The ions stopped exploding off the surface of the ship as it emerged from ultra-drive and the rift in space sealed behind it. The long vessel’s self-effacing dark blue shell continued to repel in glittering sparks the few microscopic particles that had previously occupied the portion of space that the ship now possessed. Four broad fins of a wedge-shaped cross-section ran the entire length of the solid tube shape. At the propulsion end, the fins widened out to form a traditional landing pattern. At the navigation end, the top was contained in a repulsor net of energy that allowed the sensors within to operate without being ripped off or irretrievably dented by space junk. Its light weapons emplacements lay in the angles. Except for the minor fireworks and the glimmer of the net, the ship Little Darling was a narrow bar of darkness across the greater darkness spangled with pinpoints of diamond light. One star stood out among the others. Portent’s Star, a medium-sized blue-white, shone fiercely, its light only faintly bent into the distance by the black hole only half a light-year away that separated the rest of the Castaway Cluster from the vast Imperium. The red light of a stationary navigational warning beacon glowed like a lantern at the doorway of an ancient inn, welcoming the ship and its contingent to the system.
“Good, th’un’s out there,” Captain Iltekinov stated, more for the benefit of the row of distinguished visitors standing behind him on the bridge than for the crew. He received no reply. He pressed his broad back into the tattered, glossy, oxblood-colored padding of his chair and peered over his shoulder. All five of the Councillors, clad in the long yellow robes of the Yolk system, were engrossed in the row of shallow viewscreens attached to the handrails.
“When’s reception return?” Ruh Pinckney, the senior diplomat, demanded. He smacked the side of the display with the flat of his hand.
A blare of sound and a blaze of light made everyone jump.
“There it is,” Tam Quelph announced, pointing at her screen, as the rapid data transmission resumed. The woman peered at the time-coding running along the bottom. The backlit image threw colored lights that blurred her white-blond hair and the elaborate wave patterns of pink on her face with blobs of black, blue and white. “Damn all, we’ve missed over five days of discussion during the transit!”
“Y’can get archives from the First Councillor when y’land,” Iltekinov growled. It wasn’t the first time he had made this observation.
“We’re hopelessly behind,” Quelph complained. “We caught up with a more current stream, and it only shows how late we are!”
“Y’could ask ’em to stop talkin’ ’til you gets there,” the captain suggested. He was tired of the endless grousing and whining of the embassy from the Yolk system. An independent businessman who plied his trade among the inhabited planets and stations within the Castaway Cluster, he normally hauled cargo, mostly dry goods and produce. It all stayed quietly in its containers in the hold and didn’t wear his ears out unnecessarily. He still had a whole ear on one side, but only half an ear on the other. The scar, the result of a fight in a Dree station bar over thirty years before, ran across his face to his nose, digging a ruddy furrow among the dark blue angles and crosshatches of his clan tattoos that covered his cheeks and the bridge of his nose. After thirty years and more plying the spaceways, his least favorite load was politicians. Lucky for him, a full, in-person council meeting was a rare event.
Pinckney, a heavyset man whose dark-green and yellow facial tattoos vanished into the rolls of fat under his swarthy chin, made a sound of outrage at his suggestion. “We have not been introduced to the board yet!” he said. “Our views cannot be noted until we are presented—in person—and been welcomed by the host delegation!”
“Dunno why,” Iltekinov muttered to himself. “Waste of time. Traders don’t bother with face-to-face. Entertainers don’t bother with face-to-face. Law enforcement don’t bother with face-to-face . . .”
Pinckney overheard him. “We will do these things properly, as our governments have done them for two hundred years, Captain,” he said, stiffly. “Representational and in the proper order. We will have to speed-review all of the minutes taken thus far so we don’t delay the others any more than we already have.”
Iltekinov yawned. Once again, Pinckney was trying to blame him for their tardiness. The captain shut out the criticism. He had warned them when they’d first contacted him for passage to Portent’s Star that space travel wasn’t like running a light-rail system in a city. It had been too much to assume that the politicians would pay the least attention to what he’d said, let alone retain it. He was a good Yolkovian, and he had been willing to carry the negotiators to this very important conference on Dree for no other fee than fuel replenishment, in spite of the trip’s interrupting his usual rounds through the Cluster.
