Main Pirates of Mars (The Pirates Trilogy Book 2)

Pirates of Mars (The Pirates Trilogy Book 2)

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Table of Contents



Books by Chris Gerrib

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43


Excerpt - The Night Watch


Book One – The Best Live Music on Mars

Chapter 1




Copyright 2012 Chris Gerrib

Books by Chris Gerrib

The Pirates Trilogy

The Mars Run

Pirates of Mars

The Night Watch

Re-released May 3, 2018 by Chris Gerrib. Formatting and editing of the 2016 edition courtesy of Cincinnatus Press.

Chapter 1

Thursday, 30 Virgo Year 52 15:30 Martian Zulu Time (local) (March 1, 2074, 15:30 GMT)

Container Cargo Ship Charles S. Price, approaching Mars

I got a degree in Art History for this? Rachel Storey wondered, shivering in the cold and dark mid-deck of the Charles S. Price. One of the ship’s officers had cut the power, rendering the Price a death-trap.

If we don’t get power on, this ship’s gonna crater into Mars. Rachel winced at the thought. The last failed attempt at piracy had nearly cost her life.

“Get a move on!” Rachel barked at one of her fellow pirates. “I’m not going down with this ship.”

“Movin’ these Mex-cans all trussed up ain’t easy,” came the reply. “And besides, I don’t work for you. You’re just the damn bus driver.”

Rachel glared at the speaker, his hair and features bleached by too much contact with Martian sand. Regarding her role in this attack, he was right. But she was damned if she was going to take crap from some sand-blond scavenger. “Dave Eggman, if I wanted to hear your shit I’d have asked for it. Now get the;  lead out!”

Eggman pushed the bound and hooded prisoner, formerly a crewmember of the Price, up into the zero-G environment of the mid-deck. He pushed too hard, of course, and the man bounced helplessly off of the far side of the corridor, smashing into a purple color-coded pipe. This elicited a stream of curses in Spanish. Rachel ignored the words and, bracing off of a stanchion, shoved the man down the tube-like corridor.

“Incoming!” she shouted, alerting the pirate at the other end of the corridor. Pirates! Hah. Bunch of incompetent, trigger-happy mouth-breathing boobs.

“Got him, boss,” the crewman shouted.

“That’s the last of them,” Eggman said.

The last one alive, he meant. The Price’s Master and Chief Engineer were dead. How had Eggman put it? “They elected to shoot it out. They lost the election.”

Rachel smiled at that. Eggman did occasionally have a way with words.

Chuckles, their leader, poked his head in the corridor. His face was flushed despite the cold, and his strawberry blond hair was matted with sweat.

“What in the fuck are you doing?”

“Evacuating the hostages,” Rachel replied. You idiot, she added mentally. If only he was half as smart as his dad. “You coming?”

“Hell no. Who gives a shit about the crew?”

“The insurance company does,” Rachel said. “Remember? The plan was to ransom them back.”

“Your plan,” Chuckles said. “All we want is the special cargo.”

The special cargo, Rachel thought. The mysterious container that their investors, presumably representing the Martian branch of some criminal gang, were paying extra for them to hijack. All I want is enough cash to get out of Bensonville.

“Have any luck finding it?” Rachel asked.

Chuckle’s scowl deepened. “No, and you moving the crew means I can’t question them.”

“Charles Benson Junior,” Rachel said, using his full name, “you can question them all you want. They don’t know. Hell, if Bam Bam doesn’t know, how would some Able Spacer?”

Chuckles scowled some more at that. Brenda “Bam Bam” Lords, Third Mate on the Price, had been their inside person, and instrumental in getting them onboard. Now she was trying to get ship’s power restored before they literally cratered into Mars. Unsuccessfully, so far.

“Don’t matter. Why don’t you look at the computer?”

Because I’m not a computer expert, she thought. “Cranston needs to get gone soon,” she said, gesturing towards the docking collar at the far end of the corridor where their tiny mother ship was attached.

“You got time.”

“Barely,” Rachel said. She yelled down the corridor at her crewmember, anchored at the docking collar leading to the Cranston. “Get them secured and get ready to leave!”

Chuckles ducked back down the ladderway wordlessly, followed by Eggman. Rachel descended last, and quickly arrived at the main crew deck of the Price.

Like most deep space ships, that part of the ship was a cylinder, spun to produce artificial gravity.

“Like a bug in a can,” Rachel said under her breath, stepping on the floor of the main crew area.

“Huh?” Chuckles said, his breath fogging in the cold.

“Nothing,” Rachel replied. She looked down the long main corridor, struggling to override the appearance that the corridor curved uphill. It wasn’t – by the time you got somewhere, the spin put you at the bottom again – but Rachel found it disorienting, especially when the ship was dark, illuminated only by emergency lighting.

Something popped loudly, and everybody jumped a little bit.

“Thermal contraction,” Eggman said.

He’s probably right, Rachel thought. With no fans humming, all sorts of noises that would normally be masked weren’t. A dead ship, and if I don’t get off soon, I’ll die with it.

They came to a door off of the main corridor and stepped into the “day bridge” of the Price. There was a separate “maneuvering bridge” for docking and close work, a zero-G space with a real window looking out into space, but this room was used most of the time while underway.

The room wasn’t ever that brightly-lit, but with the loss of ship’s power it was even darker than usual. The number of amber and red warning lights from the various mostly-useless consoles gave the room a reddish tinge. The far end of the wall was dominated by a digital display. With main power off, most of the sensors were down, so the display was largely dark. However, the navigational computer was up, and a schematic showing their position in relationship to Mars was clearly visible. Also visible on the display was a flashing yellow warning, reading “collision imminent” in both English and Spanish.

“Any luck on the computer?” Chuckles asked.

“Not a computer problem,” Bam Bam said, looking up from her console. She was clearly frustrated as she pushed a shock of black hair out of her face. “It’s a reactor problem. I’ve got maneuvering control, but with no power, I can’t move anywhere.”

“What’s wrong with the reactor?” Eggman asked.

“If I knew that, I’d fix it!” Bam Bam said.

“What about the special cargo?” Rachel asked.

“I have no idea.” She waved at a desk off to the side. “Cargo manifest is on the Master’s computer.”

“So?” Chuckles asked.

“It’s down,” Bam Bam said. “Shut down automatically when we lost power to save juice for critical shit. Besides which I’ll need the Old Lady’s login.”

“Can you bring it back up?” Rachel asked.

“Give me fifteen minutes, sure,” she replied. “Fifteen minutes I haven’t had.”

Fifteen minutes they didn’t have, Rachel thought, not counting the time they’d waste to crack the passwords and find the manifest.

“Charles,” Rachel said. “We have to leave. Now.”

“Why?” he asked.

“If we don’t leave soon, we’ll be too close to Mars for the Cranston’s engines to pull us clear.”

“Not a good idea to leave,” he said. “The investors …”

“Fuck the investors,” Eggman said. “What are they going to do …”

“If we don’t pay them?” Chuckles said, his face drained of color. “If we’re lucky, they’ll just kill us quick. If not …”

Who exactly is bankrolling this operation? It was hard to scare stupid, and anybody capable of scaring a rock with lips like Chuckles had to be a serious Mike Foxtrot.

“We need a tow, Captain,” Eggman said, looking at Rachel.

“Don’t get stuck on stupid,” Rachel said. “Cranston’s barely got enough delta vee to get clear herself, let alone pull this out.” The ship class was referred to as a Mosquito by its manufacturers, and not without reason.

“Then we just give them back their money,” Eggman said. “Sell the Cranston.”

Chuckles just glared at Eggman. Probably blew through most of the cash already, Rachel thought.

“Let’s call for help,” Bam Bam said.

“Call who?” Eggman asked.

Good question, Rachel thought. There were hundreds of settlements on Mars, technically under the control of dozens of countries on Earth. In practice, most of the settlements were on their own, and cared little for anything that happened outside their airlocks. Hell, Bensonville, the one-airlock town that was sponsoring this outing, was a good example of that.

“Space Rescue,” Bam Bam suggested.

“Those Boy Scouts?” Eggman said.

“Why not?” Bam Bam said.

“Anybody got any better ideas?” Chuckles asked. Nobody said anything. “Okay, then, let’s make the call.”

“I got to get gone,” Rachel said. “Or Space Rescue will be pulling two ships out of the shit.”

“Go,” Chuckles replied.

Rachel left, thinking that she’d never heard of a stupider idea in her life. But at least she’d get out.

Chapter 2

Thursday, 30 Virgo Year 15:45 local (March 1, 2074, 15:46 GMT)

Docked at Stickney Base, Phobos, Mars Orbit

“Permission to enter the bridge,” asked Chief Astronaut Bill Kelly.

“Granted,” replied Lieutenant Peter Grant, perched on an equipment console. “Come and save me from death by boredom.”

Kelly smiled. I was like that once, chomping at the bit for action. He suppressed a frown. Before I stuck my neck out for some General’s brat. Got me bounced right out of the Air Force.

Kelly grabbed the handrail and pulled himself hand-over-hand into the pilothouse. Phobos, Mars’ inner moon, had barely enough gravity to get dust to settle, if you were a patient sort. Their ship, the Volunteer Space Rescue Service Vessel Luidas Volodka, was on alert, and was docked on the rim of Stickney crater. The planet itself filled the forward bridge window, the half-lit part glowing a surprisingly warm and friendly orange, the dark part dotted with small lights.

“I wanted to go over the training schedule with you, sir,” Kelly said, in the neutral tone he’d long ago learned to use when dealing with “superior officers” young enough to be his kids.

The bridge-to-bridge radio crackled. “Mayday Mayday Mayday, vessel Charles S. Price calling, over.”

“I hope that’s not a Mayday Madeline,” Peter grumbled, his hand reaching up to activate his headset.

They had been having a run of bogus mayday calls, Kelly thought. As if the Service, badly overstretched and underfunded, didn’t have enough to do. Kelly pushed off towards the direction-finding console. Unlike the ship’s original consoles, enclosed in beige aluminum, the add-on direction-finding console was an open rack with various components bolted in, and a barely-organized nest of wires visible in the back.

The mayday wasn’t sending an automatic emergency beacon. Strike one.

“Grab the DF would ya, Bill?” Grant said.

“We’re hot,” Kelly said, activating the tracking program.

“This is Space Rescue to the vessel calling mayday, over,” Grant called into the radio microphone.

“Price to Space Rescue. Request assistance, inbound Mars, over.” It sounded like a female voice.

Kelly watched the display as it attempted to get a fix on the transmission. “Got three stations tracking, bearing correlates.”

“Enough for a fix?”

“Negative,” Kelly said.

“Copy,” Grant said, and took a breath. “Price, this is Space Rescue. Please state your position, course, speed, and nature of emergency, over?” Kelly glanced over at Grant. A note of excitement was creeping into the kid’s voice. Well, he was only twenty-something.

“Space Rescue, this is Price. Our position follows.”

Kelly keyed in the position information while watching the DF run its calculations. The Price’s reported position was almost exactly in the middle of the probability box calculated by the computer.

“Solid correlation,” Kelly said, then turned to see Grant hovering at his shoulder.

“Let’s scramble.”

“Before we know the type of emergency?” Kelly asked. Let’s not go off half-cocked.

“Price, what is the nature of your emergency?” Grant said, keying his headset.

The only reply was static. Grant reached past Kelly and pointed to the display. “Bill – looks like she’ll have to make a change for orbital insertion soon.”

“Looks that way, sir,” Kelly replied. The ship was well out past Diemos, Mars’ outer moon, but approaching quickly.

As they watched, Grant repeated his radio call. Still no reply.

“I guess we’re scrambling,” Grant said.

