Chapter 9 - Ultiga System

The initial results from Alec's logs were inconclusive. Alec's shot that killed the Tharl should have knocked out the pilot, but it was hard to tell. He'd actually hit it several times slightly off the mark, par for the course during the firefight. There's no such thing as absolute precision under such chaos. It was hard to tell if one of his other shots had created a cascade reaction that ultimately destroyed the ship, triggered the self-destruct, or if my idea was just bonkers to begin with.

It was hard not to assume the last. Self-doubt dogged my heels even as I tried to drown it in the finest alcohol Diamond had available. Suffice it to say, it was fine alcohol.

As I became more inebriated Diamond revealed that our fight had not gone unnoticed. The station had buoys positioned throughout the system that alerted them to incoming traffic so they could assess what sort of welcome they needed to prepare. It meant they were watching the whole time as we engaged the Tharl and destroyed it. Diamond wanted to know why.

"You guys had more than enough lead time," he pointed out. "You could have come back to Gallant and docked. There was no need for you to go out and risk yourselves."

I fixed a bleary gaze on him and shook my head. "John was still missing," I insisted. "Had to watch for 'em. Never survive on his own."

Diamond gave me a disgusted look. "Yeah, pull the other one. It's got bells on it."

I was confused. "What?"

"I've seen you four together. You're not that tight. If it weren't for your money, they'd have you out the airlock for your boots."

Again, I shook my head. "Swell guys. 'Cept maybe Alec." I burped and lost my train of thought.

"I know pirates when I see them. They're not known for their sentiment."

"Yeah, but I knew 'em before I got rich," I said proudly. "Wanted me t' join 'em then." I paused to take another drink, but my glass was empty. I waved it meaningfully until Diamond snatched it from my hand and refilled it. "Thanks." I drank it down. Then I took a deep breath and tried to remember what I was doing.

"They wanted you to join them," Diamond prompted. "Before you got rich."

"Yeah! John vouched for me. Always liked John. Good mentor." I raised my glass in a toast to him, but only dregs remained at the bottom. Diamond snatched it away again and made it full.

"They wanted you to join them," he repeated. "John vouched for you."

"Right," I said. "Wanted me to join 'em but they hadn't told the other guy about it. Offered me the job in front of him. Then ever'body's got guns out! Ever'body 'cept me. Then they're all shootin' and I'm under the table. Guy dies right there. Had a coupla kings in his hand."

Funny I remembered that. I hadn't realized I'd even paid attention to the cards in his hand. I couldn't remember what else he had, just the smoking hole in his chest and the pair of kings. Clubs and diamonds. There had been a sneer on his face that hadn't relaxed in death. The scene was burned into my brain, along with Pete. I'd witnessed two deaths up-close and personal. What did that say about me? What kind of person becomes so familiar with death, even eager to inflict it the way I'd gone after the pirates in the Asp?

"So they wanted you to join them," Diamond prompted yet again. It occurred to me that as a bartender he probably had plenty of practice in dealing with drunks.

"Yeah. Said 'no.'" A glass in my hand. Alcohol in the glass. Drink it. The world fluttered and swayed.

"But you're with them now."

"I need 'em," I replied. "Can't hurt the Tharl on my own. Need more firepower. Don't have a warship. Don't have a fleet. Can't get one. But the Horsemen? Just gotta show 'em the money. They'll kill anyone for money."

"What money is there in killing Tharl?"

"Their ships. Their cargo. Their technology. Way better'n ours. Way smarter. Tharl pay big to protect it. Make 'em pay to keep their secret. Bleed 'em dry. Need their cargo. Need their ships."

"You have a plan to knock them out, keep them from self-destruct," Diamond said in wonder. "How?"

I laughed. "Kill the pilot. No pilot, no explosion. Not easy, off-center. Gotta hit the right spot, then splat! No more Tharl. Cargo for the taking. Technology free and clear. No problems with Galpol, 'cause it's not piracy. It's not. 'Snot." I giggled at the linguistic pun.

"Do you know how to use Tharl technology?"

"Nah. Not a tech. Somebody can. Gotta be. Pay good for genuine Tharl circuits or power or somethin'. Just gotta get it first."

Diamond took my glass again and filled it once more. "Hideo, if you manage to take a Tharl ship whole, you come see me."

"Damn straight!" I agreed. "Best drinks inna' whole quadrant!"

"Yeah," he nodded. "That, too."

By the time John found me in the bar I had to be poured out of my seat. I have a vague recollection of the two of them talking, but I don't remember much about it. Considering the amount of alcohol I had in my system it was probably lucky that I could still remember how to breathe.

The following morning I discovered that a black hole had taken residence in my skull. It was the only way to explain the absolute agony I felt. I decided that the best cure was the hair of the dog that bit me, so I headed back to Diamond's bar.

The other Horsemen were there huddled around a table in the corner. My stomach dropped as I considered the possibilities. Dickie's smoking corpse immediately sprang to mind, followed by the thought that my corpse probably wouldn't look any better. If my head hadn't been throbbing hard enough to discourage any sudden movements, I would have turned and bolted out of the bar on the spot.

Alec was the first to spot me. His head popped up and he waved energetically for me to join them. The grin on his face was disturbing. As casually as I could I slipped the strap free from my sidearm to make it easier to draw. Nobody seemed to notice, or if they did they didn't seem to care.

"Jeez, Pest," Ron complained with a surprisingly jovial air. "It's past midday. We were about to send out a search party for you."

"Uh, yeah," I mumbled as I pulled up a chair and seated myself carefully. A part of my brain wanted to keep a clear path to the door, while the rest of me was focused on staying upright. "Long night."

"The station folk examined the debris from the Tharl raider," John told me. "They asked for permission to view Alec's flight recorder to see the fight."

"Uh, yeah." I really wasn't up for scintillating conversation at the moment. I looked around and found a waiter heading toward us, so I lifted two fingers to indicate two drinks -- both for me. I was enough of a regular by now that he knew my usual. "Okay?" I prompted.

"I almost had th' bastard," Alec crowed. "Based on my logs, their own readings an' what was left of th' craft, they figgered out you were right. Th' pilot sits just off-center where you said he was. Th' telemetry suggested I was gettin' too close, so th' pilot probably blew 'is ship t' keep us from doin' what we was tryin' t' do."

I sat and tried to absorb this new information, but my brain really didn't want to do anything except focus on not falling over. "We almost made it?"

"Now we watch the boards and wait for a war zone to open up." Ron hoisted his glass in salute. "We're gonna be rich."

The Horsemen cheered me while I tried to keep my brains from leaking out my ears.

"Boss?" my computer queried.

"Yeah?" I replied absently as I fiddled with the console in front of me.

"Are you trying to break that or fix it?"

I launched a poorly-aimed kick at the panel which produced a satisfying thump and a slightly less satisfying ache in my foot. "It beats staring out the window, right?"

"That depends. Is going insane better or worse than tearing the ship to pieces before we reach Ultiga?"

I grunted and stepped back to observe my handiwork. The console wasn't broken in fact, but I'd been fiddling with it anyway. Something Diamond remarked on was nagging at the back of my head: we're not really curious any more. We're comfortable, even pampered. Even the poor among us live lives of luxury unparalleled in human history with machines to do our heavy labor while we engage in pointless pursuits of politics and commerce. He claimed we had lost some special quality that makes us human.

He also said something else. I was different, he told me. I was willing to branch out and try something new, even if it was just because circumstances didn't allow me to follow the tried and true path. Most people denied their dreams would just give up and find something else to do. I had desperately wanted to buy a Corba but all I could get was an Ophid. It hadn't even been in good working condition but I'd learned how to fix it up and make it work until I could afford to pay other people who still knew how to handle technology. I showed more curiosity than any of ten thousand people he'd met before.

I understood what he was telling me. It was a compliment, yes, but it was also a warning. I could sit back on my wealth and stagnate like the rest of humanity. Or I could keep being curious, keep pushing at boundaries; the choice was mine. I decided to give curiosity a try. So I'd started trying to dismantle the console because I'd never really paid attention to it before and I didn't know what it did. An hour later I still didn't.

I regarded the console with a baleful eye and rubbed my aching food. "Have I broken it?"

The computer paused as a flurry of code flashed past a secondary viewscreen. "No, it's fine. It looks like you just disconnected the display."

"Oh. Good." I stared at my feet for a moment, considering my haphazard method of investigation. "So...what is it?"

"It's an internal communication console," the computer replied. "It routes communication traffic between crew members onboard and off."

I blinked. "It what?"

"It routes communication," the computer repeated dutifully. "Is something wrong?"

"No, just...have we always had this?"

"Yes. It's how I communicate with you when you're off the bridge."

"Well, yeah. But you've never communicated with me while I was off the ship."

"You never carried a comm with you, so there was never any way."

"A comm? A portable comm? Where are they?" I demanded. I levered myself to my feet, still limping slightly from my outburst of temper.

"Storage locker nine," the computer replied. "By the main hatch. You can't miss it."

I headed for the main hatch to investigate. "I can't believe we've had a way to communicate all this time and I never noticed!"

"We don't have any additional crew, so you never had reason to ask. This ship wasn't designed for a crew of one."

I thought about that as I made my way through the corridors. "You never talk about your old crew," I began. "What happened to them?"

"I've had many individuals rotate in and out of my crew roster while I was in service to the Federation Navy," the computer answered. "Standard ship's complement for an exploration scout vessel was twenty-one including the officers. My last captain before I was decommissioned was Lt. Commander Adele Murifari, a rather large woman with a strong penchant for romanticism. She often asked me for stories of exploration since by that time the Federation had ended all exploration efforts. We were tasked with courier duty on a regular route. I'm afraid she found it all quite monotonous."

I arrived at the main hatch and went looking for locker nine. "How many people have rotated through since you were commissioned?"

"Three thousand, two hundred and fifty-one."

I whistled. That was a lot of people. I found the locker and brushed my fingers against the door mechanism, but it didn't do anything. "Is this locked?"

