Chapter 17
Treachery on the High Seas

Location: Outer Rim of the Saturnian Sphere
Date: Wed 08 May 121
Time: UST 1419

Commander Aaron Joachim was a patient man. One time he spent three days floating dead in the water to intercept a Sheolite battle group with nothing but his radar screen for company. However, his great patience had its limits and the Seven Deadlies were pushing it.
For a week following the incident at Yufang, they leapfrogged from one third-rate port to the next, pawning off cargo and running a couple small-time raids. It seemed to be nothing more than a trick to keep Aaron and his crew off-balance. Either it was going to end with the Kanai being taken to the Seven Deadlies' base or with a double-cross out in the middle of nowhere. With their vastly superior hardware, the real pirates had the advantage. All Aaron could do was bide his time.
Now things seemed to be taking a different turn. They were moving beyond the bounds of settled space, into the outer rim of the planetary sphere. This could be it.
Aaron guessed right. A blip came up on the radar. Within a few minutes, it came into view. He recognized it as an Invincible-class destroyer. Some were still in service in the Reserve, but most had been decommissioned. Somehow the Seven Deadlies had managed to get their hands on one, refurbishing and modifying it to suit their purposes. The Wasps had been proof enough that they had access to military hardware, but surely the mission planners would have never dreamed that they had an entire destroyer at their disposal.
"Sir, is that what I think it is?" Muesel asked.
"It is," Aaron replied.
Muesel shook his head. "We're in some deep shit, sir."
"Keep it together," Aaron said. "We can do this."
Karst's voice came up on the radio. "Home sweet home. Hope y'all like it."
Muesel looked at Aaron. His expression made it all too clear that he thought they were in over their heads. "What do you want to do, sir?"
"Play along," Aaron said calmly, as if his own surety was enough to allay Muesel's concerns. To show he was not completely oblivious to the danger, he added, "Within reason, of course. I'll take the longboat and Huerta and pay my respects to the boss. We'll see where things go from there."
Muesel did not seem to have been reassured much. "You sure about this, sir?"
"It's too late to back out now."
Indeed there was nothing left for them but to go forward. Ordering the others to stay at their posts, Aaron and Huerta loaded into the longboat and docked with the pirate ship.
All the current ships of the line could support at small aviation compliment, but the Invincible-class destroyers came before the age when superlight craft became a fixture of the Fleet. All they had was a simple docking port on either side of the ship, but a full-fledged hangar seemed to be one of the modifications made by the Seven Deadlies when they got their hands on this particular vessel. It was little more than a converted cargo hold, but it was enough to host seven Wasps and a few auxiliary craft.
Once the longboat was inside and the hangar pressurized, Aaron and Huerta dismounted to find Karst and a half dozen crewmen waiting for them.
Noting it just the two of them, Karst asked, "What? You didn't wanna bring the whole family?"
Aaron simply adjusted his sunglasses and said, "Someone's gotta watch the place while Daddy's out."
"Heh," Karst snorted with a faint grin. He nodded to the crewmen. "Alright, check 'em out." To Aaron, he said, "Not that I don't trust ya, Moe, but, hey, we're all pirates here."
Aaron bowed his head graciously and held out his arms. "Of course."
The crewmen handled them roughly, not that Aaron was expecting soft treatment. They were thorough, too. Even if he had a mind to come armed, it would have been difficult to get anything past them. All the better that he and Huerta did not have anything on them.
When he was done with his check, one of the crewman reported, "They ain't got nothin'."
For some reason, Karst actually appeared to be disappointed. "Really? Why the hell not?"
"Not much point in carrying if it's only going to get confiscated," Aaron said bluntly.
"And how'd ya know we'd check ya?"
"I figure your boss hasn't lived this long by being stupid."
Karst moved in close. It was not an attempt to act threatening, no. It was something else entirely.
"I'll tell ya one thing, Moe," he said in a low voice. "You've shown a lot of balls up till now, but you'd better rein that shit in when ya talk to Sin One. He don't take kindly to it. He ain't a nice guy like me."
It almost sounded like genuine concern, but Aaron was not about to let himself think that he might have an ally among the pirates. They were all criminals and they would all go down, so there was no point in getting attached to any of them. Besides, trust carries the inherent risk of letting down your guard, something he could not afford under any circumstances.
They were taken to the bridge, where they were met by a man nearly as big as Karst, but older and a little trimmer. He had a ridiculous haircut. The sides of his head were shaved, leaving a broad mohawk that spanned most of the top of his head. He had a bushy, full beard save for a shaved chin. It would be downright clownish on anyone else, but there was an air of menace about him that would make your blood run cold even if he was wearing a pink tutu and a feather boa.
"Welcome to the Malebolge," he said, his voice cool and level. "I am the captain of the ship and the leader of the Seven Deadly Sins." He paused a moment to look at Aaron and Huerta. "It isn't every day we have company. What do you call yourself?"
"Moishe Barak," Aaron said.
The captain nodded to Huerta. "And the Latino gentleman with you?"
"My life insurance policy."
The captain neither smiled nor frowned. It was impossible to tell how he took Aaron's answer. Unlike the other members of the Seven Deadlies, the ones Aaron had met so far, their leader was unreadable.
Speaking of the other members of the Seven Deadlies, they appeared as if on cue and lined up along either bulkhead in the passageway, just in front of the captain. Karst stepped forward to take his place among his comrades. The proceedings had an air of ceremony about them, punctuated by the captain raising his arms like some priest invoking his deity.
"I am Pride," the captain said and began to list off the others down the line from one bulkhead to the next. "This is Greed, Envy, Lust, Gluttony, Sloth, and my right hand, Wrath."
