Some Old, Awful Writing

Some Old, Awful Writing

Once in awhile, it’s a good idea to look back and see how far you’ve come. Or fallen, depending on your perspective. Recently I was going through an old external hard drive with years of nested folders named “Stuff”, “Old Desktop” and other unhelpful descriptors. I found some samples of things I’d written long ago, back when if I was going to lie about my age I’d have increased the number, not decreased it. It’s embarrassing how bad some of it is. But for all that, I still have a soft spot for some of these early attempts, and I thought I’d post a few here for the amusement of any actual human who might get lost and come along, head-hopping, grammar and formatting errors and all included. Hold on, it’s gonna get cringey, as the kids say these days.


Untitled Violent Scene


The air was so thick with tension it could be cut with the diamond-edged knife Chico held against Anne’s bare throat. Neither Eric nor Ed had planned for this eventuality. Just goes to show that no plan is perfect. For several minutes there they all stood, unsure of what was going to happen next. Chico and Mario’s chopper was late, it seemed, because they didn’t make any attempt to get away. They just…waited.

Fortune, that day, it turned out, came in the form of a pile of shit, literally. An overhead bird, doubtless some rare and endangered species of tropical parrot, relieved itself directly above the spot where Mario was standing. For all the appearance of a tough guy, Mario proved himself intrinsically squeamish when the whitish mass impacted on his head, diffusing into his thick, dark curls. For the smallest fraction of a second, he was concerned with nothing other than ridding his oh-so-perfect hair of the disgusting goo. That fraction was more than enough for Ed to lash out with lightening speed and snatch the gun that Mario had trained on him. Not naturally a killer, Ed waited until Mario recovered from his traumatic aviary-fecal episode and automatically went for the backup gun that Eric already knew was there before double-tapping Mario’s head out of existence.

Not missing a beat, Eric recovered the backup gun before Mario’s headless body hit the ground, and no sooner had Chico’s cocaine-infested mind registered what had happened than he found two semiautomatic pistols aimed squarely at him. Damn, Eric thought, so that’s what Eddie’s been studying at VMI. “Let her go! DO IT NOW!!!” Eric screamed, hoping to capitalize on Chico’s shock. Apparently, real thugs don’t quite have the resolve of the movie versions, since as soon as he roared that last NOW, Chico dropped the knife, more startled than anything else. Anne immediately jumped away, revealing the smallest trickle of blood just starting to make its way down her neck. That was enough to send Eric over the edge. Almost.

“So, where’s your ride, Chico? Your boss isn’t being his usual punctual self today?” To which Chico only spat, “Que te jodan, hijo de puta!

“Oh, well that isn’t very nice, is it Eddie?” Eric asked in an alarmingly calm tone.

“Um, no, it isn’t. Don’t you think we should be going?”

“Relax, we’re in no hurry. Alvaro didn’t bother sending a chopper at all. He has what he wants, he didn’t need these two pieces of human trash anymore.”

“How do you know that?” Ed asked.

“I know, okay? Anyway, the question is, what do we do with our friend here, hmmm?”

“Eric, can we please just get the hell out of this place?” Anne begged, her eyes bulging with fear.

“In a moment. First, Chico here has made a mistake. He has threatened the life of someone I love. He has to answer for that. Chico, go over to that cliff,” Eric said, gesturing with the gun towards what was apparently supposed to be the landing pad for the helicopter that would never come. Chico only stood there. He knew that Ed had the aim to drop him in an instant if he tried to make a run for it, and Eric had the blood cold enough to do the same if he refused to do what he was told. “Do it!” commanded Eric, with a voice that no longer sounded completely in touch with reality. Realizing his only option, Chico walked slowly to the precipice, trying to keep his eyes on the both of them, as well as the woman, watching for any chance that presented itself. As he came to the edge, the wind picked up, and he had to steady his footing to keep from being blown off. He sweated profusely, not quite sure what Eric had in mind for him. But whatever it was, he was damn serious.

“Good. Now, I’ll be gracious and give you a choice. Jump,” he said with frightening finality, “or I shoot you off.” This surprised Ed and Anne, and terrified Chico. He was dealing with a true psychotic, Chico thought, something he had come to recognize in the coke dens of Medellín. He began to feel his legs buckle, and his breathing became shallow.

“No,” he protested, sounding weak and pathetic, “don’t do this Enrique-“

“My name is Eric!” he bellowed. “Now jump!”

Chico became a blubbering baby, losing control of his bladder and sinking to his knees. “Please,” he begged, “don’t kill me, please…”

Eric let out a snort of disgust. “Oh, Jesus, you sicken me. And here I thought you wanted to die like a man.” Then, in a more benevolent tone, “Ah, very well. Once again I let my heart persuade my head. It will be my undoing, I’m certain. But we must all have our fatal flaws, eh?” He lowered his gun, sure that Ed would still faithfully be keeping him covered. Chico let out a dramatic sight of relief. “Okay Chico, lay down, hands on your head, facing away from me.” He did as he was told, and wondered as he looked out across the ocean in the distance if this would be that last sight he would ever see.

“What are you going to do, buddy?” Ed asked, almost afraid of the answer. Anne just stared in semi-horror. This is not the man I fell in love with, she thought to herself.

“I’m being merciful, Edd-O. Keep me covered there. That’s good. Keep those legs in the air, Chic-man, crossed like a Catholic schoolgirl, just like that. Can’t have you running away on me, can we?” He walked over to a fallen tree and searched among the severed branches. “Now, which one…ah. This’ll do just fine,” he said quietly, picking up a segment about a meter long that seemed to satisfy him. He walked back over to Chico, who lay exactly still, oblivious to what was happening. Directing Ed to stand away, Eric lifted the branch up above his head and, with all the strength he could muster, brought it down squarely in the middle of Chico’s back. It was difficult to know precisely which was louder, the crack of the wood or that of Chico’s spine, since they were both simultaneously accompanied by a blood-chilling scream from Chico and a shrill yelp from Anne.

Holymarymotherofgod, thought Ed in an almost surreal state of mind, he’s totally lost it. The scream seemed to go on for quite awhile, but it did finally subside as Chico sank almost into unconsciousness. All the while, Eric just stood there, looking serene as can be. After a few moments of silence Eric poked Chico in the buttocks playfully with the splintered end of the branch a few times, saying, “I hope you live long enough out here to enjoy my mercy, Chic-man.” Flinging the wooden shard off the cliff and onto the rocks below, he turned to go away, looking grotesquely grim. “Don’t say I never did nothin’ for ya.”



My first attempt at a sci-fi story, about 10,000 words into the draft


The transport shook violently as the plasma bolt struck the port bow. A sickly green glow spread across the hull plating, sending charred remnants floating away into space. The damage was largely superficial, but a few more shots like that and the cargo hold would depressurize, killing anyone inside. The sleek black raider came around for another pass, coordinating the attack with its twin for maximum damage. The transport veered sideways and tried to accelerate away from its tormentors, but it was unarmed and cumbersome; an easy target. Losing attitude control, the ship rolled wildly, like some great thrashing beast stung by a scorpion. The other raider came about, charging its cannons. If both bolts hit the same damaged spot, the ship might well be torn apart like tinfoil. But just as the attacker came into firing range, a small gray object streaked across its path, appearing out of nowhere and spewing fierce volleys of disruptor fire that peppered the raider with a hundred small explosions. The pirate in the raider’s cockpit became disoriented only for a split second, but it was long enough to let the little scout ship lock on and hit his midsection with a railtorp, a low-tech weapon but very destructive to small craft. He tumbled out of control and out of the fight. The pilot in the other raider was far enough away to take in the whole scene, and got a clear view of the ship that seemed to simply materialize out of nowhere and proceed to wreak havoc.

