A Starlight Universe story

Yes, this is not an Escape Velocity universe story. Rather, it's set in a universe of my own construction. However, there's nowhere else on the boards with a sci-fi story community, so I've posted it here.

It's the longest piece of work I've ever done, weighing in at 53 pages. I think it's one of my best works so far, but I'll leave it to you, the reader, to decide. I hope you enjoy it!

Chapter 1

H101 System. Planet Bounty. The city of Prosperity.

"Look, I can get the money. I just need a little more time," Helmsman Daniel said. Perspiration gathered on his brow, glittering in the flashing red and green strobes of the bar's lights. He mopped his forehead with a dirty handkerchief, stuffed it in a pocket. "You can give me time, right? I'm good for it, you can trust me, man. Come on...."

The band playing on the stage wailed its electric guitars and slammed its drums as the masses stamped and roared beneath the digital glory. The dancers swung and gyrated to the appreciative hoots of the crowd. But all this fell unnoticed by the people at Daniel's table.

Daniel was dressed in a long, olive green coat that had clearly seen better days. He was fairly young, but his face spoke of desperation and the lines thus formed aged him beyond his years. Curiously, he didn't wear a gun.

The other man was well dressed. He appeared at ease in the relatively low class establishment, whereas Daniel looked less comfortable in the crowded bar. A pair of bodyguards stood to either side of the man's chair. He went by Joesy.

Joesy shook his head pityingly. "Danny, Danny," he said. He took a sip of his wine and relaxed back into his chair. "You know I just can't do that. You really shouldn't have run the game so long when you couldn't pay, you know. This wouldn't have ended up so ugly."

"Seraph, it's a few hundred, man! I tell you, I can scrape it together. It's just gonna take time!" Daniel hissed desperately, leaning forward. "Time you don't have, I'm afraid, Danny," Joesy said. "Too much debt too long, kid. Time to pay, one way or the other. Gentlemen," Joesy said, nodding to his bodyguards.

The guards stepped forwards, pulling on brass knuckles. Daniel prepared to dive from his chair

Red gore erupted as the guard on the right suddenly lost his head. The other looked over, startled, and his brains blasted out the back of his skull and washed over one of the bar's other patrons, who was too high to notice.

Both Joesy and Daniel were splashed with debris. Daniel raised his hands and stared in disgust. Joesy, startled, looked over while going for his gun. The smoking barrel of a Tengarde Maneater revolver being raised between his eyes stopped Joesy from going through with the movement.

Daniel looked over at the shooter. "Seraph, it's good to see you, Damon," Daniel said with some feeling as the band's screaming lead singer hit a high note.

"I see you still have no control over your gambling, Daniel,” Damon said. “I suggest you shoot yourself next time you get the urge and save us all a lot of trouble." Damon’s conversational voice was utterly inappropriate to his harsh words. Daniel turned red and looked away.

Damon was a slight man, standing under the average height. He was dressed in an immaculate white synth-thread coat, with an elaborately worked steel rose in his top buttonhole. His black hair was finely cut and bound in a ponytail, and in his thin hand the massive revolver he held was an unbelievably incongruous sight. He was the chief of security on his ship, the Wayward Son, and lurking behind his eyes was a deadened soul much like that of a pit viper.

"Ah, well, sir," Joesy said, leaning back carefully and laying his hands on the table. "I was just, ah, discussing the matter of mister Daniel's debts with him. I trust you, ah, can assist us in resolving the matter?"

"But of course," Damon said, looking at Joesy for the first time. Damon didn't move his gun from where it rested against Joesy’s temple. "I assume you own the gambling establishment in question?"

"Indeed," Joesy said, keeping his cool admirably and matching Damon's stare. "The Blackjack. It's just down the way. Mister Daniel has been a frequent visitor but has been less active in paying his bills."

"Well, I should reassure you that we will take this opportunity to eliminate Helmsman Daniel's debts entirely, then." Damon said. "I'm glad to..." Joesy began, then he stopped as Damon drew back the hammer on his revolver. "You can't-" Joesy began, voice rising in panic, just before his face exploded out the back of his head. Now so much dead meat, he fell onto the table, brains slopping out of the hole in his head.

"Wrong," Damon said, holstering the gun. "Finish your drink, Daniel. We're leaving."

"Um, no thanks, sir," Daniel said, glancing at the viscera floating in his glass. "Let's just go."

Damon turned as Daniel stood gingerly. The patrons who had been watching looked back to their business and drinks quickly.

Daniel pulled some blood and gore from his brown hair, and uttered a disgusted curse as he wiped it on the edge of the table. He tried to brush the splotches off of his long coat. "Don't bother, that only spreads it around," Damon remarked. He led Daniel to the door through a path in the crowd formed by people hastily moving out of Damon's way.

A group of massive, heavily armed bouncers confronted them before they could reach the door. The manager, a balding older man in an dingy jacket and synth-thread trousers, surveyed them. "You've killed three customers, and disturbed my other patrons," he said. "You two aren't leaving any time soon."

"Oh, disturbed them?" Damon said conversationally. "I assume you aren't referring to the ones too drunk to think, and the ones too stoned to see, and.... well, not many possibilities left, I'm afraid. Exactly who did we disturb?"

"Well, other than that then, you left a mess. The remains need clearing up," the manager said. "Have you ever tried to get spinal fluid out of Stygian velvet?"

"Yes," Damon said. "Is there a point to this?"

"Yes, there is. It has to do with the two of you and the lake near here, perhaps some chunks of cement as well," the manager said. "But you look like a man who understands essential truths about the world. Maybe you can offer me an alternate proposal."

"Thirty megs?" Damon offered. The manager snorted. "Small change. If you want to be food for the fishes, I won't deny you the joy."

"Anything more than seventy is unreasonable," Damon said. The manager considered Damon's dead snake eyes, then nodded. "I'll accept seventy, " he said magnamoniously.

Damon pulled open his coat, hesitated briefly over his revolver, then pulled out a credit chit from the holster rig. He studied checked the chit on his wrist PDA briefly, then handed it over.

The manager checked it on his own wrist PDA, then nodded at his bouncers. They backed off and moved out of the way. "Fine, you can go," the manager said. "But you needn't come back any time soon."

"Don't worry, neither I nor my captain shall be gracing your establishment with our
custom in the future," Damon said. "Come, Daniel."

"Your captain?" the manager said, raising his eyebrows. "And who might that be, if you don't object to my asking?"

Damon looked back over his shoulder as they reached the door. "His name is Gordon Obantyr," Damon said.

The manager paled, and his eyes widened. The door slid shut behind Damon and Daniel, and they walked out into the raining industrial cesspit of Bounty.

"You can't think I can't see through your petty scheme? This isn't Clearshine, this is just snake oil!" Jakob said angrily, pointing the vial in hit hand at the dealer. “This liquid isn’t even transparent-exactly how stupid do you think I am?”

"Hey, hey, man, don't blame me, ahay?" the dealer said, the white teeth in his smile shining out of his night black face. His eyes glittered under his cap as he spread his hands before him in a ‘what can you do’ gesture. "I'm just a humble dealer. If sometimes they don't ship me what you want, well, is it my fault?"

"Yes," Kyle said as she leaned against the counter, arms crossed.

The black market shop was crammed with drugs and drug ingredients alike, Here a glistening steel sterile module brimming with some esoteric mixture hung next to a length of dried I'kut muscles, there a human skull lay on its side next to a copy of Bashman's Chemicals. For the less reputable citizens, it served as a pharmaceutical shop of sorts.

Unfortunately, not all of the dealers were highly (or even remotely) trustworthy or educated in their business practices.

"Selling this, this, garbage for the same price as pure medicinal Clearshine is obscene,” Jakob said, slamming the vial down on the counter. “Either get what we want, or we’re going elsewhere.”

"Cool, man, be cool," the dealer said, no longer looking pleased. "Maybe I can get what you want, and maybe I can't. You better realize it's expensive type stuff you're talkin' about, and hard to get."

"It'd better be cheaper than the stuff at the Market Indigo," Kyle said, studying the door with her cool green eyes. "And if it isn't, well, it’s just down the road."

The dealer glanced back and forth. He shook his head slightly, and lifted a basket from the floor of his shop to set it on the counter. He leafed through it and picked out a vial. He studied it for a moment, then showed it to the doctor. "This satisfy you, doctor?"

Jakob looked at it, then nodded curtly. "I'll take twenty. Price?" he asked, flipping on his wrist PDA and preparing to make out a credit chit.

"Thirty kilos apiece, man, for a total of six hunnert kilos," the dealer said.

"Thirty-?!" Jakob began. "Too much, bud,” Kyle said, still studying the doorframe. “Twenty kilos.”

"Twenty five kilos," the dealer said. "Twenty," Kyle said, looking at the dealer for the first time. He hesitated. "Ahay, twenty kilos," the dealer said, suddenly agreeable.

Kyle looked away again, and the dealer took the opportunity to admire her lithe frame from beneath his cap as he set vials on the countertop. He knew better than to even suggest what he was thinking; no, he liked his balls just fine where they were, he didn't need them ground into a paste on the decking. She was in all leather with a sleeveless smuggler coat, and some manner of long barreled gun was at her right hip. That all smelled of danger.

The doctor wore a battered, sown up, and dirty lab coat that some day had looked sort of white, with a thick, armored chest piece over his undershirt. Blacked out goggles adorned his face, and he was balding with a reddish-grey beard. He had no gun, but he carried a medical bag.

At first the dealer had thought they were easy marks, but now he realized his mistake. They weren't fresh off a tour freighter, they were clearly a lot tougher than any homeworlder tourist, and no local tough was so well equipped.

They had to be mercenaries.

"Here. Take the money, why don't you," Jakob growled, slapping a chit onto the table. He picked up the vials and carefully placed them in his medical bag.

"Thank you much," the dealer said breezily, the smile back on his face as he stuffed away the money. "Anythin' at all else I can get you?"

"That's the last of the supplies," Jakob said. "Thankfully," he added under his breath as he turned away. Kyle unfolded herself and lead the way out the door.

The dealer leaned back in his chair, listening to the pattering of the rain on the roof. He wondered how long it would be before someone tried to rob the pair of them. He didn't suppose the robbers would live long enough to regret their mistake.

Kyle was studying her PDA intently as the pair of them got out of the rain in a tin-roofed shelter. Pipes and cables spiraled around their refuge, and a road map fluttered on the wall where it was pinned. Jakob sat on the bench, cold and wet, rubbing his hands together.

"Too old for this s###," he muttered as he watched the dirty water run down the street's rain gutters. It was as if the sky had opened up and the gods were pissing on the world. The sky was black as night and bleak with clouds. Nobody was walking on the soaking streets, but there were people around anyway, somewhere, like rats in the walls.

Kyle snapped her PDA shut. "Damon finally found Daniel in some dockside bar, he's bringing the kid back to the ship,” she said, looking up. “Says the captain wants to set off as soon as we're aboard, so-"

"Yeah, yeah, we got to make tracks back to the s###can. I know the drill," Jakob said, standing up slowly and straightening. "Damn cold," he muttered under his breath, pulling his coat tighter. "Should've brought a copping drink with me."

Kyle glanced at him, red hair plastered to her head by rain. She said nothing as Jakob stumped off into the blackened street. In her mind, she weighed his whining and his drinking against his medical skills, and sighed inside. She set off after him.

Unfortunately, she'd just need to put up with the old bastard.

The dockyard wasn't all that far, but it still took time to get there. She had the unpleasant sensation that they were being watched. In all her experience, that usually meant that it was about to be time to kill or be killed. So she set a hand on the shotgun at her hip as they made their way along a tight alley.

She felt the shadows more than saw them as people got in their way. The rain and dark would have hidden them, if she were dumb and blind. She lifted her gun as Jakob started, just noticing the people.

