Shiner was sitting at a table, sipping a drink and contemplating the feeling of being anchored to his chair by gravity, which he had become unaccustomed to.  The stationary, one-family base where he had been born and raised had spun fast enough to simulate one G, but he had left that place as soon as he could and served on a number of spacecraft.  He was in the only club in a mining colony situated on a small asteroid, one of the many inhabited rocks located beyond Mars.  His craft had docked there with food and his crew had been trading for supplies.  Most of that business had already been handled, but the pilot, Stoner, was negotiating for cannabis. She was trying to explain to the seller, an elderly man with the pale, lanky look of someone who had never left the colony, that she needed it for mixing, not to simply get high.  If the old man knew anything about brain interface technology, he would have known what she needed just by seeing the metallic plug protruding from her neck.  Shiner did not fully understand it himself.  To interface her brain with her implants, Stoner needed to activate some part of her nerve cells, receptors maybe, which were normally unused.  It took a specific strain of cannabis mixed with a lithium solution to work.  Their craft could be operated manually, but was a whole lot quicker when Stoner’s brain was controlling her directly.

            As the negotiation dragged on, Stoner figured out that the seller had Gizmo, as the strain of cannabis she needed was called, but was being difficult to raise the price.  She stood and put a hand on the narrow saber attached to her belt.

            “We can take what we want,” she pointed out, leaning over the old man. Stoner was a chunky woman with the exotic look of a person of mixed race, made more exotic by her shaved head, abstract tattoos and the metallic implants poking out of her neck on either side.  Carrying a saber also identified her as a pirate, as did the katana Shiner wore.  Pirates had revived the use of such anachronistic hand-to-hand weapons for boarding spacecraft, as it was not in their interest to endanger themselves by firing projectile weapons in enclosed spaces or to risk damaging a potential prize from inside by using lasers.

            Shiner put a hand on Stoner’s arm and her angry gaze shifted from the old man to him.  “These people have already paid for protection,” he said, quietly.  Technically, she and the rest of the crew were his subordinates, but the kind of people who would join a pirate crew did not respond well to orders, so Shiner had cultivated a tough but low-key demeanor.  Besides, he had seen this dance before.  Stoner had no intention of extorting a supplier and was counting on him to restrain her before her bluff was called.  Anyone who knew the game knew that, when pirates robbed people they were protecting, the victims would stop paying and organize defenses or, worse yet, hire someone else.

            “He’s lying,” she protested.

            “He’s not the only vender we can buy from,” Shiner said with a smirk. Stoner’s hard look faded.  It was true that they could buy from someone else, but Stoner had almost run out of Gizmo and they would have to fly around looking for another vender if she could not make a deal here.  Of course, the old man did not know that.  Stoner sat down and the two continued to haggle until the deal was done.

            Shiner sat back, listening to the happy dance music coming from the club’s speakers.  He began to go through his memories.  After leaving home, he had gone from one spacecraft to another, taking any job he could get and learning as he worked.  He had served on everything from freighters and passenger liners to mercenary and pirate craft while setting aside enough to pay for his own craft and crew.  Once he had purchased his own modest spacecraft, he had hired her out to help defend asteroid colonies and bases, both from other criminals and military craft from Earth.  That kind of work had allowed him to trade up and having a more powerful spacecraft had allowed him to make a name for himself.  The locals knew who Shiner-M was, although only a few knew his real name.  From there, he had eased into the roll of a pirate who collected protection money and boarded spacecraft. He had cultivated a reputation as a protector of the locals and an enemy of anyone who tried to move in on their business.  It would be useful, as any pirate had to rely on the locals for supplies.  His crew had gone from four to five when he had hired Stoner.  She had installed everything she needed to interface with the craft and, although the technique had a reputation for being risky, she had improved maneuvering capability and reaction time significantly.  There was also Purple-Bull, named for his favorite tee shirt, who served as a gunner.  Shiner did not know where he was, probably looking for a whore of some kind or another.  Doctor G, the craft’s doctor and oldest member of the crew, was quietly drinking alone at a nearby table, while Turk, the craft’s mechanic, was sitting at the bar. She was a youngster, maybe a teenager or a little older, and was talking and laughing with some impressionable locals her own age.  A good crew, Shiner thought to himself.  They knew how to put work first and knit together well on board.  As pirates, the crew of the Prakella was doing well.  They were protecting four lucrative mining colonies and a handful of orbiting bases in addition to looting the occasional score, mostly freighters from Earth whose personnel thought they could charge whatever they wanted for those products that only a life-bearing planet could provide.  The craft herself was the product of the mass production used by Earth’s military, but had been customized to carry cargo and serve as a home on long voyages since Shiner’s crew had taken her.

            Earth’s government believed that, just because their union had the authority to keep the planet’s various countries in line, they could take charge of the entire solar system.  Every now and then, military spacecraft would show up to start a fight over some violation or offense.  The people they went after typically did not even know why they had come and were bewildered.  Most locals saw Earth’s military as something like a natural hazard and would prepare defenses any time they were approached by military craft.  That was one of the reasons why the locals were willing to pay for protection. Pirates like Shiner and his crew were another reason.  Granted, Shiner had never fired on a defenseless base or colony, but he was not above making the threat to promote his services.  A pirate who did not at least imply that refusal to pay for protection would provoke an attack would look like a punk and punks did not get paid.

            Stoner interrupted his thoughts.  “Buy you a steak, boss?” she offered.  She had made her deal and some of the pockets of the vest she wore over her black fatigues were bulging.  This was her way of offering him a taste.  Of course, the steak would be a simulation constructed of pressed food, some of which would be meat if he were lucky, purchased using a credit card linked to the crew’s shared account, but it was the thought that counted.

            The two of them ordered a rich meal and waited, nursing their drinks and making conversation.

            “Think we can stay here a few shifts?” Stoner asked eagerly.  Like nearly everyone who lived in space, Shiner’s crew measured time in eight-hour shifts.

            “Don’t know,” Shiner said thoughtfully.  “Have you heard that a fleet from Earth is blockading Windigo’s Rock? Nice opportunity for salvage.” 

Windigo’s Rock was a thorn in the side of those on Earth who were interested in law and order. It was a small town situated on a large asteroid.  The community had begun as a mining colony but their asteroid had little in the way of mineral wealth.  The inhabitants had set up just enough steerage to change the rock’s orbit. Their new course took them relatively close to Earth and then out to less well-organized places.  The town had gained material success through the various black markets that the Earth had to offer.  Unsurprisingly, this did provoke the authorities back on Earth.

            “Nice opportunity to get shot at if we go too soon,” Stoner pointed out. Stoner always tried to prolong any leave on an inhabited rock and Shiner figured she would quit the crew and join a community as soon as she believed she had profited enough to buy in. “When locals mix it up with Earth forces, it always takes scavengers like us forever to find everything.”

            She was right.  Windigo’s Rock was large enough to mount defenses of the class normally used by a planet or moon.  A direct assault using spacecraft would be suicidal and the inhabitants were always careful to keep just out of range of munitions on the Earth and the Moon.  It was a nice arrangement.  Shiner had always wondered how they were able to steer a rock that size.  He supposed it was a trade secret, because nobody seemed to know.  Currently, Earth craft had found Windigo’s Rock and taken up positions just outside the range of her weapons.  The idea was to starve her out and they would attack any craft that refused to turn away.  Shiner thought it was a bad idea, since locals on a rock that size could grow their own food.

            “We could pick up supplies and run the blockade,” Shiner suggested.

            Stoner chortled.  “Fuck that!”

            “Good for the reputation,” Shiner pointed out.  Windigo’s Rock’s locals were popular and standing up to Earth would look tough and righteous.

            “Better to live small than die big,” Stoner grumbled.

            “You can do it,” Shiner declared.  “I’ve seen how our craft can maneuver when that brain of yours is using it for a body and you just scored a nice load of Gizmo.”

            “Easy for you to say.”  Her voice had taken on a mock-defiant tone as if she were teasing him with her complaints.  “You don’t feel it when we get hit.  I’d bet you don’t even feel the pull when we turn.”  She was right, more or less.  When Stoner was plugged into the craft’s piloting system, she would feel any damage taken as pain.  Also, military craft were equipped with some inertia shielding, as any spacecraft’s maneuvering capabilities were limited by the risk of harm to the crew posed by the inertial pull of turning.

            Shiner spoke loudly and with pride, which was as close to praising his crew as he ever came.  “We can do it!  My crew can do anything! And it ain’t the first time we won against tight Earthling snobs!”  He had the room’s attention and was favored with a variety of smiles from the audience, ranging from knowing grins to phony smirks.  Shiner shot some looks around as if he did not welcome eavesdropping and people shifted their attention back to what they had been doing.

            Stoner sighed.  “Your call, boss,” she acquiesced.

            “Anyway, I’m in no hurry to leave,” he admitted, letting Stoner know he had heard her after all.  “The blockade could last forever.”  Shiner had only been disagreeing to let her know he was still the boss.  He knew she was right but he could not let a grumbling pilot get the better of him if he wanted to stay in charge.

            Their food arrived and the two pirates ceased discussing business while the waitress was there.  Stoner started a conversation about the club’s entertainment.  It was not much, no more than a sparsely populated dance floor, drinks, digital music provided by speakers in the ceiling and a few dice games.  After patrolling their territory in a spacecraft, however, it was plenty.  Soon, the two of them were comparing it to diversions offered by other colonies and bases while they ate.  Shiner divided his attention between chatting with Stoner and keeping an eye on Turk.  The young lady had moved to another table and become involved in a dice game and Shiner knew from experience that he should keep an eye on her when she was gambling.  She seemed to be doing well, going by the brief but loud celebration that she occasionally indulged in.  Shiner let her have her fun for a while before walking over to the table.  Turk seemed to be the only player in a game run by two young men, one dressed in a cheap suit which was probably as close as he could come to looking successful and the other in black miner’s overalls with the hard and watchful air of someone in the roll of muscle.

Shiner leaned over Turk’s shoulder and spoke softly.  “Might be best to quit while you’re ahead this time,” he suggested.

Turk’s answer was a look that said she was disappointed but knew he was right.  She turned to the young man in the suit.  “I need to cash out,” she said.

“I need a shot at winning my money back,” the gambler answered, his eyes on the table with a calculating look. 

“Cash me out,” Turk demanded, standing.

The gambler responded with an unhappy look into Turk’s eyes and then a prompting glance to his companion.  The local in the overalls stood.  He was tall with the solid build that came with hard labor and wore a cylindrical hand-laser on the tool belt around his waist.  Shiner stood up straight next to Turk and put a hand on his katana while Turk palmed the hilt of the titanium gladius strapped to her thigh.  Stoner had quietly followed Shiner over and moved to his side, looking grim.  For a moment, there was a standoff.  The local’s hand paused over his laser while the gambler sat still, trying to look cool but tough.  The three pirates stood looking formidable.  All three wore black fatigues and vests with two rows of small pockets, which served as luggage but could be concealing any sort of surprise.  Shiner was a tall, slim and brown, easily as big as the local in the overalls and more grizzly.  Stoner had a wild, wide-eyed look in her brown eyes that, combined with her hairlessness, tattoos and naked implants, made her look maniacal.  Turk, although small and thin, had her brown hair tied back under a military style black cap and was smiling a condescending little smile that asked if there really was going to be a fight.

The local did have a laser against their swords, but he and the gambler knew who the three pirates were.  They were part of the crew of a spacecraft that most likely had nuclear missiles on board and, in any case, could easily blast the little colony he called home into vapor.  The gambler shrugged.  “Win some, lose some,” he admitted, trying to look like he did not care.  He placed a palmtop computer on the table, pushed a few buttons and showed it to Turk, who nodded.

The local in the overalls sat back down and relaxed.  The three pirates filed away, each giving the gamblers a hard look as they departed.  At another table, Doctor G finished his drink with a gulp and moved quietly after his crewmates.  The four of them used the club’s exit, which opened into an underground walkway leading to the colonists’ s apartments, five of which were being used by the crew. As Stoner and Doctor G went to their quarters, Shiner stood by Turk’s door.  She paused before opening it.  Turk’s apartment was next to Purple-Bull’s and a napkin with the words “Do Not Disturb” written in bold black marker decorated his door.  Shiner waited until he and Turk were alone before speaking.