Worse yet, the diplomats’ luggage, for five human beings intending to spend less than a month in a location where food, shelter, entertainment and, if necessary, toiletries and clothing would be provided, took up almost a third of his cargo bay, making him leave behind that much of his payload on Yolk 5, also called Setria, the home planet in the system. The councillors could have made up for it by being pleasant, but no, they went on and on about how an ion storm prevented him from picking them up on the day that he had promised, as if they knew anything at all about the rigors of astrogation or physics, for that matter. How in all of nature did the five biggest complainers in the galaxy end up being named as representatives for the entire system of Yolk? He grumbled to himself and started to turn back.
The lone Wichu on the council, Ferat Urrmenoc, looked up from her screen and tipped him a sheepish grin and a wink of one of her big round eyes. The nonhumanoid with the thick, black-tipped white fur was the only one who picked up on what he was thinking. He grinned back at her and settled down in his seat.
A side screen on his personal console ran what they were seeing. The Yolkovian contingent was receiving the minutes of an extended meeting of the advisory council of the Cluster system. He had his screen muted so the transcribed text ran along the top of the image instead of playing audio into the implant in the portion of skull over his left ear. While the combined vid featured visuals, graphics and historic videos in an attempt to liven it up, the content of each learned and lengthy discourse was such boring stuff he wouldn’t bother to listen to it even if he was on a fifty-year sublight haul all the way to the Core Worlds of the Imperium or the center of the Trade Union and had lost his entire collection of action shows and pornography in a database crash, and everyone in the ship he might play basketball with was in a coma, and hidden somewhere in the press of information was the directions to a planetoid full of cut jewels and wanton, willing women. The download wasn’t even good for inducing sleep, since every so often one of the delegates would break into a screaming diatribe, probably out of frustration that he couldn’t strangle all the others.
The Yolkovians ought to feel grateful that they had the rapid data transmission system at their disposal. True, it wasn’t as satisfying as being in the room with your conversation partner, but it was a fast conveyance of information. The system had become vital during the founding of an interstellar community, and evolved greatly over the course of history as that community had evolved. The distance between two planets once meant a nine-hour gap in between sentences. Digital high dispersal transmission had shortened that to nine minutes. Once the FTL border had been broken on energy transfer, one could carry on a conversation between stars with a lag of mere hours, far better than communications carried by the first human ancestors to traverse space, but nothing ever seemed fast enough for people in a hurry. Like the council.
“Now they’re talking about government structure,” Pinckney wailed again.
“Calm yourself, Ruh,” Quelph said. “They cannot make any decisions without us.”
“They might form opinions,” Pinckney insisted.
“Oh, they have plenty of those,” Urrmenoc laughed with the grunting breaths of her kind. “So do we. But listen: they’re saying the same things they were five days ago. We just heard those same arguments. They are not likely to change before we get there. How long now, Captain?”
Iltekinov turned his head around, no longer having to pretend he wasn’t eavesdropping.
“Matter of two shifts,” he said. “We can’t resume ultra-drive within the solar system. Too much disruption might distort the orbit of a planetary body; ’course, you know that. We’ve got to take sublight, runnin’ about point-one-five C. By late third shift.”
Ignoring the grumbling, the captain nodded to his navigator to get Little Darling under way. Natalia Poldin nodded back. She was an old-time spacer, gray eyes crinkled at the corners from ages of staring out ports at the stars. Her clan tattoos were shaped like small teardrops on their sides so they resembled schools of fish swimming toward the bridge of her nose. None of them needed explicit instructions on how to do their job. Iltekinov changed the view on his screen to monitor movement of the asteroids and stray bodies in the belt of debris.
Out here on the edge of the system lifeless rocks the size of small planets rolled and tumbled in a complex pattern that would have made a fine screen-saver. The banging sound that came from the bow of the ship was an artifact, not actual strikes, made by rocks too small to dodge as they met the pure energy of the protective net and exploded into harmless dust repelled by the shield.
There’d been movements over the centuries to urge ships to enter star systems at a beacon set above or below the plane of ecliptic, in order to avoid potential collisions when coming out of ultra-drive, but there was no doubt that it made getting one’s bearings just that much easier to aim for the geographical marker that was the ring of stone and ice around nearly every star’s purlieu. Even longtime spacers were more comfortable having a solid goal than a nebulous point in space one could only see on scope.
