Juggling A Hot Haga-fruit

by Jim Reader

Chapter One

“All right, who invited these assholes?”

“Not me” comes from all my people, as we scramble for the scant cover.

I roll behind a stack of heavy metal shipping containers. The line of mini-gun rounds meant for me stitch the permacrete like the needle of a hellish tattoo gun.

I really, really hate when a simple transaction turns into some bizarre ritual… like this one… which evidently involves sacrificing me and my people, the bloodier the sacrifice the better.

“Adazin, get me a godsdamn drone up!”

“On it, Captain… Daga’s leprous cock!

“Shot it out of the air?”

“Yeah, sending out another, going around and behind.”

It’s a long two minutes while Adazin maneuvers the surveillance drone around.

“Taking her up, Captain… the feed looks good… Zynn’s poisonous teats!

“Send me what you got before they shot it down.”

The footage is a little grainy, I’d guess they’re trying to jam us, but Adazin’s little darlings are seriously modified and upgraded.

My father’s ship – the Baby Boo – now my ship, is big, and ugly, and tough… and surrounded by twenty-some-odd hostiles. They’ve used shipping containers, cargo pods, everything they can get their hands on, to fortify a perimeter around the Boo. Looks like we got here before they could finish the job, which is real fortuitous since it’s left us some cargo pods to hide behind. Another hour or so, we would have been walking across a barren killing floor. I look longingly at the bus we arrived in. The driver is headed back to town a damn sight faster than he drove us out here. Can’t really blame him.

As it is, our heavily armed friends opened up their ambush just a little too soon. Sloppy. Obviously not professionals.

I barely hear the pops, and there are fist-sized balls of sticky raining down on us from the tops of the containers we’re hiding behind.

There are things that happen to us all that, when they happen, we just stand there, and let them happen, ’cause there’s not a fucking thing we can do about it.

Casmar Corporation’s “Non-Lethal Crowd Restraint System,” sold under various named lines for levels of effectiveness and dispersal methods, are one of those things you just let happen… if you’re not prepared to deal with them. If I hadn’t been in such a hurry to get to the Boo, and hadn’t left our combat armor in its packing crates, whoever is using them would be in for a very unpleasant surprise.

Instead, we’re all hit by little popping balls of nano-string that wrap us up, good and tight. If the subject struggles, the nano-filaments just get tighter until the subject can barely breathe… in theory, they don’t get any tighter. Accidents happen.

So, okay, they’re more professional than I thought, and we’re all standing here, caught… but not killed. I got cocky, and was rushing things, I thought we had nothing to fear, and we’re paying for it. Hopefully we won’t be paying with our lives.

* * *

A month earlier…

Leaving the Union Marines isn’t a simple procedure – the clerks and other staff wienies do their damnedest to justify their cushy positions. Add in the reason we get to sport jaunty crimson Special Forces berets, and you’ve got at least two days of various debriefings to look forward to.

And because of a few other issues, double that.

The only one that matters, life and death really, is my meeting with Colonel Oframa Bizout.

“Captain Duquesne, why shouldn’t I stick you in a hole for the foreseeable future?”

Colonel Bizout looks like she was freeze-dried forty or so years ago, and has just kept desiccating since then. She’s been my boss for the last six years. We respect each other, but you couldn’t exactly say we’ve warmed to each other. Like all the troops under her command, I’m an asset, there to be used… and used up if necessary.

“Colonel, is there a shower in the hole? Better yet, a bathtub? Will I be eating better than galley chow? Or, gods forbid, military field rations? If there’s a tub and good food, you go right ahead, toss me in. Pretty sure my people will say the same. Oh, and a comfy bunk.”

The colonel and I share a secret, and it’s one of those I could end up dead for thinking too loud, let alone talking about. The colonel’s trying to decide whether to kill me, lock me up, or trust me to keep my mouth shut.

She also isn’t impressed in the least by my witty repartee.

“You never should have caught a hint of Operation Bridesmaid.”

“I agree, Colonel, I shouldn’t have. And in a perfect world, I wouldn’t have. But you and I both know the way things work in the real world are often completely different than how the military would like them to. I know about Operation Bridesmaid. Hell, I even agree with it, so long as it goes down as planned. But my, and my people’s, terms are up. I don’t want to be any part of Bridesmaid, and my father recently passed away, leaving me the… his ship. My people are willing to follow me to a lucrative life selling our expertise anywhere but within the boundaries of the Union… at least until things calm down”

I don’t mention if she doesn’t trust me and my people by now, she never will. If she doesn’t trust us, locking us away for a while is the second best of her options, with disappearing us completely the safest and easiest.

“Where’s your loyalty, Captain? We could use you and your team.”

“Colonel, you know I’m not Union. I was born out there, not Union, Kingdom, Dianith, Vingin, anyone else… my loyalty is to my family and the people I serve with. I have no interest in the Union’s political situation, except to get away from Union space as fast as I can, what with Bridesmaid coming down. I really do wish you luck… I expect a lot of Union citizens, and the citizens of neighboring star realms would as well, if they knew what you’re going to try.

“Besides, you’re fighting being recklessly used by the politicians, and you’re asking me if you can use me and my people, recklessly or not. I’ve done everything the Union asked of me, and now I want to go back home… out there.”

“I’m not going to bother threatening you, Captain Duquesne.”

“Thank you, Colonel. I’m well aware of what will happen if I open my mouth.”

She doesn’t offer to shake my hand before she stalks out. She acknowledges my salute, but that’s all.

After this meeting, the rest of the boring-ass rigmarole of getting out of the Union Marines is nothing. It’s all smiles and sunshine and rainbows and orgasms.

* * *

I’d joined the Union Marines to acquire Union citizenship, back when I thought that was what I wanted. There’s something about being raised aboard a wandering cargo ship, crisscrossing the Void back and forth, that evidently makes you yearn for a piece of ground somewhere. My sister, Vandra, the next youngest, she ran from my father, and the Baby Boo, as fast as she could. Ended up marrying a nice boy from a Kingdom world, converting, and is raising me a passel of nieces and nephews I’ll probably never meet in person. My youngest sister, Maliva, hasn’t exactly left the Void, she works on a research station in orbit around Canquis IV, in Union space… but believe me, she spends as much time in her home on the planet as she can.

And then there’s me.

I was made to get into shit, and fight my way back out. The Union Marines were happy to have me, and somewhere in there I realized I don’t like any planet enough to live on it. Got no doubt I’ll end up buying a farm some day, but if the gods really like me, it’ll be a piece of the Void, not a patch of dirt.

I don’t see how my sisters do it. Planets are messy, dirty, disorganized, chaotic. My career places enough of that in my way, I’ll be damned if I’ll live somewhere that just adds to it.

Yeah, maybe I have a romantic view of my childhood, after sixteen years in the Marines, but it’s my view, and I’m going home, and taking some friends with me.

* * *

Three-and-a-half weeks earlier…

“I swear on all the gods, I am gonna kiss each and every thing I see that ain’t Marine-issued!”

Evank Roschz, little man, deadly man, more than a bit odd, even before he joined Special Ops. Uses a little, swishy-pokey rapier when guns are out of the question – and it’s downright dismaying how often Marines find themselves in ship-boarding, and other, actions where guns most definitely are out of the question.

You’d laugh at him, plenty have, and then he powers up the blade, finds a weak spot in your armor, and you die.

Plenty have.

“Since we’re stopping off at my family’s place,” says Dhorma Meertz, “you’d best check that shit at the door. You go kissing my non-Marine-issue brothers… well, it’s a roll of the dice whether you get fucked, or fucked up.”

Dhorma’s a big girl, built on a farm-bred industrial chassis, blonde, with a face like a tractor, ended up humping one of her squad’s heavy weapons, most of the time a flamer, sometimes a baby rail-gun.

“Point well-taken,” Evank laughs. “Will anyone object to me kissing the house itself?”
“It’ll draw some odd looks, but you’re with me, so they kinda expect odd.”

There’s twelve of us, and since my father had the misfortune to die on the hind end of known space, leaving the Baby Boo at a field there, our trip’s going to take a while, and Dhorma’s offered us hospitality on our way out of the Union.

Maglis III’s close to the Union periphery, a pretty world, lots of open land, rich land, good for farming. It’s lovely to look at, but I’m damn glad I don’t have to live here. Luckily for all of us, Dhorma’s of the same mind – it’s rare to find someone who enjoys hulking that much weapon around.

Her family’s a big, sprawling, friendly bunch of hard-working, and hard-drinking, farmers. They go all out welcoming their Void-faring daughter, and her friends. We eat well, everyone swaps their share of stories, the home-brew is good and plentiful, and I let myself get talked into staying an extra day.

We sleep on comfortable pallets, constructed of home-made quilts and blankets. I dream of the Void, and all the freedom it entails… including, of course, the freedom to die horribly if I fuck up.

Breakfast is superb, and I take my time, lingering over huge fried eggs from the lizards they raise for such things, thick slabs of something smokey, greasy, and divine in its meatiness, and a mug fuck near the size of my head full of something that’s not gaav, but may actually be better.

It’s almost like a post-enlistment recruiting poster.

“If you serve the Union faithfully and well, when you leave the service, this is the rest of your life!”

Dhorma’s mama keeps a small viddie playing in the kitchen, and while the rest of the family is happily yammering away, all twelve of us catch the phrase “Union military services,” followed by “have moved to seize control of the government,” and “all citizens are advised to go about their normal routines. Disruptions will result in the imposition of martial law.”

And then, “All travel into and out of Union territory is hereby restricted for the duration of the emergency.”

Godsdamned military has kicked off Operation Bridesmaid. Evidently, someone didn’t think waiting around was a good idea. I’m not going to say it was me knowing about Bridesmaid that made them antsy, more than probably wasn’t, cheaper to kill me, could have been any number of other reasons.

But at last the military forces of the Union have decided to put a stop to their civilian masters using them, abusing them, and discarding them, all for economic reasons. The Union hasn’t faced a viable threat from another star realm in over a century… but she’s fought a shitload of nasty little wars all the same, all of them for the cause of higher megacorp profits, and winning interstellar cock-measuring contests.

And so breakfast ends, and it’s assholes and elbows, we’re all packing up, Dhorma’s warning her folks to do like the military says, it’ll all be okay, and is that disreputable piece of shit, Quomo, in port? All of us are saying our “thank you”s and “good-bye”s and although it’s a little sloppy, in five minutes we are out the door, and on our way toward said port, and the ship of one Quomo Zienta, freight hauler, and occasional smuggler.

* * *

The Union Marines frown on anyone leaving their service with any military-issued weaponry, and frown even more on personal firearms for serving personnel – unless you’re a Colonel or higher. But given how often hand-to-hand weapons are used, and the idiosyncrasies of Marines, particularly Special Ops, they have no problem with personal blades and such.

A Marine is never unarmed, even if he’s naked. We are far from naked, and very far from unarmed.

The same cannot be said concerning Quomo Zienta. He has a little bitty baby of a knife, and a pistol that’s just perfect for shooting cans off fences. So, really, he’s unarmed.

Five minutes of negotiations that are about one-third threat-of-imminent-violence and two-thirds go-ahead-take-the-money-you-know-you-want-to, and we’re aboard the Rana Mory, and she’s breaking atmo without clearance, easily outrunning Maglis III’s four aged system patrol boats.

I tune out Quomo’s constant bitching and whining about not being able to go back home for the foreseeable future, and start thinking about where to have him go once we’re beyond Union space.

We do have options. Always plenty of work for life-takers and heart-breakers. The Union is, temporarily, out of the question, which still leaves the Matriarchy of Dianith, the Engvar Empire, the Vingin Empire, the Yark Confederacy, and, if someone held a plasma cannon to my head, or shoved an armed nuke in my panties, the Kingdom of the Chosen.

And that’s just the local big governments.

We’re close, so close to the border I can taste it, when we’re hailed by the USN Hector, a heavy cruiser arriving in the Maglis system just a little bit late to stop any outgoing traffic.

“No way I’m runnin’ for it now! Changing course, and cutting engines!” Quomo yells.

“Quomo, you little rat-fuck bastard, if you even think seriously about it, I will space you, and once we’re on the other side of the Union border, broadcast a free piece-of-shit freighter for the first pilot who gets here to take us where we want to go.”

Something in my tone, and the very sharp knife at his throat, convince him I’m serious, and we’re crossing out of Union space twenty-three minutes later.

“Captain, we’re close to Engvar space,” says Valavala do Masreen. “We head for the Vapki system, there’s an asteroid base, Pungton’s Folly. I know a guy there, can get us kitted out.”

“Let me guess, he specializes in knives?”

She just smiles.

Valavala is named after the leading sex viddie star in her home system of Kiriloon. When I met her, I took comfort in proof my father, who named his ship after my nickname when I was a baby, wasn’t the only one to do stupid things when drunk. Valavala didn’t turn out looking like a sex viddie star. She’s plain, and whipcord thin, and one of the fastest people with small blades I’ve ever seen. One of the places that speed is on regular display is in a mess tent, or kitchen, if one’s available. She’s not only ungodsly fast with knives and such, but she’s very creative when it comes to cooking. After a couple of days when we were garrisoned in an abandoned hotel, with her cooking for us… I have put her in charge of the mess wherever we were, at gunpoint on occasion, with the promise to stand for court-martial if it turned out Valavala didn’t produce a better bill of fare than whomever she was replacing.

Look, a marine’s life is hard enough. Excellent chow makes it a little more tolerable, and I’ll fight for a little more tolerable any way I can.

* * *

Quomo gets us to Vapki, we’re moving in system, and somewhere along our journey, the dumb sumbitch actually engaged his brain once or twice.

“Uh, Captain Duquesne… now that I can’t go back to Maglis for a while, figured I might as well, if you were willing, get you wherever it is you’re going… so long as you can pay, that is.”

Okay, my first instinct is to tell him to take a suitless walk outside the ship, but, for just the twelve of us, the Rana Mory is comfortable, and I figure for all his whining and whimpering, I can probably haggle him down some in price.

He’s whining and whimpering again when I’m through, but I exceeded my own expectations in the bargaining… a good thing, since I don’t know how long we’re going to have to live on our savings, before we can start turning a profit with the Baby Boo.

Pungton’s Folly isn’t bad for a hollowed-out asteroid. Enough trade comes through to keep it going, and the local business folk take pride in the place. Not exactly a cultural mecca, but we don’t worry about walking around armed only with blades.

Way I see it, we have to get combat armor – nothing powered, just good, military-grade protection, and then acquire some bang-bang-boom-boom.

We walk into the shop of Valavala’s ‘guy’, and once she and he are through hugging, she handles the introductions.

