Chapter 11
Tortuga

Location: Villareyes Starport, Saturnian Sphere
Date: Sat 27 Apr 121
Time: UST 0743

Humanity had come a long way in over two hundred years of spaceflight. The Kanai reflected little of that progress. Indeed, even the tiny patrollers of the Fleet were luxury liners in comparison to the undercover pirate ship. Her interior resembled an old World War II-era submarine with its low ceilings and claustrophobic corridors clogged with exposed pipes and wiring. Calling the Kanai uncomfortable was an understatement on the level of describing absolute zero as 'a little cold'.
Commander Joachim, or Moishe as he was now known, ruled with an iron fist. Even though they were posing as pirates, the Commander ran the ship with the strictest discipline. He kept the crew on a rotating schedule of sixteen-hour workdays so that no more than a third of them would be off at any given time. While they were on duty, they were expected to do nothing but work, which was easy because the Kanai demanded constant maintenance. Some of them wondered if he was sabotaging the ship just to keep them busy.
Besides having what he called an 'up' job and a 'down' job, everyone was cross-trained to have basic proficiency in all the functions of the crew. Some tasks came to people easier than others, which led to another layer of specialization. In Matt's case, he had become good at assisting Farah, the ship's designated electrician.
Every pilot, both military and civilian, was required to extensively study all the workings of the craft they qualified for. Ideally, they would be able to perform minor repairs and correct certain malfunctions on their own if the situation required it. If nothing else, it went a long way to improve communication with the flight crew. For Matt, electrical work on the Kanai was not so different from fiddling with the avionics of the various birds he had flown over the years.
At the moment, he was helping Farah hunt down the cause of a short in the door to the bridge. He held some testing equipment and kept an eye on the readouts as Farah was fishing around in one of the bundles of wires running along the walls. It did not seem like the safest way to go about things, but she stubbornly insisted that she knew what she was doing.
"What's the reedin'?" she asked.
"Zero," Matt replied.
"Then that's oar brek. Guddammit, Eh'm gettin' sick uv replessin' thees guddamned lanes."
The way she scrambled her vowels, it sometimes felt like a bit of a puzzle trying to figure out what Farah was saying. It was apparently something she had struggled with for a long time, because she would get really frustrated whenever anyone brought it up. Matt realized that she was actually saying 'lines', not 'lanes'.
Farah stood up and kicked a wall stud to let off some steam before she did any real damage. Once she had gotten over her aggravation with the Kanai's faulty wiring, she brushed a shock of hair out of her face and turned to Matt.
"Thenks," she said. "Y'know, y'r a pretty useful enimul fur an ufficer."
They were not supposed to talk about who they were before coming aboard. Commander Joachim insisted that plausible deniability was one of their greatest assets. Matt did his best to steer her away from the truth for her own good as well as his own.
"What makes you think I'm an officer?" Matt asked.
Farah rolled her eyes. "Plees. Efter six yeers, Eh kin tell an ufficer when Eh see un. Eh ain't eskin' fur y'r nehm, renk and seryul number ur nuthin'. Jus seyin'..."
Matt suddenly noticed that Commander Joachim was standing right there. At first, he expected him to get angry and chew them both out, but either he had not been listening in or he did not care. He was actually smiling, which was not a common sight by any means.
"We're coming into port soon," he said. "Wash up and get changed. You're going out on the town, so dress to the nines."
After handing the testing equipment to Farah, Matt went to the sleeping quarters straightaway. Like every other room on the ship, the sleeping quarters were cramped. A stack of three shelf-like bunks were on the left and the right walls. Each bunk had two compartments, one for each crewmember sharing the bunk. With so little space, they had no choice but to resort to hot bunking. Two per bunk, four for the males and two for the females. Not much in the way of privacy, but they were all professionals about it.
Because of how the schedule worked out, there should have been four people sleeping at the moment, but Matt only saw three people there. There was not much else to do during off time but sleep. Still, a couple of them were too restless to stay put the whole eight hours. What they did was anyone's guess, but Commander Joachim did not complain so long as they got the bare minimum of four hours' sleep and did not interfere with the people on shift.
As he was getting a change of clothes, Matt took note of the vaguely human-shaped lump on the top female bunk. Given how tightly the lump wrapped itself in a blanket, he figured it was Lydia. Life on the Kanai really was not agreeing with her. She was never one to be shy about expressing her discontent, but Matt was quite sure that she had never complained so much or so often in all the years he had known her.
Remembering what he was supposed to do, Matt took his bundle of clothes and headed to the shower. To conserve water, crewmembers were only permitted one five-minute shower every three days. It was hardly intolerable, but it was most certainly unpleasant. Of course, since the shower only had cold water and the ambient temperature was in the single digits, no one was ever all that eager when their turn came up. Matt was in and out in no time.
Since Commander Joachim told him to 'dress to the nines', Matt figured that meant wearing the suit he was originally issued. It was not too difficult since everyone only had two changes of clothing. He went to the latrine to shave and comb his hair. When he got out, he saw Commander Joachim standing by the human-shaped lump he thought was Lydia.
"Hey, Ling," the Commander said, "get up, get dressed."
"Fuck you," Lydia mumbled, not bothering to move except to wrap herself even more tightly in her blanket. "I ain't goin' nowhere. I just got warm. I spent six hours helpin' Ortiz get the number three up and running again."
Commander Joachim showed no sympathy for her. "You whine more than my old bubbe," he said. "We're on final approach. You need to be ready to roll by the time we dock."
"Dammit," Lydia grumbled, poking her head out to give the Commander a powerful glare. "I really hate this, you know that?"
"You've made it abundantly clear," Commander Joachim said. "Would you rather be clocking in those eighty-hour weeks the General was promising?"
"If it meant having my StatSuit, yeah."
"Well, it's too late for that now."
Lydia grumbled under her breath. Matt could not make out what she was saying too clearly, but it seemed to be a veritable parade of profanity he would rather not have invading his ears. Without getting off her bunk, she reached into her locker compartment and pulled out her clothes. At first, it looked like she was going to change right there. Embarrassed, Matt quickly turned away, but Commander Joachim was having none of it. He roughly yanked her out of bed. It was fortunate the gravity was so low or she would have certainly gotten hurt when she fell to the deck.
Before she could make some protest, Commander Joachim tersely said, "Go to the damn changing room. You know the rules."
It was entirely possible that most of the crew had no trouble treating all the facilities as unisex and that the rest would make do one way or another. Even though there was so little privacy to be had, or perhaps because of it, Commander Joachim strictly enforced the division of the sexes wherever it was feasible. That boiled down to only three acts: bathing, dressing and going to the latrine. The 'changing room' was nothing more than the narrow space between the shower stall and the door to the sleeping quarters. It was the only place where crewmembers were permitted to undress and the Commander got very angry when he caught anyone disobeying.