Kelly looked over his shoulder as Grant mashed the big red alert button, sounding alarms all over the ship. The grin on Grant’s face wouldn’t look out of place on a five-year-old riding a fire truck who’d been allowed to turn on the sirens.

The first person to arrive in the pilothouse was Captain Tony Chen, a short and wiry man with close-cropped gray hair. Since his cabin was the next compartment over, it wasn’t a surprise.

“Bill, how’d you beat me here?” Chen asked.

“I was already here,” Kelly replied.

“Syracuse lose again?” Chen asked, nodding in Grant’s direction. “Come to collect from your boss?”

“I don’t think they play until tonight, sir,” Kelly said. “I was up to discuss the training schedule.”

“Oh,” Chen replied. He looked at Lieutenant Grant. “So, Peter, what do we have?”

“Mayday, ship inbound, lost contact.”

Chen pulled himself over to his chair and somersaulted into it. “Have we started a track yet?”

“Yes,” Kelly replied. He had told the system to put a track out. Nobody had bothered to set up a radar traffic control system for Mars, although even on Earth, the track would be out of radar range for most systems, so the track was the computer’s best guess based on the DF data. “Track five-four-zero-four.”

Kelly turned to see Midshipman Jack Williams pushing himself into the pilothouse, then sliding behind the navigation console. Lieutenant Lee, the ship’s navigator, was on compassionate leave for his father’s funeral, so Williams was filling in.

“Track five-four-zero-four,” Kelly said.

“Thanks, Chief,” Williams replied, his dark face a mask of concentration. If they were going to fly an intercept, Williams would have to calculate it.

“Price, Price, this is Space Rescue,” Grant said, “We are not receiving you. Please state the nature of your emergency, over.”

“Power failure?” Williams asked, gesturing with his chin at the radio speaker.

“Possibly,” Kelly replied, strapping himself in his chair as the tiny bridge filled up with people. He opened up a home-brewed database program the Service maintained, trying to get some information on their potential target.

Lieutenant Carla Ortega, the ship’s second in command, pulled herself to her console, asking as she moved, “Did they say what the problem was?”

“No – just a position,” Grant replied. “Then they went silent.”

Ortega nodded her head, her short dark hair bobbing, then started strapping herself in while her console booted up.

“Chief, any data on the Price?” the Captain asked.

“Sir,” Kelly replied, not looking up from his screen, “the only Price in the records is registered to Tri-State Cargo out of Chicago, USA.”

“Never heard of them,” the Captain said.

Kelly shared Chen’s lack of surprise. The ships from the big operators rarely had need of their services. It seemed like the majority of calls came from a collection of Mom-and-Pop outfits, underfunded and badly managed, pushing worn-out tin.

“Somehow I doubt they’re registered with a tier-one nation,” Williams said wryly, his teeth glistening white against his dark skin.

Complying with the spaceship regulations for so-called “Tier One” nations was expensive, Kelly thought while pulling up a ship registry database. It also meant that the crew had to be in one of the higher-paying chapters of the Merchant Spacer’s Union.

“Ethiopian,” Kelly answered, reading from his screen. “And there’s no indication Tri-State has a Martian office.”

“Voyage plan?” Williams asked optimistically.

“Not on file,” Kelly replied, adding “big surprise,” under his breath.

“Mister Williams, time to intercept?” The Captain asked.

“Thirty-three minutes, assuming we launch in the next five. If not, we miss completely.”

The Price had to be way out of position for her terminal maneuver, Kelly thought. The Volodka, formerly an orbital tug, was a high-performance ship and usually they had much broader windows.

“Looks like it’s time to do some good,” Williams said.

Kelly glared at Williams. Do some good? The kid treated Space Rescue like they were on a mission from God or something. It was just a job. Kelly glanced at the Captain, who was nodding approvingly. When Chen had started the Service, the “Volunteer” part of their name had meant no pay. Now the Service got some subsidies from insurance firms and was able to pay wages. Not big wages, but then he wasn’t away from home for six months at a shot either.

“I truly hate these blind calls,” the Captain said, nodding approvingly at William’s remark. “But we get paid to keep the living alive. Ortega, query Earth. Chief Kelly, sound maneuvering. Mister Grant, departure calls please.”

Kelly reached up from his console and pressed the button. An audible alarm sounded throughout the ship, letting people know they were going to accelerate. “All hands, stand by for G’s,” Kelly said over the ship’s intercom, “repeat, all hands, stand by for G’s.” Then he sounded the alarm again while sweeping his eyes around the console looking for loose binders and other stuff.

Kelly turned his head to report to the Captain and saw Grant, floating parallel to the deck, brace his feet against a column behind him.

“Attention all ships, attention all ships,” Grant said over the radio. “Space Rescue ship Volodka underway from Phobos on a priority call, standing by for traffic channel sixteen.”

“Ready, Mister Grant?” the Captain asked, a smirk on his face.

“Yes sir,” Grant replied, then repeated his radio call.

“Engage, Ortega,” Chen said.

The ship’s rocket engines fired. The sudden appearance of gravity mentally changed Kelly’s orientation in an instant from sitting horizontally to lying on his back. He glanced over to his boss, now standing upright on the column. Grant’s blond hair, usually kept short, was falling on the man’s face.

“One of these days showboating like that will get you hurt, sir,” Kelly said.

Grant’s grin looked almost painful. “Only one G, Bill,” he said.

“Inertia’s a bitch, Peter,” Chen said.

Chapter 3

Thursday, 30 Virgo Year 52 16:00 local (March 1, 2074, 16:02 GMT)

VSRS Ship Volodka, underway

“One of these days, Mr. Grant,” Kelly said as the Volodka’s rockets cut out, “you’re going to sprain something doing that.”

“I’m very careful not to,” Grant replied, his voice strained.

He should be straining, Kelly thought. Inertia was a bitch, and as soon as the rocket quit, Peter went from “standing” on the stanchion to doing a handstand on the radio. Captain Chen was smiling at Grant indulgently, as if Grant was his favorite grandkid.

“We’re in the groove for rendezvous,” Ortega reported. “Intercept time thirty-three minutes.”

“Nice plotting, Jack,” Kelly said. It was, after all, the kid’s first solo intercept.

“Thanks, Chief,” the midshipman replied.

“Very good,” the Captain said, acknowledging Ortega’s report.

“Chief, get the team ready,” Grant said.

“Aye, sir,” Kelly replied. Kelly picked up the intercom mike and said, “Now muster the Rapid Response Team in the Rescue Locker. Make manned and ready reports to the bridge.”

“Permission to strike below?” Grant asked.

“Granted,” the Captain said, gesturing at his console. “We’ll see if we can extract any information from the Price.”

“Aye, sir,” Kelly said and fell in behind Grant, heading aft to the suit lockers. He pulled himself hand-over-hand down a padded tube that served as the ship’s central corridor, passing at various points shorter lateral corridors and compartments.

They quickly arrived at the space suit locker. It shared a lateral corridor with the rescue locker where they stored their equipment, and at the end of the lateral corridor, attached to the exterior hull of the ship, was a small ship-to-ship shuttle or “launch.”

“Any scoop on the mayday?” Alan Nomura, one of the Able Astronauts on the rescue party, was in the space suiting up.

“Nope,” Grant replied, opening up his locker in the suit-room.

Kelly reached his locker an instant later, and opened it up. You could wear a suit over street clothes in a pinch and Kelly had, but that got uncomfortable real quick. Thankfully, they had time, so Kelly gratefully changed into a skintight suit liner.

“You still have the Disney picture?” Kelly asked, gesturing at his boss’s locker door.

Grant chuckled ruefully at the gentle ribbing. “You know I do.”

Kelly had seen it before – it was Grant, age seven or eight, posing with his helmet on his hip, just back from his first space walk, taken during a family vacation to the old orbital Disney.

Personally Kelly liked the other picture better. That was the one from when his boss was sixteen. The kid had gotten some kind of internship at the Disney Farside resort on Earth’s moon, taking little kids out on moonwalks. The picture showed Grant and Katy Tunstall, the first person on Mars. The grand old lady had come out to Farside for some PR event, and Grant had been assigned to escort her around. She died a week later, just days before she was to address Kelly’s class at the Air Force Space Command.

“You look kind of serious, sir,” Alan Nomura said from his nearby locker.

“First time I’ve had somebody waiting for me to get back,” Grant replied.

“Who’s that?” Kelly said.

“Girl I’ve been seeing,” Grant replied, pulling his suit liner over his face.

“She got a name, sir?” Nomura asked.

“Janet,” Grant replied. “Got a kid too.”

“Not yours?” Nomura said.

“No,” Grant replied

“Good to hear,” Kelly said. Maybe the kid will settle down some. Kelly started to pull on his suit liner. Doing so always put you in a spin – the trick was to know how to stop spinning.

“There are times I wish I didn’t have people to go back for,” Alan said

“Oh?” Kelly replied, still spinning.

“Stevie’s teething.”

Alan had two wives, which in Kelly’s opinion was one more than anybody needed, and was working on a baseball team of kids.

“So you come here for peace and quiet, huh?”

“That and money,” Alan said, clipping his helmet to his oversuit. “Two weeks on, two off. It’s a good job.”

“That it is,” Kelly said.

“I’ll meet you at the rescue launch, sir,” Nomura said.

“Get the rest of the team organized and in the launch,” Grant said. “I’m heading back to the bridge. Maybe Price decided to talk.”

Kelly left a minute later, heading for the bridge. When he arrived there, Mars was looming in a corner of the bridge window, but noticeably smaller.

“Any updates?” Kelly asked.

“No,” the Captain replied.

“How long until we get a visual?” Grant asked.

“We’re rolling ship now,” the Captain replied.

Kelly grabbed a handhold as the audible “attitude” alarm sounded. A second later, he heard a faint jet of gas, the sound carried by the ship’s hull, and the ship changed orientation. Stars swam past the bridge window and a light force tugged at him.

“We’re steady on this orientation,” Carla said. She put a bit of unnecessary body English into the ship’s sometimes balky control for the telescope. “Got it – feed seven.”

Kelly pulled himself over to a video console and punched up the feed, aware of Grant looking in over his shoulder.

“The ship looks okay,” Jack said from his console. The Price was centered in the screen, and then jumped as Carla increased the magnification.

“Exterior views don’t tell you much,” Grant said.

No they don’t, Kelly thought. An electrical fire, for example, could fill the ship with toxic smoke and render it uninhabitable. Still, you’d think somebody would get into a spacesuit and use a handheld radio.

Kelly looked at his suit’s external wrist display. According to the time, any reply from Earth would be just coming in.

“What do you make her to be?” Williams asked.

“Well, Midshipman,” Captain Chen said, “you’re supposed to know common ship types. What do you hold her as?”

Kelly smiled. Captain Chen was having one of his “trainable moments” at the expense of Midshipman Williams.

“Daewoo Type-15?” Williams said.

“Are you asking or telling?” the Captain said.

“Daewoo Type-15,” Williams replied, trying but failing to sound certain.

“I concur,” the Captain said. “Pull up the standard schematics.”

Williams routed the output to a second screen just below the first. Daewoo was a Korean company, and their Type-15 was an older model, designed for containerized cargo.

“She’s a steamer,” Williams said.

“Great,” Grant replied sarcastically.

Most deep-space ships used high-efficiency ionic engines powered by fission reactors for propulsion.

“You’d think Daewoo would quit selling pressurized water reactors,” Grant continued. “Damn things scram when you look at them sideways.”

“More power output for the mass,” Kelly said, feeling a bit defensive. “It’s a good technology.” Most companies nowadays cheaped out, and put pebble-bed reactors in, which, instead of using water and steam, passed nitrogen gas over sealed golf ball-sized chunks of uranium.