The danger of being struck by one of the gigantic rocks was microscopic compared with, say, having a collision with another vehicle in planetary atmosphere. At a distance the belt might look like a gravel road, but close up, the bodies revolving around the heliopause were many kilometers apart.
The real danger lay in ramming into chipped-off chunks of asteroid that were too small to avoid but too big to be easily consumed by the hungry screens at the bow. Energy weapons, controlled by a computer, spotted and picked those off, but the captain liked to keep an eye on the process himself. No human was fool enough to think he had quicker reactions than a computer, but Iltekinov couldn’t help but want to maintain the watch to protect his ship. He was fond of her; they looked after one another.
His screen showed one edge of brilliant white, the splashover energy from the black hole, still powerful in spite of its safe remove from the system. That collapsed star, combined with the distance in between Portent’s Star and the Imperium, the nearest outpost of civilization, served to isolate the Castaways. Once every year or two Iltekinov made the laborious trip to Imperium space or the even longer journey to the Trade Union for luxury goods and technical devices.
At least six huge confederations existed beyond the black hole, and many small ones, such as the Costadetev Federation, the Uctu Autocracy, the Obqin, the Dro-Tan Technocracy, and the Central Worlds, each consisting of hundreds or thousands of star systems. He knew from history programs on the viewtank that many of the races who co-existed in the Cluster with human beings originated in some of those far-off systems, having conquered or been conquered by his kind in centuries long past and forgotten by mutual consent.
Once the Castaways had been part of the Imperium, but that was long ago, before Iltekinov was born. The Imperium was too far away to have any real impact on his life, so he ignored the arguments that went on between historians and politicians. For him, business was the most important factor. He paid his taxes to Yolk’s council, and the money was shared out evenly among the other planets and stations in the Cluster. There were the usual arguments about the wealthier communities paying in more and getting less, stations getting heavily subsidized at the expense of groundbounders, and so on, but little changed over the years. Everybody got educated, fed, protected and physicked, mostly.
Iltekinov didn’t care. All he wanted were safe spaceways and profitable deals. Yolk might be a backwater, even a little inbred, but Yolkovians knew a good life when they had it. He and his fellow Cluster merchants generally policed themselves, preferring not to bring their affairs to the attention of the councils.
The big companies, suppliers of staples such as food, textiles and power supplies, more or less ran everything, but they left openings of opportunity for such small entrepreneurs as himself. He filled a niche, and he was proud of it.
What with the Cluster being as isolated as it was, the merchants formed a close, though non-geographical, community. Meeting another ship on one’s way in sublight was grounds for a friendly greeting, if not time to stop for a moment and exchange drinks. The rare strangers from one of the big alliances knew the custom, and most of them joined in. No doubt, Iltekinov thought wryly, making himself more comfortable in the smooth seat, they thought it was quaint.
Navigator Natalia Poldin glanced up as the proximity alarm went off. Surprised, Iltekinov swung his scope 135 degrees to port and got a distant bloom of a minute heat signature in among the cold rocks, no more than a pinpoint in size. The ship’s ID was unfamiliar. Poldin met Iltekinov’s eyes. He read the worry in hers, and felt it echo in the pit of his gut.
“Someone coming out of the crossing?” she asked. “A visitor?”
The captain counted up ships in his head. “Maybe,” he said. “Otari from the Trade Union was coming this way, but I didn’t think he was due out of Scanama for another couple of weeks, so he’d be months early. Maybe Dagnessen from the Central Worlds?” But Dagnessen wouldn’t hover among the asteroids in the belt. In fact, no one would linger there, unless they were up to no good. It had to have been hiding there, its telemetry concealed by the thick walls of one of the planetoids, waiting for someone to emerge from ultra-drive. Who? Them? No time to guess. The other ship was moving towards them. The captain felt a prickle of fear. Pirates were not unknown in the spaceways.
“Have they hailed us?” Iltekinov called to his purser, Sam Delius. In spite of his human-sounding name, Delius was an Uctu, a Gecko, born in the Autocracy but brought up in the Cluster.
“It has yet to send a hail. I have signalled it thirty-five times now,” Delius replied, his long-lidded eyes fluttering nervously. “All wavelengths, digital and rapid-transmit.”
