Part One: The Trap
Chapter 1: The Job
There were rumors of war and Horace Grant didn't give a damn. The rain pummeled the unfortunates out in the streets of New Vienna, coming suddenly and surprising most of the shoppers that where out in the open air malls of the capital city. Horace Grant leaned against the wall in the small tavern looking for the man that his contact told him that was looking for a experience pirate to a do a job that needed unofficial hands doing it.
The bar was typical of bars that you would find in the city so close to the center where the colony ship first landed. Built into the ground to shelter the people from the weather changes, it was dark, damp and smelled of beer and deep fried food that was the specialty at the grill. Loud rock and roll music blared over the din of a hundred conversations. The occupants of this bar where unusual. They were off worlders, it was one of the places that foreigners could go meet and not be greeted by stares of amazement or fear. The foreigners where mostly labor brought in from other systems to run the complex and experimental weather control satellites that orbited the planet, dock workers for the expanding spaceport, and merchants and freelancers. But there in the middle of the crowd stood a man dressed in a business suit that cost more then several small spacecraft, looking around the bar for somebody. Horace grinned, exposing yellowed teeth, and he swaggered to the table, going past several fights and an extremely drunk lady that had spent most of Horace's time in the bar trying to come onto him.
As he approached the table, Horace said in his most casual tone, "Are you looking for me?" The man in the business suit jumped and turned around and said, "Only if you are Mr. Grant." Horace eyed the little lapel that the man had on. It was a small flag with a dragon and a torch in the background. The Republic Horace thought and began to look for an exit, he was about to turn around get the hell out of the bar when the man in the business suit grabbed his arm and forced into the chair. "Oww" Horace yelped, as his bulk landed into the hard metal chair, for a instance the chair was seeming to decided if it wanted to break under the pressure of such a heavy load or not, luckily for Horace the chair stayed in one piece. The suit look at Horace and he notice for the first time that there was something wrong about the man. For instance the man wasn't breathing at all. "What are you?" Horace said, though his words seemed to stuttered over themselves, the suit replied, "I am Steve, I represent the Republic of New China in a matter of life or death. The life in this case, being a hostage of the PSA, and with war a likely occurrence we can't risk sending any military forces on a rescues message."
The man or was it a man? Horace wondered, gave the pirate a look that made Horace's blood run cold. This was one of the reasons that he had told his old partner that he would never do government black ops, they end up being suicide missions. "The PSA? Shit man, get another moron to go into their territory. Hell at least most nations will kill you, but they burn our your mind and replace it with one of their state certified loyal personality. Bad for business if your just another drone going around their hive, since you wouldn't exists any more if you catch my drift. I will just be going now." Horace said and attempted to get up and found that arm was still on his and somehow was keeping him down. The other occupant at the table just gave a cold smiled and said, "Please Mr. Grant, we are just getting to know each other stay." Horace wilted at the way the man said the last word. "OK then, well I don't have to check in with the rest of my crew for another hour or so. But I am telling you I won't do this." Horace pleaded. "Oh but you will, Mr. Grant, you will. You see the Republic does remember that little fiasco that you pulled on New Kong, and we like many other nations do hang pirates. If you try to leave, a navy ship will be await for you wherever you go and we will kill you if you don't help us." Horace grimaced and said, "OK I guess I am screwed, but why me? I don't have any fancy cruiser or anything, just a modified freighter that could barely fight a destroyer. What is so special about me that you have to put out a death warrant on?" Steve replied, "Because your freighter is a perfect match for the one that will be transferring supplies to Midway Station. A freighter that we have destroyed, not before taking their IFF codes though."
"Midway station? I never heard of the place, where is it? A new PSA colony?" Horace asked, Steve shook his head thought to Horace it seemed unnatural, "No, it's a secure military base that they thought they had hidden from us. Its in deep space, really in the void, its actually in the middle of the European Wedge and thus its a perfect place for their raiders to hit shipping lanes. Though with the current leadership change, the military was unprepared to deal with the shipping increases and tried to hire a freighter of pirates, our patrols got lucky and managed to intercept the pirates and found out the pirates where going to Broadway and then they would get the data to go to Midway. Along with the supplies the prisoner your suppose to rescue.