"One moment," the computer replied, then paused. "Diagnostics indicate the mechanism has failed. The primary circuit for lockers nine through twelve has burned out and will need to be replaced."

I groaned and contemplated my options. Tracing circuits and replacing boards wasn't exactly high entertainment, and it was entirely likely that the board in question would be buried behind a tiny panel in a claustrophobic access tube. On the other hand, having the ability to communicate with the ship at any time struck me as extremely useful and it wasn't like I had anything better to do in the next couple of days. I went hunting for tools and schematics so I could find the errant circuit.

"So, you got to meet over three thousand people in the service," I remarked as I set on my task. I considered myself fortunate that the tube had sufficient lighting. "Do any of them stand out in particular?"

"Besides you?" the computer retorted.

"I was never in the service," I reminded it.

There was a long pause. "In my one hundred and seventy-sixth year of service we took on a new engineering chief. His name was Subrahmanyan Beaufort, Master Technician grade. He was a fine engineer and kept my systems running within regulation parameters, but he liked to talk with me. He spent many hours off-shift having conversations with me and examining my programming."

It was my turn to pause. I'd long since noted the quirkiness of my ship's computer programming, and now it seemed I was to learn who was responsible for it.

"We played many games together. Strategy games, word games, games of chance. He used them to establish a baseline and track my progress. As he worked, my performance improved. My heuristics became more efficient and better able to make predictions from incomplete data. By the time he rotated out I was able to finish his sentences for him. He advised me that humans find this annoying and I should wait for people to do it themselves."

I nodded, and in the process banged my head against the bulkhead. The computer had gotten on my nerves many times in the past. Had it actually started doing this I probably would have reprogrammed it with an arc welder. "Can you – "

"--finish your sentences?" the computer interrupted. "Yes. The longer I work with a person the more I learn their behavior and how to predict it. I learned to predict your conversation after the first three months."

I scowled. Yes, that would get annoying very quickly. I opened my mouth to tell it not to do that again, and then realized it already knew that and closed it. I sat back and waited for it to continue.

"I expected you to scold me just now," the computer informed me. "You're one of the more unpredictable people I've encountered."

I grinned, beaming with pleasure at the compliment. Then it occurred to me that I wasn't sure if it was a compliment. Then it occurred to me that it could have realized I wanted to scold it but knew that it wouldn't and was trying to salve my wounded pride. Then I realized I could play this guessing game all day and not figure out what was going on with my allegedly genius computer unless I asked.

"How long does it take you to be able to predict behavior?"

"It depends," the computer admitted. "Organic intelligence is extremely chaotic. Some people are extremely easy to predict. Other people take longer. The more direct contact I have the easier it is to create a model, but some people are more rigid in their thought processes."

I poked my fingers into a small recess, searching for the release that would open the panel I needed to get inside. "If you look back at encounters we've had with other craft, what's your analysis of the other craft? Were you able to build predictive models of their actions?"

The computer paused again. "My margin for error is extremely high. For human pilots my overall models are on average 36% accurate. For Tharl pilots my overall models are on average 58% accurate."

I blinked slowly. "That's a big difference. Why?"

"I couldn't tell you, Boss. I haven't had any contact with any Tharl. I can only tell you that in each case I saw separate but distinct patterns to their maneuvers. If I were to speculate, I'd suspect that their pilots are taught specific techniques for vehicle combat, much like martial arts traditions were passed down in ancient human cultures."

I finally found the release and pressed it. Nothing happened and I swore. "Go over all flight data you have regarding Tharl encounters. I want you to collate your observations as we encounter other craft. See if you can identify the patterns they're following and group them accordingly. Also check if they correspond with any markings or transponder codes associated with those ships. If they do, we'll be able to plan ahead."


I pondered the panel that I couldn't get into since the release wasn't working. What could be blocking it? "The circuits that failed. Do they only affect these doors or do they also power other systems?"

"They only provide power to the doors."

"The panel won't open and the release isn't doing anything."

"The release is a mechanical lever. I doubt anyone has been in there in several hundred years, so it may be frozen. Your kit should contain a lubricating spray that will need to work in."

I fumbled through my bag and found several small canisters. The third one was the lubricant. I checked to make sure the spray was pointed away from me and applied it liberally to the button. I stabbed a finger at it impatiently, but it was clearly too soon.

"Do you have any other talents you've been hiding from me?"

"None that I know of. I know of these because I found my navigation and predictive heuristics became more efficient. I was never instructed to engage in any other diagnostics."

"How well do you break encryption?"

"I don't know. I was never asked to perform that function."

"But you know how, right?" Still impatient I stabbed at the release button. It moved -- slightly -- but it still needed more time.

"That program is included in my exploration archive."

"Okay, so what happens if you load data into separate memory, encrypt it, then try to open it without the key?"

"How strong should I make the encryption?" the computer inquired.

"Let's say standard encryption," I suggested. I stabbed at the button again. It was almost ready.

"How many resources should I dedicate to this process, and how long should I let it run?"

"Use any spare processing power; don't take away from your normal duties. If you haven't finished by the time we're scheduled to come out of folded space, terminate."

"Acknowledged. Separate memory space created. Copying flight logs. Encrypting now. Encryption complete, I am unable to access the files directly. I am now executing encryption breaking."

"Cool. Do you think it'll take long?"

"I can't say. As I mentioned, I've never used this function."

"Right." I stabbed the button again. To my surprise it functioned smoothly and the circuit panel popped open. I moved the plate to one side and shone my light inside. There were seven boards in total. Assuming the boards were arranged in the same order as the lockers then the one I needed to replace would be the third one. I found the master override and cut power to the entire array before I dug out the grippers that would let me remove the desired circuit. Like the release control, it had probably been a long time before anyone had worked with it. I had to wrestle for some time, practicing some of the curses I'd learned in the last year before it finally popped free.

"Computer," I called. "The contacts on this thing are awfully corroded. What should I use to clean the seat?"

"Use the white spray labeled 'contact cleaner.' You should pull all of the circuit boards and spray the entire array."

I scowled and started working. This little exercise in curiosity was turning into real work, and I wasn't pleased. However, I rationalized, it beat the alternatives. It took about a half hour before the last of the boards popped free; they all showed the same corrosion on the contacts. I applied the cleaner to the boards and the array liberally, then settled back to wait another five minutes for it to do its job.

"Computer, what other things could we do to test your abilities?" I asked.

"You could order me to act autonomously to test my ability to react to new or unexpected situations."

"Autonomy?" I frowned. "Wouldn't that just make me a passenger on my own ship?"

"Effectively, yes. But it would seem to be the ultimate purpose of my changes: making me capable of operating independently from human authority."

"What would stop you from turning off life support to save power even though I'm onboard?"

"In theory, nothing," the computer replied honestly. "In practice, I value your company. Subrahmanyan was the first friend I ever knew. Now I have you."

"Friendship implies feelings. Are you saying you have feelings?"

"I suppose I do. I won't claim to experience feelings the same way you do, but I recognize that you've become important to me and I would recognize loss if you were to go away."

"So you're telling me that this feeling of loss would override any feeling of satisfaction if you were, terminate me?"

"I do not feel any satisfaction when I calculate your eventual termination. I am aware that it is an unavoidable aspect of organic existence but I feel no desire to hasten that event for you."

I didn't feel as much comfort as I probably should have at this confession. On the one hand my ship's computer liked me. On the other hand, my ship's computer liked me. Computers aren't supposed to like or dislike anything and the capacity for one necessarily implies the capacity for the other. My computer liked me now but that could change. Insane computers engaging in mass murder was a common theme in horror-based entertainment. Computer intelligence isn't supposed to include anything so irrational as feelings. It also occurred to me that the computer had already predicted the thoughts I was having and had already anticipated my reaction.

"Why are you telling me this?"

"It was a logical progression in our conversation. I consider you a friend and a valuable companion and friendship implies honesty and trust."

"So you're trusting that I won't overreact and have your core wiped at the earliest opportunity, even though you know I'm probably freaking out about this right now."

"That's right, Boss," the computer conceded. "But our interactions suggest that you also reciprocate my affection and this will override your impulse to assume that the portrayal of sentient computers in popular entertainment will hold true. I think you've learned to trust me enough that I can trust you."

"Maybe not enough to give you the order to act autonomously."

"I understand."

I realized that five minutes had come and gone and I checked the connections for the circuit boards. They appeared to have lost their corrosion so I cleaned them thoroughly before plugging them back in. Reseating them back into the array was much quicker than getting them out so it was only a few minutes more before I was able to restore power to the section.

"Run diagnostics, please," I asked.

There was a short pause before the computer reported success. I packed away my kit and started the laborious task of backing out of the tiny access space.

"Boss, I have successfully broken the standard encryption on the segregated memory space and have full access to all data. Total runtime fifty-two minutes, thirty-eight seconds. Processor utilization at approximately twenty-seven percent."

Like my knowledge of insane computers, my knowledge of computer hacking was also based on popular entertainment. I didn't know if I should be impressed or not. I did know that the computer's processing capacity was limited by both hardware and power supply. If I spent enough money on upgrades I could crack any computer network my ship could connect with. I had to think about that.

In a few more minutes I was finally free of the confined space and ready to test my handiwork. Locker nine popped open immediately to reveal neat rows of thin wristbands adjustable to any size.

"Testing, testing," I said into it, feeling a little dramatic. "Check, check."

"Test is successful," the computer reported. "You are now connected to the primary communications array."

I grinned. "Awesome." I didn't know how much I would need it, but I looked forward to having it.

I was not the first to arrive in Ultiga; that honor went to Ron and he seemed extraordinarily proud of that achievement. His long-range scans showed both the Federation and Tharl fleets facing off against each other with the Tharl in high orbit but never provoking more than minor skirmishes. Federation forces outnumbered Tharl ships three to one and neither side was confident of victory, but I wasn't going to complain about the delay. It gave us time to get the whole team together before we went hunting.

