Chapter 8 || Gallant System

"Boss, stop staring out the window."

I'd been in transit for three weeks. We'd almost arrived at the world where I'd gotten the Horsemen to agree to meet me. I'd spent the entire three weeks planning, although most of the planning I'd done looked suspiciously look brooding. I suspect I'm better at brooding than I am planning, especially given the way my plans had been turning out.

To be honest, I was doing more brooding than planning. I kept thinking of Mika and Trillek, feeling guilt about what happened to them while I made my escape. And yes, I was staring outside the window more than was good for me, but I didn't hear any half-imagined whispers when I did. Maybe the ghosts that existed in folded space figured that I was doing a fine job of tormenting myself on my own.

Still, I listened to the computer's warning and glumly turned away. Three weeks with only the computer and my own nightmares to keep me company. It hadn't been a problem before, but it was now.

"Boss, you've got to pull out of this funk."

"Remind me to delete your psychiatric subroutine the next time we take you in for maintenance."

"My psychiatric subroutine is keeping you from staring out the window until you go insane."

"You're assuming I'm not already insane from pre-existing conditions."

"Negative, Boss. Your neuroses aren't that aggravated. You're still functional, just depressed. What happened to Trillek isn't your fault."

"Shut up."

"Sorry, Boss. Your mental state takes a higher priority than your orders. You're experiencing survivor's guilt; first over your sister and now over Trillek. You have to understand that what happened to them was beyond your control."

I paused briefly for dramatic effect. I don't know why I wasted it on an artificial intelligence. "What makes you think that isn't the problem? What happened to them happened because I didn't have control. Things keep happening to me, things I can't control, and all I can do is react to them. People are dying because all I can do is react to stuff. Before it was people who were just nearby, but now it's killing people close to me."

"That isn't your fault."

"Yes it is!" I insisted. "It's happening because I'm not taking action. I'm just going with the flow, taking things as they come. It's time to change that. It's time for me to actually follow a plan."

"Okay, good. A plan is good." The computer paused. "Boss, what's your plan?"

"It's very simple," I replied. And it was. It was a very simple plan. I just needed to sell the Horsemen on it. Since I had a hold full of platinum, I suspected it wasn't going to be a very hard sell.

The Fleur System is fairly primitive, by Federation standards. It has no real Federation presence, even though it's officially a Federation world. Most of the inhabitants survive on a limited technological base; they've got power for appliances but no hyper connection to the rest of the galaxy, and no real cities worthy of the name. They tend to grow their own food rather than order it up on demand from organic processors. Like I said, fairly primitive. I'd never been there before because it doesn't do much trading with the rest of the galaxy. Their primary export is naturally grown food which experience taught me doesn't command a high price.

It was a lousy place to sell platinum. Consequently, I planned to offload my cargo elsewhere.

It had one important factor that made it ideal for my purposes: it had no strategic value to either the Federation or the Tharl. So I made planetfall without seeing anything official ships or hostile aliens. Oh, I passed within a few million miles of a few ships that were probably pirates operating at the tail end of the galaxy, but I moved fast, kept my screens up and my weapons hot. They decided I wasn't worth the trouble. An Ophid class scout would be a fine prize for some smuggler, but the odds of taking the ship intact when the pilot is flying with weapons hot becomes less appealing.

It was no surprise to me that the Horsemen were already there. John had arrived first, dodging any unpleasantries by blatantly flying empty. It was a violation of the first rule of trading, but it was safest this way and the teaser I'd laid out for the Horsemen intrigued him. Alec had arrived a while after; the pirates had left his battle-scarred fighter strictly alone. Ron arrived only a couple of days before I did. He'd meandered, taking his time. It became obvious from the start that he was the least enthusiastic about my plan.

They were gathered together because I proposed to take them up on their offer to join them. But it would be on my terms, and that's what Ron didn't like.

I bought everyone a round of Bolian Red ales, ordered food, and settled down to get down to business.

"I want to hit the Tharl," I explained. The looks of incredulity were almost identical on each of their faces.

"It's one thing t' trade wit' the bastards," Alec spat. "Takin' 'em on is somethin' else. Their ships are stronger'n ours, an' faster."

"Stronger, yes," I conceded. "Faster, no. I took out one of their trading ships in the Gilmour over their territory. I know what they can do, and I think I know how to handle them."

"We've fought Tharl ships a lot more," Ron interrupted. "They aren't worth the hail of missiles it takes to bring them down. There's never anything left over after they blow up."

I grinned. "The secret is to stop them from blowing up."

"That's a good trick," Ron replied. "Nobody knows how to do it."

"Nobody before now. I'll bet you a ton of platinum that we can do it, working together."

"How?" John asked. Of the three, he looked the most interested. I'd already gotten his attention when I told him to use my share to upgrade his ship.

"Take out the pilot," I replied. "Tharl ships look like the Tharl themselves when you're inside them: lots of twists and turns, but no right angles. They put the cockpit off-center where we wouldn't think to look. Hit that spot, turn the Tharl into jelly and the ship is yours."

"First ya gotta get through their shielding," Alec pointed out.

"Yes," I agreed. "That's why it needs to be a team effort."

"Then how'd you do it by yourself?" Ron demanded.

"Pure luck," I replied. "I bounced it between a big rock and a pair of missile detonations. Shook the thing back and forth like a toy. Like I said, the Tharl was jelly."

"What else did you find?" John asked, a little breathlessly.

"Parts. Tharl parts. It was carrying alien machinery and boards, a lot of stuff I couldn't identify."

"What are we gonna do with that alien crap?" Ron asked snidely.

"See if anyone in the Federation wants a look at it?" I suggested. "If that fails, sell it back to the Tharl. They seemed very concerned about what they called 'parity' with the Federation. Suggesting we might sell it to our own instead of back to them makes them nervous, or what looks like nervousness to me. The Tharl I sold those parts to changed its tune from twelve tons of luxuries to fifteen tons of platinum. I think if the Gilmour could hold more I would have gotten more."

There. The hook was set. John looked positively enraptured by the thought of filling his hold to the brim with platinum. Alec looked interested, probably thinking about matching his ship against the capability of the Tharl. Ron still looked skeptical, but his face wasn't as hard as it had been before.

"So, how do we do it?" Ron asked.

"By being low-down, conniving, sneaky pirates," I replied. "You use me as bait."

It took a while for the newly reformed Horsemen to get their act together. Alec seemed to be the only one genuinely enthusiastic about deliberately picking a fight with the Tharl instead of just dealing with them when they occasionally showed up. John carried the least risk but seemed to worry the most, largely about my role. Ron just seemed resigned to the whole thing, in no hurry to get moving, but making his preparations nonetheless.

I said the plan was simple, and it was. We would identify a system where Tharl activity had been reported and the three of them would find places to park their ships and hide, remaining in low-power mode until they were needed. I would play the stalking goat, patrolling in a wide arc around their position in the hopes of attracting attention. Once I got it I would give the appearance of panic, firing missiles, and shooting back while making a hasty retreat that would bring the Tharl in range of Ron and Alec. Once the Tharl was close enough the two of them would power up to full and hit it with everything they had until its shields were down. Although Alec piloted the dedicated fighter craft, Ron's Ferla had more power to deliver a bigger punch, so he would be responsible for slugging it out toe-to-toe with the Tharl. Alec and I would assist as we could, and then when the shields went down Alec would come in close for the kill shot. His fighter could make the shot with better precision than either Ron or I. He would have to be fast and accurate to beat the Tharl before self-destruct could be initiated.