Must be Stern’s boat, he thought with a grunt. Nothing else in the area’s as small and as fast as Invicta. This one was a thorn in the side of every protection racket in the tri-system. It would be a privilege to splash him. Gunning the engine, the pirate came in at an angle for a strafing run. He switched to pulsed bolts, and tried to plow the ship’s path with the same maneuver they’d used against his partner. Though he managed to land a few shots on the high, forward-swept wings of the craft, the slim round arrowhead of Invicta’s fuselage twisted up and away at an impossible angle, untouched. He banked furiously, hoping to come up again behind the ship before they had a chance to react. But as he turned, dark space greeted him. Where are they? he thought in a panic. An explosion from behind answered, taking out his starboard thruster and fusing most of his sensor relays as half his board went dark. Long, thin, and painted jet black, the raider was designed to be a difficult target; he knew they must be close for such a solid hit. He pulled off on a random heading and slammed on the burners, groaning at the g-forces threatening to crush his ribs. Not even Invicta could match his burner speed. He turned on his few remaining sensors to look for his partner’s distress beacon, and readied the grappler for towing. It was galling to leave the transport and its cargo, but the pirate was no fool. He knew he was beaten and lucky to be alive. No matter, Stern’s payback would come. But not today.

And who is this Stern? Certainly some heroic, dashing, handsome figure, one whose light-year wide smile can make women swoon at a glance, who can dodge an armada without breaking a sweat and can buckle swashes with the best of them? Prepare, then, to be disappointed. For aboard the armed escort ship Invicta, crawling on hands and knees beneath a smoky, spark-spitting panel with a flashlight between his teeth, find this very Gabriel Stern- a smallish, middle-aged, slightly chubby and slightly balding man, railing unintelligible invectives at an intransigent circuit board. An alarm pierced his ears, startling him and causing him to whack the top of his head against a steel support frame.

“Dammit Billy,” he yelled back down the short hallway, “I’m not gonna tell you again to turn that thing off! I bloody well know there’s a power failure in the inertial stabilizers, I’m looking right at the burned out fuse!”

Through the tiny hole in the access panel Stern heard the engineer’s muffled reply, stinging in the way that only a 250-pound Englishman could manage: “Sorry Gabe, I guess I was a little too preoccupied with the trivial task of keeping us alive to take full account of you precious, sensitive ears. How vile of me! Next time we’re about to die mate, just write me a little note, and stick it-“

“Sorry to interrupt the foreplay you two, but I’ve got the Scarab on the line, and they don’t sound happy.”

Stern pulled his head out of the panel and glared at his petite redheaded pilot, Jensine, with irritated confusion. “And just who the fuck is the Scarab?

Jensine rolled her eyes dramatically. “The Scarab is the transport ship we were hired to protect, oh fearless leader.”

A pause. “Oh. That Scarab. Well, put them on.”

“This should be fun,” Jensine commented with a sigh as she flipped the speaker switch. “Go ahead Scarab-”

“Stern, you slackjawed moron! I’ve got a hole the size of a house in my ship and a pod of broken cargo! When I get my hands on you-“

Stern cut off the irate captain with a deftness that spoke of a long acquaintance with dissatisfied customers. “Whoa, hold on now! One thing at a time if you don’t mind. Now, what injuries do you have?”

A moment of silence. “Well…no injuries that I know of-“

“And did you actually inspect your cargo? Cause all I see is a dent in the side. Ugly, sure, but I think you’ll find that our contract specifically excludes cosmetic damage.”

Although the signal was audio only, the crew could swear they felt the seething rage radiating off the transport captain. “Wha…Cosmetic?!? It’ll take half a year’s income to fix that! Who the hell’s gonna hire a busted-ass cargo ship with a plasma burn down the side? I told you not to follow so close, but you hot shots never fuckin’ listen…”

Stern did indeed stop listening and worked on the panel while the tirade wore itself out. Trying to explain the tactical advantage of flying close escort to the fool would be a waste of valuable breath in the smoke-filled cabin. When the distinctive absence of yelling finally caught his attention, he said calmly, “Thank you for your input captain, I’ll certainly take that under advisement. Now, since we have some real damage here that begs consideration, I suggest we continue this conversation once we reach Everwind Station. I’m sure you’ll let us know if you require further assistance. Have a nice day, captain.” And with that, Jensine cut the line just in time to avoid all but the first couple syllables of the transport captain’s incoherent, incensed retort.

“Gabe, you’re a master of public relations,” Jensine said with a wry grin.

Stern sighed as another relay in the panel fizzled, then winked out. “I can tell it’s gonna be a long trip.”


In truth, Invicta’s damage wasn’t that bad. The lines running from the engine to the disruptor cannons had been hit by the raider’s plasma bolts, causing surges that burned out some sensitive systems. The cannons were purely custom jobs, with overclocked pulse rotators and double-cooled charge cores that, although technically illegal, made for some truly harsh firepower. But they were very prone to overheating, so Invicta carried several sets of replacement parts. They weren’t cheap though, and Stern preferred repairing the broken bits to putting in whole new sets.


Invicta had the 32 meter-long gray and rust-red body of a medium-range Gharzoi scout ship, refitted for human operation. The wings had been replaced with a more robust, aerodynamic pair for the occasional atmospheric travel, expanded cockpit viewports for a full visual range, and an unobtrusive but deadly railtorp launcher slung from the underside of the fuselage. Various other components, scrounged from across several star systems fit together like a glove and, painstakingly cared for, added up to one of the fastest, most powerful and maneuverable escort fighters in the sky. It also put Invicta at the top of the hit list of every racketeer out to squeeze the shipping lanes.


The little escort ship kept pace with the transport as it hobbled along. After an hour or so, the larger vessel regained some directional control and suddenly picked up speed as the mostly minor damage was repaired. Nice of them to let us know they’re alright, Stern thought. Soon, their destination came up on Invicta’s sensor board, little wisps of smoke still rising from the panel.


Everwind lived up to its name, though not in the fuzzy, picturesque kind of way you might think. The planet was officially named VK093-n, though most people just called it after the station that circled above. There were no permanent structures down on the surface because of the furious, never-ending storms of poisonous wind and acid rain that pummeled the scorched landscape; just a few mobile mining rigs worked the vast thorium deposits. Scarab in fact was in hauling replacement parts for those rigs, and the equipment attrition rate just barely made the whole operation worthwhile. The station was mostly used for processing, though this far out on the frontier, it also served out of necessity as a port of call for all kinds of characters. Once, years ago when the station was just getting up and running, someone tried to get its name changed to Deadwood. But when the Gharzoi Mining Authority got wind and realized the connotation, they put the brakes on that, so Everwind it was. Which suited Stern just fine, being that a station was a station, and no one, not even the greediest, most bloodthirsty pirate in the sky, had ever been insane enough to attack a station outright. And being such a rich source of revenue, the GMA and the Federal Colonies made damn sure Everwind was well defended. So when Invicta finally glided into the great docking garage on the lower hub, Billy, Jensine and Gabe Stern all breathed a quiet sigh of relief. Another job finished. Mostly.