            “What did you win?” he asked with a friendly smile.

            “Fifteen-hundred credits,” she answered.

            Shiner chuckled.  “Local credits,” he commented derisively.  A colony would typically have its own system for providing credits, which were usable as local currency but had no value elsewhere.

            “He added them to our account,” she said defensively.  She was referring to the shared account that held their protection money, which existed somewhere on the colony’s internet.  The five pirates had access to it for the duration of their stay.

            “And you like winning,” Shiner observed.  He knew Turk cared more about the thrill of the game than what was actually at stake.  “Can be trouble.”

            “No one here’ll take us on,” she objected.

            Shiner nodded.  The chances that Turk would cause a real problem were slim at that time and place. “It’s always a good idea to keep your eyes open,” Shiner cautioned gently.

            Turk smirked.  “Yes, boss,” she answered before opening the door to her apartment.  He knew she was only placating him.

            Shiner went to his own apartment.  His quarters were typical of colonial life, consisting of an underground recreation room with a mattress on a large shelf in one corner for a bed, a sink and microwave oven on the other side for a kitchen and one door, in addition to the entrance, that led to a bathroom.  There was also a cabinet against one wall, a couch and a few chairs stacked out of the way.  Shiner went to the cabinet and opened it, exposing a computer monitor.  He had left the keyboard on the couch, so he sat down and tapped a key.  The computer started and connected itself to the colony’s internet.  Like most local internets, there was one search engine for everyone and Shiner used it to peruse videos while making a mental note to move as many of them as he could to his palmtop computer and add them to his craft’s inventory later.  In addition to giving the crew something to watch between duty shifts, videos were often a valuable commodity for swapping.

            Most of the videos were amateur documentaries about local personalities and issues.  Gossip on video in other words. Shiner found some actual movies, both high-end cinema from Earth and independent frontier theater, which he downloaded.  He found and watched a documentary about the blockade of Windigo’s Rock.  It had an ideological slant, the noble proponents of free trade and personal liberty standing up to power-hungry bureaucrats from Earth and their brainwashed, hateful pawns, but the video was also a source of intelligence for one who could read between the lines.  It did contain an overt offer to make it worthwhile for anyone daring enough to run the blockade, especially if they brought food.  Shiner could also tell from what he saw that the defenders had plenty of nuclear missiles and long-range lasers, as well as custom gunner software for targeting incoming munitions.  Shiner could picture a fight between Windigo’s Rock locals and an Earth fleet. The fleet of military craft would surround the asteroid and test its defenses with long-range missiles, probably pulsers and maybe nukes.  If they detonated close enough to the target, the electromagnetic pulse that pulser warheads were named for could cause an electrical blackout of any unshielded equipment that was running at the time.  However, it was unlikely that the defenders would let that happen, either by failing to install shielding around important equipment or due to the absence of what most combatants referred to as “the button”, a single switch to temporarily cut all power before a pulse could overload any electrical systems.  Any locals using nukes had to decide how much nuclear material to put in a warhead.  A high yield missile that could wipe out enemy craft needed more fuel and would have to get past lasers and defensive missiles to deliver its payload.  A lower yield per missile meant more of them and higher velocity at the expense of range.  They were more useful for disintegrating incoming missiles, as a defensive missile did not have to make it all the way to an enemy craft. Most colonies and bases kept plenty of short-range missiles at the ready.  No space traveler was particularly worried about the radiation or shock wave from a nuke blast.  Anything in space had to be shielded from background radiation to begin with and there would be no shock wave in a vacuum.  Also, any missile would have to evade lasers.  Everyone had lasers and gunners, aiming software, or a combination of the two for melting incoming missiles.  The Earth, on the other hand, had no shortage of high-yield nukes, but did not like to use them against anything inhabited.  Military personnel preferred to use pulsers, but nuking a particularly troublesome target was not unheard of.  So, the Earth-craft would launch long-range missiles, which tended to be heavy with fuel and, therefore, slower than short-range munitions, and the defenders would send a short-range nuke after anything they were not able to melt with lasers.  The military craft would then close in and the adversaries would heat each other with lasers.  The rock’s lasers would be bigger than anything a spacecraft could carry and the Earth fleet would take heavy losses.  The defenders could also use their short-range nukes against military craft if they came too close.  What had happened seemed obvious to Shiner.  Windigo’s Rock was too hard a target for a fleet to take on in a direct assault, so Earth military had taken up positions out of range and blockaded the asteroid.  Of course, that would attract local allies to the defenders’ cause, making a blockade rather difficult.  “Typical cocky Earthlings,” Shiner though.

            Shiner began to plan a way that he and his crew could take advantage of the situation.  The documentary had been filmed soon after the blockade had begun and probably broadcast to everyone within range.  Once broadcast and received as e-mail, the locals would certainly pass it around.  From what little he had heard, the blockade had been implemented and was still ongoing.  Some craft would try to run it but, if they survived, they would probably have to stay at Windigo’s Rock rather than give the enemy the opportunity to blast them on the way out.  Also, military craft needed to be supplied, which meant that pirates and mercenaries would be attempting to pick off supply convoys.  Shiner wondered if the military would form convoys of freighters or send military craft as escorts.  Sometimes, they would even disguise an automated craft as a supply transport and rig her to explode once an enemy was lured into boarding a seemingly easy score.  Shiner would have to remember to take a close look at his targets.  He decided it was best to wait and let his crew enjoy more leave, betting that the blockade would not end soon.  Given time, his competitors would be thinned out, either by losing fights with Earth craft or going home with a prize. Shiner would give the locals and Earth military time to wear each other out and then go looking for salvage or targets soft enough for a boarding raid.

            Shiner decided to sleep on it and let his crew know that he was in no hurry to depart.  The five of them remained on leave for several shifts, killing time until their remaining local credits had been spent on entertainment and goods to be swapped at some point in the future.  When Shiner decided it was time to go, he e-mailed the rest of the crew to come to the craft when they were ready.  Doctor G showed up first, greeting Shiner with a salute before going to his quarters.  The old man hardly ever spoke and it was easy to forget he was around.  Shiner did not keep track of how long he waited before Stoner and Purple-Bull arrived.  He was on the bridge when they showed up, freshly shaved and wearing clean fatigues.  They sat and put on their seatbelts without interrupting their chatter.  As usual, they had no need to unpack as they had stowed their purchases on board the docked craft while still on leave.  Shiner noticed that they had left the pilot seat vacant.  He did not have to tell them that he would handle the takeoff using manual controls.  Shiner sat at the pilot seat and turned on his monitor.  He had loaded all of the videos he had taken from the local internet onto the hard drives attached to the craft’s computer system.  He searched the inventory and found the Windigo’s Rock documentary, opened it, displayed it on the main monitor built into the fore wall of the bridge and waited for Stoner and Purple-Bull to notice.

            It was question and answer time as they watched.  Purple-Bull was quick to point out that, although he had scored missiles, they were of the short-range variety, small and fast but without the range needed for offensive use.  Shiner knew him well enough to get the point.  The missiles and lasers they had on board could stop incoming munitions, but they would not be able to assault another craft until they had something with range.  As always, stoner was in favor of any option involving less risk to the crew, although her past service had demonstrated that she did not have a problem with following a high-risk plan, once Shiner had decided to execute one.  She was more assertive than was appropriate for a subordinate, but she was the one with the implants and the skill to make the most of an interface system and she knew how valuable it made her.  Eventually, the decision was made.  Although it was up to Shiner, he preferred using persuasion to giving orders at any time he had the luxury of discussion.  The crew would follow his plan to skirt the blockade and scavenge salvage.

            Eventually, Turk arrived.  The bulging pockets of her vest made it obvious that she needed to unpack before takeoff.  “Hey,” she greeted the crew with cool familiarity.

            Stoner smirked and said “hey” back while Purple-Bull answered her greeting with his usual flirty, deep “hello”.  Shiner simply smiled and nodded before speaking.

            “We will be scavenging the edge of the blockade,” Shiner told her.

            “Any chance for a score?” the young woman asked.

            “We’ll score something, I’m sure,” Shiner said with certainty.

            “I need to unpack and run through the checklist,” Turk pointed out.  The crew had put together a checklist to make sure the craft and her contents were secure and ready for takeoff.  Turk, as the least senior of the crew, had been stuck with the tedious task of using said checklist.

            “We have time,” Shiner acknowledged.

            “Would you like a hand?” Purple-Bull asked with a smile that offered more than help.

            “I can do it,” Turk told him.

            “True, but would you like help?”  Purple-Bull was grinning.  Shiner gave him a cautionary look.  He knew that both Turk and Stoner had rejected his advances and did not want the gunner to start something.

            Turk favored her crewmate with a playful, knowing smile.  “And you want to help yourself to...” Stoner chortled.

            “Carry on,” Purple-Bull said with a shrug.

            Before long, Turk returned to the bridge wearing fresh fatigues and took a seat at her customary station, consisting of a monitor and keyboard on a shelf, facing the starboard wall across from the gunner’s station that Purple-Bull occupied.  She put on her seatbelts, turned on the monitor and opened the program that let her use the long-range sensors.  Shiner began typing after a quick look around to make sure everyone was ready.  The forward monitor came to life and used the craft’s cameras to simulate a window in the front of the bridge as the engines started, sending vibrations through the interior walls.  Shiner could hear Stoner instructing Doctor G to get ready.  He put his hand on the control stick, mounted to the right of the pilot’s station, and waited with his eyes on his monitor before pushing a key.  He nudged the point-of-view hat on top of the stick and the craft eased into position, turning and tilting until the main monitor was looking up and forward, relative to the surface of the asteroid.  He pushed the stick forward and the craft accelerated, leaving the asteroid behind and maneuvering around other spacecraft that were coming or going.  Soon, he had cleared the traffic around the colony and settled into a steady course in the general direction of Windigo’s Rock’s last known position.

            “Turk?” Shiner asked with his eyes on his monitor.  He could hear the young lady typing intermittently as she checked the craft’s systems.

            “We’re steady,” she answered, confirming that the Prakella was on a course free of turns and speed changes.  The crew undid their seatbelts and drifted out of their seats in weightlessness.

            “How long we got?” Stoner asked, preparing to configure her palmtop computer to chime when she would need to prepare for maneuvers.

            “Eight shifts”, Shiner answered.  “Anyone want first shift?”  Purple-Bull volunteered.  At least one crewmember was on duty at all times, more or less for a shift, and whoever went first would not have a turn for at least thirty-two hours.  Shiner had always allowed his people to take turns, swap and work out their own schedule.  Customarily, a commander did not have to take duty shifts but Shiner did his share and typically volunteered whenever all the swapping of shifts led to a disagreement.

            Turk and Stoner made their way to the exit, presumably headed for their respective quarters, while Shiner went to what had been Turk’s seat and opened a video game he had picked up somewhere.  Purple-Bull stayed on duty, reading something or other on the computer, with the craft’s alarm system on and camera input visible on his monitor. The crew settled into their onboard routine of finding things to do until they reached their destination. Doctor G was on duty when the need to turn off the craft’s piloting software arose.  As usual, the palmtop computers that all crewmembers carried with them chimed at once and they dropped everything and rushed to the bridge. The Prakella was approaching a wreck of some sort, but all Doctor G knew was that it looked man-made.  While on duty, the crew had been using the cameras in long-range mode to look for the blockade and the Prakella was approaching what might have been it, although they could not be sure from a distance. The presence of a wreck would mean that they were on the right course.

            Stoner was the last to arrive.  She was using her inhaler, a small tank with a clear, plastic mask that fit over her mouth and nose, to inhale Gizmo and one could see that she was ready for piloting by the slow and deliberate way she moved.  She took the pilot seat, put on her seatbelts, plugged a cord into her implants and closed her eyes as her body relaxed into a sleep-like state.  When she spoke, her voice came out of all computer monitors on the bridge at once.

            “It’s definitely a wrecked spacecraft!  It’ll take a closer look to find out whose.”  The Prakella slowed, turned while spinning slightly and sped up as she closed in on the wreck.  “Looks like what’s left of a local craft after a pulser hit and laser cooking.”