John did more research on the Tharl as we made our preparations. The Federation had launched several declassified campaigns to capture Tharl ships, and none of them had been successful. The Tharl had always managed to blow themselves up rather than leave anything of their technology behind to study. That suggested to me two things: yes, they were interested in studying the alien technology, but no they hadn't known where to shoot. I felt this was to our advantage, as by now no one thought it was possible. John pointed out that we had yet to prove them wrong.

The one thing nobody was worried about was having the Tharl run. Alec had already explained why: the Tharl view combat as a rite of passage. In order to earn the right to trade, they had to prove themselves worthy by fighting any challengers. Once combat began they would see it through or die in the attempt. I was fine with that.

Finally, we were ready. We jumped to a more civilized world where I sold off a ton of platinum and put the rest into storage with the most security money could buy. The ton alone made me rich enough to buy five Corba-class trading ships, but I put all in the bank. If we survived I'd use it to upgrade the Gilmour and if not, my father was listed as beneficiary. He'd never know how I came by such a fortune, but it wouldn't matter.

Then we found the alert we were looking for: Tharl ships had been spotted in the Bishi system, and all Traders were cautioned against travel to there. We jumped.

"Well, this is excitin'," Alex drawled over the comm line.

"Blame the wiz kid up there," Ron replied. "This is his idea."

"Relax," John told them. "They'll be here. Have faith."

"I'm still keeping watch," I assured them. "The moment I see anything, you'll all be the first to know."

We'd arrived in the Bishi system three days ago. The place was a tomb. We saw no signs of any other ships, either Federation or Tharl, not even a shuttle from the planet surface. The planet was fine, although a little nervous. The news reports from planetary authorities indicated that the Federation fleet had been alerted and would be sending assistance any day, now.

I knew how much that promise was worth. If the Federation didn't have an entire squadron to join to the fight, they wouldn't send anything at all. The only thing that could nullify the Tharl's technical superiority was numbers, and I got the impression from my time on the Brisbane that the fleet didn't have as many ships as they needed to respond to every threat. Frankly, Bishi just wasn't rich enough or strategically placed to warrant anything more than a scout. If that.

"That's piracy for you," John said cheerfully. "Long periods of boredom punctuated by brief moments of sheer terror."

"That's s'posed ta be war, not pirates," Alec corrected. "I oughta know."

"Because you fought in the war?" I asked, eager for anything that would help the time pass.

"No, 'cause that's who I am. I'm War."

"Really? You're the personification of war in the flesh?"

"We're the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Hideo," Ron reminded me. "Alec is War, John is Famine and I'm Death."

I did the math. "That makes me Pestilence."

"Fittin', ain't it?"

"At least he's not as annoying as Dickie was," John offered.

"That," Ron grumbled. "Remains to be seen."

"Oh, thanks." I glared at the video screen the computer most often used to display an avatar and silently dared it to comment. It declined.

"So, why is John Famine? He's got the biggest ship of any of us, can carry the most cargo."

"That's exactly why," John replied smugly. "I come in with an empty hold and loot the corpses. Once I'm done, I leave famine in my wake."

"Ah. Clever." My reserve of witty repartee exhausted, I abandoned the conversation. Alec went back to grousing about the complete and utter absence of targets.

There was really nothing to be done about it. Space is very, very big and our sensor range was limited. Oh, we could see clear to the far side of the solar system given enough time, but if a ship re-entered normal space on the opposite side of the elliptic then we likely wouldn't know about it until it was too late to intercept them. That's one reason why defending systems is so costly; it takes a lot of ships with advanced sensor platforms to cover all the possible entry points.

We'd taken up position around a small gas giant with four moons. The correlation between four moons and the four of us struck me as a good omen, even if I'm not normally given to superstition. At the moment I was willing to take all the help I could get. The gas planet itself was relatively equidistant between the system's kuiper belt and Bishi II, its inhabitable world. Other than launching directly from Bishi II itself the gas planet was our best bet, and the local authorities would be unlikely to welcome our interference. No doubt they knew we were out here but no GalPol vessels came to check on us. They probably figured if we were stupid enough to stay out during a possible Tharl incursion, we deserved whatever happened to us. I couldn't really disagree.

“Contact,” the computer announced calmly. “Bearing niner-niner-three by zero-six-three by niner-six-one. Still extreme range, but heading our way.”

I sat upright in my chair and began poking at displays. “Can you make out the configuration?”

“Not yet. Working.”

I sent out a heads-up to the others. If it was a Tharl then I'd lead it in to them, but if it was human then I'd make like a hole in space and let it pass by.

It took twenty minutes before the computer broadcast its image to me. “Boss, she's not a Tharl vessel. She's GalPol.”

“Hell,” I snarled. “Shut down. All systems dark.”

“I can't confirm she doesn't already know about us, Boss.”

“We'll have to take that chance. I'm not going to ambush GalPol.”

“We could always run. We've got plenty of time to calculate a jump from planetary orbit before she reaches us.”

“And miss our chance at the Tharl?” I snapped.

What Tharl?” the computer asked. “We haven't seen anyone before now, Tharl or otherwise.”

I opened my mouth, then shut it again. I hate it when the computer is right.

“Open a channel to the others.”

The others, led by Ron, agreed with the computer. They were bored and ready to leave before GalPol started asking a lot of difficult questions. It technically wasn't illegal to go hunting Tharl vessels, but they had no reason to believe that we weren't laying in wait for Federation vessels and GalPol had a lot of leeway in how they chose to handle pirates.

I cursed while the computer plotted a course to rejoin the Horsemen. I really wanted to meet the Tharl again.

We jumped to six different systems over the next month. It seemed that the Tharl, scourge of the galaxy, were feeling shy. I couldn't believe how many false alarms went up.

“Some of 'em are trying to lure in Navy ships,” Ron declared over another ale. “Those things need a lot of resupply, and a lot of crew earning plenty of credit with nowhere to spend it. It's a real boost to an economy that doesn't see a lot of traffic. We shoulda noticed that the systems sending out alerts were all substandard. The Tharl aren't interested in worlds that don't already have a significant industrial base.”

“You could’ve mentioned that before,” Alec grumbled. “Woulda saved us a lot of time and trouble. We ain't seen a red credit on all this runnin' around.”

“And you haven't had to pay a red credit for fuel or supplies,” I reminded him sourly. “Or drinks.”

“None of us thought of it,” John reminded us. “If anyone is to blame, we all are. There's no point in bickering about it.”

“Shut up, John,” Alec snarled. “We're s'posed t' be lootin' Tharl merchants, an' we ain't seen hide nor hair of 'em.”

“You want guaranteed Tharl?” John snapped back. “Go to a Tharl system. I promise you'll find all the Tharl you'll ever want to see.”

