Rich Man’s War: Prologue

I feel like I have money burning a hole in my pocket.

I’ve wanted to share this for a while. I have often thought that having this piece available would propel me into getting the rest of the book done faster. But I wanted to make sure the biggest hurdle was cleared first, and that’s the rough draft. That part is done now. I’m on to revisions. I do not know how long it will be before Rich Man’s War is released, but I know that the hardest part is done and that I’m more excited about getting it out than anyone else could be about reading it.
For the record, the piece below may still be subject to slight changes and edits for the novel. Regardless, here it is: the prologue for Rich Man’s War.

Prologue: Unfinished Business

“Everyone loves a good hero story, okay?” said NorthStar’s Executive VP of Risk Management Maria Pedroso. “But we shouldn’t let Archangel’s hype take us for a ride. That Malone kid was rescued, just like everyone else, by a Union fleet battleship—not by Archangel ships. And if Archangel had not unilaterally ended corporate security fleet coverage, the whole incident wouldn’t have happened. Archangel simply doesn’t have the wherewithal to fully protect itself and its interests across the Union. They need us. It’s only a question of how long it will be before Archangel realizes that, and how much harm the system does to itself in the meantime.”
–“Archangel Sticks to Her Tiny Guns,” The Solar Herald, March 2276
“Archangel has not seceded from the Union, nor will it. We have only withdrawn from a number of bad business relationships… yet those businesses would have the Union believe this is no different from secession.
“We remain committed to the Union,” President Aguirre continued, expecting neither applause nor even murmurs of agreement from his audience. He knew how many delegates to the Union Assembly were bought and paid for—and how many others simply couldn’t afford to risk the confrontation that Archangel now faced. “We support the common causes of humanity, such as a unified diplomacy toward our alien neighbors and a common defense. We also support the rule of law. We believe in paying for services rendered. We also believe that when those services are not rendered, as has been the case with NorthStar, with Lai Wa and the CDC, that no payment is merited and further such services should not be pursued. The current corporate educational regime has not served our young people well, and thus we have decided to provide for our own educational needs. Our security contracts have gone unfulfilled, as made plain by incidents reaching back as far as the loss of the Aphrodite and the later loss of—“
Peanuts bounced against the flat image of President Aguirre as he spoke. “I’d pay good money not to hear about the fuckin’ Aphrodite ever again,” grumbled Ranjan at the bar.
“Shut up,” snapped the pirate beside him. “I’m listening to this,” Trevor said.
Ranjan glanced over his shoulder to take a look around the dimly-lit dive bar. He saw little interest in the news broadcast on the large screen behind the bar. He also saw little in the way of customers other than his shipmates. “Yeah, you and all the other political junkies in here. Just download this shit to your holocom and let’s get the bartender to put on something interesting.”
Baleful blue eyes looked up at Ranjan from behind Trevor’s long blond hair. “I’m not payin’ six creds just to watch the news when it’s on here for free.”
“You don’t have a subscription service?”
Trevor made a face. “Do you? What the hell do you put down in your subscriber info? You still have a bank account?”
 Ranjan blinked. He glanced at his other shipmates at the bar, feeling awkward. “No,” he lied. “Look, I’m just saying I’m sick of hearing about Aphrodite. We knocked over a fuckin’ planet, but you don’t hear him—“
“He just did, but you were talking.”
“And shut up about that,” hissed a shipmate opposite Trevor. Shahal leaned in with a scowl. “We’re not on Paradise anymore!”
“Have you seen a single badge the entire time we’ve been on this rock?” Trevor asked, though he did lower his voice. “We didn’t park the Guillotineat the spaceport because of the tight security service. We could land here with every gun turret popped out and showing and nobody’d bat an eye. And I’d be happy if you’d both shut up.”
“As anyone might expect, these changes have led to disagreements on all sides,” continued Aguirre in a calm, reasoned tone. “We disagree on payment of primary debts and the terms of debts owed by individual citizens. We disagree on compensation for the state takeover of corporate property within Archangel territory, such as educational facilities. Careers and lives have been disrupted. We do not dispute that these changes are difficult matters for a great many people.
