Main The Night Watch (The Pirates Trilogy Book 3)

The Night Watch (The Pirates Trilogy Book 3)

,
Year:
2018
Language:
english
ISBN:
B07CVLGSCN
File:
EPUB, 405 KB
Download (epub, 405 KB)
 
You can write a book review and share your experiences. Other readers will always be interested in your opinion of the books you've read. Whether you've loved the book or not, if you give your honest and detailed thoughts then people will find new books that are right for them.
The Night Watch


by Chris Gerrib


Copyright 2016 Chris Gerrib





Books by Chris Gerrib





The Pirates Trilogy


The Mars Run

Pirates of Mars

The Night Watch





Prologue


Bulk Cargo Ship Lisco Gloria, Mars Orbit


Will Saldana wrinkled his nose. “Why oh why did they have to ‘jack a ship full of coffee,” he asked. Since he was alone in the zero-G centerline passageway of the spaceship Lisco Gloria, there was no answer forthcoming. “I should have stayed home,” he said, pulling himself aft with one hand while trying to keep the semi-auto pistol in the pocket of his coveralls with the other. Fortunately the pistol was attached by a string to a belt-loop, so no matter what he wasn’t going to lose it.

He contemplated “home” as he continued aft. He’d been born on Mars, and spent most of his ten Martian years or Mears living in a small station in the Libya Montes region of Mars. It was the most boring place possible, so when a trade convoy had driven by he’d lit out with them.

“That was a mistake,” he said, addressing one of the many equipment panels he was supposed to be checking. Why they needed to be checked every hour, including the middle of the night, was beyond him. But he was getting paid.

“Money is good,” he said. The handheld radio in his other pocket beeped, and he fished it out. “Yeah,” he said, keying the mike.

“You’re late,” came a woman’s voice from the device. The again was unspoken.

“You got a hot date?” Will asked. He wasn’t wearing anything under his coveralls, and thinking of his eminently fuckable boss was starting to create a reaction.

“Down, boy,” she said, as if she could see him. “Report every thirty minutes means report every thirty minutes, not whenever you feel like it.”

“Fine, fine, keep your shirt on.” Actually, take it off please. “I’m at the number two HVAC panel and nothing to report.”

“Copy, check back in thirty, please.”

“Yes, boss.”

Will continued on his rounds. He’d ran out of money in New Hue City, which was especially problematic because most of the locals ; spoke Vietnamese and he didn’t. Fortunately he hooked up with the pirates, who were looking for a crew to guard whatever ship they took. Will, desperate, signed up. He ate most of the advance, keeping just enough to get his nine-millimeter pistol out of hock.

“But why, oh why, did they have to ‘jack a coffee-boat,” he said aloud, hoping talking would keep him awake. Martians, or at least those who actually liked coffee and had money to burn, would pay extra for Earth coffee, and coffee had to be shipped in pressurized cargo holds. Thus, the Lisco Gloria, a ship that reeked of coffee.

He came to the end of his round, a zero-G corridor that led to an external cargo airlock. He pulled himself into the corridor, intending just to eyeball the airlock from the junction as opposed to going all the way down to the lock.

“Who are you?” Will asked, startled. There was a man in a spacesuit about two meters down the corridor from the junction. His suit helmet was open, revealing a full salt-and-pepper beard.

“Easy, kid,” the man said, his gravelly voice quiet. He looked and sounded like somebody’s grandfather. The gun in the man’s hands did not fit with the grandfatherly image. “Just stay cool and nobody will get hurt.”

“Look, man,” Will said, his mouth suddenly dry. “I gotta check in, and if I don’t...”

“Your next check in isn’t due for half an hour,” the man said.

A blower kicked on, and Will’s body started to twist in the sudden breeze. He felt his gun slide out of his pocket, and reflexively reached for it.

“No!” the other man said.

“I’m cool!” Will shouted, thrusting his other hand toward the man. This caused Will to twist some more and the gun to fall completely out.

There were two pops, each as loud as a handclap, and Will felt a burning pain in his chest. His eyes suddenly wouldn’t focus, and he was spun in a different direction. He looked down the corridor and saw the old man’s gun flash, producing a muted clap. Will screamed as something hot drove into his shoulder.

The gun spun away from his suddenly nerveless hand, dangling at the end of the string. The room was getting dark, and Will couldn’t catch his breath. He tried to talk, but couldn’t get any words out.

“Nice shooting, Nick,” Will heard somebody say.

“Kid gave me no choice,” the old man said, his voice sounding distant. “One pirate down, Junction Alpha secured.”

Will closed his eyes. The last thing he heard was the old man saying “too late for a medic.”





Chapter 1


Boxtown, Mars


There were a lot of places on Mars where it was perfectly safe to get drunk, Minty thought. Mos Eiseley's Cantina, self-proclaimed home of “the best live music on Mars,” in the city of Boxtown was not one of those places.

“Wine okay?” The barkeep asked.

Minty looked away from the three drunks – Earthlings, by the way they walked and fresh off the boat judging by their just-out-of-a-space-can nearsighted squinting – and glanced at the battered face of the barman. The red chilled grape-flavored Kool-Aid he served her did have alcohol in it, so it technically was wine.

“Yes,” she said, glancing back at the drunks. One of them, a tall black dude, looked familiar, but Minty couldn’t place him. She glanced back at the barman to see him holding up the nearly empty bottle.

“Top off on the house?” the barman asked.

Minty shrugged a why not and he poured a small measure, maybe a quarter of a regular pour, into her glass.

“Not many customers drink it,” he said, his gravelly voice nearly fading out over the bar noise. “It goes bad.”

“Got it,” Minty said, favoring him with a smile. She tossed a trio of dollar coins on the slightly-greasy metal bar. “Keep the change.”

He scooped up the coins and clicked one against the bar in thanks as he stepped away. The video screen over the bar transitioned from a variety show to a news update. Minty took a sip of her wine.

It was too loud in the bar to hear the audio, but closed-captioning was on, allowing her to follow along. The round-faced announcer was replaced by a still shot of the Lisco Gloria, apparently a file shot taken in Earth orbit.

“Space Rescue pulled off another one, those fucks,” the man to her left at the bar said.

I really shouldn’t tell him I’m working for them, should I, she thought even if it’s not by choice. Pirates were popular in Boxtown, as were just about any other kind of outlaw. The file shot was replaced by a head-and-shoulder shot of a white man with red hair. Boy, really, barely out of his teens. My age. The screen crawl gave his name, and the closed-captioning told her that he’d been killed by Space Rescue during the “rescue” of the ship and crew.

Minty felt her eyes water. That could have been me, on the TV. It had been several of her friends, killed in the re-taking of the Charles S. Price. And now I’m stuck in this shithole playing spy for people who’d just as soon see me dead.

She walked over to a two-meter-high brick wall which served to screen the entrance to the bathrooms from the main bar area. He was just a kid, she thought, leaning against the wall. Broke and bored, and now he’s dead. She composed herself with an effort and started to look for her contact.

Contact, Minty thought with a wry smile. More like a gossipy drunk. She glanced to her left, looking down the long end of the rectangular bar area, where a band was setting up. Supposedly they were pretty good, even if they’d all learned their musical skills in various US prisons.

Not that having been a prisoner was actually a handicap in Boxtown, she thought. Most of the residents of Boxtown were ex-prisoners, “voluntarily” deported under various anti-criminal programs. Many of the old-timers, or so she’d been told, had been offered, “Mars or the needle” – lethal injection – back on Earth.

An involuntary shiver went up her spine, despite the warmth of the bar. I’m a prisoner here too, she thought. And if I don’t get out I’ll die here.

