Authors: Glynn Stewart
By Glynn Stewart
Copyright 2014 by Glynn Stewart
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This is a
work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to locales, events, business establishments, or actual persons— living or dead— is entirely coincidental.
Cover art Copyright 2014 by Jack Giesen
The deep voice of the recorded
words of the Sikh
, strange to Damien’s ears, echoed through the shuttle bay of the jump-freighter
. He figured no one left aboard the ship understood the ancient words of the Sikh prayer for the end of the day, they only knew it was appropriate to mark the passing of the man they owed their lives to.
bodies floated in the bay’s lack of gravity, and the remaining eighty members of the freighter’s crew floated with them, listing to the old words of the recording. Only Narveer Singh of the seven dead had been a Sikh, but Damien knew none of the others would have objected to the words.
As the prayer faded,
Captain David Rice drifted out in front of his crew, standing next to the black bags containing the members of the crew who’d died fighting off a boarding action by bounty hunters before he or Damien, the Ship’s Mage, were able to return aboard to intervene. The Captain’s normally stocky and solid presence seemed subdued, small next to the weight of the bodies.
As our ancestors before us did to the sea, so we commit our honored dead to the depths of space,” Rice said formally. “All things began from the stars, and so we return the bodies of our friends to those same stars.”
“Narveer Singh, Leonard Champion, Li Hu Wong, Michael Reeves, Kyle Lawrence, Raphael
Santiago and Karla Hammond died protecting us,” he continued softly. “We will not forget them.”
Damien stood as straight as he
could in zero-gravity. The slight Mage tried not to look at the body bags. If he’d been aboard instead of Narveer, he likely would have died, and the ship would have been taken. They’d switched places to fool the government of Chrysanthemum, and so Narveer had died and Damien had lived. Where Damien would have failed, though, Narveer had saved the ship.
Dozens of the
mercenaries had died. Their bodies had been dumped into space without ceremony a day earlier when they’d flushed out the bay and corridors of the ship where their boarding attempt had been launched.
A moment of silence passed, and then Rice gestured a command to a
crewwoman floating by a control console. A clear barrier descended between the mourners and the floating bodies, and then the massive outer shutters of the
’s shuttle bay slid open.
The bodies floated in
zero-gravity for a moment, and then the air in the shuttle bay rushed into space, taking the
’s fallen crew and friends with it.
The shuttle bay was silent.
Damien felt a hand slip into his, and carefully turned his head to smile at the girl beside him. Kelly LaMonte was the ship’s junior engineer, and he and the dark-haired brunette had grown close in recent weeks.
“It always hurts to lose friends,”
Captain Rice said into the quiet. “There are no words I can say to soften that blow. Narveer and the others died to protect us from the bounty hunters after us.”
“We have to be careful,” he reminded them.
“Our next destination is in the MidWorlds, and there will be people there who know who we are, and why we are hunted. From now on, no one goes off-ship alone, and no one goes off-ship unarmed.”
“There are very few friends of our
s left, it seems. We have to rely on each other.”
With Narveer gone, there was a spark missing from the meetings of the
’s senior staff. His replacement as First Pilot was Mike Kelzin. The young pilot’s face was deathly pale under his buzz-cut, and he moved carefully around the bandage that still wrapped his stomach.
Jenna Campbell, the
ship’s executive officer, sat next to Kelzin keeping a careful eye on him. She was the closest thing the ship had to a human doctor, though she had to rely heavily on the auto-doc to deal with wounds as bad as the pilot’s stomach injury.
Damien sat across from her, watching
Kelzin almost as carefully as the XO. He lacked her medical skill, but he owed Kelzin his life. Without the pilot’s intervention on Chrysanthemum, he’d have died trying to protect the others.
Next to him sat the
ship’s Chief Engineer, James Kellers. The dark-skinned man responsible for keeping the ship running looked exhausted – much of the work of cleaning up the mess the mercenaries had made of the
’s rear corridors had been directed by him.
The only person who looked more tired than Kellers was the
Captain. David Rice sat at the end of the table, watching his staff, and Damien couldn’t help but worry at the slump in the burly man’s posture. He’d been keeping things close to his chest – he’d told Damien where they were heading, but had asked the Mage not to tell even the other officers.
“All right,” the
Captain finally said once everyone was settled, with beverages of choice to hand. “It’s good to see Mike on his feet and joining us,” he continued. “How do you feel?”
“Like someone shot me in the stomach,” the new First
Pilot replied. “But I’ll live. Playing it up might keep the other pilots in check, too. Being in charge is going to be a new experience for me.”