Still wrapped in her blanket, Lydia shuffled sulkily into the changing room, breaking into a new stream of obscene grumblings. In a couple minutes, she came out wearing what she called 'the hooker outfit'. Carelessly tossing her blanket on the bunk, she thrust her hands into the pockets of her jacket and gave the Commander an irritable look.
"So, what's the deal with this place?" she asked, her voice indifferent save for the slightest betrayal of her annoyance.
"Scuttlebutt's that a freighter with some high-value merchandise will be stopping here for supplies," Commander Joachim said. "They're trying to keep from drawing attention to themselves. That's why they've picked a third-rate port like this. My source says there's a good chance the Seven Deadlies are casing the place."
"Even if they are, how're we gonna spot 'em?"
"Leave that to me."
Lydia rolled her eyes, and, in doing so, took notice of Matt for the first time since she got up. She had been too wrapped up in her little spat with the Commander. Matt could tell she had not been paying attention to anyone else in the room because she did a bit of a double take. She looked at him and then back at the Commander.
"You're making him wear the suit?" she asked.
Commander Joachim smiled his all-knowing smile. "All part of the plan."
Lydia rolled her eyes again. She was not the type who appreciated being out of the loop and got in several arguments with the Commander for his secrecy. Matt simply accepted it as necessary, part of the game.
Commander Joachim pulled out the two-way walkie-talkie he used to stay in contact with his second officer, who was probably at the bridge at the moment. "Muesel," he said, "you're in charge of the ship while we're out." He then kicked the bottom bunk on the opposite wall, waking the crewman sleeping there. (Or was he already awake?) "Huerta, wait ten minutes and then follow after us. Keep your distance and keep an eye out for trouble. If the Seven Deadlies are out there, things might get ugly."
"Aye-aye, sir," Huerta said crisply. He probably had not been asleep after all.
Now Commander Joachim walked over to the intercom panel and pressed the talk button. "Rozic, do you copy?"
It took a couple minutes for the reply.
"Yes, sir?"
"No one gets on and no one gets off. See to it."
"Aye-aye, sir."
With that taken care of, the Commander turned back to Matt and Lydia. "Alright, let's go."
Given a choice, most people would choose to dock at one of the big government-run stations, the new Equalities or even the older Independences. However, there was simply too much traffic for the public stations to hold. 'Orbitals' made up the vast majority of the offworld population everywhere but Mars and Ganymede, often in the tens of millions. This made for a huge demand that the private sector rushed in to fill. The top of the line rivaled and, in a few cases, bested the government OSSs. Then there were successively lower grades of quality that catered to the poorer set. Villareyes was among the lowest of the low, which said a lot coming from the impoverished Saturnian Sphere.
The Kanai shared a cramped docking bay with a half dozen other ships. It was dangerous to berth civilian craft in so close together, but proper adherence to safety regulations was one of many things sacrificed to keep the owners from going bankrupt. Maintenance seemed to be another one of those things. There were plenty of signs of corrosion and other damage that brought mortality a little closer to the forefront of a person's mind.
It seemed that the designer of the Kanai had also been behind Villareyes as the accommodations were little improved. The gravity generator worked better, but it could not have been breaking the half-G mark. Of course, a sudden return to a one-G environment would probably work to their disadvantage if they found the trouble Commander Joachim was expecting.
The Commander seemed to know exactly where he was going, navigating the labyrinthine corridors with the ease of someone going to the kitchen in their own house. It would not have surprised Matt if he had already done some casing of the place himself. He led Matt and Lydia to one of the mid-level decks, where the local merchant district was located. The place was seedy as they come, skirting the law in some places and outrightly defying it in others. Matt could not attest to any firsthand experience with this particular stratum of society, but he had seen enough vids to have a fair idea of what was going on. He probably would have drawn unwanted attention to himself if Lydia had not tugged on his sleeve, beckoning him to keep up with the Commander.
They went into a bar called Hadley's, a miserable dive even by the low standards of Villareyes. The apparent goal was to mix the aesthetics of an Old West saloon with a 1960s-era biker bar, done with cheap imitations of vintage decor. There were a half dozen circular plastic tables painted to look like they were made of wood. There were also a couple pool tables, but the game had to be difficult to play in such low gravity. That did not stop several rough-looking characters from trying. Actually, just about everyone in the bar looked dangerous. Matt had never been comfortable around bars and this was quite possibly the worst of the worst.
No one seemed to pay much attention to the three of them walking inside. All the better as far as Matt was concerned. Quite the opposite of him, Lydia did not seem to have any problem with their new environment.
"Cool, a bar," she said blithely. She glanced over to Commander Joachim. "We get to drink?"
"Only if our marks are here and they buy," the Commander replied. "Even then, only one round. I need you clear-headed."
"Um, sir, I don't drink," Matt said.
Commander Joachim did not seem to mind. "I can use that," he said, "but you better decide right now how important that is to you. If you stick to your guns, that'll be one thing, but if you cave to them, it'll make us look bad. I shouldn't have to remind you that this is a delicate operation."
Matt felt Lydia elbow him in the ribs teasingly and mouth something obscene. She made a point to give him a hard time for his conscientiousness, but he knew she never meant anything by it, so it had stopped bothering him a long time ago.
The Commander eyed the two of them over his shoulder, saying, "Wait here."
They watched Commander Joachim walk up to a little man leaning against the wall, standing out like a sore thumb in his effort to be inconspicuous. The Commander talked with him a bit, seemed to slip him something, and the little man pointed to the bar. The Commander nodded and turned to walk back to Matt and Lydia with the little man following at his heels like a puppy.
"Well, it looks like today's our lucky day," Commander Joachim said. "Three of them, at the bar. Gives us numerical parity." He gestured to the little man. "My friend here is going to introduce us." He then nodded in the direction of the bar. "Direct your attention to that big bald bastard over there."
The man he was referring to was a big lump of muscle with a fair layer of fat to smooth out the contours of his bulky body. His head was shaved, which made his facial hair look all the stranger. He had muttonchops and a handlebar moustache (for lack of a better term) that extended to the hair under his chin. Why he did not just wear a full beard was anyone's guess. If he had tusks, he would have made a fine walrus.
The walrus man had two companions. One was a little ferret of a man, even smaller than Commander Joachim's 'friend', so skinny that his clothes hung loosely from his meager frame. His hair was a slick black, making him look like an old Brylcreem ad, a fitting anachronism in this place. Thick-framed BCGs completed the picture, slightly magnifying his beady little eyes. The other was a punkish young woman, her spiky blonde hair cut close at the sides. She had several facial piercings that glinted in the dull light, most notably a tightly packed series of rings that ran the entire length of the helix of her ear. When she looked over at them, Matt could see a spider web tattoo on her neck. He could only imagine how painful that had to be.