Stop it,” Ron interrupted. “The Tharl who come to Federation systems are either mavericks or scouts. The mavericks will have full loads of materials for trade. The scouts won't have much, maybe minerals. That means we want to avoid the poorer systems, but we won't see any in systems rich enough to see a Navy presence.”

“Independents,” I said in a burst of inspiration. “Independent worlds don't rate a Navy presence, since the Federation doesn't want them to feel they'll benefit from Federation support without membership. Some of them are still very advanced.”

“We'll have a lot of competition,” Alec mused. “Lotta pirates hang out in independent systems. Galpol don't show up there 'cause the pirates'll swarm 'em.”

“What do they do with Tharl?” I asked.

“The smarter ones avoid the Tharl. There's no profit in gettin' blown t' dust. The green ones will try their luck anyway. Tends t' weed out the weak an' stupid.”

“What does that say about us?” Ron mused.

“That we're smart enough to come up with a plan,” I reminded him. “A plan that turns the target on me, not you.”

“And what does that say about you?”

I didn't answer. There was no need.

It turns out that there aren’t a lot of independent systems as you get closer to Tharl space. There used to be but many of them begged for help from the Federation which effectively ended their independence. Many of them became war zones anyway, typically ending badly for everyone involved. It still wasn’t a guarantee, since the Federation didn’t always have enough resources available to keep what they claimed.

Eventually we decided on an unlikely binary system named Gallant. There wasn’t a large population base, but it was unusually dense with minerals which made it a prime candidate for mining operations. The double star didn’t allow for the formation of planets but that never stopped a persistent space-faring species like humanity. The system boasted one of the biggest space stations I’d ever seen, heavily armored and shielded against the hostile conditions in local space. As a consequence, it was also one of the few independents with sufficient firepower to fend of both the Tharl and the Federation on their own.

The best way to approach the station was on an oblique approach from the stellar elliptic where you weren’t so likely to get clobbered by all the stellar matter that orbited from a deceptively safe distance. The two stars were both giants -- one white and one red. If you cared to risk your retinas you could see the denser white giant stealing mass from its hapless partner. According to stellar mechanics it meant the red had started as a smaller, hotter yellow sequence star and was losing the battle to maintain its integrity. Less mass meant less gravity to hold in its superheated gasses resulting in premature expansion into a red giant. Of course, the white giant taking on that extra mass meant that it was increasing its internal pressure and gravity, and it was anybody’s guess as to when it would go critical and explode. Thus, the Gallant system was ultimately doomed either because the red giant would expand to engulf everything or because the white giant would self-destruct in a spectacular nova. That doesn’t stop humans, though. We’ll keep trying to exploit the system for every last particle of precious mineral until we’re were forced to flee or die abruptly.

The reason we ultimately settled on Gallant is because the Tharl hadn’t attempted to take over the system in a good long time, but individual scouts periodically showed up to test the station’s defenses. Thanks to Alec’s information confirmed by my own experience, we now understood that those scouts were hopeful traders who took the station as a gauntlet to run before they could be granted the privilege of trading. That made them perfect targets for our purposes, provided we could spot them before the independents did. The binary stars also created hellacious interference that severely limited our operating range.

We walked the corridors of the station to familiarize ourselves with it under the logic that traveling as a group made us less of a target for unsavory elements than it would if we walked alone. Naturally, we argued as we walked. I tried to argue for cooperation with the locals. “We could negotiate a retainer from them,” I’d said in an attempt to sweeten the pot. “We put ourselves on the line so they don’t have to. All they have to do is point us in the right direction.”

“Why would they waste their credits on us?” Ron countered snidely. “They’ve been doing fine for centuries without us.”

“Maybe they’re not doing as well as they’d like people to think,” I’d suggested. “Technology is breaking down all over human space. If they’re like most of the planets I’ve visited in the last few years, they’ve forgotten how to maintain what they have. They might appreciate a little outside support to take the heat off them.”

Alec laughed. “If that’s the case, then they’re really not gonna wanna take our help! That’d just prove they ain’t able t’defend themselves properly. Open’m up to pirates.”

The scowl on my face must have spoken volumes because John reminded me of something else. “Even if they were open to the idea, they’d want to know why we were so eager to risk our necks over what’s normally a suicide mission. It would call attention to our operation, which they or someone else might want to horn in on -- assuming we can pull it off in the first place.”

I wanted to argue further. I wanted to protest that of course we were going to pull this off! But John was right, and so were Ron and Alec. It was best if we kept this to ourselves until we knew what we were doing. Once we made ourselves rich (okay, richer than I already was) we could “leak” the idea to other traders and start hitting the Tharl where it hurt: we could cripple their ability to trade.

Even if I’d been inclined to argue, Ron smacked my chest with an open hand. “Shut up,” he hissed. “We’re being watched.”

I blinked. Who would be paying attention to us? I glanced around quickly and saw nothing unusual, until I followed Ron’s laserlike focus on an older, disreputable-looking individual in a corner. That particular individual was looking directly at me. What’s more, he looked awfully familiar. I’d seen him recently.

Once our awareness of his attention became apparent, he lifted himself out of his corner and ambled over to me in a casual way. I noticed Alec’s hand reaching for his gun so I cautioned him. “Wait a minute. I think I know that guy.”

“Who is he?” John asked.

“I’ll tell you when I remember. But he’s not a problem.”

“He better not be,” Alec growled low.

I suppressed the urge to sigh. “You guys go on ahead. I’ll see what he wants with me.” Once the others had moved on a respectable distance I turned to the almost-stranger. “Can I help you?”

“You don’t remember me, do you?” the man asked. I knew his voice, but again I couldn’t place it.

“I should,” I admitted. “But I don’t. I can’t place your name.”

“Diamond. Jim Diamond. I was fixing the comm terminal on that pitiful backwater planet and you stopped that piss-ant from arresting me for my civic-mindedness.”

As soon as he mentioned his name it came back to me. Yes, I knew him. “That’s right. And you did what you promised. You fixed it. I was able to make my call, which helped a lot. Um, Hideo. My name is Hideo Takenoshita.”

He held out his hand and I shook it.

“Pleased to meet you, Hideo. I didn’t expect to see you around these parts.”

“I didn’t really expect to be here. Then again, I didn’t expect to be there, either. I’m a Trader, so I end up in all sorts of unexpected places.”

“Your friends all doing business out here, too?” he asked casually. I stiffened.

“I’ve got this idea. Could make us a lot of money, but I’m having trouble pulling it off. We hope Gallant would present the opportunity. We’ll have to see, after we take a look around..”

“There’s a fair deal of piracy in this system,” Diamond cautioned. “There being no official law to put a stop to it. A man who isn’t careful could find himself bereft of both cargo and air all of a sudden.”

I smirked. “I pity anyone who fires on those guys. They’ll get burned out before they can blink.”

He still looked fairly cautious. “So, they’re not likely to shoot first?”

“One of them might. He lives for a fight. But we’re not here for that. Nobody on this station or anyone they do business with has reason to fear us. What we’ve got in mind should help, if we can do it.”

Diamond gave me a genuine smile for the first time. “Then come by my bar sometime. I’ll cut you a deal on the drinks.”

