The guests moved into the grand ballroom after the fifteen-course dinner, and found a live band playing on a disk-shaped platform hovering above the center of the vast dance floor. The arched roof overhead was currently de-opaqued, displaying the stars of the local galaxy in all their splendor. Some guests began dancing, while others investigated the various bars and lounges scattered along the walls. After everyone had settled in, a rather famous celebrity joined the band and started to sing.
Admiral Busch gallantly escorted Nina to the dance floor, while Alec joined with Tara. Since the two young women had no clue what they were doing, their dancing experiment soon came to an end, and both of them turned disappointed expressions on their escorts. "Sorry," Nina muttered. "Pirates don't dance much."
Busch patted her hand comfortingly. "No worries, dear. You'll learn someday."
Alec leaned toward Tara and whispered, "Stay close."
Tara nodded, and reached out to take Nina's arm. She gestured to a servant for more cocktails.
The Admiral reluctantly relinquished his hold on Nina and murmured to Alec, "This is a little too much, even for me. I'm sorry, Alec, but I must insist that we return to the fleet immediately." He raised his right hand, motioning to Alec to keep his mouth shut. "It's my final decision. I must obey my orders—and you must obey yours."
"Mr. Horn!" Zala interrupted as she approached, escorting a military officer dressed in a white uniform offset by black boots. Like Busch, he bore an Admiral's stars. The fruit salad on his chest included several medals, along with a ribbon over his breast with an order of some sort attached to it. His uniform stood out in the crowd, and Alec was rather surprised he hadn't noticed it before. Then again, there were literally thousands of guests attending the ball.
The uniform was standard issue for the Florencian Federation Space Navy. Fish Fucker, Alec thought distastefully.
Zala fluted, "I hear you will soon leave us, Mr. Horn, and I was hoping we could get to know each other better first."
"Why, Ms. Zala, I'm sure we'll meet again someday."
"That would be nice, young man," she said, smoothing her blouse fussily. She looked like a pig playing dress-up. "Do make sure you let us know how to reach you."
"Of course I will."
"I almost forgot...here is Admiral Jonas Nass of the Florencian Federation. I promised him I would introduce the two of you. Jonas, this is Mr. Alec Horn."
"Pleasure to meet you, sir," said Nass, extending his hand.
Alec smiled uneasily as he shook hands with one of Florencia's most feared military officers. "To what do we owe the pleasure, sir?" Alec asked.
"I've heard rumors that you're looking for good investments."
"I was under the impression that your federation didn't care much for capitalistic investors. Isn't it against your cultural philosophy?"
Nass smiled cheerfully. "Oh, we're not as totalitarian as all that."
"They're always looking for money," Busch snapped. "And whenever the bastards run out, they steal it." He cut his eyes toward Alec. "Be careful, Master Horn. I have had the dubious pleasure of bearing witness to their piratical actions myself, on several occasions."
"Ah, Admiral Busch. Never quite got over the loss at Bazzira, I take it," Nass observed with a hint of a sneer. "What was that, ten years ago?"
"Gentlemen, no hostility here, I beg you both," Zala said quickly. "Please be civilized. It would be bad for business if you two were to start something here." She gestured at the crowd.
The two admirals glared at one another, until Busch broke the silence. "I'm surprised that the commander of the Florencian 9th Galactic would leave his fleet for a simple dinner party."
"I see your intel is lacking, as usual."
Busch frowned, then opened his mouth to say something, but was interrupted by Lady Fuzza. "Oh look, finally, fireworks!" she exclaimed loudly.
They looked up through the ceiling; the starscape outside was lit up with hundreds of colorful explosions.
Alec gazed at the remarkable display with an impressed expression...though when he glanced at the girls, they seemed a bit frightened. "I've never seen anything like this before," he admitted to Zala. It's beautiful."
"It is highly unusual to have fireworks in space, given the expense," Zala said primly, looking pleased.
Admirals Nass and Busch viewed the display with much less enthusiasm. "I take it old Cook is nearby?" Nass murmured to his rival.
"You never know." Busch muttered back through clenched teeth.
Alec glimpsed movement from the corner of his eye, and lowered his gaze to see a tall figure draped loosely in black stand up from a nearby table and turn in their direction. Zala noticed him looking. "That is Zoris af Sun, our guest of honor and the host of tonight's art auction," she explained.
An effeminate-looking man hurried up to Zoris and started whispering urgently to her. She emitted a strange sound from behind her veil, a piercing keen that sent chills down Alec's backbone. He was pretty sure she was upset, and equally sure he knew why. He casually turned away from her and decided to focus on the remarkable fireworks display overhead.
He noted, with alarm, that one of the rockets seemed to have gone a bit off course; it was zooming straight toward the station at a high rate of speed. Thousands of guests and servants gasped as the rocket hit the force dome and exploded into a huge fireball above them, shaking the station and bathing them in a wash of hot colors.
"Lovely!" a stout matron cried.
"More, more!" another guest shouted, clapping her many tiny hands.
There was another explosion, immediately followed by another. The first explosion made the station shudder like a building in an earthquake. The next wasn't as bad, but it caused the lights to flicker.
"Shit!" Nina shouted into the sudden silence. She knew what was happening, if no one else did yet; and a glance at Tara confirmed that she did, too.
By now Lady Zala's expression had morphed into something more concerned, as Admirals Nass and Busch looked at each other, both suddenly knowing exactly what was happening. They folded up the sleeves on their respective uniform jackets and peered at the displays on their wristcomps.
"Not ours," Busch said quickly.
Nass replied, "Not ours, either."
They exchanged puzzled looks as several explosions in succession rocked the ballroom, accompanied by hundreds more lighting up the Big Dark outside. With the exception of their huddled group and a few others, the other guests were still oohing and ahhing over the colorful display, though some of them voiced their concern as the floor shook and the lights flickered again. The hosts and servants scurried about, trying to calm them by making up answers to their wondering questions; but their temporary lies were interrupted by the alarm that suddenly sounded from hidden speakers, drowning the music from the orchestra and a certain very upset celebrity, who was singing louder than ever, trying vainly to be heard over the din.
The alarm was followed by a calm female voice—Coco Cabelle's, though few in the ballroom were aware of that—who delivered one of the most terrifying messages anyone in space could hear: "Attention! Attention! New Frontier 16 is under attack, apparently by pirates. Civilians, take cover and remain where you are for the duration. DO NOT try to return home or otherwise leave your current locations; we need the passageways clear. Station personnel, secure all stations. All security personal prepare for battle. Attention! Attention! New Frontier 16 is under attack..." The warning looped continuously against a backdrop of a high-pitched alarm.
"Only a complete fool would attack one of these fortresses," Nass growled. "Unless they already have..."
Both Admirals finished Nass's sentence: "...troops on the inside!"
Their theory was soon confirmed by another, more desperate voice from the intercom: "Security personnel, report to sectors A-6 through A-12 to repel borders! Report to repel bord—" The voice was cut short by the loud crackle of a blaster shot followed by an explosion; and the intercom fell silent.
Tobbis scurried up to Zala, sputtering something indecipherable, and the two Key Administrators hustled over to Admirals Nass and Busch, demanding that their two fleets immediately assist New Frontier against the pirate threat. Neither of the Admirals paid them much attention, instead dividing their attention between their wristcomps and the massive fleet heaving into view in the far distance. Hundreds of large ships were already visible, moving in fast, steady and confidently opening fire on their prey with laser cannons, particle beams, and missiles. Most of the weapons fire was intercepted by NF16's point defense, but a few shots got through to chew at the station's armor. As they watched, a flight of offensive missiles reached out and turned a score of the oncoming ships into glowing dust.
Bush gritted his teeth and said, "Two hundred, at least."
"More like five hundred," Nass countered. "Look, whoever it is, they're mad to attack a station like this while our fleets are nearby!"
"Maybe they don't know about our fleets. Or maybe they think they can beat us." Busch gestured toward the other side of the force dome, where a second huge flotilla was flicking into view, arranging itself into attack formation. By the looks of things, it was neither Nastasturan nor Florencian.
Two naval officers appeared suddenly and joined their respective Admirals. A captain reported to Busch, while a commander reported to Nass. After the junior officers had completed their reports, telling them nothing they didn't already know, Nass broke the silence. "I take it that the piracy laws demand that we put our own interests aside?"
"They make us allies, for the moment," Busch replied.
The two Admirals turned and saluted each other.
"We need to get the hell of this tin can," Busch declared.
"Yeah, but they brought us here in their own ships—"
"There they go," Busch exclaimed, gesturing toward several dozen corvettes flying in formation away from the station, on a mission to intercept the oncoming threat.
One of the corvettes exploded into a shrapnel as a missile struck it dead center; another rammed some of the debris from the destroyed corvette, leaving a gaping hole in its hull that spewed vapor and bodies. Fires and minor explosions flickered inside the corvette as it careened out of control, veering back the way it had come and, seconds later, flattening itself against the station's deflector shields. A few escape pods managed to launch; one bounced off the ballroom's force dome.
The automatic defense system having decided that the electromagnetic shield had taken enough damage, a metal shield irised into place over the dome, casting the ballroom briefly into pitch dark. Panic broke out as the guests headed for the nearest exits, even as emergency lighting flickered to life.