“Remind them that
,” Rice told him. “Any issues on the first day on the job?”
Kelzin confirmed. “I’m just thoroughly aware of what kind of jokers they all are.”
“Good,” the Captain said, then turned to Kellers.
“What’s the status of the ship, James?”
“We got the… debris from the boarding attempt cleared away,” Kellers replied quietly.
Damien shivered slightly at the memory of the gore-filled corridors they’d returned to the ship through. “We suffered some minor damage to the shuttle bay, which has been repaired already. I had LaMonte take a work team over to the fuel tanker yesterday as well. There was some damage from when we blew the boarding tube out of the bay, but nothing we can’t fix in short order.”
it?” Rice asked.
“None of the pilots,”
Kelzin admitted sheepishly. “Narveer might have been able to, but the rest of us are only qualified on shuttles.”
“I can,” Damien reminded the
“As can I,” Jenna said as well.
“Do you have any thoughts on using her?”
“Did they do any special work to her for that boarding attempt?”
“No,” Kellers told them. “The boarding tube was an extra module, probably brought along by the mercenaries. The ship itself must have been running on automatic – there’s no crew aboard, and if there had been, they probably would have detached before we jumped out-system.”
“I don’t see
a lot of use for her,” the Captain admitted, “but get her repaired up – worst case, we can probably find a buyer for a slightly used in-system tanker somewhere along the way.”
“The way being
…?” Jenna asked pointedly.
“Damien has drawn up a thirteen month route through the Fringe systems,” David told them.
“We hit nine systems along the way, though we dog-leg around Nia Kriti and the Navy Base there. All nine systems are in various stages of development and they need everything from weather satellites to farming equipment to planes and cars.
“The first few
systems are lower-end, but then we hit Theogeny, where we’ll be able to trade food and raw materials for some of the higher tech items the later systems will want,” David continued. “It’s a good, solid, Fringe trade route that will both make us a lot of money and keep us out of the Protectorate’s eye for over a year.”
“First we need a cargo though, boss,” Jenna said pointedly.
“Given that everywhere in the Core and MidWorlds is going to know who we are now, where exactly are we planning on getting that?”
“Somewhere where they just don’t care,” David told her.
“We’re going to Amber.”
Damien was the only one in the room not shocked into silence, though his reaction on being told had been much the same.
Even on Sherwood, people had heard of Amber.
“Isn’t that place, well… a hive?”
Kelzin finally asked.
“I was going to go with ‘lawless
hellhole,’” Jenna agreed.
bad,” Kellers pointed out. “I grew up there. It’s certainly… different from the rest of the Protectorate.”
Amber had been founded by
Libertarians from old Earth’s North American continent. They’d looked at the Charter that defined the rights and responsibilities of a member government – and had set up a government that
carried out the handful of services the Charter required, run as a co-operative paid for by a transaction fee at the system’s banks.
Amber’s laws were limited in both text and
application, leaving many things that were illegal in the rest of the Protectorate perfectly legal under Amber law. Based on Damien’s research over the last few days, something like ninety percent of the pirate ships ever captured and traced by the Navy had undergone their conversion to predators in the yards around Amber.
since the Co-operatives that served as Ambers ‘government’ didn’t violate the Charter, all the Protectorate would ever do was shut down the specific yard involved, and make ominous threats to the rest. They weren’t even permitted to station warships in the system, as the Charter guaranteed each system the right to provide their own protection if they chose.
“Amber’s a mess, and we’ll have to walk carefully,” David confirmed.
“But we can find everything we’ll need there –
transships through Amber – and the Defense Co-op won’t care that we’re in system.”
“There will be
Hunters,” Kellers warned. “There’s a standing deal for bounties on people wanted for crimes by the Protectorate. But you’re right,” the engineer sighed. “The ADC won’t stop us docking or leaving, so long as we pay the associated fees.”
“We can deal with
Hunters,” the Captain replied. “A real planetwide police force would worry me, but a few independent contractors shouldn’t be a problem if we keep together. James and I have contacts there, too, so we should be able to buy up what we need quickly.”
“I’ll be staying aboard
ship,” Damien assured the others. “Even if everything goes to hell, we can run as soon as everyone gets aboard – and I
I can jump out from closer in then they expect.”
“We won’t be allowing shore leave,” David concluded.
“James and I will go ashore, armed. We’ll meet our contact, and then we’ll get the hell out of here for the Fringe.
“Amber is as safe as a MidWorld will get for us for a while,” he reminded them, “but they have a
is going to smell cash in telling the Protectorate where we are.”