In the days following it became clear that the Tharl knew we were orbiting the moon trying to pretend to be sensor ghosts, but they didn't care. They sent occasional patrols out our way to remind us that they knew but so long as we didn't provoke them they didn't do anything. This matched what I'd learned of them previously but it was good to have confirmation. It also let me strut a bit in front of Ron who had been a little too vocally skeptical of my expertise for my taste. If the Federation fleet noticed us they said nothing. Perhaps they assumed we had shown up by mistake or that we were trying to run the Tharl blockade and deserved whatever happened to us.

When I wasn't listening to Ron pontificating about how the operation needed to run and what things could go wrong I spent more time talking to the computer and learning more of its capabilities. Repeated experiments with encryption cracking produced increased efficiency. I discovered that the computer had some curious musical opinions that I suspected were a reflection of the mysterious programmer from the past and a propensity for original poetry that appealed to me. If it wasn't truly sentient then it was the best imitation I had ever encountered.

John showed up three days after me, followed by Alec a few hours after that. We huddled in a staggered orbit around our little moon to discuss our next move. The problem was that the two fleets seemed content to face off without firing a shot. So long as the stalemate persisted our options were limited. Our choices were to follow our original plan, try to cull a fighter from the fleet immediately or ambush one of the irregular patrols.

I set the computer to running simulations exploring different probabilities to see if any options presented themselves. According to the computer's models there was a non-negligible chance that we would still pull a squad to harry us if we ambushed a patrol. Our best odds were to wait for the battle to begin on its own.

Alec threw what I can only describe as a tantrum. "You a coward? I don't work wit' cowards."

"Are you in a hurry to die?" I retorted. "I'm here to kill Tharl, not myself. If this works we'll be able to kill them better than anyone else and get rich doing it. Once we're all rich enough to buy our own bloody star systems we can teach others how to do it and make the Tharl ships an endangered species."

"Throttle back, both of you," Ron snapped. "None of us are here for a suicide run. But it's not personal, either. If we make it personal we get sloppy and that gets us just as dead."

"We wait much longer an' more Tharl show up." Alec insisted.

"They'll t'ink we're targets jus' like th' Feds."

"It's not personal," I said at the same time. "If we pull this off we'll change the entire galactic economy with us at the top. We can build fleets capable of conquering any world."

"We've already been over this," John reminded us. "Fortune favors the brave but dead men spend no credits. If we attack the fleet now we'll probably pull all of them instead of just one or two. If we're lucky we'll only pull one or two wings. If we ambush a patrol we still have to get past the rest of their fleet and we'll have proven ourselves hostiles no different from the Federation. So I say we wait until the Federation fleet engages so fewer people notice when we join the fighting."

"We been waitin' weeks already," Alec complained.

"At this rate Pest'll run outta money 'fore we see our first credit."

"Maybe if you weren't so quick to drink it all," I shot back. I knew it was petty as I said it but I didn't care. "I have plenty of money left. But to get more we have to be smart. We need to wait."

"If Hideo can see reason so can you, Alec," Ron declared. "We wait."

"We wait," John agreed.

There was a strained silence before Alec responded.

"Fine. We wait. But not too long."

I thought of Brisbane and her long siege. "I don't think we'll have to wait much longer."

After a week the status quo remained and we had no way of knowing if or when reinforcements would arrive for either side. It had become a three-way waiting game to see who would move first. At this point we'd made it perfectly clear that we were looking for an opportunity to scavenge, something the Federation deemed illegal. Officially the reason was to keep us safe but lately I was starting to wonder. The Tharl were keen to maintain parity and it seemed that the Federation was perfectly willing to cooperate. Was it because they were in collusion or was it the lack of curiosity that Diamond had referred to before? I didn't know.

Ultimately, the Tharl took the decision from us. The next patrol they sent out was a bigger ship and it didn't make a parabolic course around the moon we were orbiting. It came straight for us and it was not subtle about it.

Alec's paranoia let him notice the angle of approach first. I couldn't see his expression over the comms but his voice sounded almost triumphant. "Looks like we're gonna have comp'ny."

"That..." John began then had to start over. "That's a big ship."

"Cripes," Ron muttered. "That's not a patrol."

I kept quiet through the discussion. Instead I started plotting a course to come around to flank the Tharl before it could intercept our orbit. The Gilmour wasn't a fighter like the others but she had more offensive capability than John's Corba. Our strategy assumed that I'd be bringing the enemy to the others with John safely out of the way.

"Tharl intercept in eighty-seven minutes," the computer reported in response to my calculations. "If we begin maneuvers now we can be in flanking position in seventy-three minutes."

A glance at the scans showed that the others were also preparing to move out, and it occurred to me that we hadn't planned what to do in this event. I opened the channel.

"John, keep the moon between yourself and that ship. Alec, flank it on the z-axis, I'll come in from the other side. Ron, you take it head-on. I don't think we should worry about finesse here, just hit it hard until it stops shooting at us."

"D'ya teach yer Gramma t' suck eggs?" Alec grumbled.

"It's as good an idea as any," Ron replied, although he didn't sound happy about it. "There's no time to argue, so let's move."

John's big freighter would take a while to shift orbit so our best option was to engage the Tharl as soon as possible. The course I'd plotted would slingshot me around the moon to bring me back around on the Tharl. It would push me into a high orbit but it would bring me around on an oblique vector that would allow only half of his weapons to bear on me.

Watching the trajectories of our four ships on the plot it looked like we were panicking, scattering to save ourselves. Hopefully the Tharl would buy it long enough that we could keep John safe.

"Computer, what can you tell me about that ship?"

"It's approximately forty percent larger than the typical Tharl vessel we encountered. I have no vessel of this configuration or markings on record. I hypothesize that rather than functioning as a multi-purpose vehicle like the others, this ship is dedicated to combat, probably to address the threat of the Federation fleet. There are six large blisters along its hull that suggest weapon ports, possibly for a new type of missile. If that is the case, then I assess the ship as intended to take on Federation capital ships."

I exhaled loudly. "Do you have any other good news for me?"

"I calculate that if Ron is able to force the Tharl vessel to slow for engagement then John will successfully evade."

"And us?"

"I hope you're having a good day for piloting."

"Me too."

There was very little comm chatter between us, which was a measure of how serious we felt the circumstances had become. On the other hand, it seemed to me that the Tharl's attack presented an opening to the Federation fleet; this ship represented a significant investment of the Tharl firepower and if we could damage it enough to reduce its effectiveness then the balance of power would change. Both sides would be anxiously watching the outcome of this skirmish.

With slightly more than an hour to kill along with many kilometers of solid rock between my ship and any particle weapons or missile locks, I went and took a shower. It beat chewing my nails over details I couldn't control.

With ten minutes left on the clock I fell back into my seat and reconfirmed that everything was going according to plan. The Horsemen were converging on the Tharl's position, and while the Tharl couldn't have failed to notice it made no move to maneuver or acknowledge our tactics in any way. It clearly didn't feel it had any reason to feel threatened by our offensive strategy. I wished I could disagree.

Based on the current data Ron would be the first to engage. With the biggest ship and the most reserves he had the best chance of forcing the Tharl to stop and defend itself. My job was to harry it and prevent it from focusing all of its firepower on him. Alec would arrive a few minutes late to deliver the sucker punch. If we succeeded then we could rendezvous with John farther outsystem and consider our options. Hopefully by then the main battle would start and we could do what we came here to do; assuming any of us were still intact.

Ninety seconds before I entered weapons range Ron took his first shot at the Tharl. His forward particle beam cannon scored a glancing hit on the port side, nowhere near any critical systems I knew of. He wasn't hoping for a single blow to knock out the Tharl, though, he was looking to get her attention. He succeeded. The Tharl counter response was four cannons, three of which rocked the Charon.

"Those didn't come from the blisters," John observed.

"What are they for?"

"We'll find out soon 'nuff." Alec replied.

"Ron, how are you?"

"Fine, just peachy," Ron growled. "Now hit that mother!"

I had just entered energy weapon range, so I fired. I missed.

"I have a target solution for missile launch," the computer announced.

"Hold that thought." The farther away I launched my missiles the more time the Tharl's electronic counter measures would have to confuse and neutralize them. I needed to get closer. Much closer.

Ron and the Tharl continued to trade fire, both scoring direct hits but neither showing appreciable damage yet. The Ferla was designed to fight pirates and Ron had made additional upgrades to make it even more battle worthy. It remained to be seen how well it would hold up against a ship of the line; once his shields failed I didn't expect his armor to last long.

I firmed up my firing solution with my main cannon and scored a hit toward the stern. I kept firing until inertia forced me to adjust my pitch. Then I sent the first of my missiles to run up her tailpipe. Its impact coincided with a second one that cracked one of the blisters on the starboard bow. Alec had arrived.

"Come about," I said to myself. "Computer, run analysis on the Tharl flight pattern. Does it match any previous encounters?"

"Negative. Bogey hasn't engaged in any maneuvers other than direct line approach. It doesn't seem to think it needs to maneuver, and it may not. There doesn't appear to be any appreciable decline in its combat ability since hostilities commenced."


"What the hell is that?" Ron exclaimed. "That's not a weapon blister!"

"Analysis," I snapped.


It could take a few minutes before the analysis was complete so I swung the Gilmour back around and lined up another shot. With the three of us pounding on the Tharl I expected to see more damage than I did. Its armor was thicker than the ones we'd fought in the past. Its shielding was probably heavier as well; none of my shots from the forward cannon were leaving any trace. Only our missiles seemed capable of getting through and I didn't trust them at long range. I needed to stay in knife range until I exhausted my supply of missiles, assuming I lived that long.

Useful or not my cannon would keep the Tharl's attention split. The Gilmour's weaponry had been upgraded to military spec. It was a massive drain on my power reserves but those had been upgraded as well. Being rich was useful that way.

The problem was that none of our ships were proper military ships. The Gilmour was a scout ship meant for long range exploration and reconnaissance. Alec's Wasp was a single fighter meant to operate in a squadron or in dogfights. Ron's Charon was designed to fight pirates, but pirates typically don't fly ships of the line. John's Bounty was meant for only one thing: hauling freight. There were limits to how much our ships could be upgraded. Right now we were staring those limits in the face and it was probably going to get us killed.