She saw the long shape of knives as she pulled the trigger and a body flew back in a rain of red on the black velvet night as the others closed in teeth shining and blades gleaming as she threw Jakob out of the way with one hand and fired again with the gun and a head exploded at least it could have been a head she thought as she pulled out the shells and flipped the lever then loading the shells into the gun and they were too close now and she lashed out with a kick shedding a shower of shining raindrops and crushed something a knee perhaps and someone went down was that a scream maybe maybe firing again more red on the velvet hard to get that stain out so are they running yes they are no not getting away that one's dead too damn out of shells again better reload.

She breathed in for the first time since the fight started, and then out again as the rest of the thieves hastily made tracks, feet pounding on the concrete and splashing in the puddles. Blinking, trying to clear her vision of the red glow, she fumbled with the gun, suddenly awkward as the adrenaline made a hasty exit. She felt the silence echo deafeningly in the alleyway, the click as her shells fell into place a welcome distraction.

"Damn, girl," Jakob said, finally. "Feel any better now that you've murdered some people?" he said harshly, wiping some blood off his coat.

"Yes," Kyle said, holstering the gun. She was notably unperturbed, her attitude professional-that of a hardened mercenary. "We'd better keep going before the scum come back with friends."

"It isn't the scum you ought be concerned at," a voice said flatly. The gun was back in her hand as she leveled it into Damon's face. "I suspect that those that got away didn't run very far," he said as he regarded her with his dead eyes, smiling slightly like a cobra spreading its hood. She holstered the gun again, her face betraying no expression.

"Apologies, sir. I didn't hear you approach," Kyle said. "That's my job, Gunnery Sergeant Kyle, not yours," Damon said. He surveyed the corpses for a moment, then his gaze turned back to Kyle and Jakob. "Enough lazing about, I think. The captain is growing tired of waiting for you to crawl out of the sewers. It's time to get back to the ship and be away."

He turned and walked away and they followed him into the night as the rain poured down like tears.

Harth swore at the pipe vibrantly as he struggled to tighten the seal on it with a wrench. It kept slipping, and he was tempted to just leave the Seraph-be-damned thing be, except that was one of the pipes that regulated the water flow to the reactor.

If it leaked, no one would thank him for getting the radioactive fluid all over... and it especially concerned him because he and his engineering crew were the ones who would get rashes and suffer that intolerable itching from the radiated gunk. Besides which, it would interfere with the cooling of the fusion reactor. That was bad for everyone.

So he labored.

The engineering deck was mostly unoccupied. Obantyr had hired a few third and second class engineers to help Harth keep the ship in fighting condition, but considering the size of the ship, they needed at least a baker's dozen of engineers, and he was therefore drastically shorthanded. Which left him, an eighth class combat engineer, fixing leaks while he was suppose to be off shift, just so he wouldn't need to deal with them if or when something important came up.

Harth was only a bit over average height, but he was heavily built and muscular. They didn't have a ton of food onboard, and the food they ate tended to be optimized to deliver the necessary calories, proteins, and vitamins, which kept him from putting on weight as he was prone to. He had traded his jumpsuit in for a thin shirt and shorts due to the heat in the engineering decks. He had an elaborate, highly abstracted tattoo on his right arm.

Harth heard someone approaching down the corridor. With a grunt, he finally wrenched the seal into place. Stepping off of his stool, he wiped his forehead off with a handkerchief as the door slid open. It made a horrible, grinding shriek as it slid open, and he winced. Piece of s###, you're next, he thought as he tucked the handkerchief away into his shorts pocket.

The person who walked in was Keffa, the navigator. His face was adorned by thick black spectacle goggles, and he wore a thick, synth-wool sweater to ward off the perpetual cold of the main decks of the mercenary craft. Harth didn't envy him for it now, as the engineering deck was always hot. Keffa adjusted his goggles, face already starting to sweat.

"What do you want?" Harth demanded, popping off a panel and pulling out his omnidriver so he could take out some burnt wiring in the door controls. "Lost a map someplace?"

"I wanted to ask about the jump field boosters. They were acting up when we made the jump from Aensland," Keffa said, producing a wad of printouts from a pocket. "It should have only taken them about seven minutes to warm up, but-" He coughed suddenly into the crook of his elbow. "Sorry, not use to the heat. Anyway, it took about ten minutes, and-"

"Keffa, what the hell do you think? That I can get to everything? That I have assistants who can find their ######s without needing both hands and a stellar navmap?" Harth demanded, yanking out burned wiring and tossing it aside. "Where the hell did this short come from, anyhow," Harth muttered to himself.

Keffa lifted his spectacle goggles and gave Harth a look. "If you want to rot in an Aensland jail for the rest of your life on charges of murder and shipjacking that will be in court until doomsday, you can feel free," he said sardonically. The Aensland government was not enamored of guns for hire, and tended to treat them the same as common pirates. "But I think most of the rest of us would prefer to be able to flee in time. And if my field boosters don't work properly then I can't keep us out of harm's way when it's time to run."

Harth muttered something indistinct and uncomplimentary. "There you are you little bastard," Harth said as he found the short. He set to opening the bulkhead up to get at it better.

Keffa was still waiting. Harth turned to him, sighing inside. "All right, I get the point. I'll take a look," he said irritably. "Seraph knows I've got a bunch of other s### I haven't gotten round to yet, but I'll take a look."

"I've got some field measurements here. You might be interested in them, I don't know," Keffa said, proffering them. Harth took them and flipped through them. He paused over one. "Huh," he mused. "That might be important..."

Keffa was about to ask what Harth meant, when the shipboard intercom blared for attention. Harth stepped over and jabbed the switch. "Harth here,"
"Harth, the captain says to finish up, because it's time to get ready for liftoff," the harsh voice of Executive Officer Oman said. "The rest of the officers are almost back from the shore run."

"Look, Oman, I've just discovered a problem with the jump field boosters," Harth began. Who did what, Keffa mouthed incredulously. Harth turned away. "It might take some time to fix, and-"

"Fine. You have five minutes before we leave," Oman said. "We have a new client who apparently demands punctuality, and we can't spare any time here."

"Understood," Harth said. "I'll get things ready."

"Better step on it," Oman said, then he cut the signal off.

Harth turned to Keffa and shrugged. "I guess I won't be getting to the boosters after all," Harth said ironically. Keffa shook his head and left. Harth looked at the door, which was going to remain stuck open until he could replace the wiring, sighed, and went to jump-start the primary fusion reactor.

Daniel did a diagnostic on his main control yoke as he sat in his helmsman's chair, preparing the ship's piloting systems for high-intensity space operations.

As Daniel would explain with some enthusiasm to anyone who seemed interested, there was a big difference between the various types of space craft. For example, a tug ship for guiding in deep-space megafreighters was what was called a low-profile operations vessel, in that it was strictly a form of civilian vessel, did not go armed, was not equipped with fusion power or nuclear detonation drives, and probably relied on the jumpgate network for interstellar travel. Space yachts and small freighters fit that class also.

On the other end of the spectrum, high-intensity operations vessels are the most devastating of space combat vehicles, the hotrods of modern space warfare, designed for extremely dangerous combat missions in free fire zones. They can be not much larger than an average size freighter, but they wield a prodigious amount of firepower, have redundant, top of the line nuclear systems, jump capability, and even electromagnetic shielding in some cases. The ship operated by Captain Obantyr, the Wayward Son, is an example of a small high-intensity operations ship, as it is not much larger than an average freighter, but much slimmer and more predatory in build and equipped with many extremely dangerous weapons.

In other words, the SS Wayward Son is a highly lethal, reflex-killing computer augmented space vehicle equipped with an extremely dangerous array of fission, mass driver, and particle weaponry. It carried a pair of modest size assault shuttles, designed to deliver troops to ground and space targets while fighting off interceptors and it was equipped with a point defense grid composed of interceptor missiles and laser arrays. It had an arsenal onboard to outfit its compliment of hired Espatier combat troops, who were under command of the ship's Security Chief, Damon.

As Helmsman, a lot of the capability of the ship was Daniel's to control. Honestly, he felt a certain delight to go from piloting the blast sleds he use to race back on his home world of Braxa (a vehicle that was built to travel at speeds in excess of five hundred miles per hour through wooded terrain, and could shift position by ten feet as a result of a tiny twitch), to piloting this fast, lethal combat space ship. He only sometimes regretted the fact that his obsessive gambling forced him to run from his home and leave the races, and then throw his lot with Obantyr and his crew.

As Daniel continued his diagnostics, Kyle walked in. She had only stopped briefly in her quarters to trade in her leather for the grey ship's jumpsuit that served as their uniform. She had to stoop to get under the low ceiling of the sliding entry door, and it was good that she was thin because the bridge wasn't built for fatasses.

The bridge was crowded with chunky, purposeful looking black panels and flatscreens both built into the wall and suspended. The keys of the keyboards were like grubby black typewriter keys, the overhead lights were harsh yellow lights that could go orange or red to reflect emergency conditions. The navigator, gunnery sergeant, and helmsman had stations arranged in a triangle with gunnery sergeant and navigator in the back of the bridge and the helmsman positioned in the front of the bridge. The captain sat in the middle of that triangle.

Kyle's station was to the left of the door. She sat and leaned back as the control sticks on the arms of her chair extended. She began running a diagnostic on the massive array of firepower the ship carried, and after a moment glanced back over her shoulder.

"Any idea what the new job is?" she asked Daniel.

He didn't answer. His concentration on his work was so absolute that he probably didn't even know she had spoken. Kyle shook her head and adjusted some dials on her control board. Half the time he was too focused to see you, the other half he was too timid to talk. She didn't care for him.

Kyle looked at the readout on her screen. The laser grid was reading green across the board, but she opened up the diagnostic log to see if there were any errors anyway. Most wouldn't bother with the tedious, boring line by line scan, but she took doing well at her job seriously. Abruptly, the air circulation kicked online to full power, and she heard a distant clang as the main airlock closed in preparation for leaving the planet’s surface. She wouldn’t miss it; Bounty was a s###ty armpit of a planet, with nothing but crime, criminals, and mud.

The door opened again. Keffa, the navigator, walked in. She had a certain professional respect for Keffa; he was completely unfazed by anyone and anything. Aggression or macho grandstanding was greeted by a certain skepticism by Keffa, as if to ask do you really expect me to take that seriously? He nodded to her as he stepped from under the door, and lingered at her station for a moment.

“You just got back aboard, didn't you?” Keffa asked. She nodded as she went down the line of error listings. Most of them were irrelevant, but she made notes of a few on sticky paper and stuck them to her console so the engineers would read them and look at the problems when they did their sweep of the bridge stations. “I had to provide cover for Doctor Jakob,” she said as she made notes. “All the Espatiers were needed to prevent thievery and maintain a perimeter around the ship.”

"Hmm. I was hoping you would say you went with the captain and found out about our new job," Keffa said, only half serious. "The last one didn't exactly pay out well."

"The captain wouldn't be in business if he didn't know what he was doing," Kyle said. "I have a certain faith in him."

"You have been working for him longer than me, so you'd be the one to know, I suppose," Keffa said with a shrug. "I wonder, that's all. I was just down in engineering, and Harth is still short of hands to work repairs. He was actually fixing leaking pipes and squeaking doors on his time off shift, and him the engineering chief! I can’t imagine how much work they must be doing."

“It goes like that sometimes,” Kyle said. “One time I had to run manual maintenance on the main guns because he didn’t have the people to work on them. Obantyr will sort it out.”

"Hunh. Well, I guess we'll just have to wait and see," he said. "Are you running a diagnostic?"
"Yes," she said, not adding that he was distracting her and had caused her to lose her place three times.

"I'd better run one on my station also. Excuse me," he said, and he made his way through the dark, cramped bridge to his post.