“Atkanak Msoum, this is Captain Duquesne, my CO.”

Msoum’s a Takkan, big lizards basically, and he shows delicacy when we shake hands, which I appreciate, as his claws and his strength could leave me hand-less, should he so choose.

“Any friend of Veevee isss a friend of mine,” he hisses. “Fffive percccent dissscount, jussst for giving me the opportunity to sssee Veevee again.”

And after sundry further pleasantries, we get down to business.

* * *

“The combat armor you wisssh, for everyone, even them,” Atkanak says, motioning to Dhorma, and our other heavy weapons trooper, Torakech, “I either have in ssstock, or can acquire in a fffew daysss.”

It’s hard to read expressions on a Takkan, unless you know what to look for, and I don’t, but I still get the feeling I’m not going to like what’s coming.

“Your weapon requirementsss… I am sssad to sssay will take… a month, maybe longer, and it will not be cheap. If you are willing to wait, and have no problem with the priccce, then we can do busssinesss.”

“If we don’t want to wait, but still want to do business, Atkanak?”

He brings up a list of equipment that was top-of-the-line twenty years or so ago. Not my first choice, not even my third or fourth, and not nearly as much serious boom-boom as I’d prefer.

“You are in luck, Sssharla, that armor hasss not made the technical ssstrides armamentsss have.”

“True… although to tell you the truth, I’m not feeling the luck right this moment. If you would, may I have a moment to consult with my people?”

“Of courssse.”

* * *

We end up making a deal, and after accepting an invitation to dine with Atkanak and his family, we troop off to find other items on our shopping list.

I leave the electronics to Jalliano Mamstead and Adazin Sidpoti. Between the two of them, as opposite as two men can be, jammers, spoofers, drones, EMPers, and field communications will get covered as best they can, depending on what’s available.

Jalliano’s the most normal looking one of us. I’ve had to meet him when he was in mufti, and I honest to gods didn’t recognize him until he approached me. He’s the kind of person who just fades into the background, almost as if he has his own cloaking field. And a person like that is good to have on a Spec Ops team.

Adazin, on the other hand… he’s built like an eleven foot tall Pokellian Scythe Bear, compressed down to five foot two. The man’s hands are huge, with club-fingers that require special trigger guards on all his weapons, but those blunt, ugly digits can make a drone do more than even the designers of said drone would believe it capable of.
I don’t understand it, I don’t have to. I just have to make sure he has toys to play with.

* * *

The rest of our shopping is something we haven’t had much cause to do in quite a while – outfitting ourselves as civilians. While there were certainly plenty of times when civilian-wear was acceptable, for a lot of us it just seemed simpler to stay in uniform, worn casual. And shipping hither and yon across the Union, the military doesn’t allow a lot of luggage. Not to mention a lot of the places we took leave were more used to uniforms – it identified us as suckers to be bled dry, but treated very well… at least until our accounts were empty.

So, what civvie clothes we have… kinda scary. And while I never worry about keeping up with fashion, it would be nice to not look so incredibly backwards-ass-cousin-from-the-sticks.
I never like shopping for anything other than implements of destruction, and so I foresee being bored out of my mind, since some of the crew are would-be sharp dressers. I look forward to an afternoon of catching up on my reading.

* * *

Instead, once I finish my minimal shopping, I think about my father. My mother died in childbirth, halfway between Union space, and the Kalpomon system. If it had been up to my father, they wouldn’t have flown, but after two children, Mother was sure she’d have no problems, and the Boo’s medbay would be more than sufficient.

My father was devastated. For years, while raising my sisters and I on board the Boo, he transferred all his anger at himself, and at Mother, toward the ship, and loathed the culmination of their hard work. It made some of our formative years strained.

The Baby Boo had been a dream he and my mother worked toward for years as independent asteroid miners, just the two of them in a cramped ship for months at a time. When they made their big strike, and it was, seriously, a find of epic proportions, they’d up-scaled their dreams of a small free trader into a large free trader, built as tough as he, and his contacts in the Union Navy, could manage.
And yes, it broke his heart when I joined the Union Marines. He got over it, coming to realize I wasn’t cut out for the long-distance aspect of naval combat. I like my killing a little dirtier, a little closer… a little more visceral. It’s a quirk of mine.

But, when you’re in the Void, your ship is the single most important thing in the entire universe. If she fails you in any major fashion, your odds of surviving are negligible. And if she fails you in any minor fashion… life can easily become hellish.

Like the time the water recycling units gave out, and we all, the crew, and my family, forty-five souls, went without bathing for two months. Our water tanks weren’t quite dry when we landed, but we were close.

That’s when I began a lifelong love affair with hot showers that’s truly fucking scary in its depth, and intensity.

So there we were, in a ship that was for all intents and purposes our entire world, and my father hated her with the heat of a thousand stars. He was unstable, as was the situation his instability created. Eventually he suffered a break-down, and we were grounded on Asperia, one of the Union Core Worlds, while he underwent treatment. During those months, the crew of the ship took care of my sisters and me, and stayed on despite no promise of further wages, and most importantly, kept up the illusion that we were not on board, but were in fact staying with cousins somewhere, they weren’t quite sure where exactly, on Asperia. Union Social Services certainly suspected, but could never prove we were still aboard.

And that’s when I learned the Boo’s interior, top to bottom, side to side… including all the very well-hidden smuggling compartments I didn’t know my father and mother had ordered built in to the the ship.

Very educational time of my life.

My father returned very close to his old self, and it was back to the Void while we three sisters finished growing up. After my sisters and I left, Father continued on with the Boo, taking contracts and shipments legal, not-so-legal, and downright criminal, for a little over fifteen years.

Until he landed on Vaclavel V, and with no prior warning I’m aware of, dropped dead of a heart-attack at a bar in the port city of Maggasin.

His will ensured the crew was paid off, they locked up the Boo, and moved on. There was more than enough in the ship’s account to cover berthing fees, especially at the little middle-of-nowhere field he’d put down at. He left me the ship, and a decent sum of cash bequeathed to each of my sisters.

That was only three months before my term was up. I won’t say it’s the reason I made that term my last… I was strongly inclined that way prior to his death, but it made the decision a lot easier. I had some friends getting out at the same time, so we decided to go into business together.

And that’s how I ended up at Pungton’s Folly, waiting for my crew to pry themselves out of clothing stores.

* * *

By the time we reached Vaclavel V, all of us were, at any given time, an anorexic zephyr’s hair away from stopping the ship, strapping Quomo across an engine exhaust, and going full throttle.

Piloting a spaceship… how hard can it be?

But he delivered us to our destination, and our contract with him was thoroughly and forever dissolved… I think he was actually expecting a gratuity of some sort, dumb son-of-a-bitch.

We holed up in a moderately cheap hotel for a night, most of the crew got raging drunk, so were looking and feeling their best the next day, when we hired a bus, loaded our equipment, still in their cases, and made our way out to the Baby Boo.

And walked into an ambush.

* * *

Back in the here, and in trouble…

The individuals who collected us did not leave their armor, or their weapons, in the cases, and so I couldn’t tell much about them through helmets… except at least one of them was not human. Not sure what it was, but it was big… a third again the size of Dhorma. It carried two of us at the same time.

So I get dropped on my butt in front of the Boo’s aft hatch, and a male voice says, “Open your ship, please.”

Now, in the viddies, I’d say I couldn’t do it without being free of the nano-fibers, they’d release me, I’d grab one of their weapons, kill them all, and we’d all fly off into the sunset.

Yeah… real life does not work that way… except on the exceedingly rare occasions when it does. This wasn’t one of those.

“Stand me up, if you would?”

I’m hauled to my feet, and turned to the lock interface.

“Voice identification, Sharla Duquesne. Baby Boo, until the stars grow cold, you are my home.”

The heavy hatch locks disengage, and we’re carried inside.

* * *

“I’m going to have find out which of fifty-five, intricate codes my father used to lock all the systems down, codes I memorized over sixteen years ago” says I, “not to mention, the ship’s been shut down for over three months. Everything’s at maintenance levels or completely cold. This is going to take some time.

“I’m more than happy to get you the cargo you say my father was hauling for you, I appreciate you not letting me see your face, any of your team’s faces, gives me confidence you’re going to keep your word, and let us loose once you have your items. Just realize it isn’t going to be done quickly.”

“You’re a former Union Marine, right?” Through the combat helmet, his voice comes out fuzzy, almost mechanical… and believe me, that’s a feature of the design, not a flaw.
“Yeah, sixteen years.”

“Good, then you know how to follow orders, and it sounds like you plan on following mine. I think we can work together.”

“Certainly hope so. Shitty way to start retirement, getting dead by being stupid.”

He laughs, and that sounds even more mechanical, as he walks off the bridge, just leaving me, two guards, and my father’s ideas on security.

* * *

Alarms are blaring, every pressure hatch on the Boo has slammed down, I’ve got two guards ready to drive their shock rods through my spinal cord.

“Whoa… gimme a minute!” I shout into the comm. Luckily my father made canceling alerts somewhat less complex. Three switch flips, a lever shifted into the locked ‘neutral’ position, and “This is Sharla Duquesne, sorry Baby Boo, I messed up”.

As the alarm abruptly dies, the pressure doors open up, and my guards relax, I can actually hear their leader over the comm.

“Made a mistake?”

“Yeah.”

“Don’t be too hard on yourself, Captain Duquesne, it has been a long time.”

“Yeah… thanks.”

* * *

My next “fuck-up”, four hours later, has ship-wide communications playing music.

Kiyotinian’s “Fanfare for the Unburied Dead”.

If my people are still alive, they now know it is my firm conviction our captors do not intend for us to live through this. Unmistakable fanfare, only need two bars to be recognized.
We used it in the field as a signal… and a joke… and sometimes something close to a prayer.

I give ’em three bars, just to be sure.

“Sorry, sorry… I think I need a break. Everything’s starting to get blurry.”

“Fair enough,” Head Asshole says. “Take her to one of the cabins, let her get some rest, bring her some food.”

He’s still playing nice. I hope I’m wrong, but I’ve got that crawling skin between my shoulder blades that tells me I’m in deep shit.

I’m escorted in silence down to one of the crew cabins, and I stretch out on the bunk.

I’m pretty sure I’m not wrong. Whatever it is my father was carrying, no matter who it was intended for in the first place, maybe these dicks, maybe someone else, my faceless friend has come too far to risk souring the deal in any way.

The twelve of us are that kind of souring, just waiting to happen.

I fall asleep.

* * *

I wake up to the smell of hot military rations… not quite enough to put you off food forever, but you live on them for long enough, and they will turn you into a rage-filled killing machine for the possibility of real food.

I open my eyes to see the big… whatever it is inside the armor, and a smaller figure – a lot smaller.

“Captain Duquesne,” from the short one, female from the voice, very soft. “Our employer plans on killing you, and your people.” She looks up at the giant. “We didn’t sign on for that. We were hired for specific jobs, and after everything’s said and done, I don’t think we’ll be left alive either. Is there anything you can do?”

“My people still alive?” I mutter, sotto voce, lips barely moving.

“Yes.”

“Are the rest of your team still in their helmets?”

“No, only when dealing with you or your people. It’s to make you feel…”

“I know what it’s for. You two going to be guarding me when I go back to work?”

“No, me and another woman, Nammada. My partner, Cwomba, and I aren’t exactly trusted. I was lucky the two of us got this duty.”

“Okay, when I say “violet”, you stun the fuck out of your fellow guard. Quick. Vicious.”

“Yes, Captain.”

I wolf down my mil-rats. Yum-yum.

* * *

Back at work on the bridge, I start humming, one lullaby after another.

Nammada doesn’t much care for it.

“Lay off the noise, do your job.”

“Sorry,” I reply, giving her my best apologetic look. “Helps me think, and after the screw-ups so far, I figure I need all the help I can get.”

She doesn’t like it at all… but still…
“Fine, just get it done.”

* * *

Free traders run a lot of risks. No big government is happy with traders being too well armed, makes them wonder if we’re making creds on the side via piracy.

And, as that statement should make plain, piracy is an issue.

So if you’re smart, and my father was, you set up lots of ways to deal with intruders, booby-trap kind of ways, and you make sure all your senior crewmen know some of them. No one but your family knows all of them.

And if you’re very paranoid, or very experienced, you have those you trust immune to some of them.

* * *

The twelfth lullaby, “Soong-hai’s Dream”, is the one. I can tell because the indicator I’ve kept an eye glued to since I started humming briefly flashes yellow.

“I think once you’ve got your cargo, and we’re free to go, I’m gonna have the bridge painted violet.”

From the sound of it, my accomplice breaks at least one of Nammada’s short ribs, going up under the edge of the hard shell breastplate… and just keeps shocking her, even after she’s down on the floor doing the Epileptic Twist.

“Down girl, down…” as I get out of my seat. “Pop her helmet, and your own.”

She obeys without a second’s hesitation, which bodes well for our relationship, and I see she’s a Merizian. Very humanoid, tentacles around the mouth and some internal differences, but on the whole, close enough.

She falls to the deck, as unconscious as Nammada.

And it’s time for me to move my ass.

* * *

I’m glad I had my nap.

I have a ship full of sleeping friends, and enemies. I’m going to have to haul the enemies to the brig.

Just me.

But, my comrades and I aren’t going to be killed today, so this is a win.

The only remaining issue are the two guards outside the ship, in their combat armor, with their weapons.

My armor is still in a crate, outside, but luckily there’s a close-enough fit on one of the sleeping assholes, and while the guards outside might wonder why I’m wearing a helmet, if all goes well, they won’t have long to wonder.

I step outside the hatch, and am glad to find they’re wearing their helmets as well… no awkwardness here, I wave, I’m just coming out here to stretch my legs…

The Aspylyre AL-228 assault rifle is a beautiful piece of hardware, but I’m especially fond of its ability to fire armor-piercing Thermix rounds. They tend to cook their target when they hit. When fired at point-blank range… well, the combat armor on the guards didn’t do its job, and the smell of roasted pig fills the air.

As I’m dragging the bodies into the Boo, I take the time to consider the complete and total lack of law enforcement response to the earlier weapons fire. Pretty obvious these guys, in the time they’ve had to prepare, have made some good friends among the locals. We can’t count on any help there.

Which, overall, I’m okay with. Official investigations take time, and I get the feeling whatever my father was hauling for these assholes, I don’t want it found aboard the Boo.

I leave the dead guards to be dealt with later, but the smell convinces me otherwise. I go back, strip them, and into recycling they go. Then it’s time to handle the rest of our former captors, and put them in the brig before they wake up. Not that I have to rush all that much, they should be out for hours, but just in case, I strip them all, and secure their hands behind their backs.