“Looking for somebody?” a man asked, sliding up to her right side. He was short enough that she was able to look down at his bald spot.

“No, just waiting for the band,” Minty replied.

“Well, I got music at my place,” he said, his breath bringing a whiff of tobacco and cheap mint. “And cash.”

By local standards, it was actually a polite pickup line, as women were somewhat scarce in Boxtown. “I’m off tonight,” Minty said, letting him assume she was for sale. Most local women turned tricks at least occasionally.

“I’m not kidding about the cash,” the man said.

She eased back the flap of her blazer, and let her hand rest on the butt of the small satin-finish automatic concealed there. “It’s my night off,” she said. “Try me tomorrow.”

“No need to get pushy about it,” the man said, looking at her gun and sliding away.

She looked up to see one of the Earthling drunks fall out of his chair with a crash. On the way down, the drunk, a tall man with medium-brown skin and a short Afro, managed to pull a pitcher of beer down with him. The beer went everywhere, mostly on the drunk, but some of it on the pants leg of a short and stocky olive-skinned man at the next table.

The olive-skinned man, who was sitting with a pair of nearly naked women, jumped up and said something in a language Minty didn’t understand. The angry tone, however, came through loud and clear.

The black guy hauled himself unsteadily to his feet, and started to apologize profusely. One of the women at his table, a brunette in a fishnet top, said something in what appeared to be the man’s language. Whatever she said worked, and the man sat back down. Helping that along was the black guy’s decision to buy the man a drink.

Minty took a sip of wine and stole a glance at her watch. Her contact was late. She glanced over at the band, which appeared almost ready to go. I don’t want to have to shout over the damn band.

The black Earthling, the one who’d doused himself with a pitcher of beer, walked past her, heading to the men’s room, leaving a wet trail behind. His tablemates started to take notice of the girls. Considering Fishnet wasn’t wearing a bra and her dark-skinned companion’s T-shirt stopped an inch below her nipples, Minty was surprised it had taken that long.

Things could be worse. I could be turning tricks for my air tax. She grimaced. Taking the lesser of two evils is what got me stuck in this shithole.

Just as the band started playing the two women walked over to the Earthlings’ table. Minty took another sip of her wine. Now that it had warmed up, it had gone from swill to barely tolerable. Surely even an Earthling can see that those girls charge by the hour, and that dude’s the collection agent.

The band finished its first song and the bandmaster started talking, presumably some kind of introduction. In the loud brick-walled room, it was almost impossible to make sense of what he was saying, especially over the din of conversation.

One of the Earthlings, a squat blonde with thinning hair, pulled Fishnet onto his lap, a move that earned him a half-hearted slap from the girl. The band started playing again, an instrumental version of a popular song of a few years back. Minty started tapping her toe in time with the music. They are pretty good.

As the song hit the first chorus, the olive-skinned man got up and tapped Blondie on the shoulder. At first the tap was fairly polite, but as Blondie continued to ignore him, it became more insistent. By the second chorus, Olive-skin dispensed with the tapping and grabbed the drunk firmly by the arm, hauling him up out of the chair and dumping Fishnet on her ass.

“Free sample is over,” Olive-skin barked, “now your meter is running!”

Minty started to slide to her right and let her hand hover near her gun. There was a side door by the bar that led outside, and outside was the best place to be when a bar fight broke out.

Minty had made it about a step when Blondie tried to smash his glass into the face of the pimp while kicking with his knee. The pimp, who was much closer to sober, blocked both blows, but had to let go of Blondie to do so.

Blondie’s companion came around the table waving a chair. The olive-skinned pimp went down on one knee and thrust up with his left fist into the gut of the man with the chair. The man folded up with a grunt audible over the band, then rolled over and fell off to the side.

The pimp stood up just as Blondie pulled out a knife from his back pocket. Blondie screamed incoherently and charged, while the pimp calmly pulled out his own knife. In one smooth motion, the pimp blocked Blondie’s thrust with his free hand and sliced the Earthling’s throat.

The man on the floor, apparently anesthetized from the booze, had scrambled to his feet and tried to wrap the pimp in a bearhug. The pimp easily slipped the attempt, and knifed the Earthling in the chest.

Minty took another step to her right and ran into the black Earthling coming out from the bar. The band, she noticed, had suddenly stopped mid-song.

“You son-of-a-bitch!” he screamed, and made to charge the pimp.

Without even thinking about it, Minty shouldered the man into the bar. “You can’t help them!” She hissed urgently at the Earthling.

“Come on, you pendejo,” the pimp shouted in the silent bar. “I’ll slice you like I did your amigos cerdos.”

The distinctive sound of a shotgun racking a round broke the silence. “There’s been slicing enough!” the barkeep shouted.

The pimp pointed at the Earthling next to Minty. “Fuck you!”

“Enough!” From the barkeep. “That was a fair fight, but he’s done you no harm.”

“Fair fight!” the black man shouted, nearly in Minty’s ear.

“The blond guy pulled a knife,” Minty said, wondering why she’d bothered to intervene. “It was fists before.”

“I done called the patrol,” the barkeep said, “so everybody stay cool.”

The dude with the knife tossed it contemptuously on the table and walked away under the watchful eye of a stick-carrying bouncer. Another bouncer checked the injured men, and shouted “One of them’s still alive!”

Minty let go of the black guy, who ran to the side of the guy with the chest wound. She took a sip of her wine, noting that she hadn’t spilled a drop.

Jesus Christ. One of these days I’ll be bleeding on the floor somewhere.

###



The locals certainly know how to handle knifefights, Minty thought, finishing her wine. It came from lots of practice. The surviving Earthling had been taken off to what passed for a hospital in town, accompanied by his shipmate. The other body had been removed, leaving the pimp, working under the watchful eye of one of the local patrolman, to finish mopping the blood up from the floor. It was his only punishment.

She glanced at her watch. Her contact was late, and considering how jumpy the man was, the patrol cart parked outside would be enough to scare him away. She unlimbered from her perch along the wall and headed out, depositing the empty wineglass on the bar as she left.

The bar opened up onto a long “street,” ten meters wide and paved irregularly with stone and broken brick. The street was lined with buildings forming two solid walls. The wall of buildings on her side of the street was made of cut stone, and inlet with doors and windows of various businesses. It was night, so most of the retail was closed, graffitied steel shutters closed over the windows.

Opposite her the wall was metal, composed of various “boxes” or metal shipping containers and parts thereof, stacked in rows. That side of the street was mostly residential, and was typical of the architecture that gave Boxtown its name. The roof of the street was composed of slabs of concrete, painted white to prevent the concrete from slowly sucking the oxygen up, and illuminated by LED lamps strung from wires. The whole thing was held down by massive piles of dirt dumped on top. It was cheap and ugly, but the system kept air in and radiation and cold out.

She turned right and walked by the small, open-sided four-seat electric police cart. It was occupied by a rough-looking man with a fairly fresh facial scar and large badge, who nodded at her as she walked by. About fifty meters down the street, she came to a side corridor, about five meters wide, leading into an airlock.

The airlock was manned by a teenager in a dingy yellow Volunteer Pressure Association T-shirt, standing by the door controls. “In or out, ma’am,” he said. “Need to set Yoke.”

Yoke, or the closing of selected pressure doors to help contain fire or blowouts, was supposed to have been set hours ago, Minty thought. Typical for Boxtown – late and half-assed. “Out,” she replied, walking through the airlock and into a large dome, its glass roof invisible in the dark. The steel support beams were only detectable when one of them blocked a star. As she walked, the large metal doors behind her started to lower, clanking and screeching as they did.