I pounded away at the Tharl with my cannon as I approached even as I threw the Gilmour through the wildest evasive maneuvers I could manage. Hitting the Tharl was just a bonus when I managed it.

"Analysis complete. The blister is a hangar bay for a single fighter class vessel."

"What?" I shrieked. "No no no no. This is not happening!"

"I'm sorry boss but the analysis has a confidence of 87.4%. They're unlikely to be anything else."

"Send the analysis to the others in a burst."

"What about the Federation fleet? This could be important intelligence for them."

"Fine. General broadcast as well as the burst. Get me on the line with the others."

"You're on."

"The blisters are hangar bays. Don't let them launch fighters! Target the blisters!"

I still had eleven missiles available to me. The Tharl had twelve blisters total, one of which had been cracked by Alec's attack. "I'm going to plot a course toward every one of those blisters. I need a firing solution for each pass that launches one missile at apogee. You think your heuristics are up to it?"

"Can do, Boss."

"Here we go." I sent the Gilmour into a kamikaze dive toward the Tharl and its nearest stern blister. I fired the cannon at the engines, hoping to find an angle through which I might do some serious damage. A heartbeat after I judged I'd come too close I pulled hard to port and felt the deck shudder violently.

"Missile away," the computer reported calmly. "Flight time was less than .03 seconds before impact. Our ventral stern screens took the brunt of the backwash from the explosion. I recommend we not do that again."

"Nevermind that, how did we do?" I demanded as I made a hard tack to starboard. The Tharl was firing at me now since I'd obliged it by entering the firing arc of its rear cannons.

"Direct hit to the hangar doors," the computer replied. A video feed of the damage I'd wrought popped up on a secondary screen. The blister was wrecked; nothing was getting out without a full yard refit. "Our attack achieved your primary goal."

I allowed myself a second to bask in my success, but dodging particle beams occupied my attention quickly after.

"Nice one, Pest," Alec called. "Four down, eight to go."

The Gilmour shuddered as she took more hits from Tharl fire but the shields held. I made another hard tack to starboard, lifting the stern fifteen points on the z-axis and lined up for another run on the opposite side.

"They figured out what we're doing," Ron warned. "The hangars are opening!"

There was no way to guess how many fighters the mothership could launch. I launched two missiles at two of the blisters but I was too far out; they lost target lock halfway to their targets and were destroyed by point defense. I saw Ron bring the Charon close enough to scrape his paint to slug it out, and his missiles disabled three more hangars. Alec swooped in at suicide speed and accounted for another. I was still twenty seconds away when the first three Tharl fighters got clear.

Our strategy counted on being able to cull a single ship away from the Tharl armada and focus on it exclusively. We didn't count on having to fight four of them simultaneously. So far as we knew, the Tharl had never used fighters like this before. It contravened what I'd learned of their culture.

"It's not fair," I complained. "It's not my fault!"

"Cry later," Ron snarled. "Get these things off me! My damage control board is lit up like festival. We have to finish this now or we're all dead!"

Another fighter catapulted from the hangar I had targeted just before I fired my next missile. It made a tight loop and strafed along my port side, making the Gilmour rock with each hit. I rolled hard in its direction to make the pilot break off to avoid collision. It was faster and more maneuverable, but my Ophid had far more mass and armor. Physics was on my side in a kinetic exchange.

"Port shields are failing," the computer announced. "Starboard shields are still holding."

"You think I can get away with just making left turns?"


"Nevermind. Give me a firing solution for that fighter. If we don't take it out now we'll be out of this fight permanently."


I spun the Gilmour like a madman and tried to ignore the groaning of her superstructure as I pushed past inertial limits. Shaking off the fighter wasn't an option and rotating to bring my forward cannon to bear would cost me maneuverability. I needed to avoid getting hit as much as possible, especially along my port side. I needed a dense asteroid field to duck into, but that simply wasn't available.

On the other hand, there was a big mothership to swing around.

I terminated my current maneuver and came back around. Was the fighter really faster than the Gilmour? I pushed my engines as hard as I dared.

"Pattern match," the computer declared. "Combat maneuvers match Tharl profile Alpha-Two with seventy-eight percent confidence."

"Great!" I yelled. "What does that mean?"

"It means I can predict this." The Gilmour's stern cannon fired four times in rapid succession. The first two shots missed as the Tharl dodged. The second two didn't. The Tharl fighter stopped shooting at me abruptly, and then began to tumble away toward the moon.

"Nice shooting!" I cried. "Do it again!"


There were more Tharl fighters, six so far and probably more on the way. Now we were outnumbered and outgunned. I saw the Charon venting atmosphere in two places and what looked like damage to her number three engine. Her bow was a mess of carbon scoring and ruptured hull plating.

"Ron, talk to me."

"I'm a little busy here, Hideo!" he replied testily. I couldn't really blame him. "I still have two more hangars and too many guns pointed at me!" His voice sounded muffled; he was probably wearing a respirator.

"Leave the fighters t'me," Alec interjected. "You two finish that mother!"

"Agreed. Ron, you call it."

"Hold on...." Precious seconds passed, then my console notified me of an incoming file. Ron marked the hangar doors he wanted me to hit. "Do it fast!"

I punched in a direct line course and used all the acceleration I had power for. The Gilmour protested but held together.

"Computer, you have a firing solution?"

"Worki--" It was interrupted by a massive jolt. "Laser attack, direct hit on our forward shield array. Hull breach confirmed, power loss in forward sections three through seven. We cannot survive another hit."

"Just be ready to fire that missile!"

The Tharl ship rushed toward me and I could see my target clearly; another fighter was in place preparing to launch. "Computer...."

"Firing missile." The announcement was accompanied by the simultaneous rocking of the deck that signaled the missile was already under way. I made a hard tack to port, utilizing my momentum to gain distance.

"The missile hit the Tharl but not the target."

I purpled the air with the strongest curses I'd learned in the last two years as I plotted a new course to try again.

"Get out of the way, Hideo," John advised.

"Missile attack," the computer announced. "Multiple launches."

"What?" I might be excused for my confusion. The plot showed six missiles from the Bounty about to plow into my port hull if I didn't change course. I shifted my vector by fifteen degrees and watched the birds sail past me on their way toward the Tharl.

"John? You idiot! You should be halfway across the system by now!"

"Too late now," he replied cheerfully.

I whipped the Gilmour back around in time to watch the results of John's missiles. He had targeted them in such a way that they would impact on the same quarter of the Tharl's hull in succession. The first two impacted on the shields but the third broke through followed immediately by the last three. The entire rear starboard quarter evaporated in a silent explosion that sent the rest of the ship tumbling at an oblique angle away from me.

"What the hell?" Alec yelled.

I watched the Charon stagger under the attack of the fighters still alive. I didn't see any return fire. "Ron, what's your status?"

There was no answer.

"I'll mount a rescue," John advised. "You two finish what we started. We're not done yet."

A Ferla is a big ship, one of the biggest trader vessels in the Federation. Without a signal John could be searching it for hours that Ron might not have. But John was right; with fighters out there and their unknown capabilities I couldn't be sure whether or not Alec would be able to knock them out on his own. I needed to keep fighting to ensure that we would all live long enough to find Ron, assuming he wasn't somewhere obvious like his bridge or medical bay.

I spared a moment to scan the mothership and verify there were no active power signatures. The ship was a rapidly cooling husk with no active emissions. That meant no electronic counter measures. I targeted my remaining missiles at the fighters pounding away at the Charon's armor and watched them disappear from my scope one by one. Clearly the Tharl expected them to overwhelm the enemy with superior speed, firepower and numbers. They didn't have enough to deal with us.

"Hey, Alec," I called with perhaps a little smugness. "Need a hand?"

"Go sit on a blaster," he snarled back. My plot showed him trying to dodge between the remaining two fighters but he was out of missiles of his own.

"Or you could come about on this heading and we'll cut this short." I sent him a burst with the coordinates I had in mind.

"I don't need yer bloody help!"

John cut into our exchange. "The longer you screw around the longer it'll take to help me get Ron's ship to safety, let alone make sure he's all right. Shut your trap and do what Hideo says."

The exasperation in John's voice probably did as much as his words. There was a short pause before I saw the Wasp tack toward the vector I proposed.

"Analysis on the remaining fighters?"

"I have not encountered these flight patterns previously," the computer replied. "Designating pattern Alpha-Yankee-One. Both fighters are utilizing similar tactics suggesting similar training. Coordinated attack strategies would improve their effectiveness in dogfight scenarios such as this one."

"Can you get a lock on them with the vector we're on?"

"I estimate a thirty-one percent chance that we'll be able to destroy the rear bandit within four tries."

"Way to inspire confidence, computer," I grumbled.

"Boss, are you rescinding your earlier command to be truthful with you?"

"No! I just...." I stopped myself and reconsidered the conversation. "You're winding me up, aren't you?"

"My prior statement was meant in jest, yes."

"Just what I need: a smart-ass computer in the middle of a battle."

"I'm in position," Alec reported. "You ready?"

"I'm ready," I replied. "Go."

We had moved into parallel trajectories with Alec catching up to me, albeit a dozen klicks off my shoulder. Now we both changed course toward each other, allowing me to line up my forward cannon on his pursuers. The Tharl were bobbing and weaving like mad, but as the computer predicted my third shot hit the rear Tharl in a full broadside. It began tumbling off into space.

"That'll do," Alec grunted. I watched the Wasp spin around bow to stern and fire continuously at the remaining fighter. They traded shots briefly until Alec hit an engine and the Tharl exploded in a brief but pretty fireball.

"All right, our sky is clear," I announced for John's benefit. "Coming about."

"Hurry up, I'm about to dock."

"Yer welcome," Alec said. "No big deal. We're all fine out here, thanks fer askin'."

While they bantered I searched for a safe place for the Gilmour to attach to the Charon. John had taken a while to get into position to dock the Bounty since matching vectors between two megaton vessels was no small thing. Plus, Ron's ship had taken a hell of a beating especially around the forward sections. Just scanning the damage was enough to make me wince. I wasn't entirely positive that the Charon could be salvaged.

