At long last!

A vast, armored ship cruised through space.

It was pockmarked with craters, scars, burns, and wounds. In one spot a vast section was blasted totally clean, all features melted like ice thawed and refrozen-the result of a nuclear explosion at extreme range. In another spot a thin wound gouged in almost to the spaceframe-the signature of a thunderhead lance.

Mechanical turrets rotated with the supreme disconcern of all tools of warfare, lining up twinned barrels in preparation to perform the task of all weapons since time immemorial.

To kill.

Across the ship, ball turreted maneuvering thrusters revolved in their fittings and fired, gouts of concentrated plasma bursting from dilating emitters, slowly turning the ship along a new heading.

The turrets sat dead as the ship changed positions. Then as the angles became right for them to fire, they came alive and aligned on their targets. Packeted bursts of particles tore soundlessly from the barrels of the blaster turrets, streaking towards targets too far to see.

There's a sparkling light, far in the distance. An explosion. Far away in the depths of space, someone has died in the cold, all alone.

Suddenly, a shape appears. It rapidly resolves and it becomes clear that it is a missile, bent on destruction and screaming dead ahead like a bat out of hell. The defense grid locks on and the PD guns open up, clawing the deadly weapon out of space with a volley of particle bursts. The missile erupts with a blast of flame that disperses rapidly in space's inhospitable atmosphere.

The massive ship glided through the insignificant remains, taking no notice of it. Small, lithe shapes flitted past the hugeness of the ship, clutching at the skirts of the merciless mother inertia, preserving their fuel for use in combat.

The victim was laying helpless, her escorts blasted asunder. The bright, cheerful colors of the civilian crafts clashed terribly with the darksome, menacing steelsided hide of the pirate queen.

Suddenly, like falcons after game, the lithe black terrors strike. Her laboring engines are burst asunder under the furious assault of charged particle cannons. A trail of debris falls behind the civilian ship as inertia keeps her on her previous course and drags her to her grave.

The black ship was poised to send her ragtag soldiers aboard and loot the other ship from end to end.

Then a hole erupted in the fabric of space.

A lean, menacing, near organic ship half again the size of the pirate vessel ripped out of hyperspace and strikes like an avenging angel. A volley of terrific weapon fire savaged the pirate ship.

Wounded, but in no wise down for the count, the pirate queen turned sharply to rebuff the intruder.

"Cap'n we've got a signal coming in from that ship!" called the Comms officer. It was obvious which ship he meant.

The bleak and grimy bridge of the pirate raider Iron Crab was lit by the harsh glare of high power lights. The captain of the ship, who was known by those who dared whisper his name as Captain Goroth Obarskyr, turned to face the main display.

"Engineering, double power to the shields! Tactical, keep the strongest shield arc between the two of us at all times, and Gunnery Sergeant, bring all main guns to bear on them! Air Boss, pull those fighters out of range of their guns!" he barked from his command chair. Allowing a moment for them to carry out his orders, he added "And put that signal through to the main screens, Comms."

"Aye, cap'n." the Comms officer said. The screens flickered to life.

The bridge of the enemy vessel appeared on the main screens. The other ship's bridge was clean, trim, and large. The computers and consoles looked to be the heighth of high technology at a glance. The crew looked sharp and clean, with practical and simple uniforms that were in the best of conditions.

In other words, to Obarskyr's eyes, they looked soft.

The captain of the other ship was another story. She leaned forward. She was hard faced and grim, regarding the fearsome Captain Obarskyr through slitted eyes.

"This is Captain Heather White of the Justicar. Captain Obarskyr, you are to stand down your ship and prepare for boarding."

"And how is it that you know me, Captain White?" Obarskyr asked in a softly dangerous voice.

She smiled menacingly. "Four months ago you attacked a Leviathan which was under guard by two Lightnings. I was piloting one of those ships undercover. When you attacked us you forced me off. I came back determined to track you down, and so-" she spread her arms "here I am." She settled back into her command chair.

"No, Captain White. I don't think so." he said. "I'm not so very wanted for no reason. Your people won't be setting any feet aboard this ship."

"We'll just see about that, won't we?" Captain White said. The screens flared and collapsed into static, then resolved into a tactical display.

"Gunnery Sergeant, arm two EMP's torpedoes and fire!" Obarskyr ordered.

"Aye and Aye, cap'n!" the Gunnery Sergeant said, flicking two switches marked by taped on labels as 'EMP 1' and 'EMP 2'. Deep in the wings of the ship ammo lifts moved a pair of thick torpedoes to their launch tubes. Tracking computers aboard the torpedoes flickered to life.

The Gunnery Sergeant pressed the buttons immediately below the two arming switches as his headset informed him that the munitions were ready.