Once inside the dome, she followed a gravel path which was illuminated by small lights set on thin metal posts about a meter high. The path was flanked by fields planted with crops, first corn and beans, then, in the center of the dome, a small apple orchard. The path she was walking on curved around the orchard, where she picked up another path, between rows of cabbages planted on the ground and in long planter shelves stacked above.

At the end of the path, she came to another airlock, the twin of the one she’d entered through. Yoke had been set and so the main vehicle-sized door was down and sealed, forcing her to open and go through the small man-sized door on the side.

She stepped through into the unimaginatively-named Third Street, a small residential area composed of a warren of steel shipping containers and brick buildings.

“How was the band?” a man’s voice asked, coming from a shadow formed by the overhang of a shipping container.

“Good,” Minty said, walking towards her contact, her hand reflexively on her gun. She was heading home, and did not at all like the idea of somebody waiting for her on the way. “Wanna step out into the light?”

“No,” the man said.

Minty stopped in front of him, recognizing the voice. He was her contact. “You wanted to talk to me,” she said.

“Was Sam playing?”

“I don’t know.”

“He’s the sax man.”

“There was a guy playing sax. Sounded good to me.”

“That would be Sam,” her contact said. “We were friends. Once.”

The way her contact said it, Minty thought that they were much more than friends. “Surely you weren’t just trying to scam me out of a cover charge?”

“No, I wouldn’t do that,” he said unconvincingly. “So what do you know about the Manifest Destiny Movement?”

Those were the assholes that got my friends killed. She kept her face flat. Also the people responsible for me being Space Rescue’s bitch. “Not much. Why?”

“One of the Breslin boys is here.”

That name did ring a bell. “Who’s he?”

“One of the big cheeses.”

“Okay, he’s on Mars. So what?”

“Not just ‘on Mars.’ He’s in town. Staying at the Ritz.”

The Ritz was the nicest place in town. Had nothing to do with the chain back on Earth, but then Boxtown didn’t answer to Earth. “So?”

“So, I figured you might want to know.”

Besides being a personal thing, the Manifest Destiny Movement was on her watch list. “You said, ‘one of the Breslins’ is here. Which one?”

She could just see her contact’s shrug in the shadows. “Don’t know. It’s either Arnold or Andrew.” Her contact’s outstretched and cupped hand was clearly visible.

“Not much of a tip,” Minty said. The hand stayed out. Minty fished out some coins from her pocket. “Here’s five bucks.”

“Thanks, boss,” the man said. He stepped from the shadows, a withered old bag in too-big clothes, and shuffled into the airlock she’d just passed through.

Looks like I’m going to the Ritz tomorrow.





Chapter 2


Space Rescue Base, Port Lowell, Mars


Lutrell Parker brushed off non-existent lint from his hand-me-down Midshipman shoulderboards. They were his mother’s, from back when she joined the Volunteer Space Rescue Service. Trell had sworn he would never follow his mom, yet here he was. He sighed as he walked through the vaguely familiar office area.

With no government or useful military presence, the Volunteer Space Rescue Service had formed itself, concentrating at first on rescue, and covering costs from spaceship insurance companies. They had eventually gotten some subsidies from the insurance companies, allowing them to actually pay people. Trell’s mom, Tanshanika, was actually paid employee number nine. Now that piracy had become a bigger problem, the Service was transitioning to dealing with that threat. They were still dependent on insurance companies for money, and needed a lot more of it.

“Midshipman Parker, reporting as ordered, ma’am,” Trell Parker said, standing at attention in the door of Lieutenant Janet Pilgrim’s tiny prefab office. A printed piece of paper on one side of the door proclaimed “Anti-piracy” over a picture of a cartoon pirate with the universal no slash over his face.

“At ease,” she replied, barely looking up from her screen.

She’s a hottie, Trell thought. He cleared his throat to cover his embarrassment. Thinking with your dick got you shipped back to Mars, slick.

“Ordered by whom?” Pilgrim asked, glancing up from her screen while pushing a green-and-blue clump of hair away from her face. The green and blue was just a highlight to her predominately blond hair. Apparently she’s up on the latest trends from Earth.

“Lauren, err, I mean Lieutenant McBride in HR.” Pilgrim raised a quizzical eyebrow, so Trell continued. “Just for a couple of weeks – until the next boot camp starts up.”

“Oh,” Pilgrim said. “I thought nobody was allowed to work in the Service until they completed Boot. At least that’s what they told me when I started.”

Trell felt his face flush. “They made an exception for me, I guess.”

“You wouldn’t, by chance, be related to Captain Tanshanika Parker, now would you?”

“She’s my mom,” Trell said, looking at the floor to hide his flushed face. “But I don’t expect any special treatment, Ma’am.”

“Other than what you’ve already gotten, that is.”

There was no answer to that, so Trell didn’t say anything. If she knew how many times I swore I’d never come back to Mars, especially to work here, she wouldn’t say that.

Oh, don’t worry about special treatment,” Pilgrim said. “What do you know about the Shen Neng?”

“Got hijacked a couple of weeks ago,” Trell replied, guessing that ship had become Space Rescue’s problem. “My ship didn’t have much bandwidth for news, so that’s the limit of my knowledge.”

“Shipping company and local Chinese government tried to handle it themselves, failed, and now we got the mess.”

Hopefully whoever was holding the ship wasn’t taking that out on the hostages, Trell thought. Pirates were quick to hurt or kill hostages. “So that’s the egg that Hines is sitting on?” Trell asked. It used to be that Space Rescue just rescued ships. But now they had gotten into this anti-piracy business, and everything had changed.

“Egg” was the slang term for a hijacked ship, since one of the handful of Space Rescue ships would be dispatched to sit on it until it was “hatched.” Hatching could involve any outcome from paying the hijackers to somebody, which sometimes meant Space Rescue, forcibly retaking the ship. Space Rescue only got paid if the ship hatched because of their efforts, but any hatching that involved the crew living was considered a good hatch. A great hatch was one in which the ship and cargo were returned to their rightful owners.

“She is,” Pilgrim replied. “Now that Lisco Gloria hatched, I was hoping to figure out how the Chinese blew this gig. But with Norwich City getting grabbed yesterday, I’ve run out of bandwidth.”

The hatching of the Lisco Gloria had involved a Space Rescue team, including the woman in front of him, smuggling themselves aboard and shooting several pirates. But Trell felt her frustration – she’d freed one ship only to get a second problem tossed in her lap. “What would you like me to do, ma’am?”

“Right now, go find Chief Astronaut Lopez,” she said, standing up. “He’ll get you access to the file so you can read up. We’ll go from there.” Pilgrim turned away from him and started to sweep some printouts into a binder. “One of these days I’ll actually get a full-time researcher.”

“Aye aye, ma’am,” Trell said. “Anything else?”

Lieutenant Pilgrim gave him a baleful eye. “Not right now.”

Trell took that as a dismissal, and left to go find Nick Lopez. Keep dreaming, ma’am, Trell thought as he left. Space Rescue is always lucky if we can afford rocket fuel. Assistants and other clerical staff were beyond the pale.

###

Trell found Nick Lopez in the locker room, just finishing changing into his civvies.

“Mister Lopez,” Trell said. “I don’t know if you remember me...”

Nick looked over his shoulder. A smile broke out over his face. “Trell, of course I remember you. Not often a man forgets somebody who pees on his new Santa suit!”

Trell returned the smile even as he felt his face flush. Stories like that were why he’d wanted to avoid Space Rescue. Trell took Nick’s proffered hand. “Looks like you’re getting ready for the party.”

