves; the coding we burned into their heads saw to that. Even so, few of them knew anything that could be used to implicate us directly; I always planned on the assumption of an absolute worst case outcome.”

“Good,” the new head said. “Your new position should serve as a reward. Can we now move on to the secondary plan?”

“Of course,” Evgenia, the newest member of the Council of Five, said. “As long as our secrecy remains unbroken, we can choose our moment to act and act as we please. The Empire, trapped in a process of endless disintegration, will still fall…and we will replace it.”


“You took a terrible risk,” Elf said, as she met him outside the fleet headquarters. They hadn’t spoken since the moment when they’d launched Tiffany’s body, after a short examination, into the star that had shone down on their homeworld. “I hope that the Admiral tore you a new arsehole for it.”

“He wasn't happy,” Timothy admitted. He shook his head; he hadn’t wanted to be a hero, but he’d had a moment to review some of the news articles he'd seen and apparently he had indeed killed ten pirates with a cutlass. It had been in the news, so it had to be true, right? “And now she’s dead…”

“And you’re still wearing the Captain’s badge,” Elf said. “I take it he didn’t accept your resignation.”

“No,” Timothy said. He reached out suddenly and pulled her to him. “I’m sorry I dragged you all into my quest.”

“Now you’re being silly,” Elf said, shortly. “You would still have had to board that craft with or without Tiffany being involved. What’s going to happen to you now?”

“I have to see to Fury and then he promised me another mission,” Timothy said. “Elf…what do you think, really, of everything?”

They found a bench in the park and sat down. “I think you placed your own personal concerns above everything else,” Elf said. “I remember that you were upset about condemning some known collaborators to their fates. You wanted to free Tiffany, but you also wanted to kill her, or stop her, because of what she was doing. I do not think that you acted wisely.”

“I know,” Timothy said. He looked for the words, but he couldn’t find them. “How many people did I get killed?”

“Everyone knew the risks when they took the job, even Tiffany,” Elf said dryly. They'd found enough records of Tiffany’s life as a pirate to know just what she’d been through; he’d forced himself to watch some of the files, including clips recorded by Captain Blackbird himself. She had been warped by the pirates, by everything she’d had to do to remain alive, but still…there had been a trace of the old Tiffany there, right at the end. “You didn’t get someone killed deliberately and that is all that matters.”

Timothy looked at her. “What are you going to do in the future?”

“I’ve been offered a promotion to Marine Captain and a position on the New Brooklyn,” Elf said. She didn’t seem to catch the sudden change on Timothy’s face. “What are you doing in the future?”

Timothy hesitated. “I need you with me,” he said. “Elf…please will you stay on the Fury?”

Elf looked back at him. “Why?”

“I need you,” Timothy said. “I need someone who can tell me when I’m about to do something stupid, because no one else will tell the Captain that, except you.”

“Kady would,” Elf pointed out. “That’s her job.”

“She also hasn’t quite forgiven me for taking so many risks with myself,” Timothy said. “She’s very much a by-the-book person; besides, I think she’s going to get promoted fairly soon. Elf, I need you, but if you don’t want to stay, I would understand.”

“I suppose I could be tempted,” Elf said. She paused to consider. “I’d have to rebuild most of the Marine detachment anyway and it’s a chance to be a big fish in a small pond…very well, just for you.”

Timothy kissed her on the cheek. “What do you want to do now?”

Elf laughed. “We have a ship to rebuild,” she said, standing up and taking his hand. Timothy laughed with her; it wasn't the answer he had been expecting. “Let’s get on with it.”

The End


You may want to know some of the background to this story.

A year or so ago, I conceived the ‘Empire Falls’ universe, one where Earth had been invaded a thousand years ago by the Imperials (our near-future) and firmly integrated into the Empire. Unlike many other alien invasion stories, the human race would not succeed in throwing the aliens back into space, and in fact the human race would become a valuable part of the Empire. By the time the first trilogy opened, that Empire was in decline, and the Imperials chose to cut several dozen sectors adrift, including the Human Sector. As it happened, this came at the same time as the Greys finally started their invasion of the Empire, targeting Earth and the human race. When the series came to an end, the Imperials had retired completely from galactic affairs, leaving the Empire in the hands of the subject races.

A power vacuum of any sort brings challenges that were normally suppressed by the ruling power. In this case, the Empire would have been severely weakened by the Grey War and not everyone would be happy about rebuilding the Empire, or not at least until they’d sorted out the balance of power and agreed upon how everyone would have a say in how they would be taxed and what the money would be used for, rather than the Imperials just dictating to everyone. The Fairfax Sector, on the edge of the Empire – the Rim – is typical; the central power has been weakened and all kinds of independence movements, secessionists, and pirates are rearing their heads. It seemed the perfect setting for a story…

I’d used pirates once between, during the original books, and back then it was suggested to me (I honestly forget who by) that the pirate world would make a suitable location for a complete story. The pirates exist out on the Rim, a strange group of people, living hand to mouth and knowing full well what would happen to them if they were caught…what sort of people would they be? As I worked on the issue, fleshing out the pirates, it became increasingly clear that the pirates wouldn’t be nice guys; forget Pirates of the Caribbean, the real pirates were monsters.