Again I found myself blinking in surprise. “You have a bar? Then what were you doing on the other side of the galaxy?”

“It’s a long story,” he said with a wink. “Come have a drink and I’ll tell you about it.”

The Horsemen made like rocks in space, tumbling gently in sync with the rest of the debris around us while I broadcast emissions carelessly, trying to look like an erstwhile prospector out trying to hit that elusive score: a rock worth many times the value of my own ship that I could load or tow back to the station to sell. Irony: after a couple of days I located a heavy concentration of tungsten which is still used in jewelry even though its industrial applications are now obsolete. Not too long ago I would have looked upon such a find as a badly needed windfall; now it was just a curious happenstance. I fired up the comm to ask the others their opinion.

“We might be here a while,” I pointed out. “And this is free cash waiting to be picked up.”

Send me your data,” John replied. It took only seconds to comply. “It’s got a shell of oxidation and dirt, pretty thick. The core itself is valuable, but we’d need to dig it out and separate it from the rest. Say, about half a day’s work with the gear I’ve got on board?”

In the meanwhile, ya become a pretty target instead o’ the Pest there,” Alec grumbled.

“‘The Pest!’” Ron chortled. “Good one!”

“Play nice, kids,” I grumbled. “It’s just a rock.We could dump a beacon on it and come back later, assuming someone else doesn’t jump the claim first.”

I think it’s worth the risk,” John said. “Hideo made a good find here, and this stakeout might turn out like all the others. We might as well show some profit for our efforts.”

Fine, it’s your neck John,” Ron replied. “Just don’t take too long.”

John had outfitted his Corba with a mining laser for just such an occasion. I traded places with him and cut my emissions to bare minimum but kept a position where I could maintain visual surveillance, at least through the Gilmour’s scopes. The asteroid itself rotated slowly, taking John out of visual range for seventeen minutes every hour. I didn’t worry about it too much. We’d all grown used to waiting for long hours with nothing to show for it.

It came as a surprise when two hours later, John’s voice broke over the comm channel again. “Oh, crap!”

“John? What is it?” I peered at the screen displaying the image I’d locked onto the asteroid’s position. John’s Corba was presently out of view. “Computer, what’s happening?”

“Unknown,” the computer replied. “I don’t see...wait a minute. I have a new contact bearing zero-niner-five moving at six hundred klicks.”

“What is it? Is it Tharl?” I began prepping the Gilmour to return to normal operations.

“They’re too far out to tell. They are on an intercept with John’s position. Between the angle of approach and the interference in local space it was impossible to detect them before now.”

“Guys, we’ve got a bogey coming in hot,” I said over the comm. “I’m transmitting coordinates now.”

Tell me somethin’ I don’t know,” Alec spat. “An’ it ain’t no Tharl, neither. Bloody pirate in an Asp.”

Hell,” Ron interjected unhelpfully. “I’m gonna blow his ass to stellar wind.”

“Well, hurry up!” I yelled, frantic to get the Gilmour moving. “John stopped broadcasting!”

“The asteroid has shifted orbit by point-seven-four-three degrees,” the computer informed me. “The movement suggests a direct impact by a high-powered energy weapon.”

The bastard shot at John,” Ron confirmed. “I can’t tell what he hit; there’s too much debris in the area.”

Less talkin’, more shootin’,” Alec recommended.

“Prepare all missile tubes,” I ordered. “Launch as soon as we get a lock.”

“Four missiles is a lot for a single Asp-class cruiser,” the computer reminded me. “Two would be quite sufficient.”

“I don’t want sufficient,” I snarled. “I want dead.”

“Then four should be perfect.”

Ha! Take that, ya scurrilous dog!” Alec crowed. I blinked in surprise, not at the idea that Alec might have hit him, but that he knew what “scurrilous” meant. Then again, he might not and just thought it sounded good. It could wait.

He’s on the run,” Ron announced triumphantly.

“He can’t outrun me,” I replied. “Full thrust. Fire as she bears.”

“Full thrust confirmed,” the computer said. “Engine output at one hundred and twenty-six percent. We will be within weapon’s range in five minutes and four seconds.”

I was farther out than the other Horsemen, but my engines were better than any of theirs. I overtook Ron and Alex both as they gave chase. Alex was recklessly firing after the Asp in spite of the fact that any hit would be more luck than skill, but he had the energy reserves for it.

“Optimal firing range achieved,” the computer said. “Firing all missiles.” The ship shuddered slightly as the launchers propelled the cylinders safely away from my hull. “All four missiles engaged. Impact in seventy-seven seconds.”

Hideo’s got the taste of blood,” Ron observed with a chuckle. I ignored it.

Lookit that! The bastard launched his lifeboat!”

“Confirm?” I demanded of the computer.

“Lifeboat launch confirmed. The Asp is continuing on the same course and is no longer attempting evasive maneuvers.”

“Hmm....” I pondered. If the pirate really had abandoned his ship, there was no point in blowing it up. Still.... “Scan the capsule. Are there lifeforms aboard?”

“Three lifeforms confirmed aboard the capsule. I do not detect any lifeforms aboard the Asp.

“All right, give the remote detonation command on the missiles. Prime the forward laser and target the lifeboat.” In the back of my head I noted that Ron was right: I did have the taste of blood in my mouth. And I didn’t care.

“Remote detonation confirmed. The missiles are dead. Unable to target the lifeboat.”

“Why the hell not?” I wanted to know.

“Safety protocol override,” the computer replied. “The lifeboat is broadcasting a universal distress beacon, which prohibits any hostile action against it per Convention Regulation Seven Subsection Two.”

“I don’t give a damn about any convention. Give me manual control of the forward laser.”

“Manual control confirmed.”

I plotted the lifeboat’s vectors and input them into my fire control system. The system refused to accept them. I tried firing the laser by hand and walking it across the lifeboat’s path, but the system shut down as soon as it detected the lifeboat’s proximity.

“Dammit!” I yelled and slammed my fist against the console. It beeped and whistled at me accusingly.

Damn, Hideo,” Alec said wonderingly. “It’s over. Stop shootin’.”

“Boss, you can’t shoot them now,” the computer advised me gently. “They’ve effectively surrendered, and the firmware on all ship systems won’t let you kill them now.”

“They don’t deserve mercy!” I argued.

“That’s not my decision to make. But even if I agreed, I can’t override this protocol.”

I glanced at the board and calculated the path of the Asp that I was rapidly overtaking. “Fine. I can’t kill him, but I can take his ship.” I hit the comms. “You guys go back to John. I’ll go recover their ship. They’re never getting it back.”

John had suffered a near miss from the Asp’s attack. The laser attack had gouged a deep hole in the asteroid, close enough to John’s operation that the impact knocked him unconscious. That was, perhaps, the goal of the pirates’ attack. They wouldn’t say.

The Asp was officially named Lucky Hand but had a host of false registries that could be plugged into the IDB at will. From the look of things it had served as a pirate vessel for quite some time, a far cry from its original life as a luxury cruiser for the rich and affluent. The cargo hold was bare and her stocks were low, but the vehicle herself was worth quite a bit. Under the rules of salvage the ship was mine -- mine and the other Horsemen, but I could easily buy out their shares and claim her for myself. With a bit of work and a small investment I could restore her to the peak of modern luxury and travel the stars in style.