Admiral Busch had to shout to be heard: "Alec, what about your ship?"
"It's on its way!" Alec shouted over the screams from the panicked crowd. "Follow me! Clear a path for us to that exit!" Alec ordered the Grisamm monks, pointing at a hatch in the far distance.
The monks had their cloaks slide into backpack devices on their backs, revealing their body armor and armaments. Cursing their girly outfits, Nina and Tara crowded up against Alec, grim expressions on their faces.
Admiral Nass looked hesitantly at Busch, who snapped, "Would you rather command your fleet from here, Nass? Or is the admiral in charge competent to do the job?"
"My fleet admiral isn't even with the damned fleet."
"Please, gentlemen, discuss that later. You need to hurry if you want to leave!" Alec shouted.
Nass and Busch signaled to their respective aides to clear a path through the terrified people blocking the exit in front of them. The others followed him out, but just as Alec reached the exit, he immediately realized that it would be impossible to get through the crowd to the ship. Realizing the same, one of the Grisamm charged up his weapon and lifted it grimly, ready to clear a bloody road for them.
Alec placed his hand on the large gun and shouted over the alarm, "No, no shooting! Just get rid of all these people!"
"How?" The monk demanded.
Alec looked around for a moment, and then smiled savagely. He grabbed Nina roughly and yanked the bodice of her dress. "What the fuck are you doing!" Nina shrieked as thousands of pearls scattered across the floor. Hands on her hips, she yelled, "All you had to do was ask, big fella! I've already seen your equipment, after all!" Clad only in sheer panties and footwear, she bent down and removed a shockstick from one boot.
"Oh no, I can do it myself, thank you!" Tara assured one of the Grisamm monks, when she saw that he was ready to give her the same treatment. She yanked on the front of her dress, and thousands more pearls cascaded to the deck. All around them, people were treading on the pearls, slipping and falling with terrified cries.
"Shuffle your feet so you don't fall!" Alec shouted, and led the way as people fell around them left and right. Enough of the other guests slipped on the pearls that they were able to push their way through and into the foyer outside, which led directly to a covered exit to the VIP docking bay. A dark shape hovered at the end of the bay, mated directly to the atmospheric shield: the Predator. Amid the crowd of smaller shuttles and limos, it looked like a bull among sheep.
As Alec and his companions approached, running full-out now that the danger of stepping on the pearls was gone, Pier charged out of the airlock, followed by a stream of personnel, mostly former pirate women—who, to Alec's dismay, were kitted out in their full pirate regalia, which was to say that no two were dressed alike, and certainly none were wearing their shipsuits.
True to form, the panicked ballroom crowd (which hadn't so much as blinked at the sight of two nearly-nude women in their midst) took the women for what they had been but no longer were: cries of "Pirates! The pirates are here!" flashed through the crowd, causing even more panic. When Alec glanced back, he saw that the people who had managed to get through the exit were now trying to get back into the ballroom, and were jamming up against the crowd still trying to get out. Several fights started, and soon it turned into a general melee. "I don't have time for this," he growled, as he turned and sprinted toward his ship.
To make matters worse, his erstwhile crew thought it was all good fun, and started singing one of their notorious pirate ballads. Alec grabbed Pier and skidded to a halt. "Dammit, man, get them to shut the hell up! Holy Gull, this is not helping at all!"
Pier grinned puckishly, then placed his index finger to his mouth while making an soft ssshing sound. Alec shouted, "Do you want to keep this job?"
Grin widening, Pier tapped in a recall order on his wristcomp, and the wristcomps of the various Predator personnel scattered down the corridor started braying like deranged mules.
After what had seemed like an eternity but was, in fact, less than five minutes, everyone who belonged on the Predator was aboard, along with a smattering of military guests. Alec was bent over, hands on knees, gasping for breath. Somehow, the much older Admiral Busch had found his way to the bridge already, and was shouting into his wristcomp, telling Tobbis and Zala to for Gull's sake lock themselves into their own command bridge already. They babbled back, and he assured them that his fleet and Nass's would do everything they could to assist New Frontier.
Predator began to accelerate away from the station, followed by dozens of private civilian shuttles and limousines. It was no safer in near-space: missiles and rockets of all sizes probed through the area, while particle and laser beams lit up the debris clouds like neon, and magma bursts and chemical explosions bloomed all around. It just got worse as thousands of small, unmanned fighters launched from the space station, descending on the pirate flotillas like angry wasps.
Dozens of the rebuilt civilian transport and cargo ships that the pirates were using as gunboats were vaporized in the opening seconds of the skirmish; hundreds more were damaged, some critically. But the defenders' initial victory was short-lived: there were still hundreds of pirate vessels left to face, and the survivors started picking off the drones one by one with forcelances and point-defense missiles. Several large battle cruisers, previously hidden in the holds of cloaked super-transports, waded into the fray, directing magma blasts at weapons and shield platforms on New Frontier 16 and slagging the drone fighters with lasers.
Few of the weapons were directed at the station itself, as it was too great a prize to risk, and the protective forceshields remained intact in most areas. In those areas not already taken by infiltrated pirates, it was easier and safer to force their way in via mechanical means. Within moments, ships equipped with ramming arms, just like those on Zuzack's Bitch, converged on the station, ramming their way inside. Other ships descended on the two large docking bays that were, by then, controlled by the pirates.
The situation was complicated by the hundreds, if not thousands, of civilian transports and cargo ships that were scrambling to get themselves as far from the battle as possible. As with any battle, there was collateral damage; here and there, civilian ships flashed into vapor as they passed through particle beams or laser fire, and took various levels of damage as their paths intersected with those of missiles fired at other targets. There were unexpected acts of heroism as well: without prompting or deputization by the NF16 security forces, some of the larger civilian vessels turned and fired upon their aggressors, who wisely avoided them in favor of easier prey. Some of the civilian vessels took the battle to the pirates: one in particular, a yacht emblazoned with a stylized sunburst, leaped eagerly into the fight, disabling and destroying every marauder it encountered. Diving into a cluster of converted supertankers, it released a spray of sprinter missiles that latched onto their targets in an instant, before detonating in a series of white-hot nuclear blasts that left the retreating yacht shaken but unscathed.
Zoris af Sun paced the corridors of her yacht, snarling. She kicked aside the body of one of her security guards, but otherwise ignored it; the cyan blood that spread over the cold, hard deck like thick syrup was more interesting to her, but she had little time to dwell on it. Her hand was still squeezing the man's pulped heart. She stumbled as the ship corkscrewed through another cluster of pirate ships, the inertial compensators unable to entirely handle the quick movement, and dropped the heart to clutch the wall.
She stalked over to the ship's captain, who was huddled against the bulkhead near what remained of his men, and thrust a bloodstained finger into his face. "Captain. Take us away from this mess and find out who stole my property."
"Aye aye, milady." The Captain trembled as he hurried back to the bridge.
None since the betrayers have shown such an appalling lack of respect for me and my property, she fumed as she made her way to her private quarters and towards her giant bed. It tore her up, it really did. Zoris lay down and cried. The sense of injustice she felt at the moment was simply more than she could bear. She hated the universe and everything in it. She hated her own parents, even, who had had the audacity to give her life; she cursed them and the day she was born, her gaunt face awash with a purulent mixture of tears and gore. She didn't care; it was comforting, in fact. All she cared about now was getting her property back in time for her next masterpiece. Nothing else mattered to her, except perhaps finding the thieves...and having them over for dinner.
The battle for New Frontier 16 wasn't going well for the defenders. As the little fighter/interceptors ran low on ammo, they re-armed when they could; but when the supplies of missiles and power modules ran out, there was nothing to do but turn the little darts themselves into kinetic weapons. Many were directed to fly straight into the pirate ships by their pilots, all of whom were sitting safe aboard NF16. The drones couldn't easily destroy one the larger vessels, but when properly placed could disable them, especially when one or more attacked simultaneously. For more than an hour, the defender drones delayed the main onslaught; by then, there were fewer than two hundred of the little ships left. That was the signal for just over a hundred heavy corvettes and missile boats to press the attack.
Zuzack stood with his arms thrust up to his elbows in a hologram that represented local space. The battle for NF16 was a colorful fireworks display in the lower left quadrant; at the moment, his attention was engaged by a large group of ships that was approaching his battle group. He twisted one hand just so, and the cluster of ships he was peering at magnified to a point of near uselessness, the images blurry and indistinct. "Who are they, Zuzack?" a low voice demanded.
He glanced at his brother sidelong. "They're too far away to tell right now. But I'd guess they're almost as numerous as we are."
"Sir!" shouted the flagship's captain from behind them. "Our third column reports that it's engaging a very large fleet of Florencian warships, supported by a smaller group of Nastasturan capital ships! They're asking for help!"
Horsa snarled, "Tell them to get away from there and join us here." To his brother, he muttered, "Neither federation is powerful enough to stop us, not this deep into the neutral zone."
Zuzack drew in a sharp breath. "Brother. Another fleet." He thrust his hand into the image and pulled that sector into the center, twisting up the magnification with one hand, focusing with the other. According to the counter, there were nearly a thousand ships in the fleet, some of them outmassing the Walsatures supertankers. "Captain," Zuzack called distractedly, "can you see them on your display, or are they too far out? Coordinates Red 03, Blue 27, Green 08. More or less."