Leaving his 'friend' behind with the trio at the bar, Commander Joachim came up to fetch Matt and Lydia.
"We're in," he said.
Matt walked stiffly as he followed Commander Joachim to the bar. He could not help being nervous. No, he was not just nervous. He was scared. After all the combat missions he had flown, how could be so scared? Then he realized that here he was not wrapped in a shell of armor plating and energy shields. There were no pulse cannons or missiles to stop the enemy before him. Yes, death was always a heartbeat away in combat, but at least you have a fighting chance. Here he was helpless. He could not help himself, nor could he help anyone else.
Also, this whole undercover business rubbed him the wrong way. He did not like posing as a criminal, associating with criminals. He had always tried to lead an upright life, and even though he knew this was only an act in pursuit of a greater good, he wanted to run away screaming from this bar, this station. He wanted to be back in uniform, feeling that clean feeling he got knowing he serving the Union righteously.
Matt's rising frustration was reaching a crescendo when it suddenly ebbed away. He felt a comforting touch, a hand on his arm. Lydia. She was looking straight ahead, making sure her eyes did not stray from the trio at the bar, but somehow she noticed, somehow she knew. Matt felt a wave of relief swept over him. God only knows where his thoughts would have led him if she had not intervened.
The walrus man kept his back to them, occupying himself with his drink. While the punkish woman eyed them in silent hostility, it was the little ferret man who addressed them. He adjusted his glasses as he started to speak.
"Our mutual friend says you like pirate stories. Most people only want to talk about the Caribbean, but I've always found the pirates of the South China Sea to be far more fascinating."
Apparently this was part of an elaborate dance to screen any potential undesirables. Commander Joachim surprised everyone by refusing to play along.
"Let's cut the shit, shall we? I've got a fair ship and an able-bodied crew. I'm sick of wasting my time on small fry. I want to go after the big fish, and I'm willing to fly under your colors to get a piece of that action."
The ferret man gaped helplessly. He was not expecting this and was not equipped to react to the Commander's blunt reply. With him unable to react, the punkish woman took over.
"Who the fuck d'you think you are?" she snapped, pulling a switchblade out of her pocket. "Ima waste this shit."
She lunged at the Commander. Because of his sunglasses, it was hard to read his reaction, but Matt got the feeling his eyes would not have shown any surprise. In a single smooth movement, he dodged the lunge, grabbed the woman by the wrist, twisted her arm, caught the knife in the air as it fell from her hand, and slid it into his jacket pocket. The whole thing could not have taken longer than five seconds.
The woman's legs gave out, apparently a ploy to get loose. She must have thought she could turn and straighten out her arm, leaving her free to kick him. However, the Commander acted quicker, slamming her into the floor before she could do anything. Securing her in place with his foot on her neck, he straightened up a bit, still twisting her arm with one hand while the other remained in his pocket, no doubt holding her switchblade.
"Tell your bitch to behave," he said coolly, "or I'm going to break her." He was looking directly at the walrus man. "I'm talking to you, you big ugly fucker. I know you're the one in charge here."
The walrus man finished his drink and set it down on the table. Without turning around, he said in a low voice, "Jassa, behave."
Matt was under the impression that the ferret man was the leader of the group, maybe not the head of the Seven Deadlies, but the one leading this little expedition. Now that he though about it, though, it made sense, letting your subordinates do the talking, only stepping in when it was absolutely necessary. By seeing through this, the Commander was forcing a conversation between the leaders of both sides.
Commander Joachim lifted his foot off the woman's neck and let go of her arm. She got up slowly, massaging her injured shoulder. She took a step back, apparently trying to move out of the Commander's field of vision. She quickly snatched up a beer bottle, smashed it on the counter, and made a second lunge at the Commander.
This time it was Lydia who took action. She grabbed the woman by her shirt. The material did not rip when Lydia pulled, so the woman was jerked back into Lydia's waiting fist. She delivered a mean kidney punch that stunned the woman for a moment, just long enough for a large, fleshy hand to clamp down on her throat. It was the walrus man.
"I said behave," he said. His voice, like his face, was emotionless, but the threat was clear.
The woman dropped the broken beer bottle and held up her hands in surrender. When the walrus man let her go, so did Lydia. The woman sank into one of the barstools, defeated and sulky. Matt suddenly realized that the Commander had not moved a muscle. Did he know Lydia was going to respond in time, or was he counting on the walrus man? The walrus man seemed to be thinking the exact same thing.
"You've got balls," he said appreciatively, "I'll give ya that. So, why didn't ya think Grig was the bossman here? What tipped ya off?"
"If you were just a goon," the Commander replied, "you would've done the same as the little bitchlet when I provoked you. Not that I ever believed this rat-lookin' motherfucker or the bitchlet was running the show."
Matt did not see this Grig's resemblance to a rat. He stuck by his original comparison of the man to a ferret. Of course, now was not the time to be thinking about stuff like that.
The walrus man seemed all the more impressed. "Balls and brains. Too much of that shit will get ya dead."
Commander Joachim gave him a wry grin. "I like to think I have just enough to get me into trouble."
The walrus man laughed. "Alright," he said, "you've earned yourself the privilege of breathing for a few more minutes. Let's have some introductions here. You can call me Karst. The little guy's Grig and the bitchlet--heh, heh, I like that--is Jassa. What're your handles?"
'Handles'. He had not provided real names, nor was he expecting any in return. Of course. They were all pirates there. It was no place for real names.
"I go by Moishe," Commander Joachim said. He gestured to Lydia. "This badass bitch here is Ling, my first mate."
"Fuck you," Lydia grumbled. Either she did not like the label or she was trying to reinforce it.
"Heh," Grig mumbled, "you and Jassa look like twins."
Lydia glanced at the punkish woman, Jassa, and then gave Grig a rather cold look.
"You need to get your prescription checked, four eyes."
Apparently roused enough to speak again, Jassa pointed to Matt and asked, "What's with the stiff?"
With a nod to Matt, Commander Joachim said, "What, George? He's my accountant." As if they were old buddies or something, he leaned a little closer to Karst and added, "He comes in handy in our line of work."
Karst turned to the 'friend' who introduced them. The little man had not moved, but had dutifully made a point not to draw any attention to himself throughout their exchange. It seemed to be his talent.
"Gofer, get," Karst ordered. "Looks like we ain't gonna hafta kill ya today." He turned his attention back to the Commander. "Alright, ace, you make me wanna give ya a chance. You and your bitch fly?"
"Of course."
"You any good?"
"I could kick your ass."
Karst snorted. "Not fuckin' likely, but I'd like to see what ya can do. Saddle up and meet us a good quarter-gim from here." He handed over something to the Commander. "Take this. It'll lead ya to us."
"How do I know you aren't just planning to fuck us up?" Commander Joachim asked pointedly.
"You don't," Karst said with a cruel grin. "All part of the game, am I right? You gonna go yella on me?"