Instead I turned her over to the Horsemen and we sold her off for several hundred thousand credits apiece. My crusade had finally turned a profit. But I still hadn’t bagged any Tharl.

We celebrated in Diamond’s Cabaret where Diamond was as good as his word and cut me a deal. Nevertheless, I spent a great deal of money on the best food and alcohol money could buy. Spirits were high, except for mine. I brooded about how I was still failing to follow through on my plan. The details were easy enough, I just couldn’t seem to get the Tharl to show up.

“C’mon, Pest,” Alec prodded me with the wine bottle he was drinking from. “Live a little. Y’look like you’re at a funeral, not a party.”

I scowled and shrugged away from his reach. I’d consumed my share of alcohol, but unlike Alec I wasn’t a happy drunk.

“You know your problem?” Ron asked with a slight waver in his voice. Surprisingly, he turned out to be something of a lightweight. Apparently wine hit him harder than liquor, since I’d seen him previously consume mass quantities of beer and rum without so much as a hiccup. Of course, on such evenings I found right angles to be troublesome.

“No, Ron,” I said with all the sarcasm I could muster. “Please. Tell me what my problem is.”

“Your problem,” Ron continued with exaggerated slowness. “Is that you’re going about this all wrong. You know?”

“No, Ron. I don’t know.” I slugged another mouthful of wine. It was really meant to be savored, not slugged, but at the moment I really didn’t care.

“But you are!” he insisted. He waved his arms expressively, splashing the contents of his glass against the far wall. The noise distracted him briefly and he scowled at it, muttering something about “modern art” under his breath. Then he turned back and fixated on me, albeit through a might effort of will. “You keep expecting the Tharl to show up where you go. You never think about going where they already are!”

He sat back and beamed at me as though expecting me to praise his brilliance.

I paused just long enough to achieve what I hoped was a dramatic effect. “Ron, I am not jumping back into a Tharl system. I barely survived the first time, and they were distracted by the Federation. With just the four of us? It’d be a slaughter!”

“Yes!” Ron nodded enthusiastically. Then he shook his head just as vigorously. “No! Not to a Tharl system! To a system where the Tharl are already tangling with the Feds!”

“A war zone?” John blurted out. “Ron, traders are expressly forbidden from war zones. If you’re not broadcasting the right identity beacon then you’re assumed to be a hostile and fired on! We’d end up fighting the Tharl and the Federation!”

“Unless,” Alec interjected. “You got a way to broadcast the right IDB.”

“Do you?” John demanded.

“No,” Alec admitted.

“Then why bring it up?”

“‘Cause I’m drunk.”

I started thinking about my desperate flight to escape the destruction of the Brisbane, then stopped. The loss of Miko was still too raw for me to go near that memory. I couldn’t help but imagine the disappointment on my father’s face when he learned the news that I’d abandoned my sister. Family was too important to him. Apparently, it was more important to me than I’d thought, because I couldn't get it out of my mind.

While I was brooding, the others were arguing technical details over Ron’s proposal.

“There’s no way you can guarantee where we come out of folded space,” John was saying. “Remember the Olaf system? I spent five days just reaching the rendezvous point.”

“We have that risk with any op we run,” Alec pointed out.

“Yes, but the ops we’ve run so far don’t include the risk of getting shot down by Federation warships.”

“We’ll just have to be careful,” Ron insisted. “But we can do it. We program our nav computers to end our jumps a second early. We come out a little higher than we normally would, but at least we’re not popping in smack dab in the middle of a firefight. We can slip in and Hideo taunts a Tharl fighter. Draws him out to us. We take him down. Then we wait for the fighting to end and we get to a jump point. Bam!” He smacked the table enthusiastically, making plates and glasses jump. “Bob’s your uncle!”

“That’s a lot of risk,” I interjected, making Ron and Alec both scowl at me. “Too many ‘ifs’ in play. If we can jump into position correctly. If we can lure a Tharl away without attracting the Federation. If we can wait out the fight to get to a jump point.”

“We’re already operatin’ on a lotta ‘ifs,’” Alec countered. Ron nodded vigorously in support. “An’ they’re all comin’ up empty. If the Tharl show up. If Galpol don’t. If yer flyin’ is as good as ya say.”

The alcoholic haze I’d been building up slowed my reactions, which was fortunate. Once it registered, the insult to my skills was as cutting as it was calculated and it gradually registered that such an insult begged for a response, like my fist to his face. However, I didn’t have the chance.

“His flying isn’t in question here,” John interrupted. “But Ron is right, our plan needs revision. We’re killing a lot of time on a lot of nothing.”

The moment for swift vengeance passed, so I sat back in my chair, scowled and tossed back another glass. “We’ll need a lot more planning if we go into a war zone. Ducking the Feds isn’t exactly the easiest thing to do. There are going to be a lot more of them than Tharl.”

John shrugged heavily. “Maybe a war zone isn’t the answer, but they’re right: what we’re doing now isn’t working. It depends too much on luck, and our luck isn’t that good. We’ll need to make our own.”

“Easier said than done,” I objected.

“It always is,” Alec reminded me.

“There’s always an E-bomb,” Ron put in.

I blinked in surprise. “What?”

“Seriously. One good E-bomb and the battle is done.”

“Unless the reaction becomes unstable, at which point the entire solar system is done,” John reminded him.

Ron waved dismissively at him. “That’s just an urban legend. There’s no proof of that.”

“Then what the hell happened to the Rigel system?”

“Rigel was a class O star. It went went nova and took out the solar system, along with the Federation station there.”

“It was too young t’ go nova,” Alec countered. “Word is an e-bomb went critical an’ Rigel went wit’ it.”

“It’s an urban legend,” Ron insisted.

“Urban legend or not, the Tharl don’t use e-bombs,” I pointed out. “If we use them then the Federation will know somebody dropped illegal ordinance in the area.”

“We’d all need special shielding for it,” John added. “That’s not cheap.”

“Hideo can afford it,” Ron shot back.

“Federation battleships will have that same shielding,” I countered. “Unless we find a way to sneak in and drop it on top of them, they’ll have time to detect the reaction and activate them.”

“You’re the hotshot pilot,” Ron sneered. “You can do it.”

“How do we keep the Tharl we wanna raid from going up with the e-bomb?” Alec asked.

Ron opened his mouth to retort, then closed it. “Shit.”

We sat in silence for a while, absorbing the implications of the discussion.

“Even without an e-bomb, we’re gonna do this anyway, aren’t we?” John asked quietly.

I sighed heavily. “I think so.”

Calculating a jump through folded space is as much art as it is science. The more precise your data model, the more accurate your jump. It relies on knowing the local conditions of where you are at the exact moment of the jump as much as knowing where you want to go. In theory, if you can calculate your local magnetic and gravitic field strengths to a million decimals you can park your ship on the tip of a needle at your destination -- assuming of course something else doesn’t throw you off-course en route (like my little misjump). Coincidentally, the more precise the data you enter for the jump the faster you’ll get there. In this hypothetical scenario in which we can calculate field strengths to an obscene degree, you could cross the galaxy in mere seconds rather than months like we do now.