“Then they don’t want to talk to us.” Iltekinov steeled himself to survive. He slapped the signal in the arm of his seat. “Buckle in! All crew, this is a warning. Stations! We’ve got a stranger out there.”
“Don’t jump to conclusions, Captain,” Pinckney exclaimed. “That’s judgmental.”
Iltekinov didn’t turn around. There was no time to indulge in the irritation he felt. He concentrated on linking into the ship’s computer system through his communications link, freeing his hands for running auxiliary weapons control, if it should come to that. The viewtank responded by zooming in on the other ship as tightly as it could. No details in the visible range yet, but stats began to stack up on the side. Impressive mass it was showing, much greater than the Little Darling. “Councillor, when I hail a ship ten ways from Restday and ’un doesn’t answer, either it’s disabled, an’ y’can see it’s not, or it’s out to get me,” he snapped out smartly. “I didn’t get old like this lettin’ my ship get too close to predators.”
“Predators! Hardly . . . !”
Whatever Pinckney was going to say was interrupted by the flash of light that bloomed in the viewtank in the infrared band. An energy blast! Iltekinov’s heart pounded.
“Turn tail, Nat,” he ordered. “Put on some speed!”
“Aye, Captain!” she replied. She plastered her palms down over the relays. The ship jerked sideways as it came about hard to starboard and up the Y-axis, seeking to put an approaching asteroid between it and the coming blast. The ship’s internal inertia-dampers kicked in a moment later, but not before the five councillors clinging to the rails went rolling into the bulkhead. His eyes glued to the viewtank, Iltekinov heard the banging and swearing. I told them to buckle in, he thought, with just a tiny bit of satisfaction.
“Captain, what are you doing?” Pinckney demanded furiously, clambering to his feet and shaking a fist. “We should sue you for dangerous transport!”
“Councillor, they’re shooting at us,” Iltekinov barked, and immediately tuned out any further ranting. Not since the Pletznik Coupon War twelve years before had he had to use evasion techniques to avoid anything but an asteroid or a piece of tumbling space junk. How that damned Pletznik and his fool associates from Carbon had caused so much controversy over “Grid-based discounts” still made him shake his head. But that was the problem with not having a central government in the Cluster. No uniform laws existed for the redemption of sales offers, or customer protection neither. Iltekinov hadn’t fired the ship’s weaponry except in tests since then, either. He hoped they’d work. But more than that, he hoped he wouldn’t be trapped in a position where he had no move left but to shoot it out. With the distances and the level of force involved in any typical space battle, the chances were good there could be two losers.
He studied the path of the thermal mass fired by the other ship. It didn’t change course when he did, so it had been pure energy, not a missile with tracking capabilities. In his experience that salvo had been in the nature of a warning. But warning him of what? Who was over there?
In the meantime, his ship continued dodging its pursuer. Whenever the other vessel managed to swoop around the last obstacle Poldin put between them, the captain studied the telemetry the computers were assembling about the stranger. It was bigger than they were by a factor of six. The overpowered engines suggested a warship rather than a trader. He’d never seen the configuration before, and his memory of ship design was almost as good as the computer’s. Who could it belong to? And why were they chasing him?
Though he didn’t like taking his hands off the controls, Iltekinov trusted the maneuvering technology, which enabled the Little Darling to maneuver into some impossibly tight berths aboard outdated space stations. The computer assist all but anticipated Poldin’s requirements for speed, kicking the light engines into .3 sublight. The gravity generator moaned at having to maintain internal conditions. Iltekinov knew how it felt.
“Prepare to jump back t’ultra,” Iltekinov ordered. The system “binked” acknowledgement. Figures scrolled along the bottom of his viewtank as it started calculating the safest and longest jump away from that spot.
“What in space are you doing?” Pinckney demanded.
“Gettin’ us out o’ here, Councillor!”
“No!” All five of the guests cried at once.
“We must get to that meeting,” Quelph pleaded, her eyes wide. “Take us to Boske, please!”
Iltekinov felt his blood pressure surge. Could they be such idiots? “Councillors, we’re under attack!”
The other ship emitted another burst of energy. According to the scope, this blob was headed for a collision with Little Darling’s current flight plan. The other fellow was trying to take his measure. Iltekinov swore and slammed both hands on his control panel.