            “Dead?” Shiner asked.  He waited, knowing that Stoner was looking the wreck over, using the Prakella’s cameras as eyes and cycling through infrared, X-ray and electromagnetic modes.

            “The life support is still on in two rooms!” Stoner observed with urgency. The crew knew that there might be survivors, especially if a pulser had been used.  Earth military tended to use pulsers as they saw disintegration, either using nukes or slamming an enemy with a kinetic slug, to be too extreme for their morally correct sensibilities.  Pirates and mercenaries knew the truth, however.  The soft kill would be the more merciful option if military craft actually stopped to pick up the survivors but, in reality, it meant that the target’s crew would die slow, waiting in what was left of their craft until they ran out of air.  Most spacefarers would rather go quickly.

            “Docking?” Shiner asked.

            “Docking!” Stoner confirmed as the Prakella decelerated and turned her below hull toward the wreck.  The craft’s four retractable docking clamps whirred to life, making the metallic walls of the bridge vibrate with mechanical noise and acting as robotic hands when Stoner reached out to grab the wreck.  The crew could feel their craft lock herself into place as she docked.

            “Suit up, everyone!” Stoner prompted without waiting for Shiner to give the order.

            Shiner, Purple-Bull and Turk pushed off the walls and swam down the craft’s main corridor to the airlock set in the below hull.  The Prakella had three other entrances, but they were not designed to be used in space and would remain sealed until the craft was docked somewhere with an atmosphere.  The crew met Doctor G by the airlock.  He was already wearing his plain, white spacesuit with a medical insignia on the chest that marked him as a doctor.  He was organizing a bag of instruments and other medical paraphernalia as best he could with his gloves on and seemed not to look up when the others arrived, although he may have turned his head under his immobile helmet.  The spacesuits were stored in lockers by the airlock, so each crewmember went to a locker to retrieve a suit and gear. Shiner’s suit was a military issue dark blue armored suit with empty marks where insignia of rank had been removed, which he had acquired from a score.  Purple-bull’s was completely black and Turk’s was the same plain white as the doctor’s, but with an insignia of unknown origin, a bat with its wings spread, on the chest.  Once their suits were on, they went through their gear and placed tools and hand-to-hand weapons on their utility belts.  Shiner set his helmet’s built-in phone to conference mode.

            “Sound-off, please,” he requested, following the routine.

“Here,” Turk said, followed by Purple-Bull’s cheery “Oopee-Doopy”.

            Stoner’s voice came over the line.  “Hearing,” she said, sounding distracted.

            Shiner waved to Doctor G, who was attaching his medical bag to his belt. The Doctor’s voce came on line.  “Working?”

            “Affirmative,” Shiner responded.  He entered the airlock and the others followed.  Shiner drew his Katana as he hovered and waited for the inside door to close and the outside door to open.  The others took the cue and readied weapons.  Doctor G placed a large scalpel in a custom pocket in the palm of his glove, Turk drew her gladius and Purple-Bull held his laser-axe casually.  His weapon was a double-bladed, compact axe with a combat-grade laser built into the handle.  Shiner preferred to carry one of each and kept his laser on his belt, as combined weapons had a reputation for being less well balanced as hand-to-hand weapons and one risked damaging the laser with impact.  However, Purple-Bull saw his laser-axe as a handy device.

            When the airlock opened, the crew moved out to the surface of the wreck. All of them had experience moving in weightlessness.  Small motions with one’s arms and legs were enough to drift in a desired direction or turn.  It was something like slow swimming, once one got the hang of it.  The exterior of the wrecked craft was intact, although she had obviously been cooked.  In combat between spacecraft, lasers were typically used to heat a point on an opposing craft’s hull in order to make something give, usually the engines, or burn a hole in the exterior. An experienced observer could tell what had happened to the wreck just by looking.  Lasers had been used to heat the hull without concentrating on any particular point, a technique often called cooking.  The process had softened the hull, which had become warped and rough as it cooled.  The damage was particularly bad.  A functioning craft would have been able to avoid being cooked so extensively using evasive maneuvers.  It seemed that the attacking craft had succeeded in disabling her with pulsers and then moved in close, in order to cook her with multiple lasers.  If Stoner was right, the attackers had then left without checking for survivors.

            Shiner put the headlight on his helmet on its widest setting and swam above the hull, searching.  He found a sealed door, which would definitely not open as the cooked hull around it was misshapen.  “I think we should cut in,” he suggested.  “Here?”

            “On it,” Purple-Bull acknowledged, drifting over with his laser-axe at the ready.

            “Or, we could do this the easy way,” Stoner pointed out.  “Move aside?”

            “Moving aside,” Shiner said, a little smug.  Once the rest of the crew had moved to a safe distance, one of the Prakella’s short-range lasers pivoted toward the ruined door.  Although they could not see the laser’s beam, they could see precise cuts being made around the edge of the door.

            “Done,” Stoner confirmed.  Shiner went to the door and gave it a tentative shove, careful to avoid touching a hot part.  The door drifted inward, leaving a dark, square hole.  Inside the wreck, the atmosphere must have been long gone, or it would be blowing out into space.

            “How long?” Shiner asked.

            “I’ll let you know when it’s safe,” Stoner answered.  Shiner knew that she could tell how hot the edges of the door-hole were by using the Prakella’s cameras in infrared mode.  The pirates hovered over the wreck and waited.

            “Not a rich score,” Turk pointed out after a pause.

            “Never know,” Purple-Bull said hopefully.

            “Her hold could have anything and we are out of long-range missiles,” Shiner pointed out.

            “Think we will find survivors?” Turk wondered.

            “Looks like a one-man custom job to me,” Shiner said, calculating.  “If Stoner hadn’t spotted the life support, I would have figured she was automated.”

            “Life support is barely running and only in one or two rooms.” Stoner said informatively.  “I can make out something that could be a body, but it’s not moving.  Could be someone in bad shape, a corpse or an empty suit for all I know.”

            “Where?” Doctor G asked.

            “Center-aft,” said Stoner.  “Most likely quarters, definitely sealed.”

            Turk made an unintelligible yucky sound and Purple-Bull agreed with a grunt. They had all seen it before.  A person trapped on board a damaged craft, usually someone who, like themselves, was independent and without friends to call on.  All one could do was seal oneself in an intact room and wait for the air to run out.  If the communication equipment were working, a distress call would be an option.  Whoever answered would either help or finish off the crew and either eventuality was better than a slow death.  Shiner and his crew all knew that this could just as easily happen to them.  It was one of the risks they had to live with in their profession.

            “Sensors telling you anything else?” Shiner asked.

            “Her electrical system is dead except for life support, which must have been rigged somehow,” Stoner answered.

            “Cargo and armaments?” Shiner wanted to know.

            “No cargo I can see.”  She paused, most likely taking a closer look.  “She has weapon ports for long-range missiles that may or may not be empty.  Everything’s a mess, so you will have to cut open the launchers to find out.  Her lasers are junked.”  Shiner thought for a moment.  This had to be a one-crew.  Anyone who could put a crew together would not be alone and using internal long-range launchers, as opposed to external clamps, was indicative of a surprise attacker of some sort.  One-crews had a nasty reputation for insanity.  Some were not all there to begin with, hence the absence of companions, and prolonged isolation as the only person on board a small craft could make anyone lose touch.

            “Food?” Turk asked.

            “What used to be an on-board garden is aft,” Stoner answered.  “Air’s gone and I doubt there’s anything useful.  You’re good to go.”  Shiner narrowed the beam of his headlight and the others followed suit.  Doctor G made for the hole, but Shiner stopped him with a gesture.  As captain, going in first was his responsibility.  Shiner pushed his way through the hole and entered the darkened corridor beyond.  Doctor G followed in the sort of hurry a doctor responding to an emergency would be in. Turk went next and Purple-Bull brought up the rear.  The interior was intact but barren and dark.  Shiner led the way straight to a sealed door that must have provided access to the center-aft quarters.  Doctor G swam past him and poked the button to the right of the door.  Nothing.

            “We will have to cut our way in,” Shiner said with a little smugness. Doctor G had used the switch out of habit although he knew the power was out.  Shiner drew his laser from his belt and aimed with care while Purple-bull and Doctor G traded places next to him.  Purple-Bull aimed his laser-axe carefully.  He and Shiner cut the door at its edges with the precision of experienced scavengers and air pushed them gently as it rushed out.

            Shiner and Purple-Bull clicked off their lasers and then Shiner gave the door a tentative shove, causing it to drift gently inward and him to float backward. Doctor G pushed off the wall of the corridor and shot through the doorway, shoving the floating door aside without waiting for the edges to cool.  His headlight frantically searched for a patient.  He found the body belted to the far wall of the small, cramped living quarters, showing no signs of life although not obviously dead either.  He was male and looked like a caricature of a one-crew.  His hair and beard were long and unkempt, made more obvious by the way hair floats in weightlessness, and he was barefoot and dressed in blue pajamas.  The doctor cut the belts that held him to the wall with his scalpel.

            Suddenly, the man’s eyes fluttered open.  At first, he was crazed and squirming, panicked but feeble, but was obviously relieved as he noticed the medical insignia on the doctor’s suit.  Doctor G worked quickly.  He pulled a transparent bag from his medical kit, unfolded it, and unzipped it so that it expanded.  Soon, the patient was inside the bag and the doctor was inflating it using the flexible hose attached to one side.  Doctor G sampled the patient’s air mix and added oxygen from the rebreather built into his own suit with the usual objective detachment he displayed when treating a patient.  His patient gasped greedily and then relaxed, thanking the doctor with a look.

            “Turk, want to help the Doctor while Purple-Bull and I check this wreck?” Shiner asked.

            “And miss a shot at salvage!” Turk objected.

            “We can divide and swap when the salvage job is done,” Shiner pointed out.

            “No holding out?” Turk negotiated.

            “Better not be!” said Stoner.  Knowing that Stoner would be watching satisfied Turk.

            Turk helped Doctor G move the clear, cigar-shaped balloon that held his patient. The two of them guided it down the weightless, dark corridor and out the door-hole.  Shiner could hear Turk and Stoner on his phone and knew that they were successful in moving the patient onto the Prakella and into Doctor G’s quarters, where the old man had set up a makeshift treatment room.  Meanwhile, Shiner and Purple-Bull split up and gave the craft a thorough search.  Shiner found very little worth taking, as most of the equipment had been destroyed.  He figured the only way he would make money off of this wreck would be to have it scrapped.  He knew of several miners who would buy it cheap, melt it down and add it to their inventory of raw materials.  However, Shiner figured that the fuel it would take to tow it themselves would cost more than the wreck was worth as scrap, so he decided to simply e-mail his friends to let them know where it was.  At least he would take away an improvement in relations with whoever did the job.

            Purple-Bull’s voice on the phone interrupted his thoughts.  “I found two long-range missiles in the starboard launchers.  Might be usable.”

            “On my way,” Shiner answered.

            “Can you tell me what kind, yet?” Stoner asked.

            “Could be anything,” Purple-Bull answered.  “The launchers are junked and we will have to cut them open.”  Shiner figured it was still good news.  Even if the missiles were junked, he could salvage fuel and warheads to sell.  The sale would be especially profitable if they were nukes.  Technically, they still belonged to the one-crew fellow, if he survived, but the man was in no position to argue the finer points of salvage law with Shiner’s pirate crew.

            When Shiner swam into the starboard launcher compartment, Purple-Bull was already cutting with care.  One launcher had already been opened enough to see inside and he was working on the other. “Right behind you,” Shiner let him know over the phone as he moved to examine the open launcher.  He peered inside the square opening where Purple-Bull had cut some bolts and removed a panel.


            “Nuke!” Purple-Bull said cheerfully.  “Junked by a pulse.  We should be able to use them if we replace the electrical system.  Turk might have the parts.”

            The two men paused.  “I’ve got parts that should work, unless the missiles are exotic.  Any chips should do, with a little reprogramming,” Turk responded.

            Purple-Bull paused while opening the second launcher.  “Both missiles are local products,” he concluded.

            “We should be able to push them both out,” Stoner figured.  “Can we open the firing ports from here, or do they need to be cut from outside?”