A rush of fresh air greeted the trio as the airlock groaned open, and the few remaining tendrils of smoke floated out of the cabin and into the station’s circulators. Great, Stern thought, probly set off an alarm somewhere. He squinted for a moment as their eyes adjusted to the brighter lighting, and felt the customary lurch where Invicta’s gravity generator overlapped with the station’s. “Well, let’s go meet our employer,” he said without enthusiasm. He had a bit of a sense for trouble, and something told him this particularly unhappy customer might yet cost them a little sweat. Billy must have felt the same way, because he had donned his thick leather work gloves with the steel knuckles.


The elevator dropped them off on the deck for docking large transport ships and they started looking for the captain. It didn’t take long. Bud McPhee he was called, and being a regular shipper of mining equipment he was well known and well regarded on Everwind station. So Stern wasn’t surprised when the hallway abruptly cleared of bystanders and the obviously unhappy captain, accompanied by two large, unpleasant looking fellows, managed to find them first. Stalking toward them, he began hurling curses at Stern as if simply continuing the rant begun over the radio. His two bodyguards glared at Billy, and hungrily at Jensine. Stern knew this was going to get ugly.


“You call this protection you little turd? We all coulda been killed! What the hell kinda operation you runnin’ anyway? I-“


Stern held his hands up placatingly. This might still be salvageable. “Captain, you have every right to be upset. I would be too! But the fact is-“


“The fact is I’m ruined! No respectable company is going to ship their goods on a battle-scarred piece of shit cargo ship! I’m like to get taken for a scrap target and get shot by Feds. All cause you cowardly sonsab-“


Stern had had enough. In for a penny… “Alright that’s it. First off, you didn’t do any battlin’, we’re the ones with the scars. Second, those pods are easily detachable, and so old I think those pirates were doing you a favor blasting ‘em! Third- where the hell do you get off? If it hadn’t been for us they’d have torn you up piecewise, taken your ship and cargo and murdered all you bastards! Now we fulfilled our part of the bargain, and you better-“


“Better what?” McPhee asked haughtily. Billy started to take a step forward, but Stern held up a hand.


“Better hold up your end, or I’ll sue your ass for breach of contract.”


McPhee and his goons roared with derisive laughter. “Sue me? In what court? Circuit comes around maybe once in a decade. ‘Sides, you think the GMA wants their top supplier run outta business? This is my turf you two-bit shitface, and I ain’t paying you a dime.” He grinned with sadistic delight.


Jensine stomped out in between the two men and shook a finger in McPhee’s face before Stern could stop her. “Oh yeah? Well who do you suppose is gonna protect you on your next run? It’s a mighty dangerous sky you know.”


McPhee seemed to take that exactly the wrong way. “You threatening me little girl?” he taunted, and one of the more overzealous of his men stepped in front of him, glowering over Jensine with naked menace. Then, without any warning, moving much faster than his bulk would suggest possible, Billy reached out, grabbed the goon, and with an angry growl tossed him against the bulkhead, adding a nasty dent to the wall. A general melee ensued.


Stern charged McPhee, toppling the taller man by sheer momentum as Jensine hastily dodged the other thug’s snatching hands. Billy delivered a jaw-crushing punch, knocking him out cold. When the other goon tried to rise, Jensine kicked him in the face, and he went down again. Stern had McPhee on the ground and was pummeling him with blows, wondering surreally how he managed to get into these situations. He didn’t notice the team of security guards running up behind them, and was still pondering his odd luck as one of them hit him with a stun wand.


in for a pound. He blacked out.


Stern woke to a wave of nausea, a splitting headache and Billy and Jensine standing over him. “Did we win?” he asked in a dazed fog. The pair looked at each other, then back at him. Billy nodded. “Yeah mate, we won. And our reward is that we get put up in this posh VIP flat you see about you.” Stern’s vision slowly refocused as he managed to lift his head just enough to take in the bars, and the roughly five-by-seven square cell they were attached to. “Oh…” he groaned in dismay, collapsing back onto the hard cot.


“Well, if it’s any consolation,” Jensine said, “the other guys got arrested too. Only, that McPhee’s in good with the higher-ups, and they let him go after he told a highly, uh, biased version of events. Basically, he lied. Even accused us of being in cahoots with those pirates!”


“Eh? That doesn’t make a lick of sense! We fought them off!” Stern winced at the sting of his own voice inside his pounding head. “This is just great.”


“I can’t help but feel rather responsible for this mess, mate,” Billy said glumly.


“Gee Billy, that’s a helluva coincidence, bein’ as you are responsible!” Stern sat up and held his head in his hands for a few seconds. “No, no you’re not. I am. I let it get away from me. I knew where it was going, and I just went along.” He stared out through the smooth titanium bars of the cell into the empty, darkened security office. “Maybe I was looking for a fight. It’s getting harder and harder to make an honest living these days Billy. Maybe those pirates have the right idea. Our ship’s in sorry shape, fuel’s low, petty cash is in the red, and now we’re like to spend the rest of our natural lives on a chain gang down below, if McPhee pulls the right strings.”


Jensine kneeled down and grabbed Stern by the scruff of his collar. “See now cap’n, you just quit that trash talk. We’ll get out of this nonsense. We been in worse lots of times.”


Billy nodded “Aye. And I can fix Invicta’s woes Gabe. I always have, you know that. That’s my baby you’re talkin’ about. So what’s all this?”


“Ah, I don’t know. You’re right, of course. I’m just…getting so sick of this crap. I’m too old for it. Hell, so are you.”


Stern glanced at Jensine, and she made a sour face. “Hey, what you looking at me for? I’m a freakin’ spring flower in bloom!” They all laughed, but weakly, and worry still hung in the air.


Just then, the outer door opened, sending a spear of light piercing into the room. It was followed by a very official and officious looking fellow. Thin and lanky, he seemed thoroughly out of place in the spit-and-bailing wire station. He was wearing the uniform of a Federal Colonies law agent, but in a casual fashion, as if he should be above such mundane trappings. He glanced at the three of them, then walked towards the cell with a thin, artificial smile. “Ah, Mr. Stern, you’re finally awake. I was getting a little worried. I’d forgotten that they like the higher settings on stun clubs out here.” He nodded to Billy and Jensine. “Mr. Barrows, Ms. LeVecque.”


“That guy was here once before,” Jensine said under her breath, though the small cell precluded private conversation, “whiles you were still knocked out. He just came in, looked at us, and left.”