Damon, Harth, and Jakob were both busy at their jobs elsewhere in the ship, Keffa figured as he sat down at his station and booted it up. Obantyr was probably in his office, looking over the job briefing or something. Keffa wondered where Oman was, though; Oman usually put in an appearance at the bridge before the ship took off.

Are you sure you want to run a diagnostic? his computer asked. Keffa punched the confirmation icon. He shook his head at the underpowered jump boosters. Those could cause a lot of trouble if they weren't fixed. Just in case, he set a watchdog program to monitor booster power while he did other things.

If he didn't have a proper level of power to his jump drives, it would be difficult to make a quick escape in the event of trouble, because the drives would heat up slower. Instead of taking five minutes, it might take ten or twelve. It didn't seem like much, but in space combat five minutes was the difference between living and dying.

Aside from that, he didn't seem to have any trouble with his nav systems. The engineers had been busy working things over while the shore party was off ship, and they had gotten to most of the major problems.

The ship had been in a lot of ugly fights lately; there was that brawl on Tanzia, where roidcrawlers belonging to a local mining guild had taken exception to the Wayward Son entering their local navizone. There was the fight with some kind of ancient, high technology vessel that wasn't in any databank in a deep space rendezvous; they barely escaped that time. Then they had gotten hired to take out a group of asteroid pirates that had ambitions to rule a local moon. And finally, there was Tebra. No one wanted to talk about Tebra.

So the ship had taken a lot of beating lately, keeping the engineers busy. They had got a lot done while they were docked, but.... lately, they were short on cash, which was one reason why they didn't have as many engineers as they needed to keep everything running as well as it should.

It may have been a beaten up surplus warship, but they had spent a lot of sweat and blood to keep it going. At the end of the day, they had nowhere else to go. They lived on it, and friends of theirs had died on it. It was their home, their nation. Their ship.
XO Oman walked through the door into the bridge. He turned his head and surveyed the bridge. He was a tall, lean man dressed in a grey service jumpsuit with the ship patch, and had strong, hatchet-faced features. His eyes were hard; not the dead, icy snake eyes that Damon had, but a solid, unmovable hardness. He yielded to no one, and his loyalty to the captain was implacable.

"Situation report," he ordered.

"All systems ready for deployment," Kyle responded. "Weapons are green, E-Mags are green, defense grid is ready to go."

"Nav systems are ready. I could be happier with the boosters, but they're good enough," Keffa said, jabbing some controls. "All sensor arrays are tracking and read green and go."

David said nothing.

"Helm, report," Oman ordered.

"All helm systems are prepared," David replied flatly, still completely immersed. "All maneuver drives prepared for test fire, all main drives read nuclear containment intact and detonation engines green and go."

Oman took to his station next to the captain's chair, examining the diagnostic feed from the other three stations. "Understood," he said. "Helm, prepare for drive test. Nav, we have a course, get ready to feed it. Gunnery, prepare defense grid."

As they uttered acknowledgments, the door opened again, and the captain walked into the bridge.

In many ways, the man named Gordon Obantyr was simply a cypher. His last name seemed to indicate an aristocratic birth, but he associated with the lower element of society much more often than the higher. He dressed in the manner of a civilized, educated man, and commanded a less than legal combat operation. His greying hair and beard spoke of age, but his face was that of a man in his prime. His eyes gave nothing away. His face seemed to accrue more than its share of shadows, and he wore a black suit with a knee length black jacket.

He was among the most dangerous men in known space, wanted on many worlds and by many people for either what they saw as his crimes against them or simply so they could acquire his services. He was dangerous because there was nothing he would not dare, and no punishment he feared. He knew how to make people face death willingly, and he could inspire, that most dangerous of talents, one the Espace wanted as its own property. His actions were the source of endless debate in space traveller circles; some branded him a genius, others a base criminal and madman. He had taken hostages to prevent others from firing on his ship, and had used human shields, but he had also risked death and loss of contract to save his crewmen. The list goes on.

You simply could not pass up the chance to work for this man.

"The ship is go for launch, sir," Oman said, saluting Obantyr. Obantyr nodded as he swept over to his command chair. He crossed his arms behind his back, standing in front of the chair.

"Helm, test fire on three," Obantyr ordered.

Daniel adjusted something, then gripped the control yoke. "Ready,"

"One," Obantyr said. "Two. Fire."

The ship rocked back violently as plasma jets roared to life and uttered a burst of white light. Keffa, Kyle, and Oman grabbed at their stations; Obantyr stood still, riding the deck unperturbed.

"Fire one," Daniel said. "Second test ready."

"On three again," Obantyr said, checking a readout. "One, two, fire."
The rear jet array erupted, sending the ship rocking towards its nose.

"All jets go," Daniel said. "Ready for launch,"

"On my order, slingshot around the planet to the number five lagrange point, Helm," Obantyr said. Daniel got to work. Obantyr stepped over to the Nav station and handed Keffa a chip, which Keffa hurriedly ran. "Set that course," Obantyr instructed. "Yes sir," Keffa said, and Obantyr stepped back to his command chair and sat.

"Helm, prepare to move," Obantyr said. "Prepared to fire vertical thrusters and detonation engines," Daniel responded.

"Fire drives and go," Obantyr ordered.

The Wayward Son lifted from the surface as the plasma drives fired along the ship, lifting and turning the ship on a blazing white column of flame, blasting flame on the dockyard ground and blackening it with the output from the military grade jets. Rain sizzled and turned to steam in the incredible heat of the plasma flame. The ship was like a raptor soaring over fields as it erupted over the vast, decrepit wasteland of shantytowns.

Moments later, David spoke. "We're over the ocean. I'm firing the detonation engines... now."

A triple burst of earshattering nuclear eruptions blasted from the main engine pods of the Wayward Son, and it disappeared from view as it carved a flaming white line through the clouds.

Chapter 2

"We have entered orbit around Bounty, captain. Stabilizing course and plotting to the lagrange point," Daniel reported as he adjusted the control yoke minutely. The ship's drives could be heard firing as a dull thump that reverberated through the corridors, as computers beeped and lights flickered. On the main screen, the orbital course was shown in three-d.

"Very well," Obantyr said. He finally sat, and keyed the intercom. "Chief Damon, Chief Harth, and Officer Jakob, report to the bridge."

"It's time I explained the nature of our new employment prospects," Obantyr said, regarding the bridge crew. "I shall proceed when the others arrive."

He turned his head. "ETA to the lagrange point, Helmsman?"

"Twenty minutes at cruising speed, sir," Daniel said, flicking some switches.

"That will be enough time," Obantyr said.

Just then, the door opened. Harth walked in, wiping his hands on a rag. He nodded at Obantyr, muttered a "Sir," and stood by Kyle's station. Damon arrived a few moments later. He passed the others over entirely and smiled slightly at Obantyr as he said "Sir," then he took a seat at the bridge security station. Finally, Jakob arrived."Seraph damn it, Obantyr, you’d better have a good reason to distract me,” he growled. “I’ve got too damn much work to do, thanks to your not hiring more medical personnel.” Keffa snorted, then hastily turned it into a cough into his elbow.

“Surely you remember the concept of a ‘mission briefing’, Doctor,” Obantyr said sardonically. “Watch how you talk to me.”

"Go cop yourself, Obantyr. I'm chief medical officer and I'll talk how I damn well please," Jakob growled. "Hurry it up, I have patients waiting."

"Fine," Obantyr said. He flipped a few switches, and the orbital map was replaced by a yellow wireframe view of a space station. Information flowed in red text, displaying economic, military, and technological statistics.

"This is Arta Station, a mining base on the edge of the frontier," Obantyr said, indicating the display. "Recently, Arta has seriously decreased the volume of ore that it is shipping out. That ore is needed at the planet Outbound, which is along our route and will be a port of call to pick up supplies, to provide for the manufacturing of starships for a local company. Without that ore, Outbound's production will be seriously impeded.

"Therefore, we have been hired to go to Arta and restore the shipping to normal levels, by any means necessary. Our client is a representative from the Outbound Yards manufacturing company. They have agreed to pay us a certain amount of money in advance to fund additional repairs and re-equipping, which is one reason we will be putting in a stop at Outbound.

"Now, the complications. As I said, Arta is near the frontier. There is a large danger of running into well armed criminals that far out away from usual Espace patrol zones. And as you all know, there have been some unusual things seen out there lately...

"Therefore we will be running on continuous weapons-ready status. Everyone will be paying attention to their readouts, everyone watching what they're doing. We haven't been in such dangerous terrain for some time, so we must be careful.

"That's the size of it. Any questions? Yes, Oman," Obantyr said, indicating his XO.

"Sir, why would Arta suddenly cut back on their shipping? It doesn't make any sense," Oman said. "Unless there's been some sort of catastrophe, maybe, there's no reason for them to stop shipping. After all, they need to sell the ore to trade for goods to stay alive, they can't afford to decrease their shipping."

"I don't know," Obantyr said. "There has been no explanation of the decrease by Arta officials. I have been hearing rumors of a frontier client attempting to acquire armament in large quantity recently from sources on the black market, and it seems possible that the two events are related."

"Why can't Outbound send in Draconis? They have a contract with that firm at this time, I believe," Damon said. "Draconis has more than enough leverage to deal with one unruly bunch of peasants."

"Operations on the frontier are dangerous. Draconis, although a heavily armed and well supplied firm, is very conservative in its choice of missions, and it would take a lot of organization and money for them get the necessary captains together, send them in, supply them, etceteras," Obantyr said. "Draconis would rather break strikes inside the Outer Colonies and provide combat escorts for freighters than risk money and blood fighting in the frontier."

Keffa looked up from his screens. "Sir, I've just been looking at the mapping for Arta. It looks as though Arta has been having trouble with shard storms and broken up roids in recent months. It could be that Arta is strip mining the fields too heavily, just like Styger did back in the day."

"Understood, Nav. That could be useful intel," Obantyr said, scratching his chin as he thought about that.

"Sir, what will be our tactical approach to the situation?" Kyle asked. "Shall I arm the nukes?"

"Arm everything," Obantyr ordered, resting his arm on the armrest of the chair. "This is the frontier we're talking about, Gunnery Sergeant. We won't survive unless we've got enough firepower on tap to level a planet."

"Seraph, man. You never cease to amaze me," Jakob said, shaking his head. "Hasn't the thought of diplomacy, maybe negotiation, ever occurred to you? Is it necessary to kill everything that you come across, out of assumption it wants to kill you?"

"I never kill things unless I think they want to kill me," Obantyr said, looking at Jakob. "That would be bad for business. Don't be stupid about this, Doctor. You know what kind of a place the frontier is. We'll have enough to worry about just flying through without looking around for more, and I'm not going to put this ship in combat unless it's necessary. It's a long flight to Arta."

Jakob snorted, then turned and left the bridge, ducking his head under the low black metal of the doorway.

"Well, seeing as we're going into the great damn beyond, I might as well get back to work on the engines, sir. I want better handling on them before we're in a threat zone," Harth said.

"Very well, Engineering. Everyone, return to your work. The briefing is concluded," Obantyr said. "Gunnery, Nav, I want you to produce a minimum threat route to Arta for my approval by sixteen hundred hours tomorrow."

They acknowledged their orders as Harth left the bridge. Damon paused on his way out. "I apologize for the way Jakob spoke to you, captain."

"He still thinks peaceful solutions are ideal," Obantyr said flatly. "In this business, peaceful solutions are bought with the currencies of war. He should be use to the facts by now. If he isn’t, well, he’s not indispensable.”

"I'll have a talk with him," Damon said. "No, I don't think that's smart, Damon," Obantyr said. "But sir-" Damon began.

"No, Damon. That's final," Obantyr ordered. "If that needs doing, Oman can do it. This situation does not require your... talents."

Damon shot Oman an absolutely poisonous look, and left the bridge. Oman narrowed his eyes as he watched Damon leave. "Security chief Damon-" he began.