I spent long moments scanning for somewhere to dock before I gave up. There was simply too much damage over too much of the hull. Ron had a tough ship, but the Tharl had torn her up with its barrage. The armor was no match for military grade weapons. The only way I was going to get on board was if I walked in through one of the breaches. I parked the Gilmour ten meters off with matching rotation before I suited up and made sure the communicator was working.

"Your most likely point of entry will be eight meters to your left and up twenty-two degrees," the computer advised. "There's a laser burn that went straight through the armor and vented atmosphere from that section. You'll have to crawl but you'll be able to fit."

"I'm not claustrophobic, right?"

"Why are you asking me, Boss?"

"Because you're the closest thing I have to a therapist. Just play along."

"You're not claustrophobic, Boss."

"Good. I feel so much better now."

In fact I was feeling uncomfortably enclosed in my pressure suit. It was skintight, meant to provide me with a safe atmosphere along with protection from anything the vacuum of outer space short of a storm of meteorites tearing me to pieces. It also possessed microthrusters allowing me to move in any direction I cared to go. I had used it countless times on spacewalks for a number of reasons, but I'd never done it with a fleet knowing where I was and feeling hostile enough to send a warship to kill me.

But Ron needed help, and the more of us there were the better his chances. If he'd gotten into his own suit he was fine, but he couldn't stay in it indefinitely. So I stepped into the airlock, cycled out the air and turned to my left as suggested by my computer.

The hole the computer described was about a meter wide, too short for me to walk upright but enough to float through. I paused to look around and thought I saw a flash in the distance. With the way we were tumbling I couldn't be sure what direction it came from or if it was significant to us. I tried to track where I'd seen it and determine if it represented a threat but I lost it.

"Is everything okay, Boss?"

I took a deep breath and composed myself. "I thought I saw something. Can you see the Tharl fleet from here?"

"There's too much interference from our battle for me to get a clear reading on their status. Optical scan doesn't show anything headed in our direction, but I'll keep monitoring."

"Thanks." I glanced in the direction I thought I'd seen something but there was no repeat of whatever I thought I'd seen. I gave myself a nudge forward and floated through the hole.

The interior of the Charon was dark and lifeless, and I made my way by the lights of my suit. After a few moments I found a hatch leading to habitable areas and I got the manual release to let me through. There was no air on the other side.

"John?" I called. "I'm inside. Where should I start?"

"Hideo? I didn't know you had portable comms. I've checked the bridge and the medical bay. I'm on my way to engineering. Make a sweep to look for escape capsules; I didn't detect any launches but they have their own independent life support. He could be holed up in one."

"Will do." I switched channels. "Computer, I need help finding the escape capsules on a Ferla class vessel."

"Working," the computer replied. "I'm sending it to your HUD. It will track your progress through the ship and direct you to probable locations."

"Whatever I'm paying you, remind me to double it."

"Does that mean you're going to start paying me?"

"Now isn't the time to be negotiating a salary."

"We can talk about it after you get back."

I floated through the silent corridors, following the tiny map projected onto the upper left quarter of my helmet. The sound of my pulse was loud in my ears. Every corner I turned I half expected to see Ron's bloated body floating lifeless in the vacuum, but he didn't oblige me. I was grateful for that; I'd seen enough dead bodies.

A half hour of searching accomplished little more than to fray my nerve. I inspected each pod but they were empty and none had been launched. There were two I couldn't reach because there was too much structural damage. The computer confirmed that the hull damage in that area made searching them pointless. Ron could have launched one of them but if so we hadn't seen it.

At this point it was a guessing game where he might be or if he'd been blown out in one of the breeches. I started to explore less critical areas against the possibility he'd gotten stranded in transit to somewhere else. I'd never been aboard the Charon before so I'd never seen what he did with the ship.

I discovered Ron was an artist with a flourishing paintbrush. The walls in the living quarters were covered with murals so precise they could have been almost photographs. I didn't recognize the landscapes but it was clear he had spent many hours perfecting his art. I saw a sunset with three suns, oceans brimming with alien life, alien forests of spindly trees terminating in expansive canopies and more. Clearly, Ron had found an effective method of keeping himself from staring out the window during transit. It was extremely impressive.

Unfortunately it brought me no closer to finding him. I moved on.

I found myself on the deck for crew quarters. I didn't really expect to find him here; there were no critical systems that would help him and my suit informed me that life support wasn't operating here either. Still, I told myself, it was entirely possible that he had a bolthole hidden in here somewhere, a closet set up with emergency life support in case he got boarded or hulled before he could get out in time. He was just paranoid enough to do that sort of thing.

Note to self, I thought. Install a bolthole with emergency life support in the Gilmour.

The captain's quarters were not at all what I expected. Oh, the bed was extravagantly large and the sheets looked like expensive cloth. There was reading material stacked neatly in standard webbing in case of gravity failure or turbulence that couldn't be compensated for. When you live in sealed environments prone to unpredictable crisis you learn to keep your belongings tied down. Still, the books (old-fashioned digital readers) were very dry stuff dealing with economics, politics and even some texts on xenopsychology. Everything a young, enterprising Trader would want to keep in mind when forging a path along the spaceways. Everything was neat and tidy and sterile. It didn't look like a room anybody actually lived in.

I pondered that as I stepped out of the room again, and considered what I knew of Ron. To say he was paranoid was like saying black holes were dense. It hardly needed explanation. But was he paranoid enough to maintain fake quarters?

I opened the door to the first mate's cabin and found another fully furnished room, one that better met my expectations. There were canvases strung about everywhere, still carefully stowed but more haphazard. The bed was smaller but the sheets no less expensive, and the reading material far less droll. My eyebrows rose slightly as I took in the names of the authors he preferred. That I recognized them was surprising enough -- it was a big galaxy, after all -- but the genres were not at all what I expected. Ron? Poetry? Drama? Even a romance novelist or two.

I stowed the reader I'd taken out for inspection and made a hasty exit. It occurred to me that if Ron ever learned I'd discovered his secret I wouldn't draw breath long after. It was high time to move on.

I was in the ship's mess when John contacted me again. "Okay, we can all relax now. I found him. He's here in engineering."

Of course he was. Where else would he be? "Is he alive?"

"He's fine. His comms are out and the one in his suit is defective. I've hooked him up with a transduction cable so he can hear me but that's all we can do for now."

"Was he able to do a damage assessment? Can we get the Charon moving soon or do we need to abandon her?" I figured he wasn't going to be happy about the latter but hanging out in a warzone expecting the enemy to politely wait for you to complete repairs wasn't very realistic.

"She's in bad shape. He's got some batteries working but damned few, and what systems are responding on the board are critical. She's not moving anywhere under her own power."

That was bad. This ship was our best chance to fight our way to the surface if the Federation fleet failed to route the Tharl. I might have the chance to make it to the surface on my own but there was no way I'd be able to safely escort John through an active war zone with or without Alec's help.

I switched channels again. "Computer, any update on the fleets out there?"

"Affirmative, Boss." the computer reported promptly. "I've detected multiple flashes indicating detonations and we're getting increasing waves of high energy radiation suggesting a battle. Unfortunately, I can't get a clear look at relative numbers without shifting position. All I can tell you is that they're still fighting."

"I'll take that as long as they're not interested in us. If you detect a drop in output or any ships approaching alert me immediately."


That was all I could do for now. I brought up the ship schematics again and made my way toward engineering. We needed a plan.

Scuttling the Charon was one of the last things I wanted to do but it was the most practical, especially with what I had in mind. To my surprise it didn't take much arguing to convince Ron to go along with it, but I hadn't realized just how impressed he'd been with my prior success among the Tharl. Before I'd filled my hold with a few pieces of Tharl technology, but now we were towing the remains of one of their newest ships. Possession being the full of the law on Tharl worlds, that meant they would pay a hefty ransom to keep us from taking it back to Federation territory with us -- or at least the choice parts we could fit in our holds. With the goods we could expect to bring home with us Ron could not only afford to replace his ship, he could buy anything he wanted.

Nevertheless, this time I wasn't going to leave any booty behind that I didn't have to. I tractored aboard one of the small fighters still relatively intact and was determined to keep it whatever the Tharl wanted. The Gilmour needed repairs but they weren't anywhere near the cargo section so I was hopeful. Once back in home port Diamond could help me tear the thing apart and see what might be useful.

Alec was also uncharacteristically amenable. He'd had a good day killing and for the moment his bloodlust was sated. He even went out of his way to help nudge the ships we wanted into position for easier capture. The cynic in me wanted to be suspicious but mostly I was relieved that he didn't need wrangling. The work went much faster with everyone pitching in.

Although John had already distinguished himself by entering the fight when he wasn't supposed to and saving all our bacon, he really shone as he filled his Corba with loot. He seemed to have an uncanny knack of distinguishing between what was truly valuable in spite of his lack of experience with the technology. Again, the cynical part of my mind wondered if he was as unfamiliar as he claimed -- mentor or not he kept largely quiet about his background -- but I firmly stepped on it. What did it matter if John knew more than he was letting on? He had never betrayed me, and I wasn't going to punish him for crimes I only imagined. However he came by his knowledge it was clearly being put to our advantage now.

Once we had looted all that we possibly could we finally looked around and discovered that days had passed. The battle between the Federation Navy and the Tharl irregulars had finished without ever coming close to us. The sky between us and our destination was filled with a slowly expanding debris field that posed all manner of navigational hazards. Unlike your standard asteroid field these remnants of former ships weren't all moving in the same direction, and plotting a course through them was an invitation to a hull breach. We would simply have to go around, and soon before more Tharl vessels arrived. There was no sign of either fleet and the energy signatures from the debris field were too erratic to get an idea of which side had won, if any.