"No chance in hell."
"What I like ta hear. See you in half an hour, if your tub can make it in time."
In a rather bold move, Commander Joachim actually slapped the side of Karst's neck, saying, "Wash your neck. 'Cause I'm gonna drop the axe on your ass."
Rather than responding violently to the provocation, Karst actually seemed to enjoy it. "Bring it," he said. He then held up his index finger and waved it in small circles. "Alright, doggies, let's roll."
Grig moved to Karst's side like a pilot forming up. Jassa was slower to follow. Before joining up with the others on her team, she got up in Lydia's face, or as close as she could, being several centimeters shorter.
"Ima gonna tear ya the fuck up," she growled.
Lydia looked down on her like she was nothing and replied, "Keep tellin' yourself that."
Lydia did not seem to notice, but Matt could swear he saw Jassa swipe her nails across Lydia's exposed midriff. What was that about? It made no sense, so he shook it off. The low lights in the bar were playing tricks on his eyes. That had to be it.
The Commander waited a few minutes after the three pirates left before motioning for Matt and Lydia to make their exit. They walked at a steady but quick pace. Although Matt had not enjoyed the little encounter, the excitement seemed to have put Lydia in a rather good mood, good enough to give Commander Joachim a playful shove.
"Damn, man," she said, "I never thought ya could speak so foul."
"All part of the act, Ling," the Commander replied. "People like them respond to that shit."
"Are we really going through with this?" Matt asked. "It could be a trap."
Commander Joachim shrugged. "That's highly likely. Hell, Gofer could be lying to me and these could be the wrong people, but it's the best lead we've got and we have to follow up on it." He looked around in a casual display of wariness, as if he were looking for watchers without letting them know he was looking for them. "They seemed to know how long it would take the Kanai to get that far out. We have to assume they know their shit and that they're keeping tabs on us. No room for fuck-ups, boys and girls."
"What about Huerta?" Lydia asked.
"He's following us," Commander Joachim said, "watching our back in case they pull something while we head back to the ship." He pulled out his walkie-talkie. "Muesel, get her fired up. We're outta here as soon as everyone's aboard."
The Kanai pulled out of Villareyes about fifteen minutes after that. Matt, Lydia and Commander Joachim huddled in the bridge with Muesel. There was just barely enough room for the four of them in there. The transmitter Karst gave the Commander blinked only once, the millisecond signal just enough for the computer to catch and trace back to its origin.
The arrived at the promised location almost precisely when they said they would. Technically, it had been thirty-two minutes instead of an even half-hour, but that did not seem to be a deal-breaker. The ship received a new signal, this one an audio-only feed.
"Glad ya could make it," a voice said. Karst.
Commander Joachim picked up the headset and spoke into the mic. "So what's your game?"
"Not a game," Karst said. "A test. You and first bitch come and fly against me and Jassa. First one to score a hit wins. Grig'll be on standby in case anyone on that tub of yours tries ta get cute."
The three pirates came up on visual. Although they had been modified quite a bit, their ships were clearly Koh-132 Wasps, first-generation space fighters used by the Navy in the early days of the war. The last of them had been pulled from active service two years ago, after the first reported appearance of the Seven Deadlies. Matt did not know if that meant anything. Even with all the controls the government set in place, things still had a way of slipping through the cracks. The one thing that was clear was that the Seven Deadlies did indeed have access to military hardware.
Commander Joachim made a fine show of appearing unaffected by this. Did he already know that the rumors of the Seven Deadlies' equipment were more than just rumors?
"We don't have training lasers on our pods," the Commander said.
Karst laughed, loud enough to scramble the feed a bit. "This ain't a game, boy. We're usin' live ammo. Don't worry. We won't be usin' any missiles, though. Just cannons."
"I hit you," the Commander said, "you won't feel a damn thing. You hit me and I'm a corpse."
It was true. Matt had inspected the little pod fighters on several occasions during the past three weeks. They were little more than rockets and a pair of guns strapped to a cockpit. No armor, no shields. Even the fire from a pulse cannon would probably destroy one in two or three hits. It was no match at all, even for an older fighter like a Wasp.
"Then don't get hit," Karst replied unsympathetically.
Commander Joachim paused a moment, as if he was weighing his response. "How do I know you won't be a sore loser when I score a hit?"
"If."
"When."
"Heh. You already know the answer to that one. How do ya know I'm gonna play nice?"
"I don't."
"That's right. Feelin' yella?"
The Commander looked at Lydia as he said, "We'll be right out. I hope you're flexible, 'cause you'll want to kiss your ass goodbye."
The Commander dropped the headset and walked out of the bridge. Matt and Lydia followed closely behind.
"We don't stand a snowball's chance in hell against those Wasps," Lydia said. "What do our pods push, a hundred kps tops?"
The jury-rigged boosters on the pods were vastly outmatched by the Six-Deltas the Wasps were sporting. While standard engagements were performed at speeds under 250kps, the pods were still at a massive disadvantage. Then there was the matter of maneuverability...
Commander Joachim tried to put the best possible spin on things, saying, "Their shields can't deflect our Zulus."
It was no comfort to Lydia. "We don't even have shields," Lydia complained. "And anyway, the rounds are barely supersonic! How're we supposed ta hit 'em!?"
"I brought you on because I needed a damn good pilot," the Commander said. "Now's your chance to earn your pay."
"Goddammit."
On any other day, Commander Joachim would have gotten angry at her for that, but this time he relented.
"I'll let that go this time," he said. "Hey, look on the bright side, if you don't make it, they'll probably bury you with a double promotion."
"If I'm gonna die," Lydia replied, "I'm gonna do it by takin' a whole helluva lotta Shellies down with me."
"Then make a point not to die here."
Lydia had brought up something that made Matt all the more uneasy. Lydia was a great pilot, but for some reason, it was only during exchanges with the Sheolites that she became an excellent one. With the odds so sorely stacked against them, this was a time for excellent pilots.
"Nyx, I mean, Ling, you don't fly at a hundred percent if you're not going up against Shellies. Let me go instead."
Matt did not consider himself to be a better pilot than Lydia. People often said he was too modest about his abilities, but he refused to see himself as anything out of the ordinary. The operative virtue here was that the quality of his flying was consistent no matter the circumstances. Reliability had to count for something, right? Or was it just that he did not want to risk Lydia dying here?
Predictably, Lydia brushed off his help. "Relax, Cav... Ahem, George. I got this."
Matt was not so sure, but there would be no fighting it. There was not much of anything that could stop Lydia once her mind was made up.
While they were walking, Commander Joachim hit the nearest intercom terminal. "Gunners, post," he said. He started walking again and pulled out his walkie-talkie. "Muesel, be prepared to take evasive action if things take a turn for the worse. I won't lie to you about your chances, but I don't have to tell you."