"Is a trusted member of my command crew, and has absolute personal loyalty to me," Obantyr said. "If anything, he's guilty of being too loyal." Obantyr paused. "XO, do a round of the ship. Make sure everything is in order."

Oman bowed, then left the bridge.

Obantyr turned back in his chair. The bridge rang loudly with silence as the bridge crew extra paid close attention to their boards, doing their best not to hear the arguing command staff.

“We’ve reached the jump point, sir,” Keffa said.

“Very well,” Obantyr responded. “Make the jump.”

“Rigging for jump,” Keffa said, depressing a number of buttons. “Jump systems engaged. We’re interfacing. The jump engines are hot, we’ll be able to make the jump in three minutes.”

“Understood,” Obantyr said. He sat back, brooding over thoughts that were his alone to think.

Oman stepped through the doorway and entered the medical bay.

It was Oman’s usual duty to sweep the ship before they left on a job, to make sure everyone was at their stations and to push crewmen to their tasks where necessary. Oman functioned as Obantyr’s hand, taking care of things Obantyr couldn’t spare the time to do himself and providing a command presence where Obantyr wasn’t able to.

More than that, Oman was largely responsible for dealing with the crew on a disciplinary level. If a situation called for Obantyr’s involvement directly, it was a dire one indeed. So when a crewer saw Oman approaching, the crewer knew that he was seeing Obantyr’s shadow, and if the crewer was smart, he got right to work.

The medical bay was mostly still painted white. Water and coolant thrummed through pipes and tubes on the ceiling. There were ten steel gurneys along the north wall in the room, with medical monitors at their head. Storage cabinets were sunk into the walls, and there was an adjustable table extending from the west wall. Chief Medical Officer Jakob stood over a massive, burly man in a ship’s jumpsuit who was laying on a gurney. The man looked uncomfortable.

“So, where the hell did you pick this up, huh?” Jakob grunted, examining a medical scanner’s display. “Been having a little too much fun in the dockside bars?”

“Well, geez doc, you know how it is,” the man said, shifting nervously. “We’re in space so long-”

“I don’t care what you do with yourself on dockside, crewer,” Jakob snapped, setting down the scanner and picking up a nasty looking hypodermic needle. “You’re suppose to be more careful than that, and if you aren’t going to be careful, then why are we letting you go out on the docks? We can’t have you dumbs###s bringing that kind of disease aboard.” He jabbed the needle into the crewer’s gut and depressed it. The crewer yelped involuntarily.

Jakob yanked the needle back out with an audible pop. “There,” he said, throwing the needle away and yanking off his gloves. “Some gene tailored germ killers. Clear that right up. Now, get the cop out of here. I gotta do paperwork.”

The crewer pulled himself off the gurney, a little wobbly legged. He edged past Oman and left.

“What the cop do you want, Oman?” Jakob demanded, stumping over to his chair and sitting heavily. He adjusted his goggles, then picked up some papers. “Come to rip me a new one? Huh. I’d like to see you try.”

“I think you’d better understand something, Doctor,” Oman said. “The captain’s feeling stressed lately. More’s the point, the crew’s feeling stressed. And when the crew’s feeling stressed, they get antsy. And when they get antsy, they need to know who’s in charge-”

“Is there a point to this?” Jakob said. “I have work to do.”

Oman strode over, took the papers Jakob was holding, yanked them out of Jakob’s hand, and slapped them to the desk. Oman leaned very close to Jakob.

“You will shut your face when a superior officer is talking to you, Chief Medical Officer Jakob,” Oman said in a flat voice. “You will not talk back, you will not argue, you will not be your usual jackass self. Am I making enough of a point for you?”

“Well, now, I just don’t know,” Jakob said. “I’m worried I can’t respond without appearing to be subverting the chain of command.”

Oman met Jakob’s eyes. They exchanged a glare for a long moment, before Jakob looked away.

“The hell do you care, anyway,” Jakob said.

“I care because it’s my job to,” Oman said. “Explain to me why you’re behaving in this manner. Now. Or else, you’ll be explaining to Damon.”

“You think I’m afraid of him?” Jakob demanded. Oman snorted, and said nothing. Jakob lapsed into silence for a long moment. Then he reached under his desk, and pulled out a bottle. He poured two glasses, and pushed one over to Oman.

“I don’t think-” Oman began. “Shut up and drink,” Jakob said, tossing his down, slammed the glass down and dumping some more alcohol into it.

Oman lifted the glass, looked at the murky brown liquid, and drank it. His face was impassive as he sat the glass down. He waited.

Jakob tossed the other drink down. He filled his glass again, and sat still in his chair for a long moment. Then he began to talk.

“I guess after Tebra, I started worrying about things more,” Jakob said. The room lights dimmed as in the distance the bridge crew diverted power to prepare the ship for jump. The shadows deepened.

“We lost so many people on Tebra. I never saw so many bleeding people before on this deck... Seraph.” He took a drink. “I mean, I use to be a doctor stationside for a long time, so I saw injured people a lot, but I never knew them... they were all strangers. Whereas I knew everyone who bled to death after Tebra.
“I tried to justify it, but there was no need or reason for all of them to be killed. It could have all been avoided. There was no profit in it, but Obantyr deliberately led us into it. He sent us in there and he KNEW that all of us could have died, and he didn’t care!” Jakob slammed his fist into the desk. Papers shuddered.

“If Tebra hadn’t happened, we would have all died, and there’s even less profit in that,” Oman said. “He did it deliberately, yes. But he did it to prevent us from suffering a fate that could have been far worse.”

“So you say,” Jakob scoffed. “I didn’t see you struggling to save men who you knew would die, or putting on rubber boots to keep blood out of your socks.”

“No, you didn’t,” Oman said coldly. “I was busy losing a friend.”

Jakob stopped. He hesitated. “Well-”

“You weren’t the only one who suffered at Tebra,” Oman said, standing abruptly. “Learn to keep your face shut, or deal with the consequences.”

Oman swept out of the room, leaving Jakob behind him. Jakob watched the door close. He kept watching it for a long time afterwards, then, after some time passed, he reached out and poured himself another drink.

Outbound System. Planet Outbound. Sitting in orbit.

Obantyr blinked off the white afterimage of the hyperspace jump. “We’ve entered orbit around-” Keffa began. “Yes, I can see that, Nav,” Obantyr said driely. “Plot a docking approach to Outbound Yards, Helm.”

Outbound Yards was a massive black ring in space, ranged with flashing specks of light. On its inside, it had long racks of manufacturing yards stretching away from the station. Along the outside, massive blocky habitats and ship-bays were built onto it. Communications and surveillance satellites were arrayed around the station. Gun turrets tracked incoming traffic while insectile space superiority fighters flew through flight lanes and scanned the vessels inbound to dock. A pair of chartered Draconis Corporation gunships hung in space around the station, sending chattering signals back and forth. They knew better than to mess with the Wayward Son as it cruised haughtily into an approach vector.

Keffa adjusted the communications pickups. “We’re getting commercials on channel fourteen,” he said, bemused. “I wonder how much they paid to get their ads on a navigation channel?”

“Not enough,” Obantyr said, watching the main display as Daniel steered the Wayward Son in to dock.

They had to wait momentarily for a cargo freighter to clear the docking port they were assigned to. When the freighter had moved, Daniel slowly moved the ship into docking position. A set of docking tubes extended from the station and clamped onto the receivers on the Wayward Son. There was a loud clank and a BANG as the hookup was established.

“We’ve docked,” Daniel said, looking up from his instruments for the first time since he sat at his station.

Obantyr keyed the ship’s comm. “Damon, Jakobs, Harth, report to the bridge,” he ordered. He keyed the comms back offline. “Gunnery sergeant, you’ll be going dockside with them,” Obantyr said. “In the meantime, put the ship’s defense grid online and put interior defenses up to maximum levels.”

“Yessir,” Kyle responded. She hit some controls, and the ball turrets whirred out of their concealment bays along the outside length of the Wayward Son. The turrets rotated, autotracking passing spaceship traffic with alternating-fire twin laser cannons. Meanwhile, inside the ship, panels slid open and turret mounted shotguns came to bear. Purple laser tripwires flickered to life across corridors.

Obantyr stood. “Give me an assessment on the communications traffic in-sector, Keffa,” he ordered.

Keffa adjusted some dials as he listened to the signals coming in. Signals came, not just from the public traffic being broadcast by the station’s communication satellites, but also from public broadcasts from the surrounding vessels. It was common courtesy to make broadcasts of information about prices of goods at stations you have visited, dangerous areas, encounters with pirates, etcetera. There were also insufficiently guarded signals, whose weak encryption could be breached by the military grade comms gear on the Wayward Son.

“Overall, sir? Prices have gone up for weaponry and combat gear at stations all around. Umm... report of combat vessels going for twice the value, these things are all selling out even with increased prices. Looking at increased demand for food and medical supplies, higher prices there of course also... Lots of reports of encounters with pirates, one captain barely made it out. This guy’s looking for a guard... Station is broadcasting a bounty request on some people, I can get the mugshots if you want them, sir. They’re also looking to have some pirates killed. Reports of vigilante activity a few systems over.”

He paused. “Sir, I’m hearing absolutely no mention of any mercenary activity, at all. No praise for Draconis providing protection, no talk of mercenary combat missions, nothing.” This was unprecedented. All mercenaries wanted to be talked about-it increased their job prospects. Traders wanted to talk about them because they might get discounts if they gave a mercenary some more business. If nobody was talking about mercenaries, it was because someone was keeping them silent.

Obantyr frowned. “So, in summary; higher weaponry sales, stockpiling of food and medical supplies, intensity increase in combat actions throughout the systems, more violence, suppression of information about mercenary actions,” he mused. “That’s enough of that, Nav. Keep monitoring the signals.” Keffa nodded and turned back to his boards.

Damon, Harth and Jakob entered the bridge together at that moment. Harth was wiping off his hands with a rag, looking a bit nervous as he stood between Damon and Jakob. Damon affected not to notice Jakob. Kyle turned in her seat to watch behind her as they entered.

Obantyr turned. “Finally,” he said. He crossed his arms. “Harth, Jakob, I’m picking up some more personnel for you here. I know you’re shorthanded, and the advance payment will enable us to bring some more crewers onboard.”

“You’ll be providing cover for Harth while he goes to the union hall to pick up some workers, Damon,” Obantyr ordered. “Kyle, you go with Jakob. Jakob, you’re going to the Frontier Bar to pick up a few people I’ve contacted. They have medical experience and should serve as admirable assistants.”

The two pairs of people exchanged looks. Kyle stood. “I’ll go get dressed,” she said, indicating her grey jumpsuit. “Can’t go dockside like this.”

“I want you to wear some kind of ID,” Obantyr ordered, looking at them. “The situation in system is... nebulous. We’re taking all safety precautions so that we can get in, get our new recruits, and get out. I don’t want anyone taking risks. That means, if you have a gun, wear it dockside. It also means don’t pick a fight down there. Is that clear?” he demanded.
“Yessir,” Harth and Kyle said. Jakob muttered an affirmation. Damon smiled. “Safety is my middle name, captain,” he said. “Why ever should you be concerned?”

Damon turned and led the way off the bridge. Obantyr looked back to the main display and watched lights flicker across the screen.

“That’s what I was afraid of,” Obantyr said to himself.

“Are you packing?” Kyle asked in an undertone.

“I don’t do guns,” Jakob responded bluntly. He tapped his bag. “All I need is what I got here.”

“You heard the captain,” she said, glancing around. “In this place, someone could knife you and you’d never see them.

The vast deck was covered with a sea of humanity. Spread above them on either side were seven levels of other decks, all just as busy, all just as vast. Outbound wasn’t just a shipyard, it was the meeting ground of the frontier pilot. Everyone who was anything stopped in here.