"Yessir, the computer's running a diagnostic right now." After a long moment the Captain said grimly, "Looks like it's composed of ships from the Night-Hunter and Red Knight clans."
"That cow Ogstafa!" Horsa bellowed. "Bitch must have followed us, and now she's waiting for us to be done so she can come in to pick the carcass. Or finish us off!"
"The woman has no honor," muttered Zuzack ironically. He ran his own diagnostic on the display. "Right, confirmed...I'm also seeing some Sunray markings." He pulled his arms out of the holodisplay said, "Not even we can take on three or more clans, brother. Not if a third of us are fighting two Federation fleets more than three hours away."
"Thinking of quitting?" Horsa taunted.
"Me? Hell no. Let's kill them all. We just have to find a way." He tapped a booted foot on the deck, and stroked the dark fuzz that had finally begun to sprout on his wrecked chin. "We must make a deal with Ogstafa and her friends."
Horsa looked like he'd rather swallow broken glass, but he eventually admitted, "I suppose you're right. Captain, get us in range and establish a link with the old bitch's flagship. Zuzack, take command of the battle while I make contact with Ogstafa. Remember the main reason we're here."
Zuzack gave his brother a strange smile. It was difficult for Horsa—or anyone for that matter—to read Zuzack's expression since that Oman had stolen his face, but Horsa could recognize the disappointment in his brother's eyes. Grudgingly Horsa said, "Well, revenge too, of course. We'll find the little coward who did that to you."
Zuzack nodded sharply. "I'll return to the Bitch, then."
"Do that, and remember: you must keep our clan together in the process. And let's make sure this attack soon ends, or we'll likely have some deserters on our hands."
Zuzack nodded to his brother, and they embraced before Zuzack left the command bridge and headed toward the docking bay where the Bitch waited.
All Zuzack wanted was revenge; getting the map back was now a secondary motive. He burned with a desire to find the little Oman who had disfigured him—not to kill him, no, but to take him to the Black Lady so she could turn him into an art piece, just as she had done to the traitor Alexa. I do so look forward meeting Alexa the next time the Black Lady invites all the clan leaders for her next dinner extravaganza, he thought, licking his lips with anticipation.
Horsa's battle cruiser, the Rapacious, changed course abruptly, and part of the main column followed. The Bitch joined in the melee in the space around New Frontier 16 with the rest of the main column—though Zuzack held his beloved ship out of range of the space station's weapons arrays, preferring to batter it with long-range missiles and protect it against the few remaining fighter/interceptors by remaining behind a shield comprised of lesser ships. It wasn't that he was a coward as such; rather, it was easier for him to control his forces from a distance. Like most pirates, he preferred easy prey and quick, merciless strikes that limited his own damage. The only reason that the Wulsatures kept attacking in the face of the current stiff resistance was the knowledge of the incredible wealth that would soon be theirs if they could win through. But if the main onslaught failed, then it wouldn't be long until most of the clan sounded retreat.
"Captain, we've taken two of the larger docking bays, and almost fifty levels on the southern and eastern quadrants of the station," Hughes reported. Zuzack glanced at him and sneered; the rat-man was dressed in his ragged white Florencian admiral's uniform.
"Make sure we keep those sectors at any cost," Zuzack ordered. "If we fail to take the rest of the station, we can always barter our way out. Have there been any new developments with our third column?"
"Nossir. Apparently they can't punch through all the subspace jamming."
Zuzack eyed Hughes' uniform. "You were in the Florencian military. Do you think the federations will send any reinforcements?"
"Florencia certainly would," Hughes said confidently. "We're close to Handover, but it would still take days, perhaps weeks, before they could easily mobilize an Intergalactic fleet, which is the type they'd send for an action of this size. On the other hand, if there are any ships or smaller fleets available nearby, they'll certainly send them here. The Nasties have no bases as near as the Florencians, but they would send any galactic fleet ships they can scramble in response to a distress call. Those could be here in a matter of days, or even hours."
Zuzack nodded sharply and eased into his command seat, observing the various sectors of the battle in a scatter of monitors and holodisplays ranged before him. He tried to focus on all the glorious mayhem, but had difficulty doing so, as his mind drifted whenever he thought about the thief who had stolen his face.
The Nastasturan 11th Galactic fleet lay concealed among the drifting mountains of a minor asteroid belt in the outer fringes of the system New Frontier currently occupied, electronic shields and countermeasures fully deployed. Admiral Cook paced the length of his flagship's bridge, worrying about Alistair Busch. On his latest return leg, he noticed Commander Ezim waiting patiently for him, saluting stiffly.
When he returned the salute, the young man launched into his spiel. "The situation at New Frontier is confusing at best, sir. We've received reports from Admiral Busch's fleet and several civilian vessels that two convoys of civilian ships have attacked the primary station, New Frontier 16, and have engaged both Admiral Busch's fleet group and the Florencian 9th Galactic. And sir, we have received confirmation from Admiral Busch that Admiral Jonas Nass commands the Florencians, and that for the moment they are cooperating against the attackers."
Ezim pressed a button on his wristcomp, and a sparkling holographic sitrep map flashed up between them. The commander pointed toward the center of the display. "As you can see, sir, Admiral Busch's second, Commander Kelab, has moved her dozen ships into a defensive position here. Meanwhile, Admiral Nass sent a third of his capital ships—that's about a hundred vessels—to investigate the battle at New Frontier, apparently, and they were attacked here, by the civilian convoys." The Commander tapped his wristcomp, re-centering the display on a clot of red and blue symbols that were snarled together into a confusing knot. "An hour into the fight, one of the civilian convoys withdrew, and is now heading directly for the New Frontier 16."
The Captain of the Unity 1, Greenlaw Adnil, joined them at the logistics map. "I take it Commander Kelab can't reach Admiral Busch and wants to know what she should do?"
Cook looked at the holographic map for a moment and then began pacing again, thinking over what should be done. After traversing the bridge and returning, he said to Ezim and Adnil, "If I send Busch's column toward the station, Florencia's 9th and some pissed-off civilians will be behind them, while another group of pissed-off civilians will be between the station and his second group. If I withdraw Kelab's group to join us here, then they'll still have the 9th behind them." Admiral Cook scowled. "This sector is supposed to be free of any significant pirate activity. But who else could these 'civilians' be?"
The two officers exchanged glances. "It seems likely, sir, given their aggression. Why else would a large civilian convoy attack a mercantile outpost?"
"Exactly," Cook growled. "If they are pirates, then things are easier than they might otherwise be—or so it seems to me. We and the 9th could extend the accord that Busch seems to have forged with Admiral Nass, and take them on together."
"Has that ever happened, Admiral?" the Captain asked.
"Yes, several times, but you never hear about it in our news media or from the politicos...idiots think it's bad for voter morale to discover that we do, on rare occasions, fight side-by-side with a totalitarian power."
"I had the impression Florencia was backing these pirates," said Ezim.
Cook shrugged. "Some they do and some they don't, but of course they call their groups 'freedom fighters against the exploitative imperialists'. Apparently, this batch isn't one of theirs." He addressed Adnil. "Captain, send Captain Copola on the Crusher 5 my compliments, and direct him to proceed to New Frontier 16 to pick up Admiral Busch. The admiral is then to take command of the Crusher, and rejoin his own battle group. Meanwhile, we'll leave this position and advance towards a rendezvous with Kelab's battle group. Dismissed."
The Battle of New Frontier was in something of a lull as all three sides regrouped. The main pirate column had halted its advance, though the pirates already committed, both in space and inside the station, were still fighting with their typical reckless fierceness. Half of the third pirate convoy was kept busy intercepting private civilian ships, though a few managed to escape unharmed. The rest of the third convoy was arrayed in a defense perimeter facing away from New Frontier 16, as if they were waiting for an oncoming threat.
The fiercest melee was taking place on the decks of the New Frontier 16 as security forces and armed civilians—of which there were a surprising number—clashed with the pirates, who had taken full control of several docking bays and many of the enormous space station's levels.
Coco Cabelle peered pensively at the holographic map of the space battle that spread in the air before her. Her elation at having driven back the initial pirate attack—thanks to their heightened sense of preparedness—was long since gone. Things weren't going well for the good guys; pirates controlled most of local space.
Her staff milled about around her, barking orders into headsets and wristcomps and sending groups of fighters, both security forces and ad hoc bands of civilians, into harm's way. Coco Cabelle herself was doing her best to ignore the frightened babbling of the idiots who had ordered her not to prepare fully in the first place, Key Administrators Zala and Tobbis themselves. Sick of hearing them remind her of how important they were, Coco stood up abruptly and snapped, "You've got two choices. Shut up and let me do my job, or leave. Get me?" Zala and Tobbis looked like they were ready to protest at her outburst, so she said pointed to the sitrep map and shouted, "Most of this is your doing, you bloody fools! If you'd let me do my job right in the first place, this might not have happened!"
Without a word, the Key Administrators nodded in unison and retreated to a quiet corner of the room.
"How many times have I said I told you so?" Tobbis whispered fiercely.
"Shut up! You never complained whenever you got your piece of the action, now did you?"
But Tobbis wasn't going to be silent. "You've gone too far this time, Zala!"