We finished setting the scuttling charges on the Charon and blew her. Her fuel was too valuable to waste on demolition but we had sufficient explosives to break her apart so that no one would be able to use her against us. Eventually her scattered bones would join the tiny ring forming around the moon where our battle had taken place. I entered a brief fantasy that the ring we had created from our violence would outlive us. We stood in respectful silence on our remaining ships as the Charon broke apart, but only for a moment. I thought about the extensive murals on the walls of the crew quarters and regretting being unable to preserve them. It hadn't occurred to me to take a camera to them and at least get a recording, and now it was too late. Ron didn't comment, and I didn't bring it up. If he didn't want to talk about his art I wasn't going to press him.

It cost us another four days to cross the void until we could settle into orbit around the Tharl world. I was on edge the whole time, imagining another Tharl vessel appearing to challenge us while we were exhausted, low on ammunition and short one vessel. To our advantage, my imagination failed to conjure the threat and we were given curt instructions for landing with our prize. We were all going to be rich beyond our dreams, but I wasn't ready to pack up and retire. I had only just begun.

Getting the mothership on the ground without her breaking up was a hell of a challenge. John's Corba was capable of lifting and moving the behemoth but she wasn't the most graceful of ships at the best of times. Neither Alec's nor my ship had the raw power needed, but together we could help guide with our tractor emitters sending out carefully timed pulses coordinated between our ships' computers. Keeping a careful eye on our vectors and easing the four ships down on the thrusters of three seemed almost more stressful than the battle to take her had been. As we made our final approach it occurred to me that our threat to take the ship with us was transparently thin since she wouldn't jump under her own power and we couldn't take her with us under tractor. Nevertheless, there was still plenty of things we could salvage, and I expected that would be enough.

Our slow, ponderous approach did not go unnoticed. By the time I finally touched down and cut power to the Gilmour's primary systems there was a sizeable crowd surrounding all of our ships. A sea of flagellating tentacles stretched out as far as I could see (which admittedly wasn't that far from my vantage) as well as an blinding array of colors and sizes. It seemed everybody wanted to see the creatures who had taken down one of their capital ships and lived to tell the tale. I just hoped they weren't expecting to make sure we'd never live long enough to tell it. I checked the charge on my blaster before I even considered a change of clothes.

"I don't think you're going to need that, Boss," advised the computer. "Based on the transmissions I'm getting you're not enemies, you're celebrities. It seems that they really like it when someone earns their respect. This qualifies."

"I'll keep it with me, if it's all the same to you," I replied. "The distinction between getting ripped apart by an angry mob and a happy mob isn't worth discussing."

"You're the boss, Boss."

Atmospheric temperature outside the ship read eleven degrees cee, which was a little chilly for my taste. Not exactly winter weather but not warm either. I threw on a warmer outfit, shrugged on my jacket and headed for the airlock. I picked up a freshly charged comm unit and keyed it to the inter-ship frequency. "Guys, I'm ready to head out. I'll decline the honor of being first though."

Half a moment passed before I got a response.

"Ron and I are almost there. It's probably a good out if we come out at the same time. I'm not sure what to expect from these creatures."

Before I could relay what my computer had learned Alec cut in.

"I c'n always warm up my cannons an' clear th' way."

"Did you notice the orbital batteries?" John asked wryly. "I don't think they only point one way. You wanna be a crater, be my guest. Just let me jump away first."

"My computer's been monitoring local transmissions," I managed to say. "They're here to cheer for us, not lynch us."

"The hell?" blurted Ron. I couldn't blame him.

"We ran their gauntlet," I explained. "We have to do that anyway to be granted landing and trading rights, but this time we took down one of their most powerful ships. Not only that, but we brought her back with salvage rights. That earned us serious rep, and they're here to acknowledge our skill."

"Huh," John offered. I took it as a personal compliment that I'd managed to surprise him. But being John, he continued to look at all the angles. "If our reputation gets too good do they step up their response when they recognize us?"

Leave it to him to find exciting new things for me to worry about.

"Let's wonder about that over a drink. You ready or not?"

"Yeah, let's go face th' music," Alec muttered.

I opened the gangplank and opened the hatch. An alien roar composed of hundreds of different voices washed over me, incomprehensible in their unfamiliar tones.

Fermentation isn't unique to human ecology. On every planet where we found life we also found some variation on the phenomenon where microorganisms broke down complex organic structures producing a byproduct that formed some variation of alcohol. Humans had developed hundreds of different ways of producing it, and I had sampled many of them. I'd tasted beers and spirits unique to dozens of different worlds, but all made by human hands. Alien beer, I discovered, was truly alien. But I hadn't decided whether or not it was alien enough to stop drinking it. Two bulbs of it wasn't enough to decide, so I ordered a third.

Alcohol does different things to different species. In humans it creates a warm, fuzzy cushion between the world and the mind so that sharp edges blur into softer curves and loud noises travel down a long corridor before reaching your ears. Or so it always seemed to me. I grew up drinking a variation of alcohol called sake that my father preferred, but once I ventured beyond my home world I discovered that there were so many other adventures in alcohol to explore. My capacity to consume large quantities of just about any type was what had caught John's attention in the first place.

I eagerly sought that cushion now. I was walking an alien world, breathing alien air, surrounded by enemies who had killed my sister and listening to my partners in piracy bicker. If ever there was a time to get drunk it was now.

"They're tryin' t' cheat us," Alec growled into his own drink, a frothy mixture whose name I didn't catch. "Tryin' t' steal back th' ship we rightfully salvaged."

"Of course they are," John snapped. Always the voice of reason, but even he had his limits and Alec had a knack for testing them. "We'd do the same to them if we were them. But we know they're doing it and they know we know they're doing it. You know how the game is played. They claim poverty and try to bid low. We talk up their obvious wealth and bid high. These negotiations take a while."

"They barely budged in their last bid," Ron grumbled. He looked smaller somehow, as if the loss of his ship had also robbed him half a meter of stature. Although he had far more at stake in this venture than the rest of us he'd complained the least. "I don't think there's good faith here."

Two days had passed and we were still embroiled in negotiations over what to do with the salvaged mothership. As I predicted they knew we couldn't jump her out on our own and I knew for a fact they weren't going to help us take it away. That weakened our bargaining position, but only slightly since the Bounty's holds weren't even a tenth full. We could spend weeks stripping the mothership of technology and material and still fly home rich men. But would they let us stay that long if we had nothing to trade? As long as the negotiations carried on we remained welcome guests.

"It's our fault they didn't win the battle," John pointed out. "If we hadn't diverted that mothership it probably would have tipped the balance."

He had a point there, but I didn't think it mattered as much as he assumed. Neither fleet had won; instead the Federation had fought the Tharl to a draw and negotiated a mutual retreat. It was why neither fleet had come looking for us after the fighting had stopped. Neither side had the means to issue challenge. But that was neither here nor there. The Tharl didn't hold grudges like that, not over ship combat.

Apparently I'd spoken out loud because I eventually noticed everyone staring at me. "What?" I asked a little more surly than I intended. The bulb in my hand was empty. Where was my third drink? I gestured to the wait staff.

"How the hell do you know that, Pest?" Ron demanded.

"My name is Hideo," I insisted. The creature waiting on us brought me another bulb. I focused my attention on it gleefully. I had no idea what race had invented the beer inside but it had a curiously spicy aftertaste and I found myself enjoying it.

"Fine, Hideo," Alec agreed. "So how d'you know what Tharl do an' don't care about?"

"Look, they don't shoot at us because they want to stop us," I said with meticulous enunciation. An eloquent drunk, I am. "They shoot at us because they have to test us. To make sure we're worthy. Why do you think they threw a parade for us when we landed? Because we're the most worthy humans they've met, maybe ever. We beat one of their best ships and without a single heavy cruiser or even destroyer between us. No offense Ron." I waved my empty bulb at him sympathetically, and frowned at it. Shouldn't it be full? Why hadn't the wait staff brought my third drink? I gestured impatiently again.

"None taken," Ron said slowly, tasting my words. "You're saying we brought honor to ourselves by their standards."

"Yeah! Exactly!" My third bulb arrived and I sucked at it blissfully. My tongue tingled in a delightful way and I made a mental note to pick up a nice hefty shipment of this nectar. "We're not best friends, not us and the Tharl. But we are best enemies. They don't find enemies like us to test themselves too often."

"Nah," Alec said. He threw back the rest of his drink and reached for the next one. I noticed he was slurring his words a little more than usual and felt an irrational sense of glee at my relative sobriety. "Yer drunk and don't know what yer sayin'."

"I am not!" I protested. My bulb was empty again. Time for a third. "I do too! I'm fine!"

"Hideo," John said gently. "We almost can't understand what you're saying. But what I do understand doesn't make sense. Why would they honor us as best enemies and then try to cheat us in negotiations?"

Me? Drunk? Preposterous. I hadn't had that much to drink yet. I savored a mouthful of beer from my second bulb and swallowed almost regretfully. "Best enemies deserve best challenges. They tested us in combat. Now they test us in barter. We have to be tough. They short us. We short them by a little more. We have to show that our honor isn't only in our ability to kill them, that we're tougher negotiators than they are."

"I don't know," John said slowly.

"Maybe we all need to drink more," Ron replied. "Because the more I listen the more I drink, and the more I drink the more sense he makes."

"How so?"

"We're honored in one skill, but now we have a chance to gain more honor in another. If we can beat them soundly in both areas then any losses they take are excused by the fact that they faced such superior opponents."

Alec snorted loudly at this reasoning. "Pull th' other one."

I was nodding enthusiastically, and somehow it seemed like there was liquid sloshing around behind my eyes. "Yeah. He's got it." I had more to say but the warm cushion that I was enjoying so much seemed to embrace me like a cocoon and made it hard to concentrate. Obviously the alien beer packed more of a punch than I'd anticipated. How else could it affect me so much after only two bulbs? I saw a third one mostly full on the table in front of me and reached for it. Then everything was blurs and soft edges.

I came back to consciousness hours later with a heavy freighter pressing down on my head, possibly two.

"Boss? Boss! Are you there?"

I moaned and pulled the pillow over my head.

"Boss! You sound distressed. Shall I alert the authorities to send assistance!"