"Duty, honor, country, sir," Muesel said, "or some shit like that."
Commander Joachim grinned. "You're a real mensch, Muesel. For a goy." He looked to Lydia. "Alright, Ling, let's roll."
In the hangar bay, Lydia and Commander Joachim got into their pods, keeping the cockpits open while they booted up their systems. This way they could talk without relying on the radio.
"How you wanna play this?" Lydia asked.
"One on one," the Commander said. "I take big ugly, you take little bitchlet."
"Fuckin' waste a' my time."
"If this works," the Commander said, "it sure as hell won't be a waste of our time." He noticed that Matt was still standing there. "We're about to launch, George. Unless you want to have the air sucked out of your lungs, I suggest you head back to the bridge."
"I'm gonna put on one helluva show for ya," Lydia said confidently. "Kick back an' enjoy the fireworks."
Fireworks were the last thing Matt wanted to see. Still, there was nothing he could do.
"Good hunting," he said. It was all that came to mind.
Lydia gave a sloppy version of the final salute as her cockpit closed. As Matt jogged back to the bridge, he whispered a prayer for Lydia and the Commander to come back safely. Not much shy of divine intervention would get them through this in one piece.
By the time he got back to the bridge, Matt could see the two pods flying out to meet the Wasps. The radio transmissions were on broadcast, so the Kanai could listen in on the chatter. Matt wondered if that made things better or worse.
"I'd say 'Let's have a clean fight,'" Karst said, "but that ain't how we do things here. Let's get it on!"
The Wasps darted out of view, the pods following at a noticeably slower pace. There was not much point in trying to watch through the viewport.
Sitting down at the commo station, Matt brought up the ship's external cameras. He assumed manual control of all ten and went to work tracking the five ships. He immediately noticed one Wasp holding steady directly behind the Kanai. It had to be Grig, ready to launch a fatal strike at a moment's notice. While he was not in a blind spot for the cameras, he was safely outside the turrets' field of fire. If they did not have to pose as pirates of limited means, they could have afforded better armaments. Shields, too, for that matter. Nothing to be done about that now. They were at the mercy of the real pirates and could all wind up dead very soon.
Matt heard Jassa's voice over the radio, taunting Lydia. "You want I should kill my engines for ya?"
"Sure," Lydia replied calmly. "When your boss wants ta know how ya lost ta me, you're gonna need one helluvan excuse."
This Jassa was even quicker to anger than Lydia was and screamed, "You ain't gonna last three seconds, you cocky bitch!"
Matt was able to catch Jassa's ship by following her radio transmissions back to the source. Now that he had spotted her, he would not lose track of her. He would not be much of a combat pilot if he did. More importantly, catching sight of Jassa led him to Lydia. He meant to follow Commander Joachim as well, but he forgot about that once he had a visual lock on his old wingmate.
Lydia had no choice but to force her engines to go all-out. Even then it was not even half the speed of Jassa's Wasp. However, in spite of her pod's low speed and meager capabilities, Lydia was able to perform some impressive aerobatics. It was the one thing keeping her alive.
Matt had seen pilots like Jassa before, both during his own training and in his time as a flight instructor. She did not push the limits of her craft, did not even bother to explore them. She was just using it as a tool. It was not a part of herself. She was too impatient for anything else.
Lydia must have drawn the same conclusion. In most of the early mock dogfights, the instructors would be considerably handicapped to give the students a chance. It was easy to humble students with an inflated opinion of themselves. This might as well be the Academy, only now stakes were much higher.
Jassa wore her emotions on her sleeve. Her frustration was all too clear as she howled, "Your fuckin' ballet ain't gonna save ya!"
"It doesn't have to."
"What!?"
It was a move that was the very definition of ballsy. Lydia inserted her pod in the dead space between the lines of fire, flying into Jassa's Wasp head-on. In the fraction of a second before impact, she flipped the pod over the Wasp as it rushed under her. She opened up with her Zulus before starting the maneuver, that and the close proximity the only way she could hope to score a hit.
It worked like a dream, far better than she could have possibly expected. The engines on Jassa's Wasp went dead, leaving it at the mercy of inertia as the pilot floundered with the controls. Surely it was a one in a million shot. A round must have pierced through the Wasp's armor plating and hit the reactor, activating the failsafe. Any trauma to a reactor and it automatically shuts down. It probably got some people killed, but a thermonuclear explosion would most definitely get even more people killed. It certainly saved Lydia's life today.
"Game," Lydia said, showing far less boastfulness than Matt was expecting.
Jassa was not a gracious loser. She struggled with her directional thrusters to turn herself around and face Lydia. She had drifted a good ways away, but that meant little to a laser array or, worse yet, a missile.
"I've still got enough power to kill ya!" she snapped. "Ain't so funny now, is it, bitch?"
"Jassa, I've got a lock on you right now," Karst said coolly. "You fire, you're dust."
"But, sir, she--!"
"You're the weakest fucking link, Jassa," Karst growled. Don't tempt me." When it was clear that Jassa was going to stand down, his voice took a slightly more genial tone. "Okay, Moe, you pass the test. If you'd be kind enough ta tug my associate back ta Villareyes, we'll look into this little proposal of yours."
"We can do that," Commander Joachim replied.
A tow line reeled in Jassa's Wasp and they made the trip back to Villareyes. Karst and Grig went on ahead to secure a docking bay that would be clear of any unwanted eyes and ears. Matt was waiting on the other side of the hangar bay. The moment the green light indicated that pressure had been restored, he rushed in to congratulate the winners of the pirate's deadly game.
Lydia was just getting out of her pod when Matt ran up to her and exclaimed, "You did it!"
Lydia gave him a cocksure grin. "Did you expect anything less?"
"Yeah, yeah," the Commander said dismissively, "good work, Ling. You're just lucky the bitchlet had all the flying ability of a penguin."
"What about you?" Lydia asked.
"Big ugly was toying with me. He didn't think I stood a chance, so he let his guard down. His mistake."
"If that was the real deal, we'd still be dead."
"Then let's be glad it wasn't."
During the trip, the rest of the crew crowded into the bridge to watch the replays of Lydia and Commander Joachim's performance. The Commander let them watch it a couple times before he started running them off to get back to their duties. They were on final approach before they knew it.
The docking bay Karst chose had already been cleared of any other ship that had been there before. It was just the Kanai and the three Wasps. Jassa was even sulkier than she had been in the bar and was giving Lydia a mighty evil eye. Lydia ignored her completely.
Karst was hanging back again, letting Grig do all the talking. As was his habit, Grig adjusted his glasses before talking.
"Okay," he said, "now for your test--"
"We just did that!" Lydia snapped.
"That was Round One. If you really want to fly with us, you've got one more round to go through."
Commander Joachim did not seem to be bothered by this at all and simply said, "Fire away."
"You ever heard of Sharmra?" Grig asked.