Your goal is to save the prisoner and then find out the location of Midway station and contact the Republican fleet." Horace looked at Steve with glazed eyes and said, "OK this sounds simple, but who is this prisoner? What does she look like?" Steve pushed an old fashion file folder across the table with his free hand and said, "Her name is Anna, and she is... my wife. Pictures of her will be in the file." "You have a wife? Say you never did tell me what you are, your no human that is for sure? A robot? Cyborg? Come on if you are going to send me on this death mission, at least tell me something about you."
Steve looked at him and said, "Very well then, it doesn't matter if you know since the news will be out by the beginning of the war. But I warn you if you tell anybody before this becomes public, I will kill you. What you want to know about me is simple, I am a New Man from Walden, and the Datalink has decided to put an end to the problem of the PSA." Horace felt stupid and scared at the same time, a famed New Man!!! Sweet Mother of God, I didn't even think they where allowed to leave their bit of space, since that unfortunate accident with Miner's Folly or the war that followed! Horace forced himself under control and said, "I wasn't aware that the Galactic Community had ended the Quarantine of Walden." "No, because of the current war, the Republic has asked us to help them in return for their support of letting out of the blockade. Only a few of us are out, including my wife. I managed to convince the Republic officials that I should be the case manager on this for a variety of reasons. Now Mr. Grant, all the information you need about your new roles is in the packet, but for now I am leaving, your not the only small time criminal I am forcing around on this planet."
With that the arm that was on Horace vanished along with the body that contained it, both gone into the sea of people that was in the bar. The music was turned up to the cheers of many, and a good time was had by all in this bar, all except for Horace Grant who just sat the table stunned. A small time later the rest of Horace Grant's motley crew appeared in the bar entrance, looking for their boss. They were surprised to see him sober and not half-unconscious on the floor, shrugging they made their way to the table and sat down across from him, their sudden appearance made Horace shook and broke him out of his meandering.
"What's the deal boss? Did we get a nice big juicy job to do?" asked Laura Wallace, his gunnery and medical mate, she was a lithe red head dressed in the current New Vienna fashion of short skirts and short tops which Horace approved. Her companion was Douglas Meizer who piloted the ship when Horace wasn't around, did most of the navigational plotting, and was also running engine room, the Jerome Jerico meet an rather unfortunate end on their last job, Horace winced as he remembered watching Jerico get run down by the wayward tractor.
The pirate sighed and he calmly and plainly told them what had happened and what their next job was going to be. The other two pirates gave him mixed reactions, Laura was excited about the daring do and danger of the mission and her older and more experienced comrade looked grim. After letting Laura babble on for a couple of minutes about space battles and acts of heroism, Douglas butted in, "Ugh, I hate to be the party pooper but, we are talking about a suicide mission given to us by the only group of people if you can call them that, that unified Known Space long enough to blockade them in their own system. I say we find ourselves another crew member and we split and go visit Greenland system, I heard there was a new mining operations out there."
Horace gave Douglas an unhappy smile and said, "That was my first thought, but I was just thinking back when during the War, and quite frankly I heard too many horror stories about the New Man and what they did to rouges that doubled crossed them to want to risk that. Also according to files we have a nice reward that could allow each of us to buy a small moon if we wanted." "A reward?" Douglas perked up, perhaps there be something good to come of this, he thought. Horace gave Douglas the file folder and watched as the younger man flipped to the back and gave a double take at the section entitled "payment for services," Douglas handed the file to Laura who about fell over after reading it. She calmly put it down and mouthed the rather large number that was given. "That's a lot," she said.
The men just nodded. The rain had stopped by the time the pirates made it back to their ship. It was parked in an abandoned parking lot on the wrong side of town. One of the reasons why New Vienna was such a haven for pirates was its well known lack of having a efficient, and its having a corrupt free space authority. However, Horace didn't have enough money to pay even the landing fees, so they barely managed to get through to the planet without getting blasted apart.
There in the lot with burnt out hulks and other junkers was Horace's pride and joy, the Easy Money. She was built in the traditional form that all faster than light ships needed to have (aside from those of the New Man whose grasp on hyperspace enabled them to do strange and scary things to their ships). Since it was a freighter it was large and box shaped, at the fore of the ship there was a was a small bubble where the FTL sensors and communications were located, at the aft of the ship was the entryway. On the port and starboard side where the two hyperdrive saucers that also doubled as the STL field drive that propelled the ship when it was within the Limit. This ship had started out service as a marine transport for the Federation of Free Stars (now reduced to the 5 fortress stars that were being perennially siege by the PSA) when during the New Man War (the short and extremely bloody conflict that occurred after Miner's Folly) it was given some H-Guns and a couple of missiles hardpoints and a new shield generator and it was sent on its merry way as part of an ad-hoc squadron.