The Pirates of the Caribbean – and other misleading productions – actually represents one of my pet hates. The people who live on the fringes of the civilised world are not nice. SM Stirling actually put it very well, in one of his novels; just because someone gets the short end of the stick, it doesn’t mean that they’re the good guys. When people talk about returning to a simpler age, they fail to grasp that people in that era would have probably sold their souls to come live in our era. For the vast majority of people in the time of Robert the Bruce and Edward I, Hammer of the Scots, life was nasty, brutish and short; they existed at the mercy of their lords, the elements and disease. Our delusion that war can somehow be made civilised flies in the fact of history; war is never civilised by definition.

Nor has this changed. Back during the invasion of Iraq, a captured Iraqi told his American captors that if they wanted to win, the Americans would have to blow up all the schools and mosques in the city. Why? Because the defenders, knowing full well that US rules of engagement frowned upon the destruction of schools and mosques, had used them to stockpile their weapons. It is easy for someone to come up with an excuse for this kind of behaviour, but does it really help? What about suicide bombers? What about the treatment of women in the Middle East? When people in the West come up with excuses for this kind of behaviour, and jump on the slightest hint of Western impropriety, they choose to close their eyes to horrors perpetrated daily by those they think of as freedom fighters. I don’t understand it and I don’t like it; in the West, we are far more tolerant of some behaviours than anywhere else. We accept homosexuals; in the Middle East, they get stoned to death. We accept a heavy degree of criticism of political figures; in Russia, people like that tend to suffer accidents. (Remember Alexander Litvinenko?) When you speak in defence of such people, you support activities that would be used against you, if you lived there. I don’t always agree with Mark Steyn, but in America Alone, he hit the nail right on the head.

“In demographic terms, the salient feature of much of the ‘progressive agenda’ – abortion, gay marriage, endlessly deferred adulthood – is that, whatever the charms of any individual item, cumulatively it’s a literal dead end...In fact, [opposition to Islamization] ought to be the Left’s issue. I’m a social conservative. When the mullahs take over, I’ll grow my beard a little fuller, get a couple of extra wives, and keep my head down. It’s the feminists and the gays who’ll have a tougher time.”

The West is not perfect, far from it.

Believe me, it’s a damn sight better than the alternative.

But I’m getting off my subject. The story was originally designed to be centred around Tiffany; I added Timothy into the mix to provide contrast, something that would both allow us to see the inside of the Imperial Fleet and how Tiffany slowly falls into the abyss. It was also intended to be a great deal darker, but at the advice of some of my readers, mainly Tony Jones, I left much of the horror hinted at, rather than stated. I wanted to explore what would happen to two similar people – they’re twins – who found themselves in radically different environments. While Timothy blossoms under the wing of the Imperial Fleet, Tiffany finds herself in a place where she can rely on no one, but herself.

The pirates exist outside of all laws. Tiffany has no protection, other than her wits. A point that Tony made, during the drafting, is that some pirates would be considered bad even by the other pirates, but that doesn’t translate into taking effective action against them. Tiffany is one of the lucky ones, in a very real sense, despite being effectively a rape victim…and as she grows in power, she pays a price in terms of her soul. The cost of reshaping her environment to give her safety and control is becoming very much like the other pirates.

I tried to show this as best as I could. Timothy agonises over his role in sentencing some people to death or a fate worse than death. Tiffany coldly and callously uses every tool she can lay her hands on, from her body to hidden weapons and traps. Timothy places himself in the firing line to avoid anyone else being put at risk; Tiffany exploits the other pirates and uses them to obtain her goals. You should feel sorry for them, and yet, doesn’t Tiffany deserve her final fate? The story was never intended to be epic, not in the sense of such greats as At All Costs or The Reality Dysfunction, but about the twins and how their lives were intertwined.

The world is very rarely black and white. How many people could truly be said to blame for the atrocities of the Nazi regime? Hitler and his inner circle? The bureaucrats who ran the regime? The soldiers who fought for Hitler? The workers in the factories? The entire German nation? How can we answer that question, in a world where people will always put their self-interest first; how can we say that we would not act in such a manner, if we were trapped in the Nazi regime? How ‘civilised’ would we act if we had the opportunity to do whatever we wanted…with no comeback?

People say; they should have stood up and said no. Those people tend not to live in such places. In Nazi Germany, or Saddam’s Iraq, people who said ‘no’ sometimes came to unpleasant ends. They might not have been killed directly – although Saddam, in particular, killed political opponents – but they might have been fired, left in the cold with their wives and children to support. It’s easy to offer yourself for sacrifice when there is no chance of you actually having to make that sacrifice; would the protesters (against the Iraq War, 2003) I watched in Manchester have continued their protests if the police had fired into them with machine guns?

I would not have bet money on the answer being ‘yes.’