Stern wasn’t impressed, and definitely not in a mood to play cops and robbers. “Huh. Well ain’t you Mr. Mysterious G-man? Knowing our names and all. You must be some powerful high-up, and I best be rightly ‘timidated. Gimme a break. What do you want, Fed? There’s no warrant out on us, and I got enough problems just now.” He said this last with a tinge of trepidation, not quite certain how far up Bud McPhee’s friends extended. Not to the FedCo government, surely? The agent just smirked, clearly not offended at Stern’s directness.


“Yes, I can see that’s plain enough. Don’t worry, I’m not interested in your unpaid license fees. Although you do have quite a few of those.”


Stern grunted at the implied threat. “It’d be water from a turnip at this point. Course I’m sure you know that too.” It was common enough for bored agents out touring the frontier to rack up credit ticketing privateers for late paperwork. It actually added up to a nice flow of cash, and it was easy to skim off the top. But Stern expected this agent was angling at something else.


He got right to the point. “My name is Anton Correlli, and I have a job for you,” he said, in a perfectly serious tone.


The trio laughed abruptly, incredulous. “Screw off G-man,” Jensine said, “we’re self-employed.”


Undeterred, the agent continued. “And it’s obviously working out beautifully for you. Look, I’m serious. I want to hire you and your ship.”


“For what?” Billy demanded with suspicion.


Correlli shrugged. “I can give you the specifics later. Right now let’s just say it’s right up your alley, and if you do a decent job you’ll never have to work again. Though I imagine you will anyway, since your types only tend to retire by force of a gun barrel.”


Stern suspected some kind of trick. “I’m not buying it. My mama always said never take a government job. It pays dirt, they treat you like dirt, and you usually end up buried in the dirt. No thanks. Really, we appreciate the offer, but no.”


“And what about them?” The agent gestured toward Billy and Jensine, suddenly more insistent. “You speak for them too? Trust me, I do know how tough business has been lately, and why. Job I got lined up for you, well, might help to change that. Do you really have the right to keep your crew living week to week, job to crappy job while the protection rackets take over more and more space? Someday soon, folk like y’selves won’t be able to find a place you can hang your hat, station or free space. Won’t be no free space left out here.” As he spoke, the agent’s voice grew edgier, coarser, and less grammatical. Where’s this guy from? Stern wondered. Lord help me, sounds almost like he believes what he’s saying. Or he’s a damn fine actor. Either way, maybe there was an opportunity here.


“Look, you obviously need people, but I can’t make any decisions based on what you’ve told me. And no, I don’t speak for my crew. Tell you what,” Stern licked his lips, summoning up all the little bit of simpatico he could muster. “Get us out of this cell, give us showers and a meal, maybe some gas, and we’ll listen to what you got to say. Listen, that’s all I can promise.”


The agent smiled genuinely for the first time since they’d met. “You got it,” he said, and walked briskly out of the room, leaving the crew of Invicta in stunned silence.


Stern turned to his companions. “Well, what do you think?” Billy shook his head, replied, “It’s a con, mate. I smell something…unwholesome about this.” Stern turned to Jensine. She shrugged. “I dunno, maybe. But at least we can get a free lunch out of it. And he,” pointing to Billy, “ gets to find out what a bath is.”


Billy protested. “Oy, I wash!”


“Yeah,” Jensine retorted, “well nowadays they got this funny new stuff called soap…”


Stern grinned. No matter how bad things got, the three of them always managed to keep their sense of sarcasm. Maybe that’s why they’d always found a way through it…




Stern looked at his reflection in the mirror, and he wasn’t pleased. Hair still damp from the shower (a proper shower, with steaming hot water!), he finished up a last bit of shaving. Each time he shaved, he found another worry line underneath, so he did it rarely. He’d actually come to measure time in shave intervals. Billy hit his head during some rough atmospheric travel eight shaves ago and couldn’t remember his name. They’d last gotten paid enough to keep flying for more than a month three shaves ago. How many shaves had it been since he finally accepted the fact that that big payoff he dreamed about wasn’t coming anytime soon?


Things hadn’t always been like this. It wasn’t like this working for Tierney, that’s certain. Under his old boss, space had been wilder, thinner, the kind of frontier where a good man with a head for business could make a comfortable living. It had still been dangerous, maybe even more dangerous on balance than it was today, but the pirates and freebooters were small time, loner types. Types a single armed scout ship was designed to deal with. These days, the slow but unstoppable march of civilization nipped at their heels, bringing with it all the detritus at its periphery. Now, under the guise of “private contracting corporations,” whole systems were virtually owned by vast criminal syndicates, and many shippers simply found it more convenient to pay the rackets for the privilege of passage through “free” space. Neither the GMA nor the Federal Colonies had the muscle or the inclination to take them out. Earth didn’t care at all. So year after year, more and more ships passed through, feeding the beast that was killing legit operations like Stern’s. Finally, five years ago while on a routine freighter job, a swarm of raiders descended on them, uninterested in pillage but very keen on sending a “message,” destroying the freighter with all hands aboard. In the mad scramble to get away, Invicta took a score of direct hits, just barely making it out in one piece. But their captain and partner Jacob Tierney was seriously wounded, and bled to death just before they could make it to an aid station. Only Billy and Stern were left.


In his will, Tierney left Invicta to his cousin, a lawyer of some kind in the Benali system. Despondent, Stern was seriously considering a less dangerous line of work, and while in the process of booking passage to Burton’s World to sign on as a trawler pilot the offer came: The cousin had no use for the ship and didn’t want the aggravation of disposing of it, so he offered to sell Invicta back to Stern for a song. Stern took the offer immediately, without any conscious decision to do so or thought of how long it would take to pay for. He contacted Billy and said in no uncertain terms that they were going back into business, win or die. Tierney, you clever bastard, he thought at the time, you knew that’s what would happen. But I had to want it.


They signed on Jensine LeVecque a month later, and she turned out to be a far better pilot than her less-than-stellar record with New Ontario Transit led one to believe. Stern moved into the “captain’s” slot, which basically meant doing anything and everything the engineer and pilot didn’t. Once more, stung but- as her name meant- unconquered, Invicta and her little crew of three struck out into the sky in search of the big payoff…




And here we are, he thought. All of us five years older and none the richer. Stern broke from his reverie as the razor nicked a rough patch on his neck. Getting sloppy.


The agent had somehow gotten them out of lockup and into one of the few staterooms available- by the hour- on the station. It wasn’t luxurious, just some beds, a miniature kitchen, a desk with a comm line in front of a scratched plastiglass window, and a bathroom you could just barely turn around in. In space, space comes at a premium, the old joke went. But compared to the cramped compartments of Invicta, it was almost palatial.


“Oy, Gabe!” Billy called excitedly through the paper-thin door. “They gots a coffee maker in here! With real coffee!” He sounded like a kid in a candy store. Stern chuckled.


“That’s great Billy. How about fixing us up some?” A minute later as Stern pulled on his last clean shirt and stepped out of the steam into the little room, the thick aroma stirred his hunger. None of them were starving of course, especially with the necessarily sedentary life on board a small scout ship, but the highly processed, carb-rich foodstuffs they usually relied on got mighty monotonous. “Smells good,” he remarked.


Billy nodded proudly. “Aye, engineer’s blend. Thick as thruster oil and sweet as a Krazy Ivan at point three c.”