“Yet when the corporations involved escalate to economic warfare—when they not only sever the ties of interstellar commerce and communication, but indeed act to disrupt efforts for Archangel to provide such services for itself—then matters go beyond simple business relationships. At that point, the governments of the Union must ask, who really governs the Union?”
“He had to know they’d cut Archangel off from their packet ship services,” Shahal noted.
“That’s not the point,” Trevor said, shaking his head. “Did you listen? It’s not that they cut off service, it’s that they’re putting up barriers to Archangel taking care of itself. It’s one thing not to deliver the mail, but it’s another when you won’t even let a guy pick it up himself.”
“Why do you care so much?” asked Ranjan. “You aren’t even from there. None of us are.”
“You don’t think this will wind up affecting us?”
Ranjan frowned. “I don’t see how.” His eyes drifted to the VIP room in the back, but almost as if he’d given a cue, the door opened and Hannah Black walked out. The three pirates rose to meet their ship’s elected captain. “How’d it go?”
“Well enough that I don’t want to talk about it in here,” Hannah grunted. She took her pistol from Shahal as he offered it and kept walking for the door with her long black coat billowing in her wake. The other crewmembers present, some of them closer to the exit, rose as soon as they saw her. By the time she stepped out into the night, her pistol tucked safely in its underarm holster, the crew had formed a pack around her.
The planet Edison had been settled early in the second wave of expansion from Earth. Though the world enjoyed rapid growth, later expansion developments and the whims of the markets left its economy crippled, leading to its current status as an urbanized backwater. The spaceport city of Stilwell exemplified that demise, with its miles of towers, bridges and highways now showing far more decay and vandalism than its original ambitious beauty.
At this hour, not too many people roamed the streets. Even the homeless and the criminals had to sleep sometime. One could see scattered pedestrians and vehicles here and there—people did still live and work in this city, though not well—but Hannah and her crew walked unimpeded. “We’ve got a lead on a target,” she said, “but I’m not sure everyone’s going to like it.”
“What’s the trouble?” asked Ranjan.
He could see Hannah’s frown and one blue eye looking at him from under her long black hair. “The info is an astronavigation protocol, not an actual flight plan. We’ll have to park ourselves in one of three locations and hope that we’ve picked the right one.”
“One-in-three odds is still better than roaming around aimlessly,” Shahal shrugged. “These are cargo ships, right? Should be a decent haul and not too much risk for the Guillotine.”
“No,” Hannah nodded, “but it’s also a matter of what system it’s in. Like I said, not everyone’s going to like it. And some people on the crew might like it too much.” She paused. “I don’t think our seller was just out to make a profit on his shipping data. This smells like someone pushing an agenda. He sold pretty cheap given what he had to offer, and now that I know the location…”
“Where?” asked Ranjan. Hannah didn’t often go for ominous hints.
She held her hand up briefly, though, nodding and looking forward as they entered a wide pedestrian tunnel under one of the city’s major highways. A tall, young black man and a girl of Asian descent approached from the opposite direction, walking close together but not holding hands. Ranjan only thought about that point because the girl was quite pretty and her tight pants and boots hinted at a great figure. The other pirates began their inevitable catcalls and whistles.
It hardly mattered if the girl turned away or walked in silence, or if she responded with a rude word or gesture, or if she politely asked to be left alone. The pirates would do whatever they felt like doing; that was the nature of being a pirate. Unfortunately, she made the worst of her possible choices: she smiled nervously and made eye contact as she passed.
Trevor let out a whoop and reached for her ass as she came within reach. Other men let out further catcalls. The girl slapped Trevor’s hand down but turned as she kept going in the same direction, walking backward to keep her eyes on the pirates. The tall black youth with her scowled, of course, but he didn’t put up any sort of fight. Like his girlfriend, he just kept moving.
Ranjan nudged Hannah as the two strangers passed by their crew. “Hannah, what’s the deal?”
Again, the captain shook her head and nodded forward. Ranjan looked. Yet another pedestrian approached on the bridge, this one a black woman wrapped up in a large grey overcoat. Ranjan paid her no mind. She’d inevitably step to the side. Anyone with sense would want to be on the outside of such a rough-looking group as theirs.