"You think I'm in on this madness?" Zala demanded, eyes wide. "Are you insane?"
"I don't know what you're about anymore," replied Tobbis, grabbing her pudgy arm. "Don't you understand that our dream of owning our own system is all but ruined now? The Brakks and the insurance companies will send out their police and investigators, and then we'll both have had it. Assuming we survive this."
She yanked her arm out of his grasp. "Of course we'll survive. All we need to do is make some kind of deal with the pirates, and then we can start to rebuild."
"How can even you be so naïve?" he spat. "That will just send a message to every pirate and mad warlord in the universe that if you need loot, just attack New Frontier and the Key Administrators will pay you off!"
Finally, Coco thought, as she deactivated the nano-bug she'd planted on Zala's robe earlier. Unassailable evidence. When would they learn to stop underestimating her? A white-hot mixture of triumph and fury rose in her at this final proof of their corruption and perfidy. Billions of credits of property lost or destroyed, thousands murdered, tens of thousands enslaved...just so a couple of miserable executives could line their pockets illicitly. With a supreme effort, she quashed the surge of emotion, and turned toward the corner where Zala and Tobbis were still having their quiet squabble. She called out blandly, "Instead of counting your money and coming up with more problems, perhaps the two of you can give me a hand calming our citizens?" she suggested. "Do either of you have any idea why pirates should suddenly attack us, in a sector that both of your organizations have certified to be pirate-free?"
"Why should we know anything about this?" snapped Tobbis.
"If you're referring to the enormous amount of tritonium silver and crystal-silver that has been deposited in our vaults lately, then you know the answer to that question," added Zala. "It was transported to a more secure location a month ago."
"No, I wasn't thinking about that. I doubt even that would be reason enough for an entire pirate clan to attack us. This entire enterprise is madness, frankly, and I would encourage the two of you to inform me about anything that might help our situation."
Zala looked her over as if she were some particularly rare and hideous species of bug. "We will inform you of what we care to, when we care to," she said haughtily. "Remember your place, Coco Cabelle."
Coco stood up and stalked over to the Key Administrators, looking down at Zala with a contemptuous expression. "My place, Key Administrator Zala, is to protect New Frontier 16 from enemies both foreign and domestic, no matter how highly they may be placed or however much they may think of themselves." She gestured toward the sitrep map, trying to control her emotions so she wouldn't give too much away—only as much as it took to get the corrupt officials before her to tip their hands. "Allow me to give you a quick update here, my Queen," she sneered. "We have over eighty thousand pirates inside the station alone. At the moment they have been stopped, thanks to the efforts and blood sacrificed by my people and the civilians you seem to have such contempt for. Civilians who, might I add, are ostensibly the very reason you have the wealth and position you currently enjoy. These people are dying for you out there, and more will die yet. It's only a matter of time before the pirates start advancing again, and they're sure to receive reinforcements when their main force returns."
"What do you mean, when they return?" Tobbis said fearfully.
"I'm assuming they will. At the very least, they need to return to claim their people."
"We do all the assuming here," Zala pronounced arrogantly. "Incidentally, you have a great deal to answer for. How could these scum possibly get inside our station? We do have the best sensors money can buy—and supposedly the best security personnel." She glared at Coco.
Coco returned her glare coolly, and when she spoke, her tone was so cold it practically frosted the air. "Apparently the initial contingent of approximately 1,800 pirates infiltrated the station as part of a large shipment of chattel slaves that arrived a few weeks ago. A shipment you signed for, Key Administrator Zala."
The diminutive woman stared up at Coco, speechless.
"Oddly enough," Coco murmured, "only a few of those slaves were placed for sale, whereupon they were snapped up by your young friend, Master Alec Horn. The rest were...misplaced. Somehow, they were accidently released en masse a few hours ago, due to what appears to be a computer malfunction. Somehow, they acquired weapons that they then used to massacre the personnel manning one of our larger private docking bays. By the time we were onto them, they had docked half-a-dozen large civilian trade vessels that happened to be filled with tens of thousands of their friends. Needless to say, that entry point is closed now." It had taken a nuke to close it, but she wasn't prepared to tell them that at the moment.
The Key Administrators has been shocked into silence, so Coco pressed on. In a gesture of condescension, she bent over and placed her hands on her knees to bring her face that much closer to Zala's—like one might do with a little child. "As to how they escaped our sensors, I have two points I'd like to make. First of all, they used large general fluid tankers with double hulls. Between the hulls, there was a layer of water or oil. Our sensors picked that up, and treated them as regular cargo ships."
"That doesn't explain why your sensors didn't pick up the amount of fluid!" Tobbis shouted desperately. "Their ships should not have been allowed to dock!"
"That was my second point, Mr. Tobbis. The sensors would indeed have been able to detect the ruse, had they been able to perform the standard deep scans they were programmed to do. However, last week, someone very skillful managed to slip a Trojan into the system that quietly disabled that feature, while masking that fact to the system's autocheck features."
Zala found her voice. "Trojan, my ass!" she shrilled. "Excuses, all excuses! Your incompetence exceeds you!"
"Perhaps you would like to fire me," said Coco. "But of course, I don't work for you. I work for the Brakks who actually own this station—and rest assured, at the moment I'm the least of your problems. The Brakks themselves are aware of everything I've just told you and more—and as you know, there is no organization more tenacious in righting the wrongs done to it than the Brakks. As for the pirates...you do realize that the odds are very good that we will all die here, or worse, become their captives?" Coco's words hit home, and Tobbis and Zala shifted uncomfortably. "Now," Coco continued, "The best thing we can do is to work as a team. Whatever happens later is irrelevant for the moment. What do you say?"
Tobbis and Zala looked at each other; and then Tobbis said, "All right, then, let us work with each other."
"I'm in," Zala muttered after a while.
Coco breathed a sigh of relief. "Good, then I recommend that we..." She never finished her sentence; instead, she stared in annoyed disbelief as the two Key Administrators walked away in opposite directions toward their emergency offices, each followed by a cluster of aides and secretaries.
The Predator zigzagged through the panoply of pirate ships darting around Star Dice Station, maneuvering with preternatural precision and leaving clouds of death and destruction behind.
Captain Zlo smiled, knowing he had impressed his new friend Nikko Behl. The erstwhile cargo ship had been restored to its original configuration: a high-tech, ultramodern killing machine. The frigate was small compared to most frigates used by the two federations, but its speed and firepower were impressive, especially given the modifications young Master Hornet had paid for. The pirate vessels that had attempted to take on the Predator had paid dearly, and it didn't take long for the word to spread. The only catch was that while the smaller pirate ships retreated, they attracted the larger pirate ships, whose captains had grown curious about why the Star Dice merited such a strong bodyguard.
At the moment, the casino station drifted in loose formation with two similar stations, which happened to be owned by Tota's business competitors. Given the circumstances, Tota and the two owners had been quick to put aside their differences in favor of joining forces against a common enemy. While the stations had not docked with each other, as they might have, they'd maneuvered close enough together to merge and re-strengthen their meteor deflector shields. In combination, those shields worked very well as a defense against missiles, rockets, and particle beams, although they did little more than slow energy weapons down a bit. Similar small alliances were occurring all over New Frontier space, where ships and stations were bunching up into defensive patterns and positions, becoming small fighting islands that frustrated the intentions of the pirate forces, whose casualties were mounting.
The pirates, though, were adapting. As the smaller vessels swung away toward more yielding targets, a dozen larger ships, some of them old battle cruisers, pressed a joint attack on Star Dice Station, accompanied by an entourage of destroyers, frigates, and corvettes.
The Predator flashed through space perpendicular to their approach angle, leaving a trail of shield-disrupter mines in its wake. The cruisers and frigates, with their stronger shields, shrugged them aside like any other space debris; but the smaller ships following behind weren't as fortunate. The micro-singularities the mines emitted were more than a match for the weaker shields of the destroyers and the corvettes, so the cluster of mines got through and exploded against their hulls, converting a dozen to pure vapor and leaving all but a bare handful drifting helpless in space. None survived unscathed.
The destruction of their support fleet didn't deter the cruisers, so Predator swung about on its gyros and plunged back into the fray, sending a spray of missiles and a bloom of energy beams against the lead ship. Most of the missiles were expended harmlessly against the pirate cruiser's screens, but some chewed their way through to bite huge, flaring chunks out of the ship's flanks, and in combination with the Predator's Class Four forcelances left the big ship as full of holes as a rancid cheese.
The mortal wounds didn't halt the cruiser's advance, but enough shield emitters were lost that the forward shields significantly weakened; so the Predator spat out a matched pair of one-man fighters, which happened to be flown by Wolf and Pier. Flanked by a flight of sprinter missiles that passed through what remained of the cruiser's shields and destroyed the last of the emitters, tearing away massive chunks of the ship and spewing twitching bodies into space, the fighters swept joyously into battle. Wolf whooped and aimed his fighter at a vast opening just below the bridge, snapped it onto autopilot, and ejected from the fighter, which was starting to come under crippling fire from the cruiser's remaining weapons platforms. Pier zoomed in, caught his buddy in the green glow of a tractor beam, and scrambled back to the Predator.