“Kyle,” Jakob said after a moment. “Wanted to ask you something.”

“Shoot,” Kyle said.

“Oman thinks I’ve got to be friendly with Obantyr to keep the plebes in line,” Jakob said. “I think Obantyr deserves whatever he gets after what he did on Tebra. What do you think?”

She was silent for a long moment, then she looked at him. “Look, Jakob, things happen,” she said. “Tebra happened. It was going to happen sooner or later. We got out alive, mostly, and it’s thanks to the captain we did. I’ve got no complaints of my own.” She looked at him. “And just because you don’t want to wear a gun, doesn’t mean it makes you any better than us. You did what you had to, so did we.”

“I don’t wear a gun because I’m a doctor, girl,” he growled. “It use to mean something in my day,”

“This isn’t your day,” Kyle said.
Jakob had no response to that.

They could see the Frontier Bar in the distance. Its neon sign blazed like a beacon, lighting up the dark corners of the station. They made their approach, pushing past other passers by.

“Dumbass stationers,” Jakob muttered, looking at a group of poorly-dressed stationsiders gathered by the wall, smoking Blackweed cigarettes. “Don’t they know that stuff will rot their eyes out?”

“Real rich, coming from a man who hates his liver as much as you do,” Kyle retorted. “Come on, let’s go in. Get this over with.” She glanced around. “I don’t like stations,” she muttered.

“Fine,” Jakob said. They walked up to the entrance. The armored bouncer stepped up. “Hey, hand over that piece, sister,” she rasped over her armored suit’s comm system. “This is a no-fire zone.”

“See the patch, sister?” Kyle responded, jabbing a thumb at the patch on her jacket marking her as a Wayward Son crewer. “Why don’t you just back off?”

The bouncer’s face was hidden under her visor, but her body language as she shifted her weight was revealing. “Uh, well. No problem then,” she said. “Go right in,”

They walked past the bouncer, and entered the bar. Unnoticed by them, the bouncer walked over to a comm panel and punched it online. “Jacobi? Yeah, it’s me. We got two of them here. Come take out the trash, will you?”

Kyle led the way inside. “See anything you recognize, doc?” she muttered.

The bar was violently yellow inside, and decorated with the skulls of a thousand different bizarre frontier animals, all dangerous looking. In the ceiling, a trio of automated gun turrets sat, rotating and looking for targets. There was an impressive array of alcoholic beverages behind the bar.

“Just the alcohol. Looks like mostly frontier bearpiss,” Jakob replied. “Could the man have been less specific about who we’re looking for?”

“Probably,” she said. She scanned the crowd, then nodded at a table. “They look likely?”

One of the women at the table wore a white lab coat. The other people at the table wore a mixture of white and red gear and clothing. They appeared to be waiting for someone, as they kept glancing around periodically. “Looks like them to me,” Jakob said with a shrug.

“Well, go chat then,” Kyle said. “I’ve got a bar to investigate.”

“Fine,” Jakob said. He headed over to the table. The people noticed his approach.

“I’m Chief Medical Officer Jakob, off the Wayward Son,” he said. “You look like the people I’m here to meet.”

“We got a message from one Captain Obantyr,” the woman with the lab coat said, gesturing to her fellows. “He’s made us all very generous offers if we come aboard with you, and promised an advance payment.”

Jakob checked his wrist PDA. “Yeah, so he did,” he said. He pulled out some credit chits and drew on the ship’s accounts to put the payment on them. He sat them on the table. The people picked them up and checked the chits on their own PDA’s. “Looks good,” a man with a loose white medic’s outfit on said. “My name’s Anderson. It’ll be good working with you, Doctor Jakob.”

“Likewise, Doctor Anderson,” Jakob said. They shook hands. “So what do you others go by?”

“Melissa,” the woman in the lab coat said. “My friend here is Andy.” The other woman waved.

“I’m Markus,” the remaining man said. “And you are dead.” He raised a massive revolver from under the table as Jakob threw his medical bag in Markus’s face. The bag was very heavy, and sent Markus sprawling.

“Kyle!” Jakob yelled as the other medics exclaimed in surprise. “Trouble!”

Kyle turned, green eyes glinting as she unholstered her shotgun in a single fast movement.

The bouncer from the door bounded into the room, behind a tall man dressed in all black. His face was covered with a mask, and the whirring of motors revealed that he was heavily cyber-augmented.

“That’s them, Jacobi,” the bouncer said. “Jacobi!” Kyle hissed. She activated her comm. “Damon, get over here-we’ve got a bounty hunter on our ass.”

“On it,” Damon said over the crackling comms channel. Kyle would have sworn she could hear the man grinning.

“Kyle, you’re looking well!” Jacobi said, as the hired medics beat a hasty retreat out a back door and the crowd cleared a path for the hunter’s approach, chattering excitedly. “How long has it been? Three weeks? Five?”

“Four weeks and three days,” she said, narrowing her eyes. “Maybe this time I’ll finally kill you dead enough.”

“Not a chance, little lady,” Jacobi said, smiling. “Too much money on the heads of you and your comrades.” He paused. “Unless you can think of a more interesting proposal?” he said, leering.

Kyle looked over her shoulder. Gunmen had gotten in behind them. Jakob was standing behind the table with his hand in his medical bag, rummaging around. He pointedly raised an eyebrow.

Kyle looked back at Jacobi. “How much is the contract now, hunter?” she asked, stalling for time. “Ten megakilos? Twenty?”

“Fifty,” he replied. “That CEO you people capped last week has a rich brother.”

“Of course,” Kyle said. “They always do.”

“So, I think you know the drill,” Jacobi said. “Either you come along quietly, or you come along... well, loudly. I don’t care which.”

“Difficult choice. Hmm,” Kyle said. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Jakob move his head very slowly in a nod.

She raised her gun. “I pick option number three,” she said as Jakob pulled out a flashbang grenade and threw it at the gunmen behind them.

The flashbang erupted in blinding light and made a noise like amplified thunder as she blew a gunman’s head off. Behind her, Jakob brained one of the hunters with his medical bag as the other man staggered around, blinded. Kyle leveled her gun and opened fire on Jacobi.

The “bouncer”, obviously one of Jacobi’s hunters, interposed herself. She had not been affected by the flashbang due to her protective helmet and visor. The shotgun round splattered off of her armor. The armored hunter hefted a submachinegun and opened fire.

Kyle was under the line of fire in an instant. She launched herself up and pulled the gun out of the hunter’s hands, arcing up and landing by the door. She leveled the gun and was brained by a hunter she hadn’t noticed.

Jacobi smiled. “That’s that,” he said, just before his shoulder exploded.

“AUGHH!” he yelled, hitting the ground in agony. “Wha-”

Damon shook his head as he entered the bar. “Such distasteful behavior,” he said. “I really can’t believe you ever earned a bounty license.” As an afterthought, he blew off the armored hunter’s head.

“You!” Jacobi snarled as his trooper hit the ground with a thud. Damon beamed. “I’m so surprised you remember me, dear boy,” he said. “Last time we met, you tried to blow up my captain’s ship.” Damon leaned closer. “Bad idea,” he murmured.

Behind him, Kyle leapt off the floor and smashed in the kneecap of the hunter who whacked her. She then proceeded to break his neck. “Damon,” she said, breathing deeply. “Why are you always just exactly on time to help?”

“Timing, dear girl,” Damon said. Jacobi tried to stand up, but Damon placed his gun against Jacobi’s mask. “You aren’t going anywhere,” Damon said. “Ever again.”

Damon pulled the trigger, blowing the bounty hunter’s brains out.

“Hmm. Well, he looks dead,” Kyle mused, surveying the corpse.

“He looked dead last time too,” Harth said as he entered the bar. “I got our new people on the ship, let’s beat it out of here before station security shows up.”

The four of them made a hasty retreat.

“We’re getting a communications signal, captain,” Keffa said. “It’s being bounced off of the station commsats so we can’t trace it.”

“Put the signal through,” Obantyr ordered. He had received a report from Damon of a run-in with some kind of bounty hunter, and the dock team was headed back aboard. The new people had all been acquired and were taking to their work aboard ship well, so Obantyr had decided to head out rather than linger at Outbound.

Obantyr had been examining the data feeds from the station. There were a massive number of arms sales being recorded. Someone was stockpiling ordinance, lots of it. Mercenaries were being quietly bought up left right and center, but they were closemouthed about the people contracting them. It was all very... strange. It smelled of danger. It also made Obantyr call up his contract with Outbound and consider it in a new light.

“The signal is audio only, no visual stream,” Keffa said. “I’m putting it through now.”

“Captain Obantyr?” a man’s voice asked. “Speaking,” Obantyr said crisply. “State your business.”

“I have a warning for you, captain Obantyr,” the man said. “Arta station is a dangerous place these days. You would be well advised to stay away. We wouldn’t want anything to happen to you, would we?”

“I go where I’m paid to,” Obantyr said. “If you want me to stay away, you’re welcome to pay me to do so. Otherwise, sir, we have no business to discuss.”

“Very well, captain,” the man said. “We’ll speak again.”

“Signal is gone. He’s stopped broadcasting,” Keffa said, checking some readouts.

“Understood,” Obantyr said. At that moment, his intership comms buzzed, demanding attention.

He keyed the comms controls. “Captain here,” he said.

“This is security, the deck team has returned to the ship,” the crewer said.

“Understood, security,” Obantyr said. “Bridge out.” He keyed the channel closed.
“Helm, ready the ship for departure,” Obantyr ordered. “Yessir,” Daniel said. He had been reading a magazine with his feet up on his boards, since his services weren’t needed, and now he tossed his magazine aside and settled into his chair, grabbing the control yoke.

Obantyr weighed the various concerns of the day in his mind, and came to one conclusion. It will be a long trip to Arta Station, he thought.

Chapter 3

Arta system. Outer Ring.

In terms of ship time, it had taken only days for the Wayward Son to finish the sequence of hyperspace jumps that would take it to the Arta system. In terms of real time, it had been three weeks since they left Outbound Yard.

The additional engineering personnel they had picked up at Outbound were vital. Their presence on the ship enabled Harth to make a number of repairs that he had been letting slide. The additional medical personnel took to their duties quickly-after all, they were professionals. Jakob’s attitude hadn’t improved much, but he had decided to keep his thoughts to himself... for the moment. Meanwhile, Daniel had developed some concerns.

Kyle sat at the bar in the galley, doctoring her tasteless rations with spices acquired while dockside. The food looked like a small steak, and some potato-like vegetables, but looks were deceiving. In actuality, it tasted more like something you’d scrape out of a sewer. It was suppose to be nutritious, but, well... sometimes nutrition just didn’t cut it.

It was, technically, daytime aboard the Wayward Son, which meant that the bridge’s day shift got switched out for the night shift. Hence, Kyle was off duty. A perfect time to grab something to eat. Too bad the food was barely edible.

The galley was mostly empty. The night shift was working, and most of the day shift was in the lounge or in their quarters. One bored assault shuttle pilot was playing darts on a dart board on the other end of the room.

The door slid open, and Daniel walked in. He looked burned out. It was mainly because of his working mindset, which led him to shut out the world as he devoted himself to his flying. Behaving in such a manner was exhausting, especially if you were on the receiving end of it.

He staggered over to the galley bar and got himself some rations. He stared at them disgustedly for a moment, then looked around for somewhere to sit.

Don’t sit over here, don’t sit over here, Kyle thought at him. She didn’t care for him, and didn’t want to deal with him. Just then, he noticed her sitting there and nodded in a friendly manner, walking over. Kyle muttered something under her breath, taking a chunk out of her heavily-doctored pseudo steak.

He took a seat two seats over from her, and sat. “Hello,” he said, setting his plate down. She said something which could be construed as friendly.

“Might not miss the trouble back home,” Daniel said, “but I have to say, the food was better.”

