I spent most of the trip back to Gallant Station in my cabin poking at some of the power cores I'd smuggled off Ultiga. That they were different from Federation technology went without saying, but I was having trouble puzzling out how they worked. They had no obvious connections to plug into, just a series of equidistant dimples around the surface. Some were cylindrical while others were spherical. None of them used any right angles but they all followed some geometric standard. I didn't know what difference it made; why not standardize the shapes? I could take a power transformer from any ship built in the Federation and install it in any other ship, but that was a matter of efficiency. Was it possible for a species to achieve spaceflight without that standardization?
I held one of the spherical cores in my hands and felt for the welds but so far as my senses could determine the metal was completely smooth and unbroken by any seams. That wasn't unusual; Federation manufacturing could and usually did accomplish the same feat, particularly when the manufacturer didn't want the seal broken. The problem was that this gave no hint of how the core plugged into their systems. Induction? Broadcast? If the former then I could easily electrocute myself holding the thing in my hands. If the latter then I might give myself a nasty case of cancer once I turned it on, but the trick was turning it on in the first place.
What were the dimples on the surface? Were they decorative, explanatory or functional? It belatedly occurred to me that I could have simply walked to the nearest library on Ultiga and looked up the answer to this question but that wasn't presently an option. I hadn't dared examine the cores I'd planned to smuggle until after I lifted off lest I accidentally activate one and alert the Tharl to what I had. I peered closely at one dimple but couldn't find anything remarkable about it, merely a brief inward curve on the surface of the device. I brushed my finger along them arbitrarily, making a full circuit around the sphere. It did nothing that I could see, no change on the surface like little lights from the dimples to show that I'd touched them. That would have been helpful, but that would seem to be human thinking, not Tharl. I was no xenopsychologist.
"Boss, what are you doing?" the computer asked me abruptly. I nearly dropped the sphere.
"Nothing," I said somewhat defensively. "Why?"
"Because one of the power cores just activated. I'm registering a slight thermal bloom and alpha particle emissions."
I quickly set the sphere down and moved away from it. "How intense?"
"You're fine, Boss, but levels are rising on a mild gradient."
It occurred to me that the difference between a power core and a warhead was how well the reaction was controlled. A slow build to overload would still blow up my ship as effectively as a quick one. "How long until it's unsustainable?"
"I have no way to know, Boss. This technology is unknown to me. It could be minutes, days or years depending on its peak output and capacity. But if I were to hazard a guess I'd say you've got at least a couple of days before you have to worry."
I relaxed but only a little. I picked up the sphere again and considered it. The thermal bloom that the computer reported wasn't yet perceptible to my skin and as long as I didn't try to swallow the thing the alpha particles wouldn't affect me. I'd accidentally turned it on and now my challenge was to turn it off before it blew up. It could be as simple as reversing the action I'd taken to turn it on, but the dimples were equidistant to each other, making each row of circles the same as any other. Would it work equally well on any row? I made a best guess at which row I'd originally circled and traced my finger around it in the opposite direction.
"Boss, output just jumped."
I recited a list of words not suitable for polite conversation. I tried circling a different row.
"Boss, stop that! Output is climbing fast!"
My litany of bad words came louder and faster. It seemed that the sphere was growing notably warm in my hand, but was that reality or just my spooked imagination? I tried reversing my reversal. "How about now?"
"Better," the computer reported. "Whatever you did, do that again please."
I scowled. That really shouldn't have worked, but it did. Then again, not a xenopsychologist. I repeated the action twice more.
"The device has now deactivated."
So I'd learned how to turn the thing on, how to dial it up and down and how to turn it off. Why would repeating the same action turn it off after turning it on? Was that meant to be a safety feature? Did the Tharl even worry about such things? Again, who could fathom the mind of a species as alien as the Tharl? They were linear where I didn't expect it and nonlinear where I did. One thing was certain though: if I kept poking at things using trial and error I was likely to get myself killed. I packed up the cores and carried them back to cargo for the remainder of the trip. I was just going to need to find something else to distract myself with.
"Hey, computer. What else needs fixing around here?"
"I thought you'd never ask, Boss."
I had just finished disassembling the heating elements for the plumbing to crew quarters when we returned to normal space. The water temperature had been on the cool side for a while, although still bearable. It had just been one of those expenses that took a lower priority; better to spend my money maintaining and updating critical systems rather than one meant primarily for comfort. But as I was learning to repair and maintain ship systems on my own it made sense to finally address it. The thing turned out to be very finicky for no good reason that I could discern; I guessed that once they got a design that worked they had chosen to stick with it rather than update it. Unfortunately that meant a couple of hours of digging through the ship's guts if I wanted to work on it.
I muttered a few mild obscenities speculating on the designer's parentage and hygiene while I wiped grime off my hands and made my way to the cockpit. I preferred to be on the spot and ready for anything when coming out of folded space since you never knew what might be waiting on the other side. This time the precaution turned out to be unnecessary as we emerged fairly close to Gallant Station where I wanted to be. Traffic was light as usual and there were no immediate navigational hazards to respond to. It would take me no more than a handful of hours to reach a docking port and begin negotiating fees. Since those fees typically involved a percentage of the value of the cargo I was hauling those fees were likely to be very high this time. They'd be higher if they had a clue about my primary cargo but I intended that to be a surprise for Diamond.
"Scan transponder broadcasts," I ordered. "Have the others shown up yet?"
"Negative," the computer reported. "We got here first again." Was it my imagination or was there a hint of smugness in its voice? I decided it had to be my imagination. Anyway, the Gilmour had the most efficient engines of any of our ships so I typically arrived first anyway.
"Open a channel to Gallant Station," I said next.
"Acknowledged. Channel open."
"Gallant Station, this is the David Gilmour on approach and requesting permission to dock."
"Confirmed, David Gilmour," came the response. I'd come here so often that I could sometimes recognize the voice on the other side. This time it sounded like Prak. He was a nice guy but he had an unfortunate habit of chewing something that smelled foul. I was glad there were a few million kilometers of vacuum between us; the stench would fill up a room quickly. I didn't know how his coworkers hadn't shoved him out an airlock already. "We have you on our scopes and estimate your arrival in four-point-six hours. We will assign you a docking berth at that time."
"Thank you, Gallant Station. Please be advised that there is a Federation destroyer inbound and it is friendly. We picked it up at our last destination."
"Uh huh," came the response. "Very funny, Hideo." Yeah, that was Prak. Like I said he was a nice guy, but not terribly imaginative.
"I'm not kidding Prak," I replied. "Believe me or not, just log it. If I'm lying then you can fine me for it later when Ron shows up."
"Seriously?" I could imagine Prak accidentally swallowing his...whatever that stuff was. "You guys took on a destroyer?"
I couldn't help grinning even though no one could see it. "I'm serious. If you want to hear the story, join us at the after party." I regretted that last as soon as I said it so I added a quick addendum. "Just leave your chew behind." That guy could clear a room faster than a burst sewer pipe.
Our return to Gallant Station was triumphant. We were loaded up with valuable goods, in possession of a powerful new ship and contraband. We had decided to give our slave crew their freedom there on the hope that as an independent system they wouldn't be sticklers for Federation law. The other side of that coin was that some of the more unscrupulous citizens might decide that former slaves would be easier to take advantage of and perhaps sell them back into slavery. That wasn't as much of a concern for some of the others but it was the kind of thing I worried about.
Once again I found myself returning from Tharl territory with vast wealth, which was a good thing considering how freely I was spending it. Gallant Station couldn't offer me the best prices for the cargo I carried but that didn't concern me too much so long as it was enough for what I wanted. I'd hit the Tharl like I planned but the Tharl empire was composed of a lot of planets and even more ships. What I'd done so far probably didn't even register. I needed to think bigger, hit harder. It was something to ponder.
I loved the Gilmour like I never thought I could love a ship. She was fast, durable and reliable. The problem I kept running into was her limited cargo space and now her limited armament. I couldn't take on the entire Tharl armada, even with the Thanatos at our disposal. I needed more ships, bigger ships with more firepower. I had to face the possibility that I might have to trade in the Gilmour to pursue my goals. I found the thought disturbing but that confused me just as much. It was just a ship, not a person. Even if the AI was amazingly complex. What if I moved into a bigger, more powerful ship and brought the computer with me? It made a certain amount of sense after all; it had learned me well enough to anticipate my needs and desires and had amassed a great deal of operational data on Tharl ships. Was its companionship or its capabilities more important to me?
I pondered over the problem while the others celebrated, poking at it as if it were a sore tooth. No, I eventually concluded, my problem wasn't in leaving the computer behind. My problem was in leaving the Gilmour behind. The ship had become my home and I couldn't see myself setting it aside for another even if it was more powerful. This brought me to my next problem: I had already upgraded my ship to the limits of human engineering. I needed more room for power and bigger weapons but the Gilmour didn't have it. I might have to buy and restore a proper warship like Ron's new vessel in order to achieve my goals but the very thought opened a pit in my belly. It needed doing but I wasn't sure I could do it.