            Purple-Bull reached into the launcher and in front of the missile. “Should slip right out.”

            By making precise cuts with their lasers, the two prates easily dismantled the launchers and freed the missiles.  Then, by bracing their backs against the wall of the compartment, they were able to push each missile out its firing port with their feet.  Moving heavy objects in weightlessness was not the feat of strength it would have been under the influence of gravity.  The tricky part was stopping an object once it was in motion.

            “Bringing them in,” Stoner confirmed.

            “How?” Shiner asked.

            “Kirby,” Stoner said as if it were obvious.  Kirby was her affectionate name for the Prakella’s only maintenance robot. The meter-long mechanical bee did have a small thruster in her aft and could secure herself to a drifting missile to steer it into position.  It would take a while for little Kirby to retrieve both missiles, as her thruster did not have much power.

            “Just don’t break or lose her,” Shiner said.

            “I’ll be careful,” Stoner answered, sounding a little disappointed in Shiner’s lack of confidence.

            Shiner figured that the missiles would end up clamped to the outside of his craft, eventually.  Stoner usually knew what she was doing.  He and Purple-Bull worked their way out of the launcher compartment and continued to search.  Aside from the missiles, the only things worth taking were some food and cloths.  What little air was left on board was too thin to be worth extracting.  By the time they returned to the Prakella, one of the scavenged missiles was clamped to the starboard side of the craft and Kirby was riding the other as it drifted toward the open clamps on her port side.  Shiner changed and stowed his spacesuit and gear, followed by Purple-Bull.  He went to the bridge, where Stoner’s body was still plugged in, limp and unresponsive, and then to Doctor G’s quarters.

            As Shiner knocked and entered without waiting for an answer, Doctor G looked up from whatever he was doing on the computer while Turk floated in the middle of the room, trying to make small talk with the quiet doctor.  The patient was belted to the aft wall and sleeping, breathing normally.

            Shiner jerked his head toward the patient.  “How is he?”

            “Fine,” said the doctor.  “He did not suffocate much, although his mix was low enough in oxygen to make him drowsy. Want me to wake him up?”

            Shiner shook his head.  “We’ll talk, but I can wait ‘till he’s ready.”  The doctor nodded went back to what he was doing while Shiner addressed Turk. “Ready to work on those missiles? You might have to go out.”  He meant that she might have to suit up and work on the missiles while they were clamped to the craft’s exterior.

            “Kirby can bring me the warheads and then screw them back on, can’t she?” Turk did not like to work outside, although she was as good at moving in weightlessness as anyone.

            “Up to you,” Shiner said.

            “I will need my hands free to install the parts,” Turk pointed out. Both of them decided not to mention that she would also be one screw-up away from detonating a good-sized nuclear warhead inside the craft, but Shiner doubted that she would be careless and it was not easy to arm a nuke by accident unless the people who made the device were incompetent.  However, the missiles were locally made and could have been built by anyone.  Shiner did not want to think about it, much less breach the subject with Turk, which would only start an argument.  Working outside would be just as risky anyway, if not more so.

            Shiner drew his palmtop computer from his belt, activated the built-in phone and pushed a preset button to talk to Stoner.  The crew’s phones were more or less cell phones, with the on-board communications equipment acting as the cell.  The phones in their spacesuits had a bit more range than most, but each crewmember had bought and programmed their own palmtop computer with a phone, except Doctor G, for some unknown reason.

            “Yes?” Stoner asked.  Shiner had basically dialed the Prakella’s computer to reach her, as her palmtop was with her inactive body.

            “I need you to reprogram Kirby,” he told her.  She began to object, but he kept talking.  “We need her to remove the warheads from our salvaged missiles and bring them inside so Turk can work on them.  She can do it, right?”

            “Not on her own,” Stoner answered, a little condescending.  “I could try it, but those missiles have not been checked for countermeasures.  I’ll have to interface with Kirby.  I’ll call Turk when I’m ready.”

            “Yeah”, Shiner agreed.  He disconnected the phone, leaving the palmtop on and turned to the doctor. “Mind if I wait here for our guest to wake up?”  The Doctor shrugged without looking up from the monitor.  Shiner found a comfortable place to float and used his palmtop to send e-mail to people who he thought might be interested in hauling off the wreck before perusing the craft’s inventory of reading material.  Turk left the room, presumably to go to the craft’s shared workshop and get ready to work on the warheads.  Eventually, the patient woke up.

            Shiner waved to get Doctor G’s attention and motioned to the patient, who was watching them vacantly.  The Doctor floated over and had a quiet conversation with the man before freeing him. The patient repositioned himself and floated casually.  He was obviously not a stranger to weightlessness.

            Shiner drifted over and offered his hand to shake.  “Shiner-M, I’m kind of in charge,” he said with a smile.

            The guest leered at him as he shook his hand.  “Khoffer,” he said.  “Thank you, I thought I was a goner.”  Khoffer had the accent of a local and his voice was a little raspy.

            Shiner’s eyes hardened slightly.  “We salvaged your craft,” he blurted.  Any local knew what that meant.  Shiner’s crew had taken possession, even though Khoffer was still alive.

            Khoffer pouted.  “My craft is junk,” he grumbled.  He shrugged, relinquishing his claim.  “I would be junk, too, if you had not come along.”

            Shiner was a little relieved that Khoffer was not going to challenge his decision to take possession, even though the man had most likely just lost everything he owned.

            “Scavengers?” Khoffer asked.

            “Pirates,” Shiner corrected.  Khoffer looked away, obviously unsure how to react to the revelation.  “We’re working the blockade, looking for easy scores.”

            Khoffer made a hissing sound as he inhaled.  “The Earthlings are being nasty this time around.  All I did was approach a supply convoy and they nailed me with pulsers without even attempting to contact me.  Took me by surprise.  Two of their craft closed in and cooked me good.  Then they just left.”

            Shiner swore sympathetically.

            “I’m just happy you folks didn’t toss me,” Khoffer continued.  Toss was pirate jargon for forcing someone out of an airlock without a suit.

            “We’re pirates, not spiders,” Shiner declared, trying not to sound too defensive. The comment made Khoffer smirk.  A spider was anyone who would finish off a helpless person because it was convenient.  It was something even pirates were expected to just not do, although it did happen. Spiders were seen in much the same light that Earth gangsters would see an informant.

            “Look’s like I’m along for the ride?”  Khoffer looked expectant.

            “Doctor G will take care of you,” Shiner answered.  “We took your long-range missiles.”  He paused in case Khoffer wanted to object.  “You have countermeasures?  One of us will be working on the warheads.”  He could see that Khoffer understood that he would suffer the same consequences as the crew if the missiles were booby-trapped.

            “None at all,” Khoffer confessed.  “Would make it harder for me to work on them.”

            “Good,” Shiner said with a smile.  “Sounds like we’ll need them.”

            “Willing to deal?” Khoffer asked with a sly look.

            Shiner made a show of looking intrigued.  “What’chya got?”

            “Ears,” Khoffer began.  “There’s a supply freighter on her way to the blockade, well armed but without an escort.  Anyway, that’s what I found out after decoding some military e-mail.  Probably food and munitions on board, I can find her for you.”

            Shiner thought for a moment.  It was a bit odd that a military supply freighter was traveling alone through hostile space.  Khoffer could be lying. “We did rescue you,” Shiner pointed out.  He did not say that Khoffer, as a guest on a pirate craft, was in no position to keep information for himself but it was implied.

            “I’m broke,” Khoffer answered, implying that he was desperate enough to hold out anyway.

            “A score for a free ride?  You would be a passenger until after the job,” Shiner told him in order to ensure honesty.

            “I want a taste,” Khoffer insisted.  “After that, I don’t care where I wind up.”

            “Willing to work?” Shiner asked, assuming that Khoffer would know what he meant.  The newcomer would be expected to assume the roll of a subordinate crewmember while he was on board.

            “Sure, but my suit, my tools and all my stuff are junked,” Khoffer pointed out.

            “Understood,” Shiner said.  “We salvaged your cloths.  Won’t fit any of us.”

            “I’m willing to work, if you have room for me on board,” Khoffer said, looking uncertain.

            “You can share with our gunner,” Shiner said.  Purple-Bull’s quarters could accommodate Khoffer and the sociable gunner never did turn away a roommate.  “Deal?”

            “Deal!” Khoffer agreed, without even asking how big a taste he was entitled to. Well, he was broke and alone.

            “Would you like a tour of our craft?” Shiner offered.  Khoffer nodded with a smile.  “If you’re done with him, doctor.” 

            “He’s fine,” Doctor G said without looking up.

            Khoffer followed Shiner out the door and into the hallway that connected to the crew quarters.  Each member of the crew had his or her own bedroom with a small bathroom attached. Doctor G occupied what had been the captain’s quarters and office before Shiner’s crew had taken the craft, in order to set up a treatment room.  The entrances to the other quarters were on either side of the hall and each of the sliding steel doors had a name or drawing etched by laser, identifying its occupant.  Shiner’s quarters were no bigger than anyone else’s and, in fact, Purple-Bull happened to have the second-largest room after Doctor G.  At the end of the hall were three unmarked doors, which were left, right and ahead if one were facing aft.  Right and left led to the shared workshop and kitchen.  Shiner showed his guest the kitchen but did not bother to explain how the oven and cabinets worked in weightlessness, as Khoffer was an experienced space traveler.  Next, Shiner showed him the workshop and introduced him to Turk, who was setting up and inspecting equipment while she waited for Kirby to return with the warheads.  Khoffer thanked her for her roll in his rescue and she smiled and shrugged.

            Once in the hall, he heard Khoffer hum appreciatively and gave the man a curious look.

            “She’s sweet,” Khoffer said, grinning.  His eyes twinkled lustfully.

            Shiner smiled.  “Yeah,” he responded, playing it cool.

            “Does she... Um... Get bored?”

            Shiner chuckled.  “None of my business if she does.  Of course, how and with whom she recreates is up to her.  Whole crew would back her if someone thought otherwise.”

            “Of course,” Khoffer agreed, still grinning.

            “And we typically mind our own business about private recreation, unless it causes trouble.” 

            “Got it, boss,” Khoffer agreed.

            Shiner led him into the grow-room, which consisted of a small corridor lined front and back, top and bottom, with hydroponic tanks, vacuum-sealed food stores, an aquarium and an algae tank.  At the aft end of the room, another sliding door led to the cargo bay, which consisted of a single, large shipping container that had been installed after the craft had been taken.  There was enough room between the container and the outer wall of the craft for a person to move past the short-range missile launchers, the only armaments that were not mounted on the exterior, to the engine room.  Under the container, near the craft’s below, hatches led to the airlock and to compartments that normally held retractable docking clamps, but Shiner only pointed to them as the clamps were extended so long as the Prakella was docked.  Shiner led Khoffer aft to the engine room, as the main engines were idle, and the two of them engaged in a long conversation about engines and fuel.

            Eventually, Shiner’s palmtop chirped to get his attention and he activated the device’s phone.  Stoner’s voice greeted him and let him know that Kirby had delivered the warheads and Turk had them in the workshop.

            “Understood,” Shiner said, pausing before ending the conversation and calling Turk.  He offered to bring Khoffer to the workshop to help, but she said she was on it and she did not have to say that she wanted to work alone so she could concentrate.  Shiner led Khoffer to the bridge.  Stoner had unplugged herself and was sharing the leftover vapor in her inhaler with Purple-Bull.  Shiner introduced Khoffer as the two of them looked back, quiet and deeply under the influence.

            Purple-Bull shook hands.  “Pleasure,” he said in greeting.

            “Welcome aboard,” Stoner said evenly.  She raised the inhaler and offered him the mask.  Khoffer accepted it, inhaled deeply and held it out to Shiner, who shook his head, and then passed it to Purple-Bull, who simply held it.

            “I was thinking that you and Khoffer could share quarters,” Shiner suggested to Purple-Bull.

            The gunner grinned.  “Your stuff’s already there,” he blurted, struggling to concentrate.

            “Thanks,” Khoffer answered.  The three of them chatted and passed the inhaler while Shiner belted himself to a chair in front of one of the computer monitors and found some laid-back music stored on one of the craft’s hard drives.  He configured the software so that only the speakers on the bridge were receiving and opened the music file.  Stoner grinned with appreciation as music filled the bridge.