Once that’s done, it’s time to start dragging bodies.

I’m not too gentle about it, and before long, they’re all in Cabin Four, which is what passes for a brig on the Boo. Large cabin, attached toilet, and a very strong door. I unfasten their restraints before locking the door. Well, all of them except the Merizian and her friend, who is a Gennie, it turns out. Human, but genetically modified to the extreme. Frowned upon most places.

Now, I may be immune to the gas that was pumped through the ship, but it does have it’s effect. I was sweating like a pig before I started hauling bodies around. By the time I’m done, I’ve stripped down to my shorts and bra, and smell potently ripe. Thankfully, I see a shower in my future.

I’m sitting in front of a vent that’s blowing cold air full blast when my people start to wake up.

As do, from what I’m hearing over the comm, the assholes locked in Cabin Four.

Kama Jo Jeelei’s the first to find me. Big, friendly islander from Cowava. He’s rubbing his head and grinning at me… which if you don’t know him can cause heart failure – he’s had his teeth surgically replaced with sharn-alloy megalofin teeth. Much smaller than the real things, but not really less frightening.

“Rough day, Cap’n?”

“Yeah, you know the drill, Kama. Shit for breakfast, death for lunch, victory for supper.”

“That last part’s the important one.”

“Fuck yeah. Get the rest of the crew up, put someone on guard on Cabin Four – I don’t think the assholes can get out, but I’ve been wrong before – have whoever follow the yellow floor stripe, that’ll get ’em to the right deck.”

“What are we gonna do to ’em?”

“For the moment, not a damn thing. Oh, and get the Merizian and the Gennie in here, they turned out to be on our side. She’s on the bridge, he’s…”

I hear angry voices from down the corridor.

“He’s in the corridor, Deck Three. He’s awake and some of the crew’s found him. Get down there, double-quick!”

* * *

The Merizian’s Paakie ak Kiggim ak Sanook ak Veffo, and totally okay with being called “Paakie”. The gennie’s name is Cwomba. Just Cwomba. I don’t ask.

He was hired because his specialty is missiles, and he’s big enough to make moving them around easier, given the size of most missile rooms. Paakie was hired because Cwomba refuses to work without a priest or priestess in the crew. That she’s also a communications and computer tech was immaterial to their latest employer.

And, speaking of their former employer, there’s an interesting individual – Shingarp Nelling, former colonel in the Union Marines. I’ve heard of him. Dishonorable discharge, rumored to have been selling Marine equipment to unsavory types who shouldn’t have it.

Put him together with the need for a specialist in missiles, and a crew of twenty hard cases, and I have a burning desire to see this cargo they’re so interested in.

But that’s going to take some doing, because it isn’t in any of the cargo bays, which means… searching the Boo, top to bottom, all the hidey-holes.

Chapter Two

“Cap’n, you better get down here.”

“Where is ‘here’, pray tell?”

“Oh, right… lemme see…”

I waited. McAttin Hensley isn’t the brightest star in the sky, but he’s damned impressive in a fight, with either his two wicked, huge machetes, or any assault rifle ever made… add in a grenade launcher and he’s godsdamned awe-inspiring.

“The hole in between Cargo Bays One and Six…”

“Be there in a few,” I reply.

* * *

“You found the goodies all right, Mac. Somebody get Cwomba down here as well.”

Missiles are generally shipped in long, very well padded containers, as a single unit. This missile, if we’re right about the cargo, has been shipped in five, very big, containers, looks to be six feet by six feet by twelve feet each.

That doesn’t bode well. I’m willing to bet good money one of the crates contains an external rack, to be mounted on the hull, because this thing is so godsdamned big no normal missile tube can handle it.

That means it’s special. If I’m right, it being shipped in four separate containers just adds to the special… like maybe there are components of the missile that shouldn’t be nestled next to each other until they have to be.

We’ve got all five crates into Cargo Bay Six by the time Cwomba arrives – wasn’t much room to examine them in the smuggling compartment. With a flourish, I point him at the crates.

“Not good,” he murmurs. “Large… strange crating…” He examines the crate locks. “Need a code… pretty sure we don’t want to force these…” He turns to me. “Cap’n, get Paakie down here, if you would. Tell her to bring her kit.”

* * *

An hour-and-a-half later, she has the last crate unlocked.

“Captain Duquesne,” she says, “if it’s not too much to ask, I’m going to go find a cabin, and collapse into a sobbing heap now.”

“Sure… but why?”

Paakie looks at her partner, Cwomba, and her mouth tentacles are snapping and whipping about.

“You didn’t tell her!”

Tell me what?” I reply, in ‘command voice’.

“Didn’t really matter,” Cwomba says, looking at the floor.

“Captain,” Paakie says, “the crates were all booby-trapped… and not little booby-traps, either. If I’d fucked up, there would have been a chain reaction between the crates, setting off not only a whole lot of explosives, but the missile warhead itself.”

“And Captain,” Cwomba says, looking into one of the opened crates, “that would have been a calamity on a planetary scale.”

* * *

There are weapons every civilization loudly proclaims they’re not going to stockpile, let alone use in a war. There are plenty of agreements and treaties and covenants declaring the same, all signed with great ceremony and plenty of viddie-cam coverage.

And every interstellar government has their stockpiles of such weapons.

“This is an FOG-7, “Fist Of God”, a planet-cracker produced in the Kingdom of the Chosen,” Cwomba tells us. “Despite what many believe, it will not reach the core of the planet and ignite it. It will, however, get below the crust, into the upper mesosphere, or mantle, and detonate, producing a Phoenix-fusion reaction of indeterminate length. This will, at the very least, blast a significant portion of the planet into space, and the subsequent effects of that will destabilize the planet. It will tear itself apart. The longer the reaction continues, the quicker the planet dies.” He shrugs. “A mercy, really, if it happens quickly.”

Nobody says anything… for quite some time. It’s one thing to know such weapons exist, it’s another to know governments have them locked away “just in case”. It’s something else entirely to have one in front of you, out of a government’s hands.

I hear my people start talking, behind me, and I wonder at that until I realize I’m on my way to Cabin Four.

* * *

“Look, Colonel Nelling, you’re going to tell me who you were buying that for, and where they are. You will, or one of your people will.” I shut off his response, not interested in what he’s saying at the moment, just leaving my channel into the cabin active. “I’m going to resort to torture, but not in the hot irons and pincers sense of the word. If any of you naked assholes want food, I will have my answers. We’ll go check, and if you turn out to be telling the truth… well, I’m not going to lie to you like you did to me, Colonel. You’re going to die. How quickly, how cleanly, is all that’s in question.”

And then I increase the temperature in the cabin a mere ten degrees, and walk away.

* * *

Thirteen of us are sitting in the dining hall, happily full of one of Valavala’s best efforts, Jalliano on guard at the brig.

“So, once the ship is warmed up and on line, I can get us into orbit… if I had to, I could probably land us, but I don’t know shit about astrogation, and only a moderate amount of practical engineering.”

“I thought you grew up on this ship,” Evank says.

“I left when I was eighteen, that was quite a while ago, and no, growing up here or not, my education didn’t include “Everything You Need To Know About Starship Operations 101,” I growl. “Any of you able to do better?”

Shaking heads all around. Marines… we let the Navy deliver us to where we’re supposed to go, and there we become real estate brokers, selling six-by-three-by-three farms.

“All right, I figured that would be the case. Anybody know some ex-Navy pukes who might be looking for work?”

Then the conversation begins, and I lean back and listen, tossing in a suggestion here and there. In spite of inter-branch rivalries, some of them epic, it’s not unusual for Navy and Marine personnel to become friends.

I knew this was coming… the twelve of us weren’t going to be able to fill all the crew requirements for the Boo, at least not at first. But I thought it would be a more leisurely procedure.

Having a cosmic catastrophe in the cargo bay kinda blows leisure out of the water.

While, as the very new and very green Captain of the Baby Boo, I might have put the disposition of my inherited cargo up to a vote with the crew… this was an unusually toxic cargo, and the possible repercussions of whatever we ended up doing with it were all potential disasters.

So I’d discuss it with them, but the final decision was mine.

Turn it in to the government? Which one? The most likely candidate was in the middle of a military coup, and did anybody really need another of these in their arsenals that they totally aren’t keeping “just in case”?
Destroy it? Most attractive option, but dismantling it could turn bad real quick. So, throw it into a sun… some quick research on my part had shown there was a lot of disagreement about the effects of a Phoenix-fusion reaction in a star… enough that no one had felt confident about testing the idea.

Keep it? Don’t be ludicrous. I don’t care how many safeguards the device had, there was no way in the gods’ heavens I was going to fly around with a planet-cracker in my ship… not to mention the nightmare if a customs inspection ever found it. There’s no explanation in the universe that would keep us out of, at best, lifetime imprisonment. At worst… well, there are some very creative descriptions of ‘worst’ out there.

Hide it for emergency use? What if someone finds it?

Best I could think was to fire it off – ideally at the assholes who were trying to procure it, but if not, then at an unoccupied piece of real estate, and run like hell.

I return my attention to the discussion. Looks like we have a nice list of potential crew to contact.

And that’s when the Boo‘s alarms start sounding…

I manage to make it to the bridge without running into too many walls – no matter how convinced I am I can defy the laws of momentum and physics, turns out I can’t – and our new problems are on the viewscreen.

“So, they have friends…”

“Yeah,” Adazin replies, as he comes in behind me. “And they brought toys.”

Group of roughly fifty, in combat armor, and they have a heavy-duty blaster they’re setting up.

Now, the Boo’s made of Union navy hull – all of it, inside and out – but that doesn’t mean she can’t be breached. Her armament is all missiles, useless at this range, and point defense – okay against incoming missiles, but hard-as-hells to target against personnel this close. If we poke our noses out, our opponents will pick us off.

Days like this? They’re why I left the Union Marines.

“All right, we’re going to…”

The blaster starts hammering Airlock Two.

“We’re going to launch, as soon as I get the Boo warmed up.”

“How long…”

“Longer than I like. Get our cargo strapped down good. Adazin, start sending out messages to the people on our list. If I can get us to orbit, we might be safe long enough to get someone on board who can actually pilot this thing.”

“And if we aren’t?”

“Get on the damn comms, and let me worry about all the possible dire fates awaiting us, okay?”

“Yes, Captain!”

* * *

Forty-four minutes later, Airlock Two’s exterior door is pretty much slagged, and we’re ready to launch. Unfortunately, our new friends outside are far enough away that our jets won’t affect them.

“Adazin, ship-wide please?”

“You got it, Captain.”

“Attention… we’re about to launch, and I’m really hoping I remember how to do this. Strap in.”

I sing to myself, one of my father’s favorites…

“All hands, stand by! We’re launching,
“And the lights below us fade.
“All strapped in, cargo secured,
“Fare you well, no debts unpaid.

“Feel her rise, feel her drive!
“Durasteel, come alive,
“To the Void!”

And then the Boo is on her way, and I’m far too busy to sing.

“Captain, I know I’m used to those Navy pukes, but is she supposed to be shaking like this?”

Gods, let Adazin see the look on my face, the tight-lipped grin that says ‘Do Not Fuck With Me’, so I don’t have to claw his heart out, and eat it.

“Never mind…”

Good boy, maybe he’ll live through my first time launching the Boo.

“Hey, is the board supposed to have that many yellow lights?” Paakie asks.

She’s come on the bridge, and she doesn’t know me very well, so I don’t say anything. I’m far too busy trying to figure out why the drive coils are trying to cycle, instead of running steadily.

“Or I could just sit over here, and be quiet.”

She takes a seat at the weapons board, in my peripheral vision. She appears calm. I imagine I look the same way, but am anything but.

“Good idea,” Adazin replies. “Why are you up, and moving around, anyway?”

“Thought someone might want to know to know the prisoners are fighting among themselves. We might want to separate the Colonel before he gets killed…”

“Yeah… have Kama Jo grab some people, and tend to it.”

Why in the nine billion hells of Zynn is reactor three trying to overload?

“Captain, Vaclavel Orbital Control is wondering why we’re launching without filing all the blah, blah, bullshit…”

“Shit ’em right back, and don’t bother me again ’til we’re in orbit!”

There’s a shudder as all the drive coils cycle at once, and we’re thrustless, sixty-four-thousand-some-odd feet off the ground.

Fuck!

I hear Adazin lock the bridge, and mute the comms. Really, no one wants me distracted right now.

It has to be one of my father’s booby-traps… I missed something during warm-up.

I start humming Kentner’s “The Eternal Pirate”, my hands a blur of motion, running through coded sequences… nothing.

Tsyngtsyn’s “Cantaruun Serenade”… still nothing.

Music… almost everything on the Boo was done to music, a passion of both my parents… and, as you can tell, they had a fondness for classical.

Monilaas’s “Solemn Slice of Sky”… Bargabin’s “The Rings of Zeren IV”…

Lullabies at bedtime… and…

I hum that godsdamned Union Navy chantey my father used to sing at the top of his lungs every morning… the words are exceedingly obscene… the drive coils come back online, and I look at my nav board.

Seventeen-thousand-two-hundred-and-thirteen feet above the ground… the Boo trembles, groans, and steadies. She’s beginning to climb.

I spend a moment, almost in tears, quietly cursing and blessing my father… paranoid bastard that he was. I would’ve like to have collected his ashes, but that will have to wait until there aren’t armed assholes on Vaclavel V who want our cargo.

* * *

I see Paakie and Adazin talking together, and then Adazin goes to the sensor station, and Paakie sits down at comms.

“I gather you’re part of our merry band?” I ask.

“If you’ll have us, Captain,” Paakie replies. “Although, if you don’t want us, you might have a time of it getting Cwomba out of your missile room. I’m pretty sure he’s already making it his.”

“Long as you can do the job, you have the job.”

“Captain, we have a ship launching from Maggasin Port. It’s a little early to tell, but if I’m right, they’re heading for us.”

“Paakie, you’re a priestess, right?”

“Yes, Captain Duquesne.”

“Good, you try to figure out why the gods hate me.”

“Will do.”

“While you’re at it, any response from any of the Navy types we reached out to?”

“Not yet, Captain.”

Time to give myself a crash course… poor choice of words… a quick course in starship operations.

* * *

Two nervous hours later…

We’ve been burning away from the planet at full thrust… and it hasn’t made any difference. Their ship is faster. Now, they’re closing very slowly, given our head-start, but closing they are.

I’m wondering why…

“Missile Room… Cwomba, what happens if they hit us with missiles? Will the FOG detonate?”