What would you do in the pirate world?

A comic book series I’m particularly fond of – 100 Bullets – has an interesting premise. A person who has been wronged, sometimes very badly, by another person is given a attaché case containing a gun, one hundred bullets, proof that their target was actually responsible for their woes, and complete immunity. They get arrested…they’re back out on the streets within the hour. Whatever happens, there is no punishment for murder, offering them a chance to kill their target without regard for legal consequences. It strips them down to one single question; will they pull the trigger?

Julie Cochrane once posted an interesting argument, dividing the human race into sheep, sheepdogs, and sociopaths. I’m not convinced; it strikes me that most people will tend to veer between the three states, depending on where they are and what they can do and get away with. In our world, murder and rape are not considered acceptable, but what would we do in a world where they were not only acceptable, but encouraged? Control of women speaks to the deepest, darkest, aspects of the male psyche; what would you do if you were offered complete authority over ‘your’ women? Your wife? Your sister? Your daughters? What would you do?

Democracy requires – desperately – intelligent feedback and criticism. Just because I have a high opinion of myself doesn’t mean that I know everything, or that I’m smart enough to account for everything; I need people to point out details that I might have missed. BUT – and it’s a big but, there is a difference between making serious points and carping criticism of a world that is less than perfect, but far better than any of the alternatives. If you do the latter, please remember that you are literally weakening the foundations of our civilisation…and the people you support do not have your best interests in mind. It might be the last mistake you ever made.

Appendix: The Pirates

It is difficult to be objective about pirate culture and society – and indeed, it is a society, in a sense – when considering its nature and how it relates to the Empire at large. Pirates, as a general rule, have no qualms about preying on the isolated starships and individual worlds of the Empire, causing tremendous damage and enormous costs in human life, and as such are treated as vermin. The one rule of engagement between pirates and the Imperial Fleet is generally ‘no quarter.’

The first pirates consisted of isolated warships left over from the Empire’s first conquests, which rapidly fell to the level of raiders, preying on the Empire’s shipping in order to survive. As the black colony movement gained force, the pirates became a part of the black market that sustained their growth, often trading goods and captured slaves for support, a safe harbour, and occasionally additional crewmen. Some of the black colonies were set up or ended up becoming pirate bases, providing one part of the triad that supports pirate activity. The establishment of criminal networks within the Empire itself, some of them descended from Earth-based criminal networks that were happy to use the opportunities offered by the Imperials to start a new life of crime, completed the pirates-bases-fences triad; they were happy to fence stolen gods and occasionally help pirates to obtain new ships through various means.

There is, essentially, one rule regarding social interaction between pirates; favours. If a pirate does a favour for another pirate, that pirate has the right to call in a favour in exchange. The terms are not generally set at the start; the pirate could ask for anything from a loan to support during a raiding mission, the original requester having no choice, but to go along with whatever is requested. There is no such thing as an unreasonable return request, as far as the pirates are concerned; almost every pirate would be reluctant to enter into such an agreement unless it was absolutely necessary.

The absence of any other rules means that pirate society is a snake pit. It is not uncommon for pirate crewmen to assassinate their commanders, or other crewmen; the life of a slave, someone without any status at all in pirate society, is cheap. A person who has the ability to defend themselves and a rough reputation can go far in the pirate society; a person who is unable to defend themselves (and lacks a powerful protector) will end up being the victim of almost everyone. Female pirates, who are fairly rare, have to face the additional danger of rape, something that would shatter their prestige in a moment and send them crashing down.

Pirate starships are crewed, generally, by smaller crews than their Imperial Fleet counterparts, and have fewer officers. There is no set size or organisation for the crew, but they will generally have the Captain, the First Mate, the two Second Mates, the crewmen, and the slaves. The crewmen will tend to belong to one faction or another, reporting to one of the senior officers; the life of a slave is nothing less than hellish. Discipline is odder than the Imperial Fleet; a crewman who impedes success on a raiding mission can be killed, and will be, but at the same time pirate crewmen tend to have no sense of keeping their ships tidy. Maintenance, from simple cleaning to replacing vital components, is a hit-or-miss affair; Imperial Fleet boarding parties have reported starships smelling like vast sewers.

On a raiding mission, the average pirate starship will either follow a tip-of from an information broker or randomly probe star systems for possible targets. When a target – normally an isolated civilian spacecraft or starship – is located, the pirates will close in, intimidate the crew into submission, and board the craft. What happens next tends to depend upon the pirate crew; some crews will press-gang the civilians onto their ships, others will rape and slaughter their captives, or take them as slaves, or allow them to flee their ship in a shuttle. The starship itself will either be looted or it will be moved somewhere where it can be looted in peace. Once the raiding is completed, the pirates will return to their base, sell on their loot to fences, and settle back for a rest before going out again.

For their captives, the nightmare has only just begun.

home | my bookshelf | | The Pirate Queen |     цвет текста   цвет фона   размер шрифта   сохранить книгу

Текст книги загружен, загружаются изображения

Оцените эту книгу