“Doesn’t the US Air Force use pressured water reactors exclusively? Grant asked.

“Yes sir, they do,” Kelly replied. “And they work fine.”

“If you maintain them,” Chen said. “But it’s not much more power for the mass, and damn tricky to work with.”

“Maybe their reactor scrammed,” Williams suggested.

“Maybe,” Chief Kelly said, a note of irritation in his voice. “But a scram shouldn’t take down the Cee-cubed systems.”

“Depends on why the reactor scrammed,” Grant said, stating the obvious, “which for all we know it didn’t.”

Something was fishy. Cee-cubed stood for “command, control and communications” and was always powered from multiple, independent, sources.

“Infrared?” Kelly asked.

Ortega grunted and switched feeds.

Williams tapped his monitor. “Crew quarters look kinda chilly.”

He was referring to the saucer-shaped segment at the rear of the vessel, visibly spinning to produce artificial gravity.

“I’m more interested in the reactor,” Chen said. That was housed in a boxlike and normally-zero-G engineering space, just aft of the crew area, which formed the ship’s stern. These areas showed pale pink in the display.

Warmer than ambient but not nearly as warm as they should be. She’d been without power for several hours. But even if she’d been without power for a day or so, there should still be enough air for people to live.


“Asking or telling, Mister Williams?” the Captain said.

“Neither, sir, merely suggesting.”

“Why’d the reactor shut down?” Kelly asked.

“Simple. Computer did it automatically,” Grant said. It was looking like this mystery was solved.

“Maybe,” Kelly said, a note of doubt in his voice. If so, who called it in?”

“Remember the Hanjin Conveyor?” Grant asked.

“Yeah,” Kelly drawled. It had been one of their first rescues together.

The Hanjin had been unresponsive to radio calls and way off course. Kelly shuddered from the remembered cold. The ship’s life support system had slowly failed, depriving them of oxygen. Either the watchstander had ignored the alarm or silenced it. Not that it mattered - everybody died, most of them asleep in their bunks. Then they froze solid as the ship cooled down.

“Hanjin was a Daewoo Type-15,” Grant said.

“Well, somebody called this in,” Kelly replied. “Which means somebody is, or was, still alive.”

“You may be right, Grant,” Chen said, “but we won’t know until we get aboard.”

She’s not under thrust, Captain,” Williams interjected. “And given her current course, she either gets moving in two hours or she’ll miss insertion.” Orbital insertion was the maneuver to change course from flying at Mars to orbiting around it.

“Short or long?” Kelly asked. Short meant crashing into the planet, while long meant flying past it.

“Short,” Jack said. “Six hours to impact.”

“We better get moving,” Grant said. “Unless Mars needs a new crater.”

“Concur,” the Captain said. “Range to target?”

“Passing five thousand kilometers,” Ortega replied.

“We’ll match course and hold at five clicks,” the Captain said. “Mr. Williams, lay in a plot.”

“Intercept in ten minutes,” Williams replied.

“Striking below,” Grant said.

“Grant,” the Captain said.


“Let’s take this one extra careful, please.”

“Yes, sir.”


“Checklist complete,” Kelly said over the radio link. “Just need the boss.”

“I’m going EVA,” came Grant’s voice over the radio.

Volodka’s thrusters fired again as they were matching courses with the Price.

“Range to target three-zero clicks,” Ortega said over the bridge-to-bridge radio, patched into Kelly’s left earpiece. “Intercept in two minutes.”

Kelly was sitting in the pilot’s chair of the larger of the Volodka’s two ship-to-ship cargo pods, and with his checklist complete he had nothing to do but wait. The boxy vehicle, which everybody referred to as a launch, bore more than a passing resemblance to a small cargo container with a rocket on the back end, and wasn’t much bigger. Alan Nomura, the other exterior rider, was in position, “standing” on a platform jutting out from the starboard side of the launch.

The rest of the team was inside, where Grant should be, Kelly thought. But the kid wanted to “lead from the front” and since rules required two exterior riders, the better to gain entry into a dead ship, Grant rode from outside.

A minute later the hatch to a small, one-man airlock just forward of the launch opened, and Grant emerged, looking bulky and clumsy in his spacesuit. There was a length of green nylon rope, knotted every meter or so, running from the airlock hatch to a point on the ship at the nose of the launch. Grant pulled himself out of the hatch, allowing his body to straighten out nearly perpendicular to the Volodka, and grabbed the rope.

He pulled himself hand over hand along the rope until he arrived at a plastic tube mounted vertically on the face of the launch. Grant grabbed the tube, using the tacky surface of his glove to stick to the plastic. Have to give it to the kid – he’s damn good at EVA work.

Grant then hand-walked up the tube, his body pivoting at the waist, and used another tube to hand-walk around to the port side of the launch to a platform welded on the side of the launch, where the platform was, just out of view of Kelly’s window.

A minute later, Grant’s voice came through Kelly’s right ear. “Comm check on the wire,” Grant said, referring to a data cable running from Grant’s suit to the launch.

“Five by five,” Kelly replied. “You ready?”

“Yes, let’s go,” Grant said.

Kelly disengaged the hold-down clamps, which sent an audible clunk through the launch, then Kelly pulled away from the Volodka using the attitude jets. He walked it a few meters away then tripped the main rear-mounted rocket engine. The rocket wasn’t very powerful, producing maybe a quarter of a G at full thrust, but for guys outside it would still feel like they were falling off the side of the launch.

“There she is,” Grant said as they rounded the Volodka and the Price came into view. The Price looked tiny, like something you’d hang on your keychain.

“Engine cut in three,” Kelly said.

Grant grunted audibly as the rocket cut off, his inertia trying to fling him into space.

“Be a more comfortable ride inside,” Kelly said.

“Better view here,” Grant replied. “Besides, somebody’s got to be here.”

Suit yourself, Cowboy.

“Let’s run a sweep from bow to stern, target’s starboard side,” Grant said. Volodka hadn’t been able to see the starboard side with the telescope.

“Copy, making run,” Kelly said.

As they made the approach, Williams, on the Volodka, made another call to the Price.

“Merchant Vessel Price, this is Space Rescue ship Volodka, five kilometers on your bow. We are sending over a launch. If you are receiving us, please flash your running lights, over.”

The darkened running lights didn’t even flicker.

Kelly swung in a sharp ninety across the Price’s bow, a flat slab of sheet steel, then made a square turn. Once they were turned, Kelly made a short burn on the rocket, which sent them drifting down the starboard side. That part was in shadow, so Kelly pointed the launch’s nose at the hull and hit the floodlights.

“Full load,” Nomura said over the wire-link.

“Looks that way,” Grant agreed.

No shit, guys, Kelly thought. Empty slots meant wasted money, so every slot on the Price had a shipping container in it. Bulk material, like glass and steel for agricultural domes, brick for building and the like, was made on Mars. Manufactured goods, from computers to residential nuclear reactors, were containerized and imported from Earth or her moon. Mars sent back some raw materials, but it was mostly a food basket for asteroid mines and Earth’s waterless moon.

As they drifted down the side of the ship, Kelly noted a few scuffs and dings from the cargo handling equipment, but nothing at all unusual. The ship was still dark and lifeless. Even the standard suit radio frequencies were silent, which Grant didn’t like at all. Surely somebody had enough smarts to get a suit on?

“Must be a life support problem.” Grant said.

“Maybe,” Kelly replied. “Or maybe not.”

“You getting cold feet, Chief?”

Kelly bit off his first and intemperate response. “There are old Rescuemen, and bold Rescuemen, but there’s no such thing as an old, bold Rescuemen,” he finally said. Cocky. The kid has talent, but not enough experience.

“Copy, Chief. Stand off the rescue airlock,” Grant said. “And get in line of sight with Volodka. Nomura and I will go over on suitjets.”

“Copy,” Kelly said. He arrested the launch’s motion with a quick, fuel-efficient burst from the main engine, and pointed the launch’s stubby bow at the Price’s emergency airlock, ringed with yellow and black stripes. “Your range is six-five meters.”

“Make the call,” Grant said.

“Copy,” Kelly said. Then, over the bridge-to-bridge frequency, Kelly said, “Merchant Vessel Price, this is Space Rescue. We are sending over assistance to your starboard airlock. If you read, please flash your running lights, over.”


“Unplugging now,” Grant said. “Comm check on digital radio, over.”

Now that the exterior team wasn’t connected via intercom, Kelly set up his right ear for a digital radio link to Volodka and the team members, which included video from a helmet-mounted camera.

“Five by five, good pictures, over.” Kelly said. Nomura, on the same radio channel, completed his comm check.

“Grant away,” Grant said. His spacesuited figure now appeared in the side window of the launch, slowly heading towards the Price. The kid gave a single burst from his suit jet.

“Nomura away,” Nomura reported, following right behind Grant.

As Kelly watched, the two men approached, then rolled to orient their feet first. Their shadows, caused by the floodlights from the launch, grew as they approached.

Suddenly all the Price’s exterior lights came on, including a floodlight aimed right at the launch. This was followed by a loud squeal from the analog radio set.

“What the hell?” Grant yelled over the digital link.

Kelly could barely hear him over the squeal from the analog suit radio in his left ear. He mashed the squelch control on the console.

“Two flares, negative, two launches from the Price, outbound fast,” Fencl said, pointing from her seat next to his.

“Volodka has two bogies inbound, ship’s launches!” Chen said over the digital link. The analog channel was completely jammed by the squeal. “What’s going on, over?”

“I have no idea,” Grant replied.

“The emergency airlock is opening,” Nomura said.

Kelly looked down and could see a spacesuited figure in the lock. He shivered for a second.

“Man in lock has a gun,” Kelly said, desperately wishing it wasn’t so. “We’re coming in to get you!”

“Negative!” Grant said, landing feet first on the deck of the Price. “Break off, Kelly!”

“We can’t leave the Lieutenant!” Novak said.

Kelly saw a second airlock opening. “Shit!”

“Kelly, break off now!” Grant said.

“God damn it!” Kelly said. He fired a reverse thruster. “We’re gone!”

“Volodka copies,” Chen said over the link as the thruster fired.

As they backed out, Kelly saw Grant’s hands go up.

I just abandoned two shipmates, Kelly thought, his gut heaving.

Chapter 4

Thursday 30 Virgo Year 52 16:25 local (March 1, 2074, 16:27 GMT)

VSRS Ship Volodka

Jack Williams hit Volodka’s maneuvering alarm as the helmsman fired a burst from the main rocket, pushing the ship forward. The two launches coming from the Price were directly inbound. Pirates. Had to be pirates. Who the hell hijacks an ambulance?

“Prepare to repel boarders!” Captain Chen shouted. “Helm, shake them off!”

Oh shit, Jack thought. He looked at his console. There was nothing he could do.

“Carla!” the Captain shouted. “Get to the weapons locker and take Jack with you! Everybody clear the bridge!”

“I’m gone,” Carla said.

Jack unstrapped from his seat and pulled himself over it. As he did, he saw Captain Chen grab a radio handset.

“Port Lowell, this is Volodka,” Chen said. “We are under attack by pirates, over.”

The weapons locker. They shouldn’t need a weapons locker at all. It had recently been added at the Captain’s orders. We’re the good guys!

Volodka could jinx, but unless they were prepared to abandon Lieutenant Grant, Chief Kelly and the rest of the Rapid Response team, they had to stay in the area. He didn’t sign up to shoot people, but now it looked like he would have to.

Jack left the bridge and pulled himself aft along the central passageway on the heels of Lt. Ortega, trying to hold on and make time as the ship shimmied underneath him. A metallic clang rang throughout the ship, coming from the outer hull. It didn’t matter much what maneuvers they did now. Now it was a question of how long it would take to force open an airlock. His stomach churned.