“Probably not, Captain.”

“So, they shoot the shit out of us, and then recover the missile. Or, if it’s destroyed, they just leave, and no one’s the wiser.”
“It’s what I’d do, Captain.”

“So, we’re going to have a missile duel.”

I briefly consider firing the FOG at them… even a near miss would be fatal… and then everyone in the system would put two and two together, and come up with the Baby Boo had a planet-cracker, and used it.

Save our asses, and make it to the top of the “Shoot On Sight” list of pretty much everyone.
Yeah, a conventional missile duel… a lot riskier, but if we survive it, we won’t be interstellar war criminals.

“Cwomba, tell me we have a full load of missiles.”

“Captain, I can, but I’d be lying.”

“How big of a lie?”

“Pretty big one, Captain. I’ve got five missiles down here, and none of them are top-of-the-line. Pretty much standard load-out for a merchant vessel.”

“And our opponents?”

“Well, Captain, I’m happier to be working for you, but it was a big step down in quality, and quantity, of boom.”

“Any other good news?”

“No, Captain, that’s about it.”

I close the comm channel.

When you’re out-gunned, and out-manned, standard tactical doctrine calls for a strategic withdrawal… which we can’t do.

So, it’s time for Plan B – hide, and then leap out, and fuck ’em in the ass.

Of course, having a truly competent pilot, for what I’ve got planned, would be a big plus.

We’ll just have to make do with me.

* * *

I send Dhorma down to Cabin Four to talk with the majority of our prisoners. If they were beating on Nelling, maybe they want to talk.

“Captain…” says Dhorma over the comm, a half-hour later.

“Yeah.”

“None of them know shit. They’re singing like Omoon Rapture birds, but they don’t know anything worth mentioning. Operational security.

“It really stinks in here… can I lower the temp?”

“Sure, Dhorma, go ahead. Looks like Nelling’s the only one worth talking to.”

* * *

A lot of star systems have asteroid belts, those places where all the garbage left over after you make such a collection of planets gets swept up, and left on the floor, so to speak.

Great places to hide… if you can avoid hitting them. Some parts of such a field are thicker than others, and those make the best places to get out of sight… and the most difficult to fly through.

Y’know, in the viddies, sleek spaceships swoop and soar like birds, graceful and smooth.

Anyone who’s ever piloted a starship will tell you what a load of crap that is. Study mathematics and physics when you’re in school, kids, because in space, that’s what you’ll need. Momentum is a bitch who’s easy to piss off, and she’ll save your ass, or damn it, depending. Eyeballing your course is a quick way to end up screwed, glued, and tattooed – pasted on the side of some rock, or out of fuel, sailing away on a vector nothing will intercept this side of the hells. It’s all equations, friend, and they’re all cold as the Void.

Computers help, and the Boo’s computer is very eager to please, but you have to know what questions to ask, as it were. Sixteen years in service later, trying to remember things I had firmly resolved I’d never need to use again, it’s by the grace of some god or other, and Paakie’s almost continuous, low-volume prayers, we end up nestled up close to a chunk of rock as big as the whole city of Maggasin, everything on board cranked as low as it can go without us dying, minimizing our sensor signature.

All five missiles are in tubes, ready to be launched.

In the viddies, there’s also lasers, and blasters, and odd-ass energy weapons with discharges that violate physical laws, seeking out their targets in an almost intelligent fashion.

I’d give body parts I’m right fond of for such miracle weapons.

The reality of space conflict is missiles… miniature spacecraft that can adjust their course, track their target, speed up, slow down on rare occasions, throw out electronic-counter-measures… anything else, centuries of experimentation have shown to be just wastes of energy.

Now, when missiles get close, point-defense systems can take their best shot at blowing them out of the Void… but even military-grade point-defense systems are, individually, hit-or-miss. The advantage a real military vessel has is a lot of point-defense mounts.

Point-defense mounts… we have eight, in two bands of four, fore and aft.

Missiles… we got five of ’em. Cwomba estimates our opponent has at least forty.

Cold equations. It’s all cold, godsdamned equations.

* * *

We’re breathing shallow, no real choice in the matter at this point, and my new comms specialist is wasting her breath on prayers.

I don’t say anything. In spite of my firm belief the gods hate me – a recent belief, by the way, since sixteen years of dirty jobs in dirty places had me pretty convinced I led a semi-charmed life – her murmuring is comforting, and I’m the first to admit I could be wrong. The gods might not all hate me, and despite my many sins, my crew deserves every break they can get.

Worst case scenario – our enemies find us from far enough away to lay off, and pound us into scrap. It’s what I’m expecting. I admit, we’re not that easy to spot, snuggled up against an iron and nickle mountain in space, running as silent as we can, but if their sensors are the military-grade masterpieces I’m thinking they are, we’re far from invisible. They come in, banging away with active sensors, they’ll find us, almost guaranteed.

Best case scenario – they have to get close to scan the surface of these rocks, and they come close enough to us we can launch our pitiful handful of missiles on an effective zero-time intercept. They slam into these assholes, and it’s all too much too quick, the ship blows the hells up, and we wait until we can actually get a real pilot and navigator aboard to move us out of here.

If our opponents are concerned about officials on Vaclavel asking questions about who they’re hunting down out here, and why, we may catch a break.

But I don’t think any of us are betting on it.

* * *

If they come close, actively looking for us, we’re going to hear them long before they have a chance to find us, so I go take a shower.

A long shower.

Sinfully long.

I look around my father’s cabin… it’s still as Mother left it. He never had the heart to redecorate. The only place that’s identifiably his is the large roll-top desk. It’s a nightmare of record chips, and bits of junk from a hundred worlds, all shoved willy-nilly into the cubbyholes, the only clear space a small area before his interface with the ship’s computer.

The rest of the room is… well, not stark, but clean, efficiently laid out. Nothing cluttered… I’d almost call it elegantly plain.

“Baby Boo, play back the log, starting with the entry before the last cargo contract.”

Father’s voice fills the cabin, and I pretend I don’t notice the tears running down my cheeks.

“Log… what’s the damn date? Fine, enter that… Union Core World Bixaz. I’m considering a blind contract, and that alone let’s me know how crazy I am. Vealm assures me it’s on the up and up, but Vealm’s been a lying sack of zephyr farts for as long as I’ve known him. He’s calling in a favor, and I do owe him.”

“Baby Boo, skip to next entry, skip log date, get to the meat of the entry.”

“Five crates, odd design. I’m to keep them separate, and ‘do my best to conceal them’. Not the first damn time I’ve smuggled cargo. I’ve been watching the port notices to find some other cargo to fill the holds – not for financial reasons. The initial payment on this shipment is quite large.

“It just irks me to fly with completely empty holds… in case of inspection, it looks odd, as well, and I get the feeling I don’t want to get caught with whatever this cargo is. But I’m tired of waiting around, we’ll launch for Vaclavel tomorrow evening. I want this over with.”

Even reflecting his irritation, my father’s voice soothes me… and I’m really tired.

“Boo, pause log, I’ll finish listening later. I’m heading to the bridge.”

My father’s chair on the bridge… he knew there would be times he’d have to spend a lot of time in it, so it’s very comfortable. Add earbuds, soothing music, and it’s a decent place to sleep.

I settle in, put the headphones on, cue up Deva Fried’s “As The Stars Go Dark”, and am thankful once again to the Corps.

Courtesy of the Union Marines, I can sleep anywhere, anytime.

* * *

The music stops, and Paakie’s voice is filling my ears.

“Captain Duquesne, they’re coming.”

I snort, pulling out my buds.

“How long was I out?”

“Twelve-and-a-half hours, give or take,” Miet Duklow replies.

She’s from Core World Paujo, but not the parts you’d ever visit. There’s nothing she can’t drive, and not many atmo-craft she can’t pilot. The Corp merely refined, and slightly expanded, her skills in that area, as well as in the art of killing. She learned most of what she knows running the streets of Otino, Paujo’s administrative capital. Miet’s small, lean, and tough as Mire-Razor leather.

“What has you on the bridge?”

“Somebody needed to keep Adazin’s seat warm while he catches some sleep.”

“How far out are they, Paakie?”

“At the edge of our sensor range, but I thought you should know.”

“Coming in loud?”

“No, Captain. They’re using active sensors, but seem to be restraining their… enthusiasm. So far, they look for all the Void like they’re just trying to avoid the sky-rocks.”

“Vaclavel System Patrol must have an eye on them. Good to know.”
“Valavala’s been cooking, should I have something brought up for you?”

“No, I’ll hit the mess. Thank you. Call me if anything changes.”

* * *

As I’ve said before, Valavala is a marvel in the kitchen, and what she was serving in the mess was no exception. Father didn’t skimp on supplies, except in cases of extreme poverty, and that hadn’t been the case before his death.

Fresh greens and fruit from the ship’s hydroponic gardens, meat that once stood on its own legs beneath some planet’s sun, instead of a carniculture vat… and real bread! I was shoveling it in with both hands, and wondering if I can manage to use my feet as well, when the comm squawked.

“Captain, incoming news report! Shall I pipe it to the mess?”

“Yeah, go ahead.”

“… just in, Union world Isiixa, third planet in the Vogi system, has been destroyed. Transmissions from orbital facilities show the continent of Tepal splitting in half, and a chunk of approximately 300,000 square miles flying into space. The planet continued to disintegrate afterward. Contact with the orbital facilities ended some thirty-three minutes later, and they are believed destroyed by planetary rubble. The estimated death toll at this time is approximately nine-and-a-half billion.”

Then the talking head disappeared, and the footage begins to play.

Food is forgotten. I don’t think any of us doubts exactly what we’re seeing, because coincidences this huge don’t happen. Someone has used something very much like our unwanted cargo on an inhabited world. I faintly smell one of my people vomiting, and I want to as well, but I don’t. My whole universe is focused on the sight of a planet destroying itself. I know there’s audio with the images, but all I can hear is the pounding of the blood in my ears.

Kill one person, you’re a murderer; kill millions, you’re a conqueror; kill everyone, you’re a god.

There’s a god somewhere I want to slice, up close and personal, breath in the smell of its viscera, wear its blood as face paint, listen to its last confession.

Someone’s shaking me, and I look up to see Symi Bohan, shouting something in my face.

Symi’s a cyborg, still more flesh than machine, but so intricately bonded with her weapons she’s incomplete without them in her hands. It was very hard for her to leave the service, and those weapons, behind. Between her right eye, and a good sniper rifle, I’ve seen her make shots I would’ve sworn were impossible before I met her.

I watch her shouting, the lower right side of her face not moving as it should, a mass of scar tissue she refuses to have fixed for some reason, and I think of all the joy she misses, not seeing her targets die close up. Her optics, from however far out, aren’t the same as seeing the light die in their eyes maybe a foot from your face. It’s sad, and I think of crying, and then what she’s saying makes it to my brain.

“Isiixa’s fuck-near on the border between the Kingdom, and the Union! I had family there! Those Chosen bastards…”

“Where’d we put that shithead, Nelling?”

She’s still yelling, but command voice cuts through that like a knife.

Valavala says, “Cabin Eight!”

And I’m gone.

* * *

I blow past Torakech Jurom, our other cyborg in this happy band. He’s on guard outside Cabin Eight, and he’s served with me long enough to know he shouldn’t ask questions, let alone get in my way. He could stop me, easily. We call him ‘The Wall’ for good reason. He and Dhorma handle our heavy weapons, and he makes her look kind of small.

On the trip down, I’ve gained enough control, barely, to speak before I start beating Nelling to a bloody pulp.

“Nelling, someone just blew up Isiixa. You don’t have much time to start talking before I lose it all over your slimy ass.”

“Captain…”

“And I warn you, it’s not time for dissembling, or falsehoods. If I don’t get the truth, and damn fast, I’m going to let Symi talk to you. She had family on Isiixa…”

It’s hard to maintain your dignity when you’re naked, but Nelling was making a good show of it until I said that.

“I suppose I thought the odds were infinitesimal you’d have someone in your crew who had relations on Isiixa… but given the Corps’ make-up, primarily from the border worlds, the odds weren’t as long as I’d thought.”

“No… now talk.”

I watch him think things out. He’s bound to talk, sooner or later. He’s gone rogue, working for enemies of the Union for money. Profit won’t stand up to interrogation like idealism, or patriotism. I hold that as an article of faith.

So my mouth wants to fall open at his reply.

“Let her have me then. I won’t be talking, either to lie, or speak the truth.”

I’m a fair judge of people – it comes with the job – and I’m thinking he’s serious.

I’m a split second from starting on him myself, when I’m called to the bridge.

* * *

“Vaclavel called its boats back, Captain. Soon as they got turned around, our bogey started banging away with active sensors overtime.”

“You got any prayers for something like this, Paakie?”

“Yes, Captain, but I’m busy…” Her voice breaks. “The Isiixa dead…”

“Understood. If you can, slip a couple in for us.”

I slump in the chair, and wish I allowed smoking on board. I want a stimstic so bad…

“Paakie, how soon ’til they find us?”

“Highest probability, sixteen minutes, more or less.”

Not the first time my people and I have been in this degree of shit, but while I’m pretty damn good at field ops, this isn’t a field op… it’s the Void, and I’m in a ship I haven’t set foot in for sixteen years, and never as Captain.

“Who’s pretending to be engineer for the moment?”

“Evank’s down there,” Miet replies. “He figures he’s got as good a shot as anyone.”

I hit the comm.

“Evank, how good are our grapples?”

“You’re asking me? It’s your damn ship!”

“I’m going to kick your ass, Roschz!”

“All right, all right… if I’m reading this correctly, we get within three-thousand yards, we’re locked on like a leech.”

“Thank you…” I switch to the missile room.

“Cwomba, blast radius of the FOG if it detonates in space?”

“With nothing but Void to stop it? Call it… two, three hundred miles, at least. Never really had to think about that before.”

“It’s your day for something new. Set up a dead-man detonator for the FOG, bring it to the bridge.”

I tune out my bridge crew for the moment, thankful my father wasn’t above salvage work, which necessitates grapples. My plan is crazy… stupid-crazy maybe… but if I can get close enough, we’ll be locked together.

Whether they board us, or we board them, that is my kind of fight.

Chapter Three

Nineteen minutes ’til grapple range…

There are things combat trains you to handle. Little things, like knowing your plan will go to shit within minutes, if not seconds, of contact with the enemy. All intelligence is suspect unless you gathered it yourself, and yes, even then, be prepared for that intelligence to be wrong. In the moment, no cause is more important than the people you’re fighting beside.