“Doesn’t have to taste good, it’s nutritious,” she said. She took a bite of her pseudo-potato and winced slightly in disgust.

“Er, yeah,” he said, dubious. “If you say so.” He looked at the greenish lumps on his plate which were labeled ‘Delicious Broccoli’ on their bin. He speared one with his fork and inspected it closely. “I must be overlooking the delicious part,” he muttered, then ate the broccoli.

There was silence for a moment, then Daniel sat down his fork. “Do you mind if I ask you a question?” he asked Kyle.

“Fine, go,” she said.

Daniel looked at his plate. “Well, it’s like this,” he said, messing with his broccoli. “I was told that I was hired on to replace someone the crew lost at a place called Tebra,”

Kyle’s expression darkened. “Not something we like to talk about, Daniel,” she said. She didn’t add that it was widely considered bad luck in spacer circles to tell a replacement about the person he had replaced.

“Doc Jakob certainly talks about it enough,” Daniel said. “He got me to thinking about things, not that he meant to do it I mean, but-”

“Look, Daniel,” Kyle said. “All you need to know, is that you’re here now, and the guy you replaced isn’t. Trust me on that.”

“Why should I trust anyone when they won’t trust me?” Daniel said, frustrated. “What is it? Is it because I’m not a professional spacer? Is that it?” He shook his head. “The captain thought I had the skills enough to do the job. Isn’t that enough for you people?”

“No, it isn’t,” Kyle said bluntly, looking at Daniel. “You’ve got no idea about the culture out here. You weren’t even a stationer, you were a dirtsider, for Seraph’s sakes! You think about round worlds, we think about square ones with ten inch thick walls surrounded by an infinite reach of airless space. None of the instincts, none of the culture, none of the mindset. Can’t trust which way you’ll jump in a crisis. You even had trouble walking on deck because of the lower gravity! Seraph!”

“Well, I can’t fix any of that,” he said, “unless someone tells me a damn thing. Since nobody will, I’m pretty much screwed over, aren’t I?”

Kyle sighed and rubbed her forehead tiredly. She sat her hand on the bartop. “I’ll tell you this much,” she said. “The guy who had your job before was a moron, and made stupid deals with bad people. He paid for his mistakes, and so did the rest of the crew.” She looked at Daniel. “He was manipulative. He thought he could mess around as he pleased with no consequences,” She shook her head. “He was wrong.” Kyle stood up, gathered up her spices, and left him sitting at the bar as she walked out of the galley.

Daniel watched her go, then turned back to his dinner. He looked at it, then pushed it away in disgust. He crossed his arms, and leaned back in his chair. He stayed there thinking for another hour.

Harth studied his hand closely, as Doc Jakob sat at the opposite end of the table waiting for Harth to make a move. The two of them routinely met for a nightly game of cards in the lounge. There was a lot of money in the game now-almost a hundred kilos. More than a few people were watching their game as they sat, poised to lay the cards that would guarantee their victory.

“Prepared to sock it in yet, Harth?” Jakob asked, taking a swig of some overpowering alcoholic beverage. “You know I’ve got you beat here.”

“I call bullcrap,” Harth said with great dignity. “I just need a moment to collect my thoughts.”

“Harth, I’d say your moment has had enough time to go find itself a wife and have a bunch of little moments,” Jakob retorted. “Throw them down already!”

“Fine!” Harth said, tossing down a pair of Seraphs, a Captain, and a Coreworld-a winning hand. Jakob stared. Someone in the crowd laughed, and there was a flutter of applause as Harth bent in a mock bow. “What!” Jakob yelled, slamming his hands on the table palms down. “What took you so long to put those down?!”

“I wanted to get the best possible look on your face,” Harth said smugly. “I think that those belong to me now, doc,” he added, sweeping up the chips. Jakob growled something inarticulate.

Just then, Damon swept into the room. Almost instantly, the babble ever present in the lounge died down. Damon spent his days prowling the ship, looking for troublemakers and regulation breakers. He never, ever stopped in to the lounge.

“Harth,” Damon said, stopping at their table. “We need to chat.”

Harth knew Damon didn’t do idle conversation. “Alright, sure,” he said, standing. “Be back in a minute, Doc.” “Is that a promise, or a threat?” Jakob growled, standing up and heading to the bar to get a new drink.

Harth and Damon stepped outside the lounge and moved down the corridor a short distance. “What’s the problem, Damon?” Harth asked, turning to face the chief of security.

“Would you say this means anything to you, Chief Engineer?” Damon said, holding up a small black disk between pointer finger and thumb.

Harth squinted at it. “Er, looks like some kind of... recorder, maybe? Lemme take a closer look at it.”

“It’s hardly a normal recorder,” Damon said, not giving it to Harth. “It’s a magnetic-clamp fitted audio and video recorder, made entirely of plastic, and designed to be practically undetectable by security scanners.” He offered it to Harth, who took it, brow furrowed. “I found this little jewel in your private quarters, Harth,” Damon said.

Harth looked up quickly. “You were in my quarters?” he demanded. “Yes, Harth,” Damon said sardonically. “The decor was crude, and the drapes clashed, but the intriguing questions posed by that bug redeemed it in my eyes.”

“But who would bug my quarters?” Harth said, confused. “And why?”

“I followed up on a theory and examined Gunnery Sergeant Kyle’s quarters after yours,” Damon said. “Sure enough, I found one there as well. There was also an attempt to force entry to my quarters, however my security was far too advanced for them. They left no identifiable traces behind.” Damon paused. “How trustworthy are your new engineering personnel, Harth?” Damon asked.

“Not trustworthy enough,” Harth said, grim faced. “I’ll keep an eye on them.”

“I suppose two pairs of eyes are better than one,” Damon said, turning and walking off. “I’ll be in touch.”

Harth stood in the corridor and looked at the bug for a moment. Then he turned and stalked back into the lounge.

Keffa sat in his quarters, poring over a set of starcharts. The light over his desk was the only one that was turned on, casting shadows over the mostly darkened room. His door was closed.

Keffa made it a point of pride to memorize a vast array of starcharts and co-ordinate maps. He regarded it as his responsibility to have all this information instantly on tap without needing computer access, since he was the navigation officer, and he took a certain professional pride in being good at his job, not unlike Kyle. His goggles rested next to the starchart he was examining. He was nearsighted. His goggles had prescription lenses to correct his vision. Keffa had no trouble reading the starchart, but anything further was a blur.

Keffa leaned back and rubbed his forehead tiredly. He was considering packing it in and just going to bed when he heard a clank at his door.

He sat bolt upright, then turned towards the door. It was open, and there was someone standing there. In the shadows from his lone overhead lamp, he couldn’t see anything more than a blurry shape in the doorway. He thought he saw a flash of white from the figure’s clothing. “Who are you?” Keffa demanded, right hand scrabbling for his goggles as he faced the door. “What do you think you’re doing in my room?”

The figure moved out of the doorway and vanished. Keffa got his goggles on and stood up. He grabbed a wrench he kept under his desk and approached the door cautiously, then jumped out of the doorway and looked left and right quickly. He saw nobody.

He nervously stepped back inside, closed his door and shut the bolt. He took a seat in his chair, staring at the door. For the first time since he’d stepped aboard the ship as a crewer, he felt a twinge of fear of the ship.

He stood and walked over to his comm. “Security, this is Keffa, position Nav One,” he said. He took a deep breath. “Someone just attempted to enter my room without permission. Could you send somebody down?”

“Chief Damon is on his way down, Nav One,” the security crewer said. “Stay in your room and do not leave, understood?”

“No worries,” Keffa said. He keyed off the comms and sat back in his chair.

“Well,” he muttered. “This is just perfect.”

“You say you couldn’t get a good look at him?” Damon asked Keffa.

They stood in the doorway of Keffa’s quarters. A pair of security Espatiers stood in the quarters, keeping an eye out. Damon was looking around, poking at the walls and looking for traces.

“I was working on some charts, so I had my goggles off,” Keffa said. “When I looked I still had them off, by the time I got them on-”

“He’d made good his escape,” Damon mused. He reached into the outside corner of Keffa’s doorframe and picked up a recorder. He examined it. “But he left a trace behind him,” Damon said with some satisfaction.

Damon stood and looked at Keffa. “You are sure that you can’t tell us anything about him?” he asked. “No, I already said-” Keffa began, exasperatedly, then he stopped. “No, wait,” he said. “Come to think of it, I can tell you something. I couldn’t make out really any detail, but I think he may have been wearing white. That’s as much as I could tell though. By the time I got out of the door he was long gone.”

Damon stood in thought, then he beckoned one of his Espatiers. The woman walked over, sheathed in her bulky suit of powered armor. “Yessir?” she asked.

“Espatier Milne, I want you to stand guard at Nav Officer Keffa’s quarters until relieved,” Damon ordered. “That’s not-” Keffa began. “It is,” Damon said, looking at Keffa. “You’ve gotten a look at this person. It’s entirely possible they will come back to ensure that you don’t get another.”

“Oh,” Keffa said, paling. “Oh. Well, ok. In that case...”

“Understood, sir,” Milne said. “And, Espatier-” Damon said, looking at her. “If you are relieved, the order will come from me directly, understood?” “Yessir,” she said. “Absolutely.”

Damon looked at Keffa. “Go to bed, Nav Officer Keffa,” Damon said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Alright, thanks Chief,” Keffa said.

Damon strode off, leaving Keffa’s quarters behind him. Obantyr’s wishes or no, it was time for a chat with Jakob.

Because on the Wayward Son, only one group of people wore white, and they fell under Jakob’s direct control.

“Damon, what the hell do you want?” Jakob demanded of Damon as they stood in Jakob’s doorway. “It’s pretty damn late for bullcrap, I think-”

“Exactly my thoughts, doctor,” Damon said as he grabbed Jakob and slammed him against the corridor wall. “What the cop are you doing, you mutant?” Jakob yelped.

“You were in a cardgame with Harth earlier tonight. When did that cardgame begin?” Damon demanded, nose barely inches from Jakob’s. “Wha-? Uh, maybe nineteen forty hours? Why the hell do you want to know?”

“And when did it end?” Damon said.

“About twenty fifty hours I guess, Harth called it off early,” Jakob said, rattled. “He seemed spooked-Hey, what did you say to him, you freak?”

“I told him about the bugs being planted in people’s quarters,” Damon hissed. “And isn’t it curious, doctor, that they were planted before and after you entered that cardgame? Isn’t it interesting that Keffa just had someone attempt to force entry to his quarters, and he’s quite sure they were dressed in white?” Damon lifted Jakob off of his feet without any noticeable effort. “Need I remind you, doctor,” Damon said in a low voice, “that you are one of the only people on this ship who routinely wears white?”

“And need I remind you, you copping freak,” Jakob gasped, “that I’m not a copping idiot, and if I wanted to sneak around I sure as hell wouldn’t wear white!”
“I know you aren’t an idiot, doctor,” Damon said. “That’s why I’m quite sure you’re capable of deliberately wearing white to confuse the issue.”

“Why the hell aren’t you asking questions of the new medics we hired?” Jakob demanded. “In case you forgot, they bloody copping well wear white too!”

Damon set Jakob down. “Oh, I haven’t forgot, doctor,” Damon rasped. “But I know you’re the most suspicious person on the ship right now, which makes you the best person to start with. Your loudly voiced problems with the captain have made you a suspect.” Damon turned and began to walk away.

“And there’s another person who loves to sport a white outfit that you’ve left out completely,” Jakob said, adjusting his outfit. “Oh?” Damon said, half turning. “Do tell.”

“That would be you, chief,” Jakob said. “If that’s honestly all you’ve got to go on, well, you’re a copping suspect too.”

Damon laughed, and continued on his way. Jakob watched for a moment, then checked the other way, stepped into his room, and shut and bolted the door.