The Commander replied, "Second-tier shipper that operates outside the Belt. Fell off the Top 250 list a couple years back. Times are tough."
Grig adjusted his glasses again. "Yes, well, people of our profession have hurt their profit margin and they've been resorting to less than legal countermeasures. They've ordered a shipment of military-grade armaments to outfit the ships of their fleet. In our line of work, you can never have too many guns."
"And there are plenty of people out there who think the same way," Commander Joachim added. "Whatever you don't need will fetch a pretty penny on the black market."
"You certainly know the trade."
"I'd be a damn fool to approach you if I didn't. So what's the test?"
"We want you to do your pirate thing and get that shipment."
"Oh, is that all?"
"We want proof you can do the job. We could care less about how you gather intel, so we're going to share what we know. The ship will arrive here in three days. Sharmra's got some pissant here to see the deal through. Obviously, if he gets caught, the company can write him off no problem."
"You gotta love corporate ethics."
Ignoring the comment, Grig handed the Commander something. It looked like the transmitter before, only a little larger. "Take this. It's a transponder that responds only to our frequency. If you get the shipment, activate it and we'll take you to the next level. If you fail, or worse, if you get greedy, you're dead. Stone-cold dead."
Grig had no talent for making credible threats, which no doubt made Commander Joachim's nonchalant answer all the easier. "Part of being an adult is delaying gratification," he said.
"Well then, I hope you're an adult."
"You'll get your guns."
"You surprised me once," Karst said, speaking up at last. "We'll see if you can do it again."
"Three days and you'll know."
"I'll be lookin' forward to it."
"I hope your boss will, too," the Commander said with a knowing smile.
So Commander Joachim figured there was someone higher in the food chain than Karst, Matt thought. That was reasonable enough, but the pirates had deliberately given no sign that there was any structure outside the three of them. If it was meant to startle Karst, it did not seem to work.
"Later, Moe," Karst said in that vaguely friendly way he'd adopted with the Commander. He did his little spinning finger thing and told the others, "Doggies, roll out."
Matt did not know what they intended to do with Jassa's wounded fighter, but he could not bring himself to care that much. He was more than happy to get back on board the Kanai. This new phase of the mission bothered him, though. Would they really go through with it?
He asked the Commander himself, "You aren't really going to attack that freighter, are you?"
Commander Joachim shrugged. "They're breaking the law anyway, so I don't feel too bad about it. We have the authorization to do a few raids to keep up our cover. It'll be fine."
Matt was not so easily convinced. He pressed harder. "What if things get out of hand? What if people get killed?"
The Commander's expression darkened a bit. "Collateral damage," he said. Giving Matt a somewhat sympathetic look, he rested his hand on the fellow pilot's shoulder. "You worry too much. This'll be a good clean heist. You'll see."

* * *

Date: Tue 30 Apr 121
Time: UST 1511

The next three days passed slowly. Commander Joachim had the crew on lockdown. He did not want anyone on Villareyes to have the opportunity to remember their faces. More importantly, he knew what kind of place the starport was and was not about to let his crew get mixed up in any unsanctioned trouble.
The crew had little choice but to go about their usual rotations even if there was not much to do. Because they were just sitting in port, most of the ship's systems were down, leaving them with less maintenance work than usual. The Commander disappeared now and again, sometimes taking Huerta with him. No doubt he was doing reconnaissance in preparation for the main event.
Now that the day itself had arrived, no one knew when their target was going to show up. They were told to go about their normal schedules, only that anyone who wanted to sleep had to do so fully dressed. As a matter of fact, Matt was one such person trying to sleep when Muesel's voice blared over the intercom.
"Showtime, people! Boarders, report to Docking Bay 23 on the double. Gunners, post. George, Ling, take the helm. If you get the abort signal, you know what to do."
Since Matt had been in bed, he was surprised to be the first person in the bridge. It took several minutes until Lydia lazily strolled in and flopped down in the navigator's chair. She apparently was not feeling much of a sense of urgency.
"Ugh, dammit," she grumbled. "So we just hafta sit here with our thumbs up our asses?"
"Would you rather be with the boarders attacking that ship?" Matt asked.
Lydia shrugged, putting her feet up on the console. "Might be fun," she said. "Who the hell knows?"
Matt did not see much prospect for fun in committing an act of piracy, but he was not nearly as adventurous as Lydia. The whole business made him nervous. He tried to distract himself by cycling through the camera views.
"I just hope it goes as well as he says it will," he said.
Lydia crossed her arms and leaned back in her chair. "As much as it pisses me off," she said reluctantly, "he seems to be cocky for good reason. He's pretty slick shit." She looked over at Matt and, seeing how ill at ease he was, grinned mischievously. "Aw, Cav, you frettin'? Man, you shoulda never gotten shanghaied inta this shit."
Matt shook his head. "It's too late to think of that now. And isn't it supposed to be 'George'?"
"Fuck that stupid shit," Lydia said bluntly, rolling her eyes as she said it. "Cap'n ain't here ta throw a conniption." Noticing something near Matt, she turned her chair around to get a better look. "What's that?"
Matt noticed the little blinker resting on the console. He felt an instantaneous shot of relief.
"Green light," he said. "They did it."
"Damn. That fast?"
"Two blinks," Matt said, noting the pattern of the flickering light. "That means pull out of port."
Lydia looked incredulous. "What? Don't tell me they're takin' the whole damn freighter."
That was exactly what it meant, but Matt was already busy executing his orders.
"Help me with the launch cycle," he said.
The nice thing about ports like Villareyes was that they did not ask any questions when a ship wanted to pull out. They were quickly cleared for takeoff and making their way out of the starport in minutes. As soon as they were outside, Lydia plastered her face against the viewport, straining to get a better look at the freighter forming up above them.
"Oh yeah!" she hooted. "Kickass! The whole fuckin' enchilada!"
Commander Joachim's voice crackled in over the radio. "Don't get too excited, Ling. We need to move."
Surprised, Lydia turned to the speaker. "You were listening?"
Matt could almost imagine the Commander giving his usual all-knowing smile. "The walls have ears, Ling. Let's get a couple gims out. After that, I want you to get the longboat and bring the boarders back to the ship. Then we can meet up with our new friends."
"You're going to pilot that thing alone?"
"No sweat. Most of the systems are automated anyway. Less talk, more moving."
They followed his instructions and offloaded the boarders once they were far enough away from the station. Muesel took his place at the helm, but Matt and Lydia did not leave the bridge. No one talked about what happened, whether there was something worth hiding or not.
The Commander ordered the Kanai to get some distance between it and the freighter while he activated the transponder Grig had given him. Perhaps rightfully so, he still did not trust the pirates and gave the rest of the crew a slim chance to escape if things turned sour.