Two of the engineering astronauts Chief Astronaut Krauss and Able Astronaut Pacht, waited at the small arms locker when Jack arrived. “Nice of you to join us,” Krauss said, trying to sound nonchalant. The sheen of sweat on her pale face gave her away.

“Fast as we could,” Ortega said, pulling the key from her pocket. She unlocked the hardened steel padlock securing the weapons locker, and quickly got the lock off, then swung the sturdy door open. There were six pistols inside, sleek black semi-automatics, each with two loaded clips stored beside them.

“Grab them all,” Ortega said, stuffing a pair of pistols into her belt.

“Spacesuits,” Pacht muttered, fumbling with his pistol. “We should be in suits.”

“They can’t blow pressure.” Krauss chambered a round. “The air would prevent them from getting in.”

“They can blow it once they’re in,” Pacht said.

An audible alarm sounded. The airlock opening alarm.

“They’re inside,” Ortega said.

“Can they blow pressure from the bridge?” Jack asked.

“No – life support,” Krauss said.

“Get there and hold it,” Ortega pointed aft. “Jack and I can hold them at the junction.” She sounded a lot more confident than Jack felt. “Chief, we got a boat of people out there. What can we do to get them inside?”

“Nothing until we get comms with them,” Krauss said.

A burst of gunfire rang out, sounding like it was farther forward. I guess we’ll see how good our self-sealing hull really is.

“Fuck,” Jack said, “They’ve got the bridge.”

“Maybe,” Ortega replied. “We know the ship better than they do.” She turned and looked over her shoulder. “Krauss, put them in the dark.”

The woman grinned. “Gladly.”

Ortega gestured forward, towards the bridge. “Let’s move out.”

“Aye aye, Ma’am,” Jack said.


Jack and Lieutenant Ortega arrived at the junction, the centerpoint for anybody moving inside the ship, just as the lights went out and the ventilation fans stopped running. A trio of emergency lights was the only illumination in the area. A string of curses echoed down the passageway from the forward area.

“Doesn’t sound like they’re very happy, does it?” Ortega said, a wicked smile over her face, half in shadow.

“No Ma’am,” Jack said.

Jack looked at the junction. It wasn’t much, just a wide spot where three sets of tube-like interior passageways met. The long passageway they were in went forward to the bridge and the empty mess decks. Heading aft, behind them, were crew quarters, the rescue locker, and engineering. The pair of short cross-corridors went to access airlocks, one for each of the four sides of the tubular ship.

“With the breakers tripped, they have to come back here to manually reset,” Ortega said.

She reached up and turned off the emergency light in the dorsal side of the passageway. The other two lights, on each side of the lateral passageway, lit up the junction. Jack and the Lieutenant could see their targets, but people coming from the bridge couldn’t see them.

“We should move back a bit,” Jack said. It’s darker back there.

“Yep,” Ortega replied, backing down the corridor.

As they started to move, Jack turned to look forward into the junction again and saw a space-suited figure, weapon in hand, pull himself into the corridor, facing away from Jack.

“Look out, Carla!” Jack shouted, and pointed his gun at the figure. He pulled the trigger as the suited figure twisted on his axis. The gun went off with a deafening bang, and the recoil slammed Jack into the side of the corridor. Jack reflexively pulled the trigger again, realizing after he did so that his feet were suddenly in the way of the pistol’s muzzle. The gun didn’t go off, and in fact the trigger didn’t seem to want to move. He started to shout, “I’m jammed” when three or four more loud bangs tore through the space.

Jack managed to stop his spin and brace up against the wall. The slide of his gun was stuck halfway back. With shaky fingers, he pulled the slide back, clearing out a live round, and chambered another.

“You okay?” Lieutenant Ortega called from across the hall.

“Yes,” Jack said, his voice cracking. He looked down the passageway, struggling to get oriented after his tumble. A space-suited figure was in the junction, the suit backpack caught on a fire extinguisher stanchion.

“He dead?” Jack asked.

“I certainly hope so,” Ortega replied.

“Did I hit him?”

“Yes,” she said. “Better to be lucky than good.”

She gestured down the corridor with her pistol. “His buddy is back down the passageway. We traded a couple of shots. I don’t know if I hit anything.”

From ambulance driver to murderer in five minutes. Then he realized that Lieutenant Ortega was talking.


“You should have anchored first.”


“Don’t get sorry, get good,” Ortega said, no malice in her voice.

“My gun jammed,” Jack said. “I need to get a working one.”

“Nothing wrong with your gun, kid. You limp-wristed it.”

“Oh.” Jack thought for a second. “What’s that mean?”

“The slide needs to move back to chamber a round, Mister. If you’re moving back, it doesn’t complete its travel,” Ortega said. “Cover me. I’m going to add that guy’s rifle to our arsenal.”

“Aye aye, Ma’am.” Jack felt sick, and struggled to keep his food down. “How long before they try again?”

“Five minutes, maybe less,” Ortega said, calmly approaching the dead pirate. “And they’ll send more people next time.”

Chapter 5

Thursday 30 Virgo Year 52 15:45 local (March 1, 2074, 15:45 GMT)

Port Lowell, Mars

Two hours off of the ship from Earth, Sean Yeargan felt dizzy, just like he had for the first week or two he’d been on the Lufthansa Berliner. He looked around, taking in all that he could see of Port Lowell, Mars’ biggest city.

Not that you could see much. Locals called the pressurized buildings on Mars domes, but to Sean’s eyes they looked like enclosed shopping malls back home. He stopped at a corner and glanced at the map displayed on his PDA. The habitation areas of Port Lowell were a series of brick tubes covered with dirt, running along on the surface. Where they could, the architects burrowed through natural hills.

Yeargan shook his head, trying to clear the dizziness. It worked, sort of, so he resumed walking, smiling wanly.

How much of this dizziness is caused by Mars’ lesser gravity?

Probably not much, he decided. He’d always suffered from spin sickness, caused by the inner ear trying to adjust to the centrifugal force used to simulate gravity. Once you got adjusted to the spin, re-adjusting to gravity could have the same effect. It was why he’d gotten a desk job with the insurance company in the first place.

His son hadn’t suffered from that problem.

His dead son. The reason Sean volunteered to go to Mars.

Stop thinking about that. He patted the receipt for his air tax in his pocket.

Gotta make our own air, he thought. Plants do that nicely, and will grow just fine under glass in Martian sunlight. At convenient intervals, the locals had plopped glass-and-steel agricultural domes, which showed on his map as green blobs, to provide oxygen and some food. Despite the plants, air wasn’t free.

Sean looked around and found a street sign, blue with white letters, mounted on the side of a wall. He turned right and walked down another “street.” The ceiling, about three stories above his head, was an arched brick barrel, lined with lights and ventilation ducts. Stores and businesses occupied the first level, their doors opening onto the street. Above them were two levels of apartments, apparently accessed via open hallways let into the rows of businesses.

An open-sided electric trolley, its body made of brightly colored fiberglass, rolled down tracks in the middle of the open gallery, accompanied by the ringing of a bell. Sean noted that there was no driver in the trolley, but that it stopped to avoid pedestrians in the way. Labor on Mars wasn’t cheap.

Sean’s destination, 221 McKinley Street, Sector U, Port Lowell, proved to be a small bar-restaurant. A fiberglass sign hung from a pole over the door proclaimed the place as “Dutch’s Watering Hole.” The owner had fenced off a segment of the street, and placed a couple of small chrome tables out.

“Sean Yeargan?” a woman called out, sitting at the table farthest from the door. She was dressed casually, jeans and a tan tank top. Her blond hair was long and straight, and had bubblegum pink highlights.

“Yes,” Sean said. “You are?”

She stood up and offered her hand, pulling a strand of hair out of her face with the other. “Janet Pilgrim. I’m sorry about your son.”

It had been almost four years since his son Alex had gone missing, and two since Janet, the sole surviving crewmember of that ship, had reported his death. It still hurt. “Thank you,” Sean said, not knowing what else to say. He joined her at her table.

“Something to drink?” she asked, beckoning at a small e-menu attached to the table with a stout wire.

“Whatever you’re having is fine, but I’m buying.”

“Two house bourbons,” she said, punching buttons on the device.

“I thought local time was early afternoon?”

“It is. My lunchtime, in fact. So?”

I guess it’s five o’clock somewhere on this planet. “You must have studied my picture, to pick me out like that.”

“Actually no,” she replied, a wry smile on her face. “I just looked for somebody fresh off of the boat. Between your bouncing up and down and that five-degree lean into a non-existent spin, it was easy.”

Space legs, they called it, Sean thought, trying to avoid showing his embarrassment. A waiter arrived with the drinks, sparing Sean the need to reply. He took a sip of his bourbon, and barely avoided sputtering. Bourbon my ass! The damn stuff tasted like moonshine, and must have been concocted on-planet, probably in somebody’s bathtub. He noticed that the vile stuff didn’t seem to faze Janet, who took a long drag on hers.

Despite the bullshit he’d told his boss, there was only one reason for him to come to Mars. “Tell me how my son and Kate died,” he asked.

Kate Yeargan had been his daughter-in-law, and captain of Janet’s ship.

“Kate went quick,” Janet replied, looking him straight in the eye. “We weren’t expecting trouble, and she was off watch. The pirates tried to cut the high-gain antenna off with a laser. Being pirates and lazy, they hadn’t practiced, and so sliced a hole in the growhouse.”

Sean hated that slang term for greenhouse, and wondered if Janet knew the connotation. But that wasn’t important.

“Kate was in the greenhouse?”

“Yep. Picking apples off one of our miniatures.” Janet took another stiff sip of her drink. “The ’house vented out almost instantly.”

“And my son?”

“I told you in my emails.”

“You said he was shot. I want details.”

“You might not like details.”

“Try me,” Sean finally said.

“Alex was in shock, I think,” Janet said. “He knew his wife was dead. The pirates told us to assemble everybody not on watch on the quarterdeck. Alex and Ken did so.”

“Alex was supposed to be on watch.”

“Sir,” Janet said, reaching for her drink and then apparently thinking better of it, “I said you might not like it.”

Sean didn’t, and could feel his face flush. “Tell me.”

“The two men went to the quarterdeck, and a launch from the pirate ship docked there. I watched on the CCTV.”


“Ken attacked the pirates when they entered. Unarmed. Alex I think was just in the way.”

Sean looked away, not wanting her to see the tears in his eyes. The street was deserted.

“Who buried them?” Sean asked.

“One of the pirates must have taken care of Alex.”

Probably jettisoned with the trash, Sean thought. After they’d rifled through his pockets, of course.

“We couldn’t get to Kate until I finished welding the patches on,” Janet said. She fumbled in a pocket of her tight jeans and fished out a small gold band. “Her wedding ring.”

Sean felt his eyes water again. According to the reports, both from the media and the private ones, they’d kept Janet, the pirates had, more or less as a slave. Yet she’d hung onto the wedding ring.

The waiter came back and put down another pair of drinks. Sean drained his first, the raw alcohol burning as it went down.

“Thank you,” he said to Janet.

“For what?”

“For surviving.” He held up the ring, his eyes watering. “For this.”

Janet blushed and looked away. “Just lucky, I guess.”

Survivor’s guilt, Sean thought. Mixed with a little Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. She’d personally killed four of the sons of bitches to get her freedom.

Sean understood that. It was easy to see what you’ve fought in yourself. Every time it snowed in Chicago he remembered the fighting in Pyongyang during the Second Korean War. The look on that man’s face when Sean gutted him was as clear as if it was yesterday, despite being over thirty years ago.