“And just as deadly,” Jensine said, wrinkling her nose and dumping powdered creamer into her cup. “So what’s the plan skip?” She put a brave face on it, but she only called Stern “skip” when she was worried. Stern couldn’t blame her.


“Well,” he began, “I say we at least listen. But I got a bad feeling about this one too. If the Feds wanna take down a boss or three, they got firepower enough to swat us like a mosquito without breaking a sweat. My guess? They want someone…expendable.”


The awkward silence was broken by a knock at the door. Correlli walked in a moment later. “How are we doing?” he asked. “Comfortable, I assume?”


“Comfortable enough,” Stern said with irritation. The agent’s snide attitude was back, with no trace of the intensity from earlier. But Stern decided not to let it rattle him, figuring it was as much a part of the uniform as that silly hat he wore. “We’re ready to hear what you have to say.”


“Not here,” he said. “I have a boat waiting, where we can talk in private.” Stern frowned. This was getting weirder by the minute.


Twenty minutes later Invicta pulled out of the garage hub, following the agent’s little one-man capsule. Officially, they were under arrest and in federal custody for various and typical infractions. It put them under the protection of the Federal Colonies and discouraged suspicion or interference by meddlesome folk. Folk like Bud McPhee.


“Can’t help but observe,” Jensine said while making a minor course correction to keep up with the tiny ship in front of them, “that now might be a good time to hightail it out of the system. I doubt the pig would come after us.”


Stern smiled. “I was just thinking the same thing. But I’d like to see where this goes. Let’s play along for now. He did gas us up, after all.”


Billy came up behind them. “You know mate, that was all hogwash, what that agent said about us back in the cell. Jen ‘n me, wouldn’t be anyplace in the sky but here. Work might be a bit slow, but it sure beats tinkerin’ around on a trawler somewhere, riding the same bloody lane for twenty years. You just keep that in mind now.”


Jensine nodded. “He’s right for once. You don’t need to prove anything to anyone, least of all us. But,” she shrugged. “If we got a chance to do something big, well…”


“I appreciate the vote of confidence, both of you. Let’s hope it’s not too badly misplaced.”


They fell a bit further behind Correlli’s capsule as it increased speed. The station fell away until it was no more than a speck against the stormy planet’s surface. He led them deeper into the system, towards an asteroid belt. Where is this guy taking us? Jensine wondered, suddenly growing less sure about the whole deal. Then, ploughing straight for a large rock, the capsule cut speed, giving them all a start. Catching up fast, Invicta trailed Correlli around to the dark side of the asteroid. The three almost jumped back against the cabin wall as Correlli’s “boat” came into view: a full size Federal Navy warship, a quarter mile long, ugly as hell and crawling with weapons. They stared aghast, wondering what they’d gotten themselves into.


“Should we get out of here now?” Jensine asked, voice quivering and her hands inching toward the emergency burner controls. Stern considered it, but…


“Set a course back to the station and have us ready to go in an eyeblink, but let’s stick around for now. If they wanted us they coulda just taken us back in the cell.”


“Maybe they don’t want witnesses,” Billy said. “Gabe mate, this is getting too weird. I say we-“


“Correlli to Invicta. Still with me folks?” The agent’s voice crackled over the open line, the signal distorted by the ores in the asteroids. “I was hoping our boat didn’t frighten you off.”


“Some boat,” Stern huffed. “You wanna tell me why you hauled us out here to this flying castle for a job offer? I still don’t trust you G-man.”


“Of course you don’t. You wouldn’t be much use to us if you were the trusting type. Follow me aboard, I owe you three a meal.”


Stern sighed as his stomach growled again. “Acknowledged.” He hit the cough switch on the board and turned to Jensine. “Cut our speed. Take us in nice and slow, and put some distance ‘twixt us and that capsule. Billy, you want to get the hair trigger ready?” Billy nodded and ducked into the engineering cabin, glad to have something to do.


Most ships’ systems, and weapons particularly, took a few moments to power up for use. To another ship with good sensors, the cycle would light them up like a Christmas tree for those dangerous moments. The hair trigger was one of Billy’s innovations- it burned out a lot of fuses and cost a staggering amount of energy, but the emergency program could have weapons online in a fraction of a second, and had saved their lives on more than one occasion. If only we’d had it when Tierney was alive, Billy thought, as he always did while setting up the routines and switching the circuits.


Invicta glided toward the massive destroyer and the landing bay on the underside. It could hold thirty ships the size of Invicta, and maybe fifty of the quick, compact patrol fighters that circled the great ship like gnats about a dead animal. Even Invicta’s improved weapons were useless against a warship, but those fighters were a more even match. Stern studied their flight patterns trying to assess their maneuverability, though he hoped he never needed to find it out firsthand.


Correlli’s capsule disappeared into the bay as Invicta followed. Moving from the dark of space to the floodlights in the hangar caused them to squint momentarily. Probably intentional, Stern thought with a touch of paranioa, to keep us at a disadvantage. Men in orange spacesuits waved fluorescent wands, directing them to a corner of the bay, next to a partially disassembled fighter with nasty disruptor burns along the side. Jensine’s expert hand gently guided the ship to the deck with a dull clang, and the bay doors slid shut as the roar of pressurization shook them.


“Well,” she said, “we’re in it now, whatever it is.”


“That is a fact. Now remember what I said- whatever the job is, I’m thinking they want expendable first ‘n foremost. Billy, let’s keep the hair trigger ready for now. Can’t imagine we’ll have to blast our way out of here, but you never know.”


“Right. Just let me get- Gabe!”


Stern and Jensine jerked their heads back towards the engineering cabin, startled. “What is it?” Stern asked. Here it comes. I knew it was a trap!


“The hair trigger’s been disabled! The program’s locked- by someone from outside.”


“Shit! They hacked us already.” Proof came when the exit hatch down the hallway creaked open by no action of theirs. Correlli walked in as if he owned the ship. Stern started to scramble for the blaster stashed under the control board, but Correlli just laughed. “Don’t be so jumpy Mr. Stern, there’s no need for alarm. Ships’ systems automatically interface with all docking boats and assume control of basic functions. Like opening the door.”


“And disabling our defensive systems.”


The agent nodded, smiling. “Certainly you don’t expect me to trust you any more than you do me. Besides, we can’t have hot guns on board, that’s just crazy. Now please, come with me, all of you. I asked Chef to prepare something special on the way over.”

Once he stepped back through the hatch, Stern said to the others, “Okay, let’s go. Stay sharp, be careful, and Billy-“ He didn’t need to finish, as the engineer palmed his compact bullet pistol, ridiculously tiny in his big hand. “Right. Keep it hidden, and hope we don’t have to use it. We’re in the belly of the beast now…”




In another life, perhaps a thousand centuries ago, they may have eaten as well, but those quickly fading memories were banished as the real thing appeared- and not so gradually disappeared- before them. Steaks, ribs, lasagna and more, all accompanied by what they still called “fixins” back on Earth. They were going to great lengths to entice them, Stern’s inner voice warned, but he didn’t let it come between him and the steaming plate of mashed potatoes and gravy in front of him.