It was a long, disquieting night. This was the first time that there had been some kind of troublemaker running around on the ship in a long time. Nobody slept well. Keffa spent a long time pacing, and he kept checking his door to make sure it was secure. Damon spent the night going from security feed to security feed, and he had his people going over the recorded footage. Daniel didn’t know about the trouble, but he was still thinking about what Kyle had said to him. Kyle was running weapon simulations for the confrontation at Arta Station to make sure the ship was as ready for combat as it could be made. Harth was looking at the records of his newly recruited personnel and Jakob was drowning his woes in alcohol.

In the morning, Obantyr called a staff meeting. The briefing room had a single long rectangular table, and a set of stools. On the table were a set of hologram projectors. The briefing room was lit by a set of powerful white lights set into the ceiling.

Obantyr sat at the head of the table. From there, going clockwise Damon, Harth, and Keffa were seated, with Oman at the opposite end of the table, then Jakob, Daniel, and Kyle.

“First order of business,” Obantyr said. “We are approaching the Inner Ring now. Arta Station is a few hours out yet. I wanted us to discuss the matter of the station before we actually move in to investigate them.”

He paused a moment to collect his thoughts, then continued. “We have been threatened by an anonymous individual about this job, who appears to want us to stay away. Coupled with the apparent spy in our midst, it’s obvious that there is more to this job than there appears.”

“About the spy,” Harth said, leaning foward. “I’ve been over all my records for those new recruits I got, and I can’t find any obvious inconsistencies. I think they’re pretty much what they say they are.”

“Good. Jakob? How about your recruits?” Obantyr asked.

“I don’t know,” Jakob said irritably, looking hungover. “I doubt it, these bozos aren’t smart enough to handle a liver transplant without my help.” “Yeah, I imagine you’d know about liver transplants,” Kyle said under her breath.

“To put this differently, there’s certain problems with our present situation,” Obantyr said, surveying everyone at the table. “To recap, the miners at this station have ceased their output. Outbound has hired us to restore that output. Someone else appears to want us to be prevented from doing that. I intend to complete this job,” he said, “even if I have to space a few traitors to do it. Let me be absolutely clear about that.”

Everyone was silent. No one wanted to imagine the fate of the spy when he or she was finally located.

“Anyway,” he said, just as the silence grew truly punishing, “I think our security will be tight enough to prevent any activity on the part of our apparent spy. Right, Damon?”

“Of course, sir,” Damon said. “I have doubled the patrol density across the board.”

“Good,” Obantyr said. He stood. “Now, I want everyone on battle stations to prepare for our arrival in station orbit. This could be pathetically easy, or brutally difficult, depending on how things play out.”

Thus dismissed, the officers dispersed and headed for their respective posts. All of them were thinking about the present situation, and wondering who would be dead tomorrow.

“We’re coming up on Arta now, sir,” Daniel said.

Arta Station was a hollowed out asteroid, bristling with sensor dishes, docking ports, and solar arrays. The asteroid belt it sat in was of exceptional density, making it difficult to easily navigate to the station.

Arta was constructed in the bad old days, when death row convicts were still used for asteroid mining, and mining was done in jetpack-equipped spacesuits with cargo hoppers. If the cons had so much as twitched funny, their implants would have sent a thousand whirling nanite fibers ripping through their guts.

Now, mining was much more a business for the sane and the socially respectable. Miners now spent their lives on these stations and built lives, even families, there, much like any other stationer. They sold their refined ores and processed water to freight captains, who carried it to the other stations. Arta in specific had a contract with Outbound to provide ores used in ship construction.

The arrangement was profitable for both sides. That begged the question of why Arta had so suddenly broken the cycle?

That was what the Wayward Son’s crew was about to find out.

“Give me a scan reading,” Obantyr ordered. “I want to know what we’re getting into.”

“I’m seeing no ships. It’s totally deserted,” Keffa said. “The station has gone dark. They aren’t broadcasting any signals on any channel.”

“Ping them,” Obantyr said. Pinging was the broadcasting of a multi-channel alert signal, which was impossible for the ship or station being pinged to miss. If someone didn’t respond after being pinged, they were ignoring you... or there was some other reason.

“No response,” Keffa said. He looked tense, and no wonder. This was a nightmare scenario-a thriving station is suddenly discovered to be completely unresponsive. A station doesn’t just stop responding to signals. Something stops them.

“Pull us in closer, Helm,” Obantyr ordered. “Gunnery, stand ready to acquire and fire.”

“Ready,” Kyle said as the Wayward Son drifted closer to Arta under Daniel’s careful control.

Arta was a big station. Someone should have responded to their signal by now. Obantyr’s face was impassive, but his was the only one.

“I’m picking something up,” Keffa said, adjusting dials. “It looks like... an SOS signal. It’s so faint I can barely detect it.”

“From the station?” Obantyr asked.

“No, it’s coming from beyond the station. In the ring.”

“Take us over there, Helm,” Obantyr ordered.

The Wayward Son moved past the station and approached the signal point.

“I’m picking something up-” Keffa began.

“Confirmed; I have a target lock on a Termagant Industries Mark Four High Profile Operations vessel. A freight ship, looks like,” Kyle said. “It’s listing, and appears to be disabled.”

“Any signs of weapons fire?” Obantyr asked.

“Yes. It looks like a clean kill from a naval class particle cannon,” Kyle said. “Slick shot, really,” she mused under her breath.

“Get me a-” Obantyr began, before he was interrupted by Kyle’s startled yell.

“Sir! There’s an explosive on that ship, looks like a quad-core fusion charge! We need to get out of here, now-”

“Helm, pull back!” Obantyr bellowed. “Now!”

There are many weapons in known space. None of them are as feared or respected as the venerable but still incredibly lethal nuclear warhead. The modern high-yield ship killing fusion explosive is the kind of weapon that starship captains have nightmares about. Their only weakness is their relatively short blast, due to the lack of an atmosphere in space.

When you’re right next to them though, a short blast radius doesn’t matter.

The explosion blew the freighter into individual pieces of hull plating, then immolated the remains. The blast effect ripped a layer of hull plating off of the Wayward Son, and the EMP pulse scrambled the bridge electronics in a flash of digital noise, sending the bridge crew reeling back from their stations. The ship was hurled backwards.

“s###!” Daniel said, hammering at suddenly blackened displays. “The controls aren’t responding, sir!”

Obantyr keyed his intership comms. It clicked impotently. “We’ve been stunned,” Obantyr said. “Keep working on your stations, people. Harth will have us back online shortly.”

“I don’t like this,” Kyle said. “There could be six gunships sitting out there and we’d never know they were there.”

The bridge was almost black. Only the emergency lights were working, barely enough to illuminate the bridge in any way. The bridge was buried under a five foot thick layer of decking, so there was no way to see outside without using a camera display. Daniel looked around.

“Sir, um, I have the feeling that we’re, well...” Daniel began nervously.

“Speak up, man!” Obantyr barked.

“Well, uh,” Damon said, pulling at his collar, as usual not the best at personal communication. “Basically, from the way the ship is moving, I think we’re headed in the direction of the station, sir.”

Obantyr said nothing. His eyes just tightened, almost imperceptibly. It was getting colder on the bridge with the power out...

At that moment, the bridge section roared to life. Everyone leapt to their stations. Almost immediately, the intership comm line beeped for attention. Obantyr answered.

“Bridge here,” Obantyr said.

“This is Harth, sorry about the outage captain,” Harth said over the crackling intercom. “I’m working on any remaining damage from the pulse now.”

“You’ve done well, Harth. If I were in the habit of giving out raises, you’d have earned one,” Obantyr said.

“Sir, we have a problem,” Kyle said. “Bridge out,” Obantyr said, clicking the comms off. “Situation report, Gunnery,” he said.

“I’ve got three unidentifiable gunships on my targeting scopes, sir,” she said. “The design looks fairly conventional, but they aren’t broadcasting an IFF signal.” A ship not broadcasting an Identify Friend or Foe signal was usually either a pirate, or after your blood. In this case, the latter seemed more likely.

“Are they on approach?” Obantyr asked.

Kyle was silent for a moment as she checked her scanners. “They are, sir. Infrared is indicating that they are running weapons ready. They’re still well out, almost three hundred thousand miles away.”

“Prepare the ship for combat, Gunnery,” Obantyr ordered. “Helm, move us on an approach vector.”

The Wayward Son powered out from its position near the space station. Long barreled turrets ranged out from its hull as it approached the incoming vessels. Missile bank door rolled open, and missiles slid into place in firing tubes. Particle beam weapons buzzed and sparked with repressed power. The ship moved like a preying mantis, slowly but surely bearing down upon its prey.

“I’m getting a detail scan of the ships, sir,” Kyle said. “It looks to me like they are in our weight class, in terms of firepower and defenses. Still no IFF signal.”

“Nav, radio them. Inform them that we’re under the assumption that they are pirates who have attacked Arta Station, and we’ll attack them if they don’t identify themselves,” Obantyr said.

“But sir, we don’t know what’s happened to Arta yet,” Keffa said.

“True, but it will be informative to see how they react to the accusation,” Obantyr said.

“Understood sir, radioing them now,” Keffa said. He pressed some of his controls as he carried out his orders.

Obantyr waited. If they didn’t message back, they weren’t pirates, because pirates would want to demand money to let Obantyr walk out of the system alive. If they didn’t message back, most likely they intended to kill the Wayward Son. If they did message back and weren’t pirates, it could reveal a fairly problematic situation, something he had, honestly, been expecting to find here at Arta.

“They’re radioing us back, sir,” Keffa said.

“Put it on the main screen,” Obantyr said. “Let’s see what they have to say, shall we?”

The screen flickered, going from the external view to a display of a grey haired man in a black jumpsuit. He was sitting in the command chair of a bridge much like that of the Wayward Son. “Hello, Captain,” he said. “You really should have listened to me, you know.”

“Your voice is... familiar,” Obantyr mused. “You must be the one who radioed us at Outbound.

“Well deduced, sir,” the man said. “I’d hoped that things wouldn’t come to this, but what can one do? If you’re intent on seeking a quick death, well...” he shrugged disarmingly. “I can but try to fulfill your wishes, good man.”

“What have you done to Arta Station?” Obantyr demanded.

“Nothing. They were quite pleased to help us with our plan to eliminate you,” the man said. “Well, mostly they were pleased with the compensation they would receive, actually. I don’t think it was anything personal on their part-you needn’t feel badly.”

“Arta Station is lighting up, sir,” Kyle said. Obantyr looked in the secondary monitor and watched Arta Station come alive. He thought.

“So, why me?” Obantyr asked. “Why was it necessary for you to kill me off? Why go to all this trouble, when you could have just hired me to work for you?”

“It’s not really anything personal on our part either, Obantyr,” the man said. “It’s just that Outbound has been hiring so many mercenaries to use against us that we’d like to be able to show them the head of Outbound’s toughest, deadliest hired mercenary on a pike.”

“Our, and us,” Obantyr said. “Which ‘our’ and whose ‘us’, exactly?”

“Our name is... unimportant. All you need to know is that we will be bringing the frontier under our leadership shortly,” the man said. “With Outbound Yards annexed, we can move on the less powerful frontier corporations.”

Obantyr laughed. “Control the frontier? Annex Outbound? You’re delusional, man. The Espace tried to control the frontier, before it realized you just can’t impose order on that many humans. They failed, and I have no doubt you will fail too.”

“We’ll see, captain,” the man said. “Now, prepare to defend yourself, if you would.”

“Before you die-what’s your name?” Obantyr asked. “I wish to know what name to append on your tombstone.

“You can call me Kepler, Obantyr,” Kepler said. “For what little good it will do you.”

The comm screen flickered off.

“They’re maneuvering into combat positions,” Kyle said. “They’re on intercept course, sir. ETA; ten minutes.”