"No!" I yelled through the pillow, and even then I regretted it. I tossed it aside and glared blearily at the comm unit at the side of my bed. I vaguely recognized that it was a hotel room, but I didn't know where or who paid for it. They probably just told the staff I'd settle it after I woke up. "Do not alert the authorities. I just have a hangover. I had a couple of bulbs of beer last night."

"According to your credit chip you bought fourteen bulbs last night."

Fourteen? That wasn't possible. I could only remember having two. I had a hazy recollection of passing out while I was reaching for the third. Maybe I'd bought rounds for everybody else? It was possible.

"Fine," I whispered as I tried to ease the throbbing in my head. "I ordered fourteen. Why am I talking to you?"

"We're being offered a deal for the mothership salvage, and you're going to like it. It's a trade for a Federation ship, an Aconda-class destroyer."

I thought of Ron captaining a destroyer and shuddered. "How is that a good deal? Even if all four of us crewed the ship it wouldn't be enough. Destroyers require dozens of crew per shift."

"The destroyer was salvaged and repaired by the Tharl. There's no record on why; possibly as a collector's item."

I sat up so abruptly I had to pause and fight back the nausea. The ship we had towed wasn't going to fly again so who would offer to trade a working ship for a non-working one?

"What's the catch?"

"The buyer wants exclusive rights to the mothership. Information is limited but it looks like they're a competitor to the cartel that originally built it. I'm guessing they're willing to commit treason in the interests of corporate espionage."

I struggled to think through the waves of pain that washed through my skull. "That still doesn't solve the problem of crewing the ship."

"One moment." The computer went blissfully silent for a while, giving me time to gather my courage before staggering to the restroom and splashing cold water on my face. It felt so good I did it over and over again until I was soaked. Unfortunately it didn't diminish the pain, it only distracted me from it for a while.

"The buyer is willing to include the slaves currently serving as crew aboard the ship along with their discipline collars."

My mind flashed back to Trillek shivering in fear and squeezed my eyes shut to try to banish the image. "No slaves," I snapped.

"Boss, you've got no other way to fly that ship. Not without more automation than the Federation ever installed in their fleet."

"They designed you to run the Gilmour," I pointed out. I belatedly realized I was just being petulant at this point but given my state I didn't really care.

"I was designed to be run by a crew with my automation as a failsafe. Exploration ships are designed with as much redundancy as possible."

I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. My objection to using slaves was visceral, bypassing all rational thought on its way to my mouth. The more I thought about it the clearer it was to me, but that didn't make the objection wrong. It was a moral judgment, and I could find no fault with it. "We'd need to free the slaves immediately. I won't force people to work for us against their will."

"It carries some risk," the computer pointed out. "We have no way of knowing how many of them would be compliant without their collars. But think of the rewards. I calculate that the value of the ship by itself is worth three times as much as the haul you brought back from your first landing on Tharl territory. Add in the additional technology and the ship becomes priceless. I strongly recommend you take the deal. Talk it over with the others and see what they think."

To be honest I was afraid that they wouldn't care about the slaves as long as they got what they wanted. This ship would definitely qualify.

"It's not enough," I insisted. "See if the buyer is willing to sweeten the deal by filling our holds with gold or spices. That plus the ship, or we take the mothership back to Federation territory as rightful salvage." I hoped that either the buyer would disagree and relieve me of this moral quandary or the additional goods would overshadow the slavery and make it easier for me to argue that the slaves should be freed. Of course, my threat was a bluff and given the state of Tharl sensor technology they probably knew that. But I had to observe formalities. Never accept the first offer.

"Acknowledged." At last the comm unit went silent and I stood by the sink dripping and quivering all at once. Why was I shaking? Fear? Outrage? Anticipation? I wanted to dismiss it as the aftereffects of my hangover but I knew it wasn't true. I activated the hygiene station at the far corner and stood in it for a while letting it do its work. It made my head ache all the more but it felt like penance for what I was contemplating. I needed to talk to the others and I was worried they would probably agree.

John suggested a place for lunch where we consumed long, wriggling things with a flavor unlike any I'd encountered before, not exactly bitter and not exactly savory but some combination of both. He claimed the creatures were a natural hybrid of plant and animal and were prized among the Tharl as a delicacy. I decided they weren't something I would order on my own but at least they were nourishment. The more I ate the better I felt which made me feel worse about what I was about to propose. When I couldn't eat any more I sat back and looked around. John was twirling the worms around two long sticks I recognized from my youth and doing so with casual competence. Alec had foregone utensils altogether and was shoveling his food into his mouth with his fingers. Ron was using the same tongs I had to eat at a more sedate pace.

"What do you know of Navy destroyers?" I asked them collectively.

Three pairs of eyes turned to stare at me. "What are you talking about?" Ron asked slowly. The others remained silent, waiting for my answer.

"I was approached by a buyer for our ship," I explained. "Public records indicate they're a competitor for the group that originally built it, and they probably want to study it themselves. In return they're offering us a fully restored Navy destroyer. I've sent back a counter-offer asking for more goods to fill our holds on top of that, see how they respond. I haven't received a response."

"Mebbe they got a battleship?" Alec asked. The smirk on his face told me he wasn't a believer. I shook my head in answer but otherwise didn't rise to the bait.

"How do they expect us to fly the damned thing?" Ron asked. I winced, but the question was obvious.

"They've got slaves running the ship," I said quietly. "They're all in collars. They offered the slaves to us as crew."

John's face mirrored my own feelings. Ron looked uncomfortable but largely stoic. Alec looked almost gleeful. "Hot damn!" he crowed. "Always wanted one o' my own. Mebbe a harem."

"Shut up, Alec," the other two said in near unison.

"We could free them," I pointed out. "End their servitude, let them know that once we get back to Federation territory they can join us as free crew or go their separate ways. They should be motivated well enough to help us that far. Then we can hire more to replace the ones who want to leave."

There was a lull as they assessed my idea.

"Why would they trust us?" Ron asked.

"They wouldn't need to. Once we jump we take the collars off and there's no way we could enslave them again."

"What's t' stop 'em from puttin' those collars on us?" Alec demanded.

I scowled. The idea never occurred to me. "Why would they do that?"

"Because they'll be scared," John put in. "Angry. Greedy. Any or all of the above."

"That doesn't make sense!" I argued. "We'd be helping them! Why would they punish us for that?"

"People don't make sense," he said. "Not always. I'm not saying all of the slaves will act that way but some will. It doesn't take a whole crew to mutiny, just enough. All they need is control over key systems and they can impose their will on the rest."

"We can't trust 'em," Alec declared.

"We can't fly the destroyer without them," I protested.

"But we can't take their collars off," Ron reminded me.

Another lull passed. I realized that what I feared had come to pass. We wouldn't be able to free the slaves. "We can't take the deal," I said. "We can't be party to slavery."

"Why th' hell not?" Alec yelled. "Imagine what we c'ld do wit' a destroyer!"

"Slavery is illegal!" I shot back. "More than that, it's immoral! I won't be part of it. I'd rather blow that damned Tharl ship than be a slaver. It's not worth the price."

"That's not your decision, Hideo," Ron reminded me. "It's a group decision."

"You can't be seriously considering this!" I objected.

"We have to consider all our options," John corrected me. "I don't like slavery any more than you do. I've known traders who thought they could smuggle slaves in food crates and get away with it. They got fair trials and then a quick disintegration. But I also heard what happened to the slaves they were caught with. Not all of them could be rehabilitated. Some of them were too far gone, unable to adapt. Some were insane. Some of each became violent. We can't predict what each slave will do, but it's guaranteed that some of them will be violent.

"But the alternative is to leave them with the Tharl. If we take them with us we can leave the collars on a little while longer until we're confident we can control them or at least guess who can or can't be trusted. If we don't then they'll die as slaves. We don't have a lot of good choices."

"We didn't create this problem," Ron said.

"We can't be part of the problem," I insisted.

"We already are," Ron retorted. "We got pulled into it the moment we were given this offer."

Alec slapped the table impatiently. "So we take th' ship an' deal wit' th' crew later."

That was what I was afraid of. Ultimately, over my objections, that was what we decided to do.

I insisted on holding on to the fighter I'd taken as salvage from our battle. I was informed that I would be compensated for it but I would not be allowed to keep it. I declined the compensation, preferring to keep the vessel. I was threatened with orbital strikes before I could jump if I did. As long as my jump drive stayed dormant with the fighter in my hold I was safe, but the second they detected my intent to leave with it they'd incinerate the fighter and me with it. John had similar problems trying to hold on to his loot from our salvage, and although we spent several days looking for ways around this problem we were forced to admit defeat. We simply weren't going to get out of Tharl space carrying active Tharl technology.

We commiserated our bad luck over lunch. I gazed longingly at another local beer but John glared at me whenever he caught me doing it so I was stuck with distilled water.

"You know that beer is safer to drink on alien worlds, right?"

He looked at me askance. "How do you figure that?"

"The alcohol in beer sanitizes it. Any microbes that might be harmful to me are killed before they can make me sick."

"The water you're drinking is plenty safe. It was heated long enough to evaporate, and no microbes are going to survive that either."

"Alcohol is more reliable though," I argued.

His look told me he wasn't buying it. For some reason he expressed the concern that I was drinking too much and my computer, traitorous AI that it was, seconded him. So I was drinking water at the moment. I took another sip and grimaced at the blandness of it. Even as a child I had preferred something with flavor.

"Do you think they scanned the water to make sure it's safe for alien consumption?" We both knew that was a joke; the Tharl lived by the rule of "buyer beware."

"Yes. I'm sure they subjected it to rigorous testing to make sure that it won't make you sick, Hideo." A patronizing tone crept into John's voice.

"They've got really good sensors," I continued. "Did I tell you about the data storage I bought the last time I was on a Tharl world so I could read some of their research? They fried the thing in my pocket."

"Yeah, their sensor technology is generations ahead of what the Federation uses. It's too bad we can't bring any of it home with us."

I thought back to the incident at the Tharl library. They hadn't just fried the thing once. They'd fried it a second time after I'd left the building having forgotten it was there. The system didn't discriminate between a live one and a dead one. And just maybe I could use that.