“You seeing somebody?” Sean asked.

“Like a boyfriend?”

“Therapist,” Sean said. He pointed at her drink. “Self-medicating is not a good idea. Been there, done that and got the T-shirt.”

“I’m fine.”

So you say, Sean thought. “Do you know where the other pirates went?” Especially that red-headed bitch Storey, Sean added mentally. She’s the one that got away.

“No. Why?”

“Professional interest.”

She snorted. “What does Zurich North American Insurance want with pirates?”

A short walk out an airlock minus suit would be nice. “Mars’ piracy problem is getting out of hand.”

Janet smiled. “Getting in your pocket, are they?”

“Quite a bit, actually. Between the losses of ships and crews, it’s expensive.”

“Death benefits that high?”

“The people who took your ship weren’t very smart,” Sean said. “Now we’re getting hit with ransom demands.”

“You pay?”

“We have to,” Sean said. “Union rules – ‘must fund rescues.’”

“I’m surprised you guys don’t cut deals with them. Buy them off.”

“That assumes we can find somebody to buy.”

“Mike Gerulitas not returning your calls?”

“It’s complicated.” Mike was a fence and fixer who had provided papers to his son’s murderers so they could resell the ship on Earth.

“Mitsui Marine Insurance tried to buy off Gerulitias. SOB didn’t stay bought.” Sean took a sip from his second drink. It didn’t burn as much – the alcohol must have numbed his sense of taste. “The other problem we’ve got is a lack of intelligence.”

She smiled. “You’re stupid?”

“No, the military type of intelligence, which I know is an oxymoron. We don’t know who these pirates are.”

“What do the returned crews have to say?”

“Not much,” Sean said. “Seems like most outfits are smart enough to keep their identities hidden.”

“Sounds like a real problem,” Janet said. She knocked back a healthy gulp. “Wish I could help.”

“Well, you could,” Sean said. “Like I said, we need intel on these guys.”

“Got a job, thanks. Besides, what are you going to do with the intel – make sure the ‘Pay To’ on the checks is spelled right?”

“More like stop writing checks.”

“I would ask whose army you’re going to use, but I suspect that you’ve got that worked out.”

Would that we did, he thought. Blackwater’s quote had been ridiculous, and Triple Canopy’s CEO had laughed them out of the room. “We weren’t born yesterday,” he punted.

“Hope that works out for you.” Janet drained her glass and pushed back from the table. “My lunch break is over.”

Sean noted that it was a liquid lunch.

“About our piracy problem?” Sean said.

“I’ve got a kid and a job, so I don’t see how I can help you.”

“We’ll pay,” Sean said to her back.

“Trying to make a quick buck is how I got to Mars in the first place,” she said over her shoulder as she walked away.

Chapter 6

Thursday, 30 Virgo Year 52 16:30 local (March 1, 2074, 16:32 GMT)

VSRS Rescue Launch One, near VSRS Ship Volodka

“Volodka is bucking like a bronco,” Kelly said, trying not to think about the men he’d just left behind. “The second launch can’t dock while she’s jinxing like that.”

Not that he’d ever seen a bronco. The closest he’d gotten to any animal before moving to Mars was the Bronx Zoo. Now his wife brought live chickens home for dinner. Ex-wife, actually. Had to remember that.

“We gotta go back for the Lieutenant!” Fencl, their medic, said. She was sitting in the co-pilot’s seat to his right.

“We will, as soon as we got something to go back with,” Kelly said. “Where’s that second launch?”

Fencl, now that she had something to do, seemed to calm down. “There, on Volodka’s stern. Ventral – seven o’clock.”

“Got it,” Kelly said. “Everybody, go on suit pressure now.” Kelly pointed the snub-nosed launch at the apparent hostile, painted an incongruous shade of day-glow yellow.

“You’re not going to do what I think you are?” Fencl asked.

“Check your seat straps,” Kelly replied, closing his faceplate with his other hand. God I hope this works, he thought. Kelly fired the main engine for a long burn while pressurizing his suit.

Whoever was piloting the second launch was clearly not a rescueman, Kelly thought. His situational awareness sucked. The pirate was so focused on the bucking Volodka that he completely forgot about her launch. Kelly closed on the pirate launch rapidly.

“Son of a bitch!” Fencl yelled as the pirate launch grew in the front window.

“Brace!” Kelly said, jerking the controls to skew his craft sideways. His side window was suddenly filled by the pirate’s ship.

The impact slammed him against his seat straps, and the crunch of metal was clearly audible though his helmet. The launch started to spin rapidly, and Kelly heard a string of curses over the intercom. The alarm indicating loss of air pressure started to squeal, but faded rapidly as the air rushed out.

He gave the main rocket a brief burst at full throttle, which took some of the spin off, then cut thrust and let the auto-stabilizer handle the rest.

“Everybody okay?” Kelly asked.

The crew’s training kicked in and they sounded off by the numbers. As they did, an open squeezebottle of water drifted by, the water inside trying to boil and freeze at the same time in the cold vacuum.

“Get all your shit secured!” Kelly barked.

“When did you learn how to do that?” Fencl asked over the intercom.

“Just now,” Kelly said. “See if you can raise Volodka.”

As Fencl worked, Kelly pivoted the launch on its center of gravity, looking for the pirate ship. Parts of his main window had frosted over, complicating his search.

“Got you, you sons of bitches,” he said. The pirate launch was spinning like a top, off-gassing and steering jets firing furiously. Several pieces of exterior fuselage had come off, and were spinning around as well.

“Volodka, this is Scout, come in please,” Fencl said.

Kelly realized that the jamming signal on the analog frequency had stopped, and that there was communication coming over it. He dialed the squelch up.

“Rescue launch, we have your ship,” came over the analog. “Bring in our second crew or we’ll kill some hostages, over.”

“Bullshit,” Kelly said, making sure he wasn’t transmitting over the external circuit. A spacesuited hand reached over him and grabbed a portable drill, spinning silently.

“One of the tool kits busted open,” somebody said apologetically over the intercom.

“Get it in one sock,” Kelly growled. He scanned the sky, finally locating the Price, silhouetted against Mars, then glanced down at his radar display. “The lights are on but nobody’s home,” he said.

“What?” Fencl asked.

“The Price,” Kelly said, pointing to the radar display. He noticed that his hand was shaking. “She’s not moving.”

“She can’t, her crew’s on our ship,” Fencl said.

“But she’s not closing in on us, either,” Kelly said. “We’re both pulling away.”

Kelly felt a tap on his shoulder. “Getting something on digital two,” Lewis, their second Able Astronaut, said.

Kelly dialed up the channel, ignoring a repeat of the bullshit from the pirates over the analog channel.

“Ortega to any station, come in please, over.”

“Ortega, this is Kelly. What’s your status, over?”

“Pirates have the bridge, we have the engineering spaces.”

“The captain?”

“Last seen on the bridge, over.”

Kelly looked over his shoulder, confirming that the other members of the crew had heard that. “Ms. Ortega, you’re senior, Ma’am.”

“Copy. We have four spare weapons. What is your status, over?”

“Hull ruptured, but we’re all okay. Do you control lock seven five delta, over?”

“Affirmative, but we’ve killed power to the ship. Can you open manually, over?”

“Affirmative,” Kelly said. They were Rescuemen, after all. “Request you have suited man and weapons in the lock, over.”

“Wilco. Williams is bringing the weapons.”

“Copy, we’re in route, alongside in five, out.” Kelly turned and looked over his shoulder at the rest of the crew, not that it was needed, since they were in a vacuum and communicating over an interior hard-wired circuit. “Lewis, you’re senior. Take Otarski and Diep with Mr. Williams.”

Kelly pointed at the Volodka, filling their forward screen. “Fencl, see that pirate launch?” he asked, pointing at a craft sitting on the exterior of their ship.

“You’re going to take that for a spin. I’ll make sure that other fucking boat of theirs stays away. Got it?”

“We got it, Chief,” Lewis said.

“Aye aye,” Fencl said. “Glad I got cross-trained.”

“Let’s do it, then,” Kelly said, ignoring Fencl’s snide remark. Christ Jesus, there’s got to be an easier way to make a living. Mars was supposed to be a place to start over, not die on.


Jack shut the inner door to the airlock, putting himself in total darkness except for the lights in his heads-up display. From a dark hallway to a dark airlock, he thought. At least we held the boarders at the junction.

He pounded on the airlock hatch with a hammer. Whoever was out there would “hear” it through their feet or whatever else was in contact with the hull.

The pressure started to drop in the tiny space. His skintight spacesuit felt even tighter as the pressure bled off. When the outer door silently opened, he was blinded for an instant by the glare of sunlight from outside, until the helmet viewplate caught up.

“Kelly?” Jack said.

“Able Lewis, sir,” the radio crackled back on the digital link. “Kelly wants us to go hard.”

Jack waited a second to let his eyes adjust to the glare, then handed the spare weapons to Lewis, and finally pulled himself outside the ship. Lewis passed him a wirejack, which he plugged into his suit’s comm port.

“What the hell’s that!” Jack said, reacting to a flare from a rocket.

“Fencl’s taking the pirate launch for a spin,” Lewis said. “Chief’s on our boat. Your orders, sir?”

My orders, Jack thought. How the hell am I supposed to know what to do? Jack glanced around at the trio of Rescuers. I’m senior, he thought. That’s why I’m supposed to know what to do. He looked at the time in his helmet’s heads-up display. An hour ago I was rescuing people. Now I’m going to kill people.

“They entered at Lock 2,” Jack said. “We’ll go in through there.”

“They’ll know we’re back-dooring them once we try to cycle the lock,” Diep said, her voice flat.

Jack thought for a second. “I got an idea.”


Jack led the others alongside the exterior of the ship. It was slow going, but the group eventually arrived at Airlock 2. The airlock was designed for equipment and cargo access, not personnel. Jack figured the pirates had used it because it was the most obvious airlock close to the pilothouse. Besides, Airlock 1, right behind the radio room, was barely big enough for one person. Number 2 was cavernous by comparison, two meters on a side, and several people could fit into it at one time. Any idiot could look at the size of the respective hatches and tell.

The Volodka, still spinning slowly from their earlier maneuvers, took that instant to put the exterior of the ship in shadow.

Then the area was suddenly flooded with light from above. Jack glanced toward the light instinctively, even as he realized Kelly had used the launch’s floodlights to help them. To Jack’s surprise, the floodlights revealed that the door was completely open. Jack carefully pulled himself along the hull, and poked his head into the airlock.

It was empty. Jack waved behind him for the rest of the Rescuers to follow, then clambered in. Unlike a lot of ships, the hatches were of two-piece construction and slid open and closed sideways, much like the doors of an elevator.

Jack looked at the doors from inside. It was a bitch to maintain the airtight seal that way, since the doors had to be closed so tightly, and there was a safety issue in that you could open the doors with pressure on the other side, but the locks were faster to get in and out of. That’s going to work to our advantage.

Once all three Rescuers were in, Jack waved at the Chief’s launch and gestured at Diep to close the airlock door. She made an OK sign and started to close the hatch. Although there was a manual crank, designed to override the motors, Diep simply pulled first one then the other door closed.

It wasn’t an airtight seal, but this plunged the space into darkness until Lewis activated a chemlight. In the sickly green glow, Diep used the crank to tighten the seal. Once she did, she manually dogged the hatches together with a special wrench mounted in the space.

Lewis touched his helmet to Jack’s.

“No power,” Lewis said.

“No shit,” Jack replied. The recommended way to repressurize the space would be by opening either of two valves that would allow air to flow in from the interior. But that was slow, and the inrushing air was noisy. Jack had a better idea.

“We’ll manually slide the doors open,” Jack said.