Horace never told the rest of the crew how he got his sweaty hands on it and they didn't ask. When it first started service the paint had been bright blue and purple, now it was more in the color of black and brown with spects of blue and purple. "Home sweet home," Horace muttered, he was feeling better as he always did when he came back to his beloved ship. However he saw a flash of movement in the corner of his eye and his good mood was ruined. Somebody was following them. He felt the other two members tense, they saw or heard the movement two, and within seconds all three of them had drawn their sidearms and began to scout the area.
Horace was so busy paying attention to his hearing, that he never notice the large pile of cans that he walked into. After falling and creating enough noise to wake the dead, Horace managed to righten himself up, only to see a young man in his late teens standing there with his arms up in the air. "Don't shoot me! I just heard from a friend that they overheard you talking about needing a new crew member, I happen to ugh, need to leave this planet in a hurry, and I was wondering if you could add me to your crew." Horace looked the man, no, kid, over with an wary eye; the kid looked to be around 18 or so. He appeared to be from one of the American-settled areas, either New Cali or, heaven forbid, the PSA.
There was an air of familiarity about the kid. The red hair and the dull gray eyes were the most noticeable things about him. Horace dusted some of the mud off his jacket and said, "Sure kid if you got money or any skills with an hyperdrive, I happen to need at least a body to watch the damn thing." "I got both, I know some about the physics behind the drive, and the ship I traveled here, the crew showed me how to fix and repair one. However, they met with some legal trouble and have been shipped off planet, leaving me here," the kid said earnestly.
Horace frowned, kids as young as 5 have been taken off-planet and by age 8 could be fixing and jury rigging the thing like nobody's business. But this kid didn't seem to have the type of characteristics that humans gain while spending most of their life in a metal hull traveling to and fro the star lanes. "Well how much money you got kid?" Horace asked, figuring if worst comes to worst he at least would have the money and drop the kid on some desolate rock later. He wanted to get off this planet and away from the New Man before he got any more trouble falling into his lap and he really needed somebody to watch the hyperdrive, even if the kid didn't know a thing about it, he could at least be trained to look for the warning signs to call for help. Long experience and tradition required that taking care and watching the hyperdrive should be something left for humans then to any of the subsentient AI's they had onboard the ship. So when the kid showed him the credit chip, Horace did the best to maintain his composure. He called out loud Laura and Douglas to meet the newest member of the crew, which brought Horace to another question, "What is your name?" "Alfred Reed, sir." the kid said.
In orbit, the cruiser Valiant was hiding. The mission to the kidnap the target had failed, and there was an rescue ship from the PSA that had entered the area. Already shooting was occurring on the border, and there were talks of formally declaring a war that would engulf Known Space by the end of this week. Linda Fuchelle, a Commander in the Republic of New China star navy, and master of Valiant felt tired. The 34 year old commander had been in the command section of the cruiser for the past 20 hours, watching with increase nervousness as the PSA battlecruiser took up place in orbit. The Valiant had kept on the other side of the planet and only information they had about the other ship was from the hacked weather control sats in orbit. The Valiant had come into the system under a disguised IFF and with the system authorities getting paid a large sums of money not to do a visual confirmation, the only people knew that there was a ship of war in the system from the Republic was the crew of the ship. The Valiant like most of ships in its class (called the Dagger class) was built in the same way as Grant's Easy Money except that it had its cylinder in between the parallel saucers, and there were 4 of them to deal with the larger size of the ship.
"Confirmed, skipper, that beast out there is the PSA Worker's Paradise, she is a Firehawk-class battlecruiser, has over 16 heavy H guns in 4 quadruple turrets and the latest missiles that the PSA has built. Closer scans shows that she has had a replacement saucer, on the number 6 stack." Lt. Anthony Boxer said, across the command section. Linda nodded tiredly and waited for him to go on, "We also got a encrypted signal from the marines on the planet. They lost the boy, but they tracked his credit chip, apparently he made a large payment to a local pirate, a Horace Grant, he has a modified marine transport, small affair, 2 stacker, some light H-Guns and a couple of missiles from the last Intel report we got on him. He is small-league, only hits unarmed freighters, and just takes small amount of goods from them leaving the freighter and the crew unharmed mostly. The marines also said that the PSA team that landed on the surface has also said the same thing to their ship's CO, a certain Nigel Westerfield."