Electrically charged drive rails sparked as they pushed the torpedoes down the shaft and out the tube. Propelled by inertia the torpedoes arced through space. Once their onboard computers judged it to be at a safe distance their plasma drives blasted to life and powered them towards the target.

Beams of supercharged light rippled from the enemy ship and tore through the torpedoes. Shock waves buffeted the Iron Crab as the warheads exploded.

Goroth Obarskyr nodded. Now I have their measure, he thought.

The enemy was larger, more powerful, and more advanced than the Iron Crab.Scans showed that the enemy engines and reactors alone more than matched those aboard a Federation Carrier, and this ship was nowhere near the size of a Carrier.

Obarskyr, however, was a long time expert at judging people. At a glance, Captain White was clearly experienced and levelheaded, but her crew lacked the years of experience that Obarskyr's own crew of hardened desperadoes. Obarskyr smiled suddenly.

"Gunnery Sergeant, arm one EMP and prepare to mine drop it, then lock guns onto the target and open up. Helm, lay in a course for that asteroid belt. Air boss, set your fighters out on point. They'll pick us a course through that belt."

The duel between the two ships continued, exchanging blazing volleys of energy between them as the lithe black fighters streaked past the Iron Crab, twisting and turning as they blew apart the hazardous space rocks.

The shields of the Iron Crab took a fearsome beating at the hands of the advanced weaponry of the Justicar. Engineers worked frantically in the darkened bowels of the pirate queen to keep the shield up. Finally, the Iron Crab gained the field, passing the remains of rocks blasted apart by her fighters to clear the way.

"We've entered the asteroid field, cap'n!" called the helmsman.

"Wait..." Captain Obarskyr said, his darting eyes sizing up the situation from various screens, waiting for the perfect moment.

A massive asteroid glided behind the Iron Crab, into the Justicar's path. The Justicar opened up with a cataclysmic barrage of energy, blowing apart the asteroid. Clouds of dust and chunks of rock resolved in front of the Justicar.

"Gunnery, have the EMP go silent and drop it now!" Captain Obarskyr ordered. "Air boss, get those fighters aboard! Nav, plot a course to Port Kane! Helm, on my mark bring the guns to bear and you, Gunnery, open up!"

The torpedo dropped from the Iron Crab's launch tube at an angle and hung in space, silent as death. The other rocks and the dust concealed it from a casual scan, and the Justicar's tactical officer wasn't experienced enough to routinely run a detail scan at all times.

So they didn't realize that the torpedo was there until it blew up in their face.

The force of the explosion at that range was terrific. The flash of light was brief but incinerated dozens of subsystems on the Justicar and shorted out their shield emitters. The Justicar was drifting, hurt.

"Now!" Obarskyr barked.

The Iron Crab, fighters safely aboard, came about. The guns locked on and opened up vengefully with a hailstorm of particle bolts and massive, lethal railgun rounds that tore into the Justicar's vulnerable hull.

The Justicar's counterattack savaged the Iron Crab's shields and caused emitters across the ship to burn out with a crump. But the Justicar was badly hurt.

"Helm. take us past them! Nav, jump when ready!" Obarskyr snarled as the crew raced back and forth between stations furiously and consoles sparked, sirens howled, lights flashed, and the action unfolded onscreen.

The Iron Crab passed the Justicar at high speed. Gunfire ripped between the ships at a furious pace.

The Iron Crab reached the edge of the asteroid field.

"Safe jump distance achieved!" called the Nav officer. "Jump engines firing!"

The Iron Crab sidestepped reality and vanished.

"Jump complete, Cap'n. We're here," Nav called over his shoulder.

"Good work." Obarskyr said, surveying the bridge crew. "That goes for all of you. Helm, get us docked to that station."

"Aye, cap'n."

The Iron Crab glided towards the berth hastily issued to them by Docking Control. No one on Port Kane wanted to risk confronting a captain like Obarskyr.

Docking was smooth and uneventful. As soon as he'd made arrangements to have repairs initiated and to let the crew go on a limited R&R, he headed for his office.

He barely noticed the elegance of his furnishings as he selected a bottle of fine wine and poured himself some. He made his way to the chair behind his desk and sat. He sipped his wine.

One thing I do not need, he thought tiredly, is more enemies. He reflected on the advanced nature of the enemy ship and recalled hearing rumors of pirates being attacked by such ships at the dark end of space. He'd heard that Captain Robert Josephson had been blown apart by a strange ship while commanding his ship, the Indigo Warrior, mere weeks before. Obarskyr could well believe it now.

Obarskyr decided to arrange to have a third party spread word of his fight with the Justicar. The pirates may need some reassurance, now of all times. He made his plans.

The day passed into night.

To Be Continued...