The kicker here is that magnetic and gravitic fields are measured as waves, so data that’s only seconds old is out of date. The degree of accuracy described in my hypothetical scenario requires a degree of sensitivity in sensor technology that is still in the realm of fantasy. Likewise, it would also require a computer to perform the calculations and initiate the jump fast enough to take advantage of the information gathered (or at least project the most probable field strength). All of these things are beyond current Federation technological standards. Beyond Tharl technology? I could only guess.

I have no idea how the Federation military manage to jump entire fleets at once. Perhaps they network their jump computers together? I can only tell you that trying to coordinate four separate jumps by the Horsemen was a waking nightmare. Alec’s ship computer was by far the most out of date, and thus the least efficient at calculating jumps. Mine was perhaps the most up to date, largely because it had needed a lot of fixing recently. How do you get four disparate ships with widely differing capabilities to coordinate a jump? I still don’t know.

Another variable impossible to predict: where will a war zone develop, and how long will it stay that way? Will the battle last hours or days? Will we be able to get there in time? The Federation wasn’t in the habit of announcing its fleet movements, and neither were the Tharl. Plus, the galaxy has a lot of territory where a fight could break out. John proposed the best solution for this: keep an eye on the most technologically and industrially advanced worlds in our sector and wait for the Tharl to show up. It would take time for the Federation to get their response into position, which would give us time to get there as well.

The next hurdle was a fight with Alec over his ship’s computer. He didn’t want the upgrade.

“It’s a waste o’ credit,” he complained over a bottle of Diamond’s best beer. “All it’ll do is drain power from where I need it most.”

“No,” I argued. “It’ll make your jump capabilities more efficient so you can show up more or less at the same time as the rest of us.”

“Don’t need t’ be more efficient there,” he retorted. “What I need is more efficiency t’ my guns. Upgrade those an’ I’ll agree.”

“There’s nothing wrong with your guns, Alec,” Ron told him. “The problem is your brain. You forgot it again.”

“I thought this whole plan depended on me bein’ able t’ knock out the Tharl pilot,” Alec pointed out.

“It does,” I agreed. “But you can’t do that if we’re still waiting for you to show up by the time the battle ends.”

“An’ I can’t do it if the power I need is bein’ drained off by my bloody computer!”

“So shut it down when you don’t need it.”

We all stopped and stared at Diamond. None of us had realized he was listening. It must have been clear on our faces because he shrugged unapologetically. “Your voices were raised. I thought you didn’t care if anyone heard.”

“How do you do that?” John demanded. “Shut down the jump computer.”

“You tell the navigation computer to go into low-power mode, which disengages the circuits used for jump calculations. My ship’s AI has a standard subroutine for it when we come out of folded space.” At their blank looks Diamond scowled. “Hideo, you ought to know what I’m talking about. Ophid-class ships do the same thing to their weapons and sublight engines during a jump. The AI identifies all non-essential systems and powers them down to conserve energy depending on whether you’re in normal or folded space.”

I did my best imitation of a gaping fish. “They do?”

Ron looked very interested. “Where do you find a tech willing to mess with power systems like that? It sounds like a huge violation of safety protocol.”

“Look around you, man. You’re not in Federation territory. We’re independent here. We follow our own rules.”

“I don’t believe you’re a tech,” Alec said derisively. “If you can perform miracles like that, what’re you doin’ tendin’ bar?”

“I also tend bar,” Diamond retorted, looking a little bit peeved. I imagined I had the same expression whenever I talked to Alc. “It’s a great place to pick up tips when people think you aren’t listening. Case in point.”

“That strikes me as a good way to get shot,” John remarked.

“I serve good beer,” Diamond countered. “Look. Anybody who flies ought to know the basics of what they’re flying, right? You don’t want to be stuck in deep space light-years from the nearest repair yard when you need to replace a blown transformer or something.”

I shivered. That was exactly what had happened to me not long ago.

“Your definition of ‘basic’ is a long way from ours.” John persisted. “Ron’s right: what you’re talking about is against half a dozen safety protocols. I don’t even remember when they were put in place. It’s supposed to make your power systems unstable when making inconsistent demands on them.”

“Never happened that way. Our technology is still Federation technology. Uses all the same parts and the same power. Somebody lied to you.”

“Why would the Federation lie to us?” John wondered. “Why force us to limit the power available to our ships?”

“Control,” Ron declared. “It’s easier to keep us in line if we can’t optimize our output. Pirates can still hit shipping, but they can’t defend themselves from GalPol as well.”

“That’s a mite paranoid, even for this group,” I pointed out.

“Ya got a better idea?” Alec demanded.

“What makes you think GalPol isn’t suffering from the same problem?”

“Then why pass such a ridiculous law?” John wanted to know. I smirked at him, and he recanted. “Okay, I withdraw the question.”

“Parity,” I said thoughtfully.


I shook my head fitfully. “Something the Tharl said to me when I was negotiating the price of the technical supplies I was looking to offload. He took my cargo and I took the platinum, and parity is maintained or something like that.”

“Parity with the Tharl? The Federation is maintaining an artificial balance of power with the enemy?” John looked amused. “Now who’s being paranoid, Hideo? What possible purpose could it serve?”

I shrugged. “I have no idea. But we still have the problem of Alec’s ship.”

“You ain’t touchin’ my ship,” Alec warned me.

“Fine. I won’t touch your ship. Let’s make a deal. You let me upgrade your navigation computer and I’ll see how much we can upgrade your guns. Deal?”

He looked like I’d just given him the best birthday present ever. “Deal.”

I mentally calculated how much I was had left. The Horsemen were spending my credits like water, and why shouldn’t they? It wasn’t theirs. It wouldn’t be long before I was going to need to sell off another ton of platinum. Maybe Gallant would offer better prices.

It took a week to finish the upgrades to the Wasp with only minimal grumbling from Alec. The prospect of getting more powerful weapons overrode his misgivings about the computer upgrades. During that week and for two months afterward I spent all my free time crawling through the ships of the Horsemen for Jim Diamond, identifying power nodes and learning how to wire in shunts so they could turn non-essential systems on or off as required. I tried getting the others involved but gave up after the third time their eyes glazed over from disinterest. I found it fascinating. How could you not want to know how your ship’s most critical systems worked? I balked when it came to reprogramming their computers, but Diamond pointed out that I had access to expert help: my own ship’s computer. With temporary security access granted by each of the others I was able to copy over the subroutines to control the shunts I’d added.

The work was extremely tedious, and it made me even more short-tempered than usual. It would have been so much easier to do with a team, or better to simply pay someone else to do it but that wasn’t an option. Diamond took on the project cheerfully but he insisted that I learn the ins and outs of what he was ruthlessly teaching me. By the time I’d closed the last panel and tested the last code I felt like an expert in power systems. It wasn’t true, but it felt like it anyway.

As I worked, Diamond maintained a steady flow of chatter. He was fond of explaining things, especially to a captive audience like me. His favorite topic was the decline of what he called “the human empire.”