“Evasive action,” the computer’s tinny voice stated in his ear. Red lights flared on, bathing the bridge in a gory glow. A white line appeared on the scope ahead of Little Darling’s nose, showing its revised trajectory. Iltekinov felt helpless. The machines were taking over, just as they had twelve years ago. Straining his body against the straps, he tried to urge the ship to greater speed. He was frustrated. He just couldn’t move fast enough to make a difference. No human could, not even enhanced ones, and there were fewer of those than there’d used to be.
“Strap in, Councillors,” Iltekinov shouted.
The Yolkovians scrambled to the sides of the crowded bridge for the safety seats, battered cups of heavy shock padding laced with flat straps of a material that was slightly elastic. Iltekinov tried not to listen to the minor bickering going on around him as two of the visitors tried to get into the same chair. The ship lurched. Side thrusters had kicked in to avoid a spinning chunk of rock.
To Iltekinov’s horror, the pursuing ship seemed to have no trouble following Little Darling’s twists and turns. As soon as she put a rock in between them, the stranger seemed to crest it, closing the distance between them a little more each time. He armed a precious two of his eight missiles, attached the file of the other ship’s particulars from the telemetry computer and launched them. Twin trails of ions drew away from the Little Darling’s outline in the viewtank, attenuated and disappeared in the distance.
“How long?” he asked. The twitches and facial tension he relayed to the computer meant “How long until we can jump back to where we came from?”
After thirty-three years in the space lanes, his ship understood him, verbal speech or no. “Six point four five minutes.”
An eternity. “When’s it goin’ to catch us?”
“Four point nine seven minutes.”
Iltekinov could smell his own fear. Now he could see the telemetry for the other ship’s weapons systems. It ran fully loaded: lasers, plasma pulse, magnetic pulse and neutron missiles.
“Can we jump sooner?” Pinckney asked.
“Who’s out there?” Quelph asked, her voice shaking. At last it had dawned on them that the danger was real.
“Pirates, most like,” the captain rattled out. Well-financed pirates, but it wasn’t unheard of for a “businessman” to decide it was better to sell goods one didn’t have to pay for in the first place. Enough people in the Cluster lived high lives because the honored Founder of the Family had made his or her pile out of do-it-yourself salvage. The ship’s configuration, put together by the computer, showed a narrow silhouette shaped like a diving bird, all smooth curves angling back from a sharply pointed nose. The shoulder angles of the wings held the main weapons. They were huge.
Hot, red light bloomed on the face of the tumbling, boot-shaped rock they were passing: a plasma burst had found a target. The ancient, pitted stone slagged, forming a vast bowl where there had been a heel-like protruberance. Iltekinov knew his ship’s shielding capability. Little Darling would take tremendous, possibly crippling damage from a bolt like that. Dampening his fears, he looked on the readouts as if they were the stats of a digitavid game.
He scanned the waste, looking for a means of escape. Being constantly in motion, the debris in the heliopause had no memorable geographical points he could recall. But certain features appeared frequently in any of those rocky belts. Iltekinov widened his scope’s view, hoping to locate one of them.
“Do you see it, l’il one?” he murmured to the ship’s computer.
About one minute ahead of them was what he had hoped to find. Collisions occurred regularly, on a galactic scale, among the giants of the ring. A disturbance, possibly triggered by a passing meteor or other body, over the course of centuries might alter the complex orbit, cannoning one or more of the huge rocks into one another. Iltekinov had flown into the cloud of particles from one of these celestial accidents, ranging from microscopic grains of sand to chunks larger than his ship. Unlike most of the belt, the matter was much more concentrated, giving rise to a real possibility of an accident, but Iltekinov intended that it should befall the other ship, not his.
“That way,” he instructed Poldin. “Let’s warm some of th’un up, see if we can lay a false trail and ge’ a moment’s grace. Send some more hails out there.”
Delius fluttered his tongue. “Still no replies, Cap.”
“Keep tryin’. It’s got to be a mistake. Tell ’em we’re traders. Show ’em t’merchandise. Offer ’em a discount!”
Little Darling dove into the clutter. Whining from the reactor fueling the dispeller screens forward testified to the increase in hits on the shield. Iltekinov crossed his fingers, hoping it wouldn’t give out. At the speed they were traveling, even a minute hole would cause a massive implosion. Once they came out the other side of the heliopause, the computers ought to have readied the nav for Yolk.