John crashed into a seat next to me, his drink sloshing around in its glass. Had he not already consumed most of it he probably would have slopped it all over me.
"Hideo, why so glum?" he asked with drunken cheerfulness.
"What glum?" I demanded, pointing to the half-empty glass of my own. "I've been celebrating."
"Normally you're three sheets to the wind by now," he argued. "Maybe nine. But tonight you're still sober. 'S'not like you." I found myself marveling at how well he expressed himself even while thoroughly inebriated.
"I am not," I said defensively, but even as I said it I knew it was a lie. I'd been drinking a lot recently. But I had a lot to think about right now and diving into an alcoholic haze wasn't going to help. "John, how do you feel about the Bounty?"
"She's a good ship," he answered quickly. "Solid. Dependable. Profitable. Great suns, did we pull a profit. Hideo, you're a genius!" He toasted me with his nearly empty glass and finished it off.
"Thanks," I said. "But that's not what I asked. How do you feel about her? Will you swap her out for an upgrade now that you can afford a whole fleet?"
He sat back in his chair and thought about that. "I dunno. The Corbas are really the best ship for hauling freight. If anybody knows how important it is to be able to move cargo, it's you. That Ophid has really held you back as a trader."
I bristled. It struck me again just how important the Gilmour had become to me. I took a breath and pressed on. "Seriously, if we'd lost the Bounty in that last battle instead of the Charon would you have been okay? Would you have found another Corba and moved right in, no second thoughts?"
He gave me a baffled look. "Sure. I mean, if she couldn't be salvaged like the Charon then I'd set scuttling charges on her and let her go. Why stick with a ship that can't fly?"
"Right, but how would you feel about that?" I asked. "Would you regret it? Would you miss her? Would you fight to keep her to the last?"
He shook his head. "I don't understand what you're driving at, Hideo."
"I'm thinking about why I stay with the Gilmour," I admitted. "She's as fast as any ship I know; faster than most. But she doesn't have the room for cargo I need and if we're going to take on the Tharl then I need more firepower. I've taken her as far as she can go, and I've hit a wall."
"You don't have to sell her," John pointed out. "You could leave her in dock while you do other things. We've got enough free cash to buy our own fleet, our own station if we wanted. You think they'd sell this one to us?"
"Yeah, I could," I admitted. "But I don't want to. I don't want to fly another ship. I want the Gilmour. She's my home."
John shrugged and gave my shoulder a friendly shake. "You're an odd bug, Hideo. But you've made it work. You could buy a warship if you wanted, maybe even something bigger than what Ron's flying now. But if you did would you be able to lure in the Tharl the way you do now? I mean, now we know how to kill them. And not just kill them but knock them out so we can loot them. Why change things up when you've got a winning strategy? Don't fix what isn't broken."
I scowled. "It isn't enough. I can kill them one by one but there's always more. I want to kill them all. I need them all dead."
John's eyes widened in surprise. "What? Why?"
"They killed Mika." I said it quietly, matter of fact, not wanting anything of the rage inside me to filter through.
"Mika? Is she your sister?"
I grabbed my drink and swallowed what remained in a single gulp. The pain was still fresh, still raw in my chest. I nodded briefly while I tried to find my voice again. "There was a battle. Her ship went down with all hands. I happened to be there and I only just escaped because she helped me. They killed her."
John frowned and reached out to put a hand on my shoulder. "I'm sorry. She was Navy, then?"
I nodded again and dialed up another drink. All this talk was making me thirsty.
"You have to be a special type of person to join the Navy," he said. "The kind of person willing to kill and die in service of duty. She wouldn't have been there if she hadn't been willing to volunteer."
I thought of Mika as she was telling us about her decision to join the Navy, to pursue a career with the Fleet. She told us about how she felt the call to serve something greater than herself. John was right: no one had forced her to it. She wasn't just willing to put herself in harm's way, she had been eager for it. I poked at that thought and found no comfort in it. I shook my head.
John sat back and watched me in companionable silence for a while. My drink arrived and I downed it all at once before dialing for another.
"You're a puzzle, Hideo," he said to me as I reached for my third drink. "When we first met I really didn't think you were going to make it. You had big dreams but there you were in that tiny little ship. There was no way you were ever going to haul enough freight to make a profit. Not unless you turned to smuggling."
"Then why did you help me?" I asked. The alcohol burned on its way down my throat and I savored the sensation. "Why prolong my fall?"
"Because I thought you'd probably figure out what you needed to do, and smuggling has a very steep learning curve. Piracy even more so. Most who turn to crime don't last very long and when you did that I wanted to be nearby to help you."
"That's very kind of you," I observed dryly. "I'm sure it wasn't because you were looking to replace Dickie, right?" The image of Dickie's smoking corpse came unbidden to my mind and I squeezed my eyes shut before picking up my drink again.
John sat and watched me for a little while, which I found unnerving. "Still the puzzle. You're gung-ho to kill the Tharl. You were out for blood against the pirates who tried to jump me. But Dickie's death bothers you? You weren't the one who killed him."
I shook my head again. I really didn't want to talk about this. "It doesn't matter."
"It does. It matters why you're doing this, because it's not the same reasons we're doing it. Right now Alec and Ron are living it up and enjoying being rich. Based on what you told me we just pulled in fifty times what you did on your first haul and that's not counting the Thanatos. We could all retire in obscene luxury with that, but I know they're going to do it again and again. They're having fun with it for now. But once the novelty wears off they're going to notice how much money they have and how they don't have to be busting their asses to bring in more. When that happens they're going to disappear pretty damned quick and the Horsemen will be no more."
I nodded slowly, staring at the remaining liquid in my glass intently. I knew the Horsemen wouldn't stick around forever but I hadn't worried about it. I was too focused on how to do what I needed to do. John was prompting me to think about it now and the more he talked the less drunk he sounded. "And what about you? Are you leaving now or later?"
He shrugged and dialed up another drink for himself. "Not right now. Like the others I'm having fun. Plus there's less risk involved for me so this is almost like free money. I'm in no hurry to stop the flow."
"But you will," I prompted. "Eventually you're going to get bored and leave too."
"Maybe," he conceded. "Eventually. But not today. I plan to live long enough to enjoy the fruits of our labors. But I didn't look after you all that time just because I wanted to recruit you. I like you, Hideo. I don't want to see you throw your life away trying to finish a job that will outlive us all."
"What's the alternative?" I asked bitterly. "Set myself up as a king and do nothing for the rest of my life?"
"Maybe. I can think of worse ways to live." John shot back his drink and paused to savor it. "Or maybe do something else. Even if we do no better with our next attempts we will succeed again. And bring home more money. And more again. And still more. One person could do a lot in this galaxy with that much money. You don't necessarily have to be on the front lines to fight this battle. You could be helping to set up other people to do it, too. Create an organization dedicated to recruiting and equipping pirates against the Tharl. Or maybe something else entirely. I don't know what. A charity for Navy veterans. A program to seek out captured and enslaved Navy personnel. Free puppies for all children. It's your money Hideo. You have to figure out what to do with it."
If our goods were welcome on Gallant Station, my contraband fairly made Diamond swoon. The first thing he wanted to know was how I'd done it.
"Trade secret," I replied with a wink. "I don't want everyone coming home with souvenirs like this, do I? It would undercut my market!"
Diamond scowled at me, but mostly for show. He was much more excited about the cargo no matter how I came by it. The equipment itself was junk of course, none of it was salvageable as the Tharl had confirmed before they agreed to let me keep it. He intended to pick at it anyway to see if he could glean any secrets. But of course his real delight was in the working power cores, especially after I demonstrated how to turn them on and off.
"Have you tried to integrate them into your ship systems yet?" he demanded.
"Of course not!" I protested. "You think I'm trying to blow myself up? I don't know what I'm doing with those!" I refrained from going into detail on how I'd learned to turn the cores on.
"It's probably just as well. We've got laboratories here that will do the job nicely. But I have some suspicions and I can't wait to test them." He picked up one of the smaller cores and twisted it around in his hands.
He held up the core he'd chosen. "I've been hoping to confirm it for years now, but I suspect the energy density in this little thing is greater than all of the generators on your ship. Now I get to find out. Want to come see?"
I followed him down corridors into sections of the station I'd never imagined existed. Diamond chattered happily as we walked. "I've been studying the Tharl for years, of course. Getting my hands on anything I could find from their ships, their worlds, their cultures. I'd love to learn some of their manufacturing processes because we don't have anything like them. I don't think we can duplicate these power cores without them. But if you can bring in more then we won't need to."
"Because we'll take what we need from the Tharl?"
"Yes, this, very much!" Diamond nodded eagerly. He stopped and turned to a door on our left. He placed his hand against a plate and the door swung in obediently for him. It was a fairly small airlock but we were both able to fit without much wrangling.
"But what if we end up defeating the Tharl once and for all? Destroy all their ships and worlds? Or we can't loot enough cores for what we need?"
"I don't think that's very likely to happen, do you?" Diamond peered at me intently and I flushed slightly as I shook my head. Desired, yes. Likely, no. I declined to elaborate.