After traveling several hours, five Wasps appeared and began to circle around the freighter. A voice came in on the radio, a broadcast deliberately intended to be picked up by the Kanai as well. It was Karst.
"I didn't think you'd pull it off," he said, "but you did it. Follow us to these coordinates."
They did as they were told and wound up heading for a starport outside Titan. It was a modest improvement over Villareyes, but still the sort of fringe port that was safe for business.
"We land in separate bays," Karst said. "Moe, we've got a spot in 12 reserved for you."
"Roger that," the Commander replied.
Once the Kanai touched down in its reserved docking bay, the crew did not have to wonder for long what they were supposed to do. Commander Joachim called them up before the engines had even cooled down, somehow patching in directly to the intercom.
"George, Ling, and all the boarders except for Muesel, meet me up at Docking Bay 12."
Whatever Lydia was wanting to do before, this did not seem to be it as she unemphatically replied, "Oh boy."
As they were disembarking from the ship, Huerta felt the need to speak up.
"We should go in twos and threes to keep from drawing attention to ourselves."
Lydia rolled her eyes, balking at his caution. "Whatever."
They split up and took different routes to Docking Bay 12. Appropriately, Matt was paired with Lydia. She did not seem particularly inclined to hurry. Matt knew that rushing her would accomplish nothing, but he kept a slightly quicker pace in hopes it would encourage her to move with a little sense of purpose. It did not work all that well.
Lydia seemed to be content to pass the time complaining.
"I know it's all part a' the mission," she grumbled, "but something about teaming up with these bastards really pisses me off."
Matt was about to say something when he was surprised to find Jassa standing there waiting for them. Standing next to her was an obese man with ragged red hair and stubble bristling from his double chin. Another one of the Seven Deadlies? Lydia did not seem too pleased to see either of them.
"What the hell do you want?" she demanded.
Jassa smiled cruelly and said, "Hello, Auntie."
Lydia gave the young pirate a look of confused contempt. "'Auntie'? And here I'd gotten used to 'bitch'. What, is that some new insult with you kids?" She moved Jassa aside and started to walk past, saying, "Outta the way. We've got places to be."
Jassa snatched up Lydia's arm and gave it a good yank. "You ain't goin' nowhere 'til we square shit between us, Auntie."
Rather than getting truly angry, Lydia continued to regard Jassa with contempt, like an annoying little dog tugging at her pantleg. "What's with this 'Auntie' horseshit?"
Jassa did not let got of her. In fact, it looked like she tightened her grip as she said, "I thought Grig was just bein' a dumbass with that twin crack in the bar, but it didn't sit right with me. Maybe you didn't notice, but I scratched you before we left, got enough skin to run a scan on it."
"Pervy little hobby you got there," Lydia said.
Angered by the interruption, Jassa snapped, "You shut the fuck up 'til I'm done!" This outburst caught the attention of some passers-by and Jassa regained a bit of her composure before continuing in a lowered voice. "Does the name 'Leia Han' mean anythin' to you?"
Lydia did a good job of hiding any sign of surprise, even recognition. "Why should it?" she asked.
The cruel smile from before crossed Jassa's lips again, only this time with an added serving of malice. "I'm sure Mom'd cry if she heard you say that, Auntie Lydia."
Hearing her own name, Lydia lost control, grabbing Jassa by the shirt and pulling her in close. "How the fuck do you know that name!?" she hissed.
That smile of Jassa's did not fade. "Lieutenant Commander Lydia Han, commanding officer, VF-313. Ain't you gone places? The spooks really fucked up when they put that dummy file up. All your next of kin connect to your real file, and that includes Mom."
"What the fuck are you talking about? Sis never had any kids."
Now it was Jassa's turn to show contempt. "Looks like she fooled you then. Got knocked up by an upperclassman her first year at the Academy." She shrugged. "I don't know whose dick she sucked to stay in, but--"
Jassa never got a chance to finish that sentence. Under normal circumstances, most people, male or female, would have probably resorted to slapping her for what she had said and what she was no doubt about to say. Not Lydia. She punched her. It was a punch that would have put many a professional boxer to shame. A sizable piece of Jassa's shirt remained clenched in Lydia's other hand while Jassa herself lay sprawled out on the floor. Had that been the end of it, it would have been one thing, but Lydia was not done yet.
Lydia swooped down on the prone Jassa. It was just for a fraction of a second, but Matt saw the look in her eye. He had seen it before. Only once. It sent a chill down his spine. He knew that if he did not stop her, Jassa would be hamburger. And that might just be for starters.
Lydia was already straddling Jassa's limp body and laying into her. Fortunately, she was just giving the pirate some quick jabs at the moment, but surely that was just warm-up. Jassa's companion tried to come to her aid. It spared Jassa some punishment, but it did not do him any favors personally. Thinking he had the advantage, he pushed Lydia as hard as he could. She caught herself before she could fall over and responded by driving her fist into the man's crotch as hard as she could. While he was doubled over in pain, she grabbed him by the hair and began to punch his face over and over again.
Matt took the opportunity to try to pull her away, shouting, "Nyx, stop!"
Lydia swiped at him to shake him off, but thankfully did not take it as enough provocation to change her targets. Matt wanted to believe that she still recognized him, but deep down, he knew she was completely out of control. Berserk.
The altercation had caught people's attention and a crowd was starting to form. Matt had no idea how much time had passed. It could have been minutes, it could have been seconds. Whichever it was, it felt like far too much time had passed when a woman finally began screaming, "Security! Security!"
Lydia turned in the direction of the screaming woman like a wolf who had just spotted its prey. Before she could spring forward at full speed, Matt threw himself at her. He was not strong enough to knock her to the ground but he did manage to stop her. She tried to bring her elbow down on his head, but he snaked around quickly--far more nimbly than he ever though possible--and put her in a full nelson. With her arms immobilized, she could only flail her legs wildly. It was no small blessing that she could not use her legs to effectively discourage Matt from maintaining the hold. Now all he had to do was try to get her to calm down. He shouted loudly but clearly, as clear as he could be with all her struggling.
"Nyx, listen to me! You have to stop! We have to get out of here!"
She was not listening and he dare not let her go. What little time they had had already run out. Over all the mutterings of the ever-growing crowd and Lydia's howls as she thrashed about, Matt could distinctly hear the heavy clomping of boots headed their way. Eight officers from the starport's security forced their way through crowd with weapons already drawn. Once they were clear of the bystanders, they took aim at Matt and Lydia.
"Freeze!" one of them shouted.
Jassa's companion, the heavy redhead, was holding back a nosebleed with one hand and holding up a pistol with the other. He fired several shots, most of them going into a single officer. The officer went down and while the others were momentarily stunned, the man was able to rouse Jassa enough for the two of them to dive for cover in the crowd.