“But it’s not an empire, it’s a federation,” I pointed out as I leaned my weight onto a stubborn bolt that didn’t want to turn. I’d already mangled my fingers countless times when the tool slipped, but there was no other way to open panels that hadn’t been touched in what could be years. “There’s never been an emperor or any other kind of central leadership.”

“Labels are irrelevant, boy,” Diamond pontificated. “Calling it a federation doesn’t change the imperialistic nature of its behavior. We’ve gone a-conquering throughout the galaxy since the beginning of recorded history. Most of the races we encountered are gone, now only a few remain. The one race we can’t conquer we’ve been battling for as long as anyone can remember. No one knows how this war started, or when.”

“That’s not entirely true,” I replied. “The war was started because the Tharl are naturally aggressive. They treat every encounter as a hostile situation until proven otherwise. You can’t even trade with the Tharl until they’ve satisfied their demand for combat.”

“That’s not part of any official database on the Tharl,” Diamond said. “How do you know that?”

I realized I’d probably said too much, but I wasn’t sure how to walk it back. “I...uh...ended up on a Tharl world after a misjump. I was coming back from there when I first ran into you, why I needed to make that call to let people know I was still alive.”

“That’s quite a feat. Very few humans can claim to have visited a Tharl world and lived to tell about it.”

“It wasn’t easy. My ship got banged up pretty bad. Alec calls it ‘the gauntlet.’ Anyone who wants to trade with the Tharl has to run it. They assume it’s the same way with us, which is why they attack everyone on sight when their scouts enter our system.”

“You know that for a fact, do you?”

“Well...I think so. I mean, it makes sense. Why else would they come to us to trade and fire on the first ship they see?” I gave up on trying to turn the bolt by hand and kicked at the tool. It felt like something finally gave, so I kicked it a few more times.

“You might be right, but that’s the problem. We don’t know. Nobody has ever gotten an answer out of the Tharl about why they do what they do.”

“They’ve got...” I paused while I grunted with the effort of turning the bolt in its home. “...Libraries. You can look up any topic. You just can’t record anything to take it with you.”

Diamond regarded me thoughtfully. “You really have been to a Tharl world, haven’t you?”

I nodded and held up the offending panel in victory. “I really have. And not as a slave. I never ever want to go back.”

“That’s a shame. I’ve never been to a Tharl world. I can only imagine what I could learn there.”

“Lots,” I replied as I settled back down to reach inside the cables inside the bulkhead. “I was browsing some stuff while my ship was getting fixed. They’re way, way beyond us. Explains why their ships are so much better than ours one-on-one. But, like I said, you can’t take any recordings with you or I would have brought it home.”

“You mean, the scientific details of their technological advancements are available for all to see? No restrictions?”

“Besides the one? Nope. I tried researching their sensor technology, but I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. That’s how I found out about the copying problem. I wanted to take it back to my computer to see what it made of the information, but field they had burned the disk in my pocket.”

“It wouldn’t let you in the building with the disk?”

“No, it set off an alarm and then burned me on my way out. But it wasn’t because it knew I had information on the disk. Later on, it set off the alarm for the same disk even though it was already dead.”

“That’s very interesting,” Diamond exclaimed. “I wish I could see this for myself. Are you sure you won’t go back?”

I poked my head out and looked him in the eye. “No. It was a nightmare on that world. The only Tharl I ever want to see again are dead ones.”

“Hmm. Unfortunate. Tell me about it.”

I shook my head and went back to work. “You can’t pay me enough. It was a nightmare. That’s all I care to say.”

Before setting out for a warzone, it seemed prudent to take our newly modified ships on a shakedown cruise. It also gave us a chance to practice simultaneous jumps. The best I can say is that it needed work. We managed to launch from Gallant Station at pretty much the same time, but our arrival was still staggered significantly. Once we gathered at our rendezvous point we headed for the local jump point and headed back to Gallant. The return trip was...interesting. Ron and I arrived almost simultaneously, while Alec arrived several hours later. John was late. Then he became more than just late, he was missing. We hung out in the stellar debris field waiting for his signal and bickering with each other. Just about the time we were ready to panic my computer reported a new contact.

“Is it John?” I demanded.

“I don’t know, Boss. It isn’t broadcasting a Federation IDC and it’s still too far out for me to get more than a sensor return. I will say it’s moving very fast.”

“How fast?”

“Fast enough that if it’s a Corba then John decided to make a gravity-assist slingshot maneuver. We could make that speed if we made a hard burn for several hours.”

I hit the comm channel. “Is anybody else seeing this?”

No,” Ron replied. “Bounce your data over to me.”

Within a few minutes we verified that it wasn’t John. Nor, did we think, was it human.

It figures. We finally find the Tharl and John’s not here,” Alec groused.

That doesn’t matter,” Ron pointed out. “John’s role is strictly support anyway. If he’s not here then he’s not a target.”

“Then I’m up,” I said. “It’s too late for you guys to go dark; if we can see him then he’s already seen us. Computer, what’s his vector?”

“Unknown bogey will intersect our position in seventy-three minutes and forty-four seconds.”

The bastard is coming to us?” Alec wondered.

Maybe he’s decided we’re the gauntlet he has to run before he’s granted the honor of trade,” Ron suggested.

“In this case, he’s right.” I considered a few different vector plots. “Okay, let’s come in together, as tight a formation as we can manage. Once we get closer I’ll go for full burn and try to pull his attention to me, bring him around so you can get a clear shot.”

I like this plan,” Alec crowed. “You go be the target.”

I input the vector I’d chosen, with a velocity about three-quarters the maximum thrust of Ron’s ship and had the computer recalculate intercept.

“New intercept in thirty-eight minutes and fifteen seconds.”

In a little over half an hour I’d do what I’d never done before: deliberately engage a Tharl in combat. I found myself shaking slightly as fear overwhelmed me. The fact that I was also cracking my knuckles barely registered. Rather than dwell on the fear I thought about Miko and how the Tharl had killed her. I didn’t stop shaking, but at least I wasn’t tempted to turn the Gilmour around and run like hell.

It was a long thirty-eight minutes, which I spent feeling nauseous and cracking my knuckles. Alec maintained a steady stream of chatter over the comm and Ron was silent. The computer gave me occasional updates until I snarled at it to stop bugging me until something changed or we reached the coordinates for separation. When we finally reached the arbitrary coordinates I’d chosen, I almost screamed with relief.

“Launch missile,” I ordered. “Breaking formation.”

The Gilmour shuddered as a single missile detached before streaking away for the Tharl. At this range it would burn out its fuel and go ballistic before it reached its target, but I wasn’t hoping for a hit. I wanted to identify myself as the primary aggressor. And who knows, I might get lucky? At the same time my pre-programmed course correction kicked in, sending me off on a slight tangent that took me away from the others. The Tharl, whose identity had been confirmed for a while, changed course to match me.

“Incoming missile launch,” the computer reported. “Two bogeys at thirty thousand kilometers.”

“Countermeasures initiated,” I replied, activating the electronic jamming system. To anyone watching my electronic signature had just spawned a set of ghosts intended to confuse tracking systems. At the same time the Gilmour was generating a lot of static to make it harder to distinguish the ghosts from reality. Tharl missiles were pretty much the same as ours: they only detonated on impact.