Meanwhile, Wolf's fighter flew straight into the hull breach and detonated in a blue-white thermonuclear fireball. Several smaller blasts rippled through the length of the ship, escalating into two huge explosions that rent the cruiser into a half-dozen tumbling fragments and a sleet of smaller debris that that slammed into the accompanying pirate ships. Two more cruisers were disabled immediately, while most of the others were damaged. Another cruiser was smacked so hard by a piece of the first vessel's stern that it was shoved into a second, both of which immediately lit off in a very satisfying series of explosions of their own.
The assault on the Star Dice faltered after that, with the remaining pirate ships limping off toward their main column as fast as they were able, desperately trying to avoid the combined firepower of the Star Dice and its allies. Once the attackers had been routed, any of the disabled pirate ships that dared so much as twitch—and some that did not—were laid open to the vacuum with concentrated magma blasts.
The surviving pirate ships regrouped at a safe distance, clearly waiting for reinforcement. Meanwhile, the Star Dice and its companions took advantage of the lull, moving slightly closer together and bringing secondary fusactors online, strengthening their shields. The Predator took up picket duty around the stations, orbiting at a safe distance and paying very close attention to their erstwhile attackers.
Organized chaos reigned inside the frigate; it had not escaped entirely unscathed, so damage control teams were scrambling all over the ship, replacing overstressed components, patching holes where debris from the battle had pierced both shield and hull, putting out fires...and handling the dead. Three of the former pirates and one of the Grisamm had been killed when a piece of hull-metal the size of a man's head had ripped into a fire-control room. The emergency bulkheads had slammed down as they were supposed to, saving the rest of the ship from depressurization, but the fire-control team was exposed to vacuum and died within seconds.
Otherwise, some dozen crew had been injured, and were transported carefully to the infirmary, where they were placed under the tender care of Doctor Phalaxor and his nurses, aides and medical androids. Several of the crew were injured badly enough to require full-body autodocs, basically large metallic tubes where they were bathed in healing fluids and radiation. Some were enclosed for a few hours; others, including two rescued from decompressed areas before they could perish, would be there for days or weeks. Smaller autodocs and plain old sutures were used for more minor injuries; for those suffering permanent damage, like the loss of a limb, stimulated regrowth or cloning surgery was required.
The most expedient method of repairing injured Omans and Oman-related transgenics was, or course, forced regeneration, or stimming; the Ancients had wired regeneration into the Oman genome shortly after leaving the homeworld, and it had bred true throughout all the countless millennia since. Other species, more recently entered into the intergalactic community, required cloned parts. Most of the non-Omans on board were of Lady Fuzza's and Captain Zlo's crested Marengan species, so that made things easier. Fortunately, there were no brain injuries; while brains could, in fact, be cloned, such an act was forbidden on pain of death throughout the inhabited universe.
Alec and Captain Zlo had purchased the equipment for producing surgical clones shortly after purchasing the Predator, and pithed full-body clones had been growing for the non-Oman personnel for some time now, particularly the crippled Myra. Most weren't adult-sized yet, so Doctor Phalaxor provided prostheses for the three patients who had major tissue loss. Fortunately, he was well qualified to perform the necessary surgery, which he did with his useful cheerful panache.
He was aided, oddly enough, by a rather unexpected figure: the chief engineer, who usually lorded over a vast chamber tucked toward the stern of the ship. The quiet tri-ocular, mauve-skinned woman, who answered only to the name "Chief," had worked with Captain Zlo for years, and he trusted her implicitly. She was an unusually attractive woman, at least by most standards, and Alec had been rather taken aback when he learned of her appetite for sex.
Both Wolf and Pier had, on several occasions, briefly disappeared before returning in a state of pleased confusion. It didn't take long before Captain Behl realized what was going on, and soon he too took every chance he could to go down to engineering and, ahem, "help out with the engines."
Although Chief was the most popular officer aboard the Predator, she had a disadvantage in most polite company: her genetic heritage was somewhat muddled. She was a Marengan citizen, if only because she qualified for membership in no other polity; she had so many different peoples in her ancestry that she was officially branded a "triple-mix," though there were probably more than three species involved. Triple-mixes were generally shunned and considered unfit for citizenship in "civilized" societies, and often ended up as outcasts or pirates.
Chief's sexual specialty was using her unique mental powers to generate multiple orgasms in her partner's brain. At the moment, she had her hands too full with repairs and rewriting AI programs to bother with her usual hobby; however, her talent had other uses. Several of her crew had suffered from agonizing burns when a plasma conduit ruptured, and were currently sheathed in portable healer tubes in an out-of-the-way corner of the engine room. Whenever she had a moment, Chief would open up the gel-bag of an injured crewmember and touch his or her head gently, making them feel less pain and greater comfort.
Phalaxor had agreed to this solution, suggested by Chief herself, with visible relief; the infirmary was already crowded enough as it was.
Except for the Nastasturan captain and the Florencian commander, who served their respective admirals as aides-de-camp, the officers that Busch and Nass had brought aboard were spread out among the crew during the fierce fight, working in the areas of their particular expertise. The admirals and their aides were currently arrayed around a holomap in a small cubby off the command bridge, where Captains Zlo and Behl were directing damage control and maintaining their level of heightened alert. Alec and Frances jointed the officers in the map room after a fast inspection run of the more damaged areas of the Predator.
"Can we continue fighting, Mr. Horn?" Busch asked Alec, never taking his eyes from the map.
"Yes sir, we can, but we're running low on some of our armaments." Alec looked a bit embarrassed as he admitted, "We were supposed to pick up more weapons...elsewhere."
Nass grunted. "Can't blame you for that. I'm sure you weren't ready for a full-out assault of a major station...it's not as if it's ever happened before." He reached the map, glancing at Busch. "May I?"
At the Nastasturan Admiral's brisk nod, Nass reached into the holoimage and pulled forward, magnifying it a bit. Then he tweaked it to bring a mass of images to the center. "This make sense to you?"
They launched into a five-minute discussion of ship-strengths and armaments that Alec, with his excellent education but limited experience, was able to follow with difficulty. When they wound down, Busch glanced at Alec and said, "Alec, this is no time to be shy. If you've got some weapons aboard that we'd normally consider less than kosher, just tell us. We're past the point of worrying about petty legalities. I'm sure Admiral Nass would agree."
"Indeed he does," Nass said, nodding his leonine head. "This certainly would be a good time to come clean, young man. As long as we can get rid of the evidence once this situation is dealt with, no harm done."
"Well..." Alec gulped. "I mean, I guess you could say I, but…"
"For the love of Gull, boy! Would you just tell us what kind of extra weapons we have?" Busch shouted.
Alec looked to Frances for help, but the large Grisamm was carefully examining his nails just then. Captains Zlo and Behl, who were making their way into the map room, heard the last comments and decided that it would be far more peaceful back on the bridge.
"Oh no, the two of get your asses back in here!" ordered Busch, who had somehow detected their presence even though his back was turned.
Behl shrugged. "Fine, your Admiralship. If you must know, we've got over two hundred XXX-1 missiles aboard, and..."
Busch spun to face them, his eyeballs almost popping out. "Triple-X! But those are classified!"
"They're not that highly classified," Alec noted, grinning at the sly smiles on the faces of Admiral Nass and his aide, "or if they are, some heads should roll in the military intelligence division. They're hideously expensive, too, but nothing that can't be acquired with several billion credits to spend."
Admiral Busch glared at Alec, who went on for Behl: "We also have about a hundred Florencian T-Star mines, armed with Zed-2 missiles."
This time it was Admiral Nass and his commander who stared at Alec with horror. "How the hell did you get those?" Nass demanded.
"Same way I got the Triple X's," Alec replied.
"What were you going to do, start a war?" Admiral Nass barked. He glanced at Busch, who was grinning. "Oh. I see. Well, your classified technology won't make much difference. You'll need a special cybernetic fire control room to control the missiles and mines anyway; fire them off without one, and we might as well get into the escape pods right now."
Busch looked expectantly at Alec, who just smiled tightly and said, "I know."
"You have one?" Admiral Nass asked in a low voice. Alec nodded.
"For each weapon system?" Busch asked him.
Small spots of color appeared in Alec's cheeks. "No, just one. The technologies are surprisingly compatible. It's pretty obvious they all derived from the same source."
Admirals Nass and Busch glared at each other. Heads would surely role for this—probably literally, in the case of the Florencians.
Alec tapped a button on his wristcomp, and a nano-wall bulkhead at the back of the map room vanished, revealing a small octagonal chamber with a raised dais in the center. The walls were covered with softly glowing silvery plates. In one corner was a small alcove, in which hung an odd-looking bodysuit covered with what appeared to be electronic sensors. At Alec's gesture, they all entered the room.
"We have two different pairs of hand-control sets, and can change the gloves for respective weapon systems, so we don't need two different rooms. I had to have my people do some reprogramming, but in the tests, everything seemed to work fine, so I'm not too worried about the technologies meshing in battle."
"So that's why you argued with Behl when he decided to sacrifice one of your old fighters," the Florencia commander mused. "You wanted to use this weapon system, didn't you?"
"Other way around," Behl growled. "I thought it was a bad idea to waste a good one-man fighter, no matter how old it was. Still do."
Busch's aide said, "You loaded the fighter down with Triple-X's, right? That's why you were able to kill the cruiser with that final blow."