Nick rubbed his beard ruefully with his free hand. In the old days, Nick would have to dye his dark black hair and beard gray. Now there was a lot of natural gray there.

“At least I still need padding,” Nick said in his gravelly voice, patting a relatively firm-looking stomach. “I thought you were on Earth. Going to Princeton, right?”

Trell shook his head negatively. “Duke, and that didn’t work out. Now I’m just another Midshipman.”

Nick had the grace to look sad, although that didn’t seem to last long with him. “Well, sometimes that happens. Besides, you can always go back.”

“I guess,” Trell said. “Lieutenant Pilgrim told me to find you. I guess I’m supposed to read up on the Shen Neng.”

“From what I heard, the Chinese really screwed the pooch on that deal.” Nick finished buttoning his brown sweater. “Let’s find you a place to work.”

###

“Best I can do,” Nick said, helping Trell to set up a folding table in a day lounge used by the Special Operations team.

“You sure they won’t mind?” Trell asked.

Nick chuckled. “Since I’m the senior Chief Astronaut on the team, no.”

“You’re a gun-goon?” Trell asked. He felt his face flush at the slur. Of course he is, that’s why Pilgrim sent me to him.

“Yeah, I’m a gun-goon,” Nick said. His tone of voice was deceptively flat.

“Sorry, Nick, I mean Mister Lopez...”

“No, I know you don’t mean that as an insult,” Nick offered.

“Have you been on any raids with them?”

“Just got back from the Lisco Gloria.”

“Hardly a shot fired, from what the news said.”

Nick sighed. “Three shots, actually. Fired by me.”

“Oh, man...”

“Damn dumb kid went for his gun. They say I had no choice.”

Interesting way to phrase it. “I’m sure you did what you had to do.” Nick moved to leave, but Trell stopped him. “Why’d you join Special Ops?”

“Denise Morris’s funeral,” Nick replied, his voice very soft. “She got killed during Peter Grant’s rescue. She was too green to be on that raid, but they needed guns, so she went.” Nick turned to leave. Over his shoulder he said, “They tell Rescuemen to ‘lead, follow or get out of the way.’ I decided to lead.”

Trell sat down. The decision of the brass to start actually shooting pirates hadn’t gone down well with all the lower orders. More than a few Rescuers had grumbled that they’d signed up to help, not hurt. The counter-argument, that shooting pirates was helping had proven to be a hard sell.

It’s the difference between being a fireman and a cop. Both help people, but sometimes cops shot them. He sighed and started reading.

###

Trell stood up, stretching. The chair wasn’t designed for long-term sitting. He looked down at his tablet. From reading the summary, Nick was right – the Chinese had really screwed the pooch. Then, to make matters worse, they’d dumped said screwed pooch on Space Rescue’s lap. The Shen Neng was a Chinese registered ship, and had been hijacked a month ago. After a brief mayday, nothing had been heard from her. She’d disappeared, as completely as if she had never been.

Not that it was hard to disappear on Mars. The hundreds of Martian settlements were nominally governed by nearly as many countries. Most of those countries provided little or no services to their settlements, an arrangement that most Martians liked. The few governments, like China, that did try to exert influence on Martian affairs did so on the cheap.

As a result, there was no centralized orbital tracking system or even traffic control. The tiny Chinese military force on Mars had spent several weeks trying to find the Shen Neng, a task they’d eventually outsourced to the same network of volunteer orbit-watchers used by Space Rescue. The orbit-watchers had already flagged the ship as suspect, so making the connection was easy.

Ten days ago, a group of Chinese commandos had attempted to retake her. The commandos hadn’t even been able to get aboard – the pirates holding the Shen Neng kept an active radar watch and as the commandos’ rocket approached, several pirates had gone EVA with RPGs and light machine guns. Luckily, the Chinese rocket hadn’t been hit, but neither had they been able to get aboard.

After that stalemate, somebody in the Chinese government told the ship’s owners that they were on their own. Not wanting to pay up, the ownership had called Space Rescue, and now the VSRS Jim C. Hines was sitting fifty kilometers away, waiting for something to happen.

“Which is where we come in,” Trell said aloud to no one but himself as he stood to stretch. He walked over to inspect a poster taped to a brick wall, showing a big-boobed and barely-clad woman, her chocolate skin a shade darker than his, holding an AR-70 assault rifle at port arms.

“Wonder how we managed to scrape up the money for those,” he wondered. He tapped a corner, causing the imbedded video to run. The brunette then cheerfully started to field-strip the weapon, with dialog boxes, carefully placed to not obstruct the woman, calling out important notes.

“I wonder what Old Lady Pilgrim thinks about this little show?”

“I’m not that old,” Lieutenant Pilgrim said.

Trell spun around and came to attention. “Sorry, ma’am.”

“Don’t be,” Pilgrim said with a smile. She was clad in tight jeans and a tank top, clearly heading home. “At ease.” She pointed at the poster, a smirk on her face. “You can change the settings and have some shirtless dude do the honors. Or shirtless woman. It’s a very flexible poster.” She gestured at his work area. “Well?”

“I’ve read up on the background, ma’am,” Trell said.

“And?”

And what? “Ma’am?”

“Although we just got the final Chinese report,” Pilgrim said, “I did pay at least a little attention to what the Chinese were up to.” She visibly held back a yawn. “So, my question is why did the Chinese think they could sneak up on the target?”

“They didn’t know about the radar?”

Pilgrim frowned. Clearly that had been the wrong answer. “I can buy a radar detector for five bucks in any electronics shop in town.”

“You’ve got me, ma’am,” Trell said, sure that his confusion showed on his face. The Chinese – hell, the orbit-watchers – should have known about the radar.

Pilgrim smiled. “I don’t know either,” she said, pointing at him. “Looks like you’ve got some homework to do.” With that, she left.

Thus focused, Trell went back through the information. He discovered that there was a daily supply rocket flight up from somewhere in the Utopia Planita to the Shen Neng. Per the SITREP from Hines, the rocket was still making her rounds.

Trell pulled up the Chinese report, clearly machine-translated into English. Still, the gist of the report was clear – the Chinese had nailed down the approximate launch site to an oval about three hundred kilometers long by fifty wide. They’d taken off from inside that oval, trying to look like the supply rocket.

“So why didn’t that work?” Trell wondered. He also wondered where exactly the real rocket was coming from.

More information was needed. He drafted an email to the Hines, asking for pictures of the ground launch area and any information they had on the supply rocket.





Chapter 3


Boxtown, Mars


Minty’s alarm went off, echoing loudly in her converted shipping container/apartment. The conversion had been a half-assed job, which meant bare metal walls that conducted sound like a trumpet. There was almost two meters of Martian dust and gravel above the container, more than a lot of places, which meant it was at least warm and nearly radiation-proof. Some of the places on First Street, named because it was laid down first, had been so thinly-protected that they had to be evacuated during solar flares. Eventually somebody, probably the same mental giant who’d named the street, had fixed the problem by pouring some more rock on top of the mess.

She rolled out of bed and silenced the alarm, then padded barefoot over her threadbare collection of rugs and carpet remnants into the tiny kitchen where she started the coffee maker. It was a dump, but it beat the hell out of a prison cell on Earth.

At least in prison I’d know when I could get out. When she’d signed up for Space Rescue, at the point of a gun and with the option to be tried as a pirate, there’d been no talk of when she’d be free of the Service.

After a quick shower, a necessity with only a twenty-liter hot water heater, she drank her coffee and got dressed in jeans, a tan T-shirt and green blazer. The blazer’s lining was ripping out, but Minty decided she could get another wear out of it. Space Rescue had dropped her on Boxtown with a wad of cash, which they grudgingly replenished. Anything Minty didn’t spend she could put towards her “retirement” fund.