Correlli led them up and down a series of corridors, all of them gleaming and metallic, all of them identical. After a few turns Stern realized that they’d completely lost their bearings. They could never find their way back to Invicta without directions. Damn these bigass Fed ships! Eventually they came to a narrow hatch flanked by two armed and armored guards, doing their very best to look frightening. They stepped through, and as soon as Billy crossed the threshold the hatch slid shut with a hiss, leaving them in a round conference room dominated by a huge oak table inlaid with variously colored controls. Qassorian oak, Stern thought. Expensive.


“Please, have a seat,” Correlli said, moving to the far end of the table and pressing a button that caused a viewscreen on the wall to light up. “The boss’ll be along in a moment.”


Jensine frowned, confused. “Boss? I thought you were in charge.”


Correlli looked surprised, then laughed. “Me? No, I’m flattered, but I’m just the glorified messenger boy. I got you here, my job’s done. Just sit tight.” Billy shot a look at Stern that plainly said, this is gonna get worse before it gets better.


Before Stern had a chance to say anything, a second hatch across the room opened. A tall, dark haired woman of about forty years swept into the room. Unlike Correlli, she seemed to wear her uniform with perfect ease, as if it were a second skin. But without the silly hat.


What really caught their attention, however, was her companion who followed behind with a deliberate gait that made the woman’s demeanor almost frantic by comparison. His dark leathery skin punctured with a network of crevices in a tortoiseshell pattern marked him as a Gharzoi. Stopping just inside the door, he stood in silence, regarding Stern, Billy, and Jensine with a stare that made them feel like lobsters in a tank being selected for dinner.


“Anton, welcome back,” the woman said to Correlli. “I’m a bit surprised you managed to get them to even come here. In fact I lost a little wager with our guest here on that account.” She gestured toward the Gharzoi in the corner, smiling in a way that was not at all disarming.


“I hope you didn’t lose too much,” Correlli replied, “and I had more than a little help in convincing them from Everwind station security.”


She raised a single eyebrow. “Oh? You’ll have to tell me about it sometime. Right now I hear you’re needed…” She glanced momentarily at the trio, then back at Corelli. “Downstairs.”


“Yes ma’am.” He turned to the three with a short bow. “Pleasure meeting you all. I hope we can work together in the future.” He left the room quickly, nodding a brief acknowledgement towards the Gharzoi as he passed.


“I was afraid Anton might put you off of visiting us,” the woman said. She took a seat. “He can be a bit intense when he really wants something.”


“We noticed,” Billy said.


“Let me introduce myself. Anne Volaris, captain of this fine boat, the FCS Rhomphaea.”


“Charmed,” Stern said with a touch of sarcasm, grasping the slender hand she offered around. “I’m sure you know very well who we are, seein’ as you brought us all the way out here. Now, what’s this job you’re offering us all about?”


“And who’s he?” Jensine asked, eyeing the Gharzoi.


“Oh, his name’s a bit tough to pronounce, but he represents the GMA’s interests in this little affair.”


That took Stern by surprise. Although the VK093 system was technically Gharzoi territory, their race was universally known as the ‘homebodies’ homebodies,’ preferring to keep to their own system and farming out the actual mining work to humans, or anyone who was willing. Along with the treaty that gave the Colonies a cut of the profits came the responsibility for patrolling the shipping lanes, something that had decidedly not been taking place these last few years. For the GMA to actually get involved must mean that the situation was far worse than generally known. “You really do need help then,” was all he could say to sum up his thoughts.


Volaris nodded gravely. “Correct Mr. Stern.” She toughed a control on the table, and a map of the surrounding systems appeared on the wall screen. “Now, what I’m about to tell you must never leave this room under any circumstances. Agreed?”


Jensine began to protest when Billy put a hand on her shoulder. “Agreed,” he answered. Turning to her, he said, “Besides, if it does they’ll know who to blame.”


“And where to find us, it seems,” Stern added. Jensine nodded in reluctant assent.


“Good,” said Volaris. “Now, I assume you’re all familiar with the Black Hole Gang?” A chill swept down Stern’s back and he curled his toes involuntarily.


“You bloody well know we are,” Billy growled. “Those bastards murdered Tierney, the old skipper, and lots of other folk besides.” A sinister grin spread across his face. “Might you chaps be offering us a chance to even up-“


“Whoa now!” Jensine interrupted. “Wait a minute. Black Hole Gang? I never signed on to go up against a whole friggin’ pirate army. That’s suicide.”


Billy glared at her. “All due ‘spect love, but you never knew Jacob. The old man was like a father to me, lot more’n me own ever was. I almost went after the buggers m’self after he died. I swore if I ever got hands on one o’those parasites I’d string his spine along Invicta’s wings. Gabe, you’re with me, right mate?”


Stern sat silent for a few seconds, staring into his lap. “I feel exactly the same way,” he said. Then, looking up, “but Jen’s right.”


“Gabe, you can’t be serious-“


“We’re one little scout ship Billy. What can we do? We’ve had this discussion before, and it always ends the same way. It would be suicide.” He turned to Volaris, who watched the exchange closely but impassively. “Am I right?”


“More right than you could possibly know,” she said. “Not even the Colonies have enough warships for a direct attack on all the syndicates. Not without losing far too many people.”


“Then what’s this about? How can you expect us to go against the Black Hole Gang?”


“I don’t.” She touched another control, and a large swath of the map on the wall screen became bathed in red as the projection rotated in three dimensions. “I want you to take a look at something. This is the area the gang controlled two years ago. It includes most of the space between this system and Anglasyn, the outermost Colonial outpost on the frontier.” The screen changed to show a grainy image of a dirty, dark room and three brutish looking men sitting about a little table. “This is from one of the few surveillance vids we managed to get out of the gang’s hideouts. And this…” The picture zoomed in on the oldest figure, a bald, craggy-faced individual. “…is the only recent confirmed image of Eli Sagayev, boss of the gang.” Everyone along the frontier knew the gangster’s name of course, but few had ever seen his face. Now Stern had one to match to his hatred.


Volaris continued. “It’s also likely to stay the only one, thanks to this charming character.” The screen changed again, and the next picture was comparatively clear. It showed a young man with a rather pretty-boy face, dressed flamboyantly in what Stern assumed were the latest styles from Earth. Such a ridiculous suit couldn’t have come from anywhere else. “This is Adelmo Corfax. Adelmo is believed to have been Sagayev’s nephew, and was a small-time enforcer along the outer rim of the gang’s turf. No recluse this one. I think he was posing just for our camera here. And why not? The Colonies can’t touch him.”


“I’m afraid to ask where all this is going, but I think we can figure it out,” Stern said.


“I think you’re right. Apparently,” Volaris went on, “he either got bored with his piece of the pie, or couldn’t afford to maintain his wardrobe, because eighteen months ago he gunned down Sagayev in broad daylight after a sit-down. He got away with his life, so we believe he must have had the support of some of the captains. Maybe Uncle Eli wasn’t sharing enough of the wealth. Anyway, he escaped and formed his own sub-gang, and he’s been systematically peeling off the Black Hole’s territory. His pirates are, believe it or not, much more violent than any of the old gangs.” The map returned, and the small corner of the red area changed green. “This was Corfax’s territory last year.” The green grew to encompass almost half of Black Hole’s space. “Six months ago…and four months ago.” Nearly two-thirds.