Obantyr stood. “Prepare to engage,” he ordered. He keyed the intercom. “All hands, to battle stations,” he ordered.

Klaxons blared and the lights switched to blue combat lighting. The Wayward Son prepared to enter battle.

“Come on, get to work you halfasses!” Harth bellowed. “This ship won’t fix itself! Come on, keep it moving!” Engineering personnel scurried away, about their tasks to repair the damage done to the ship by the fusion charge. The engineering deck thumped and groaned, rattled and clanked as machinery worked, with results and measurements displayed on small digital readouts. The engineering deck was roasting. Harth wiped his face with the back of his hand, to little effect.

The damage from the pulse alone was extensive. They had routed power through alternate lines in order to power the areas which had gone dark after the pulse, but the original lines were too badly damaged for them to repair on such short notice. The external damage from the fusion blast was something they couldn’t touch at the moment, and that was something that could get them killed if it hampered the ship’s performance at the wrong time. Even with the things they couldn’t work on in consideration, they still had too much that needed fixing.

As he walked through the decks, something caught his eye. He looked over. Two of his newly recruited technicians were working on machinery they weren’t qualified to deal with. Specifically, the main power junction for the shipboard fusion reactor.

“Hey, you! What do you think you’re doing, trying to get us killed?” Harth demanded, walking over. “Get away from there!”

“Sorry, ‘chief’,” one of them said, pulling a gun and pointing it at him. “No can do.”

He raised his hands. Another one of his new recruits walked up behind him and placed a gun to his head.

Well, s###, Harth thought, just before they smashed him in the face and the world went black.

The battlefield was well chosen by the Wayward Son’s enemies. The asteroid belt would afford them the ability to maneuver around the Wayward Son and deflect its weaponry. But on the other hand, the asteroids gave the Wayward Son that same edge as well, and Captain Obantyr intended to make full use of it.

“Helm, put us on a heading through the asteroids,” he ordered. “Gunnery, bring weapons to bear and fire on my mark. Let’s see how they react.”

The Wayward Son rotated in place and began to weave past the enormous space rocks, presenting the smallest possible target at all times. Kepler’s gunships approached, branching their attack so that they could dive vertically down onto the Wayward Son.

“Target in range. Opening fire,” Kyle reported.

The Wayward Son’s spinal turrets rotated and locked onto the target ship. Missiles ranged out. Then the attack began, with a flash that passed almost too fast to see as coil fired cannons launched a volley of super dense metal slugs and particle beam weapons belched incandescent streams of energy. Missile bays dumped dozens of anti-ship missiles packing high yield fusion warheads, which streaked out to attack the target vessel while their targeting computers piloted them past the enemy laser defense grid. Many missiles met a premature end as they were gunned down by the enemy defense lasers, but the rest hit their target and ripped craters into the target ship’s hull.

The response was nothing short of devastating, as the three enemy vessels opened fire as one. Daniel pulled the ship forward at top speed and managed to lose some of the tracking warheads behind an asteroid before pulling out around the other side of the asteroid. Kyle opened fire again, this time with the heavy particle weapons mounted on the ship’s front side, ripping up the enemy gunship.

“Competant, I see,” Obantyr mused. “Unfortunate. Helm, take us on a vertical course using reverse thrusters.”

The Wayward Son began to back up, pushing itself backwards and up (relatively speaking). The enemy vessels began to follow, then stopped.

“Come on...” Obantyr said under his breath.

The enemy vessels did not follow the Wayward Son, instead branching out and heading into the asteroid belt.

Obantyr frowned slightly, then nodded. “Helm, take us in on a high speed attack course on ship number three. Gunnery, prepare to fire.”

The Wayward Son stopped dead in space, then turned and powered towards one of the enemy ships at its blistering maximum speed. Weapons locked and charged.

“Open fire-” Obantyr started to order, then the bridge went completely black.

The bridge crew exclaimed in surprise. Obantyr seated his face in the palm of his hand. This is bad, he thought.

Harth woke up slowly and reluctantly. His head felt like a split melon, and he thought if he moved, his brains might splatter all over the deck.

For a moment, he couldn’t remember how he had come to be in that state. Then he remembered the scene he had happened upon, and started suddenly out of anger, hitting his head on the wall. The pain brought him fully to his senses, and with a look around he realized he was stuffed in a locker. He pressed his hands to the locker door with a sudden urgency, then discovered he’d been locked in. He reached for his commlink, then discovered that it was missing. There was a bit of light coming in from a slit in the locker, so he pressed his face against it, trying to get a look outside.

The light was coming from a light that the traitors had set up for themselves, as the other power seemed to be out. They were still working on the reactor conduit, presumably to get power down in the rest of the ship. A traitor armed with a sidearm held carefully so it couldn’t easily be seen was in front of the locker Harth was in. Harth muttered a curse. He was pretty well boxed in.

Just then, he heard a conversation in the distance. He recognized the voice of one of his main engineers, and the voice of Security Chief Damon. Apparently the traitors had managed to pass themselves off as legit to the other engineering crewers, and the other crewers had no idea where Harth was. Damon was asking about Harth’s last known location. Harth was about to yell, then he remembered the gun the traitor was packing.

Harth wasn’t a suicidal man. He didn’t want to yell for help and end up dead. The men hadn’t killed him yet, perhaps they didn’t intend to.

But, hell, they were copping around with his equipment! It was possible everyone would end up dead anyway as a result of their tampering.

Death can go cop itself, this is important, Harth thought, then he screamed “HEY DAMON, GET YOUR ASS OVER HERE!” at the top of his lungs.

There was a commotion, some consternation, a quick confrontation followed by a brief but brutal brawl. A gun went off, someone swore, then there was a loud thunk and someone was messing with the lock on Harth’s door.

The door swung wide open. Damon regarded Harth. “Finally coming out of the closet, eh Harth?” Damon asked, ironically. “Yeah, make fun,” Harth growled. “Now, get out of my way,” he said, pushing his way past. “I got to fix whatever these copheads did.”

Harth’s main assistant looked aghast. “Geez, Chief, I had no idea they were up to anything, they gave me all the right IDs and s###. I’m really-”

“You should have figured it out, man,” Harth grunted as he got to work. “No time to discuss it now though-oh s###.”

“What?” Damon asked.

“They wired an explosive charge to the main reactor conduits,” Harth said. “If I touch it, the ship could copping blow up!”

The enemy vessels didn’t hesitate. They’d been waiting for their agents to make this move, and they intended to fully exploit their opportunity. They approached at top speed, and opened fire. Bracketing volleys of weapon fire ripped the hull of the Wayward Son. In seconds, it would all be over.

Gordon Obantyr had never feared death. He didn’t intend to start now. He could hear Daniel praying under his breath in the front of the bridge. Keffa was muttering something too. Kyle was entirely silent, characteristically.

Obantyr was an entirely unreligious man. His world was a pragmatic one, shaped out of things he could control, things he couldn’t control, and the way to plot a profitable course between them. Death was a certainty, he reasoned. No reason, therefore, to fear it.

Obantyr looked into the total blackness of the bridge. He counted his breaths as the distant rumbling from weapon impacts grew louder and the hull tore and ripped.

“Seraph,” Daniel said suddenly. “All.. all this, and... we didn’t even get paid yet?”

Obantyr thought about that for a minute. Then, he smirked. He smiled.

Obantyr threw back his head and laughed, just as the power came back on.

He looked at the disbelieving bridge crew as they watched their controls come back to life with something approaching delight. He was still smiling.

“Let’s deal with these scum,” he said, “once and for all.”

After all this, there was only one way the battle could go.


Outbound System. Planet Outbound. Sitting in orbit.

“I’m surprised you managed to fly that thing into the dock,” the repair crew foreman said, looking at his notes and shaking his head slightly. “You know, the engines were about to fall off of the spaceframe. How’d you even make the approach?”

“Very carefully,” Oman said impassively. “How much do we owe you for the repairs?”
The foreman blew air out of his mouth. “My friend, you’re into me for almost ten thousand megs for these repairs. Could buy a used freighter for that, pal-” The man stopped talking when Oman handed him a credit chit. “Uh, heh,” the foreman said, stuffing the chit away. “You, uh, carry that kind of money on you all the time?”

“Payday,” Oman said. “Don’t get ideas or I’ll gut you.”

“No sir, no worries there,” the foreman said. Oman turned and strode away, leaving the foreman to regard his new wealth.

“So, Harth,” Jakob said as they engaged in their usual game of cards in the lounge. “How’d you get the power back on, anyway?”

“Damon was able to disarm the explosive, from there it was easy,” Harth said, putting down his hand. Jakob promptly put one better down, and Harth swore angrily. “Seraph,” he said. “Want a drink?”

“Uh,” Jakob said. He hesitated. “Um, no, that’s ok.” Harth looked at Jakob funny, but said nothing. “It turns out they stole some of your people’s medical coats to put suspicion on you guys,” Harth said as he got his drink. “That bounty hunter that hid in with your recruits was part of that, that’s why I never figured out that my new people were the traitors.”

“Tricky scumbags,” Jakob said. “Whatever happened to them?”

“Obantyr strapped them to one of the antennas, with spacesuits and a three hour air supply,” Harth said. “They’ll be running out any minute now.”

Jakob sat back heavily, with a queasy look on his face. “Seraph,” he said. “After hearing that, I think I will take a drink.”

“Coming up,” Harth said, getting up to get a drink for Jakob as Daniel walked in with Keffa. “Hey, Daniel,” Jakob said. “Join us for cards?”

“Um, no thanks,” Daniel said quickly. “Thanks though. I... had the idea of trying to give it up.”

“Yeah, had a similar idea myself about drinking,” Jakob said. “I guess almost dying makes one reconsider things.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Daniel said. He and Keffa headed over to the bar.

“Giving drinking up, eh?” Harth asked. “So, what am I getting you, then? A spring water?” “I didn’t say I was giving it up now, you dumbass,” Jakob groused.

“Hey, where’s Kyle at?” Jakob wondered. “Shouldn’t she be around?”

“No idea, haven’t seen her on the ship,” Harth said.

“Huh. Where could she be?” Jakob wondered.

Kyle stood in the graveyard on Outbound Yards. It was a large room full of containers of ashes. Not the most glamorous place, but it served the purpose of remembering the dead.

She pulled out a new chip for the hologram generator she’d had placed on her space there and put it into place. The face of the man she’d loved sprang into life, movements full of the life and joy that she’d almost forgotten he’d shown. She watched him for a long moment.

Walking out of the graveyard, she looked around, taking in the silent atmosphere. It was suddenly broken as someone was thrown out of the window of the bar she’d left Damon in.

She smiled slightly, and rolled up her sleeves as she headed over to the bar.


Bump, because my finest work ain't getting enough love! | : )

Sorry, I posted my love of this story in the thread you put a link to it in... what was that thread again? I think it was the CTC Bar Discussion Thread.

At any rate, great job Shlimazel! Awesome story! I just have one question, a question I asked in the CTC Bar Discussion Thread that was never answered: what does the Wayward Son look like? It wasn't really described too well in the story. I initially imagined something Kestrel-esque, but after reading "A Pirate's Folly," I'm thinking the Wayward Son looks more like a Pirate Enterprise.

So you did-thank you, very kind! Yeah, this story isn't set in the Nova Verse, so the ship design is a non-nova design. The Wayward Son is a very insectile ship, lots of antenna sticking out, kind of like a Zentraedi ship. I kind of envision it as having two engine pods on either side, towards the back, with the front section kind of curving down. There would be a docking bay between the engine pods, under the ship. I'll have to make a model of it one of these days.

I'd love to see that model, and it would bring some more traffic to the EV Gallery section, possibly.

As for the Zentraedi, I needed to do a quick google search to see what their ships look like, having never heard of them before. After seeing their ships, I have a rough idea of what the Wayward Son looks like now, much sleeker than an Enterprise from EVN.