Alec did his best to look innocent.
"To hell with all the petty rules of engagement...you know what this means, Busch?" Admiral Nass burst out suddenly.
"We can both communicate with our fleets. Well, one at a time."
"This little ship must be worth a small fortune," Nass noted.
"A rather large one, actually." Alec looked at the two admirals in turn. "But does it matter? We're still facing a major battle out there." He gestured widely with one arm. "And for what it's worth, your secret weapon systems were so expensive that I doubt anything smaller than a major government is ever going to able to afford one. I had to spend ten bars of tritonium silver to get them both."
"Which one was more expensive?" the commander asked. Alec looked at him with a dry expression and said nothing.
Consoled for the moment, Admirals Busch and Nass began working on both separate and joint strategies for their respective fleets. Alec and Frances saw an opportunity to get away, and headed out of the command bridge together.
"Hope we won't get in too much trouble over the weapon systems," Alec muttered as they exited.
"I doubt it," Frances replied calmly.
"Hope so. Anyway, I'll be down at the infirmary checking on our injured. Don't know where I'll be after that, yet. The locator on my comp's active if anyone needs to find me." He waved and started to turn away.
"Sir, hold a moment, if you would." Frances placed a massive hand on Alec's shoulder and said quietly, "Captain Behl filled me in somewhat on what happened between you and the young woman we rescued." Alec focused on the floor as Frances continued, "Master Hornet, I would advise you to be very careful, and never to trust anyone more than you absolutely have to. Most of the former pirates you've taken aboard are a potential risk, and they comprise a good quarter of our crew. I would also suggest that you let them go their own ways as soon as possible. I can replace them with my brothers and sisters as soon as we leave this part of space."
"Thank you, Frances, but I doubt there's any time to do that. And about the person you rescued...I would like to..."
Frances cut him off. "Master Hornet, you are our commander. You should never explain yourself to your subordinates, not even your fellow officers. Perhaps you have forgotten that. You have a very advanced military background; you may be lacking combat experience, but you should keep in mind, at all times, that a commander never explains his actions or motives. You do what you decide is best—and rescuing someone from being eaten alive is a more than honorable thing to do. I only hope that we can find all these mad Gormé someday and finish them off, once and for all."
Alec looked at him wordlessly for a moment, before saying, "Well then. I'll go."
Smiling, Francis tilted his head in the general direction of the sick bay. "Go on and see how she's doing. Things should have settled down by now, and Doc should be done scanning her for any bugs, organic or otherwise. For my part, I have some details to go over with some of the crew. I must admit that all of them did a very good job, even the pirate girls. You and Behl did a superb job of recruitment."
"There is one more thing, Master Hornet." Frances gestured to one of his fellow Grisamm monks, who was approaching them. "This is Bax, one of the finest warriors I have ever had the honor to fight next to. Please use him as your personal guard. You are in charge, of course, but as I said before, some of the crew are less reliable than the rest."
"And why should I trust you and your comrades any more than they?" Alec asked lightly.
"Ah, you're learning! Excellent. You shouldn't, at least not yet. But do as you will, and remember that we are on your side, no matter what. Your Uncle Hadrian is an upper-level member of the Grisamm; perhaps he has told you a few things about us?" When Alec nodded, Frances continued, "When Tota told us that you gave hundreds of slaves their freedom, we knew then that we must meet you and offer our services. As I have said, it's your decision as to how long you want us to be a part of your crew. We consider you a brother. You might not consider yourself a Grisamm, but your actions speak otherwise."
Throat tight, unsure what to say, Alec tapped his wristcomp and examined the holo that bloomed in midair between him and the monk. He watched missiles and forcelances stab at New Frontier 16, most dissipating harmlessly on shields but a few penetrating the station's skin in alarming gouts of flame and vapor. After a long moment, he said, "Frances, thank you. That means a great deal to me. I'll keep Bax with me, as you've suggested."
Bax was a tall Saurian man with a serene expression. "Thank you, sir," he said, positioning himself a few steps behind Alec.
"He won't disappoint you, Master Hornet, I give you my word on that." Frances touched Bax's shoulder and walked away, humming some old battle hymn. Alec looked at the huge man behind him, who was half again taller and wider than he, and felt confident that nothing less than a dragon would be able to get by him. When Bax smiled, his grin revealed dozens of sharp teeth. The smile along ought to scare away most opponents, thought Alex. Though there was an intelligence in Bax's eyes that belied his frightening appearance, Alec had no doubt that in an instant, those eyes could turn hostile—and the teeth would prove a dangerous weapon against any foe.
The scene that met Alec and Bax at the infirmary was sickening. A half-dozen crew still waited their turns for treatment, meanwhile decorating the corridor with their maimed, bloody, and burned bodies. The sight—and especially the smell—caused Alec's gorge to scald the back of his throat, and it took a supreme effort not to vomit and add to the mess. As he and Bax tried to enter, an officious nurse hurried up and told them to wait outside; when she realized she addressed the ship commander, however, she put her attitude on hold and asked, "Are you injured, sir?"
"No, but I need to talk to Doctor Phalaxor."
"He's in surgery right now. Is it anything I can help you with?"
Alec looked around the sick bay and said, "No, it can wait." He walked away, followed by Bax, leaving the nurse to help a wounded crewmember.
When the Florencian cruiser leading the fight against the pirate convoys was wracked with explosions and twisted in two, its battle group retreated back to their main column. The pirate ships, now relieved of their primary obstacle, set course towards the New Frontier 16 to assist in the battle and coming plunder.
A nervous Commander Jelatha Kelab sat on the bridge of her Admiral's flagship, Endeavor, drumming her fingers on the arms of the command chair as she monitored the progress of the battle between a third of the Florencian 9th and several hundred civilian ships. She hated being out of touch with the Boss. Long-range transmission was pointless in the vicinity of the large space battle, because all participants in the fight would as a matter of course jam transmissions and attempt to sabotage the other side's systems with viruses, Trojans, and cyberworms; better just to hang tight and wait.
Moments later, several scout/fighters and courier ships were launched from both Admiral Busch's column and the remaining two-thirds of Florencia's 9th Galactic fleet. When Kelab noticed that her fleet group stood between those ships and the oncoming civilian fleet, she ordered, "Shields up, defensive formation." The twenty-five cruisers took up a globular defensive position, combining their shields into one transparent golden sphere.
The oncoming pirates' only interest, however, was to take part in the plundering of New Frontier 16. They cared nothing about the insignificant little military fleet blocking their way. Normally, they would have run for their lives when they found themselves facing a modern battle cruiser; however, their sheer numbers lent them both the advantage and the courage needed to proceed on their set course, attacking anything in their way.
Lacking Commander Kelab's tactical organization, they launched themselves pell-mell at her little defensive position. Disorganized or not, it was enough to pierce the combined shield in a score of places, killing three of her cruisers and severely damaging two others. Twice as many pirate ships were destroyed or put out of action by the Nastasturan return fire.
Kelab was frustrated and enraged by the loss of the ships under her care, and all her fellow officers on the bridge knew to keep their distance. She decided she had had just about enough of these defensive actions and was just about to order battle formation when a message on her control panel informed her to stand by. The message was from her commanding officer.
But how can he get a message through out here, in this mess? she thought, as another message popped up: "Attack formation Galactic Arrow. Come and get me!" Kelab glared at the message with suspicion, and did nothing until a small light burned green on her computer; the system had detected no false codes. She smiled when she ordered her remaining ships into Arrow formation and gave the order for Galactic assault—the main reason these cruisers had been put into service in the first place.
Meanwhile, the acting commander of the Florencia 9th, Third Admiral Alaric Luh, saw what was about to happen—and immediately ordered his fleet out of the region.
Zossa, commanding Horsa's third column, peered at the goings-on with suspicion, maneuvering the images in his holoview this way and that with quick flicks of his tentacles. Finally, he gave his species' equivalent of a smile and thought, They are running away. Aloud, he ordered, "Plot a new course towards New Frontier 16."
But Commander Kelab had no intention of fleeing the battlefield; instead, she turned her ships around and, at full sprint speed, attacked the pirates. They realized too late that they were being attacked; by the time they could react, fourteen of their larger vessels had been destroyed or disabled, and confusion reigned throughout their fleet. Seconds later, the Nastasturan battle group made a second pass through the cluster of pirates at near-relativistic speed, moving so fast that they seemed little more than a bright grayish mass of light. This time, they left behind eight dead ships.
Zossa realized, then, that this was a Galactic fleet attacking at full throttle, making it impossible to see them with the naked eye; even electronic countermeasures were hampered by their great speed. He knew that panic could soon erupt among the other captains, so he ordered his column to scatter and head for safety in the shadow of New Frontier 16. But now they faced another threat: the Florencian 9th Fleet's Third Battle Group had positioned itself between them and huge station. Zossa felt a tendril of panic, realizing that his position was in jeopardy. Unable to face even a small fleet in Galactic sprint mode, he ordered his fleet to attack the Florencians.
The battle was short and fierce, with both sides inflicting heavy damage. But the Florencians were professional military, and were quick to bind their wounds and regroup; the pirates were bullies, and had soon had enough. Attacking and plundering an easy victim is one thing; fighting in open space against a Galactic fleet that won't easily retreat is something else again. The surviving pirate ships scattered, the smart ones fleeing to close orbits near the New Frontier 16, where neither federation's fleet would dare attack at Galactic speed.