"In any case, we'll eventually learn those processes for ourselves or come up with a new solution on our own. We know it's possible, we just need to apply ourselves to finding it. I've been working on it for years, but now that I have these I expect to make much more progress."
As he put away his new toys I looked around the room. I found it to be a marvelous space, filled with all manner of research tools and computer consoles to run them. It was like a scene out of a holographic entertainment, bright and sterile with important-looking devices with intermittent flashing lights. Some of them I recognized from my own ship's engineering core but the rest of the systems I couldn't begin to fathom their purpose. I was impressed and a little intimidated.
Diamond placed the largest and smallest of the cores on separate tables and began poking at the controls. "Now let's see here," he muttered as he worked. "What's your output trajectory? Show me what you've got." He activated the smaller core as I'd shown him and studied the display. He didn't seem to mind me peeking over his shoulder so I peeked for all the good it did me. I didn't understand the readout and he was too engrossed in what it was telling him to share it with me. He made some adjustments and sat back to observe the result.
After a few minutes I cleared my throat. "So...what's the news?"
He shook his head. "It's hard to believe. I'm positive its output can go much higher but it's already matching the best Federation technology we have. Even if it were at half capacity it would be incredible but I know it can go much higher. This little thing could power my whole lab by itself."
Oh, the possibilities. I felt a grin spread across my face. "Can you do that? Can this be adapted to our technology?"
"I think so. There's nowhere to plug in so we'll have to rig up some kind of containment chamber to absorb the energy it produces. After that, energy is energy. Federation technology doesn't care where it comes from."
"What's it producing now? It didn't feel hot when I turned it on."
Diamond flashed me an even bigger grin. "Electricity. But from what I'm reading here it's only releasing its payload onto surfaces that are metallic; the parts that aren't touching the plate aren't releasing anything. It was rocking slightly after I set it down and as the contact area changes so does the location of where it releases energy. From this I can infer that if it were fully encased in full contact then it would emit power from every part of its surface."
"My ship's computer registered alpha particles. Are you getting that, too? Anything else?"
He nodded. "Alpha particles, yes. A low temperature increase. But nothing else, nothing dangerous to us."
"How does it translate alpha particle radiation into electricity?"
"I don't know," he admitted. "Isn't it wonderful?"
I blinked. He didn't know and he was happy about it? "Come again?"
"It's something new, something we haven't seen before. A mystery to solve. We have so few left." He actually looked forlorn now. "I mentioned before that we humans have lost something, a spark that once drove us to explore and learn. We're resting on our past accomplishments and never wonder what else we could do. This is something we could have done long ago but we stopped trying. So here I am wondering how they did this and looking forward to finding out. New is good."
I shook my head regretfully. I didn't share Diamond's enthusiasm and couldn't afford to. I needed what the technology could do for me too much. "How long do you think before you can replicate this?"
He shrugged slightly. "Months, maybe. Years, likely. It's just me and my equipment here, so you can't expect quick results."
"What if I could bring in more people? A team to help you and more equipment?" I considered the cost and cringed; I was rich but not that rich. I would have to keep working and bringing home more loot in order to maintain the costs of such an endeavor. But if they figured it out? Worth every credit.
"Maybe," he mused. "It couldn't hurt. But I still can't guarantee anything. It depends on how well we understand what the Tharl are doing with it. You could be throwing good money after bad."
"I think it's worth the risk. This is important to me. I want to catch up to the Tharl's technological edge, maybe learn how to exceed it. That would be worth a lot to me."
"That'd be worth a lot to a lot of people," he agreed. "Fine. I know some bright people, people I can trust. I'll make them an offer and send you the bill."
"Done," I said. "We'll split the profits evenly. But I want first crack at any new technologies you discover."
He cocked an eyebrow. "Even split? That's mighty generous of you, Hideo. What did they teach you in that school?"
It was my turn to shrug. "Money is a means to an end. If I give you a stake in this then we both win. It's good business."
He eyed me thoughtfully for a moment then nodded. "You'll get your wish. I'll make sure of it."
The Horsemen enjoyed their newfound wealth for a while but once they newness wore off they started talking about the next score. Alec was in favor of taking the fight to them again but Ron and John both argued in favor of less hostile territory while we worked up the Thanatos. For myself I liked the idea of returning to Tharl territory but agreed that keeping to Federation or independent territories was a smart idea. For one thing, if we managed to take another ship we wouldn't have to give it back; we could keep it all and sell off whatever we didn't mine for secrets. For another it was far less likely that we'd get outnumbered and outgunned in our own territory. GalPol might freak at the sight of a Navy destroyer in private hands but it wasn't technically illegal. As long as we kept our noses clean toward Federal property and ships they had no cause to interfere. Fighting Tharl in Federation territory made us good citizens, not pirates. And anyone who attacked us first, well, they deserved whatever they got.
We didn't just do rest and relaxation. The Thanatos needed time to work up with a new crew, or at least a mostly new crew. It was no surprise that over half the slave crew chose to leave and needed to be replaced. John and I made sure they got to wherever they wanted to go as long as it was in Federation territory. Nearly half of those who remained were deemed unreliable and were sent to their home worlds. Most of those who remained didn't occupy key positions but they were at least familiar with the ship so we slowly built up the crew around them. Ron drilled them daily until he was satisfied they met his minimum standards but we all knew neither the old nor the new crew had any experience in battle. Honing their skills against Alec in his Wasp or myself in the Gilmour wasn't the same as a real fight no matter how good our simulations.
Diamond started recruiting his team of researchers and I signed off on everyone he wanted. I didn't have the expertise to understand his choices or whether or not the people he wanted were qualified to do what we needed so I deferred to his judgment. In his reports he gushed about the progress he was making and how the team was coming together. The numbers and charts looked good, but they were just numbers and pictures to me. At first the positive news boosted my spirits but as the weeks went on and breakthroughs failed to materialize I started to suspect it was all smoke screen. I didn't say anything in case it was just my own paranoia at work but I couldn't help but wonder if I'd gotten my hopes up for nothing.
I turned my energies to our upcoming hunt. I asked my computer to gather information on Tharl appearances and chart trends. Not unexpectedly, the systems with the highest incidents of Tharl incursion were systems closest to the border between Federation and Tharl territory. According to the computer, statistical analysis didn't produce much more than noise. We couldn't make an accurate prediction of when or where the Tharl might show up. We could bounce around randomly between systems hoping to get a hit, but the computer pointed out that it was better to wait in one spot and let the Tharls' randomness find us.
We discussed this over drinks that night. Well, they did as I was still under my enforced ban on alcohol. I'm not quite sure when it started but suddenly nobody wanted me with a drink in my hand. It was demeaning.
"We need a place where we can be mobile," Ron was saying. "If we're planetbound we'll take too long to get into position. Someone else is likely to come along and blow up the ship."
"I see your point," John replied. "But we can get...rambunctious sometimes." He was looking pointedly at Alec while saying this. Ron and I pretended not to notice while Alec grinned at him fiercely. "If we park on a station we're more likely to annoy the locals than if we have room to spread out on the ground. This will be all for naught if we're cooling our heels in a brig when the Tharl show up."
"Yes, but that's under normal circumstances," I pointed out. "We're all rich now. Throwing money around absolves a lot of sins that we're used to running away from." I turned and looked sheepishly at an imaginary person standing over the table. "'Oh, did we trash your bar? Will this cover it? And have a nice tip for yourself. Why thanks, and you have a nice day too.'"
John scowled. "You waste a lot of money that way."
"What's th' point of money if ya can't have fun wit' it?" Alec demanded.
"Whoever makes the mess pays to clean it up," Ron said. "If we can make another score like the last one then we'll have plenty to cover it. Do you think we're likely to make less of a mess planetside?"
"No," John admitted. "But we'll be able to spread it out more and not wear out our welcome so quickly."
"Do you think we can be wheels up and in position before system defenses smash the Tharl to dust?" I asked.
He glowered and knocked back his drink rather than say anything. It was answer enough.
"So we gotta find a place wit' a station 'r somethin'," Alec said soberly.
I turned to the tabletop display of the systems we were looking at. There were nearly a hundred systems to choose from but not all of them had orbital stations. That narrowed the search down to fourteen.
"What 'bout moons 'n asteroid bases?" Alec asked. I cocked an eyebrow at him. It was a good question and from the expression on the faces of the others they hadn't considered it either. I expanded the search and that brought the total up to forty-one.
"Eliminate the bases that are automated mining facilities," John said as he tapped at the controls. That narrowed the number back down to twenty-six.
"Who haven't seen the Tharl in the longest?" Ron asked. He tapped at the display and sorted the list in reverse order of incursions.
"You think that's wise?" John asked.
Ron shrugged. "Based on Pest--Hideo's list," he corrected himself quickly before I could do more than glare. If they wanted to call me names they were going to need to put more alcohol in my belly. He cleared his throat and continued. "Based on this list it's not that these systems see the Tharl less than the others, it's just that the Tharl haven't shown up in a while. I'm not suggesting it's a guarantee but it may improve our chances slightly."