Uncertainty. That’s a big one. Coming to terms with all you don’t know, hell, the wealth of things you don’t realize you don’t know.

Are their sensors better, or worse, than we think they are? Plot a fast intercept course, or build in some maneuvering to maybe evade some missiles, before we get in range?

Best to do things quickly… or, at least, that’s the interception course I plotted. Courtesy of their banging away with their active sensors, no doubt at all exactly where they are, and watching them over time, where they’re headed.

Launch… nineteen minutes until we can grab them, eighteen minutes until we’re close enough to blow them up with us.

Sixteen minutes ’til grapple range…

Well, they know we’re here, and there’s no mistaking our course. Full throttle is hard to hide.

I’m wearing my ‘gonna kill’ grin. I know how my face feels when I grin that way… that feeling and I are old friends.

Now’s sweating time…

I wish I didn’t enjoy this feeling… lots of institutionalized training teaches us how to deal with the trauma and stress of what we do, and there’s even some to help those of us who do enjoy aspects of it.

Still, it’s disconcerting to realize you look forward to the conflict. For whatever reasons, you yearn, on some level, for battle.

On the face of it, seeking combat is insane… it’s also the most real competition anyone will ever face. To pit yourself, your skills, your very existence against others who are looking to end you.

I wonder what Paakie would say about it? I’d ask her, but this isn’t exactly the time.

Fourteen minutes ’til grapple range…

I feel like I should be playing music… but what piece… what mood?

I cue up Mojaqua’s “Symphony No. 11 in E minor, “Rage and Regret””. It surges through the ship, while I deactivate the dead man’s switch long enough to get into combat armor, and seal it up. CA’s not a space suit, but it can function as such for a period of time, depending on how it’s kitted out. It’s less efficient than a spacesuit, but also the hells of a lot less likely to get a hole punched in it by hostile strangers.

There’s something about “Rage and Regret” that’s always fired up my, and a lot of other people’s, adrenaline, while bringing a stillness to our minds. It’s a big favorite among the Marines, often gets piped in during combat drops.

Ten minutes ’til grapple range…

“Captain…”

Paakie, on a private channel…

“Yes…”

“The fifth book of Mala, chapter 31, verses 18-24:

“For compassion is a wondrous mystery, complex and deep in its ways.

“If a sentient is bound to do evil, and further corrupt their soul,
“Is it not best then to free them from their bondage to that evil, showing also compassion to those they endanger?

“In the heart of the humble and righteous, the path may not be clear,

“And the fog of doubt may be oppressive,

“But in their heart, in the still and silent depths,

“Their course will be set true, and righteous, in My eyes.”

I’m startled when she moves up beside me, and I feel her gloved hand touch my helmet, and draw some kind of sign.

“Cheer up, Captain. We may die, but we’re where we need to be, doing what we need to do.”

I nod, and, although they probably shouldn’t, her words comfort me.

Eight minutes ’til grapple range…

“Incoming missiles, three minutes ‘til interception! Eighteen on screen!”

Adazin’s voice is excited, not fearful. I wish I could believe he knows something I don’t.

Given the state of our electronics, I’m not surprised we didn’t see them ‘til now. If we live through this, I really need to upgrade those.

Eighteen incoming… wonder if there will be a second wave?

I realize I’ve gotten spoiled, dealing with proper military craft. We’re asking the Boo to perform beyond her design. She’s an extra-large Free Trader, made with engine to spare, and naval hull armor throughout, but she’s still so very civilian.

“Record… I need to adapt the Boo, as best I can, to be a military/civilian hybrid. I doubt this will be our last combat. If we survive it.

“Stop record.”

Seven minutes ’til grapple range…

The Boo turns, we’re on the same course, they’re slowing… I’m calmer than I thought I’d be.

Either that, or I’m completely deranged.

Both seem equally likely at the moment.

Five minutes ’til grapple range…

“Hull punctured, Cargo Bays One and Three! Bulkhead seals holding!”

The Boo’s still shuddering when my pre-recorded message is broadcast to our target, and gets there much sooner than our pitiful five missile volley.

“Hey, assholes, I’m Captain Sharla Duquesne, of the Free Trader Baby Boo. We’ve got your package. We’re about to be real up close and personal with you, and my hand’s on a dead-man switch, connected to the Kingdom of the Chosen FOG-7 you’re so interested in. Once we’re within four hundred miles of your vessel, I wouldn’t shoot at us anymore, or things might get… messy.

“We’ll be boarding you soon, and then we can handle this the old-fashioned, Union Marine Corps way. We’re looking forward to it.”

The recording sounds more confident than I feel.

Two minutes ’til grapple range…

None of our missiles made it through their point-defense. Not a surprise, given the civilian quality of our missiles. Disappointing nonetheless.

I don’t think I’ll ever travel without a priestess again… we’re on target, and will intersect our target within grapple range… which to be brutally frank, I didn’t really expect us to manage. I expected us to be dead long before now.

“Roschz, full power to the grapples the second we’re in range.”

“Yes, Captain.”

Three thousand yards sounds like a long distance, until it doesn’t, and you realize just how empty the Void is.

Now, I can spend maybe a whole minute worrying about whether the grapples will hold, should our opponents try to break away.

Grapple range…

Something known to raise eyebrows among those not conversant with the realities of space travel is grouping the inertial dampening system of a spacecraft with ‘life support systems’. They’re together for good reason, just trust me. You don’t take inertia out of the equation? We’re all bava jam, smeared liberally over the Boo’s interior.

We still feel it when we’re hit, or when we hit something else, though.

Which isn’t necessarily a good thing…

“Full power on the grapples, Captain, we’re closing… awfully fast.”

“Evank, what the hell?”

“Prepare for impact, Captain!”

The Boo slams into our opponents, and Roschz is babbling something on the comms while I get up close and personal with the pilot’s console… very carefully holding the detonator away from the impact. It would be a real disappointment to blow us up accidentally.

Combat armor… it doesn’t stop you from feeling it when you get hit, either.

I finally make sense of Roschz’s babbling.

“We grappled each other, Captain! Don’t know about you, but I wasn’t planning on that! We smacked ’em good. From what I can tell, we caved in one of their fuel compartments, it’s boiling off something fierce, no loss of pressure in the Boo…”

“So we’ve already got a way in. Prepare to board!”

You may have given her a stupid name, Father, but you built her tough.

* * *

So, I could wait on the bridge, holding the dead man’s switch, while my people assaulted the ship… yeah, not gonna happen.

They look to be flying a Calbrian corvette variant. Think of what’s essentially a flattened cylinder, shaft down the middle, corridors on the port and starboard edges, eight cross corridors, bridge forward, engineering aft. Fast, lean, mean… but not real durable. It would be Bad to use serious weaponry inside a hull like that… one of the reasons Marines are experts in hand-to-hand weapons.

Of course, that’s assuming we give a shit about the state of the ship when we’re through.

Still, hitting something vital, and dangerous, is always a risk.

So, hand-to-hand it is.

I want to go in spraying death in all directions. Sometimes, the Universe just doesn’t let me have any fun.

* * *

“Blow breaching charges!”
Through my boots, I feel the explosions. There’s a rolling vibration, and I wear my predatory smile in anticipation.

A moment as the atmosphere blows out… and then in go the ‘Shock and Awe’s. Our opponents have cut the ship’s internal gravity… because they’re idiots and think that’s going to discombobulate Marines… so the ‘SA’s roll along the floor, walls, and ceiling, just enough of a magnetic charge to grip, looking for someone to surprise.

Now, they’re not disruptive if your gear knows they’re coming, or rather, what flavor of them is coming. For us to know, for these assholes to…

There’s a glowing violet lightning storm just around the curve of the corridor from us, and several figures stagger into view.

… find out.

Pilpre zou Hehuse takes full advantage of the lack of gravity, and is bouncing down the corridor, going from floor to ceiling to wall in an acrobatic ballet of bad-ass. She’s from Thorbas Station, a little mining colony in the asteroid belt around Jezo. Pilpre has a belter’s dislike of gravity – spends only as much time in it as she has to, or needs to for health reasons. She was born with a wrench in her hand, and really prefers going into hand-to-hand combat with a plasma cutting torch, firing it up right before impact, shutting it off the second it’s no longer needed. She used to claim it was fuel considerations, but after we ran across some mercs with heat-seeking rounds, she admitted the truth. A torch draws a lot of attention… but she is devastating with it.

Pilpre cooks one, damn near slices the next one in half. There’s armor out there resistant to what a torch can do… these assholes are not wearing it.

Come to think of it, neither are we. Glad she’s on our side.

I’m close behind her, almost to the intersection, more ‘SA’s going off further down the curve, Pilpre’s targeting another crewman, when her intended victim turns. He, I’m assuming from the armor it’s a ‘he’, drives three feet of vibroblade toward her, pinning her to the corridor wall through her gut.

He’s still focused on her… bad idea, because my sword is halfway through his neck before he realizes the threat.

And my sword gets stuck.

Not in his spine, the blade’s just pinched by his armor. I think of one of the advantages of vibro-weapons. They don’t get stuck, ever.

And I won’t use them. Even though I agree it’s psychosomatic, they always feel unsure to me, as if they’re going to vibrate right out of my hands.

I’m braced, one foot on the wall, the other holding his helmet to the same wall. His body is wedged between my knees, and I’m trying to ‘open the pincers’ keeping my blade in him.

Kama Jo goes sailing by, riding what I’m pretty sure by now is a corpse. He’s disemboweling his makeshift raft with Makaana, his favorite chain-knife.

Messy, but Kama Jo’s never been one to shy away from slinging the red stuff.

“Sorry…”

I hear Valavala’s apology before one of her knives dings off my armor. If she’d been trying, it would have found a joint, or other weak spot, and done damage. I pull my blade free, and turn to see her dancing with someone as fond of zero-g as Pilpre… and even smaller, and more lithe.

It’s real pretty, I’d love to watch, but four more assholes, coming down the intersecting corridor. McAttin goes shooting by, machetes out, already shedding little floating globules of blood, and I follow him. I hit the first oncoming enemy high, using my first strike to pivot, and lock boots on the wall, as McAttin jams his machetes into the back of the knees of the rear two.

Once I’m steady on the wall, it’s butcher’s work. My target goes down, and the last one moves in a spastic fashion. Scared, would be my guess. I paint the walls with his blood.

It’s obvious our opponents have had nothing more than basic training in zero-g combat. They make stupid mistakes, and none of their attacks reflect muscle memory.

I’m in the middle of demonstrating to one of them the folly of ‘lift weapon overhead for mighty two-handed chop’ – he’s losing blood, and oxygen, from both his armpits – when it occurs to me… I recognize the training these people received. It is basic… Union Navy basic training.

Now, Union Navy combat training is pretty elementary, as Union Navy vessels don’t go anywhere without a full complement of Marines, and our happy Naval brethren rely on us to win, and to do so every single time we engage an enemy. They have reason to feel so confident in us… the Union Marines have never lost a ship-to-ship encounter, although any honest student of our battle history will tell you some of those were exceedingly narrow victories… fuck-near Pyrrhic in a couple of cases.

The practical upshot is the average member of the Union Navy is more trained to stay out of the Marines’ way than to be competent at combat themselves. Some OS’s receive further, more advanced, combat training, but most don’t.

It’s evident to me we’re fighting former Union Navy personnel… at least, I assume they’re ‘former’…

I glance back to see Paakie, attached to the forward assault as a med-tech, hauling Pilpre back to the Boo. Cwomba’s serving roughly the same function in the aft assault group, since neither of them are familiar with our tactics. Given time, that will change…

We’ve been keeping off the comms, they can be distracting, but I need an update.

“Hack team, report…”

“We’re in, fully infiltrated. She’s the Vigtellia, Yarkan registry, and she’s locked down. They can’t even open doors without our say-so.”

“Aft team, report…”

“Light to moderate resistance. We hold central shaft, but haven’t made it into engineering yet, cutting through the door.”

Got what I need. I disengage my boots, and launch toward the central shaft, facing forward.

A fusillade of projectiles greets my appearance. Guess these assholes have decided the integrity of their ship isn’t as important as killing us.

Luckily, I’m moving fast.

Not quite fast enough.

There’s a sharp sting in my right calf, a hissing in my combat armor, and I’m on the other side of the shaft, clumsily maneuvering to get my left boot down, and locked on the wall, while I futilely try to get my right leg to behave itself. Oh, the upper leg is doing its job, but from the knee down, I’m having issues.

The armor seals itself, auto-injects me with painkillers, and shock inhibitors. I’m happy I won’t have to deal with the effects until later.

But the bill will come due. It always does.

“Valavala, you ready?”

“Yes, Captain.”

“Two gel rounds, straight up the shaft.”

I don’t need to tell her any more than that. She’ll do the calculations, the first round will go deep before detonating, the second will pop just inside their defenses.

“Starting distraction.”

I sail back across the shaft, slower this time, drawing their fire. I’m lucky… a round ricochets off my chest armor, another two ping off my abdominal armor. Not lucky at all, one buries itself in my left thigh. Both legs are out of commission, and Kama Jo grabs me on the other side of the shaft, stopping the spin imparted by the rounds, puts me on the floor. I lock on, feeling more drugs pump into my system.

While I was doing my aerial routine, Valavala popped around the corner, fired off her gel rounds, and got back in cover before they had a chance to react.

Prekesim Crowd Control Systems Model 112-B Rounds… we call ’em ‘gels’ for short, because when they detonate, they put out a lot of amber gel that expands to fill a ten meter by ten meter area. The gel is porous, allowing those enshrouded to breathe, so you can, theoretically, use it safely on crowds in atmosphere. Accidents happen.

Here, that’s not really an issue, because everybody’s suited up. So, as long as we get to them before their oxygen runs out, they’ll be fine. It’s a fair bet we’ll have to get to them in time, because the big amber plug we just fired is between us, and the bridge.

“Captain, one of us could’ve acted as bait…” Kama Jo says.

“And ruin my fun? Bite me…”

He grinned that megalofin-smile of his.

“Right, no biting.”

I grab hold of his belt, and unlock my boots. Not exactly dignified, but anybody who’s served with me knows dignity isn’t exactly my strong suit.

“Get me to Paakie, then you start breaking them loose.”

* * *

Of course, I have no intention of going to medbay just yet. Still way too many variables in the equation. I have Paakie drag me to the bridge, and ignore her strenuous objections.

“Miet, you’re relieved. Get the hells out of my chair.”

I figured our driver was the best substitute pilot I could manage.

She’s halfway off the bridge, going for her gear, before I can blink.

“Get out of here, Paakie. I’ll be fine.”
She’s muttering prayers, or curses, as she obeys. I carefully don’t listen closely enough to tell which.