            Eventually, Turk reported that she was done with the warheads and had used Kirby to finish the job of reattaching them to the missiles, controlling him manually from the computer station in the workshop.  Shiner, still at a computer station on the bridge, pushed a few buttons and announced through all speakers that it was time to belt down.  Stoner floated over to the pilot station and waited.  Once Turk and Doctor G had reported that they were ready, Stoner piloted the craft manually as she let go of the wreck, turned and picked up speed.

            “Khoffer?” Shiner prompted.

            “Yes, boss?”

            “Where’s that score you offered?” Shiner asked.

            “I’ll set the course,” Khoffer announced before addressing Stoner. “Easy, I need to move.”  Stoner decreased the craft’s acceleration noticeably.

            “It would be easier if you told us the destination,” Shiner suggested. “She can get us there.”

            “Nice try,” Khoffer said in a smug tone.  “If I tell you everything, you don’t need me.”  Khoffer paused as the pull of acceleration decreased and waited until it was safe to undo his seatbelts.  “Swap with me?” he asked Purple-Bull, who was at the closest computer station.

            Khoffer and Purple-Bull undid their seatbelts and Khoffer turned, ready to jump and float over to the nearby seat.  Stoner’s hands move and the Prakella lunged forward.  Purple-Bull swore profusely as he re-did his seatbelts and Khoffer fell backward with an inarticulate yelp.  He hit the aft wall with a thud and turned himself as best he could with the force of inertia pinning him to the wall.

            “Stoner!” Purple-Bull cried.

            “Hold out on us, will you?” Stoner said evenly, her attention still on the controls.  The craft jerked slightly to starboard and Khoffer slid along the wall he was pinned to.

            “Our deal was for you to tell us where to find the score for a taste,” Shiner pointed out. 

            “I give!” Khoffer shrieked.  Stoner did not let up until he had revealed all he knew about the Earth freighter’s course.  Once satisfied, Stoner eased the craft into a straight, even heading and Khoffer was able to return to his seat and do up his seatbelts.

            “Hurting?” Shiner asked gently.

            “Not really,” Khoffer answered, sounding defeated.  He was quiet as Stoner turned the craft and accelerated.  She set the course and speed before turning on the piloting software.  Once weightlessness had returned, Purple-Bull and Khoffer went to their shared quarters and Stoner took a call from Turk, who wanted to have a word with her about shaking the craft around.  The Prakella moved on, steady but fast as she closed in on the score, and the crew returned to their usual routine as they traveled.  Khoffer adjusted all right and did not seem to be holding a grudge.  In fact, he turned out to be an expert at growing food and was willing to share his knowledge and make some improvements to the grow-room.

            After several shifts, the craft’s alarm went off and Shiner, who happened to be on the bridge, took the controls and waited for Stoner.  Purple-Bull and Turk arrived and went to their positions before Stoner came and took the pilot seat as Shiner moved to one of the computer stations.  They were closing in on their quarry.  Just as Khoffer had said, it was a lonely freighter on course for the blockade.  As the Prakella moved to intercept, the freighter accelerated and turned away.  In spite of her efforts, the pirate craft continued to close in steadily.

            Shiner opened the craft’s e-mail program, found the form letter he always sent before boarding a potential score and prepared to send it by laser.  Any of the craft’s combat lasers could be used to send messages but, because the beam did not have to deliver enough power to do harm, effective range was greatly increased.  Of course, the freighter might not be ready to receive, but he could just as easily broadcast it using the craft’s antenna.  Using a laser ensured privacy, as a laser beam was limited to one direction as opposed to a broadcast that would have radiated outward.

            “Ready to send?” he asked.

            “Sending,” Purple-Bull answered with crisp efficiency.  He knew the drill.  Purple-Bull aimed a laser at the freighter, waited for contact and hit a key on his keyboard.  The freighter was not evading laser contact, yet.  Purple-Bull could just as easily have used the software he had installed on the craft’s computer, but he only used it when he needed to activate more than one laser.  The e-mail message aimed at the freighter was short and to the point.  “Surrender and prepare to be boarded or we will attack.”

            Purple-Bull spoke up.  “She’s not sending a distress call,” he announced.

            “Odd,” Shiner commented.  They were close to the blockade and help would not be far away.  Shiner had been planning to board quickly and make off with the freighter.  When the freighter’s crew answered, they also used a laser.  Shiner read the incoming e-mail out loud.  “We are a military craft and under the protection of Earth forces.  Desist or face the consequences.  Over.” 

            “Bluff!” Turk exclaimed.

            “And they are announcing that they have yummy Earth munitions or supplies on board,” Purple-Bull said smugly.

            Shiner typed.  “Slow down and prepare to be boarded or we do this the hard way.”  He nodded to Purple-Bull and the gunner sent the message by laser.

            No answer came and the freighter continued to accelerate.  “They don’t think they can outrun us, do they?” Shiner wondered out loud.

            Stoner’s voice answered, coming out of the computer in front of him, loud enough for all to hear.  “They are making an attempt, it seems.”

“Armaments?” Shiner asked.

            “Defensive lasers and empty missile clamps,” Stoner answered.  She paused, presumably inspecting the other craft as best she could.  “Also, three launcher ports, above, starboard and port, big enough to hold anything.  Might be empty, might not.  She has a long-range laser in a turret above-aft.”

            “Must be a custom job,” Purple-Bull concluded.

            “Could Earth be hiring help?” Shiner asked, confused.  Earth military never modified their rides.

            “Could be a new design,” Turk speculated.  “Maybe someone on Earth thinks he can eliminate the need for escorts.”

            “Would have to be someone not so bright”, Shiner pointed out.

            “Yup!” Turk chirped.

            “Who cares,” Purple-Bull commented.  “We can find out after we take her.” 

            Stoner’s voice came out of all of the craft’s speakers at once.  “Evading!  Brace yourselves!”  The Prakella had closed in enough that the freighter’s long-range laser could be used.  The freighter was just outside the reach of the Prakella’s two new missiles.  Although the laser might be able to hit them before they could use nukes, it would carry less power at that range and would need a few seconds of contact to do even minor damage to the pirate craft.  They might have been able to make contact if the pilot were using the control stick, but the Prakella’s reflexes were too fast, due to Stoner’s interface.  As Stoner dodged the beam, the spacecraft pulled and shook the crew unevenly.  The fore monitor was on and showing the view from in front of the craft, giving a slight sense of orientation.

            “Nuke ‘em?” Stoner asked.

            “Don’t!” Shiner said urgently.  “We want to board her.”

            “A near-hit could disable her with the pulse,” Stoner suggested.

            “We waste a missile while they push the button and keep going,” Shiner countered. Shiner paused as the Prakella swerved sharply and then made a gentle turn in the opposite direction.  “Not much chance of sending a missile past that laser of theirs, anyway.”

            “What else can we do?” Stoner asked.

            “Keep dancing,” Shiner said, encouraging the pilot.  “We can heat her up a little with our lasers, just enough to make her give.”

            “If she doesn’t cook us first,” Turk grumbled.  “Or nail us with who-knows-what from her launchers.”

            “My software can stop anything they launch!” Purple-Bull countered in a boastful tone.  He began typing, pausing as Stoner turned.  “Get us close enough and I can nail that above turret with one laser at a time while the software uses the rest.”

            Stoner’s voice came out of the speaker at Purple-Bull’s station. “Can’t make it easy to aim.  We’re junk if I go easy.”

            “Try’n cut it off,” Shiner instructed.  “We could use a strong laser with range.”

            “Right!” Purple-Bull answered, sarcastic.

            Shiner and Turk stopped talking so as not to distract Stoner and Purple-Bull as they worked.  The pirate craft continued to dance her way closer to the freighter, taking only occasional, brief contact from the persistent turret laser.  Purple-Bull squinted at his screen in deep concentration as his hands urgently massaged his keyboard.  The freighter never did launch missiles and her short-range lasers had no more successes making contact than the turret.

            Purple-Bull slapped the surface of the shelf his monitor was mounted on and shouted “Ha!”  The laser turret had stopped firing but appeared to be intact.

            “Careful!” Shiner cautioned.  “They could be faking damage to lure us in.”

            “Can we close in behind?” Purple-Bull asked.

            “Hot spot!” Stoner answered.  The freighter’s lasers were positioned to cover her aft.

            “Better idea?” Purple-Bull countered.  There was a pause.

            “Cook some of her lasers first?” Stoner insisted.

            “On it,” Purple-Bull confirmed.  He typed and the Prakella’s gunner software brought her lasers to bear with precision. The pirate craft continued to dodge.

            “Ready?” Purple-Bull asked eventually.

            “Hard about!” Stoner’s voice announced throughout the craft.  The Prakella turned hard and picked up speed, moving behind the freighter and spinning so that her above faced her quarry. Purple-Bull pushed and held a button on his keyboard, watching his screen like a cat stalking a bird.  As the Prakella passed through the freighter’s engine wash, her fore section was shoved away and the maneuvering thrusters strained to stop her from spinning out.  On the bridge, Turk shrieked in terror and Shiner realized he was holding his seat with all the strength in his bare hands.  The entire crew knew that a high-speed spinout could deliver lethal amounts of force in spite of the craft’s inertia shielding.

            Purple-Bull sat back and began laughing hysterically.  Shiner wondered if he had snapped, but waited before saying anything.

            “Nice Shot!” Stoner’s voice yelped, still coming from the craft’s speakers. Purple-Bull stopped laughing and sat, breathing heavily.  The freighter turned, out of control.  What had happened became obvious as Shiner assessed the view of the Earth-craft on his monitor.  Purple-Bull had nailed one of the freighter’s twin engines, which was already hot from trying to outrun the Prakella, and it had died suddenly.  The freighter’s crew was fighting to pull out of the resulting uncontrolled turn, using maneuvering thrusters, and had turned off the other engine.  Meanwhile, the Prakella had been pushed out of range of her defensive lasers.  The turret laser still appeared to be dead and the freighter was drifting.  Stoner brought the Prakella back on an intercept course and matched speed with the freighter, which was now drifting.

            The cord leading to Stoner’s neck implant popped out and she sat blinking for a moment before removing it.

            “Uh!” Turk chirped to attract the pilot’s attention.  “What was that?  Were you trying to kill us all?”

            Stoner spoke, but she was still wearing her inhaler and all that could be heard was a muffled mumble.

            “Spinning out would have turned us all into paste,” Turk fussed as Stoner slowly removed the clear plastic mask and left it floating over the pilot station.

            “It worked, didn’t it?” Stoner said.  The influence of Gizmo made her sound as if she were deep in concentration.

            “Do you know of a safe way we could have taken that freighter?” Shiner added.

            Shiner could tell by Turk’s face that she was forcing herself to stop panicking and think.  She wore an embarrassed smirk when she answered.  “No, boss.  Lost it for a minute there.”  She turned to Stoner.  “Nice work,” she admitted, being diplomatic.  Stoner nodded, still dazed.

            “Take us in?” Shiner requested.  Stoner turned back to the monitor at the pilot station and took hold of the control stick.  On the large fore monitor, the drifting freighter came into view.  Shiner typed.

            “Ready to send,” Shiner prompted.  Purple-Bull sent Shiner’s e-mail message by laser.

            “Ready to be boarded now, or do you need to take more damage?”

            “We give.  Over.”  The response was simple and prompt.

            Assemble your crew on your bridge, all of them.  We will be watching for compliance,” Shiner instructed.

            “Acknowledged,” said the response.  “Over.”

            Shiner undid his seatbelts and floated out of his seat, slowly drifting aft. “Purple-Bull, cover us,” he instructed. “Ladies, I’d like you with me when I go.  Where’s Khoffer?”

            “He was in the kitchen.  Should still be belted to a wall,” Stoner observed.

            “I want him on censor duty,” Shiner declared.  He drew his palmtop and activated the phone.  Shiner drifted to the aft wall of the bridge as he dialed the craft’s computer and used her speakers.

            “Khoffer, please come to the bridge,” Shiner instructed.  “I’d like you to help Purple-Bull eyeball the score while we’re boarding.”  Shiner would have invited him to come along, but he did not have a suit.