Minty looked at her usual carry pistol, sitting on top of the plastic crate that served as a nightstand. The Ritz had a security checkpoint, and a tendency to “lose” checked guns. Especially the nice ones.

It’s early – nobody will be out. She left her pistol in the bedside drawer. The apartment was reasonably secure.

The Ritz also had very strict rules about who it let in the doors. Fortunately, one of the night clerks was a native Martian like her, so he’d let her in. But that meant she had to be at the door before he left at seven. She glanced at the clock, gulped the last of her coffee and hustled out.

Boxtown was not the kind of place for a morning person, so the street was deserted at this early hour. Minty headed north at a brisk pace, walking through a residential area, still bolted up for the night.

Third Street fed directly into New Market Square, which was, not surprisingly, the retail hub of the city. Architecturally it wasn’t very impressive – a rectangular area with a ten-meter high ceiling running west to east, paved in stone, maybe one hundred meters long by thirty wide. About the only attempt to liven the place up was a row of skylights, ten meters wide, running down the middle of the roof. At this hour, a grayish red light drifted down wanly on the square, deserted except for a couple of new-cons working off their arrival air tax by sweeping up from yesterday’s street market.

She started walking across the square to the Ritz, which took up a third of the frontage on the north side. As she approached, she took in the chainlink fenced-in checkpoint out front, manned by a pair of bored and very dark-skinned men clad in jeans and bulletproof vests.

She arrived at the checkpoint at the same time as a fiberglass rickshaw pulled away, depositing a tall and lanky black man – the guy she’d prevented from getting skewered at last night’s barfight. She still couldn’t figure out why he looked familiar.

What’s a dude who hangs out at Mos Eiseley’s doing at the Ritz? He clearly hadn’t slept, and at some point appeared to have puked on himself. Hopefully he won’t remember me. Last thing I need is some dude hanging on me like I’m his bestest friend forever.

“Hey, you,” the man said to Minty, seemingly in a daze. “Weren’t you the girl at the bar last night?”

“Uh...” No dude. I am not the chick you seek. Move along.

“You know, the place with the band,” the man said. He visibly struggled with emotion, then stuck out his hand. “I need to thank you for saving my life.”

Crap. Time to come up with a quick blow-off. She took his hand, noting how smooth his skin was. “You’re welcome, Mister ...?”

“Breslin. Thomas Breslin. My friends call me Tom.”

“Hi, Tom,” Minty said. Breslin! Surely not – Breslin wasn’t that uncommon a name. He did look familiar even though she’d only seen Breslin in pictures. “I’m Minty.” He gave her a funny look, so she continued, “Arminta, but that’s a mouthful.”

“Well, Arminta-who-goes-by-Minty, thanks again for saving my life.”

“It was nothing. How’s your other friend?”

Tom looked down at his shoes. “He didn’t make it.”

“I’m sorry.”

Tom finally released her hand. “We weren’t that close – at least I didn’t think so. I mean, they were just guys on my ship, you know?”

“But you’d been with them for a while?”

“All the way from Earth. Five months.” The guy looked miserable, although Minty got the read it was more because he was hungover than that he’d been close to the men before they died.

“That’s a long time in a small space,” Minty offered.

Tom composed himself with a visible effort. “What brings you to the Ritz?”

A guy with the same last name as you, actually. A guy who’s probably your uncle or dad. “A friend works here. I was going to see if I could mooch breakfast off of him.”

Tom made another face. The idea of food was apparently not sitting well with him. “Well, least I could do is buy you breakfast.” He patted his stomach. “Although you’ll forgive me if I skip out.”

“Not at all, Tom,” Minty said. She gestured at the pair of bored guards. “Sign me in, please?”

“Sure,” he said.

With his signature she got in with only a minor amount of groping by the guards. Past the checkpoint and the steel armored double set of doors, the Ritz opened out into a lush lobby, complete with an indoor fish pond.

“Nice touch,” Tom said, gesturing at the pond. “Very soothing.”

“You know that anytime you order fish here they come out of that pond,” Minty said.

Tom looked at her. “No, I didn’t.” They walked around to the other side of the pond, where some metal tables had been set out for the early breakfast service. Tom waved at a distinguished-looking dark-skinned man sitting at one of the tables.

Son of a bitch. Dude sure looks a lot like her pictures of Andrew Breslin, right down to his pressed jeans and tasseled loafers.

“Hi, Dad,” Tom said as they approached.

Minty shot a quick glance at Tom. I guess it’s better to be lucky than good.

The man looked up, his dark face carefully neutral except for his space-can squint. “Thomas Francis,” he said. “Glad to see you’re in one piece.”

“I wouldn’t be, if it weren’t for her,” he said, gesturing at Minty.

Tom’s dad stood up, and offered his hand. “Thank you for whatever you did to keep my son safe.”

“Not much, really,” Minty said, shaking hands. Unlike the son, the father’s hands were calloused, but judging from the press of his pants and the fabric of his sports coat, not from manual labor.

“Nevertheless, I appreciate it.” He gestured with his chin at his son. “I need to have a few words with him alone, then you and I need to talk. Have a seat, please. I won’t be long.”

“Thank you,” Minty said, sitting down. The lone waiter came up as the Breslins walked away, heading towards the now-closed lobby bar.

“Just coffee for now,” she told the waiter. This could be interesting.

###

Minty had just taken the second sip of her really-impressive cup of coffee when Breslin Senior returned. His son Tom went the other way, heading for the elevators.

“Coffee?” Minty asked, pointing to the stainless steel carafe brought by the waiter.

“I guess you can call it that,” the man said as he sat down. He offered his hand over the table. “Andrew Breslin.”

“Arminta Storey,” Minty said, taking his hand again. “People call me Minty.”

“Well, Minty, thank you for your assistance. Unfortunately, neither Tom nor I will have time to join you for breakfast.” He waved at the waiter, who came over. “A cup for me and a meal on my tab for the lady.”

Minty ordered quickly. Once the waiter was gone she said “I was a bit surprised to see that group at Mos Eiseley’s.”

“I was exceptionally surprised to learn he’d left this hotel,” Andrew said, irritation clear in his voice. “I imagine they looked like easy pickings.”

“In truth, more because they were drunk when they arrived,” Minty said. “I assume your son went out to get the two Earth-men?” Minty said, catching herself from using the insulting word Earthling.

“More likely Tom wanted to see the sights and the other men went with, hoping for safety in numbers.” The waiter arrived with a cup and filled it from the carafe. “They were young.”

Eleven or twelve mears old, Minty guessed, twenty-two Earth years old. Four years older than I am now and six than when I ran off to be a pirate with my sister. She realized Breslin had said something she’d missed.

“Keeping you up?” he said.

“Sorry. Woolgathering. You said?”

“They were idealists, but not our most practical people.”

“They did seem a bit out of their depth,” Minty allowed.

Breslin grimaced, whether at the coffee or her statement Minty couldn’t tell. “They were.” He sighed. “They were also specialists, with difficult-to-replace competencies.”

“Such as?”

Another grimace. “I’m not in the habit of discussing my business with strangers, even ones who helped my son.” He reached into an interior pocket of his sports coat. “You look like a woman of business. Would two thousand US dollars be an appropriate, shall we say, gesture of thanks?”

“That would be more than generous,” Minty said, thinking that Space Rescue certainly didn’t need to know about this transaction. They would, however, expect her to at least try to get more information. “I might be able to help you with your problems.”

“And what do you think my problems are?”

“Well, you will need to arrange for funerals for the deceased.”