Billy whistled. “Impressive,” he said.


“Alarming,” Volaris corrected him. “These guys make the Black Holes look like pushy girl scouts hawking cookies. Corfax has either bought off or eliminated most of Sagayev’s inner circle, and his raiders are scouring the outer lanes clean. It’s a violent but shortsighted practice. If it keeps up, the frontier will become deserted.”


“And he’ll have to move inward to maintain business,” Jensine predicted. Volaris nodded.


“Exactly. The Black Hole was a problem, but at least it was a devil we knew. These psychotics…Even the other syndicates are frightened. Rather than fight, they’re just moving to greener pastures themselves. A domino effect.”


“Threatening your precious Fed Co worlds. Quite a motivation for you,” Stern said bitterly. Typical, he throught. We put up with these jackals for years, and it only gets noticed when the rich dummies got something to lose.


Volaris clearly took his meaning from the expressions on all three of their faces. “I can understand your resentment, but-“


“Oh, is that right? Can you?” Jensine asked, uncharacteristically harsh. “Can you really?”


Volaris sighed. “No, I suppose I can’t really. But Correlli can.”


“I thought as much. Where is that agent from?” Stern asked.


“Anglasyn, as a matter of fact.”


Billy snorted. “So? A Fed world just the same.”


Volaris shook her head. “Now it is. Twenty years ago it was the frontier. Had just the same problems you folk do now, though maybe not so bad. Story is, Anton’s parents were killed during a pirate raid on a passenger transport from Benali, and barely survived it himself. Spent several years living on the streets of Angla City.” Stern winced. Even today the slums of Angla could be brutal places. “Joined the Federal Navy just as soon as he was old enough to lie about his age, and eventually transferred to intelligence.”


“Fed Navy…Intel?” Jensine perked up. “I thought he was a cop!”


“I’m sure that was the idea,” Stern said with grudging admiration. “A nice story, I’ll give you that. Hometown boy makes good and all. But I think you’ve stalled long enough. Since you people found us you’ve tried appealing to…let’s see, greed, resentment, vengeance, even good ol’ blue collar solidarity. Wrenching stuff but you still haven’t said what you want us to do. That tells me it’s like to be a whopper. So, out with it.” Billy and Jensine nodded in agreement.


“All right, Mr. Stern,” she said flatly, “I’ll tell you. I want you to become a pirate.”


”Er, sayagain?” Jensine replied, lost.


“I want to hire you three, and Invicta, to become pirate raiders. Adelmo Corfax’s raiders.”


“Hold on,” Stern said. “I think you better speak a bit more plainly. You want us to…join Corfax’s gang?”


“That’s right,” Volaris answered, trying to sound upbeat and convincing. “Infiltrate it, to be exact.”


“Now that is crazy!” Billy said. “Why? And how? ‘Case you haven’t noticed, we’re a bit of a target just now. A large target in fact, small ship notw’standin’.”


“What’s the plan, you send us out, then haul us back in a month later and claim a big victory in your war on crime? No thanks,” Jensine said with finality.


“I thought you said we could help get rid of the rackets, not add to them,” Stern said. “Don’t you have agents for this sort of thing? Like Correlli?”


Volaris frowned, clearly rattled. “We…I– lost two good agents just getting the information I showed you out of Corfax’s territory. Adelmo and his cronies might be bold, but they’re also paranoid, and already suspect half of their people of working for the Feds. The few that actually are are too closely watched for us to pull out now. No one new- not Correlli, no one- can get inside. But you can. Think about it, it makes perfect sense. You’re known, famous even, in the area. You have no particular love for the Colonies, and you’re in dire straits as far as business goes. Some might say the smart thing to do is switch sides.”


“If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” Stern half sneered, considering.


“Exactly. Adelmo is greedy enough and clever enough to forget the headaches you’ve caused him and the Black Hole in recent years if it means your ship and skills are at his disposal. He could never resist.”


“Uh, let’s go over this ‘disposal’ thing-“


Volaris cut Jensine off with a placating gesture. “I know, it’s dangerous, I can’t deny that. But I promise, you get access to Corfax’s operation, help us take him down, and your skies will smell a helluva lot sweeter from now on. There’ll always be business enough for you of course, and people won’t be afraid to hire you any more. Not that you’ll need them. This job will set you all up for life.”


“Assuming we survive,” Stern pointed out.


Volaris nodded. “Of course.”


“And if not you never met us, and this meeting never happened.”


“As you said, we really do need someone…expendable.” They all froze at the word. Volaris smiled tiredly. “Another ‘automatic interface-‘ all audio communications are monitored. Helps our rookie fighter pilots out in landing maneuvers. Besides, I wanted to get a first impression. And, I’m glad you didn’t feel the need to use that, Mr. Barrows.” She nodded toward the bulge in Billy’s jacket, where the bullet pistol was hidden.


Stern shot out of his chair, eyes blazing. “Now just a damn minute! That’s the last time you invade my ship, automatic interface or no. We don’t take kindly to being probed and spied on, and it don’t help your case any.” He leaned in close, trying his best to look threatening while knowing they were in no position to issue demands. “You wanna know something, you ask, elsewise we walk out of here right now. We clear?”


You walk out of here without my say so, Volaris thought, and wanted to say, and you won’t get ten meters before being gunned down. But she understood very well the necessity of maintaining the confidence of one’s crew, so she chose to acquiesce. She smiled. “Crystal clear,” she said. The mild reply appeared to calm the trio, and Stern sat back down.


“Good,” he said. “Now, you and your messenger boy been talkin’ all kinds of talk about the payoff. ‘Set for life,’ you said. But I’ve yet to hear a number from anyone. So before we go any further-“


“Twenty meg,” Volaris said, as if quoting the price of coffee. She relaxed back into her chair to enjoy their reaction.


At first they weren’t sure they’d heard her right. Jensine blinked. “I’m sorry, did you say twenty…meg?”


“That’s right. As in twenty million tengrams of glatinum, in true cash.”


They were stunned. The standard currency of the Colonies, the ultrapure gold-platinum alloy in a ten-gram coin, had increased sharply in value over the last twelve years as the platinum mines in the MacLaurin asteroid belt dried up. One glatinum could sustain a single family for a month. A million could buy a ship thirty times the size of Invicta. Twenty million…

”That’s a lot of change to haul around,” Billy said blankly. Struck dumb by the thought of such a vast amount, he reverted to an engineer’s mass-fuel calculations. Volaris chuckled.


“I’m sure we could come to some arrangement about that. Mr. Stern, you’ve grown mercifully quiet all of a sudden.” All eyes turned to him. “Your thoughts?”


He sat silent a moment longer, then regarded Volaris sharply. “I’m thinking you’re playing us for suckers. No job in the universe is worth that much, so I figure you either expect us to buy the farm before we can collect, or you got a double cross in mind.”


This was a critical moment. Volaris could see she was on the verge of losing them. She’d expected the lavish offer to seal the deal, but it seemed to have overshot the mark. It was just too implausible. She scrambled to improvise. “Nothing could be further from the truth, I promise you. If you like I can arrange for you to see the cash beforehand, to prove we’ve got it.”