I was willing to concede that. At the very least I wasn't sure it could hurt our chances much and I was willing to follow hunches. It's not like this was an exact science.
"Which 'r the closest?" Alec asked. We poked at the display until we resorted the list putting equal weight on time since last incursion and distance from our current position. There were two likely candidates at the top of the list.
We paused for a moment in thought. Then, one by one, each of them turned and looked at me.
"What?" I demanded.
"You started this," Ron replied with a smile. "So you pick."
"Uh," I said eloquently. "Okay. Let's go to Baku."
It was a week long trip to Baku which I spent largely moping in my cabin. I obsessed about Diamond's progress with the power cores but quietly, in my head. I didn't discuss it with the computer because I was afraid it was going to tell me that my fears were justified. I was happier thinking that I was just being paranoid and that it was going to work out. For its part the computer seemed to recognize my need for isolation and respected it. At least I wasn't staring out the window. We spent the duration of the trip in silence.
Baku was one of the older systems colonized by humans that had never achieved any great success. Its star was an unexceptional yellow sequence type two, the kind of star system most commonly colonized by humans. Most of the easily accessible resources had already been stripped by thousands of years of human industry leaving behind old and decrepit structures largely devoid of habitation. But it still had a waypoint station maintained by humans in stellar orbit between the rocky interior planets and the gassy giants beyond.
We came out of folded space fairly close to the interior and once we got our bearings I plotted a course that looped us around the second planet to slingshot into a trajectory that would follow the station's IFF signal. Three hours out from the station we caught sight of another ship coming in which was shortly identified as the Thanatos. As the Wasp was parked in her hangar bay that just left the Bounty to arrive. I could have parked next to the Wasp as well and saved the fuel but folded space is weird sometimes and I trusted the Gilmour to arrive first more often than not. If there was something out there too dangerous for the Bounty then I wanted to spot it first and sound the alarm while I drew it away. John arrived two days later as the three of us were settling in and docked without incident.
Baku station turned out to be something of a surprise. As the station had been intended as a hub for so many mining projects it was built with extensive recreational facilities as well as ship maintenance and cargo. By necessity the structure was huge and solidly built on the assumption that mistakes happen and a loaded ore freighter could potentially put the entire population at risk if the pilot zigged when he should have zagged. The station was also heavily armed, a precaution against pirates. I wondered less at how the Tharl might consider the system a worthy challenge for their traders.
Although they didn't need our protection they were still happy to see us, especially after they saw the color of our money. Their music and video files were pleasantly up to date, carried by the plethora of trade ships that passed through. Baku didn't have much left to offer in mineral resources and they never successfully leveraged those resources to develop a strong industrial base but the station itself made it an attractive destination for independent traders like myself. Its reputation was spread through word of mouth and if you couldn't get top price for your goods you were at least guaranteed a good meal, decent drinks and an opportunity to network with other traders for news and gossip.
By prior agreement the Horsemen didn't talk much with others about why we were here or why we stuck around so long. As days turned into weeks and then months we became a favorite source of speculation as well as some lively betting pools on how long it would be before we finally jumped out. This was enhanced by our possession of a working Navy destroyer and the way we came by it. The locals never seemed to tire of hearing the story although it seemed to me that most were skeptical of its veracity. Most seemed to think we were running an elaborate scam that somehow involved the destroyer; perhaps to steal supplies or ammunition from the Federation by impersonating one of their ships. It had been over a year since they were last visited by the Tharl and I don't think anyone really made the connection. There were some very intriguing attempts to pump us for information, some more entertaining than others. They all went away disappointed, however. None of us wanted to put our cash flow in peril.
We crawled through the station exploring everything it had to offer and to be fair there was quite a bit. There were holographic suites that could display grand vistas or replay any entertainment video so it felt like you were immersed in it although nothing you did would change the script. There were brothels catering to any fetish or desire you could imagine. There were obstacle courses and climbing walls, exercise equipment of every conceivable type and so on. You could race a small craft through the solar system or pilot drones in wargames. It was a hell of a vacation destination and we dove into its myriad amusements to keep ourselves occupied while we waited.
A month passed, and then two. It was a testament to Baku's resources that not even Alec showed any signs of getting bored with the diversions available, although he did show a marked preference for one particular brothel. We called him out on it one night over drinks.
"What's the deal with you bunking so much at the Arabian Nights?" Ron asked after we'd all had several drinks to lubricate the evening. John and I hid our smirking grins, not wanting to antagonize Alec further. But to our surprise, he didn't lash out. He blushed. I had no idea he could.
"Dey got soft sheets," he said before taking a long pull at his beer.
"You could buy those sheets for your own ship," Ron pointed out.
"Maybe it's not the sheets so much as the...pillows." I was feeling lightly toasty now that John had relaxed his prohibition against my drinking and I found myself giggling at my own joke.
I would have expected Alec to scowl and glare at me as usual, but instead he chuckled and shook his head.
"That's not a denial," John observed.
"It's not a confirmation either," Ron countered. "So spill, man. Who keeps you going back?"
Alec shrugged uncomfortably, and the conflict on his face made something twist inside me. Suddenly my joke wasn't so funny any more. "It doesn't matter," I said. "It's none of our business."
He grinned at me. "S'okay. I can't tell you, who c'n I tell?"
After a short pause Ron reached out and poked him in the arm. "So, you're not going to tell us?"
Alec took a deep breath, blew it out and said slowly, "Name's Gunnar."
I nodded, gesturing broadly for more.
"What happened to Kacera?" John asked.
Alec shrugged. "She was nice. Talented, everythin' y' could want, then she brung in Gunnar. The two of 'em together?" He paused again and none of us interrupted. "Yeah. Then she was busy and it was just Gun. Di'nt need her after that."
We sat in stunned silence for a while. Alec himself looked oddly pleased with our reaction, that big grin never leaving his face. Finally I shook my head and squinted my eyes at him suspiciously. "You're not going to give up flying the Wasp and become a shuttle pilot now, right?"
He snorted and punched me in the arm. He didn't pull it, either. "Yer crazy, Pest. Ain't no way I'm givin' up the Wasp. She's my baby."
Ron raised his glass in a brief toast. "He's got a point, though. I never expected that from you. Nine years I've known you, and you were always after the women."
Alec nodded. "Never 'xpected it m'self. I still like 'em, sure. Guess I just hadda broaden my horizons, right?"
John slapped the table and laughed. "I don't think anyone's going to top that news tonight. So here's to Alec and broader horizons!"
We cheered and spent the night getting roaring drunk together in celebration of Alec's newfound happiness.
Two months turned into four and then six. No one said anything but from the looks on our faces it was clear we were wondering if we were wasting our time here. I kept a close eye on the news nets for any word on Tharl activity but they were quiet. I remarked that as long as we were waiting for the Tharl to show we might as well be waiting somewhere fun. The Horsemen agreed unanimously but the anxiety never left. Our revelry dropped off gradually as time passed, replaced by personal projects. I continued my quest to refurbish the interior of the Gilmour and restore systems that had gone offline for lack of maintenance. My primary systems were running as well as they ever had but secondary and tertiary systems like the storage locker holding the wrist comms had been neglected so long that they no longer worked right, if they worked at all. So my days were spent crawling through tight spaces, swearing at frozen components and learning mysteries about my ship I never imagined were there. I could have hired teams of technicians and engineers to do it for me but I needed the distraction. On occasion I took a break to run drills with the Thanatos and I admit I was impressed by how well they were coming together. I didn't have a solid basis for comparison but I imagined they were getting as good as a Federation crew. Then again, after six months I'd be surprised if they didn't show improvement.
I was surprised when the station manager sent a polite but firm request to all of us for a meeting in her office. The message included words like "grave concerns" and "earliest convenience" that successfully conveyed the urgency of the message and hinted that I might not want to mistake it for a mere request.
The office of the station manager wasn't ornately decorated, simply a sign in large letters reading "Station Management" and a small plaque with the managers name: Pari Waraich. I opened the door and walked in to find a small office with a Yantusian lying in the middle an ordinary desk. I had never met a Yantusian before but I vaguely remember hearing something about the race while I was growing up. I didn't remember much except something about them being sensitive about the number and appearance of their tentacles. Unfortunately I didn't remember if nine tentacles was typical or not. I thought about complimenting them and then I remembered my introduction with the Timmorakians and thought better of it. But I couldn't help watching as the creature worked industriously with all nine tentacles operating independently as it worked controls, filed papers and effectively never stopped moving. It was a marvel of multi-tasking, performing the work of several people simultaneously. I wondered what it considered sufficient compensation.
Half an hour passed and I wondered if Manager Waraich was playing power games to try to intimidate me. At forty minutes I was sure of it, and then the door to the corridor opened to let in John. He was followed immediately by Ron who was half-dragging Alec along with him. I waved them to the empty seats nearby. "What's wrong with him?"
Ron dumped Alec in a seat who raised his head and smiled vacantly at me. "Hey, Pest!"
John slumped down next to me. "Last night's party went long. I don't know what he's on but he's not much good right now."