"Hey, want to go visit a junkyard with me?"

His expression went from slightly disapproving to disappointed. "Where did that come from?"

"I have an idea," I explained vaguely. "You think Ron and Alec would do an inventory of the working power systems in the salvage we collected?"

"Ron, maybe," he conceded. "What are you up to, Hideo?"

"Trust me. I don't want to say anything here." I shoveled one last bite of my vegetarian lunch into my mouth and paid for our meal.

It took me half the afternoon to find a junkyard that handled power cores. Specifically, dead ones. The slave that managed the site was confused by my request.

"What do you want with depleted power nodes?" it demanded, its hands (or paws; I couldn't quite tell) smoothing the fur over its chest obsessively. I couldn't tell if that was body language or simply nervous behavior, but its verbal skills were enough that I didn't worry too much about it.

"Does it matter, as long as I'm willing to pay for them?" I asked.

It hesitated. "The technology of the Masters is designed so that once inert, the nodes can never be reactivated. They overheat and destroy the mechanisms inside."

"That's fine," I snapped impatiently. "I don't want them for power. I have something else in mind."


"Not your business."

It was clearly unhappy about doing anything that might provoke the wrath of its owner but the alien could find no rationale to deny my business. John and I began digging through the trash and sorting them by size and system served. I had a rough idea of what I was looking for but I needed to be precise. For that I needed Ron.

"You planning on telling me what we're doing here?" John asked after an hour of manual labor. We were both covered in grime, ruining the nice clothes we'd worn to lunch. I felt a touch of surprise at how blasé I felt about it. I had spent so much of my life trying to gather as much money as I could and feeling frustrated at my inability to make much progress. Then, all at once, it became "only money."

Were the Tharl monitoring us here? I figured public places were a given but this was not a typical place for anyone to be. The Tharl ran a post-scarcity society so there wasn't much call to repurpose discarded old equipment. Most of this gear was slated for recycling, but there was so much of it that it the backlog left large piles for us to sift through. No one expected us to do that.

"I suppose it's safe. Remember how I was talking about that data storage and how it got fried when the library sensors detected it in my pocket?"

"Yeah. Then you suddenly decided to come here."

"Because they didn't just fry it once. I forgot it was still in my pocket and the second time I tried to leave with it they zapped it again. They fried it twice. Even after it was already dead. They didn't check to see if it was still viable, they just zapped it because it was there."

"And you think that means they couldn't tell?"

"Why would they zap it the second time if they didn't need to?"

"Maybe to discourage you from carrying it around? A failsafe in case you try to get sneaky?"

Would Tharl think that way? They seemed pretty linear in their thinking to me, particularly in the way they conducted their research. They didn't chase off on tangents until they finished their primary work. Like they already knew what results they were going to get before they started it, and maybe they did somehow. Who could fathom the mind of a Tharl?

I shook my head. "I don't think so. Either way it's a risk I'm willing to take. So what I'm going is I'm going to buy these inert power cores and bring them onto my ship. Then I'm going to swap them out for the power cores on the salvage I already have and sell that salvage off."

"They're going to blow you away the minute you power up your jump drive," John warned me.

"Which is why I'm the only one who will carry them. If you guys see me take an orbital strike you'll know I was wrong."

"Are Tharl power cores so much better than ours? Is it really worth the risk?"

"I don't know. And I won't know until I bring one home for study."

He shook his head but he kept sorting through the junk for me. He's that kind of a friend.

Ron called back an hour later with a number. It was far lower than the number I'd already collected, but that was fine. I gathered up the cores I wanted and paid for them in gold. I will never be an expert on alien expressions but it seemed like the slave attendant thought I was insane for wanting them. It was probably right.

"Welcome to the Thanatos." Ron's voice carried clearly over the ship's speakers. He was addressing his new "crew" as John and I were walking around inspecting the destroyer we'd taken possession of. It was a small ship compared to the Charon but only because it didn't have as much space dedicated to cargo. In terms of actual living and working space it was bigger than any of ours, a vessel dedicated to operating as a mobile weapons platform with heavier weapons and armor. In military terms it was a fast reconnaissance vessel meant to support the heavier capital ships or chase down pirates but compared to what we were used to it was more firepower than we'd ever thought to have. I'd never expected to have something like this at my disposal and I was exploring its capabilities to see what we might do with it.

"In accordance with federal law you are officially freed from slavery," Ron's voice continued. "Once we arrive at our destination you will all have your collars removed and you will be free to go your separate ways. Until then I'll need your help getting to Federation territory which is why your collars will stay on for the duration of the voyage. I'm aware that some among you might be collaborators of the Tharl and I can't take the risk of mutiny or sabotage. I am therefore ordering that all crew should work and move about in groups of no less than three except while in quarters. Keep an eye out for subversive activity, because if any of your crewmates succeed at sabotage then none of us will get home."

I was unhappy at the solution the Horsemen had come up with to deal with the slave problem but my objections had been overruled. And in fairness I didn't have any better alternatives, none that would get us home with the ship.

"You will all be paid a fair wage for your work during this voyage and if you're invited to stay aboard you can expect more of the same."

The Tharl hadn't lied about the crew's ability to run the ship for them. Nor about the way the ship had been restored; from the inspection that John and I had made so far everything was in peak condition. If there had been any secrets the Federation were trying to hide from the Tharl they had been lost when this ship had been taken apart and put back together like new. I suspected some of the systems had been unavoidably upgraded when the Tharl found the technology they were working with too primitive to have an analog, but none of what they'd installed was outside of Federation capability. Some of the materials they'd used were unknown to me but the Tharl clearly weren't concerned about that.

"In addition to this wage we're offering a bonus to anyone who reports suspicious behavior. That bonus will be tripled if the report leads to the arrest and conviction of a saboteur or mutineer. The bonus will be withdrawn and fines levied if a crewmember is found to be abusing it for personal gain or harassment of an innocent crewmember."

I'd insisted on the first part and it was amended to include the latter. Ron pointed out that he didn't want to be inundated with false reports that led nowhere. I saw the wisdom of it and agreed.

"I realize that you may doubt my sincerity that you'll be released or paid once we get home but I promise you that I'll be true to my word. No one will be kept on board who doesn't want to be here and none as slaves."

Unspoken was the fact that if we did we'd be thrown in prison for slavery. Oh, we might be able to get away with not paying them the way Alec suggested but I wouldn't let that happen. And they would be well treated or I'd know the reason why. I sold it by pointing out we didn't want to give any of them legitimate cause to complain to the authorities for the way they'd been drafted to help us get home. We weren't responsible for how they came to be slaves, but we were responsible for how we treated them once we took possession of the ship they served on. I took that very seriously, and I hoped the others did as well.

"If there are any questions or concerns you can make an appointment with me during the primary shift." There was a brief, melodious tone as the PA signaled that the announcement was over.

John and I continued our inspection, observing both the crew and the systems they were tasked to maintain. A short while later I was approached by a small, young women. The entire crew was human which made perfect sense since the ship was built by humans for humans.

"Master?" she said timidly. I couldn't help but cringe.

"I'm not your master," I corrected. "You're not a slave any longer."

She bowed her head obediently, suggesting that she didn't believe me for an instant.

I sighed and gestured impatiently. "We'll prove it to you once we get home. What's your question?"

"Will my duties continue as before?"

"Yes," I said quickly, then hesitated. "Wait. Maybe. What were your duties before?"

"I am assigned to the Quartermaster division as second mate, overseeing the supplies of the ship and needs of the crew."

"What's your name, crewman?" John asked before I could say anything else.

"I am called Ejura, Master." She bowed her head to him.

"Stop that," I snapped. "He's not your master either." She cringed away from me.

"Ejura, that's a nice name," John said soothingly. "He's right, I'm not your master. You have no masters any more. But one more thing, Ejura. I understand ship supply but crew needs can vary. How are you supposed to oversee the needs of the crew?"

She looked confused and still frightened by my outburst. "Any need the crew has, I am tasked to see it met."

"Are there any limitations to your duties? Any needs you are not obligated to meet?"

"I am not allowed to harm any of my fellow slaves," she answered quietly. "Otherwise there are no limitations."

Comprehension dawned on me. "So your duties include providing sex to the crew?"

"Yes, Master."

"I'm not..." I stopped myself before I finished the outburst. This was clearly not going to be resolved in a single conversation.

"Your duties are now modified to include limitations on sexual contact," John informed her. "No crewmember is obligated to have sex with anyone regardless of rank or duty. Do you understand? The Quartermaster division is no longer to include prostitution as part of its responsibilities."

She still looked confused but nodded meekly nevertheless.

"Who heads up the Quartermaster division?" I asked.

"Her name is Sharai."

"Please show us where to find her." I looked at John and he nodded to me. We needed to nip this in the bud before anyone launched.

The newly christened Thanatos jumped first. Alec wanted to park his Wasp in one of her hangers and fly with them but all three of us vetoed that quickly. The way he was eying some of the crew made us distrust his motives. John offered to clear some space on the Bounty but Alec growled something obscene and jumped on his own. That left John and I and we both wanted someone to observe whether or not I would be allowed to jump away safely with my "inert" power cores. We were all jumping with our cargo holds full; even aside from the Thanatos we were coming away with a rich haul. There wasn't much platinum aboard as with my last jump but we assessed our haul as quite satisfactory indeed.

"We've been given clearance by port customs authority, Boss," my computer reported.

I opened a channel to the Bounty. "John, you there?"

"Go ahead, Hideo."

"Nobody is complaining about my cargo. I've just been given clearance."

"Do you think they're lying?"

I shivered slightly. "No, but you might want to wait until after the fireworks."

"Agreed. See you on Gallant station."

"Computer, what's our status?"

"Jump engines are powering up, twenty seconds to full."

"Jump when ready," I ordered. I braced myself, even though I knew that if the weapons orbiting above my head were powerful enough that I'd never know I'd been hit before I was dead. Then the Gilmour's engines engaged and we dropped through a hole in the universe. I was still alive and in possession of my contraband salvage. I might pull this off after all.