“Fuckin’ random pedestrians, who cares?” Ranjan muttered. He glanced over his shoulder. The young couple was already at the end of the pack of pirates.
“I’m of a mind to be careful right now,” Hannah replied quietly.
“Why?” he asked. “What’s the deal?”
Fuming, Hannah looked to Ranjan and hissed, “Our contact had NorthStar Risk Management written all over him, okay? The coordinates he sold are in Archangel space.”
“What?” Ranjan blinked.
“They want us to do their dirty work for them. Now shut up and we’ll talk about it on the ship.”
He turned back to Hannah and then caught sight of the black woman again in his peripheral vision. She hadn’t made a course correction. She walked between the pair of pirates ahead of them, directly into Ranjan’s path.
Ranjan tried to say something, but the woman’s elbow went right into his throat. Hard.
At the back of the group of pirates, Alicia Wong saw Janeka’s first blow all but lift her target off the ground. The big overcoat practically flew off of the gunnery sergeant’s shoulders as she turned on her next opponent with a roundhouse kick, but Alicia had no time to watch. She and Ravenell had jobs to do—quickly and quietly.
A knife take-down from behind was easier for Ravenell, given his height. The last two pirates in the group never saw him coming, having discounted him as a wuss for not defending his girl and now distracted by Janeka. Ravenell’s big hand wrapped around his target’s mouth from the left while his knife plunged into the side of the man’s neck from the right, then punched straight out in a rough, ugly and well-practiced motion.
Alicia didn’t have Ravenell’s stature to work with, but size rarely held her back. Given an unaware target, she had no reason not to commit her full power to her first move. Alicia drew the blade from the left sleeve of her jacket, raised it to the base of her target’s skull and then yanked back on the man’s hair to pull him onto the thermal dagger. Precision and six inches of strong, laser-hot metal made for an effective job. Alicia tugged to the right and then left to jerk her sizzling weapon free. She had her sights on the blond bastard just beyond him before her first target hit the ground.
The blond pirate’s first reaction when violence erupted in front of him was to go for his gun without looking behind. As with her first victim, Alicia tugged back fiercely on the man’s conveniently long hair. Taken by surprise, he staggered backward as she planned. Alicia brought her blade around his chest and slashed upward, slicing his neck open in a vicious arc.
She spared no time for grace. These people were all mass-murderers; Alicia had to break each man and move on to the next as quickly as possible, especially before anyone could fire off a gun or make other attention-grabbing noise. The next pirate up recognized the threat in time to meet her approach, but not quickly enough to do much about it. The young woman didn’t try to dodge his meaty fist. Instead, she stepped in close enough to stomp on his foot and throw him off balance. Alicia endured his awkward but heavy punch; the pirate took a blade up under his ribcage and into his lung.
Bracing with both feet and twisting hard, Alicia flung her third victim to the ground. He had just enough fight left in him to break her grip on the dagger as he fell. With her targets down, her eyes quickly swept the field for another.
Ravenell’s second target had reacted quickly enough to put up a fight, but Ravenell seemed to have the upper hand. The pirate leader, Hannah Black according to the briefing, staggered back away from a kick from Janeka as the gunny turned to deal with the last of the men standing nearest to her. Hannah reached inside her long coat, clearly going for a gun in a shoulder holster.
Alicia grabbed at Hannah’s wrist and pulled. She slammed her free hand against the pistol. The push-and-pull motion had Hannah’s arm going one way with the gun going another, breaking her grip on the weapon at her thumb and sending it tumbling away.
Hannah got one solid shot in across Alicia’s eye with her left hand. The pirate captain knew how to throw a punch, but Alicia had endured much worse. Tangled together in a standing grapple, both women struggled to apply the right footwork to throw the other off-balance.
The contest was never in doubt, though Hannah couldn’t have known it. They had a moment to lock eyes as they struggled. Alicia saw rage and a rising sense of panic. All Hannah saw was controlled ferocity. Then Hannah’s whole world spun as Alicia got her leg around the back of Hannah’s and shoved the pirate into the wall beside them. The back of Hannah’s head hit hard against unyielding concrete. She blacked even out before Alicia’s knee came into her groin.