His hands rocked back and forth on the gunnery controls, pipping off laser blasts aft at friable boulders, hoping to slow down the stranger by filling space still more with obstructions. He knew it was the equivalent of pulling down cardboard boxes in a warehouse pursuit, but what choice did he have?
“We’re losing the signal,” Poldin warned him.
The captain knew it. As it would be for his enemy, his own scopes were blocked by the flying debris. He saw a blip behind them, but the running text along the side broke up and dissolved into gibberish. Why wouldn’t the other ship respond to their communications?
Ahead lay an enormous hollow, fairly clear of debris. Crossing it laid them open to easy attack, but beyond were cheese-holed planetoids they could weave through, and maybe lose the stranger. He shut down all external lights; Little Darling didn’t need them to see to maneuver. In the meanwhile, he could hear Delius sending distress calls to Boske, Portent’s Star’s main inhabited planet, and every beacon. He knew little chance existed for rescue—no one could scramble out of orbit from there or any of the stations throughout the system in time to come to their aid—but at least they could get the word out that there was a predator in the heliopause.
The ship behind them emerged with frightening speed. Now Iltekinov got a good look at it. Sleek as a seal, neat as if it came out of the shipyards that very morning. Even as he studied the outline another burst of hot energy crackled toward them. And then it was gone.
Poldin let out a burst of profanity.
“It’s a drone!” she exclaimed.
Iltekinov made a fist, causing the viewtank to bring in an extreme close view of the last sighting of the pursuer. Sparks burst and fell away from a skeleton framework. Without a drive or navigation, it swerved and crashed into the next big rock. The missiles exploded within seconds against the same asteroid. The captain felt his blood drain.
“If tha’ big ’un was a drone . . . then what’d it come out of?”
“Yii!” yelped Poldin. A bang! resounded under the deck. The ship jerked. Alarms whooped, and the red lights flashed. Iltekinov glanced at the tank. Another burst of plasma had slagged a chunk of rock. It spun out of control and smacked into the side of Little Darling. Seconds later, another alarm sounded. They were bracketing him! Iltekinov scanned the viewtank, his heart in his throat. Where was the ship?
“Computer, ready jump!”
“Two minutes . . .”
“I want it in thirty seconds!”
“Not possible. Please wait.”
Another hit, this one much closer. The councillors were pale and sweating. Iltekinov felt the wetness in his armpits and palms. A drop rolled into his right eye. He dashed it away in irritation.
“Make for that big lump over there,” he ordered Poldin, having the computer bracket the biggest rock he could see. “We’ll hide in there ’til the calculatin’s done, then go like hell hounds’re followin’.”
The Little Darling zipped into the narrow hole. If it had been a planetbound chunk of wood instead of a stone the size of a city, the twisting labyrinth could have been made by a woodworm, instead of an eternity of smaller stones rubbing their irregular but patient way through the bigger one.
Just before they wriggled beyond line of sight of their entry point, thermal scan showed a massive burst of heat. Iltekinov gritted his teeth. The way back had been slagged shut. No choice but to go forward, and hope the enemy didn’t seal every hole in the planetoid before they could escape. Servos whined as the ship negotiated the dark passageways, sometimes coming within centimeters of the rough walls.
The captain checked the viewtank for the other ship. Data fluttered along the margin of a nearly dark screen; there must have been a hefty measure of lead or other ores capable of blocking the scanners. Signals bounded off in every direction. He couldn’t tell where the other ship was. He hoped it was having similar problems watching him.
At a V-intersection, the ship arrowed left. The gigantic stalagmite-like dagger of rock half-blocking the tunnel surprised them all. One of the visitors cried, “Look out!” Little Darling’s shields destroyed it in a blaze of light and smithereens that ricocheted off the sides of the tunnel into the ship again and again like pachinko balls. Iltekinov found himself panting.
“How far?” he asked.
“Six hundred kilometers,” the computer told him. “Five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . one . . .”
“Ready weapons,” Iltekinov commanded, arming four more missiles.
Little Darling shot out into open space. Only a few artifacts, three misshapen asteroids, lay between her and her vector home. Poldin was already laying in the coordinates to avoid them.