I scowled. "What if..." I glanced at the Yantusian on the desk. It didn't appear to show any interest in us or our conversation but there was no need to give anything away. "What if they show up? Our plan hinges on him being able to shoot straight."
He shook his head, clearly unable to answer. Neither did I.
"What about an antidote? Something to sober him up?"
John shrugged eloquently. We were just going to have to live with it for the moment.
The arrival of the entire team seemed to be the event Waraich was waiting for. Within a few minutes the Yantusian directed an eye toward us and tapped something out on a pad. An electronic voice said, "The manager will see you now."
John and I exchanged glances before helping Ron wrestle Alec into the room. Pari Waraich was an older lady with dark chocolate skin hunched over a desk with a dozen different data pads scattered over it. She was scrolling through a virtual display projected over her desk but the privacy settings didn't let me see what it was.
To her credit she didn't play power games by making us wait while she sorted through her paperwork. She quickly finished whatever she was doing and shut down the display. She then gazed on us for maybe ten seconds before opening the conversation.
"I've been remiss. Welcome to Baku Station. I am, of course, the current station manager Pari Waraich. I understand you've been enjoying yourselves the past few months while making significant contributions to our economy."
Ron, John and I all looked at each other, uncertain how to respond. Alec offered a faint wave of his hand and a cheerful, "Hi!"
She watched us for a few long seconds, her eyes darting from one face to the next. I felt uncomfortable under her gaze, like I'd been called before the schoolmaster to explain some petty crime I was accused of. It was John who finally broke the ice.
"What can we do for you, Stationmaster Waraich?"
"You can tell me why you're here."
I blinked. Of all the responses I imagined her giving, that hadn't been on my list. "What do you mean?"
"I mean the four of you are not enterprising young men. You haven't been investigating any investment brokers, you're not engaging in any research, a couple dozen wealthy ships have come and gone but you haven't attempted to engage in any piracy against them and none of you have shown any interest in immigration. So far as anyone can tell you've just been entertaining yourselves. Quite lavishly, in fact. With the amount of money you've been throwing around it seems to me you could easily be vacationing in far more luxurious destinations. Don't get me wrong, I'm proud of my station and everything we have to offer but to be perfectly honest we're not used to catering to the nouveau riche. So again, why are you here?"
There was another moment of silence as the three of us looked at each other. Alec, of course, was beyond such intellectual acrobatics so he smiled broadly and waved again. "Hi!"
"We like this station." I said slowly. It wasn't the whole truth but it was the truth. "We were going to work our way toward the core worlds but you don't get a lot of traffic. That means we can monopolize your time and not have to worry about competing with anyone else."
Waraich gazed on me steadily, never saying a word. Her intent was clear: she didn't buy a word of it.
"We...may have also made our money under questionable circumstances." John added. "The low traffic here means we're less likely to be found or word to get out that we're here."
Waraich's eyes shifted to John which gave me a much appreciated reprieve, but her expression didn't change and she still didn't say anything.
John and Ron exchanged a significant look that I didn't understand until they both turned and stared at me. After a moment I understood what they were silently communicating to me and felt myself start to panic. Why were they putting me on the spot? And then I realized it was because it was my plan. No, we didn't want other hotshots learning what it was and trying to horn in on our action either for wealth or glory but this meticulous, disciplined woman didn't strike me as the kind of person to want that anyway. Maybe she would want a cut of our profits but that was just business. I could understand that. I started to think of ways we could negotiate a deal with her.
I took a deep breath before saying directly, "We're hunting Tharl."
At last her expression changed. Her eyes narrowed as she considered my words. "The Tharl haven't been back here for some time. As you've seen for yourselves there haven't been any to hunt."
I nodded. "That's what makes us think they're likely to come here soon. It's taking longer than we expected, but we have reason to think that this system is a likely target for one of their ships coming to look for trade."
Her expression said she was dubious but more accepting of this than our cover story. It was the most emotion I'd seen from her so far. "Trade? With us? In a hundred years none of the Tharl ships that have come here have ever communicated a desire to trade. They've just opened fire on anything they see. We've only ever protected our world with massive expenditures of lives and ships."
"From what we've learned, that's how the Tharl open trade. Anyone who wants to trade on a Tharl world has to fight whatever ships are currently in the air. That's how trade works for them: shoot first and never ask questions. They don't take offense when their ships are destroyed because that means they were clearly not worthy."
The look on her face said she wasn't buying it. "So if we just get out of their way they'll land and behave like civilized beings?"
I glanced at the others and they didn't look convinced either. "Maybe? Or maybe they need at least some token resistance? Honestly, I don't know. I do know that once we fought our way to the surface on Tharl worlds we were treated like welcome visitors."
"On the world where we got my destroyer, they threw a parade for us," Ron interjected helpfully. She threw him a scornful glance.
"He's not lying," John assured her. "We had just made it through a massive battle. The Federation and Navy had just pounded each other to scrap and one of their capital ships made a run at us. Ron lost his ship in the fight but we were able to tow their ship to the surface and they treated us like we were heroes."
She shook her head vigorously. "No. You have to be lying. Tharl never abandon their ships, they always blow them before anyone can capture them."
"Not if you hit the cockpit hard enough without destroying the whole ship," I explained. "I got lucky and had the chance to explore one of their raiders where the pilot died before it could activate the self-destruct. We don't know if the design is the same in every ship but so far we've been lucky and gotten rich off it."
"So I've seen. Now you're rich. Why are you hunting Tharl in my system? It's clear that none of you are hurting for funds. Why are you out here looking for a fight and possibly putting my people at risk?"
Ron flashed her a mercenary grin. "Easy money. I've never heard of anyone making so much so fast. I've been flying fifteen years and never made so much money, even split four ways."
"Five," John reminded him.
Ron grimaced. "Right. Five. Still not used to having a crew."
She settled back in her chair and looked us over each in turn. Something seemed to click and she nodded firmly. "You've found a way to get rich quick and you're not overly concerned about losing a fight." She paused and considered Alec who was humming softly to himself while he contemplated his fingertips. "Maybe even eager for a fight. But you have a plan and you're sticking to it. What concerns me is how that plan involves my station."
I waved my hands emphatically. "As long as everything goes according to plan your station will never be at risk. The plan is to engage the Tharl far away from here and to lead the raider away so we can line up the shot we need. Worst scenario is that we lose and all our ships are destroyed after which the Tharl continues on with whatever it intended in the first place. So you either get more time to assemble your defense or you never need to commit any resources to your defense in the first place. Either way you come out ahead."
"What about after you leave? If this provokes the Tharl they could send a fleet here after you and then we'd be in even worse shape than before."
I blinked. That was not a scenario I'd ever heard of, and certainly never thought of. There was a pause as we considered this.
"I won't say it can't happen, but I can say I've never heard of it happening," John said finally. "We've been monitoring public news channels and the Navy has never reported anything like that happening. They hunt Tharl all the time but they've never given any hint that the Tharl hunt them back."
"But is that a risk I can afford? The Navy is an official body charged with the security of Federation worlds. Private ships are something else. We've never been able to comprehend Tharl thinking so how do you know how they'll respond to this? Do they distinguish between military and private forces? We can fight off a single Tharl raider but I don't have the resources to defend against an entire armada. Have you thought about that?"
As I'd said before, I hadn't. Put it that way I could see her reason for concern. Nevertheless, I didn't think she was right.
"I have the most experience with the Tharl in our group," I said. "And nothing in my experience suggests what you're talking about is likely. The Tharl have never shown me any indication that they hold grudges."
She shook her head. "I'm sorry, gentlemen, but you have the luxury of flying off on to your next adventure. I have to look after the welfare of my station and my world. I'm afraid that what you're proposing puts my people at too much risk. You're welcome to stay here and party for as long as you want but I can't allow you to follow through with your plan. If that's not acceptable to you then you're welcome to leave whenever you're ready.
"Naw," Alex burst out suddenly. "We'll defen' you." We all turned to stare at him and he didn't look very steady but he looked very determined anyway. "Buy ya a fleet. 'Rmada of yer own."
John shook his head. "Alec, even with the money we've pulled in so far we couldn't afford that."
Alec scowled and shook his fist in John's general direction. "Don' need battleships. Private fleet, private ships. Defen' th' system. Privately!" He grinned like he'd just scored a major point in a debate.
Ron's eyes went wide. "Private ships. I see what he's saying. You don't need military ships, you just need ships. Anything that can carry a laser or launch a missile. Weapons platforms, mobile or not, will keep the Tharl occupied while you coordinate the defense. A dozen ships like Alec's or Hideo's or even my old Ferla and you've got a formidible fleet."
Waraich's face suggested she wasn't buying this, either. "Let's suppose for a moment that I believe you would make good on this promise. Let's say, furthermore, that you supply me with two dozen Ferla all capable of fighting. They would hardly stand up against a Federation Navy squadron, let alone a Tharl invasion. And that's assuming I could find pilots for them all."