“Energy weapon attack,” the computer reported next. “They missed.”

I took the Gilmour into a slow spin to mitigate the effect of a direct energy weapon hit, meager though it might be, then I began a wide tack that would bring me back around to where I was supposed to meet the other Horsemen. I didn’t go for any fancy maneuvers in part because the range was still pretty extreme and mostly because there wasn’t much I could do to dodge energy attacks. Once we got closer I’d have to step pretty quickly to avoid missiles. Speaking of....

“Bogey one has missed,” the computer reported. “Bogey two will pass our aft by five hundred meters.”

I didn’t know the effective range of my countermeasures; I knew Tharl sensors were superior to ours but I had no way of knowing how much. I was about to find out.

“Boss, I have power loss in shield array nine. One of the new shunts has created a short-circuit and burned out the line.”

That was not what I wanted to hear in the middle of a fight for my life. “Can you route around it?”

“Negative, this is a main feed. Our dorsal port quarter is open.”

“So I need to make a lot of right turns. Great. Get me a target lock on the Tharl.” It was time for fancy flying again. I started with a barrel roll on the Z-axis which sent me hurtling away from my destination and toward the Tharl. Then I hit the comm. “I have a small problem here. I can’t flash my ass at this guy without getting it shot off. You need to come to me. I’ll keep him in one place.”

“Target lock achieved,” the computer announced.

“Fire as she bears.”

A beam of coherent light connected the prow of the Gilmour with the Tharl. I saw no appreciable impact, confirmed by the computer’s next words.

“Target lock lost. Direct hit to the target’s forward quarter. No change to the target.”

“Target all available weapons as they bear. Throw everything we’ve got at it.” I threw the Gilmour into a tight loop, abruptly changing direction in mid-roll and watched return fire flash past my window.

“Energy weapon attack,” the computer announced. “It missed by five meters.”

I clenched my jaw. “No kidding.”

“I wouldn’t kid you about that, Boss.”

“Learn to recognize sarcasm.”


“Incoming missile launch,” the computer reported. “Two bogeys at ten thousand kilometers.”

“Prepare the engines for a five-second burn at one hundred and twenty percent output on my mark.”


I was learning there was a distinct difference between playing hide-and-seek with the Tharl in an asteroid belt and playing chicken in open space. The Tharl were no less aggressive, but they could use their technological superiority to better advantage. The bastard didn’t even try to dodge when I shot at him. I was clearly well within the range that he could pierce my countermeasures, making close quarters fighting a losing proposition for me. The problem was that I could survive more hits in close quarters facing him head-on than I could at long distance facing away. No, I grumbled to myself. That would be too easy.

I kept my eye on the plot even as I kept the Gilmour weaving and ducking. When the missiles were just under five hundred kilometers I played my card. “Engines at one-twenty, mark!” The Gilmour leaped ahead like she’d been kicked and the missiles converged on where I should have been. My plot showed them coming around to track me, and then they disappeared.

The computer obeyed my earlier order and fired at point-blank range as we also shot past the Tharl ship.

“Bogeys are neutralized,” the computer reported. “They appear to have collided with each other. Direct hit to the target’s forward quarter. No change to target.”

I smirked. You can make a missile only so smart. Now I just had to survive the Tharl who shot them at me.

“Energy --” The computer’s announcement was interrupted by the ship bucking violently. “Weapon attack,” it finished. “Direct hit on our starboard bow quarter. Shield power down to eighty-seven percent.”

I breathed a quick word of thanks for the upgrades to my power systems. If I could just keep my vulnerable quarter away from him, I might survive the next five minutes. The Tharl and I were fairly well matched for speed; I couldn’t outrun him, and he could pound me into slag while taking minimal damage from my energy weapons. Of course, I had only so many missiles, and I had to make them count.

“Two missiles, target his bow.”

“Acquiring target lock. Firing.”

As soon as the missiles detached I cut my speed and banked on the X-axis, just in time to be clipped by another shot. Then it was his turn to start dodging with me taking potshots at his stern.

“Missile One has missed,” the computer reported. “Missile Two has impacted on the target’s starboard quarter. No change to target.”

I changed vectors again while I considered the plot of the Tharl’s movements so far. He really was relying on the technical superiority of his ship. His piloting showed little skill or even enthusiasm. Alec and Ron were coming into position now.

Rock and roll,” Ron said, and opened fire.

At first the Tharl didn’t react to the others. He focused on killing me, and I focused on staying alive. He managed to pound my shields down to under a quarter power before he stopped firing at me. Then he started aiming at Ron’s Ferla who had far more energy reserves than I. That enabled me to stop dodging and start strafing runs.

It’s like getting slammed with an asteroid,” Ron complained.

“You’re telling me?” I retorted as I fired again. I was starting to wonder if I’d have to reserves to make it back to the safety of the station, let alone finish off the Tharl.

Break off! Break off!” Ron suddenly shouted. “Her shield is down! Alec, go!

I twisted the Gilmour around one-hundred and eighty degrees and fired a hard burn. Once inertia finished beating me up, it occurred to me I’d done what I’d just spent the entire fight trying not to do: expose my rear quarter to the Tharl. I cut my engines and used my attitude jets to re-orient myself back to facing the Tharl even as I continued to move away, making the vessel shrink rapidly. I watched the Wasp dive in to attack, but I couldn’t tell what effect Alec was having. Then there was a bright flash of light. When it cleared, the Tharl was gone.

“What happened?” I demanded.

I dunno!” Alec replied. “I hit it like you said. Missed the first time but I’m sure I hit it the second time. And then it blew up. I didn’t touch the engines or nothin’.”

You said we could disable it, Hideo,” Ron growled. “You said it wouldn’t blow up. Why did it blow up?”

“I don’t know!” I yelled. “I couldn’t see what was happening. We’ll have to go over the records and see.”

If you’re wasting our time,” Ron began.

“Then you can shoot me,” I interrupted. “Fine. I’ll hand you the gun myself. Until then, shut up.”

All that work for nothing. I was terrified that they were right, that I’d been wasting our time. Plus, my body was starting to shut down in reaction to all the stress. I desperately needed sleep.

I stood up and yawned hugely. “Computer, alert me the moment John shows up. Shoot anyone else.”

“That last order was sarcasm, right Boss?”

I hesitated, but only briefly. “Yes. Yes it was.”

One nap and half a day later we finally got some good news. A new contact appeared and its profile was a better match for a Corba than the first one. A few minutes later John’s face appeared on the display.

Did I miss the party?” he asked.

“Where the hell are you?” I demanded even as I worked to conference in the others. “We’ve been waiting all day for you.”

I don’t know what happened. I jumped, then the next thing I know I’m here on the opposite end of the system. My computer thinks we ran over a pocket of instability inside folded space and it mucked up my vectors. Just one of those things, y’know?”

Ron cut in. “If this happens when we’re trying to coordinate a jump into a war zone, it could get somebody killed.”

“If you figure out how to solve that problem, you’ll be able to buy your own star system to retire in.” I punched in the course for the station.