“No good, Stern said, “I suspect maybe you got the means to gather that much money in one place, but turn it over to a bunch of slobs like us? I ain’t buyin’ it. With that much you could send a fleet of your own against Corfax.”


“You don’t know how correct you are, Mr. Stern. In fact, the amount was arrived at as being the likely cost of just such a strike. The initial cost, that is, not counting ship damage and loss of lives. Listen, I know how much twenty meg means to you-“ she lanced at Jensine- “or, at least I can try to guess, but to the FedCo it’s a bargain if you pull it off.”


Stern wasn’t convinced, and wasn’t like to be. But he saw the others were still starry-eyed by the offer. He decided the only choice was to let Volaris keep talking, and hopefully they’d come to the same conclusions he had.


“Tell me,” said Billy, regaining some cognitive functions, “once we crack this egg o’ yours, what do we do inside? Tip you off and you send some big ship like this in to arrest this Corfax bugger?”


“I’m afraid it’s going to be a bit more complicated than that. We grab Adelmo, his cronies run things until his crooked lawyer gets him off on a technicality or somesuch. No, we have to totally demolish his gang, and make it so no other scumbag like him takes his place.”


“That’s a dream,” Jensine said, “You’ll never eliminate pirates on the frontier. They’re as sure as death and tax evasion.” Billy and Stern laughed weakly. Volaris persisted.


“But if we can break them up so they can be managed, contained, they won’t grow to threaten whole systems. This isn’t just a gang, it’s an entire empire.”


“An no one knows empire like the FedCo,” Stern said with bitter sarcasm. “You wanna be the only racket in town, is that it? Top o’ the shitheap?”


Volaris felt the irritation rise, struggled to tamp it down. “You know, this anti-establishment kick of yours is wearing quite thin. I’m not asking you to put on a Federal Navy uniform and salute me as I pass by. I’m saying that in this case our interests intersect. What I need is someone who can gather information on Corfax’s schemes as well as those of his underlings. Their attack schedules, meeting places, dirty secrets. You work for him, gain his trust. Or as close to trust as that viper is capable of. Then, at the right moment, we send in a few- very few– ships to seize select targets, and plant evidence, each implicating one captain to another. Accusations fly, alliances collapse, bosses turn on each other and Adelmo’s gang falls apart. Hopefully we’ll have enough evidence at that point to put Corfax away forever, and we pick up the pieces at our leisure.”


“All nice and tidy as that,” Jensine said, “then you pay us off and let us go on our merry way.”


“That’s the plan, believe it or not. A wise individual once said, ‘keep it simple, stupid.’ Words to live by.”


Stern glanced at the Gharzoi across the room. He hadn’t moved or spoken in all this time. “And our friends in the GMA, they signed off on this scheme?”


Volaris nodded. “They’ve left it in our capable hands. The less they know, the better, as long as the job gets done.”


“Well, it ain’t gonna be done by us,” said Billy, leaning back into his too-small chair and crossing his arms. “Too risky, I say.” He turned to Stern. “I know I said I wanna get back at those bastards for Jacob, Gabe, but this plan is…I don’t know. It’s not us.”


Stern didn’t reply, but studied Volaris for a reaction. Volaris simply raised an eyebrow and shot a furtive glance at Jensine. Stern suddenly felt exposed and chided himself for letting them be maneuvered into a situation that could let their would-be employers drive a wedge between the three of them. We should have made the decision privately, then given our answer, he thought. I’m sure they arranged this meeting just to avoid that, the slimy rats.


They all looked at Jensine, who suddenly felt rather exposed as well. After a few uncomfortable moments of silence, she said, “It is risky. Maybe too risky. But…things aren’t gonna get any better, for us or anyone, if this keeps up. I mean this might be a real chance here, a real payoff. For what it’s worth cap’n, I think maybe we should consider this.”


It’s down to me, Stern thought. Figures. He chuckled sarcastically. “You two are just achin’ to send me to an early grave, aren’t you? Bet you already have my stuff divvied up.”


Billy grunted. “You don’t have any stuff, Gabe. Just that dust bunny collection under your rack where you never sweep.”


“Well, I do love them furry critters. Don’t eat much, neither,” Stern sighed, still unsure.


“Listen,” Jensine said, “you know we’ll go along with whatever you decide. Just be sure it’s for the right reasons.”


Twenty million right reasons, Stern thought. But what good would that do them if they were all dead? Jensine was right, though: if someone didn’t knock these pirate kings down a notch, soon they could all say goodbye to what little freedom they had left. Once the stranglehold was complete, their career options would likely come down to begging for scraps from the Feds, moving into uncharted space and waiting for the same thing to happen five more years down the line, or joining the bad guys for true. Is that really our problem? My responsibility is to keep my crew alive and flying, before anything else. Thoughts of Jacob came unbidden to his mind. What would Tierney do were he here? But he wasn’t here, he was dead. That’s it then.


“Mr. Stern?” Volaris’ tinny, abrasive contralto voice wrenched him out of his musings. It was a voice that could be called authoritative only because one might jump to obey it just to make it stop. “If you need more time to decide-“


“We don’t,” he said with finality. He stood, turned to Volaris. Unexpectedly, Billy and Jensine followed suit. Stern suppressed a grin of appreciation. “Your offer is generous, to say the least. Mind boggling, to say a bit more than the least. And it’s a good plan; I’m sure the finest minds in the Federal Colonies couldn’t do better. But it’s not one we can take part in. The danger is too great, and I have to think about my people first. I understand what you’re trying to do, and I hope you succeed, but I can’t in good conscience be a part of it.”


He was impressed with his own wordsmithing; all that dealing with pushy customers must have paid off. Volaris cast her eyes down at the oak table, hands clasped in front of her, the model of dignified disappointment. Behind, the viewscreen still blinked with star charts shaded in red and green. “I’m sorry to hear that,” she said, standing to meet his gaze. “I take it that’s your final answer?”


“I’m afraid so,” Stern said. He glanced toward Billy and Jensine, who nodded in agreement.


“Alright then. Thank you for your time. The guard will show you back to your ship. If by some miracle you change your minds, we’ll be in the area for another day or so.” She pressed a button on the control panel, and the screen went dark. Simultaneously, the two doors to the room opened. The Gharzoi, who’d barely moved throughout the encounter, seemed to look agitated and almost about to actually speak, but as Volaris turned to leave she made a halting gesture that cut off whatever he might have said. She coldly shook their hands once more, and motioned to one of the guards standing outside the door to the hallway. Stern thanked her for the hospitality, Billy for the refueling, both of which Volaris acknowledged with a curt nod before striding out of the conference room through the side door, followed after by the mysterious Gharzoi observer. “This way,” said the guard in a less than friendly tone as he pointed down the bright, featureless hall with his left hand. His right clutched his plasma rifle as if he expected the trio to charge him.


Stern frowned. Don’t take rejection very well, do they? “Okay folks, you heard the man. Welcome mat’s been put away. Let’s get out of here.”



heron kings logo The Heron Kings by Eric Lewis dark grimdark fantasy novel