All the seats on the bridge can accommodate space suits, as well as combat armor… not comfortably, mind you. I wedge myself in, strap up just in case I have to do something really foolish, and wish like hells I could smoke in the suit. A stimstic would help me ride coming down off the adrenaline rush of combat – I’d really hate to have to handle the controls right now.

So, once the hacking team – Adazin and Symi – finished hacking in and securing the ship, they were to search the ship, loaded up with SA’s to throw in to the spaces first, and not worrying about taking anyone alive if they were still a threat after that.

See, the problem is… it’s harder than you might think to kill yourself, and your crew, no matter how fanatical you are, no matter what orders you’re under. Even if they were facing five thousand of us, most intelligent life would fight to defend itself. There does, however, come a point where the ‘fight-on/kill-ourselves’ ratio flips the other way.

And it’s downright discouraging how often Captains think ahead, and prepare a little something for that final eventuality.

Of course, my people know this. It’s far from our first such picnic.

If Adazin and Symi find anything, we have a chance of surviving whatever nasty little surprise our enemy has left for us. If they don’t, and there is such a surprise, well, we’ll probably all be dead before we know everything’s gone to shit. If there’s no such surprise, well, it’s cake and rum for one and all.

Yeah, this is why the Union Marine Corps paid us the serious cred… for truly pitifully small values of ‘serious’.

“Engine room secure, Captain. None of us are too banged up. No surprises.”

Good news. I start to relax a little.

Which is my invitation to the Universe to fuck up my day.

“Captain, suspicious device, storage compartment, sharing a wall with the upper-aft fuel compartment…”

Oops.

“How suspicious?”

“We’re already heading back to the Boo.”

All crew, scamper home!” I bellow over the comms.

* * *

De-assing from a ship that could blow up at any moment… well, in training, you run drills, you practice endlessly, or it seems like it, and you do so in all seriousness, because any DI worth their stripes can make blowing up feel like the lesser of two evils.

The reason for all the practice for a part of your job that will take up only a minute fraction of your service life is simple.

In the moment, already wired with adrenaline, facing a death you can’t delay, it’s easy for such an evacuation to become a rout, a clusterfuck of epic proportions. People can get jammed up in doors, hells, in corridors even. They can become disoriented, forget the way out, and if they truly lose their shit, they become a danger not only to themselves, but to everybody.

So you drill. You practice evacuating everywhere in your particular training facility. You de-ass from the mess hall, your classrooms, your quarters, the head… and evacuating mid-shit is every bit as disgusting as it sounds.

One time we woke up to the alarms, and the order to evacuate the base itself… we thought it was going to be easy, until we found out the DI’s had put up barricades, serious ‘lock-you-up’ traps, and every other sort of nastiness their evil genius could come up with, in everyone’s way. And I do mean, everyone. Part of the joy of that particular exercise was the evac was “base-wide”. So we were dealing with hordes of people that weren’t trained for this at all. Their job was just to get in our way, and not get trampled.

Fun times. Only four of my class got out before the exercise ended. I wasn’t one of them.

However, to our credit, all of my class was still ‘free’, and moving toward the exits, when things were called to a halt.

No, it wasn’t much comfort… especially not while ‘the dead’ were pulling extra duty the entire next week.

And then, after more evacs, when you feel like you’re ten feet tall, and covered with fur… you get to run drills in zero-g.

It’s even less fun than it sounds.

So, while I’m prepping the Boo to leave, I’m hoping my people don’t forget any of that.

* * *

“Last man, in the docking tube, all present and accounted for!”

I’m spinning the Boo starboard, checking my proposed course for obstacles, and very slowly throttling the engines up before Dhorma finishes her report. Can’t move too quickly… no inertial dampening in the tube.

“All aboard, hatch sealed!”

As I’m going full throttle, the Vigtellia explodes.

There’s a reason I turned the Boo’s engines toward the Vigtellia… engine exhaust has a tendency to melt pretty much anything exposed to it. And while said exhaust isn’t flaring enough to handle all the debris… we’re getting hit with a lot of essentially harmless crap… I figured it might be enough to shield us from any serious damage.

I like it when I guess correctly.

As Engine Three cuts out… I realize perhaps I didn’t guess quite as well as I thought.

“Evank, you in engineering yet?”

“On my way, Captain… gimme a few.”

“We’re well away from the blast, you got as much time as you need… so long as it’s not more than two minutes. Something’s wrong with my ship!”

“On it.”

In reality, as long as nothing else goes sideways, we’re going to be okay. I hope.

Slowly, as we continue to power away from the blast, a semblance of a bridge crew assembles.

“Paakie, Adazin and Symi got a download of the Vigtellia computer’s data. Get to work on it. Some of it, probably the parts we really want to see, will be encrypted.”

“It is on my list, Captain. Question – are we out of danger?”

“We are indeed.”

“Fine, as acting medical officer, I’m remanding you to medbay. Cwomba, come on, let’s help her.”

I could argue the point… but she’s right. I check again that we’re on course to get out of the belt without hitting anything. I shut down the engines – the ones that are still operational – and allow myself to be escorted… very slowly, and very clumsily… to medbay.

* * *

I don’t like having any appendage in a thera-sleeve. I appreciate rapid tissue regeneration, and all the trimmings, but godsdamn, the itching is nigh intolerable.

Having both legs in thera-sleeves?

If she hadn’t let me get clean first, I would have been forced to have Paakie thrown out the airlock… which would have been a shame, as I’m really starting to like her.

As it is, I’m clean… and I really wish blocking nerve impulses from my legs wasn’t counterproductive to the sleeves’ functioning. I… Want… To… Scratch!

And the pain killers and shock inhibitors start to wear off, which means I am maybe five minutes from crashing hard.

“Paakie, I need to keep going for a while longer.”

“Captain…”

“I need, not want, to.”

“Fine, but I’m sedating you when all is said and done.”

“Not a problem.”

Now that I’ve been dosed with even more drugs…

“Evank!”

“Yes, Captain… best I can tell without suiting up and going outside, something severed the fuel feed to Number Three… there was no build-up of back pressure, and we were continuing to lose fuel until I shut it off completely.”

“Thanks, Evank… as calamities go, it’s not a big one.”

“Not a problem… of course, you do remember, I only vaguely know what I’m doing?”

“So long as you remember neither do I.”

“Aren’t we a pair?”

Adazin calls from the bridge.

“Captain, we have confirmation from three of the people Jalliano reached out to concerning crew positions. They’re interested, and should be arriving in an hour or so.”

“Thank the gods.”

Funny thing about interstellar communication – it moves exactly as fast as interstellar travel… because ships have to carry it. A lot of such traffic is handled by small courier craft whose crews spend one shift out of three, said shifts lasting anywhere from a month to six months, simply going back and forth between points A and B. They pick up news and message traffic, store it in a tamper-proof data cylinder, transmit it as soon as they come out of jump. Then, without going too far in-system, they load up outgoing traffic, and jump back. Not an exciting life, but they make a good living, from what I hear.

So, not such a surprise the news of these three’s interest arrived not long before they will… I’d guess they were on some sort of station out around the jump limit in whatever system they were in. Would explain why they were able to make their own jump so quickly.

So long as we can come to some arrangement with them, even if only a short term contract, we can actually get out of Vaclavel. And if we can’t… well, we’re only obligated to cover the cost of their transit to and from. While that would mean more waiting around, that’s not going to be too onerous… a few of us have some healing to do, Paakie needs time to crack the Vigtellia’s data, and I’d enjoy some time to relax…

“Captain, Vaclavel System Patrol wants to know what happened out here. They have a ship inbound to ask us a few questions.”

So much for relaxation…

Luckily, Vaclavel isn’t controlled by some backwards warlord who believes in taking everyone’s last credit. The Engvar Empire owns the system. They have some pretty oddball import-export regulations, but otherwise, the Engvar are relatively easy to deal with. I’m not expecting any serious issues with the local cops.

It’s just going to be rather long, and tedious.

Godsdamn it, I itch

* * *

Three-and-a-half very tedious hours later…

I didn’t get arrested, and the Boo wasn’t impounded. That’s the good news.

They examined our data records, bridge recordings, and armor camera footage. We were all interviewed on camera, under verificators – not foolproof, but reasonably close to it – and after all that… the locals decided we’d acted within the law, acted in self defense, and were free to go.

As soon as we paid a ‘minor fine’ for creating a navigational hazard.

One-hundred-and-fifty-thousand credits.

Or, put another way, about two-thirds of our remaining joint funds.

I protested. Rather vigorously. According to several onlookers, I was extremely close to getting arrested, and the Boo impounded.

So, one of our newest crew members acted properly, in the best interests of the crew, the ship, and her Captain.

Paakie sedated me… from behind… an ambush… and then proceeded to smooth the waters, arranged the credit transfer, and sent the locals on their merry way.

She’s hiding on the ship somewhere… has to be… and when I find her, I’m gonna show her some sedation!

* * *

Fifteen minutes of frustration later…

Okay, perhaps trying to search a large ship with my legs in thera-sleeves isn’t my brightest idea ever. And I’m calmer now. She kept me from making things worse.

Dealing with police when I’m coming off combat, and itching my fool legs off… probably not the best idea. Need to get around to figuring out who my First Officer is before too much longer.

On the bright side, our new candidates for pilot, navigator, and engineer are in-system, and making their way to link up with us.

Only another three days in the thera-sleeves.

I’m in one of the more-irritating-than-torturous hells of Zynn… and if it isn’t one of her nine billion hells, it should be.

I make my way to my cabin, because I really need to lie down.

* * *

Four hours of much needed sleep later…

“Captain to Airlock Three, time to meet the crew candidates.”

I open my eyes. I’m in my bunk, face down in my pillow. Okay, sleeping in the sleeves isn’t impossible. I’ve had to relearn that lesson every single time I’ve had to wear them… and, given that Union Marines are somewhat accurately referred to as ‘bullet magnets’, I’ve worn them on one part of my body or another far more times than I want to count.

Of course, Paakie’s sedative helped.

She’s been here… there are a pair of crutches by the door. This will be entertaining.

I make my way to the airlock, wondering what the Void has brought us.

Dhorma and Torakech are standing by.

“Figure I might need some backup?”

“Well, Captain,” Dhorma says, “I know these three… they’re all ex-navy – not Union Navy, mind you, but swabbos are swabbos, no matter where they served. I gotta make sure they don’t sell you no bill of goods.”

“And you, Torakech?”

“I’m just here to intimidate pukes from some damn Navy or other.”

“Well, unless Dhorma indicates otherwise, play nice with them. We need them.”

“Aye aye, Captain.”

We open up the lock, and in walks two humans, and a Takkan.

“Captain,” Dhorma says, “allow me to introduce pilot Mechoch Jouni, navigator Fardinio Vo, and engineer Larkama Fsont. Swabbos, this is Captain Sharla Duquesne. Play nice.”

“Not a problem, Dhorma darlin’,” Mechoch says. He’s trouble, top to bottom, side to side. Tall, handsome, wiry like some fine racing animal, and his charm’s palpable. Just my type, well, one of my types, and therefore, trouble.

Vo is somewhat the same physically, except… well, at some point, the poor man fell from the top of the ‘ugly-as-a-bucket-of-zephyrs’ tree, and hit every branch on the way down.

Fsont’s a huge lizard, mottled shades of green and brown. I am rather impressed by the number of scars he’s showing. Tough to kill. That bodes well if he’s going to sign on with us.

We go to the mess, and talk.

* * *

Two hours later, we have three new crew members, and I start breathing a little easier. Mechoch and Fardinio are settling in to the bridge, and Larkama has proclaimed engineering “acccceptible”.

I check in with Paakie, working on the Vigtellia’s data in the mess.

“Out of idle curiosity, where were you hiding?”

“Hiding, Captain? I’m quite sure I don’t know what you’re referring to. I merely found a quiet, out of the way niche to work on breaking this encryption. I’ve reached a point where it’s proceeding well enough I’ve moved back here to continue.

“And if I had been hiding, Captain, which I most assuredly wasn’t, why in the name of Mala’s mercy would I reveal my hiding spot?”

“Valid point. At some future time, consider telling me. If it’s somewhere I’m not already aware of, we may have use of it some day. How goes the work?”

“It goes… maybe an hour, maybe a month, maybe never – best we can hope for, with modern encryption… and this is very modern, Captain. If I wanted to guess, I’d say it’s contemporary, or almost so, UNI encryption.”

“How sure are you it’s Union Naval Intelligence?”

“Sure as I can be without cracking it… and if I’m right, the likelihood of me cracking it is… well, not good.”

“I understand. Keep at it.”

“May not need to, at least, not to find out where they were taking the FOG-7…”

“Oh, do tell…”

Vigtellia’s nav data is encrypted, at least, they encrypted all of it they knew about. Calbrian designs feature a redundancy of black boxes in case of mishap, and they record everything. Symi pulled data from everywhere, and I found two of the black boxes’ data. They match up, and the Vigtellia made multiple trips to a spot in the Thumo system. I figure it might be worth a look.”

I nod, and hobble my way toward the bridge. Time to set course for the Thumo system… deep in Union space.

Chapter Four

Paakie holds two services for the Isiixa dead in Cargo Bay Two, so those on duty during the first could make the second.

I attend both, as does Symi Bohan. I figured the watch rotation can do without us for a while.

I’ll give our new priestess this – she believes, and that belief has a power to it. Paakie invokes the gods, and a sense of comfort descends over us.

“The dead have not left us, nor we them,” she intones. “They are with us, always. While they have moved beyond the need for justice, existing now in the afterlife, we remain here, and we demand justice, not for them, but for ourselves.

“Such a horror as this is an offense that cannot be borne. For this atrocity to go unanswered corrupts us, our souls, and who among us can feel right, living in a universe where those guilty of this go unpunished?

“The dead have entered their reward, or their punishment. They no longer care.

“But we must.”

* * *

I wish I could say her services calmed, as well as comforted, but I can’t.

No calm for us, no calm for the majority of the Union’s military.

There are rules in everything, even war. No soldier worth a cup of piss sanctions the unnecessary killing of civilians.

It happens, all too often, but any sane commander plans operations so it’s minimized. Every civilian killed creates a multitude of enemies, and understandably so.

“Sorry, they were in the wrong place at the wrong time” doesn’t excuse anything.

But when an entire planet is destroyed without provocation, when no state of war exists?

That’s an obscenity.

In the aftermath, there weren’t any terrorist organizations stupid enough to claim credit. Everyone knows the full force of the Union military is going to land on whoever is responsible, and nobody wants to invite that shit-storm.