"If you're paying well you can advertise for pilots. There's a network for that sort of thing," I pointed out. "But every ship in the system is another ship that can help stop or distract the Tharl from wiping you out. This station is already designed to fight pirates so there's no reason it couldn't become the command and control center for a defense fleet. We can start you out with a small fleet to begin with and keep building on that as we score more money. Pool our resources and establish a partnership with you to keep building."
"The Federation doesn't like that," John pointed out. "Federation law requires that such fleets be registered as Navy, subject to Navy regulation and oversight."
"So go independent," Ron countered. "Baku is far enough removed from the Core that the Federation isn't likely to expend much effort to send anyone to punish them for seceeding. I mean, seriously, what is the Federation doing for you now?"
Waraich folded her arms and leaned back in her seat. "Baku has always been a proud member of the Federation. It's been part of our national identity for thousands of years, countless generations. I'm not sure I could sell that to our governing council."
"What if you start building your own ships?" I asked, which produced a startled look from her. "You don't have much left to mine, I know that, but you've got structures all over that are just sitting idle. You could retool them into ship building and maintenance facilities. Make a deal with the Federation that you start supplying them with ships and in return a certain percentage of them stay here for system defense. They could train here, run maneuvers, rotate out as needed."
John nodded thoughtfully. "That could work. It would definitely boost your economy. Not that you folks are all that poor, but with our investment you could kickstart your way into a new era."
The look on Waraich's face said she liked that idea. A lot. But then a scowl settled back on her features. "That still doesn't solve the more immediate problem of Tharl retaliation for the four of you hunting in our space."
"Contact the Federation and make the offer to build ships," Ron suggested. "Have them send a squadron for system defense. We'll honor our agreement to invest in your ship building either way. When the Federation arrives we'll leave and let them deal with any Tharl that appear. But until then we'll act as your defense force. If a Tharl raider arrives before they do and we succeed then we'll have that much more money to invest into this venture. If not, you've lost nothing. Afterward the Federation will have that much more reason to keep Baku safe from any Tharl, be they raider or armada."
She hesitated. It was clear she wanted to believe, and was possibly thinking about how much she personally stood to gain from our proposition. Waraich didn't strike me as a particularly venal woman, but there was no reason to turn down a good opportunity while also performing her duty. "If I were to get the council to agree to this and we were able to get the Federation to agree with it, it would take time. Months just to work through the bureaucracy, years before we could ramp up production. I still have the immediate problem of the Tharl."
"Private shipyards aren't illegal," John reminded her. "With our help you could start retooling immediately. We're traders; we know where to find the resources you need. Having even a single shipyard operational would add weight to your petition to the Federation that you mean business. If they don't agree then you can build ships and sell them to private interests and have them available in case the Tharl appear after we're gone."
"And until then?" she pressed.
"Until then you have us," I reminded her.
"After that, there are no guarantees," Ron followed up. "The Tharl could show up with an armada even if we never fight them here. As you said, they're alien. We can't predict their reasoning or what will or won't provoke them. Maybe they'll just decide it's Baku's turn and nothing we do will affect that. But we're offering you a way to protect yourself in the long run even if we can't make any immediate guarantees."
"That's a hell of a gamble," she objected.
"We're traders," I pointed out. "Gambling comes with the territory, and it's not just us. You take a gamble every time you buy or sell from one. Some of us can be...disreputable."
There were chuckles all around the room as my point sank home.
"But you four, you're reputable?" she asked sarcastically even as she struggled to hide her grin.
"Oh no," Ron cut in quickly. "We're about the most disresputable bunch you'll ever find. It could even be said that what we're proposing to do is a form of piracy, just not against you or anyone you trade with. But we have a plan and we're dedicated to it. Otherwise we wouldn't have taken the gamble of coming here and staying as long as we have."
"We can't predict the Tharl's movements," John offered. "But based on public records about Tharl raids in this sector it seemed likely that they're going to show up here before too long."
She nodded soberly. "Our assessments agree with you. I've been doing what I can to upgrade this station's defenses, but the Council has been reluctant to do more. They seem to feel that if they offer no obvious provocation that the Tharl will be less likely to come and challenge us."
I felt my heart sink. "So they're not likely to agree to our scheme of refitting your infrastructure for shipbuilding."
She smiled gently at me. "No, that was never going to happen."
John smiled back at her. "But you heard us out to see what kind of crazy ideas we might throw out, see how far we'd go to convince you to let us stay."
She nodded. "That's right. I have to say, you're quick on your feet. I personally agree with you that it's a good idea and could have significant benefits that outweigh the risks, but I know my superiors. They're far too conservative in their thinking. They'd never agree to it."
"As for us?" I prompted hopefully.
She waved her hand dismissively. "As for you you're welcome to stay and if the Tharl come sniffing around I'll gladly look the other way. I could lock down the ships you have docked but there's simply nothing I can do about that destroyer you have parked nearby."
"Nice bluff," Ron said with sincere admiration.
"Agreed," John followed. "Remind me not to play cards with you, Ma'am."
"Probably a smart idea," she admitted. "Or I might get to retire early."
Ron grinned, showing an awful lot of teeth. "I like a challenge."
I stood up quickly before we lost what goodwill we had earned. "Okay! I'm glad we were able to clear up any misunderstandings. Is there anything else you'd like to ask us?"
"No, thank you Trader." She favored me with another smile. "That's all I have for today."
Ron looked ready to object but John cut him off. "C'mon, let's go figure out what this idiot took so we can sober him up." He jerked a thumb at Alec who was singing something under his breath while staring at his fingertips. Ron conceded unwillingly.
Twenty minutes later we were at the Arabian Nights haggling with the prioprietor over what he claimed was confidential information. The Arabian Nights, we were told, was a respectable establishment with a strong reputation for discretion. Anyone who crossed their threshold had a guaranteed right to privacy; so long as they behaved themselves none of the employees or management would even admit they had ever been there let alone what they may or may not have done behind closed doors. The little guy was being a real pain about it.
Ron seemed to think that money was the problem and kept suggesting a larger number every few minutes. But even though the number was getting high enough to make me cringe the prioprietor was having none of it. The stalemate was finally broken when John cut in and said he was looking to buy something – he didn't know what and didn't need to know – so long at it helped his friend sober up safely and quickly. The alternative was to take Alec to the medical bay to analyze what he had taken, and if it was something illegal enough to provoke the authorities then it could go badly for everyone involved. The little man barely hesitated for a moment before he asked us to wait and ducked behind a partition. He came back promptly with a medical patch that he sold to us for surprisingly few credits. John thanked him graciously and hustled us out the door before slapping the patch on Alec's neck. A few moments later Alec was back with us like normal.
"What do you remember?" I asked.
"Ever'thin'," he shrugged. "Glad ya liked my idea 'bout th' 'rmada."
"It was a good idea." John patted him on the back. "You been thinking about that for long?"
"Naw, jus' came t' me." Alec glanced at the time. "I need a drink."
"Two good ideas in as many hours," Ron chortled. "Who are you and what have you done with our friend?"
When Alec didn't rise to the bait I touched his shoulder. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, jus' need a drink s'all." He set a brisk pace down the hallway. The rest of us exchanged worried glances and followed after.
The nearest pub was one of the smaller ones with the lights too low and the music too loud. Probably a good place for smugglers but we weren't looking for that kind of trouble. Alec settled himself squarely at the bar and ordered multiple shots of something from an orange bottle. We seated ourselves nearby to talk amongst ourselves.
"So, about that idea of investing in a shipyard," John began.
"You too?" I asked. I ordered a beer that I knew didn't have much alcohol in it and tasted it slowly. It was a little too sweet for me but that meant I wouldn't be in any hurry to finish it.
"I don't know," Ron said cautiously. He ordered something much stronger and after throwing back a shot bought the entire bottle. "It's one thing to sweeten the pot for the station manager, but is that something we really wanna get tangled up in? I already deal with more paperwork than I like just running my ship."
"Think of it as a fallback," John suggested. He had also ordered a beer and was picking at the free salty snacks laid out in a groove on the bartop. "If we have dry spell that's still guaranteed income."
"We could also use it to supplement our own strength," I pointed out. "If we're building our own ships then we can create our own designs, build ships that are more effective for what we're trying to do."
"I thought you weren't keen on giving up your little system hopper," Ron leered.
I bristled but kept any heat out of my voice. "I'm not, but that doesn't mean we couldn't expand our operations. If we hire more pilots we can cover more systems, increasing our chances of catching more raiders in friendly territory."
Both John and Ron scowled and looked around to see if anyone was eavesdropping. I belated did the same thing and saw everyone was off doing their own thing and leaving us to ourselves. The barkeep was off at the other end chatting up an attractive woman who didn't look very enthusiastic about his attention.
"I thought we were trying to keep this a secret," Ron hissed, although loud enough to be heard over the pub's speakers. "I've already got a lot of extra people to worry about, and now you're talking about bringing more in?"
"None of your crew know why we're doing this," I pointed out. "Any extra pilots we hire won't need to know, either. All they really need to know is that we have a strategy for taking the ships whole and they'll be paid well for their trouble. Just like your crew."