Breslin frowned. “Not really. Although it’s unfortunate, whatever the city does for indigent people will have to suffice.”

“Well, Mister Breslin, first off they’re not indigent – they came on your ship so the city’s gonna bill you. Second, what the city does with anybody who dies is post their name on the city’s website.”

Several looks flashed over Breslin’s face, starting with fear and ending with confusion. “Names? Why?”

“In case they owe anybody money or anybody owes them money.”

“I would be very upset if their names were to appear on a public list.”

“I can prevent that,” Minty said.

“Convenient,” Breslin replied. “How?”

“I know who to bribe at City Hall and how much. I also know who handles burials without private notification and can get the local rate.”

Minty’s order arrived. “Hold that thought,” Breslin said, getting up.

He returned a short time later, presumably having gone to the hotel desk and verifying at least the death list portion of what Minty had told him. “How much?”

“One grand per body, which includes bribes and burial. That’s in addition to the two grand for keeping young Tom from getting shanked. Total four grand, taxes titles and fees.”

“Two grand, same deal.”

“We seem to have agreed on three grand,” Minty said. “I’ll need some of that up front.”

Breslin counted out fifteen hundred in hundred dollar bills on the table. “You get the other half when I get everything that can personally identify them.”

“I’ll be back here around lunch.”

Breslin put his hand on the money. “Please don’t think that you can be cute and blackmail me with the information. Your services are merely a convenience. I do have other assets available.”

“Sir, I’m just in this for a quick buck.”

On her way out, Minty reflected on how callously Breslin had been about the disposal of the bodies. Hell, the man was probably on the same ship as those two for months and he wants me to dump the bodies in the trash.

###

Garcia and Sons Funeral Home was actually dug out of the rock of a small hill at the end of Avenue B. Somebody with more enthusiasm than skill had chiseled at the exposed rock in an attempt to graft Greek columns onto the facade. Whatever attempt at class the carvings provided was ruined by the red neon sign over the front door.

Minty stepped in, and found herself in a dimly-lit foyer. The floor was polished stone, and the walls were white plaster. She didn’t see any obvious office, just several parlors off of a long hallway leading into the hall. When no one answered her call, she started walking down the hallway.

After passing by several viewing rooms, dark except for whatever light seeped in from the hallway, she came to a set of large metal double doors, one of which was ajar. Right about now is when the slasher would jump out and get me, she thought, wishing her gun wasn’t back at her apartment. Taking a deep breath, she opened the door and stepped inside.

“Deliveries go to the side door!” a man shouted from inside and to her left.

“I’m not delivering,” she shouted back, walking towards the sound. She walked around a long row of metal cabinets and came to an area with four long metal tables. Two of the tables had bodies on them.

“Then what the hell are you doing?”

She pointed at the table closest to her, occupied by a blond naked man with a gash in his throat. “Paying for his funeral, I think.”

“You think?”

She looked at her interrogator. He was stocky, tall for a Mexican, with a shaved, bullet-shaped head. He was wearing light yellow surgical scrubs and blue plastic gloves.

“If those are the two who died at Mos Eiseley’s, then I am paying. You must be Garcia.”

“Garcia died years ago,” the man replied in a less-gruff tone. “I’m Sanchez. Pete Sanchez. Just never got round to changing the sign.”

“Mister Sanchez, I’m Minty Storey.”

“Call me Pete and I’ll call you Minty,” he half-asked.

“Pete, glad to meet you.”

“Well, Minty, them boys were the ones that got sliced at Mos’s. Blondie there,” Pete walked over to a table and picked up a clipboard, “Richard Zagel according to his ID, showed up last night. Hank Krauss just got here an hour ago.”

“Those are the guys. How much for a burial?”

Pete smiled. “I got lots of options. Wanna look at caskets?”

“Truthfully, no. I just want these fellows to go away and for their names to never get out. To anybody.”

“So we’re looking for cheap and discreet,” Pete said.

“Exactly.”

“Cremation, then. I take it you don’t want the ashes?”

“Just their IDs and personal effects.”

Pete looked up at a wall clock. “I just got started on Rick when Hank there showed up. Come back in an hour and I’ll have their stuff.”

“How much? I’ll pay cash.”

“Cash is good. Eight hundred for both?”

“Deal,” Minty said. “I’d shake on it, but...”

Pete chuckled. “Don’t blame you. Come back in an hour.”

###

Minty went to City Hall where for forty dollars all traces of the two men were erased. Not that there was much to erase – a couple of lines in an electronic police report. Unsurprisingly, there was no record of them having entered the city. Pretty much everybody entering town slipped a five dollar coin to the receiving clerk to not get listed.

When she returned to Garcia’s, she found that Pete was as good as his word. Everything even vaguely useful for identifying the men was collected in a clear plastic bag and sitting on the counter. This included a pair of pocket PCs. Sitting next to that was a small bundle of money. If I’m not careful, this is how I’ll go out. She smiled ruefully. And I wanted the exciting life of a pirate.

“About three hundred,” Pete said. “I found it in their socks, which explains why the cops didn’t pocket it. You want I should apply it towards the funeral?”

“No,” Minty said with a smile. “Consider it a tip.” She counted out the eight hundred from Breslin’s stash so Pete could see it and put it on the counter next to the other money.

“Pleasure doing business with you, Minty,” Pete said. “You ever need anything, stop on by.”

“No offense, but hopefully I won’t be needing your services anytime soon.”

“None taken. Buenos dias.”

Minty took the bags and headed to her place.

###

The pocket PCs proved useless. A better hacker might have been able to crack the security, but given Minty’s time and skills they retained their secrets. However, both men had ID cards, passports and Merchant Spacer Union cards. Minty scanned all of this into her desktop unit and sent the data off to Lieutenant Pilgrim at Space Rescue. Once the confirmation receipt came in, she headed off to the Ritz.

The guards at the checkpoint had changed, of course, and they asked her which guest she was seeing. “Breslin” had gotten the reply of, “which one” so she went with Andrew. But by the time she got through the rest of the security drill it was Tom waiting for her in the lobby.

“Sorry to wake you,” Minty said, noting thankfully that Tom had found time to shower and change. “I asked for your dad.”

“He was on a call, so he sent me,” Tom said, a disarming smile on his face.

“Here’s all the stuff your dad asked for,” she said, offering him the bag.

He took it and glanced at the contents through the clear plastic. “Dad said to give you this,” he replied, pulling out an envelope from his back pocket. “I’m supposed to ask if it’s enough.”

Minty checked it – fifteen one-hundred-dollar bills. Considering that she’d over-priced the funeral to Andrew, it was a good morning’s work. It wasn’t a subtle transaction, but the staff at the Ritz knew how to keep secrets. More money for her college fund. Now to parlay this one-off into a more long-term relationship. “I’m good, thanks.”

“So, apparently I’m ‘restricted to quarters,’” Tom said. “Can’t leave the hotel.”

Probably a good idea, especially given what happened last night. “The restaurant here is great, or so I’m told.”

“Wanna join me for dinner? I hate eating alone.”

That was easy. Still, for form’s sake... “I thought your dad...”

“Has other plans tonight.” He stuck his hands in his pockets. “I’m buying.”

“Sure,” Minty said. “What time?”

“Seven?”

“Deal.” I’m in.

###

Minty splurged on a rickshaw back to her place. An urgent email popped up on her pocket PC. “Great deals on shoes!” the email said. Since she was officially running a shoe store, it didn’t seem out of place. What it meant was call headquarters.

She went inside and placed a video call to a number listed as a shoe wholesaler in Port Lowell. When the welcome screen came up, she pressed a sequence of keys, and the call was redirected.