So the Union’s moving forces to the star systems bordering the Kingdom. No surprise there.

What has been surprising, with every news report coming in, is the Kingdom’s response.

They are most decidedly not moving their fleet to the border. Forces are gathering, certainly, but they’re remaining several systems back. The Kingdom’s broadcasting far and wide their intention to hold their forces away from the border systems, to avoid any unfortunate accidents.

They’re also claiming they weren’t involved in the attack on Isiixa. They acknowledge the theft of four FOG-7’s – a good thing, since spectrographic analysis of the blast positively identifies the weapon used as one of theirs – but deny any involvement.

Nobody’s asking why they didn’t mention any theft before now. Remember, nobody is supposed to have this type of weapon, period.

I find that number, that specificity, telling. They could have masked it, used ‘several’, instead of ‘four’.

They want the Union to know there are three others out there. And we have one of them, leaving two unaccounted for.

Not comforting in the least.

But, for the moment, the peace is holding. Of course, no one’s making any bones about the fact if there’s another such ‘incident’, the Union Navy is crossing into Kingdom space.

* * *

Do you want a life of non-stop excitement?

Don’t choose any profession involving space travel. The process of getting clear of a planetary system’s gravity wells – completely clear for optimal safety – is a long slog. You can speed it up, a little, at the price of expensive fuel. No matter what, it’s still going to be a while.

Or, you can just boost at a fuel-efficient speed, and have lots of time on your hands.

This is why people who travel inter-system cultivate hobbies… or they go a little crazy. Of course, some of us with hobbies… let’s not think too hard on ‘a little crazy’, okay?

Me, I study history. Started out, rather predictably for a Marine, with military history. Pretty soon I realized I wanted the whole story, and that involved widening my focus. I spent five years focusing on Terran history. It’s a story of narrow odds, with a healthy dose of stupidity. The Sakaarian Concordat, the Machine Plague, the Clomtzin War… our species has been almost unbelievably lucky.

Then I moved on to the histories of the major interstellar players.

But I digress… we develop hobbies. And we had plenty of time to enjoy them, boosting out of Vaclavel.

After an eternity of eternities, or three days to anyone else, I got the thera-sleeves off. First thing, took a long, hot shower, and felt worlds better. I could finally scratch. And no longer needed to.

Good thing most of the crew is used to me. They didn’t find my loud scream of pure frustration all that alarming, and were quick to explain things to the newbies.

I scratched just for the hells of it, until the skin on my legs was close to raw.

* * *

In honor of our new priestess, I’m working my way through ak Bellion’s “History of the Merizian Peoples” – not a light and frothy read. Figure it will keep me busy for a while. Twenty-six volumes… but I can’t read all the time.

Work on cracking the Vigtellia’s data goes on… and on… and on. Doesn’t surprise me. Paakie warned me, and yeah, if it’s UNI encryption… well, maybe knowing where they were visiting so often will be enough.

I’m making every possible effort to avoid being alone, or even too close, to Mechoch. It’s been too long since I last had my ashes hauled, and, unless I’ve lost all ability to read someone, he’s the kind of man who’s happy to engage in friendly exercise at the drop of any attractive person’s hat.

I’m not beautiful by any stretch of the imagination, but I don’t make zephyrs retch either. I figure I’d qualify for his interest… and our interactions so far have proven me right.

At this point, knowing me, we’re going to make the sign of the double-backed Wikronian sand-ray… I’m just worried I’ll end up making a fool of myself.

Wouldn’t be the first time, probably won’t be the last. This, too, is something most of my crew’s been through with me before. Last time, we were garrisoned on Cloouphid. Dhorma had to carry me away, kicking and screaming. See, it’s generally considered bad form for a Union Marine officer to beat a civilian to death.

While I’m generally a very open-minded person, you don’t throw a party in my bedroom, on my bed, with two other women, and a very skilled hermaphroditic Yarkan, without inviting me.

Makes me testy…

* * *

In general, we have a peaceful trip out to the jump limit. Father left the Boo in good order, thankfully, and that means a delightfully boring trip.

Our new engineer, Larkama, suits up and takes a look at Engine Three.

If you’ve never seen a Takkan in combat armor… well, it’s almost as scary as one of Kama Jo’s smiles. Takkans believe in spikes, lots of them, and sharp edges just where they can be used to devastating advantage.

Which is why Larkama isn’t wearing combat armor, but rather a spacesuit he cobbled together, when he goes out to make repairs. Best not to damage anything else while he’s out there.

Sure enough, severed fuel line, not a hard fix. He prints out a replacement, fits it in place, and performs a test, Engine Three lights right off, everything well within acceptable ranges.

* * *

Finally, I get the long-awaited call…

“Captain to the bridge. We are clear to jump.”

In reality, I have absolutely no need to be there. Fardinio knows where we’re going – hell, he’s had three-and-a-half weeks to plot the jump – but, right, wrong, or indifferent, my father was a firm believer in the Captain being on the bridge during a jump, no matter what hour it occurred. I quite often saw him get up out of a sound sleep, grab some gaav from the mess on the way to the bridge, sit down, initiate jump. The Boo would come out of jump, he’d leave his half-drunk gaav for later, and he’d go back to his cabin, be asleep in minutes.

I settle in to the chair.

“Attention, crew, prepare to jump! Vo, get us to the Thumo system!”

The entire universe turns inside-out. Us with it. If you’ve never made a jump, trust me. You won’t enjoy it… although sleeping through it helps make it more bearable. You just wake up a little dis-oriented. Probably shouldn’t try to walk for ten minutes or so. I know. I’ve tried.

Jumping while awake? My skin is the only part of me that doesn’t hurt, because swear to the gods, everything inside of me is flopping around outside that skin, being beaten on by malignant, chain-sword-wielding zephyrs, who spray acid with every breath. The skin is safe and sound. It’s a small measure of comfort.

And then the Universe once again feels like it should, and the bridge crew is looking at each other like we’re coming off a two-week bender.

“Anybody anywhere close?”

“Negative, Captain. Sensors are clear.”

“Fine, aim us within ninety million miles of Vigtellia’s home-away-from-home, Fardinio – minimum thrust, shut down when we reach ten-thousand miles per second.”

My brain still feels like it’s spasming as I head for the mess.

* * *

We have a plan… which sometimes feels like the exception rather than the rule.

We came in outside Thumo’s jump limit, just in case we had to jump out again immediately. Now comes the dull part. Slowly, subtly, accelerate to a decent speed, shut down, and become a hole in space. We’ll be passing close enough to wherever Vigtellia visited to see it, and hear it. We gather data, drift on past, and once we’re well away… we slowly decelerate, turn, and go back in. If things are as I suspect they are, we’ll be launching the FOG-7 at their base once we’re back up to speed on our second pass. Give it just enough thrust, then shut it down, let it go in ballistic. That way it’ll have maneuvering fuel left, should it need it when it gets close to its target.

Figure three month’s travel across the system, another one to two months back in, then boom.

After that… we’ll see.

It’s a long-ass trip… but the dead of Isiixa are worth it.

* * *

Five butt-numbing weeks later…

The lack of news is making us all more than a little crazy. Nobody’s jumping into this system to broadcast anything. Good choice for a place to hide.

By now, the Union and Kingdom could be at war. Hells, they could have brought out their stockpiles of weapons like the FOG-7, and trillions of people could be dead. I hope nobody’s that stupid, that insane… but you never can tell.

“Captain…” Paakie says, “I think I’ve found them.”

I restrain myself from leaping out of the chair.

“What do you have?”

“Hot spot where there shouldn’t be one. Loud energy signature coming out of Thumo’s asteroid belt.”

“Keep watching. How close will we get?”

“Current course,” Fardinio Vo replies, “closer than I’d thought. Within fifty million miles. Close enough to get a real good look.”

“Fine…”

There’s no disguising how tired I am, how tired we all are. Hobbies are all fine and good, but I’m going to have to come up with some kind of competition to keep us sharp. Doing nothing is wearing us out.

“Keep me updated. As you were.”

* * *

One intellectually draining week later…

When you’re in the Corps, you always have plenty to do. If you’re merely enlisted personnel, there is a cadre of non-coms who make it their personal mission in life to ensure you are not bored. Yea verily, there is always some job that has yet to be done to the ranking non-com’s satisfaction.

If you’re a non-com, well then, you have a full schedule, keeping the lives of your charges interesting.

And if you’re a commissioned officer, your ass gets fat dealing with more paperwork than any sentient should ever have to deal with, in triplicate, until the end of the universe, amen.

Now, it seems I get to be officer and non-com, father and mother, to this ship full of lunatics.

Luckily, having worked my way up from a grunt, through the non-com ranks, and becoming an officer, I have some ideas.

Even as a sergeant, I hated the ‘nothing is ever clean enough’ mentality. I preferred to have my people doing something useful – hells, anything useful. So the traditional brass polishing shit isn’t going to happen. Normal maintenance is clean enough.

I discuss it with former-lieutenant Roschz and former-sergeants Mamstead and Duklow, and we come up with a plan.

I’ve begun scheduling hand-to-hand and blade practice in the gym… in addition to some more unusual practices.

Thus was the first ship-wide soft weapons melee begun.

First off, let’s be clear – ‘soft’ is a relative term. Some of the weapons we fabricate are rather rigid. All of the weapons have sensors used in keeping score.

Sensitive areas of the ship are off-limits, and since on-duty personnel will be in those sensitive areas, no problem there.

But otherwise, for four hours every day, all bets are off.

* * *

First time I got taken out, it was sailing up the central core toward the bridge. Symi comes hurtling out of a shadow, full-bore, and ‘slices’ me in half, before disappearing back into the ship.

I pay her back next day. Get her while she’s lying in wait for someone to come by. So many people fail to look up, and mag pads are a wonderful thing. Drop on her, cut her four times before she knows what hit her.

There is a massive battle in the core, an absolute brawl in zero-g. I give as good as I get, but in a combat like that… well, nobody comes out unscathed, and most of us ‘die’ multiple times.

Weekly winners will get to decide the dessert menu for the next week.

It may not be much, but it’ll keeping us from going out of our minds, and it’s good exercise.

* * *

Two energetic weeks later…

“So, large base, a refitted Vingin cruiser, two more Calbrian corvettes…”

“And they’re doing the same as us, Captain. Listening, and keeping their emissions low. Unfortunately for them, that base glows in multiple spectra,” Adazin says, looking at the main screen.

“How sure are we these are the same assholes as the Vigtellia?”

“If they’re not,” Mechoch replies, “it’s the Universe’s greatest coincidence, them being here, using the same type of ships as the Vigtellia.”

“Fine, let’s leave ourselves a wide margin of safety, but figure out when we can reverse course, and start our run.”

“Yes, Captain.”

* * *

I’m sitting in the mess, mug of gaav in hand, when Jalliano Mamstead answers my summons.

“Jalliano, I need to bounce some ideas off you.”

He grabs a mug full, and joins me.

“Okay, Captain, shoot,” he says.

“Those assholes in the brig… all of them, including Colonel Nelling, have had any tattoos that might indicate military service removed. The crew of the Vigtellia fought like Union Navy swabs. The data is protected with what’s almost certainly UNI encryption. Tell me I shouldn’t be thinking what I’m thinking…”

Mamstead has been my de facto intelligence officer for a long time.

“Can’t, Captain. Seems to me, too many coincidences to write off. Whoever is smuggling these planet-crackers, and using them, has strong ties to the Corps, and UNI. We know Nelling’s a former Marine.”

I let out my breath. I’d been hoping he could give me another interpretation.

“All right… so it’s a rogue group of Naval and Marine personnel.”

“I agree,” he replies. “I can see how enough officers were upset at the state of things to launch the coup, but the vast majority of them wouldn’t tolerate this insanity.”

“No shit… can you imagine Bizout’s reaction to this? She’d chew her way to their hearts, then take a shit in the hole she left.”

“I agree… and there’s no one else I’d send all this to, once we’re through,” Jalliano says. “If the cancer can be rooted out, she’s the one to do it.”

“Fine… glad we’ve been keeping records of everything.”

I stare down into the dregs in my mug.

“You realize this is going to make us some enemies in the Union?”

“Yeah, Captain,” he grins, “but they’ll be the right kind of enemies. And we’ll also gain some of the right kind of friends.”

“True enough. So, we take care of this little infestation here, and then send everything off to Bizout, let it be her problem.”

I get up, head to my cabin.

The one thing he and I didn’t discuss, the thing I doubt any of us will discuss, is using the FOG-7 on the base. Not the kind of thing I see us discussing.

It is what it is.

It’s godsdamned ugly.

* * *

One month later, starting on our way back toward the base…

We’re a lot closer to the base than I’m comfortable with when we alter course, and loop around. Still, we’re pretty sure they won’t detect us.

If they do, life will once again get interesting.

I doubt I’ll stop worrying about it.

The bridge crew is watching as Larkama and Cwomba install the FOG-7 launch assembly on the Boo’s hull.

Evank is running dry tests of the launch linkage from engineering, while the two of them wait outside to repair the launcher, in case it doesn’t work.

Turns out they’re not needed. The launcher test is successful, first time, no problem.

So far, so good.

If all goes as planned, in another eight hours, I’ll give the order, and commit a crime against humanity.

* * *

This kind of thing? Way above my pay grade. I took courses on command decisions, and how to deal with making tough ones… this is beyond those. I know it shouldn’t be – size doesn’t matter in the realm of moral and ethical dilemmas, the death of one, or a hundred, or a thousand… it’s all the same. Some of Paakie’s gods agree.

Of course, others of them advocate practices that would give a psychopath pause.

But the reality of the situation is, size does make a difference.

I don’t know how many people are in that base, aboard those ships. I don’t know if there are non-combatants there. No way to find out short of sacrificing ourselves on a recon mission… and by the time we found out? We’d be dead, or damn close to it, and no way to act on our intel. That’s if we even got close enough to board. I’m sure those corvettes could blow us out of space, never have to bother the cruiser at all. The cruiser would be over-kill.

The point is, I have no idea who I’m killing, or how many. I know nothing, other than a near-certitude some of them, at least, are very bad people.

Then there’s my dislike of killing with the push of a button, millions of miles away. By the gods, if I’m going to kill someone… well, I want to be able to see them. Sometimes I want to see them from a good distance away, sometimes much closer, but to distance yourself from the lives you take… it strikes me as a little obscene.

But there is so much obscenity in our current situation.

Isiixa.

Never went there, never had any urge to, either. You see one border world, you’ve seen them all. While it might have had a large population, its location meant a significant portion of those were military.

I mourn them… but they knew the job was dangerous when they took it.