"Westerfield? He is one of their best, it's going to be hard to scoop the kid up with him on our asses. Did the landing team say anything about capturing the pirate and the kid?" Boxer shook his head and said, "No sir, they said that Grant's crew are onboard the transport and with the PSA crawling around, any overt move would have them in a ground battle. He did say that it looked like the transport was powering up. Marine also gave us coordinates as well, looks like if he blasts off within a hour so, they would come near us. Oh hell, skipper the Easy Money just blasted off like a bat out of hell. Damn, Grant's taking a course right by the Worker's Paradise."
Linda cursed under her breath and said, "Fuck this hiding, helm plot on an intercept, gunnery fire on that PSA ship as soon we get a clear shot." After giving the orders and feeling the large starship moving again, Linda punched a command on her skinsuit/uniform and got ready to fight a battle.
The cruiser's drives turned on and began to propel the ship to where the Easy Money would leave orbit. A place in space that happened to be within 5 klicks of the PSA battlecruiser Worker's Paradise. Within H-Gun range. The thought made Linda shiver. The Valiant had gotten a lock on the Worker's Paradise and it fired a full spread of missiles at the larger ship. Immediately the battlecruiser accelerated and began deploying ECM pods, and fired its own spread of missiles. The Valiant dropped its own ECM pods and lurched as another salvo left its bay. It was a credit to both sides' war laboratories that all the missiles went for the decoys.
All ship movement around the sudden battlefield stopped as the merchants, police, and pirates watched the pretty and deadly light show that was taking place near New Vienna, the police there had decided against sending the customary "please don't fight" order partly due to the fact that they didn't want to have a missile home on them, and they were getting bored anyway. Both ships after flushing their missile stocks for the time being accelerated towards each other, and began to fire their H-Guns. Large blobs of corrupted hyperspace were flung across space. Again thanks to the latest advancements in ECM technology both sides were missing each other more then they were hitting until the battle entered a new stage where the ships were so close that the odds of hitting each other were much bettered. It would now depend on the skills and construction of the crafts to see which side could withstand the most damage.
The shields due to being creatures of corrupted hyperspace themselves, also had natural weak spots that would take a trained brain that had certain type of personality able to make patterns out of hyperspace images. Back during the days of the War with the New Man, the Allies had tried to use AI's, but the AI's kept on shorting out, committing suicide, and taking with them the weapons systems. Since then the powers that be caned the AI project and now it was either general computer-controlled H-Gun fire or computer-controlled H-Gun fire with a human linked to it looking for patterns to hit.
The Valiant was blessed to have a quite skilled H-Gunnery officer, namely a certain Charles Swartz. The thin aging man from Cali (like Linda) was a veteran in the service and seen his fair share of battles. He managed to direct the Valiant's guns in just a way that one of the shots penetrated the shield and tore up the Worker's Paradise's stacks, which weakened the entire shield of the battlecruiser. Meanwhile the Valiant was getting hammered by the larger and more numerous guns of the PSA ship, while aiming for weak spots was a tradition for the Republic, using overwhelming large guns to blast the enemy ship to shit was another valid and easier tactic for the PSA's lesser trained crews. A tactic that was working, unfortunately for the Valiant as large H-Gun shots ripped right through the starboard saucer and into the long range sensors array. The Republic ship delivered another blow, and it was obvious the battle had degenerated into a close-quarters slugging match, to say the least.
At the same time, the transport Easy Money flew off, keeping a large berth between the life and death struggle that was going on only 20 klicks away. The crew was enjoying the show while the two sides blasted each other apart. Horace muttered, "Hmm I wonder why they are here, I know both sides have been preparing for war and that battles have already broken up, but those are good solid combat vessels. Why would they be wasted on a neutral port like this one?" "I wouldn't know," said Alfred Reid (alias Reed), son of Chairman Paul Reid of the People's States of America. Horace shrugged and said, "Oh well wars create profit for us pirates, now let's get the hell out of dodge. We have an suicide mission to complete you know."
With that, the Easy Money left the system, taking the first steps on a very long and dangerous voyage.