“Lieutenant Pilgrim,” said the woman who appeared in her screen, her hair blond with green and blue highlights.

“You rang, Master,” Minty replied.

The Pilgrim bitch smiled. “You’ve been using that line a lot lately. Time for another.”

“Whatever.”

“Do you know who these two stiffs were?”

“Other than way too naïve to be out at night around here, no.”

“They were both ex-USAF missile technicians,” Pilgrim said. “Worked on the Rattlesnake missile system.”

“No shit?” Minty said. The military had some alphabet-soup formal designation for it, but “Rattlesnake” was the common name for their mainline spaceship-to-spaceship missile. “Breslin did say the two had hard-to-find skills.”

“No shit,” Pilgrim said with a grin. “And officially, they never left Earth. They — and Tom too — are listed as employees on a deep-ocean mining rig.”

Which would be a good excuse as to why nobody saw them around the neighborhood back home. “According to city hall, the Union Star paid their air taxes. I’m surprised they were using their real IDs.”

“The only way Earth would have found out about those two would be to see a Boxtown death notice.”

“True.”

“The real question is what is Breslin doing on Mars and why did he need to bring two missile-techs to do it?”

“Since I’m meeting his son for dinner tonight, I’ll ask about that.”

Pilgrim smiled tightly. “Yes, please pump him for information. I’ll leave the level of pumping to your discretion.”

“Very funny,” Minty said. “How’s my sister?”

“Rachel’s not due to check in until later today.”

A typical Pilgrim non-answer. But then that bitch would just as soon wished both the Storey girls up and died. “I’ll call tomorrow if I have anything.”

“Please do,” Pilgrim said.





Chapter 4


Volunteer Space Rescue Base, Port Lowell, Mars


Lieutenant Janet Pilgrim, Volunteer Space Rescue Service, hung up her phone handset. What exactly is Andrew Fucking Breslin doing on Mars, let alone in Boxtown?

On the one hand, the answer was obvious. Andrew Breslin was the immediate past president of the John L O’Sullivan Society. This society, named after some nineteenth century writer, advocated “Manifest Destiny” – specifically the idea that Mars should be an American colony. A previous society president, General Larry Mandrake, had tried smuggling Air Force missiles to Mars, presumably to further the Society’s goals. Since the smuggling had failed, what role they would play in the Society’s plans remained a mystery.

On the other hand, the O’Sullivan people had managed to convince a very skeptical US Justice Department that Mandrake was working on his own. Nor could Justice figure out where the money was coming from. As far as anybody could tell, the O’Sullivan Society was a bunch of windbags who liked to write little-read articles and give sparsely attended speeches.

She looked around, but her cramped and windowless office with its pre-fab walls in fashionable lime green and built-in metal furnishings had no answers for her.

Her computer beeped, reminding her she had to be at a staff meeting in five minutes. “Acknowledge,” Janet said, stopping the alert. She stood up and started to gather her papers for the meeting. One of her handouts, a listing of ships that Space Rescue wanted people to be on the lookout for, was already out of date.

The Union Star, the ship that paid air taxes for Breslin and his minions, was listed as missing and presumed lost. It made one more ship in Martian space that shouldn’t be here, she thought. This provoked a rueful smile. The planet’s lack of an orbital tracking system or other central clearinghouse for shipping meant that all kinds of ships came and went without anybody’s oversight.

Janet’s thoughts turned to Andrew Breslin himself as she walked out of her office. She had practically memorized the man’s biography, not that there was much to it.

Breslin’s grandfather had built a company that made bio-diesel from algae. Breslin’s father, dying of cancer, had sold the company at a premium during the Saudi Civil War, leaving little five-year-old Andrew and his baby brother Arnold a small fortune in trust funds. The boys didn’t have to work, but they weren’t buying private islands or mega-yachts.

They had gone to a succession of suitable private schools, culminating at Vanderbilt University. The only deviation from the typical trust fund baby path had been when both men had joined ROTC, gotten commissions in the US Air Force and gone into Space Command.

They’d gotten out after one hitch each, picked up law degrees, and joined white-shoe law firms in Memphis, Tennessee, which was where the old biofuels firm had been based. After a couple of years, the boys had gone into private practice, which as far as Janet could tell was a polite way of saying that they stayed at their sizeable and paid-for homes on the family compound and collected trust checks.

Janet sighed. Scumbags like Breslin sat back in comfortable chairs, risking nothing more serious than a spilled drink while sending other people out to fight and die for them. He’s one guy I wouldn’t mind killing.

Out in the hallway, lined on both sides by tiny offices just like Janet’s, Lieutenant Peter Grant walked up behind her. “A penny for your thoughts, Sweet Cheeks,” he said in a low voice.

“Lieutenant Grant, that borders on sexual harassment,” she replied, over her shoulder.

“Lieutenant Pilgrim, I don’t think you paid attention at yesterday’s training,” Grant said as he drew even with her, his face cracking into a wide smile. “It’s only harassment if it’s unwanted. Which is not what you were saying last night.”

Their coupling had been especially athletic last night, and a lesser woman might have blushed at the recollection, but not Janet. “Apparently I snookered you.”

“Well, maybe, Darling, but I definitely got mine.”

“Most guys do.”

“I’m still waiting for that thought.”

I’m still waiting for that penny. “Andrew Breslin’s on Mars. With his son and two recently deceased USAF missile techs.”

“Those SOBs,” he said, as they walked into the conference room.

Those SOBs had led to a hijacking two years ago. Grant had ended up a hostage and Janet had had to go rescue him. The Service had lost several people in that mess, and as a result had founded the Anti-Piracy Task Force.

“Which SOBs?” Captain Newindale asked. As the Flag Officer Commanding, he was everybody’s boss in the Space Rescue Service.

“Manifest Destiny, sir,” Janet said. She nodded at her boss, Captain Sam Mfume, taking his seat at the far end of the conference table. The room was filling up with staff. “I just found out five minutes ago myself.”

“Might as well tell everybody at once,” Mfume said, waving his hand at the group. Janet quickly shared what she knew.

“What’s he doing on Mars?” Captain Newindale asked when she finished. “I mean, I thought he was kind of a behind the scenes person.”

“That’s what I thought,” Janet replied. Nothing in the Breslin boys’ background suggested that they’d ever do more than sign a check or write a sternly-worded email. “Apparently I’ll have to re-evaluate that.”

“Apparently,” Captain Newindale said. “Keep an eye on them, since last time they were here we had a hijacking.”

As if I don’t have enough people to keep an eye on. It’s a shame that we can’t just stop by and ask Breslin. But in Boxtown, the outlaw capital of Mars, he was untouchable. Space Rescue simply didn’t have enough firepower to operate there overtly.

Newindale called the meeting to order, and after a few preliminaries, the meeting turned to what was becoming a perpetual sore spot, the Space Rescue Ship Solomon Brown. The perpetually broke Brown, Janet thought.

“So, Captain Parker,” Newindale said, looking at Parker’s image on the video conference screen, “what’s the status on Brown?”

Captain Tanshanika Parker, a tall woman with medium-brown skin and dark, cornrowed hair, looked back, a pained expression on her face. Her son Trell must take after the father. “We had a malfunction with the CO2 scrubber,” she said.

“Another one?” Newindale replied, arching an eyebrow.

“I’m afraid so, Ed,” Parker replied. “Damn thing started sparking. We nearly had a fire.”

Newindale shook his head, whether at the news or Space Rescue’s newest captain using his first name Janet couldn’t tell. But there were only captains and lieutenants in the Service, and technically Newindale was just a captain. “Tangie, we’re really kind of short on ships here.”