Deep space didn’t have many virtues in the grand scheme of things. To Damien’s mind, it had two main ones: it was astonishingly beautiful to see the stars with no light from a local sun to interfere, and it was safe. Outside some of the busy trade lanes in the Core or an ambush, you would almost never run into another ship between the stars – and you were almost impossible to track, too.
He floated at the
center of the
, in the ovoid room covered in viewscreens that showed him the outside of the ship, and ran his fingers over the silver form of the magical simulacrum at the exact center of the starship. Runes spiraled away from that silver artifact, linking to the matrix throughout the ship that would amplify his magic a million-fold.
flickered eagerly at him from the construct that both represented and, in a strange way,
the ship. It was far stronger on the
than on any of the ships he’d trained on, a side-effect of the changes he’d made to the runes. Unlike any other Mage he’d ever known, he saw the energy flows that underlay the runes, which had allowed him to remove the ‘extra’ runes that prevented the jump matrix of a freighter like the
being used as a full-scale amplifier.
Damien suspected that the knowledge of how to do that was what the mercenaries had been
seeking when they boarded the
at Chrysanthemum. The ability to turn any jumpship, anywhere, into a concealed warship capable of destroying anything the onboard Mage could reach was a terrifying weapon.
Out here, in deep space, they were safe.
Even a single light year away from Amber, it was unlikely anyone would ever stumble upon them. Of course, they could never
anything from here, either.
With a small sigh, Damien activated his intercom to the bridge.
“I am ready to jump,” he reported to Captain Rice. “On your word.”
ship is prepared to jump,” Rice replied. “You may jump at will.”
Damien nodded and placed his
hands on the silver simulacrum of the starship. Runes etched into his palms with silver glowed with his power, and channeled that power into the model at the heart of the
With a deep breath, Damien threw his magic into his link with the
moment no artifice of man or magic had ever been able to measure passed, and then the jump-freighter was
, materializing one hundred and seventy million kilometers – roughly ten light minutes – from the planet, and about seventeen light minutes from the star.
“We have arrived in Amber,” Damien told the bridge after a long moment.
The teleportation spell took a
out of him, though he’d been making minor tweaks here and there throughout the amplifier matrix to make it a bit easier.
Running scans,” Jenna announced.
The screens of Damien’s
Simulacrum Chamber showed a visual view of the space around the
, but he could also bring up any other function of the ship’s computers. The Chamber’s interior was the largest computer screen on the ship. Bringing a copy of the the XO’s sensor data and translations up was easy.
“Is that a
Navy destroyer?” he asked, his gaze picking out a data code he remembered from their
encounter with the Royal Navy of the Mage-King of Mars.
destroyer,” Kellers told them over the intercom from engineering. “That’s the
, the flagship of the Amber Defense Co-operative – and their only functioning jumpship. They also have a couple dozen home-built corvettes that don’t have amplifiers or jump matrixes, just some godawful lasers.”
engineer’s voice was bitter.
“They’ll hail us in about a day as we approach,” he explained.
“There are docking fees to be paid to both the ADC and the station owners. Refresh of oxygen or fuel will cost extra, as will entering the station. This is Amber –
has a price.”
The intercom was
silent for a moment.
“If anyone needs me,” Kellers finally said, “I’ll be in the bar on Rib A.
Trying to forget why I
“Welcome home, huh?” Jenna said a minute later, the scans throwing more detail up of the orbitals of Amber.
Warned what he was looking for, Damien picked out seven corvettes, larger and blockier than the gunships they’d transported for Legatus, but similarly dangerous for their size against a ship without an amplifier.
He was helping Jenna collate data on the orbiting stations – eight fragile looking
collections of gantries and work modules that were what passed for shipyards in Amber, and one very functional and ordinary looking spinning wheel orbital station that operated as a space dock – when LaMonte drifted into the Chamber.
“Hey Damien, Kellers is inviting everyone up to the Rib A bar,” his girlfriend told him.
“He apparently has some special liquor he had saved up for if he ever came back to Amber.”
“Is it poisonous?” Damien asked dryly.
Given Kellers’ apparent enthusiasm for his homeworld, he wasn’t sure anything the Chief Engineer had saved up for this occasion would be safe to drink.
Amber, so I’m not sure it’s
, but he seems determined to drink it,” the younger engineer told him.
“We can finish this later,” Jenna told him over the intercom.
“From the sounds of it, I should check up on Kellers myself. Amber liquor is harder than hard, to put it mildly.”
and dismissing the data with a swipe of his hand, Damien turned to Kelly and smiled.
“It looks like you’ve found a hidden override on our
ship protocols,” he told her. “My time is yours, my dear, what’s the plan?”