With military precision, the six subordinates turned in unison to face Aaron and Huerta. Pride looked down on them with his expressionless eyes and said, "There doesn't seem to be any opening for you."
This was all a show, a fine little performance to intimidate any new arrivals, to keep them from making more of themselves than Pride allowed. Aaron had already seen that their crew was more than any seven people. How else could they run a whole destroyer?
This was the part where you were supposed to humble yourself before the captain and take whatever you got. Aaron was not one for groveling, and neither was the persona he had taken up for this assignment.
"You could always start up the Seven Holy Virtues," Aaron quipped with a grin. "I'd make one helluva Temperance."
He was ignoring Karst's warning about attitude. He even noticed Karst glancing over his shoulder briefly to see how Pride took his little remark. As the captain did have a sidearm strapped to his hip, it would have been easy to shoot Aaron if he had displeased him, but as before, Pride neither smiled nor frowned. Whatever was going on behind that mask of a face, Aaron certainly could not tell.
"I'm sorry to hear that you lost two of your men in the course of our little test," Pride said, apparently ready to move on to business. "For your sake, I hope they haven't revealed anything to the authorities."
The threat was there, but Aaron was not about to be cowed by it. He had to push and push hard. His best chance of getting in was to prove he was every bit as hardcore as they were. Even that did not guarantee success, but it was the best tactic he had.
Taking on an air of annoyance, Aaron replied, "That's why we had that little game of merry-go-round for the past week, wasn't it? To make sure no one was tailing us, right? Even if they did crack, which I know they didn't, they wouldn't have much they could give the Feds. Fake handles, physical descriptions. That's about it."
Pride stepped forward and stopped a mere pace from where Aaron stood. Even without betraying any emotion, Aaron could tell the captain's eyes were searching for something, anything, any sign that Aaron was lying to him, any excuse to blow him away then and there.
"You have a lot of faith in them, don't you?"
"I know my crew."
"Maybe you know they won't crack because they'll supply the information willingly."
"You saying I had a rat on board?"
"More than that. I have to wonder why an active-duty Navy pilot would be in a supposed pirate crew under an assumed name."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"Lieutenant Commander Lydia Natalya Han, born 21 March 095, serial number 977-JIK-1786."
How the hell could he have possibly found out about that? The files had been wiped. Aaron had seen it himself, tested it out to make sure it could not be cracked. There was no way they could have gotten their hands on that information. What else did they know?
There was not much hope of salvaging the situation, but Aaron was not about to give up so easily. His best chance, his only chance, was to hold his ground and cast doubt on the leak.
Indignantly, Aaron said, "You need to sack whoever's giving you your information, because they're feeding you a line of shit. No way she's military, much less active duty."
Pride was not backing down either. "I have every reason to trust my information," he said. "I have no reason to trust you." He pointed to one of the monitors on the bulkhead. "Put it onscreen." The monitor clicked on, displaying the Kanai hovering along outside the ship. Showing the first trace of emotion since Aaron met him, he sneered, "Pitiful little scrapheap you've got there, Mr. Barak. And yet, somehow you and your crew of purported amateurs managed to capture an entire freighter in record time."
Aaron did not dare flinch. "I never said we were amateurs," he argued, "and I never said we weren't good at what we do. We're just small-time 'cause we weren't blessed with all these top-of-the-line toys you got."
"And you expect me to believe that?" Pride asked.
It was do or die. Taking a calculated risk, Aaron let himself get increasingly angry. It was the only way to come off as the genuine article.
"You can believe whatever the hell you want," Aaron growled. "We've played your damn games. I lost two good men and from what I saw, it's the fault of two of your bastard kids. I want to know just what the hell you plan on doing about that."
Would he go for it? Damn that blank face of his. There was no way to tell. Staring Aaron dead in the eye, Pride held up a hand and said, "I'll do this." Like a guillotine blade, he dropped his hand. The sentence had been given.
Aaron heard a voice say, "Fire at will."
There was nothing he could do. At least a dozen laser turrets scored the fragile hull of the Kanai, slicing it apart effortlessly. The engines did not even detonate, leaving the pieces to float away like driftwood.
The names of his crewmembers ticked off in Aaron's mind. Not their aliases, but their real names. Brave sailors and Marines who volunteered for this dangerous mission to clear the taint on the Navy's good name. Sacrificed for pride. So fitting that the man who gave the order went by the same name.
The captain reached for his sidearm, still showing not a whit of emotion. "Your move."
The rest of the Seven Deadlies drew their weapons, as did the crewmen around them. Aaron's next move would likely be his last. He looked at Huerta, who appeared to be resigned to his fate.
"Orders, sir," Huerta said.
Obedient even in the face of certain death. Aaron was impressed, but he expected nothing less of the man. He shook his head and Huerta stood down. There was nothing to be gained by fighting back at this point. At best, they could take down one a piece, maybe two. Not enough to make the mission worthwhile.
If Pride wanted the two of them dead, they would be dead already. He wanted information and he needed to keep them alive to do it.
"I don't imagine I can get you to talk by saying 'pretty please'," Pride said, "but don't worry. We'll work a little magic on you and you'll be in the mood for some conversation in no time." He waved to some crewmen. "Take them away."
Neither Aaron nor Huerta resisted as the crewmen bound them and led them out of the passageway. Although it would probably be better for them to take a quick and easy death now, there was still a chance to fulfill the mission. As long as that remained a possibility, it was not over. Aaron would see it to the end, even if it killed him, which now seemed all the more likely.