            Shiner, Stoner and Turk exited aft while Purple-Bull took the pilot seat. The trio went to the locker room, suited up and waited.  Eventually, they could feel the Prakella decelerate, turn and ease to a near stop, causing them to drift starboard and then toward the above wall, gently.  The room jerked slightly as the pirate craft docked with the freighter and Shiner opened the airlock.  As the inside door sealed and the air hissed out of the chamber, the outer door opened to reveal that they were directly over a hatch on the freighter’s exterior.

            Stoner spoke into her helmet-phone for all to hear.  “You couldn’t put us over her airlock?”

            “Airlock’s below-aft.  The lasers around it are still working.”

            “Hatch opens out.  How are we supposed to get it closed?” Stoner asked.

            “Want me to move?” Purple-Bull asked.

            “No!” Shiner said sharply, ending the conversation.  Pulling the hatch closed should not take too much effort but Stoner was being picky.  Aiming carefully, Shiner pushed himself out of the airlock, grabbed the hatch’s wheel-shaped handle and used his feet push off of the freighter’s exterior, opening the hatch by spinning himself. Inside the freighter, an alarm sounded.  Shiner scrambled over the open hatch, pulled himself in and clung to an interior wall so he could take Stoner’s hand as she propelled herself through and then Turk’s as she followed.  Turk pushed a button and a mechanism inside the wall slowly pulled the hatch closed.  She gave Stoner a smug look.

            “Which way to the bridge?” Shiner asked over the phone.

            “Fore,” Purple-Bull responded.  Shiner looked around.  The narrow corridor led in three directions.  The lights were still on and the freighter’s interior had the well-groomed look of a craft with at least one maintenance robot.  There was nothing to indicate which way was fore.  As the freighter was still decelerating, Shiner let himself drift while watching his outstretched hand move in relation to the wall in order to determine which way was fore.  He pushed off of the wall to get himself started and headed down the corridor.  Stoner and Turk followed.

            “Turns?” he asked.

            There was a pause while Purple-Bull used the craft’s cameras to examine the freighter.  “One.  Follow the corridor to the last door you come to, boss.”

            Shiner drew the Katana strapped to his thigh.  “Suits secure and weapons ready, please,” he instructed crisply. “We need to be ready for dirty tricks.”

            Stoner drew her saber in a deliberate move and Turk was already carrying her gladius.  The trio moved to the bridge without incident and came to a closed sliding door.  Shiner waited while his two companions positioned themselves behind him and then pulled the door open by its handle without bothering to check for a button.

            The freighter’s crew rested against the fore wall, eyeing Shiner nervously. There were three of them, a middle aged man and woman as well as a young man, all dressed in civilian cloths. Shiner was surprised that they were not wearing military uniforms.  All three wore the synthetic denim overalls that were popular with locals.  Shiner made himself stop wondering so he could take care of business.

            “Stoner, take the pilot seat, please,” he instructed into his helmet-phone with crisp efficiency.  “Turk, watch our backs if you would.  Is this all of them?”  As Shiner waited for an answer, Turk pushed herself toward the starboard wall and turned so that her back was to it while Stoner took the pilot seat and secured herself with only one of the seatbelts, so it would hold her in place but would not take long to undo.

            “Most likely,” Purple-Bull answered.  “Someone could be hiding from the infrared in a hot area, but we’ll see them if they break cover.”  Shiner unsealed his helmet and raised the visor, exposing his face.  “We’re taking your cargo.”  He spoke coolly with a hint of a derisive, cutting tone.  “We plan to let you limp away with one engine but we can and will take your freighter and sell it if you try something stupid.”

            The older man and woman looked at each other and then back to Shiner before nodding with miserable acceptance.  “Manifest?” Shiner asked.  His helmet-phone was still on.

            “Munitions from Earth... long-range missiles, lasers, pulser and nuke warheads... parts.  Yummy!”  Stoner’s voice came out of Shiner’s phone loud enough for the freighter’s crew to hear.

            “All easy for the military to track,” the older man pointed out. Shiner knew he was bluffing.  Any pirate would know how to remove the devices Earth military used to track their inventory.

            “They’re carrying munitions and I’m the king of Jupiter!” Khoffer interjected.

            “Mm-hm!” Shiner responded with an enthusiastic lilt.

            “I’m seeing sealed boxes, too small and packed like perishables,” Khoffer said in a gloating tone.

            “Turk, want to check the cargo?” Shiner asked, as if he were making her an offer.

            “On it!” Turk agreed before leaving through a door in the aft wall.  The other pirates could hear Purple-Bull directing her over the phone as she went.

             Shiner and Stoner waited quietly and watched the captives.  Nobody spoke and the chatter from Shiner’s phone filled the silence as Turk inspected the cargo bay and confirmed that the freighter was not carrying munitions. Soon, Turk was making her way back. She drifted onto the bridge, carrying wrapped fruit.

            “All these people have is apples and oranges!” she said, laughing.  Her helmet was still sealed, but her voice came out of Shiner’s phone.  He answered with a confused snort.  Turk threw an apple toward him and Shiner lashed out suddenly with his katana, lopping the moving target in half and making the captives jump.  One of them, the woman, failed to suppress a startled squeak.  The apple floated in two halves, its clear, tight wrapper separating as it drifted.  Shiner captured one of the apple halves in his gloved hand and bit into it with smug satisfaction.

            “That’s it?” he asked, his mouth full.

            “Some seeds, maybe,” Turk admitted.  “I only opened one crate, but there are labels.”  In space, food and seeds could be valuable if one knew where they were needed.  Of course, the same was true of fancy munitions from Earth and Shiner had been hoping to take a long-range laser of the sort the freighter had used against the Prakella.  So much for that idea.  He took another bite of the apple and chewed, looking calculating.

            “You’re not military.  Who are you?” Shiner asked with casual authority.  The other half of the apple bounced off of a wall.

            The older man braced himself and looked away.  “Can’t say,” he responded quietly.

            “Stoner?” Shiner prompted.

            Stoner’s gloves hissed as she removed them so she could type on the keyboard attached to the freighter’s pilot station.  Shiner eyed the captives, looking smug.

            “They’re logs and manifests are bullshit,” Stoner narrated over the phone. She paused.  “E-mail, protected by password and...”  She typed.  Stoner gasped suddenly and opened the visor of her helmet before turning in her seat. They’re headed for Windigo’s Rock! They have a military designation in their e-mail protocols, but they’ve been sending messages to the other side saying when to expect them.  Shiner’s only response was to look back at her with an expression that said how odd it was.  The only way to acquire a military e-mail designation, and the encryption that went with it, was to open an account with the military registrar back on Earth.  Such designations were famous for being impossible to fake.

            “Deserters,” Shiner concluded.  He was trying to get at the truth and being called a deserter would be difficult for anyone with a military background to ignore.  None of the captives took the bait.

            “Or blockade-runners,” Stoner wondered.  She was helping Shiner by dangling a cover story in front of the captives.

            “No,” Shiner observed.  “Not with a military designation.”

            Turk interjected, not realizing that what she was interrupting was more than a simple conversation.  “Could be some kind of secret agent thing,” she wondered.  That made sense but saying so out loud would not make the captives more inclined to talk.  However, they were obviously not responding to Shiner’s provocation.

            “If they are on a secret mission, they could be attempting to deliver poisoned food!” Turk speculated, paranoid.  Shiner looked suspiciously at the partially eaten apple half in his hand.

            The youngest captive made a gentle sound as his eyes became wide with shock and resentment.  The others gave him a look that told him to keep his mouth shut.

            Shiner knew he had them and decided to follow Turk’s accidental success with a good scare.  “Did you people just poison me?” he bellowed.  “I’ll toss you if it’s the last thing I do!”  Stoner turned away and hunched in the seat she was still belted to.  She appeared to be ducking her captain’s wrath but she was actually trying not to laugh.  Turk, on the other hand, obviously thought she was watching Shiner lose it.  Shiner moved and grabbed the nearest captive, the woman.  “Let’s go,” he snarled.  His phone was completely silent.

            The younger man panicked.  “Mom!” he barked.

            Shiner turned to watch him, katana at the ready.  Turk readied her gladius, leaving the box she carried to drift. “Family!” Shiner accused.  “A happy little poisonor family.  Mommy, Daddy and Sonny!”

            “Sir,” Daddy begged.  Stoner’s head turned as she peeked out of her open helmet, trying to watch the show without getting caught.  Turk noticed and failed to hide the look of realization as she figured out that Shiner was not really cracking up.

            “What,” Shiner snapped.

            Daddy pushed himself over to where the other half of Shiner’s apple was drifting and shoved it in his mouth.  A floating mess formed around his head as he tried to chew and swallow.

            “So you’ll poison yourself to save her from being tossed,” Shiner grumbled. “How touching.”  He gave Mommy a shove toward the aft door and followed.

            “There’s no fucking poison!” Daddy whined.

            Shiner turned, faking indignation.  “You’d better tell me what you’re all about, right now!”

            Daddy shifted his posture as if Shiner’s outburst had actual thrusting force. “The food’s going to Windigo’s Rock!” he babbled.  “We were using the designation to get through the blockade.  We usually make our living by selling on Earth and we have connections.”

            “Connections that can have you registered with Earth military?” Shiner interrupted.  “No one has connections that high up.”

            Daddy’s face dropped and he mumbled with his eyes averted.  “I can’t tell you about that, sir.  I hope you understand.  I can see that you’re no friend of the military.”  Shiner’s stolen military suit was a giveaway. “We should be on the same side,” Daddy begged.

            Shiner decided to believe him.  If he were lying, he would have come up with a cover story to explain the military designation.  Just because Shiner had never heard of smugglers using one did not mean it never happened and if anyone did have the connections on Earth to pull it off, it was Windigo’s Rock locals. The revelation changed everything. As much as he liked a tasty score, Shiner did not want to help the Earth forces take Windigo’s Rock by seizing their supplies.  However, one of the freighter’s engines was junked and it was too late to let her take the load.  To top it all off, the Earth forces were more serious than usual about this blockade, as they had demonstrated by what they had done to Khoffer’s little one-man craft.

            Shiner spoke into the phone.  “Everyone hearing this?”  He paused and nobody spoke up.  “All of you have shares in the score, so sound off.”  His crew knew the drill.  Shiner would prompt each crewmember in turn and listen while they spoke one at a time.  Khoffer, however, interrupted before Shiner could say who would go first.

            “They’re telling the truth, boss!” he declared.  “We have got to get that cargo to Windigo’s Rock.”

            “Do we?” Shiner asked quietly.  Khoffer did not answer.  “Letting you tell the entire crew what we have got to do is not part of our deal.”

            “Yes, boss,” Khoffer acquiesced.

            Purple-Bull? Shiner asked.

            “Running the blockade could mean a nice payoff,” the gunner pointed out. “Windigo’s Rock locals have connections.”

            “Turk,” Shiner prompted, turning toward her as he spoke over the phone.

“Running the blockade will get us killed,” she answered.  Her voice was calm, but Shiner could see the wild look in her eyes.

“Stoner?” Shiner asked.

“I can get us there,” Stoner said with casual bravado.  And build her reputation as a freelance pilot, Shiner thought cynically.

“Doctor?” Shiner prompted.

“Yes?” the doctor responded, as if being interrupted.

“We can run the blockade or sell the freighter,” Shiner informed.

“Better safe than sorry,” the doctor answered calmly.

“But those people need food,” Khoffer protested.  “I’ve been there.  Windigo’s Rock has a spaceport. Helping them means helping everyone.”

“Popular but dead,” Turk countered.

“Sometimes you have to pick a side,” Khoffer stated.  “Us or them.”

“You’ve already lost one craft,” Turk pointed out.

Purple-Bull gave a long, drawn out “oh!” that recognized the cheap shot Turk had taken.

“All we have to do is get there,” Stoner reasoned.  “Well worth the risk.”

“We all know we can sell the score, freighter and all, without getting ourselves cooked,” Turk argued.  As her voice came out of Shiner’s phone, the three captives stared, looking shocked and miserable. Turk struck a defiant posture.

“If we don’t care,” Khoffer grumbled.

“We can do this if we use that long-range laser and their fancy designation,” Purple-Bull said seductively.