Iltekinov read in his own sound effects to match what he was seeing in the viewtank. One after another, the asteroids superheated, slagged and collapsed in on themselves.
From behind the planetoid, the other ship loomed into view like a moon emerging from an eclipse. Iltekinov felt his jaw drop at the very sight of it. Its long, sleek, white-enameled body gleamed, seemingly bejeweled by the gold and red spotlights that illuminated hatches and weapons emplacements. It looked like a longsword, the engines arrayed along the quillons at the rear. The captain looked in vain for lettering on the hull; whoever they were, they didn’t want to advertise their origins. Must be corporate pirates, damn them.
“Guns are going hot again,” Poldin said.
“Can we jump?” Iltekinov asked.
“Ready,” Little Darling replied.
“On my mark, then. Three . . . two . . .”
“Sir, it’s hailing us,” Delius interrupted.
The star-spangled black in the viewtanks were flooded suddenly with light and color. On a yellow background, a green and black banner burst into gaudy view surrounded by the bursts of skyrockets exploding in red, purple, yellow and blue. Blaring trumpets proclaiming a triumphant march took over the shipboard speakers. All the councillors clapped their hands over their ears to block out the din. Iltekinov signalled to Delius to damp it down. The Uctu held his long hands up to his shoulders in a gesture of helplessness.
“They’ve hacked our system, sir!” he shouted.
Iltekinov moaned. He knew he should have upgraded the firewall! “Dammit, override!”
The Uctu bent to his task, yanking levers and palming heat switches.
Poldin shouted, “Sir, they’re trying to break into the protocols for navigation!”
That system Iltekinov knew was up to date. “Block them,” he ordered. “Make for the jump point.”
In the viewtank the banner dissolved slowly, revealing the face of a human male. Handsome by any standards, he had a strong, square jaw, silvery hair brushed back over a broad, rectangular brow. Even his thin, beaklike nose seemed powerful. Glittering, pale sea-blue eyes stared out of deep sockets. His face was clear of any markings or tattoos, showing that he was not a denizen of the Cluster. The man leaned forward, his face filling the tank. Iltekinov found himself staring, unwilling to break eye contact with the image. A screech from the drive systems brought him back to his wits. How dare this man and his big fancy ship interfere with a free trader of the Castaway Cluster? Defiance filled his chest like oxygen. He would show this interloper he wasn’t afraid!
“What can I do for you, stranger?” he asked, as casually as he could.
The image frowned. The councillors gasped.
“I am Captain Sgarthad of the TU destroyer Marketmaker,” the man said. He crossed his arms on his magnificent, broad chest covered with medals. “I order you to stand down your ship and surrender.”
Something about Sgarthad’s rumbling baritone reached deep inside Iltekinov and touched a primal nerve, compelling him to obey, but he saw the increasing energy signature of arming plasma guns. Fury and the pure stubbornness that had helped him survive many seasons running the hazards of the space lanes kicked in.
“When hell freezes over,” he said. “Jumping . . . now!”
“Hold it, Captain!” Pinckney cried, just before the navigator touched the controls on her console. Poldin froze.
“What now, Councillor?” Iltekinov demanded. They were fifteen seconds from an unobstructed jump. In twenty-four seconds the other ship would be between them and their exit.
“You heard the man,” Pinckney said, gesturing toward the viewtank. “Surrender the ship.”
“He wants it.”
Against his better judgement, Iltekinov turned back to look at the tank.
The face within it gazed at them, the light eyes dragging all of theirs deep into them. Iltekinov found himself leaning towards it, wanting to oblige this man. He liked him. No, it was a stronger feeling than that: he wanted to please him. A portion of his mind still rebelled. The computer system was supposed—no, guaranteed—to catch and quarantine hypnotic patterns and other mind-control devices fed through the system. He felt his resistance dropping. He couldn’t look away from Sgarthad. The longer he maintained eye contact, the more he knew he had to do what Sgarthad wanted. What was happening to him? The man’s straight brows rose just a millimeter, inviting him to comply. Iltekinov couldn’t help himself. He had to do what Sgarthad wanted.
“Yes, that’s right. I must.” The captain’s hands fell slack to his lap. The jump timer counted down to zero, then continued to count up, unobserved. Pinckney smiled. The other human councillors smiled, too.
The big face in the viewtank smiled even more broadly.