“It will get gusty,” Lewis said.

“Who cares?” Jack tapped Lewis on the chest. “Pass it on.”

Lewis did so, and with Otarski took up a position on either side of the interior doors, which were identical in design to the outer doors. Jack took a spare wrench and manually undogged the inner hatch, then braced up on the outer door. Diep did the same next to him.

Jack held out his free hand with three fingers up. Once the two Rescuers signaled they were ready, he counted down, three, two, one, closed fist.

On the closed fist, Otarski and Lewis pulled the doors open. A wave of air rushed inside, slamming against Jack. Without waiting for the wave to subside, Jack pushed off with his legs from the door and leaped into the passageway beyond. The pop of gunfire, muted by his helmet and the roar of air, proved that the pirates weren’t stupid.

Whoever they left behind was, however, a lousy shot. Jack hit the far side of the passageway and rolled into a ball while trying to get oriented. Besides creating a strong but brief wind, the rapid opening of the airlock had dropped the temperature enough to create a fog in the space. It made finding a target impossible. Jack pointed his gun in what he thought was a good direction and fired. The gun barked once, the flash illuminating the fog. The recoil shoved him back down the passageway, his gun jammed.

I wonder whose bright idea it was to bring an automatic into space, because it was fucking stupid.

Fortunately, Otarski and Lewis were able to brace up, and poked their guns out of the airlock, each firing several rounds. Even more fortunately, they seemed to agree with Jack as to the general direction of the threat.

Jack managed to brace up and clear his weapon. He popped open his helmet faceplate.

“Lewis,” Jack yelled, “Did you hit anything?”

Several cracks of a rifle from down the hallway suggested that he had not.

“You okay, sir?” Lewis yelled.

“Fine. Call Kelly and tell him to send in the second crew at Airlock 5,” Jack yelled back.

“Roger,” Lewis said.

“You’re bluffing!” A man yelled from down the passageway. Lewis and Otarski both fired in that direction.

“You wanna die here?” Jack yelled. “This fog’s lifting and we’re between you and your ship.”

Several shots rang out from somewhere deep inside the ship. Jack could distinguish between the sharp cracks of the pirate’s rifles and the quieter, deeper sound of the pistols.

“Coming in,” Lewis said over the echoes from the firing.

“Stay put, damn it!” Jack said. “Wait until the fog clears!”

Lewis didn’t respond, and in the dark Jack had no idea where he was. A shadow loomed in front of the airlock. Jack decided to slide to port.

“Sir, what’s your location?” Lewis yelled. It might be from the airlock.

“Pirate’s moving!” Jack yelled.

The barely-seen figure twisted and fired, the recoil from his gun pushing him back. Jack fired, and now that he was braced up, he got a pair of shots off. The group in the airlock fired, the sound deafening in the tiny space.

“I’m hit!” Lewis yelled.

Jack stayed quiet, trying to sort out who was who, when something soft and warm bumped into him. He pushed back, then clicked on his suit light.

The light illuminated a dead body, drifting randomly in an unfamiliar spacesuit. The body of a kid, Jack noted. Maybe sixteen Standard years old. Jack floated over and checked for a pulse. Who in the hell took a kid like that out to be a killer?

“The pirate’s dead,” Jack said.

Several gunshots echoed through the ship.

“Ortega, this is Williams,” Jack said after toggling his radio to voice-activated. “One pirate down, one crew wounded, over.”

Chief Krauss’ voice replied. “Two pirates dead, but the lieutenant’s hit.”

“Krauss, get me power and maneuvering,” Jack said. “Diep, recall the Chief and Fencl.” With two people hit, they were going to need her.


“Captain Chen?” Jack said, pulling himself onto the bridge. The lights came on, revealing a soccer-balled-sized globule of blood just inches from Jack’s face. He squirmed franticly to avoid the blood, which changed course as the fans started up. Maybe he’s just wounded.

The radio crackled, causing Jack to jump. “Volodka, Volodka, Phobos Rescue on one-six, reply please, over.”

Jack pushed off a console with his foot, drifting towards the radio handset. He stopped his forward motion with a hand on a seatback and grabbed the mike, twisting to look back towards the rear of the compartment.

“Phobos Rescue this is Volodka, over,” he said while twisting.

Then he found the Captain.

He was dead, his lifeless eyes open, and his body wedged between a circuit breaker box and the inner hull. The blood, or some of it, was coming out of a large area in his chest. On the opposite side of the hatch was a man’s body, red hair and beard, face frozen in surprise, duct-taped to a stanchion. The ax-end of a Hallagan tool was buried in the man’s chest.

“Volodka, this is Phobos Rescue, what is your status, over?”

They must be rattled back at base – they didn’t ask him to change off of the distress and hailing channel. Good question – what is our status?

“Phobos Rescue, this is Volodka,” Jack said over the radio. He gave a brief report, leaving names and ranks off. The local news monitored their transmissions, and Jack didn’t want Chen’s family hearing about his death from a reporter.

“We hold the ship, over,” he concluded. For now, he added mentally. Price and whatever mother ship the pirates were using were still out there. Jack pivoted and pulled himself over to the captain’s console. The short-range radar was still warming up, indicating ten seconds until it went active.

“Copy, Captain. What are your intentions, over.”

“Stand by, Volodka out,” Jack said, using the captain’s mike. He looked at it. For the moment, it was his mike, and he was the captain. A wave of sheer panic washed over him. Then the radar beeped, and Jack forced himself to look at it.

One thing at a time. The nav computer was still booting. Apparently it had gone down hard, so until he got it fixed, navigation was manual. He carefully checked the range setting on the display, and waited for three sweeps of the scope. Short range was clear. Where’s our launch?

They docked, you idiot. Christ, get a grip. He opened up the display to a medium setting, immediately picking up a single contact at about a hundred kilometers out. Jack punched the button for engineering on the captain’s bitch box. Only Chen called it an “intercom.”

“Engineering, bridge, what’s my status on maneuvering?”

Pacht’s voice came back. “The Chief’s spinning up pumps now. You’ll be at India Five in a minute.”

India Five was five seconds to rocket ignition. They could hold at that level for hours, or light rockets and be gone. He centered the tracking bug on their lone radar contact and let the computer determine its course and speed. “Copy,” Jack said, then pushed the button for sickbay. “What’s the status on our wounded?”

“Lewis got it in the ass,” Kelly said, “but he’s just nicked. Fencl’s still working on Ortega.”

“Copy. Chief, get up here and see if you can find me a helmsman.”

“On my way.”

The computer beeped and provided an estimated course and speed for the contact. It was pulling away from them at a fairly good clip. Jack started to figure out where they were in relation to Mars. Running into a planet was bad. He’d just calculated their position and was preparing to feed it into the course computer when Kelly arrived.

“Is there some reason that you didn’t move the captain?” Kelly asked, pulling himself into the space.

Jack, hovering over the captain’s chair, looked back at Kelly. “Yes. I wanted to keep the living alive.” Keep the living alive. Chen’s motto for any rescue.

“Understood, sir,” Kelly said, his voice softer. “I’ve got a guy ready to go back with me.”

“Go back?”

“To the Price. We left two men there.”

“Manuevering reports at India Five,” the bitch box squawked.

“Copy,” Jack said in reply.

“Volodka, this is Rescue Phobos, request update on your status and intentions, over.”

Kelly nodded at the radio. “What are your intentions, sir?”

Jack patted the pistol he’d stuffed between straps on his spacesuit. “Don’t you think enough people have died?”

“We don’t leave people behind!”

“If we can rescue them, no.” Jack turned and gestured at the radar scope. “The contact I think is the Price is one hundred fifty clicks away.” He turned back and looked at Kelly. “Look me in the eyes and tell me you can pull off a rescue.”

Kelly looked away silently.

“I’m sorry,” Jack said. “They’re my friends too.” Jack picked up the radio handset. “Rescue Phobos this is Volodka. We are RTB best speed, will need medical standing by, over.”

“Copy Volodka return to base. Medical alerted. Rescue Phobos standing by for all traffic channel one-six, out.”

“Volodka out,” Jack said. He turned and looked at Kelly. “Chief, sound maneuvering.”

Chapter 7

Friday, 31 Virgo Year 52 02:20 local (March 2, 2074, 03:00 GMT)

Bensonville, Republic of the White Race, Olympus Mons, Mars

It’s a miracle that idiot Chuckles didn’t get them all killed, Rachel thought, settling into a threadbare chair in the lounge. The idiot in question, Charles Benson Junior, scratched his balls expressively with one hand as he poured a drink with the other. Notably, nobody else was being offered anything.

She’d gotten to the Cranston and pulled away just as the Price sent out her mayday call. By the time Space Rescue showed up, Price was just a blip at the end of the radar screen.

Although apparently the idiot had been persuasive enough. Somebody had fixed the Price’s engine problems.

“Hostages all tucked in, son?” Charles Benson Senior, Senator of the White Race and Mayor of Bensonville asked, his voice gravelly and soft. He was sitting on an arm chair at one end of the lounge area, his gray face a stark contrast to the pastel sheet hung like a tapestry against the dark stone wall of the lounge.

“Yes, sir,” Chuckles answered, plopping down in a faded low-backed arm chair almost at the opposite end from his father. “We’ve got them locked up in town.”

“Good. I’d hate for them to get loose.”

That’s why I moved them. The hostages on her last ship, the Witchcraft, had gotten loose and retaken the ship. It had cost her a lot of money and nearly her life.

“Are all of the Class A shareholders present?” Senior asked.

“Except for Brenda, yes,” Chuckles replied. The room was full, but everybody had a seat. When they’d had the last meeting, just before leaving, it had been standing room only.

“And the four dead shareholders,” Senior added. “Who speaks for them?”

“I do, sir,” Tony Lords said, fussing with his gray pony tail while sitting on a couch. “And Brenda’s on the way.”

Senior nodded, and went into one of his famous coughing fits. The rumor was that Charles Senior was dying of lung cancer. The hospital in Turner Springs, capital of the Republic of the White Race, might be able to help. McQue, Benson Senior’s personal physician, apparently had other thoughts. Rachel sometimes wondered if McQue wasn’t really working for Junior.

Brenda “Bam Bam” Lords walked into the room as Senior’s coughing stopped, her sneakers squeaking on the floor of polished volcanic rock. Rachel noted with mixed emotions that Bam Bam had dressed for the occasion, her ample breasts rather skimpily contained by a bikini top worn over faded jeans. It was clear how she’d earned her nickname.

“Sorry I’m late, sir,” she said, taking a seat next to her dad on the couch. “The B team had some questions.”

“The meeting of the Bensonville Space Marines will come to order,” Chuckles said. “All voting members present in person or by proxy.”

It would be funny if it weren’t so serious, Rachel thought. The “Bensonville Space Marines” were what this group was calling itself, modeling their structure and payouts after the Somali Marines, the most successful sea pirates of the century. The fact that a bunch of white supremacists were literally lifting pages from a book written by a black man from Africa was beyond ironic.

“Would somebody like to tell me exactly who had the brilliant idea to invite Space Rescue to the party?” Senior asked.

“Calling for help was my idea,” Bam Bam said. “But I didn’t want to attack their ship.”

“Like your idea woulda worked!” Chuckles said.

“It would have been a damn sight better then what we did!” Tony Lords said. “We lost four good men!”

“What exactly was the idea?” Senior said.

“Tell Space Rescue that we were the rightful crew,” Bam Bam said. “How would they know otherwise?”

“But they’d still want to get paid!” Chuckles said.

“Tri-State has a billing arrangement,” Bam Bam shot back testily. “It’s not like we’d have to hand over cash. By the time Tri-State figured it out, we’d be gone.”