“Didn’t you junk it?” Shiner asked.

“The turret is junk, but the laser should be fixable,” Purple-Bull answered.

            Shiner gave Daddy a look.  “Take it,” he said flatly.

            “I say we go to Windigo’s Rock,” Shiner said into his phone, while watching the captives’ relieved response.  “Do you want us to drop you off somewhere?”

            “No!” Khoffer protested.  “I still get a taste of the score.”

            “Not you,” Shiner chuckled.  “Turk?”

            “We’re a crew,” Turk declared.  “If you’re in, I’m in.”

            “Yup!” Doctor G agreed.

            “Sir?” Mommy spoke up.  Shiner’s head turned toward her inside his open helmet.  “What will happen to us?” she asked.  Her voice was a little loud, so his phone would pick it up.

            “You three will have to stay with your craft,” Shiner informed her.  “ We don’t have room.”

            She thought for a moment.  “Can we buy our cargo back from you before you go?”

            “What with?” Shiner wondered.

            “Credit,” she proposed.

            “We’re pirates, not bankers,” Stoner pointed out.

            “We’re being generous enough just delivering the cargo,” Turk added.

            “We have got to get that consignment to our buyers,” Mommy explained.  “We can settle up later.”

            “Maybe we can make a better deal on our own,” Shiner bluffed.  Mommy smiled and looked away.

            “Not on Windigo’s Rock,” Daddy said.  “Rip off our buyer and nobody there will do business with you.”

            “They’re counting on us,” Mommy added.

            Shiner was tempted to point out that he could find a buyer at another destination, but he was committed to running the blockade and she knew it.  He decided to keep things simple.

            “Cargo’s yours for twenty per cent of the sale?” Shiner decided.

            “Thank you,” Mommy answered with a surprised smile.

            “Twenty!” Purple-Bull baulked.

            “On Windigo’s Rock during a blockade twenty per cent will be plenty, I’m sure,” Khoffer countered.

            “You will have our buyer’s gratitude,” Mommy added, hearing the chatter.

            “You do have maintenance robots?” Shiner asked.

            “The twins,” Daddy answered.  “I believe they are in the engine room.”

            “Stoner?” Shiner prompted.  He waited while she typed.

            “The twins are now fixing the engines,” she announced.  “Purple-Bull, Kirby could help.”

            “I already sent her to fetch that laser,” Purple-Bull pointed out.  “She can head over when she’s done.  Can you link her to the twins?”

            Stoner typed.  “Done.”

            “What about cargo transfer?” Shiner asked.

            Stoner continued to type and then examined something on the monitor.  She sighed, sounding frustrated.  “Their box is too big.  We would have to move the cargo by hand.”

            Shiner swore.  “It seems we would have to carry boxes of apples and oranges one at a time,” he griped. “Take us forever.  So much for choosing sides!  No way we can do it before we have company.  Not here.”

            “We never called for help,” Mommy pointed out.

            “Dock and carry?” Stoner proposed.

            “Through a blockade?” Khoffer objected, horrified.

            “Like you say, they need those supplies,” Stoner reminded him.  This made Turk laugh in a smug tone.

            “They have a designation,” Purple-Bull pointed out.

            “And we could drop her if we have to fight,” Stoner added.  “They could always claim to be a captured Earth craft coerced into letting us cunning pirates use them for cover.”

            “And I’ll have that laser as part of our forward array before we leave,” Purple-Bull added.  “I can use it to melt pulsers.”

            “Sounds like a plan to me,” Shiner declared.  “Turk, I’d like you to check that laser before it’s installed. Stoner and Purple-Bull, we should help ourselves to their fuel, but they’ll need to keep a little.”

            “Permission to link phones?” Daddy asked.  Each craft was using an antenna as a cell for cellular phones and members of either crew would be able to call each other if the two systems were linked.

            “Granted,” Shiner said.  “Stoner?”

            “On it, boss,” Stoner said, still working.

            “Who will be where?”  Sonny asked.

            “You’ll be on your craft and we’ll be on ours,” Shiner said.  “We will be watching.”  Most of the freighter’s short-range lasers were still working and the Prakella would be vulnerable while docked.

            “We’ll behave, won’t we?” Daddy said, sharply.  Sonny nodded.  He shot Daddy a look as if he were being falsely accused but said nothing.

            Shiner and Turk returned to the Prakella while Stoner finished using the freighter’s pilot station.  She went back later and moved the pirate craft, bringing both craft’s airlocks together so that a simple air bag could be used to eliminate the need to suit up before going from one craft to the other.  Kirby brought the long-range laser to the Prakella’s workshop so Turk and Purple-Bull could give it a good going over.  While they repaired and modified the weapon, Stoner used Kirby and the twins to work on the freighter’s engines.  One engine was junked but they were identical, so the robots were able to salvage spare parts before moving the remaining engine into place.  Afterward, Turk used Kirby to add the long-range laser to the Prakella’s forward laser array.  Soon, both craft were preparing to go.

            Shiner went to the bridge, belted into the pilot seat and used the computer to alert both crews to prepare for acceleration.  His crew, except for Doctor G, took positions on the bridge.  Once both craft were secure and all personnel had notified him that they were ready, he carefully coaxed the Prakella into a gentle turn.  While carrying the freighter, he had to go slow and compensate for the added weight while ignoring Stoner’s instructions, which came in a steady stream as he maneuvered.  The freighter’s engine was off-line but ready.  This was to Shiner’s liking, as he figured that two separate engine wakes might look suspicious to a military craft.  Before long, they were on course and weightlessness had returned.

            “When you put her on automatic, make sure to aim high, to compensate for the freighter,” Stoner advised.

            “I’m not putting her on automatic,” Shiner corrected her.  “Company?”

            “Company!”  Khoffer was watching the sensor feed, lost in concentration.

            “Details?” Shiner prompted.

            “There’s a fleet ahead of us, all right!” Khoffer answered.  “I’d give you a count, but there are more blips as we move.  Our friends’ designation seems to be working.”

            Shiner stayed in the pilot seat and kept an eye on things as they traveled and crewmembers came and went.  A few shifts went by without incident, until the Prakella was past most of the Earth fleet and closing in on Windigo’s Rock.  An e-mail message arrived from the nearest Earth craft.

            “What is your destination?  Over.”

            Shiner sent an alert to both crews to prepare for maneuvers.  “Over,” he thought.  Only Earth military personnel ended their e-mail with “over”.  They do love their procedures.  Military personnel normally configured their e-mail software so that it would add the extraneous word at the end of each message.

            “Delivering supplies.  Over.” The response had come from the freighter’s antenna.

            “Delivering supplies to whom?  Over.” 

            “Cruiser 2434-16, currently stationed on the far side.  Over.”

“Why are you docked? You know it is against regulations to fly docked.  What’s your status?  Over.”

            “Engine trouble.  Can’t be helped.  Over.”

            “Reduce speed and prepare for inspection.  Commander’s orders.  Over.”

            “Unable to comply.  Our only airlock is in use.”

            “Over!” Shiner exclaimed as he read the outgoing message.  “You didn’t say over!”  Stoner’s wide-eyed look said that she knew what that meant.  So much for they’re cover identity!

            “Prepare for inspection or we will fire.  Over.”

            Shiner worked the controls and the Prakella accelerated, her engines straining. “Someone tell them they’re about to become a missile!” he instructed urgently.  “They’re friends will have to catch ‘em.  Everyone, get ready to provide cover.”

            “Manually?” Stoner asked.

            “Ready?” Shiner responded.

            “Not yet,” Stoner said as she hurried to strap on her inhaler.

            Shiner executed a precise turn, nudging the control stick.

            “Incoming!” Turk and Khoffer declared, nearly simultaneously.

            “Ready lasers!” Shiner demanded while typing.  The Prakella’s docking clamps let go of the freighter without bothering to detach the airbag that connected the two craft.  Both locks were closed when not in use, anyway.  While the pirate craft pulled up and turned away, the freighter traveled straight for Windigo’s Rock with as much speed as the Prakella had been able to give her.  A single long-range missile, probably a pulser, was homing in on Shiner’s craft.

            “Almost there!” Purple-Bull informed as Shiner executed the upward u-turn, making it as tight as he dared.  Stoner was out of her seat and crawling on the floor toward the pilot station, sliding a little as the craft maneuvered.

            “Laser contact!” Khoffer pointed out with urgency.  Shiner move erratically and Stoner barely managed to hug the base of the pilot station, her legs squirming as she fought for position.  She favored Shiner with an expectant look.

            Purple-Bull worked his keyboard.  “Got it!” he shouted as he used his new laser to melt the incoming missile.

            “Eyes open, people!” Shiner ordered as he steadied the craft’s course and vacated the pilot station, helping Stoner take the seat before belting into what had been her station.

            “Contact,” Khoffer urged.  “Contact!” The infrared showed a number of laser beams originating from the Earth fleet.  Once Stoner was belted in, the pirate craft danced and spun, playing keep-away with the incoming beams.  Meanwhile, long-range missiles closed in from all directions.  Purple-Bull was using his new laser to melt them one at a time, but there were too many.

            “Help me out?” the gunner requested without taking his eyes off his monitor.

            “Tracking,” Khoffer answered.  He was finding the range of the incoming missiles and preparing to launch the Prakella’s short-range nukes and use strategic placement and timed detonation to take out as many of the incoming missiles as he could.  “Launching,” Khoffer announced.

            Shiner watched.  Purple-Bull was shooting down a surprisingly high number of missiles, considering that Stoner was still evading laser beams and could not help him aim by holding steady. Also, Khoffer was good.  Anything Purple-Bull did not nail vanished as the short-range nukes intercepted them.  Still, Shiner watched very carefully.  The incoming missiles might have been nukes, but were more likely pulsers.  Shiner had to be ready to push the button if one came within range and had to be quick enough to act before detonation.  The button would cut all power to the craft, to prevent an overload that would fry anything and everything.  The memory of seeing Khoffer’s wreck haunted him.  If the Prakella were disabled, he could expect that his craft and crew would be cooked.

            Khoffer chuckled.  One of the military craft had come just close enough to be caught in the pulse of a short-range nuke and Khoffer had nailed her.  The craft looked dead but it was hard to tell if she really had suffered an overload or if someone on board had simply pushed the button.  “We should cook ‘em!” Khoffer exclaimed.

            “Too busy!” Purple-Bull answered.

            “Stay on those incoming!” Shiner demanded.  He could understand Khoffer’s need for revenge, but now was not the time.  Turk was also aiming short-range lasers and nailed an incoming missile that had come dangerously close.  As the Prakella turned and spun, Stoner was leading them closer to Windigo’s Rock.

            “We’re out,” Khoffer warned after firing the last of the Prakella’s short-range nukes.

            “Ready with the long-range, but don’t use ‘em unless you have to,” Shiner instructed.  The crew was silent and he continued to watch.

            Stoner turned the craft sharply and dipped before accelerating.  The Prakella wiggled slightly, making for Windigo’s Rock.  The freighter was still on course but decelerating to a dangerously slow speed.  Her single engine struggled and then winked out, probably out of fuel.  Three long-range missiles left the asteroid.  They were larger than anything a spacecraft could carry and fast, having plenty of room for thrusters and fuel.  Shiner tried not to wonder what they cost.

            Stoner’s voice came through the bridge speakers.  “Brace yourselves, we’re about to get hot!”  The pirate craft decelerated, turned and spun, shaking the crew so much that nobody could do anything for a few seconds.  Stoner placed the craft between the missiles from Windigo’s Rock and the Earth fleet as best she could, continuing to spin the craft as she moved.  As the friendly missiles followed a jagged course, evading laser beams from the Earth fleet, the Prakella blocked as many of the beams as possible.  The pirate crew could feel the temperature rise as Stoner deliberately allowed contact while spinning to keep the incoming lasers from concentrating on one spot.  Khoffer swore fearfully and Purple-Bull began panting as if he might be sick.

            “Careful,” Shiner mumbled, still watching for incoming missiles.  He realized that he was not breathing and forced himself to inhale and exhale. The Prakella would be helpless against a pulse. If he were to push the button, his craft would be cooked.  We’re already being cooked, he thought.  One of the friendly missiles melted, nailed by the incoming laser fire.  The other two passed close and Stoner slowly halted the craft’s spinning and resumed wiggling as she turned and made for Windigo’s Rock.  The freighter was decelerating, but still had momentum enough to make it.