Zuzack cursed fluently and in several languages when he learned that his third column, which was suppose to contain—not attack—the two military forces, had failed in its duties. He sent an encrypted message and a courier to his brother Horsa, requesting his assistance before he was overwhelmed by the unexpected threat from Nastasturan and Florencian forces.
In the bowels of the New Frontier 16, far from the hoi polloi and the disturbances outside, business was proceeding more or less as usual in the main market and trade halls. After all, all that unpleasantness was located hundreds of levels away, even if a few pirate scum had penetrated the interior of the station.
The two Key Administrators sat quietly in a hidden room, staring at a monitor displaying the activities within one of the larger markets. Things were a tiny bit tense, but that was obvious only to the trained eye, and their greed and pleasure exceeded their worry for the things revealed to them earlier in Coco Cabelle's offices.
"I told you so, didn't I?" Zala asked, all but drooling with pecuniary pleasure. "Any time a major conflict erupts in the region, the market shoots through roof."
"Yes, but you never mentioned that we would be the center of the conflict," Tobbis muttered.
Zala ignored him and said, "Look, the rates are changing again—and that's just from the trading of representative brokers. I can't wait to see what happens to the market as soon as we can send messages, with our new rates of course, to all the other markets. This is great."
"Only if we survive," Tobbis muttered, with far less enthusiasm. "What if Cabelle has enough evidence to satisfy the Brakks? Then what good will all this mean for the two of us?"
"Don't you worry about her. I've had a contingency plan in place for quite some time, just in case something like that happened."
"May I ask what the plan is?"
"Do you really want to know?"
Tobbis sighed. "No, not really, not now. But I do hope you know what you're doing, since right now we're facing a major catastrophe...especially if the Brakks send one of their insurance investigators."
Zala snorted scornfully. "As long as they get their cut from all our trading, and we make sure they get very large bonuses, I doubt they'll do that. Even this minor incursion will soon be forgotten. Once the federation forces arrive, we will be back in control again." Tobbis looked doubtful as Zala continued. "Nass and Busch demand outrageous prices from us for their services. What do you think?"
Tobbis shook his head, "That's the least of my concerns right know. Did you find out why your friend Horsa is attacking in the first place?"
She scowled. "Idiot, never mention that name again unless we're in a secure location, do you understand?"
Coco Cabelle cursed aloud. She watched on a holomonitor as her security forces retreated, surrendering yet another level to the bloody pirates. Hundreds of citizens and tourists were unable to escape before the last exits were sealed, and her breath caught as she witnessed their cruel treatment at the hands of the pirates. She cursed the two Key Administrators equally for their incompetence, greed, and idiocy.
A noisily cleared throat behind her commanded her attention. She turned around, faced her adjutant, and barked, "Report."
"Ma'am, our scanners and radars are picking up over one hundred more civilian ships closing on the NF16," Major Lizza reported. "We think that they, too, are pirates."
"Nothing from the two federation fleets?"
"Nothing, ma'am; the communication channels are a hash of jamming static at the moment. But we can see that they're engaging the pirates as they approach the station, and the latest pirate reinforcements are fleeing from those engagements. It's possible that we might not receive any help from either fleet before it's too late...in fact, it could be that the pirate fleet that's just arriving might have destroyed or incapacitated the fleets."
Coco frowned. "If that's the case, Major, we're facing a serious dilemma, and I doubt there will be any kind of happy ending to this mess. When can we receive reinforcements from the Merchants or the Traders?"
The Major answered quietly, "Two or three months, at the earliest."
"And have we been able to contact any Predators?"
"We've launched hundreds of distress beacons into local space, and I'm sure some have made it through the gauntlet and passed through the nearest jumpgates to other sectors. But I doubt that there are enough Predators in this part of the universe to take on over five hundred well-armed pirate ships."
"Five hundred." Coco raised her eyebrows.
Lizza gulped and nodded. "That's our best estimate, ma'am...however, intel suggests there may be over a thousand in all. It's impossible to say at the moment. We've inflicted significant damage on the pirates, and so have both sets of federals, but at the moment...well, if they cooperate, and strike quickly, they could still take New Frontier 16."
"Keeping it is another matter." She tapped on her desk absently. "Then again, we might be able to contain them until reinforcement arrives."
"For several months?" The Major sounded doubtful.
"We don't have much choice in the matter, do we, Major? I don't think there's a single being in this department, or in most of the station for that matter, who will let the pirates have the place without a fight they'll damned well remember. And this is our home; we know it better than they do." She stood. "Has our research section figured out why the pirates are attacking us? It makes no sense."
"We've looked into it," Lizza admitted. "Right now, everything seems to lead back to a wealthy young Oman...a Mr. Horn, I believe." The major looked down at her clipcomp and made a few adjustments, then continued, "Yes, that's his name. There's no proof he deliberately stirred things up, but upon his arrival, he traded in a quantity of high-grade tritonium silver and made enormous deposits in the trade banks of both of the Federated Merchants and the Commercial Traders."
Coco sat down again. She remembered reading a file on young Mr. Horn, of course, and she was acutely aware of all the trouble required to organize several secret shipments of this precious metal to the Brakks' main offices.
The Major continued: "A few weeks later, the first indications of military activity were noticed on the parts of both local Federations. Approximately ten days after that, a small battle group arrived from Nastasturus; two days after that, we received a visit from an entire Galactic fleet from Florencia: the 9th from Handover, to be specific. Not to mention that it appears from their interactions at the art function last night that Mr. Horn and an Admiral Busch, from Nastasturus, know each other well. And to top it off, Mr. Horn has resided at Tota's hotel and has had several clandestine meetings with him...and we both know what Tota is."
"Indeed we do, but he assured me he had retired," Coco noted.
"So have we, ma'am."
"Hmmph. Gull help us both if those two greedy space monkeys ever find out." She motioned for the Major to continue.
"We've heard several rumors about Mr. Horn moving some of his fortune, which he never converted or deposited, to a secret location—and as one rumor says, he's planning to go out on a treasure expedition soon. Also, we have to take into consideration Mr. Horn's actions in purchasing and freeing nearly 400 slaves." They both smiled at that; Horn's actions had caused the slave trade to drop precipitously in the last few weeks.
"There are just too many coincidences here," Major Lizza observed, "not to take a closer look at Mr. Horn. And as I was going to mention, most of these rumors point in Tota's direction, too. Of course we don't have any hard evidence we can use to take them into custody, but still..."
"Where are Tota and Horn right now? Do we know?"
"Tota has forted up his station, and he has one Marengan frigate-class ship busy defending it. Ironically enough, its transponder code identifies it as the independent trader Predator—though it's remarkably well armed for a cargo ship. As of a matter of fact, thanks to them, we were able to launch the fifth attack with our corvettes and frigates. A large contingent of pirate ships has been attacking Tota and two other space stations nearby much more viciously than any station other than our own."
"And have you determined who's in charge of that frigate?" Coco asked irritably.
"A moment, please." The Major spoke softly into her wristcomp, and looked startled when she heard the answer. To Coco she said, "Um, the frigate belongs to..."
"Let me guess. Our mysterious Mr. Horn."
By the time Admiral Cook's 11th Galactic arrived to relieve Busch's battle group, he was appalled at the damage: five large cruisers had been destroyed along with all but a tiny portion of their crews, and there were as many more with enough damage to render them useless for battle. The remaining 15 cruisers bore various levels of battle damage, from gaping holes being hastily repaired with massive patches to ablated battle-armor, scorching, melting, and pitting. It hardly resembled the picture-perfect little fleet that had split off from the main fleet a few days before. The entire surrounding region was clouded with debris and decompressed corpses, all of which flashed into vapor when they struck the fully extended EM shields of the surviving ships.
But Commander Kelab had gotten them through the battle, he noted with pride. While she wasn't particularly happy with her own performance—she cursed her own incompetence when admitting her losses—she had inflicted significant damage on the pirate fleet, and was able to provide a wealth of valuable hard-won information. She had determined from an analysis of the wreckage and what little communications traffic was decipherable, for example, that the pirates themselves were from the infamous Wulsatures clan, and she was able to warn Cook about the pirates' use of several illegal weapons, including asteroid mines. She also reported that she and an admiral from the Florencian 9th Galactic fleet were planning a new assault.
Cook belayed that idea, ordering Kelab to use the remaining ships at her disposal for search-and-rescue operations and then, once they were complete, to return to the nearest safe homeport. The Commander made no attempt to conceal her anger at the orders, insisting that she and half of "her" ships were more than capable of continuing their advance on the New Frontier 16, to rescue "their" Admiral, while the other half concentrated on SAR. As much as he admired her spunk, Cook was obliged to get firm with her, and commanded her in no uncertain terms to do exactly as he had ordered.
After breaking off with Kelab, Cook ordered his third-in-command, Lt. Admiral Whit Nelle, to establish contact with the Florencian 9th as soon as possible, and to notify the ships of his fleet to stand to at General Quarters, waiting for battle orders.