"Ron's crew are all in one place where we can keep an eye on them," John reminded me. "If we send off independent squads we won't know it if any of them talk, even if they don't know what they're talking about. Just gossiping about what they're hired to do is likely to raise questions."
"Unless we're talking about splitting up and managing them separately," Ron said. "But I don't like that idea. We're a team, and a damned good one. I never heard of traders fighting through a war zone and landing on a Tharl world before."
"That was pretty unique," I agreed. "And lucky, since we didn't know anything about that ship before it came after us. You got in a really lucky shot or else we might be drifting quietly in orbit around that moon for the rest of time."
"But you wanna break up the team?" John asked. He popped one of the snacks in his mouth and chewed slowly.
"No, I'm just throwing out ideas," I replied. I took another swig of my beer and swallowed it quickly. Then, remembering my faux pax, I glanced around to confirm no one was listening before I continued. "Like, what if we put together our own armada of non-military ships and took on another war zone? We cut out individual ships and take them out while the armada has the rest of the fleet occupied. We could snag a bunch of them that way all at once. Haul them down with the Bounty or Thanatos."
"That's a way to get a lot of pilots killed," Ron growled. "I wouldn't want to bring anyone I like on a run like that, and I wouldn't trust anyone else."
"Take it easy," John soothed. "Like he said, he's just throwing out ideas."
"The point is that Alec's idea for the Station Manager was a good one," I continued. "And so was our followup to invest our money in more than just our own ship upgrades and high living. A steady source of income in addition to our current plan is just smart thinking. It gives us something to fall back on."
"I don't plan to fly forever," John agreed. "It'd be nice to have a nice nest egg for my retirement."
"Speak for yourself," Ron grumbled. "I plan to die in my chair chasing one more star."
"Me too," I said quietly, although privately I doubted the Tharl would let me live to achieve my ultimate goal. It brought me back to my earlier thoughts about being only one man with one ship against an entire alien civilization. They deserved to die, they needed to die after what they'd done to my sister, but my goal wasn't realistic. Not unless I brought in a lot more help. That meant more ships and more pilots. I had no problem sharing my secret to wealth with them if it meant more Tharl died.
I realized I was snarling at my beer and pushed it away. The cloying taste was overpowering.
"Pest, you okay?" Ron asked.
"Bad aftertaste," I complained. I snagged a couple of the snacks from the groove and chewed them hard. They were salty enough I ended up ordering another drink, although this time I made sure it wasn't so sweet.
I was belly deep in the guts of the Gilmour when the alarm went off. I hardly dared hope that our patience had finally paid off. I wrigged out of the compartment as fast as I could without leaving skin behind. "Computer?"
"Tharl raider, Boss," the computer replied. "Classic configuration, nothing we haven't seen before. Looks like she came in high and is making her way toward the planet. Time to intercept eleven hours and thirty-one minutes. The station has gone to full alert and the planet is throwing a fit. You'd think they'd never been visited by the Tharl before."
"They may have tried to forget," I muttered as I slowed down and wiped grime from my hands and face. "What's the status of the others?"
"The Thanatos is also on alert and recalling all crew. John is already on board the Bounty and waiting on the rest of us. Alec is on his way to launch the Wasp."
"Okay. Begin recording a message for Station Manager Waraich. We're on our way. Anything you care to contribute is welcome but not necessary. Uh, end message and send it."
"Message sent," the computer confirmed. "Based on the Tharl's current trajectory I've plotted an intercept that will put our ships in weapons range in six hours."
"Okay, burst the plot to the others and update it as needed until Alec breaks free of the station." I contemplated my options since six hours was a long time to wait. Typical of space travel, lots of hurry up and wait. Did I want food first, a nap or a shower? I contemplated the state of my hands and the grubbiness of the towel I was wiping them with and decided that a shower was definitely first on the list.
Halfway through scrubbing my skin the computer dutifully relayed the communication encrypted between the Horsemen.
"Hey, Alec!" came Ron's voice over the intercom. "You sober, yet?"
Alec's response was pithy, but impressively graphic in its profanity. He was definitely sober enough for this.
"Boss," the computer interrupted me with a tinge of regret in its voice. "All ships are ready. But I don't think you want to initiate burn while you're still dripping wet."
I grasped the support handles in the stall. "Go ahead and initiate. I don't need to be in the cockpit right now."
"Acknowledged. Trajectory updated and transmitted. Initiating three-quarters burn in three seconds."
I braced myself, not because the Gilmour's engines would throw me against the wall at that acceleration although it could, but because there's no such thing as perfect compensation for inertia. Human technology had long ago developed the means to compensate for the changes in velocity that our propulsion could generate but you couldn't eliminate it completely, not without negating the velocity entirely. I braced myself so I didn't slip in the water as the ship leapt forward faster than any other ship in the system. Well, I admitted to myself, faster than any human ship.
I finished a few minutes later and stepped into the drying station, relishing the sensation of heat on my skin. Then I pulled on a fresh set of clothes and went directly to the cockpit. There was, naturally, nothing for me to do. Unless the Tharl changed course or one of the other ships did something uncharacteristically stupid there was nothing to be done for hours longer. For thoughness' sake I checked the plots of the other ships and reverified course and speed. We planned it so it looked like Alec, Ron and I were racing to be first to engage the Tharl with me arriving roughly five minutes before the rest. John being the slowest was making best speed but would be far behind the rest, which was just as well considering his lack of armament and maneuverability. Corbas could fight, but only at dire need. As before I would distract the Tharl and get it to chase me so I could get it into position for the other two to flank it and get in that crucial shot against the pilot's probable location. With my computer's advanced modeling of Tharl tactics we had a decent chance of success.
After a few minutes of wool gathering I decided that food would wait until after I slept. "Wake me if anything changes, anything at all," I ordered as I stood up.
I set a reminder to wake myself in five hours before turning off the lights and tossing in my bunk for what seemed like an eternity. The next thing I knew the reminder was going off at a rising pitch. I had a vague recollection of walking by water back on my home world surrounded by tiny glowing creatures that were absolutely not native to Rekan but in the dream it made perfect sense to see them there. I didn't remember much else and even that much faded before long.
"Computer, I assume nothing significant has changed while I was out?" I then let out a protracted yawn followed by a luxurious stretch.
"That's affirmative, Boss," the computer replied. "At our current velocity we're projected to enter weapons range of the raider in approximately fifty-six minutes."
"Anything interesting from the others?"
"Negative, the comms have been clear."
We hadn't discussed radio silence but we'd practiced this run enough that there wasn't a lot of need for chatter. We could all see each other clearly and if there were any problems we'd know about it quickly.
I stood and straightened my clothing, then went and prepared a meal for myself in the galley. One nice perk of being wealthy is that while I still needed to be aware of space limitations on board ship I didn't have to sacrifice on taste for the food rations I carried. I picked out a sweet and spicy packet and set it to heat up while I filled a bulb with tea.
After a leisurely breakfast I strolled back into the cockpit and again reverified our position relative to the Horsemen and the oncoming Tharl.
"You look relaxed, Boss," the computer observed.
"Is that a bad thing?" I asked curiously.
"No, you just seem less stressed than you have been, especially before a fight."
I considered this. "I don't know. Maybe getting sleep helped."
"Maybe." The computer abandoned this line of conversation and started another. "I've completed my initial assessment of the Tharl's maneuvers. Would you like to hear it?"
"Absolutely," I agreed. "Go ahead."
"The Tharl has made very few course corrections; she probably came in at a relatively empty point in the solar system and hasn't needed to avoid anything significant. However, she has made some slight maneuvers periodically for reasons I can't confirm."
"But you suspect something?" I guessed.
"I do. This Tharl's piloting gives me high confidence that it matches the style designated Alpha-Four. At intervals of no more than forty-one minutes and no less than twelve the ship will go ballistic and engage maneuvering thrusters to spin in a random direction for a single rotation. It will then re-orient back to its original course and re-engage its primary engines. Two hours ago I began to register diffused energy signatures that correlate to the timing of these maneuvers on a frequency common to Tharl active sensor probes. I therefore suspect that the Tharl is periodically running active scans for cloaked or otherwise stealthed ships that wouldn't register on passive sensors."
"Huh," I mused. "That's pretty smart. So I assume whatever it's looking for it hasn't found?"
"Apparently not since it has never reacted to anything it may have found in the process."
"And based on these maneuvers you think you can predict its movements once we engage?"
"With high confidence, yes."
"Nice," I said approvingly. "With that kind of edge we should be able to line up the shot for Alec fairly quickly."
"Assuming, of course, you're able to avoid being pounded into debris beforehand."
I smacked the console where the computer was generating its head. "Show some respect to your captain, you mutinous dog."
We continued our approach at three-quarter burn, slightly faster than the others were traveling but less than our top capacity. No reason to give anything away to the Tharl. The others were also not at their full speed but even then they'd have no hope of overtaking me if they wanted to. I enjoyed putting the Gilmour through her paces and showing off what her engines could do, but I still didn't want to fight the raider alone.