Alicia surveyed the field again. She saw Janeka’s heel come down on a man’s neck and saw Ravenell rise from the body of his defeated opponent. Alicia did a quick body count: the three she took out, plus the captain, Ravenell’s two, and the three men lying at Janeka’s feet. They’d made a clean sweep of their enemy.
“You’re both okay,” observed the gunnery sergeant, receiving nods of confirmation in return.
“I got the captain,” huffed Alicia.
“Is she dead?”
“Shouldn’t be,” replied the younger woman, kneeling down to check. “No, she’s still good. Dunno if she’ll be up for answering questions right away, though.”
“Doesn’t need to answer anything yet. We just need her warm and breathing in case we need her biometrics. And her holocom. See if you can find it.”
The order wasn’t necessary. Alicia had already turned to searching their captive. “Wow, I am never wearing my hair long again after this,” she said, still rocky with adrenaline.
“Take a couple deep breaths,” said Janeka. “Shake it off. Stay focused.” As the gunnery sergeant spoke, she slid one finger over the holocom riding her wrist and then tapped it twice to signal the rest of their team.
“Ravenell, watch the entrance,” Janeka instructed, waving toward the closer opening of the pedestrian tunnel. They knew they had at least a few moments clear of traffic from the way in which they came. “Stay calm, you got me? Breathe. Focus. Get over there, stop and breathe again, then watch. Understand?”
“On it,” Ravenell nodded and hustled off.
“Got a couple of data chips here,” Alicia announced quietly, stuffing her pockets with items taken from her unconscious captive. She kept patting Hannah down until her fingers touched the pirate captain’s earrings. One of them let out a beep. “Got it,” she said, and then worked to unclasp the large, fake jewel that held Hannah’s personal holocom. “Pretty sweet miniaturization here. These are expensive.”
“Lotta money to be made in her trade, I guess,” Janeka muttered. Her attention was focused on a small black orb in her hands. It projected a small screen of orange light, into which the gunnery sergeant waved her fingers. The lights quickly went out with a beep.
“Anything else we should grab?”
“Just collect the guns. I’ve got the bag. We’ve gotta get gone.” She knelt beside the dead man at her feet and placed the orb in his pocket. Inevitably, some random passerby would discover the bodies. That person would likely then try to call for help with a holocom, but the orb would jam signals going out of the tunnel. It would buy at least another minute or two for their getaway.
“I’ll take her,” said Janeka, stepping up to Alicia and her captive. She grabbed the unconscious woman’s wrists. “You’re on point. Head out and let’s get to the car.”
Spaceport security and control varied dramatically from one planet to the next. Some worlds could afford tight restrictions and offered considerable equipment and infrastructure. Planets with sparse settlements sometimes had no control over interstellar traffic at all, and an incoming vessel could land practically wherever the crew pleased.
Edison fell somewhere in the middle. All of the heavy lifting to create the spaceport’s infrastructure had been done long ago, but the planetary government couldn’t afford to keep its systems modern and up to date. The scanners and chem-sniffers were easily spoofed. Sparsely-allocated guards and other personnel could be bought. Alicia found it all mind-boggling, especially in light of what their captive and their remaining targets had done on Qal’at Khalil.
Targets, she thought, crouched in the shadows with the other plainclothes Archangel marines and their intelligence service “liasons.” That’s what those people were now. They had to be. If she stopped to think of the bastards as people, she might hesitate. She couldn’t have that.
Fuckers didn’t hesitate to drop a fuel-cell bomb on a city, she reminded herself once again. Nor did these pirates, to be more specific, hesitate to hose down a spaceport with their ship’s illegal weaponry.
Nor had anyone else done anything about these particular pirates until now.
The spaceport berth was little more than a circular wall. Earlier reconnaissance revealed that the retractable roof was open and possibly inoperable. Inside the berth sat the Guillotine and her remaining crew, estimated to be around eighteen or so in total.
After the fight in the tunnel, it didn’t sound like such bad odds. Alicia wondered if perhaps the quick and dirty skirmish had made her cocky, but now she was willing to take eight against eighteen, especially if the snipers—
“Corporal Wong?” said Agent Willis, interrupting her thoughts. “Sorry, I mean Lance Corporal, right? Looks like we’re partners for this one. You ready?”