The civilians? Living where they did, they knew the possibility of violence was ever-present. The number of large military bases made it even more likely, should the diplomats kludge-fuck things up again.

But the violence they expected was orbital bombardment, invasion, occupation… not the complete obliteration of their world in less than a half hour.

I put on Colvanis’ “Dawn’s Variations”, and allow myself time to weep.

* * *

Before my tears are exhausted, there’s a tentative knock at my door.

I dry my eyes.

“Come…”

I’m not surprised it’s our new priestess.

“What can I do for you, Paakie? Have a seat.”

As there’s no other chair in the cabin other than the one I’m in, she sits on the edge of the bed.
“Captain… look, I don’t know you very well, so I’m on very unsure footing here.”

“Don’t worry, I don’t bite… often.”

She smiles, and the tentacles around her mouth stop twitching so nervously, settling into a slow ripple.

“I noticed you were at both services… and I’d be blind not to see you’re conflicted about loosing hells upon our target.”

“Yeah. So?”

“If you… need… someone to talk to… I’ve been told I’m a pretty good listener.”

I smile.

The last Marine chaplain I served with used to tell me the same thing.

“I don’t know, Paakie. I’m usually pretty self-sufficient, as far as command decisions.”

She raises an eyebrow… almost too cute for words.

“But?”

I say, “How does anyone with a… a soul, or even a conscience, make a decision like this?

“If we had a fleet, and enough assault squads to take on however many combatants they might have holed up in that asteroid… I wouldn’t hesitate. I’d be at the front of the attack myself, and let the chips fall where they might.

“But this… they won’t have a chance, Paakie. Larkama has altered the FOG to detonate shortly after impact… damn thing would’ve passed through that rock like a bullet otherwise, depth it was set to blow at.

“It’s not war… it’s not combat… I mean war is institutionalized murder, but this is just murder, plain and simple.”

“Yes, it is, Captain.”

“That’s all you’ve got to say?”

“What do you want, Captain? You don’t strike me as the type to need your feelings massaged. It is what it is. You have every reason to believe, and some pretty damning circumstantial evidence to indicate, these are at least some of the people involved in the Isiixa tragedy.

“Capturing them? Putting them on trial? Impractical. Perhaps if you contacted the Union Navy, and convinced them to investigate, things would work out that way.”

“Paakie, we don’t know where those other two FOGs are…”

“Yes, exactly… we don’t know. They may be on that asteroid. They may be en route to their targets. For all the time we’ve been here, they may have already been used.

“But, if there’s the slightest chance they’re in that base, or aboard one of those ships…”

“We have to treat the gun as if it’s loaded.”

“Exactly, Captain. And there’s no one you can toss this haga-fruit to. You… we… are left to juggle it alone. That means you do what you can. The Universe placed you here, with the means to resolve the issue.”

“Paakie, sometimes your idea of the Universe sounds a lot like blind chance.”

“It may well be, Captain. A question for you…”

“Go ahead.”

“I believe the gods speak to, and through, me. Assuming I’m right, how do you think they do that?”

I think about it for a moment. Not something I ever really considered. On some level, I’m pretty sure Paakie’s communication with the gods is all in her head. On the other hand… I’ve been wrong about a lot of things in my life.

“I don’t know, Paakie. How do they communicate with you?”

She chuckles.

“You’d call it a ‘gut feeling’. Part of my training was learning to trust my intuition. Now, a lot of that training was practice in weeding out self-deception, and the shadows cast by my own desires. More meditation than even I enjoy… and that’s saying something, as I find it a necessary, and welcome, part of everyday life.

“It was learning to take myself out of the way, to identify what is me, and what is beyond me. I know you have no way to verify any of this, but if you can trust me, do so.

“Sometimes, Captain, random chance is all that’s involved. When that’s the case, I identify it as such. But in my experience, it’s a lot less common than rational thinking would indicate. The gods are real, and what appears as coincidences are one of their favorite ways to act. They’re subtle. No bolts of lightning from the sky, no great parting of the clouds… just the right people, at the right place, at the right time, with the right tools.

“Then it’s left up to those people to choose. To do what is right, or not.”

I look in her eyes for some time, I have no idea how long.

While I’m taking in the way the dark, sapphire blue toward the center fades out to a pale, ice blue at the edges, my brain’s churning away.

I finally arrive at an answer, and blink.

“It will be murder, no matter whether they’re involved or not.”

“Yes, Captain.”

“And I’m… well, not okay with it… but I can accept that.”

“So, you know what you’re going to do, and you’re at peace with the decision?”

“Yeah…”

She gets up, grinning.

“My work here is done, Captain… unless you have any questions? Anything else you’d like to discuss?”

“No, Paakie. Nothing else. Thank you.”

“No problem, Captain. It’s part of my job.”

She’s out the door, and I’m left wondering if my service life would have been smoother, had I availed myself of talking with the chaplains I served with.

* * *

“Five… four… three… two… one… FOG away!”

It goes smoothly – somewhat surprising to me, given the makeshift feel of the launch assembly – and I realize I’m not the only one on the bridge letting out a held breath.

Vo figures a little over thirteen days transit time until it’s close enough to the base to be detected. Lot of room for error in that estimation, though. We’ll see how it works out.

“Mechoch, you have the bridge… I’m heading for the gym, see if I can wear myself out.”

* * *

I end up running, instead of using the bag, or any of the other more violent exercise options.

My father wasn’t a runner, never understood the attraction. My mother, on the other hand… well, she’s the reason the external corridors are extra-wide, and have a lane marked toward the outside edge.

I’m generally not much of a runner either, but there is a blessed mindlessness to it for me. I can find the same ‘zone’ in other forms of exercise, even sex… perhaps most especially sex… but they’re harder to reach.

It leaves the majority of my mind free… in this case for murderer’s math.

Crew requirements… the corvettes can be run by as few as fifteen, but there was no shortage of personnel aboard the Vigtellia… wild-ass-guesstimate, call it forty per corvette. Minimum crew for the cruiser… around fifty, let’s call it seventy-five. Running total, one-hundred-and-fifty-five.

The base? No real clue, but let’s assume adequate support personnel for those three ships, plus the Vigtellia… forty, conservative estimate, give it seventy for the hells of it. Running total, two-hundred-and-twenty-five.

Never know for sure, but there’s no real need. I’m murdering enough people, no matter what the numbers really are.

Nine-and-a-half billion on Isiixa… won’t bother speculating on whether either of the other two FOGs have been used, nine-and-a-half billion is more than enough. Two-hundred-and-twenty-five, compared to nine-and-a-half billion.

If I’m right… if we’re right… the fuckers I’m going to send to the hells are getting off easy.

I run for quite some time.

* * *

Fourteen days, and some-odd hours, later…

The FOG’s gone active, later than expected. It’s maneuvering to evade. Vo says eleven minutes to impact, more or less, dependent on how much evasion it has to perform. That’s if it makes it through their counter-fire at all.

I’ve pretty much been living on the bridge the last two days, save for trips to the head, and the shower. My crew has been very vocally appreciative of those shower trips.

They’ve had less kind things to say about my ‘drooling while asleep’ issue.

Their comments have given me cause to use a phrase from ancient history… ‘rum, sodomy, and the lash’.

There are people in my crew who find none of those a threat, which doesn’t even raise my eyebrow.

I am curious if Mechoch thinks he’d be giving, rather than receiving, that kind of treatment though… I’m hoping I have the good sense to avoid resolving the question.

Evank brings up a pot of gaav, which has him very temporarily nominated for deification.

My mug is huge. It’s one Vandra bought for our father on some world or other. She hand-painted “Best Captain in the Universe” on the side. Not sure my father deserved that title. I’m damn sure I don’t, but it holds half a pot, no problem, which at the moment, is all I really care about.

Maybe some day, I’ll be as good a captain as my father.

My eyes are so tired I have to concentrate to bring the viewscreen into focus. I promise myself once this is over, I’m going to my cabin, and sleep for at least twenty hours.

The minutes keep ticking by, and our missile stays alive. Evidently, we caught them napping.

We’re close enough to have a decent view of the base, and the ships. They’re starting to pull away, but it’s far too little, far too late.

I don’t know what I was expecting… perhaps something close to the footage of Isiixa’s death, but all I get is an explosion. It’s a really big one, to be sure.

One moment, everything’s there.

The next, an expanding globe of plasma, crimson and amethyst.

We watch as it keeps growing, slowly fading, until there’s nothing left of it.

“Damn, Captain, we blowed it up good,” Vo says. “Roughly twenty-five-hundred mile diameter blast.”

“Yeah, Fardinio, we blowed it up good. Mechoch, get us to the jump limit, best time. Set course for anywhere that isn’t Union space.”

I’m off the bridge, heading for my bed, before I get a good whiff of myself.

Fear-sweat. I reek of it.

Shower first. Then bed.

* * *

Eighteen blissfully restful days later…

We make the jump to Cappadov, in Dianeth space.

Once we’re there, we get the welcome news neither of the other FOGs has been used yet. Tensions remain very high on the Union’s border with the Kingdom of the Chosen, which doesn’t surprise any of us.

“Paakie, send everything we’ve got to Colonel Oframa Bizout, Union Marine Command, Vadanius. Tell her we have prisoners, including Colonel Nelling. Ask if she wants them.”

I haven’t bothered to try questioning any of them, after my last meeting with Nelling, and Dhorma’s interrogation of the rest of them. Thought about it more than a few times though. Lots of tools on a starship that can be used in creative ways on a prisoner.

I’ve resisted the urge, more for my own sake than theirs. I’ve already risked enough of my soul in this business.

* * *

Five working weeks later…

We took a job delivering farm equipment from Cappadov to Elpinok, a Dianeth colony world. It’s far closer to an actual, by-gods milk run than I ever expected to see. The colony’s far too new to have anything that would attract pirates.

We’re on our way back out of the system when a small freighter jumps in, and starts calling for us.

I have Paakie open a channel.

“This is Captain Duquesne of the Baby Boo. You looking for me?”

Suddenly, the channel closes, and we’re getting hailed on another frequency, generally reserved for military traffic. Paakie switches over.

“Yeah, this is still me, how can I help you?”

“Uh, Captain Duquesne?”

“Lemme check… yes, yes indeed, I’m still me. Whaddaya want?

“I’m Colonel Famantii, Union Naval Intelligence. We’re here to take some cargo off your hands… certain individuals? You asked if Major General Bizout wanted them?”

“Well, she’s had a nice promotion, hasn’t she? Sure, you show me the proper authorization, they’re all yours.”

“Can do, Captain. Shall we dock with you, or vice-versa?”

“We’ll dock with you.”

* * *

I expected Famantii to be a little engine of spit, polish, and brown-nosing. Pleasantly surprised to be wrong.

He looks remarkably close to the cliche of a small freighter captain. Good thirty, forty pounds overweight, disheveled, and curse him to the hells, a stimstic in the side of his mouth.

“Here’s your necessaries, Captain Duquesne,” he says, handing me a memory crystal. I plug it into my pad, and look it over. Everything’s where it should be, with one odd exception… a personal note from Bizout.

“Captain Duquesne,

“Very glad I didn’t throw you and yours into a hole.
“Enjoy the pretties.

“Bizout”

I lower my pad.

“She references… pretties?”

He grins.

“Yeah, need you to open up one of your cargo bays, and prepare to receive some… pretties.”

I trust Bizout. Him I don’t know.

What pretties?

“Forty top-of-the-line Union Navy ship-killing, widow-making missiles… VT-488’s, to be exact.”

“Oh, that lovely, lovely woman.”

“I’ll make sure I pass that observation on, Captain.”

* * *

Four remarkably normal, cargo-hauling months later…

Okay, moving freight’s about as exciting as I remember, that is to say, not very. Given the whole FOG-7 business, I’m okay with that, and so are the crew. There have been a few mumblings of boredom, here and there, and after we finish this contract, I figure we’ll go donate some time pulling refugees off Ovamak. They’re in the middle of a nasty invasion by the Vingin Empire, and Interstellar Aid is asking for volunteers to run the blockade.

We’re close to Takka III’s jump limit, when we get hailed by a Union Navy courier.

“Major Pabstone, UNI, delivery for Captain Sharla Duquesne.”

We dock, and he’s more what I expected from a UNI wienie. Jet black UNI dress uniform, thin lips, sharp features. Looks at Dhorma and me like we’re oozing sores. Officious little shit hands me a credstick, a memory crystal, and is off the Boo before his nose can un-scrunch.

“Duquesne,

“I will find it in my heart to forgive your comment to Colonel Famantii, so long as nothing of the sort is ever uttered before witnesses again.

“There has been a very quiet purge of anyone involved in the Isiixa incident. Within a month or so, both sides will begin drawing back from the border. Privately, the Kingdom has been informed of the traitors and their plans. Now it is all political face-saving.

“Still no trace of the other two FOGs. We cracked Nelling, but he hadn’t been read in on any of the devices but the one he was to transport. The higher-ups are whistling in the dark, and hoping the missing planet-crackers went up with the base you destroyed. I am not giving up the search, but it is going dark. I trust you will let me know if you hear anything.

“Enclosed are directions for resupplying your VT-488’s, a Level Ten clearance for your ship and crew, a retroactive Union Letter of Marque to make everything legal, and your bounty on the destroyed ships.

“Do try to stay out of trouble. Don’t make me regret this.
“Bizout”

Level Ten clearance… that’s handy. We can go anywhere in the Union without question. No customs inspections, security checks… we’re effectively untouchable.

Unless that clearance is revoked. Which it will be if we fuck up.

I scan down past the resupply, and Letter.

And sit down, rather suddenly, right there in the corridor.

“Prize monies, ten percent of estimated value, destruction of four enemy vessels, and base.

“Three Calbrian corvettes: 20 million each, for a total of 60 million credits
“One Vingin cruiser: 60 million, for a total of 60 million credits

“Asteroid base, valued at best estimation of support capacity: 128 million credits, for a total of 128 million credits

“Value of credstick remitted with this reckoning: 248 million Union credits”

Dhorma and Cwomba were my escorts to the meeting with Pabstone… they’re talking to me, and it’s making no sense at all. Right now everything in the Universe is gibberish, except the figures on the screen.

Maybe a vacation to upgrade the Boo, after we run that blockade for Interstellar Aid a couple of times…

Always with thanks, and credit, to Robert A. Heinlein

Jim Reader, when sufficiently fueled by coffee, will write (almost) any genre you want, and has been told he generally turns out a good read. He’s been published in several anthologies, and self-published two works, all of which are, or soon will be, listed on his webpage at www.jimreader.net.