An hour later, the 160 capital ships of the 11th Nastasturus Galactic fleet formed up into three loose arrow-shaped configurations, with their points towards New Frontier 16. Two hundred other ships marked in the red and silver of the Florencian Federation Space Navy, all that remained of their 9th Galactic fleet, waited in reserve to their rear, organized into four similar formations.
The acting commander of the Florencian 9th, Rear Admiral Yarps Yrreb, appeared to be the third officer in charge; his fleet's nominal second officer and temporary commander, Jonas Nass, was apparently stuck on New Frontier 16, just as Busch was. Cook had no idea where the Admiral in overall command of the Florencian fleet was; he may well have been a casualty.
After having lost almost a third of his fleet in battle, Yrreb was reluctant to pursue the pirate fleet, and claimed that he had to wait for new orders from his headquarters; meanwhile, he intended to begin SAR forays. Even though Cook reminded him of the intergalactic laws regarding piracy, and urged him to join forces to assist the New Frontier 16 as soon as possible, still the Florencian Admiral refused to advance.
Infuriatingly, that meant Cook couldn't advance either, not knowing what the Florencian 9th might be up to behind him. He found himself in the dilemma of being unable to do anything except wait, while his fleet faced an enemy fleet in the distance.
Zuzack reached into his holographic battle map and tweaked a sector, magnifying the images of several hundred ships formed up around the New Frontier 16, maintaining a safe distance from its larger weapon systems. The ongoing fighting in the space around the station was petering out, but there was still plenty of fighting going on inside the enormous station itself. Zuzack narrowed his eyes in thought. He had another two hundred ships in reserve; the rest were either attached to conquered ships or smaller space stations, or docked to the New Frontier 16.
Zuzack noted that over two-thirds of the smaller space stations and private ships in the cluster were still available for the taking. All were clustered into small defensive islands; nearly all those that hadn't made common cause with their neighbors had already been destroyed or boarded. Zuzack had ordered some of the ships of the fleet to contain the grouped ships and stations and not attack any, at least not for now. He nervously waited to hear from his brother about the negotiations for a truce and alliance with the other pirate clans led by Ogstafa, who were tracking them now, clearly waiting to pick up any available pieces.
Zuzack frowned when he glanced at the loss tally on the display and realized that nearly 150 ships, some quite large, had been lost to the two federations. He begun to feel sorry—a little—for Zossa when Horsa got hold of him. Then he dismissed the thought. Nah, more loot for the rest of us. The smile that bloomed on his deformed countenance made it even uglier.
From time to time, Zuzack glanced at a monitor set for scanning a particular object, which only he and his brother knew anything about: the treasure map. The scanner was also set to detect tritonium silver, which it had in fact found evidence of on New Frontier 16. There was no evidence that the tritonium there was the hoard that the little Oman had stolen, though; and even if it were, the map was far more valuable. Though the bars could buy a whole planetary system, they were just the tip of the iceberg compared to the rest of the grand treasure.
He gritted his teeth, his momentary mirth gone. With the 50 bars Zuzack had picked up, they had thought to purchase their own stellar system and invest in a legitimate mining operation, while building a grand trade port in and around any habitable worlds in the system. It made him sick, knowing that the little Oman had spent or deposited at least ten bars already. The thought of it disgusted him, turning the grotesque smile into an even more grotesque sneer of rage.
The poor crewman who just happened to pass him right about then never understood why his head was suddenly flying through the air, looking at its body on the deck, decorating the floor with a puddle of thick, dark red blood. Well. More loot to share. Zuzack retracted his forearm switchblade and leaned on a railing next to his holoimager, peering into the depths of the image, thinking about how much he hated thieves.
"Look!" Coco Cabelle peered into her own holoimager as her second pointed. "There must be over a thousand..."
She glanced at a counter in the lower left quadrant of the image; it was still incrementing upward, though the story it told was already frightening enough. "Two thousand," she said curtly. She looked at the counter again. "No, over two thousand ships now. At least a third are large battle cruisers and other capital ships."
Lizza paled, and all around them, silence fell.
Coco took a deep breath as she looked around at her crew. "We have a problem, people, a very big problem. Fetch me the Key Administrators, Major Lizza. If they refuse to come immediately, have them brought by force."
The Major nodded to a Lieutenant, who hurried away, accompanied by two burly non-coms. The rest of the officers converged on the holoimager in the center of the chamber, staring at the new threat closing in on them like a giant steel fist.
"Launch the beacon?" Key Administrator Tobbis shouted. He was trembling as he continued, "Have you lost your mind? Stop all the trading, close down the markets?" He took a breath, and his face turned in interesting shade of mauve as he screamed, "We would lose half our net worth in an instant if we did that, and it would take years before we could recover! You incompetent fool, you were hired to make sure that the trade never would stop, do you hear me? Never! You'll launch the beacon over my dead body!"
"That could be arranged," Coco said coldly. That shut him up, at least for the moment. "It will, in fact, be over your dead body, and Zala's, and mine and everyone else's if we don't," she continued in a calm voice, staring Tobbis in the eyes while pointing at the oncoming threat on the holoimager.
Tobbis opened his mouth to say something, but it died in his throat when he saw the thousands of ships (the counter was up to 2,312) approaching confidently, knowing that the prey before them would very soon be theirs. He looked at Coco in horror and nodded wordlessly. Both turned their gazes to Key Administrator Zala.
"Calm down, the two of you," she said superciliously. "I have everything under control." Coco rolled her eyes and gestured toward Central Control; Tobbis glanced at Zala and followed. Disdaining the use of the silly little hammer on the chain beside it, Coco used her elbow to break the thin glass facing of a box on the wall. She pulled down the simple mechanical handle inside, and a hatch on the floor irised open. A triangular peak rose into view. Both Coco and Tobbis inserted a small computer card into their respective slots, and two openings appeared on the sides of the peak. They put their hands inside, and shot Zala questioning expressions. "We need your hand print for it to work," Tobbis called.
Zala moved towards them confidently as she surreptitiously tapped at her wristcomp. Some of the security personnel present begun to reach for their weapons as she said, "We will not launch the beacon. I said that I have everything under control, if you would only listen to me."
Coco said threateningly, "You either put your hand were it belongs, Zala, or I will remove it myself and place it there..." She trailed off when she felt the cold composite of a gun barrel on her neck. She turned her head and looked icily at her second-in-command, whom she had worked with for years and had trusted above anyone else at all times.
"Sorry, old friend," Lizza said quietly, "but money can be a powerful persuader."
"You were supposed to be untouchable," Coco snapped.
"Well, I was," Lizza said, "but I realized that the time had come for me to retire from all this shit. You should have listened to Zala."
"Quit blithering, idiot," Zala interrupted. "Take them away and lock them up. I'm sure we can get something for them...from the Gormé, perhaps."
"You slimebag. I should never have trusted you," Tobbis said, as two security guards seized him. "The Merchants will find out, and you'll go down history as the one who started a war between us. This is very bad for any future trade, you idiot!"
Coco shouted for her security crew's help, and half of them reached for their weapons—only to see find the other half already pointing theirs at them. Scowling, she stood slowly and turned around, her former second gesturing for her sidearm. She took the blaster from the holster on her right hip and handed it to Lizza—just before the Major's exploded into a gory blossom of blood, bone, and gray matter. Lizza had no way of knowing that for the last few days, Coco had taken the precaution of strapping a tiny single-shot magma blaster to her wrist. Upon casual inspection, it looked like a wristcomp.
Realizing that the frozen moment of shock that followed was her last chance to rectify the situation, she thrust her elbow into the already-bloody face of Zala, who had bone fragments from the Major's head peppering her cheeks. Zala hit the floor hard with a broken nose and several missing teeth. Meanwhile Coco grabbed Tobbis, who was staring at the whole scene in front of him in disbelief, not understanding what just happened.
As they made for safety, Coco heard a firefight break out behind her. She could only hope that her loyal security officers won. As they pounded down the corridor, she heard Zala's shrill voice rise up: "Get them, get them!"
So much for the hope that some of Zala's nasal bones had been shoved up into her scheming brain.
Coco pushed Tobbis headfirst into her office, grabbed a blaster taped to the lintel, and darted back into the corridor. She saw a group of security officers that she recognized as loyals backing toward her as they poured fire into the security command room; she slammed against the wall and provided cover fire. Four of them made it to her office, though one was hit and fell, screaming, to the deck; Ichigo something. She couldn't remember his last name. Strawberry, maybe?
The other officers took up position next to Coco as a contingent of mutineers fought their way toward her office. Coco shouted toward her loyal people to get inside, but just then, one of them fell with a hole burned through his chest, and one of the others was struck in the leg, falling through her open door. She realized that the fight was over, at least for now, so she shouted to the last officer and they helped pull the survivor into the office. Just as the hatch sealed shut, a plasma blast shook it; she could tell that by the electrical discharges that crawled across it.
Thank goodness the hatch was made of condensed hull metal.
So here she was, sealed into her office with three loyal security men, two of whom were gravely injured, and a trembling Key Administrator who may or may not have been one of the people who had gotten them into this mess in the first place.
Outside, the few remaining loyal security officers were forced to surrender by Zala's superior force; it was either that or death. The outraged Zala spat out a tooth fragment and turned to the most senior surviving officer she had suborned. "Get me on a tightbeam signal to Horsa," she hissed.