The computer threw up a predicted course change by the Tharl three to ten seconds before entering weapons range. I considered my options and decided not to anticipate that action; I didn't want that pilot to suspect I knew more than I should. However, I did prepare to redirect power to my lower port quadrant shields. I didn't mind giving the Tharl the impression that my shields were just a little bit stronger than they really were.
"I could be wrong, Boss," the computer cautioned me as I entered the commands to adjust the power distribution.
"I'm betting my life that you aren't," I replied.
"And mine," it reminded me.
"You never complained before."
"You never started fussing with my systems like that before."
"If you're going to start whining like an old woman then maybe I'll stop."
"If you don't stop playing with that you'll short out the array!" The shrill, high-pitched voice that came from the speakers made me laugh out loud.
"Okay, okay. You win." I undid the change I'd made. Unfortunately I still had more time to kill so I dashed to the galley and gathered a small pile of handheld snacks to keep me going for however long these maneuvers took. There was a small compartment in my seat where I could store them so they didn't go flying in case we went weightless or something shook the ship. When I returned I strapped myself in and waited.
We came up on weapons range twenty minutes later and I watched the plot closely. As predicted, the raider executed a sharp tack onto a new heading very close to what the computer predicted. It quickly came about and fired on me, but since I had been watching it wasn't difficult to get out of the way.
"Laser fire, particle beam," the computer announced somewhat redundantly. "Range: 2000 kilometers. Nice dodge, Boss."
"Thanks," I said absently. I swung the bow around to line up a shot and fired my forward cannon. I missed, but I didn't wait to see the result. Instead I continued to swing around and started a meandering path back to the Thanatos. "You guys awake?"
"Why, ya doin' somethin' interestin'?"
The computer threw up a simulation on the maneuvers it expected the Tharl to take. I didn't have long to absorb it but I wasn't going to complain; I wasn't trying to hit it so much as keep it from hitting me. I flipped the Gilmour on her tail, banked hard to port and continued on.
"Hideo's feeling spry this morning," John observed cheerfully. "What'd you have for breakfast, man?"
"I'm on a diet," I replied. "Trying to cut down on energy weapons up my six."
"Boss, there should be a missile launch soon."
"Acknowledged," I grunted. With all the upgrades I'd thrown at the Gilmour getting firing solutions on missiles was easier than it had been, but sometimes all it took was one. Right on cue the computer announced a missile attack. I banked hard to starboard, cut power to the engines and called up a firing solution from the stern cannon. In a few seconds the computer spat out the results and I approved it.
"Firing," the computer announced even as I kicked the engines back on and dodged another beam attack. "Direct hit. The missile has been destroyed."
I wanted to leap out of my chair and dance, but there really wasn't time for that. "Good job."
"Alec's course has him on intercept in forty seconds."
"This pilot is conforming to the flight maneuvers designated Alpha Two which I've observed on seven occasions, one of them was when you neutralized the ship by slamming it into an asteroid." I blinked, then remembered I was hardly the first person to captain the Gilmour. The computer had seen a lot of the galaxy without me, and that meant it had to have encountered the Tharl many times without me. It had been making these calculations for years before I had come along. "I therefore recommend strategy eight."
"All right." I flipped open the comms. "Alec, strategy eight."
"Sure, why not?"
We approached each other at high speed, passing within scant meters of each other at our closest vector, Alec firing continuously. His attack forced the Tharl to choose between breaking off pursuit of me to dodge or take the brunt of the attack on her shields. Either choice was to our advantage. To my relief she chose to dodge. She then redirected her attack on Alec's Wasp which gave me the opportunity swing around in a flanking attack.
"What's Thanatos' position?"
"She's coming in at point eight and should be in position in three minutes, Boss."
I muttered something rude. three minutes was a long time in a dogfight like this, especially against the Tharl.
Alec had taken a couple of hits from the Tharl. He was far more aggressive than I, willing to take the hits in order to get in a few of his own. Of course the Krait class was designed with the assumption that the pilot would need to take those hits in order to get in their own shots, since that's what a fighter is for. Still, not even the upgrades we'd bought for the Wasp could make her a match for a Tharl. He was going to need my help. That's what strategy eight called for.
"Computer, I want a clean shot at the Tharl's engine."
"Working," the computer replied. "On screen two."
I glanced at the display and nodded. I'd have my opening very soon so I prepped a firing solution and poured every erg of power I could spare into it. The moment came and I fired.
"Direct hit," the computer announced. "No damage."
"Set me up for another run, same quarter."
"Working. On screen two."
It didn't take the Tharl long to figure out what I was doing, and I had no doubt that it was frustrated by the way I was anticipating its maneuvers. It turned its attention back to me which freed Alec to line up his attack runs a little better. Between us we could keep it busy long enough for Ron to join us and use the superior weapons of the Thanatos to take down the Tharl's shields. The problem was we had let the Tharl draw us out of position.
"Alec, we've drifted onto the wrong vector," I called. "Follow my lead. Ron, can you pour any more into those engines?"
"You think I'm dawdling here?" Ron growled. "She's a destroyer, not a corvette. She's not built for racing."
I cut my engines and went ballistic for five seconds while I adjusted the Gilmour's attitude. Then I went full burn and brought my vector back around to intercept Ron's trajectory. Alec made a sharp tack and came around on a parallel course. We both fired on the Tharl who pursued us ferociously.
"Computer, time to weapons range of the Thanatos."
"Two minutes and two seconds. Boss, the Tharl is about get get a weapons lock on you."
I muttered imprecations against my addled brain and made a tight roll to starboard, jinked to port and elevated the bow by three degrees.
"Laser fire, particle beam," the computer reported as I finished my maneuver. "Range: 4000 kilometers. Missed us by two degrees negative zed axis."
That Tharl was tracking me almost as well as I was tracking him, and I was cheating. I supposed it was time to cheat a little harder. I set the computer to working out simultaneous firing solutions with the stern cannon on the assumption that the Tharl would dodge the first only to walk into the second. Maybe it would teach him a little caution. In the meanwhile I kept the Gilmour on the most erratic course I could manage, making random changes in attitude, pich and yaw at irregular intervals.
"Calculations complete," the computer announced. "High probability of impact."
"Fire," I ordered.
"Firing. First salvo glanced off the starboard quarter, minimal effect. Second salvo was a direct hit. No damage."
If the Tharl showed any concern that I could nail him like that it didn't show. It continued with its aggressive attacks and fired continuously between us. It had obviously decided that it didn't consider two against one an unfair fight and was throwing enough energy at the both of us to raze a large city.
"Y'want I should flank 'er 'gain?" Alec asked hopefully.
"Stick to the plan," I snapped. "We need Ron."
"Pfft. Like hell."
"What's your shield strength right now?"
"Fine. 'S fine."
"You're a bad liar. Now stick to the plan."
"Boss, the Thanatos is entering weapons range."
"At last," I sighed. "Ron, light 'er up."
"My pleasure. I gotta say, you're a lot uglier than the damsels in distress I usually rescue."
I choked down a retort and swung the Gilmour back around to witness a sight both beautiful and terrifying. While only a quarter of the original crew was still on board, they were the ones most motivated to do what we were asking them to do: fly into combat and shoot at the Tharl. The newer crew weren't quite as motivated but they'd been training on the ship's systems for many months. Between them they unleashed a storm of fire unlike any I'd seen before, even considering my unwilling participation in the fleet battle at Chort. The Thanatos was a big ship, designed to escort convoys and provide a defensive screen for even bigger ships of the wall. Focusing all that firepower on a single target was exhilarating but it made me appreciate even more why the Navy frowned on their ships falling into private hands. Even a small squadron like this turned to piracy could devastate the trade routes.
"We're through. I see atmosphere venting on the rear starboard quarter," Ron reported.
"Confirmed, Boss. One salvo was all we needed."
I stared briefly at the plot as I watched the doomed Tharl ship abandon her pursuit of us and dive directly toward the Thanatos. Was she thinking of ramming?
"Alec, we're out of time. You got this?"
Alec was many things, but first and foremost he was a fighter pilot. He intercepted the raider before it got too close to the Thanatos and I saw him fire twice. Both shots hit the hull above where we anticipated the pilot to be, both penetrated the alien armor. The second shot set off a secondary explosion that sent the raider tumbling safely away from its suicide trajectory.
"Nice shot!" I shouted. I heard similar exclamations over the comms as the Horsemen cheered our success.
"That was almost too easy," Ron groused. "But only almost."
"Quit bitchin'," Alec retorted. "We're gonna be rich 'gain!"
John broke in over the chatter. "Someone wanna rope in that ship? I'm still half an hour out and I don't wanna chase it all day."
"I got it," Ron assured him. A moment later the raider slowed its tumble and gradually reversed course as the Thanatos drew her in. I scanned the ship hopefully as he did and was overjoyed with what I found; it was largely intact except for the missing cockpit where the Tharl had rested. Diamond and his research team were going to have more than just power nodes to play with. Once they wrested all the secrets of the Tharls' technology from this hulk we were going to use them against the Tharl, and the debris from their ships was going to rain from the sky.