Alicia blinked. The intelligence service agent hadn’t spoken to her much during the mission, but he hadn’t been standoffish, either. He interfaced mostly with the higher-ranked marines. “I thought you were with the gunny?”
Willis shook his head. “Doesn’t fit with the layout. We need her in the middle guiding the operation with Lieutenant Crowder.” He smiled a bit. “Don’t worry, I’ve been through most of the same training you have.”
Though she kept her thoughts to herself, Alicia’s eyes flicked over to Ravenell and Janeka. For all the agent’s training, she doubted he had run nearly as many mock boardings on as many different spacecraft as they had. Still, Alicia nodded, and when her holocom buzzed with a final check-in signal, she tapped it to confirm her readiness.
Sound-suppressed rifles coughed up above her on the wall of the spaceport berth. Knowing his cue, Ravenell activated the electromagnetic breaching pads on the nearby bay doors, forcing them open. “Go,” ordered Janeka. Alicia and three others rushed through the entrance, weapons out and ready.
Though barely longer than a corvette, the Guillotine offered a broader profile to allow for extra space and comfort. She’d been a luxury yacht when first put into service, but now bristled with hidden weaponry and military-quality upgrades. Her crew, however, was not up to military grade service, demonstrated by the way her entry ramp was still down and extended. The bodies of two sentries, shot by the snipers on the walls, lay to either side.
The Guillotine didn’t take up the full space offered by the landing berth, which left the marine assault team a few uncomfortable yards to run out in the open before they came under her hull. They’d been trained for actions like this. The team knew how to stack up, how to cover one another upon entry and how to pick targets. They also knew not to squander the element of surprise early, moving inside aggressively and gunning down the first handful of pirates they found with their pulse lasers.
Ravenell’s team, leapfrogging Alicia’s, broke off to head for engineering. Alicia followed Agent Willis through the passageways, eyes sweeping this way and that for targets as shouts and gunshots rang out. A tattooed, scraggly-haired man at the bottom of the steps leading to the next deck up had his weapon out as Willis and Alicia appeared. His panicked shots hit neither of them before they both put him down with quiet blasts of blue light that burned through his torso.
Willis ran for the stairwell. Alicia followed, then felt her heart stop when he yelled, “Grenade!”
She saw the little orb clatter down onto the base of the ladder in front of them. Willis jumped to the side. Alicia grabbed the body of the man they’d just killed and heaved it over the grenade before jumping back and away to curl up in a ball on the deck.
Despite the body smothering the grenade, the explosion still shook the passageway. Alicia felt bits of debris and gore strike against her body. Something burned her leg, but she knew right away that it wasn’t serious. When she raised her head, she found that Willis had recovered a heartbeat faster than she had, and now hurled his own grenade up the ladder at the next deck up. Unlike the pirates, Willis knew how to time his before throwing, thereby leaving the enemy less of a chance to react.
They heard screams amid the boom of the grenade. A bloody, smoldering woman fell dead through the ladder well. Willis covered the opening with his pulse laser while Alicia got to her feet and followed up with a second grenade, this one built to stun with flashing light and booming sound. As soon as it was out of her hand, Willis followed up after it. Alicia stuck close to him.
The pair did everything right, yet it still cost them. Training and teamwork couldn’t grant immunity to gunfire. As expected, they found the bridge locked up tight. Alicia set up the breaching kit while Willis shouted, “Surrender now and you’ll live through this!” By the time they were ready, other marines had caught up to them. Perhaps two minutes had passed since the first sniper shots took out the sentries outside.
The team stacked up at the hatch. Alicia got behind Willis, passed the breaching activator to the marine behind her and held her weapon ready. As soon as the breaching unit went off, Willis and Alicia opened up with their guns, but that didn’t preempt the pirates. Blind fire from within still caught Willis in the face. He went down in front of Alicia, who immediately cut down one of the three remaining pirates on the bridge.