Four officers rushed off in pursuit and another was giving first aid to the wounded man, shouting for a medic on the radio. That left two officers with their weapons trained on Matt and Lydia. In the back of Matt's mind, he was amazed that he was able to keep track of everything that was going on while he was struggling so desperately with Lydia. All part of being a combat pilot, he supposed, but now was not the time for any thoughts except for the way to get Lydia calmed down and possibly escape.
One of the standing officers seemed to be the more aggressive of the two and confronted them directly, shouting, "Get your hands on your heads!"
Matt did not want to look like he was resisting, so he decided to pin his rather limited hopes on being honest. "I can't!" he shouted in return. "I have to restrain her!"
The officer was not listening and only shouted more forcefully. "Let the woman go and get your hands on your fucking head! Now!"
Matt was getting more and more desperate. He did not want to try the officer, but he could not let Lydia go. In the state she was in, she would only try to attack the officers and get gunned down for her trouble. He could not allow that.
"She's out of control! I can't let her go! I'm not trying to resist, I swear!"
Although his blaster was surely primed already, the officer did it again to make it clear that he had every intention to use it.
"I'm going to count to three," he said. "You let the woman go, put your hands on your head and get down on the ground or I will shoot."
Since the officer was not listening, Matt went back to the equally long shot of pleading with Lydia. "Nyx, you have to get ahold of yourself! I can't let you go until you calm down!"
"One!"
"Nyx, please!"
"Two!"
With no other options left, Matt swung around so that his back was to the officer. More importantly, his body now shielded Lydia. The standard charged pulse from a small arm was not too terribly likely to penetrate all the way through a single body. At very least, most of its destructive power would be burned up. It was not much, but it was all he could do at this point. Yes, he could die and Lydia might follow shortly afterward, but he would have done everything he possibly could to protect her.
How did it come to this? If they were supposed to die, it should be in the cockpit, fighting against the Sheolites, not an apparent suicide by cop in some crummy starport out in one of the worst parts of space. Where was the justice in this?
Before the one officer could count to three and then take the opportunity to turn him into a microwaved corpse, Matt noticed his partner circling around. He had something else in his hand. Not a blaster, but a-- Too late. He could feel his heart skip a beat and his head throb as his vision flickered away.
We aren't dead after all, are we? Right?

* * *

When Commander Joachim heard the security alert, he subtly got himself out of view and pulled out his ID card. He tapped in the access code and the microscopic holoprojectors displayed the interface that was only visible via the special filters in his sunglasses. He did not allow himself many gadgets for this assignment, but he needed to be on top of the situation as much as possible. The combination of elements made it difficult to crack, so he was not too worried about the device falling into the enemy's hands.
His fingers danced furiously, his priority access allowing him to hack the starport's security systems easily. He was able to see where they were dispatching the officers. He overlaid it with the location of Major Harold and Commander Han. The two lined up perfectly. Just his luck.
They did not know it, but he had access to the trackers and biometrics of all the crewmembers and could summon them at any time. The biometrics were displayed in a secondary window and he would not have paid any attention to them if he had not noticed something disturbing. Commander Han's stats were off the chart. It showed all the signs of the fight or flight response, only amplified wildly out of proportion. Something was seriously wrong.
It was not too terrible far. There was a slim chance he could extract the two of them before the security team arrived, or even neutralize that security if necessary. He was not prepared to sacrifice two of his most important crewmembers without a fight.
Without saying a word, he ran off. He made a point to take side routes with a minimum of human traffic. He did not need to be drawing any eyes to him if he could avoid it. It took him about five minutes to reach the place. By the time he got there, a considerable crowd had gathered. Major Harold was apparently trying to restrain Commander Han. The pirate woman Jassa and a fat man were lying on the ground. What the hell had just happened?
The security team had already arrived. Six, no, eight of them. Too many. Dammit.
The fat man lying on the ground near Jassa pulled out a handgun and shot one of the officers. It gave him and Jassa enough of an opening to plow into the crowd and try to make their escape. Four of the officers chased after them; another was giving the downed officer first aid. That just left two trained on his crewmembers.
Because the one giving first aid could draw his weapon and shoot at any time, Commander Joachim had to consider his opposition as three officers, barring any good citizens in the crowd. There was too much distance between the three of them to take them down in quick succession and the crowd was too thick for him to move quickly without drawing attention to himself.
He was still willing to chance it when he noticed a man speak into the collar of his jacket. Undercover officers. Who knew how many were in the crowd? The chances of him extracting the two had just dropped from slim to nil.
He watched as Major Harold struggled to restrain Commander Han. Whatever had happened to her, she was completely unhinged, flailing wildly, trying just about anything to break free. Hurting Major Harold did not seem to be an issue for her, which could only mean that she had gone flat-out berserk.
One of the officers was trying to shout them down, but Major Harold did not look like he was going to let go of Commander Han for anything. The officer started a countdown. Commander Joachim wanted to rush him, regardless of the consequences, but cold reason won out. The mission was so close to succeeding. He could not afford to get himself captured or killed when it would not even make any difference. The mission comes before the man. How many times did he have to tell himself that?
Major Harold turned his back to the officer, trying to use himself as a shield for Commander Han. Gallant, but stupid. It had to confuse the officer, though, since he probably thought it was some sort of hostage situation. This was it. If nothing else, Commander Joachim would be their witness.
Then, a miracle happened. The other officer who was still on his feet had circled around and used a disruptor on the two of them. Immediately they fell to the ground unconscious. They would be taken alive after all. They would probably have to rot in jail for a few weeks or even months, but it was better than dying.
Commander Joachim realized he had stayed put for too long. Unless Jassa and the fat man with her did a good job of giving their pursuers the slip, their activities here would soon be blown wide open. It was time to go.
He pulled out the walkie-talkie he used for direct communication with Lieutenant Davidoff, no, Muesel. "Muesel," he said, "fire up the engines and get out. The rest of us will hitch a ride with our new colleagues."
Muesel did not ask any questions, simply replying, "Yes, sir." The Kanai would be out in minutes.
"What about them?" a voice asked.
It was Huerta. He must have seen the skipper run off and followed to make sure nothing happened to him.
"It can't be helped," Commander Joachim said coldly. He dare not let anyone know how much he cursed himself for doing nothing.
Another voice spoke up. "You sure?"
It was Karst. Impressive for a man his size to move so quickly. He had a couple flunkies with him, maybe expecting a double-cross. Huerta had gotten sloppy and let himself be tailed. Or maybe it was the other way around. Maybe Karst or one of his goons saw him running out of the docking bay and that was when Huerta followed. While Commander Joachim was transfixed by the scene of his crewmembers getting captured, Huerta might have pushed himself to the front to let the pirates know that they would not be able to try anything without any hitches. In the end, it did not really matter. All that was left was to continue the mission.
His voice still as cold and hard as granite, Commander Joachim replied, "Pirates' code. He who falls behind gets left behind. Now let's go."