            As the two remaining large missiles approached the Earth fleet, their craft stopped gunning and scattered as fast as they could.  Two massive blasts flickered in space between the pirate craft and the enemy.

            “Think they got anyone?” Turk wondered, looking empathetic.

            Shiner examined his screen.  “No direct hit,” he concluded.  “Some of the closer craft are disabled.  The pulse from that thing was huge.” 

Purple-Bull threw an uncontrollable coughing fit and Shiner wondered if he might be sick after all. The last thing they needed was noxious liquid splashing off the walls while Stoner maneuvered.  Purple-Bull breathed for a moment and then went back to doing his job.  He was all right.

            The Prakella accelerated on a steady course.  Having scattered, the fleet was too far away even for long-range missiles and closing in would bring them within range of Windigo’s Rock’s impressive array of land-based lasers.  The action was over and everyone relaxed.  A laser from the asteroid made contact in communication mode and delivered a simple e-mail message.  “Phone number?”

            Shiner responded by sending a message with the number that would allow their people to access the Prakella’s phone system with their antennae and configured his phone for a conference call with everyone on board.  Before long, the call came.

            “Hi there!” Shiner answered, cheerfully.

            The voice on the other end was feminine and giggly, with the distinctive twang of a Windigo’s Rock local.  “Hello crazy people!  My name is Bridget and I have the duty here in traffic control.  Other than being suicidal, what’s your status?”

            “Not suicidal, just that good,” Stoner’s voice broke in, sounding boastful and playful.

            “My name is Shiner-M and this is my craft,” Shiner answered.  “Warm as we are, we’re all right.  May I ask you a favor?”

            “You can ask,” Bridget chirped.

            “There’s a freighter headed your way, doing an impersonation of a projectile. I’m sure her crew would appreciate it if you were to bring her in.”

            “She’s ours!” Bridget chirped.  Shiner did not know if that was a simple confirmation that the locals would intercept the freighter or news that she would be confiscated.

            “Permission to dock?”

            Bridget giggled.  “See the red light to your starboard?  That’s the Scarlet Mask Tavern.  Put down behind there.  Mr. Windigo wants to meet you.”  Shiner did not ask who Mr. Windigo was.

            “Will you be there?” Khoffer asked.

            “Khoffer?  Is that you?  You’re alive?” Bridget exclaimed.

            “The Earthlings junked me.  I’m salvage.  The illustrious Shiner-M added me to his crew of pirates,” Khoffer responded.

            “Looking forward to seeing you at the mask,” Bridget said.

            “They shaved me,” Khoffer warned.

            She laughed.  “Go ahead and dock while I look for someone to take the rest of my shift.”

            “On our way,” Shiner confirmed after pausing for a quick look.  There was a red beacon of the sort used to attract the attention of a spacecraft, surrounded by a docking lot on the surface and the entrance to what must have been an underground tavern.  There was plenty of room to dock and the lot was equipped with robotic, mobile corridors, which were able to link a craft’s exterior door to the entrance.  Stoner docked gracefully, showing off what she could do when using her interface. On the bridge, her body came to life and everyone undid their seatbelts and stood, as the asteroid’s gravity allowed.

            Shiner and the crew made their way to the craft’s port side exit.  They walked on the floor, leaning against the walls and practicing moving in the asteroid’s feeble gravity.  Shiner used his palmtop computer to lock the craft and set her alarms.  They waited while one of the robotic hallways tilted and extended toward the exit. Shiner ignored the chatter. Stoner and Purple-Bull were exchanging banter while Turk listened and asked pointed questions.  Khoffer stood by the door, listening, and Doctor G stood against the wall, quiet as usual.  Before long, the hallway eased into place, making a thumping sound, and Khoffer opened the door and led the way.  At the end of the corridor, an elevator took them down one floor and opened at one end of the cavernous underground tavern.

            Noise greeted them as the elevator doors opened.  Deep, fast music was being pumped into the tavern and the crowd of patrons that filled the tables and dance floor were talking over it.  A hostess saw them and smiled warmly.  The short, dark woman was well dressed, with a neatly shaved head and crisp tattoos.

            “Khoffer!” she said over the music.  “Nice to see you back.” She looked the other crewmembers over. “Which one of you is Shiner-M?”

            Shiner smiled and waved.  “Mr. Windigo has requested the pleasure of your company at his table”, she continued. This way, please.

            The hostess led them around the edge of the tables.  “Who’s Mr. Windigo?” Shiner asked quietly.

            “What?” Khoffer responded.

            “Who is Mr. Windigo?” he asked again, speaking up.  He looked around to see who else could hear.

            “Local businessman,” Khoffer said.  “Owns Windigo smuggling and supplies.  He and his people protect everyone else and broker most deals.”

            Shiner nodded.  Khoffer was not acting like he was telling a secret and Mr. Windigo’s company actually had the word smuggling in its name.  Sweet!  No wonder the bureaucrats back on Earth wanted a piece of him.

            The hostess brought them to a private room and seated them at a long table before leaving.  As she shut the door, the music seemed to be silent.  Soundproofing.  A well-dressed older local man sitting at the head of the table rose and smiled as the crew joined him.  An elegantly dressed woman sat to his right and the former captives that Shiner knew as Mommy, Daddy and Sonny sat to his left.  There were also two other couples, presumably associates, and two large bodyguards lounging near the far wall.  Everyone but the freighter’s crew had the shaved and painted look that seemed to be the style on Windigo’s Rock.  Places were already set for the newcomers.

            “I’m the smuggler known as Mr. Windigo,” the older man said.  “Please, join us and place an order.  It’s on me.”  He drew a palmtop computer and passed it to Shiner.  The tavern’s menu was open on its screen.

            “Shiner-M, pirate,” Shiner said.  He took his seat and accepted the palmtop.  The crewmembers introduced themselves, each giving their name and profession in turn, with the exception of Khoffer who simply said “Nice to see you again.”

            Mr. Windigo sat and waited patiently while Shiner placed his order.  The tavern had a nice selection of food and a wide variety of alcoholic beverages and other substances.  He ordered a hamburger, wondering what the patty would be made of, and passed the computer on.

            “I understand you threatened to toss Sheeka,” Mr. Windigo said, indicating Mommy. Shiner froze and his gut clenched.

            “Negotiation,” Shiner explained.  “I was planning on locking her up and pretending.  I’ve never actually tossed anyone.”

            “Good thing,” said Mr. Windigo before pausing to empty one of the shot glasses at his place.  “Jacks and Sheeka have paid for my protection.”

            “They helped as soon as they knew we were not supplying the blockade,” Daddy, Jacks, blurted with haste.  Interrogation, Shiner thought.  Hospitality to have him lower his guard followed by an accusation combined with a defensive statement from a bystander to encourage him to explain.  Shiner began to inventory what he should and should not tell.

            “No way I’m helping the Earthlings,” Shiner said evenly.

            Mr. Windigo grinned, “I saw.  You risked your ride to block for our missiles.  Food stores are getting thin.”

            Shiner noticed that Mr. Windigo had changed subjects unexpectedly.  Bonding, maybe?  “Thanks,” he said with real gratitude.  “Stoner here risked the craft.  I was minding the button while she flew.”

            Mr. Windigo turned to Stoner, giving her a calculating look, while Shiner sat back and watched.  “Using an interface,” the smuggler observed.  “I should have guessed.  The company has the latest upgrades and plenty of Gizmo.  Do some shopping while your here?”

            Stoner looked uncomfortable.  “I’ll take a look,” she agreed after a pause.

            “Tell me, what are your burgers made of?” Shiner asked, changing the subject. Hardly anyone outside Earth kept actual cattle, as they were a high-maintenance luxury.  People with thin food supplies might be using anything.

            He could tell he had thrown Mr. Windigo a curve.  “Soy with a little lambikins,” he explained.  Lambikins were a type of sheep bred to be small and lean for use in space.  “Enjoy it while you can.  Livestock needs to eat and we had to slaughter and pack most of ours.  Without the shipment, we’d have had to store the rest, too.” 

            “Sound’s like we won’t get paid,” Shiner said with a smirk.

            “We can’t afford to sell food,” Mr. Windigo admitted.  “Jacks tells me he owes you.  Local credits will get you munitions, upgrades and safe passage.”

            Safe passage, Shiner thought.  We’ll have to buy protection to leave.  “We can work that out tomorrow,” he said.

            The door opened and a tall, slender woman let herself in.  Khoffer stood.  “Bridget!” he greeted.

            “Hey,” she chirped before turning to Mr. Windigo.  “May I, boss?”  The smuggler nodded.

            Bridget sat next to Khoffer and started a conversation.  Soon, a pair of waiters brought their food and everyone ate and chatted like old friends, sharing news, discussing videos and the like.  Later, after supper, the locals invited the crew into the tavern.  Mr. Windigo waited and motioned for Shiner to stay as everyone else, except the two bodyguards, left the private room.  Shiner took the seat to Mr. Windigo’s left as the smuggler leaned forward.

            “We’re grateful, but you have no leverage,” he observed, looking sharply at Shiner.

            Shiner considered pointing out that he had voluntarily completed a very necessary food shipment, but chose to be diplomatic.  “My contract is with Jacks’s crew,” he said.

            “Jacks works for me,” Mr. Windigo countered.  “I’m not going to bother paying you in local credits.  We’ll quarter your crew while you’re here and you can help yourselves to munitions.  We have plenty of munitions.  You’ll have safe passage from me and you can leave whenever you want, but the blockade is still in place and I suggest you stay until it’s resolved.  So long as the crisis continues, all craft present are required to be available as needed for defense.”  Mr. Windigo looked expectant.

            “Understood,” Shiner agreed.  “Um, my craft has food for swap in her hold.”  Shiner waited.

            “Which I could seize, as your craft is available,” Mr. Windigo answered with greedy eyes.

            “But you won’t because grabbing cargo in a docking lot is bad for business,” Shiner observed.

            “I normally wouldn’t, but during an emergency...” Mr. Windigo calculated.

            “Or we could deal,” Shiner suggested.

            “I’m listening,” Mr. Windigo answered.

            “Although our craft is available, only we go on board,” Shiner proposed. “And when we do leave, we leave debt-free.  For your word on that, you can have the contents of our hold.  Of course, we keep the crew supplies.”

            Mr. Windigo Shrugged.  “Fair enough, but don’t overdo it in the expenses department.  Deal?”

            “Deal!” Shiner agreed.  Not a particularly good deal, he thought, but Mr. Windigo was right.  Shiner had no leverage whatsoever and the smuggler could have taken the Prakella if he wished.

            Mr. Windigo stood and motioned to the door.  “Now, let’s get you laid, traveler.”  He did not have to offer twice.  Shiner and his crew did stay until the opposition gave up and went home.  The Prakella and her crew never were asked to help defend Windigo’s Rock.  The Blockade had become a standoff in which neither side dared to engage the other and Windigo’s Rock’s people were able to sustain themselves with their agricultural facilities.  Shiner and the crew had just about anything they wanted.  They had become heroic celebrates for bringing the freighter and the locals interviewed them for documentaries, most of which included footage of their skirmish with the Earth fleet.  Also, Mr. Windigo invited them to join him frequently and everything was always on him.  He had become a friend.  Well, maybe not a friend, but a connection.  Shiner was down with Windigo’s Rock, a useful relationship for a pirate to have.  Khoffer had decided to make Windigo’s Rock his home and Shiner wondered if he would have to replace his entire crew.  Purple-Bull had met a local girl and moved into her quarters, Turk was running a game, Doctor G was treating local patients and Stoner had disappeared into a multiplayer computer game using her interface.

            To Shiner’s relief, all four crewmembers showed up when he decided it was time to go and called them.  In fact, morale was high after the prolonged leave they had enjoyed.  The Prakella went back to Shiner’s home turf.  Things had been quiet, as the blockade had distracted those who would try to move into his territory while he was away.  As he went back to work, things were easier. His reputation had received a boost and his craft was fully armed.



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