Lasers and bullets flashed by her in both directions. Alicia looked for targets and fired. Another gun went off beside her, almost right next to her head, thankfully firing lasers rather than solid shells that would have deafened her despite the miniature baffles plugged in her ears. Someone else on her side screamed. She stepped into the bridge, got behind a console as cover and forced herself to aim before shooting lest she wreck vital controls.
Again, the laser rifle beside her flashed distractingly close to her head. It cut down the last of the pirates, ending the fight. “Clear,” Gunny Janeka announced, placing her hand on Alicia’s shoulder.
The younger marine swallowed hard. “Clear,” she replied, and looked back at the others. She didn’t know when Janeka got there. Of the three men who’d breached the bridge with her, only one still stood. Willis lay dead in the entryway. Another marine slumped against the wall, clutching a wound on his arm that wouldn’t likely be fatal.
“Breathe,” said Janeka once more, looking each of her marines in the eye. “Stop and breathe.”
The pause lasted only a moment, but it made all the difference. “Wong, take the helm. Fire it up. Lieutenant Crowder, do you copy?” she asked over her holocom link. She glanced at the wounded marine, who winced but nodded. Then she grabbed the hatch to the bridge and pulled it shut again, setting the magnetic locks to reboot.
“Lieutenant Crowder took a pretty bad hit, Gunny,” reported another voice. “We’re working on him, but I don’t know if he’s gonna make it.”
“Engineering is secure,” added Ravenell. “Not much damage. Primary systems were kept warm. Life support looks good. We put down a bunch of targets in the galley, too.”
“Exterior remains secure,” reported one of the snipers.
“Then I’m assuming command,” said Janeka. “Everyone get on the ship and secure for lift-off. We are extracting immediately.”
She sat down beside Alicia, who dutifully had her station powered up, but her eyes were turned toward the closed hatch. Agent Willis lay dead on the other side. He wasn’t alone.
“Wong. Listen to me. Breathe.”
“I’m breathing,” Alicia said, nodding and turning back to her work. She checked the skies and traffic above them and started up the systems diagnostic. “Are you breathing?”
“Breathing is for lesser mortals,” said Janeka, her hands moving over the controls.
Alicia froze. She blinked and turned to Janeka. “Okay, now I know I’m too ramped up, because I’m not laughing.”
“You did good,” Janeka told her. “Real good, like I knew you would. You fought like a marine and now you’re gonna run the helm like a navy crewman, just like you were taught. We’re gonna make our rendezvous and FTL it straight back to Archangel and we’ll be back on the Los Angeles in a week.”
Alicia nodded. She turned back to her controls and watched the condition tracks run up toward full readiness. “Gunny, thanks. For picking me for this, I mean. Not ‘cause I enjoyed the fight, but…”
“I knew you had what it took. That’s why I picked you.”
Again, Alicia nodded. She glanced once at the gunny, then away, and then something jerked her attention back to the older woman. “Did you just smile?”
“I did not smile, marine. I do not smile.”
“Right. Understood,” said Alicia, turning her face dutifully back to the controls.
“You’re bleeding from your leg, marine,” Janeka observed without looking. “Tend to it when we get clear. I’ve gotta look after Hernandez over there.”
Alicia looked down at her thigh. Sure enough, she had taken a bit of shrapnel from something—probably the grenade on the lower deck—and hadn’t even noticed.
Janeka rose from her station to see to the other wounded marine. As she passed, she laid a hand on Alicia’s shoulder and gave a single, warm squeeze.
It occurred to Alicia that it was just as well that this whole op was covert and classified. No one would ever believe that Janeka would ever show such affection anyway.
“Tight-beam transmission from Guillotine, sir,” announced the comms tech. He read from a screen at his station, not turning around to view the ship’s captain or first officer. A navigational display nearby the tech showed the former yacht passing by. Both ships were just outside the two light-minute safe navigation zone around Edison.
“How’d it go?” asked the gravelly voice of the captain. He stood from his chair to walk over to the comms station. His first officer, Aaron Hawkins, stuck close to his side.
Guillotine’s captain is in custody, all other hostiles KIA. Three friendly casualties including Agent In Charge. Marine team leader also seriously wounded.” He paused and then looked over his shoulder. “The acting mission leader is asking to speak to the captain.”