“So should I take it that the second attack was your idea, son?” Senior said to Chuckles.

“Yes, sir, it was.”

The two men glared at each other for a minute or two. Chuckles finally looked down.

“It’s not something I would have done,” Senior said, “had I been consulted.”

“This damn mountain was on the wrong damn side of the planet,” Chuckles said with ill grace. “We couldn’t contact you!”

The Republic claimed all of Olympus Mons, a single mountain the size of the state of New Mexico. Bensonville was on the eastern rim.

“Mere common sense would suggest that it was unnecessary,” Senior said. “Nevertheless, now we have to deal with the consequences.” Senior looked at the rest of the group.

“The only consequence I see is that we picked up two additional people to ransom,” Bam Bam said. “The Jap and the officer.”

“I thought Chop Suey Man was a Chink?” Tony Lords said.

“Very adamant that he doesn’t like chop suey,” Bam Bam said. “Also very handy with reactor controls.”

“What was the problem with the reactor?” Rachel asked.

“The main control panel was locked out,” Bam Bam said. “The Rescue dude was able to physically jumper around it.”

“So the Price is fully operational?” Senior asked.

“We’ll need to reload the reactor control software for full functionality,” Bam Bam said, “but the current jury-rig will work for now.”

“Miss Storey, any word on our hostages yet?” Chuckles asked.

“I won’t be able to get started on that until later,” Rachel said. Since when did I become “Miss Storey”? You don’t call me that when you’re trying to get into my pants.

“Any advance thoughts?” Senior asked.

“The Price’s crew is worth some money,” Rachel said. “Not as much as the Master and Engineer would have been. Of course, now that the crew knows Brenda was in on it we can’t ransom her. I don’t know how much we can get for the Rescuemen.”

“Not much, I suspect,” Senior said. “That organization is almost as poor as we are. Miss Lords, where do we stand on locating the special cargo?”

“Locklin was supposed to be the computer guru,” Bam Bam said.

Locklin Richards had been in the first shuttle, the one that had actually gotten people inside the Rescue ship. Since the news reports weren’t talking about prisoners, he was assumed to be dead. Rachel felt a catch in her throat. They’d been more than friends, even though Locklin refused to leave his wife.

“Yes, and we mourn for him,” Senior said. “So what is Plan B?”

“A copy of the ship’s manifest was kept on the Master’s computer,” Bam Bam said. “I brought the box down with me. We’ll have to find somebody else to crack the encryption.”

“Any other good news?” Senior asked sarcastically. He didn’t wait long for an answer, continuing, “Well, we all have work to do. Any questions?”

There were none, so Chuckles adjourned the meeting.


It could be worse, Rachel thought, walking out of the Benson residence after the meeting. She had seen worse – after the Witchcraft fiasco which had gotten her stuck here in the first damn place. She shuddered, remembering the rage in one of the ex-hostage’s eyes as he came at her with his homemade knife. Still, Rachel couldn’t shake the fear that getting Space Rescue so directly involved in this was a mistake.

The dark and drab streets of Bensonville didn’t help her mood as Rachel walked home. Rachel had grown up on Mars’ Utopia region, where habs were built out of light-colored sandstone. Her home hab had gone an extra step, and painted the ceilings light blue. The effect was light and airy.

Here on Olympus, they built hab spaces out of cut volcanic rock. The floor, the walls, and the roof, three levels above them were all of dark volcanic rock, cut by lasers. Even if all the overhead lights had been on, and they weren’t (every other one was off as an economy measure) the hab just sucked light.

You’d think two A shares would be worth something. Or maybe not.

Under “Somali Rules,” Charles Senior, as mayor of Bensonville, got ten percent of the ransom off the top for “anchoring rights.” The investors usually got thirty percent. But since the investors seemed more interested in “the special cargo” then the ship, the investor cut was only fifteen percent.

People taking less risk, like those guarding the ship in orbit, were “B” shareholders, and got a hundred thousand dollars each, but no vote. There were also some people, like those guarding the prisoners in the town, who got paid on a straight daily rate.

Each pirate part of the actual attack got an “A” share, which was an equal cut of the money left over after everybody else got paid. Skilled pirates, like Rachel who were qualified to command their mother ship, got an additional “A” share.

Let’s hope that there’s something left for the “A” people, Rachel thought as she arrived at her house. Not surprisingly, the front door to her store/house was unlocked. Typical Minty, Rachel thought, feeling a flash of irritation at her younger sister. Although an unlocked door would only be a problem if anybody actually wanted anything from her store.

Rachel entered and closed the door behind her, locking it by feel. The lights were off, and the switch was on the far wall, but enough light was spilling through the open door to the family room in back for her to see.

She could feel the unevenness of the floor through her soft-soled deck shoes as she walked across the room. This part of the town was below grade, and the floor was cut lava bedrock. The front half of the room was partitioned into several smaller spaces, the better to showcase the prints and decorative wall sculptures. Rachel had used some of her inventory of tapestries and curtains for that purpose. They won’t buy it if they can’t see it.

Not that anybody was buying much.

A long set of curtains, these not for sale and half-open, hung from the ceiling, dividing the room in half. A few boxes with her remaining inventory was behind the main curtain.

Minty was sitting in her usual place, sprawled in front of the video unit, her long and straight black hair the only thing visible from behind. A wine glass, half-empty, sat on the coffee table. She’d picked up drinking from their uncle. Unlike their uncle, she seemed to be able to drink socially.

“I don’t suppose you found time to get dinner,” Minty said, not looking up from the ballgame playing on the video.

“You suppose correctly,” Rachel replied. “We got anything to eat?”

“Spaghetti in the fridge, and a bottle of so-so Chianti on the counter.”

Rachel walked to the kitchen, pausing to kick off her shoes.

“Don’t leave those shoes out,” Minty said, glancing at her from the corner of his eye.

“I thought I was the older sister,” Rachel said.

“Yeah, but I have to clean up after you.”

You’re nothing if not predictable, Minty, Rachel thought as she warmed up a plate of spaghetti. The girl turned eight and a half Martian years, or Mears, old next month. It was sixteen standard years, but the girl acted as if she was twice her real age.

“Any messages?” Rachel asked from the kitchen, shouting over the noise from the microwave.

“No customer calls, if that’s what you mean.”

Rachel stifled a curse. The hicks in this jerkwater town wouldn’t know good art if it bit them on the ass.

The microwave beeped, and Rachel took out her plate. She walked into the living room.

“Tell me you weren’t running around out dressed like that,” Rachel said. Her sister was lounging on the couch, wearing a much-too-small cropped T-shirt and her dark hair, flowing loose, was more accent then concealment for the pink leather collar she was wearing. A half-empty glass of wine sat in front of her.

“Just school,” Minty said.

“My God,” Rachel said. “And where in the hell did you get that pink collar?”

“Ordered it from Bradbury. I think it’s cute. A little big for me, but cute.”

Rachel shook her head and resisted the urge to point out that she could see Minty’s underwear, visible through the oh-so-stylish cutouts in her pants. At least she’s wearing underwear. It wasn’t like the other girls in this town dressed like sluts. Well, except for Bam Bam. But Bam Bam’s look was more white trash, while Minty’s seemed to be stripper chic.

Rachel put her stuff on the coffee table and plopped down on the floor in front of it.

“When you’re an adult, you can wear whatever you want, Arminta Ann Storey. In the meantime, put some clothes on when you go to school.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Minty replied.

“I’m serious,” Rachel said, irritation creeping into her voice. “Your alligator mouth is going to get your hummingbird ass in trouble.”

A look of rebellion flashed across Minty’s face, followed by her blank “whatever” look.

It’s like talking to a stone wall. Rachel took a sip of the wine. “What’s wrong with this wine?”

“It’s too complicated to explain.” Minty slid a coaster at her, even though the table was stone-topped and wouldn’t stain. “Did you see the news?”


Minty sat up on the couch. “Space Rescue ship got jumped by pirates. Four pirates dead, plus the Rescue captain.” She turned off the video. “You?”

“Me what?”

“You, Ms. Dread Pirate Storey.”

Rachel ate a forkful of spaghetti, debating if that was some movie line she was supposed to appreciate. I wonder how much she knows?

“Not sure I know what you’re talking about,” Rachel said after she swallowed.

“Jennifer Rachel Storey,” Minty said, using Rachel’s despised first name, “this is entirely too small a town to hide shit like that.”

“I was on a business trip up to Phobos to buy art.”

Minty smirked. “Nice try. You launched when Phobos was on the wrong side of the planet.”

“Since when did you take up the study of orbital mechanics?”

“The name Randall Cranston mean anything to you?”

Christ Jesus. What doesn’t she know?

“It’s none of your business.”

“You’re my sister, Rachel,” Minty said. “Of course it’s my business.”

You’re not tough enough to handle it, kid. “Fine. Why don’t you tell me what you think you know?”

“Chuckles and his merry band just ’jacked a cargo ship. Conveniently one that Bam Bam was crewing. Y’all wanted to take the ship before they posted double watches, so you had to buy or steal something with range. The only person I know in this one-airlock town who’s qualified to operate a deep spacer is you. How am I doing?”

Dead on the money. “Go on.”

“Except something went wrong when the merry band got on board. Probably one of them got excited and accidentally shot somebody important.”

Actually, if Tony Lords shot somebody, they needed to be shot.

“What I don’t know is whose idea it was to call for a tow,” Minty said.

“Charles thought of that,” Rachel said. “He figured to get two ships.”

“That’s the first honest thing you’ve said to me in a week.” Minty took a sip of her wine. “So what’s your involvement in this?”

“Hired ship driver, nothing more.”

Minty frowned mockingly. “Please don’t lie to me. I know about Windy City and Odyssey.”

Those were two other ships Rachel had had a hand in stealing, the first one almost two mears or four standard years ago. “I don’t know what you think you know, young miss…”

“I read the Interpol report,” Minty said. “And that interview Janet what’s-her-face gave.”

“Pilgrim. And don’t believe everything you read.”

“So you’re telling me that Charles Benson Junior, the guy you call the dumbest man in town, came up with an idea to steal a ship for ransom all on his own? And that a woman who just happened to be involved in three piracies, and is losing her shirt trying to sell frou-frou art to a bunch of bigots, didn’t put him up to it?”

“Actually it was his dad’s idea.” Which had the advantage of being true. “Then I got asked to help,” which was also true. Rachel took a sip of her wine. “Your point?”

“My point is this – I want in.”

“Why in the world would you want ‘in’?”

“Because if this thing goes sideways, which it’s already starting to, I’ll be in just as much trouble as you are.”

“It won’t go sideways,” Rachel said.

“Did you say that before or after the crew revolt on Witchcraft?”

Rachel sputtered for an instant. Witchcraft wasn’t in any Interpol report, at least not under Rachel’s name, and deliberately so.

“Don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Space ship Witchcraft,” Minty said. “Attacked about a mear ago by you and some African mercs. What happened – somebody fall asleep?”

No, Rachel thought, the guy guarding the hostages was awake when he got shanked, right at the start of the riot. Good thing – his screams gave me time to escape.

But since the crew took the ship back, Rachel didn’t get paid for that gig. Her cuts from the other two ships had been small – and what hadn’t been spent was tied up in inventory nobody in this shit town wanted to buy.

“I don’t know what you think you know…”

“Jean-Paul Thierry ring a bell?”

Second Mate on the Witchcraft. “Should it?”

“He visited our cousin Eunice last month. Said he was an old friend of yours.”

Jean-Paul and the dead captain of the Witchcraft had been lovers. He’d blamed Rachel for the captain’s death. Jean-Paul had also led the crew riot which recaptured his ship.

“Yes, I was involved in the attack on the Witchcraft.”