Hawkins opened his mouth to speak, but the captain cut him off before it was necessary. “The captain is unavailable,” said the captain. “Acknowledge their report and tell them to hold to the original plan. They jump to FTL as soon as they’re outside Edison’s gravity well.”
“Aye, aye, sir,” said the tech, turning back to his work.
Hawkins eyed the ship’s captain. Though officially the first officer, Hawkins had much more of a background in intelligence and covert operations than most ships’ officers. Few first officers had to keep their captains completely restricted to the ship. “Looks like all the intel on where we’d find the Guillotineand her crew was right on the money,” said Hawkins.
“Yeah, what a shock,” came the somewhat annoyed reply. Casey looked his personal watchdog in the eye before passing him on the way back to his captain’s chair. “Can’t imagine who gave them all that great intel.”
“Yup. Request denied, hold to the original plan.” Alicia looked over to the gunny. She’d known Janeka long enough to learn the nuances within Janeka’s repertoire of expressions of displeasure. “Is that dodgy?”
Janeka glared at the large ship on the holographic display of Guillotine’simmediate sensor contacts. “Only because the captain of that ship never met with the lieutenant, either,” she frowned. “Or Willis.”
“That’s weird?” asked Alicia. She, too, now looked more at the sensor display than her own control panel. Their course was locked in. Janeka and the computer had done most of the work. Alicia gave the ship on the screen another look. Her recruit company received more than a little training in ship recognition from Janeka and Chief Everett, but the vessel on the display didn’t look familiar to her at all. It looked like it might have been a passenger liner once upon a time, but had clearly been through considerable modification.
“At your rank, it wouldn’t be weird for you not to meet with a ship’s captain, no,” explained Janeka. “At my level, one would at least expect a handshake. But this ship brings us into a sovereign system for a covert op and the captain doesn’t want to meet anyone in charge? That’s dodgy, yes.”
Considering it further, Alicia suggested, “Maybe that’s for the sake of deniability?”
Janeka shook her head. “No. A ship’s captain doesn’t get to play dumb. He has to know everything that happens on his ship. Doesn’t matter if he’s military or civilian. Doubly so when it’s something risky like we just did. They hung around to monitor, too, not just drop us off and go on their way.”
“FTL jump in sixty seconds,” Alicia noted. They wouldn’t be outside Edison’s legal FTL line for it, but that paled in comparison to the other laws they’d just broken. Alicia dutifully announced the countdown as Guillotinepassed out of the gravity wells of Edison and its moons. As soon as the ship was clear enough for a safe jump, Janeka input the commands to execute. Everyone on the ship felt the lurch as the ship transitioned from well below light speed to something far beyond it, but the lurch was much less pronounced than on most other vessels. It was a reminder of Guillotine’s original purpose; once upon a time, she’d been a luxury yacht built for a smooth and pleasant ride.
That thought pushed Janeka out of her seat once she was satisfied with immediate responsibilities. “Keep everything under control here,” she said. “I’m gonna make the rounds.”
“Aye, aye, captain,” Alicia responded with a bit of a grin. She even dared a wink when Janeka looked back at her.
The gunnery sergeant looked in on the wounded. She checked with engineering and made sure someone was already dealing with the dead pirates left strewn about the ship. She gave instructions to collect all the small arms on board. These were all necessary steps, but she had one other duty to fulfill here. For that, she retrieved the big grey overcoat that she had ditched just inside the ship’s entryway upon boarding.
She found Hannah Black in a chair in the ship’s galley. The pirate captain had her hands and feet tied to the chair, which was itself securely bolted to the floor. Awake and aware of her surroundings, Hannah watched everything that occurred but said nothing until Janeka stepped up to her.
“You’re military,” said Hannah. “Whose?”
“You’ll figure it out before too long.”
Hannah scowled and spit on the deck. She noted the look in Janeka’s eyes. “Have we met?”
“Not personally, no,” said Janeka. “I’ve wanted to meet you for a long time, though.”
Hannah didn’t respond. She just watched and waited.

Janeka reached into her coat. She drew a soft, stained bit of comfort and warmth and put it on the table in front of Hannah. Then she walked away, leaving Hannah under the lifeless stare of an old, battered, bloody teddy bear.