Minty smiled triumphantly. “Thank you for telling me the truth. Now, what exactly is your role with the Price?”

“You familiar with Somali Rules?”

“Yes. How many “A” shares do you have?”

“Two for skippering the Cranston. I’m also supposed to handle the ransom negotiations.”

“I hear you have a computer problem?”

“Just exactly how do you know that?”

Minty smiled. “Let’s just say some of your friends are talkative.”

So much for secrecy. “We do.”

“I can fix it. For a “B” share.”

“Senior said he’s paying cash.”

“I’m sure I can find other ways to earn my share.”

“Not my call.”

“Don’t you get to bring a friend under Somali Rules?”

Actually, you did. And a hundred grand extra would be helpful. Rachel looked at her sister. It’s not like she’d be at risk trying to hack a computer. Besides, I can keep an eye on her.

“I’ll put your name up,” Rachel said. Something wicked came over her. “But you will need to do more than crack a computer. We need proof of life.”


Rachel smiled evilly. “Nobody pays for dead bodies, dear. I thought you knew that. We need proof that the crew is still alive.”


“Yes.” Rachel took a bite of her spaghetti. “All of them. Tonight.”

“Tonight? But it’s late!”

“And Port Lowell is eight hours ahead of us. We need something on their screens ASAP.” Rachel smiled. “You said you wanted in.”

“I guess so,” Minty said.

“Go get some paper.”

“What am I, your maid?”

“It’s not for me,” Rachel said with a grin. “It’s for you. You need to take notes.”

Minty got up from the couch. “Aye aye, Miss Captain Ma’am,” she said, walking away.

There were guards at the prison, Rachel thought, so Minty wouldn’t be in any real danger, but maybe getting barked at by a pissed-off Mexican would take some of the wind out of her sails.

“That’s more like it,” Rachel said to her sister’s back.

Minty returned a minute later, notepad in hand.

“We’re keeping them at Joe’s on Second, yes?”


“Okay,” Minty said, pen in hand. “Proceed, oh font of wisdom.”

Chapter 8

Friday, 31 Virgo Year 52 09:45 local (March 2, 2074, 10:45 GMT)

Volunteer Space Rescue Service Headquarters, Port Lowell, Mars

Jack walked down the hallway at Rescue Base Port Lowell, headquarters for the Service. He’d docked the Volodka at Stickney Base, and they’d offloaded the wounded. Lieutenant Ortega was still at Phobos General Hospital, too bad off to move, while they’d sent Lewis down to the planet. Now, Captain Edwin Newindale, commander and senior officer of the Volunteer Space Rescue Service, his office at the end of the hallway, wanted to see Jack “post haste.”

The hallway ended at a real wood door, one of the few he’d seen since leaving Earth as a kid. It was expensive, shipping wood out to Mars. Jack walked in, his first visit to the office, and found himself facing a wooden desk, manned by a pale young man.

“Midshipman Williams of the Volodka reporting,” Jack said.

“I’ll tell the Flag Officer that you’re here,” the orderly said, his face an impassive mask. “Please have a seat, sir.” The man’s dark blue dress uniform was impeccable. Jack was glad he’d at least had time to shave. His khaki work uniform was wrinkled, and looked like he’d slept in it.

Not that he’d gotten any sleep. He sat down in an overstuffed armchair as the orderly slipped into Captain Newindale’s office. An antique mechanical clock sitting on a wooden cabinet ticked, the only sound in the room. Jack looked around, trying to stay awake. Wood came from Earth, and if half the furnishings here were real wood, the place must have cost a fortune.

Captain Chen should be making this report, Jack thought, an image of the Captain’s dead body flashing unbidden into his mind. Or Lieutenant Ortega. Fencl had just barely been able to prevent her from bleeding out, and Carla was still in critical condition at Phobos hospital, too weak to move down to the planet. With Peter Grant a captive on the Price, that left Jack in command.

“Midshipman?” The orderly said, holding the door to the inner office open. “He will see you now.”

Jack stood up and followed the orderly into Captain Newindale’s office. The orderly stopped in front of Newindale’s desk, a massive wooden monstrosity which the cost of shipping from Earth alone must have been more then Jack’s salary, came to attention and said, “Senior officer, VRSS Volodka, Sir.”

“Midshipman Jack Williams, reporting as ordered, Sir,” Jack said, standing at attention to the orderly’s right.

“Thank you, Petty Officer,” Newindale said, not looking up from his paperwork. “That will be all.”

The orderly turned smartly and marched out of the office, closing the door behind him.

“How is Lieutenant Ortega,” Newindale said, looking up from his paperwork.

“Weak, sir. The docs think she’ll make it.”

“Your after-action report is, shall we say, spare,” Newindale said, gesturing at the printout on his desk. It was one of the few things on the massive dark wood surface, looking almost forlorn. “For instance, who exactly gave the order to commence firing?”

“Sir?” It wasn’t the question he was expecting.

Newindale grimaced. “Who gave the order to open fire?”

“Nobody, sir.”


“Sir, there was no order to commence firing. The pirates shot their way onboard and we shot back.”

Newindale frowned. “Was there any attempt to negotiate?”

“Negotiate, sir? With whom?”

“With the so-called pirates.”

Jack blinked, and struggled to clear his eyes. “So-called, sir?”

“I grant you, Midshipman,” Newindale said, “that these individuals acted very aggressively. However, I’m not aware of any decision to militarize Martian space. Especially not by the Space Rescue service.”

Jack’s ears started to buzz, and he felt suddenly hot. “Who the hell said anything about ‘militarize’? We went out on a rescue call, and got jumped. I lost three good people, and two more are in the hospital. We were fighting for our lives, and you want to know who told us to ‘open fire’?”

“Three? How do you count that?”

“The captain, Lieutenant Grant and Able Nomura.” Jack deliberately left off the “sir.”

“Why would they kill Grant and Nomura?”

“They’re pirates?”

Newindale scowled at Jack. “Son, they needed us for something, don’t you think?”

Huh? “Not sure I’m following.”

Newindale looked like he’d bitten something sour, then his face softened. “When was the last time you got some sleep?”

“I got a bit in the waiting room at Stickney General,” Jack said.

“Sit down, son, before you drop.” As Jack did so, Newindale said, “Want some coffee?”

“No thanks,” Jack said, adding, “sir.”

“The mayday call had to be a trick,” Newindale said. “If the ship was operational, they wouldn’t have called attention to themselves.”

True, Jack thought. “What does that have to do with Grant?”

“My guess is that they made him fix whatever the problem was in exchange for his life. And Nomura’s.”

“So he’s a hostage.”


“Have they asked for a ransom?”

“Not yet,” Newindale said. “Not that I intend to pay one. It would encourage further acts like this.”

“Sir, it’s not like these pirates are just going to hand them over.”

“I intend to resolve this matter peacefully. There’s been gunplay enough in this matter.” Newindale reached for a printout. “Now let’s flesh out this after-action report.”


At the end of their conversation, the fact that Jack had ordered the Volodka RTB without Grant aboard came up.

“It’s my fault,” Jack said. “Chief Kelly wanted to go back for them.”

“Would Tony, I mean Captain Chen, have let Kelly do that?” Newindale asked.

Jack was surprised by the question. “I don’t know,” he finally said.

“Trust me, he wouldn’t.”

“If you say so, sir.”

Newindale sighed again. “Tony and I go back a ways. He is, or rather, was, an idealist. But not stupid. You did the best you could.”

“Thank you, sir,” Jack said. His mouth felt like ashes. “Anything else?”

“No, that will be all.”

Jack stood up and walked out. He still didn’t feel better about his decision. Peter Grant and Alan Nomura were in some hellhole, and Jack had had a chance to prevent that. In Captain Newindale’s outer office, he stopped the orderly and pointed at the inner office. “If he asks, I’m on a notification call.”

“Notifying whom, sir?”

“Grant’s girlfriend.” Jack pulled out his PDA and fumbled for an address. “Any idea where 1749 North Harding would be?”

“No, but let me send a a map to your PDA,” the orderly replied.

I hear they’ve got something called Gee Pee Ess on Earth, and you don’t need maps.

“Thanks,” Jack said, after the orderly finished sending him the app. “I’ll be back later, and spend the day in the ship’s office.” There was a shitload of paperwork awaiting him.

“Very good, sir,” the orderly said. “If I may, you did well out there.”

“Thanks,” Jack said, feeling his face blush. If I did better I wouldn’t be helping to plan a funeral.


1749 North Harding proved to be a blank brick wall with a large vehicle door, open. A sign above the door proclaimed the place “Methods and Materials.” Jack walked in, and found a small gray-haired man pushing a pallet-jack.

“Know where Janet Pilgrim is?” Jack asked.

“Weld shop – in back,” the man said, gesturing vaguely.

Jack walked off in the direction indicated, and found Janet standing next to a workbench looking at a plumber’s nightmare of pipes and valves with a young man, short and wiry, about Jack’s age. As Jack approached, the man spit into a paper cup in his hand.

“I told Mfume he’d have his manifold on Friday,” the man said, “and that’s tomorrow.”

“Actually, I need to talk to Janet,” Jack said.

She turned and looked at him, a welding rod in her hand. “What brings you out here?” She asked. Her voice sounded tight.

“You see the news last night?” Jack asked.

“No.” She gestured at the manifold. “It’s a rush job.”

“We got jumped by pirates,” Jack said.


“They got Peter.”

“You mean they killed Peter,” she said. There wasn’t a trace of emotion in her voice.

“We don’t think he’s dead,” Jack said. “The pirates needed him to fix something, we think.”

“You think,” she said.

Jack was expecting her to show some emotion. This was like talking to a robot. “We got called out on a mayday. When we got there the ship was cold iron and late for insertion.”

“So you think he got them running?”

“Last track showed them under power.”

“Take the day off,” the man said. “I’ll finish this.”

“Thanks Marty,” Janet said, “but I got it.” She looked at Jack, her eyes steely. “Anything else?”

“Not that I can think of,” Jack said. “I’ll call when we know more.”

“If you want to,” Janet said. She dropped her welding hood down over her face. “Watch your eyes.”

“Let me buy you a cup of coffee,” the man said to Jack.

“Sure,” Jack said. “You are?”

“Marty Mackovic. I own the shop. Watch your eyes."

Jack turned his back as the welder fired up. The stink of burning metal filled the air, and even with his back turned, the flashes of light from the arc bounced around the shop.

The man put his hand on Jack’s shoulder and pointed him towards a metal open staircase. They walked up and into a sparsely-furnished office. The man walked over to a small coffeemaker, which had been white once.

“What do you take?”

“Just black, Mr. Mackovic.”

“Call me Marty,” he said. “Have a seat.”

Jack looked around. Practically every surface in the office was covered with piles of various paper and manuals, mostly grease-stained. Jack found a guest chair with a ripped cushion and sat down, wondering why they still used paper printouts

“We do a lot of custom work,” Earl said, as if reading Jack’s mind about the printouts. “It’s easier to hand a guy a paper and say ‘make this.’”

Jack nodded, as Marty handed him a black mug, steam rolling off of the top. Jack took a sip of his coffee and winced. It had been on the burner too long and tasted like ass.

“So Space Rescue is going to buy their people back?” Marty said, talking around what had to be a wad of tobacco in his mouth.

“I guess so,” Jack replied. “We haven’t been contacted yet.”

“They carry insurance? Space Rescue, I mean.”

“I have no idea.”

“I ask,” Marty said, pushing some papers aside to perch on a countertop, “because they’re usually broke.” He pointed with his chin out the door. “They owe me for material on that manifold. Most places won’t do work for them unless it’s cash in advance.”

“So why do work fo