“No shit, Ed,” Parker replied in a testy tone. “I can only do so much. I got two people full time just trying to find parts for this relic.”

Solomon Brown is the oldest ship in Space Rescue service, Janet thought. And Tangie did need to be taken down a notch. She looked at Newindale’s increasingly red face. Smart thing for lieutenants to do when captains fight is to stay out of the way. Also the chicken-shit thing to do.

“I hear Windy City is available, seniors,” Janet said in a quiet voice.

“So you recommend replacing one thirty-year-old ship with another?” Newindale said.

“She did go through SLEP,” Janet said.

“SLEP?” Captain Parker asked.

“Service Life Extension Program, ma’am,” Janet replied. “Nearly everything that moves got replaced. She’s practically an H-series.”

“Which is wonderful,” Newindale replied, “except she’s not our ship.”

“She could be, sir,” Janet said. “We could ask our insurance friends.”

“Even a thirty-year-old GR-30 would be an upgrade,” Parker said. “Easier to find parts for those than a Blue Origin junk box. There’s a reason they went out of business, after all.”

“I’m well aware of Blue Origin’s history,” Newindale said. Scuttlebutt was that he’d started out in Blue’s sales force, and still carried a torch for the ill-fated company. “Be that as it may. We don’t have any alternatives at this time.”

It looked like Parker wanted to say something, but she apparently thought better of it.

“Moving on,” Newindale said, “perhaps Lieutenant Grant can bring us up to speed on current tasking and more importantly, scheduling.”

Grant, who was in charge of long-range scheduling, walked over to a display board. Everybody knew where the Service’s handful of ships were. Two of them, the Jim Hines and the Liudas Volodka, were busy doing something close to nothing – sitting on “eggs” or ships that had been pirated. The idea was to put pressure on the pirates to surrender their ships.

Janet felt her face flush in anger. How the fuck was an unarmed ship sitting off a pirate’s stern putting pressure on anybody? Now, on the occasions when Space Rescue crews were able to storm and retake a ship, that put pressure on pirates. Janet frowned. It also got people killed, Rescue and pirate. But just sitting there watching pirates shuttle people back and forth did not. Actually it just puts pressure on us.

“We just broke the one-fifty day transit window on the way down,” Grant said, starting his brief. He paused to let that sink in.

The tension in the room ratcheted up a notch. Grant was referring to the number of days it took a ship to get from Earth to Mars. This varied widely depending on the relative positions of the planets. The fastest practical transit between the planets, when they were in optimal alignment, was just under ninety days, making one hundred fifty days a relatively quick transit. As the two planets moved closer to that optimal alignment, Mars orbital space, and Space Rescue, were about to get a whole lot busier.

“Given that, and previous track record of calls, we’ll need to add a second alert ship in eight days,” Grant continued, “and twenty days after that, we’ll need to put somebody in Station Six Trailing.”

Station Six was Space Rescue code for a ship running a racetrack-like course six million kilometers behind, or trailing, Mars as it moved on its orbit. Ships from this station were available to rescue other vessels coming in from Earth.

“Given that,” Newindale said, “we’re going to need Solomon Brown on the line.”

“Yes sir. I have her slotted for Six Trailing,” Grant said.

“Who’d I piss off?” Parker asked from the video monitor.

“Nobody, ma’am,” Grant replied. “It’s just...”

“It’s just that we’ve got two ships tied up babysitting hijacked boats,” Captain Sam Mfume said from his seat at the opposite end of the table.

“Babysitting is the right word,” Parker said. “Since we just sit there and watch the pirates watch us.”

“Do you have any better ideas?” Mfume said, a note of danger in his voice.

Parker’s face flitted through several expressions, finally settling on forced blankness. “I do, but we can discuss those later.”

“Moving on,” Newindale said, arching an eyebrow at Mfume, “any chance we’ll resolve either of those stalemates?”

“We just got handed the Shen Neng,” Mfume growled. “It takes time to come up with a plan.”

“What about Norwich City? We’ve had that nut for a while.”

“Norwich City’s been a tough nut to crack, Ed.” Mfume said.

“Both would be easier if we could just isolate the ships in orbit,” Janet said, hearing her irritation leak out into her voice, which made her even more irritated. It would also mean fewer dead bodies.

“You mean blast out of the sky any vessel attempting to support the pirates on them,” Newindale said. “We’ve had this discussion. Not happening. I am not unilaterally imposing a police force on Mars.”

“Yes, sir, we have,” Janet replied. “And with respect...”

“You think I’m wrong,” Newindale replied. “I may be. I do know that if we arm ships in local space, half a dozen Earth nations have all the excuse they need to send their armed ships here, and we could start an arms race. Not to mention that we are critically dependent on local support — support that might not be offered if we’d declared ourselves cops.”

“Be that as it may, Ed,” Mfume said to Newindale, “and sharing your distaste for armed ships in Martian space, the group holding the Norwich is not very reasonable, the vessel’s ownership is indecisive and we’ve not come up with a way to get a team aboard. We need to assume we’ll be sitting on her for a while.”

Janet had so far been unable to get any intelligence on the group holding Norwich. The problem was that anybody who knew the bow from the stern of a ship could and did proclaim themselves “captain” and start raising a crew.

“We also have to assume we’ll see at least one more successful attack during this busy period,” Grant said. “Or rather, hope we only see one such attack, because even with Brown operational, we can’t sit on three eggs and keep coverage.”

“Ed, were going to have to...” Mfume said.

“Damn it, Sam,” Newindale barked, “I’m not stupid. Yes, we can go.” Newindale composed himself with an effort. “It’s just that I hate going to Yeargan like some peasant, hat in hand, asking for a hand out.”

The room fell silent for a minute. Newindale really wanted an independent Space Rescue service. Sometimes you don’t get what you want.

“They do owe us for the Lisco Gloria, sir,” Janet said, wondering if maybe she should have just kept her mouth shut. What the hell? All he can do is fire me. “Plus maybe we could get an advance on the Shen Neng.”

“Maybe we could all just go on the fucking Insurance Consortium’s payroll,” Newindale said irritably to the ceiling. He looked at Janet. “That remark was out of line. You’re right — they do owe us. I’ll set up a meeting.”

“Speaking of Shen Neng,” Mfume said, looking at Janet, “do we have anything at all?”

“I’ve got Midshipman Parker doing research.”

“Who?” Captain Parker, his mother, asked over the video link.

“Trell,” Newindale said.

“Why exactly is he hanging out with the Gun, group?” Parker said.

“You were going to say ‘Gun Goons’, Ma’am,” Janet said, forcing herself to stay calm. “If it makes you feel better, I didn’t ask for him.”

“I sent him,” Newindale said, cutting Parker off. “If he’s on the payroll, he can do some work.”

“We don’t have rescue work for him to do?”

Janet heard “real work,” not “rescue work.” It was a common attitude among the Service. Tanshanika had joined long before piracy had been a problem.

“Actually, we don’t,” Newindale said. “Which is what I told you last week at dinner.”

“So he’s on the gun-side,” Parker said.

“Or he goes and sits at home until the next Boot Camp starts up.”

“Fine,” Parker said after a long pause.

Newindale looked at Janet. “Let me know what, if anything, Trell finds.” He looked around the table. “What’s new with Training and Readiness?”

###

Janet left the meeting and went directly to the head. After taking care of business there, she returned to her desk to find Midshipman Parker waiting there.

“Find anything?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Trell said, standing up. Janet slid past him to her chair and motioned him to sit as well. “They’re flying out of a settlement called Viking. It’s smack in the middle of the Utopia Planita and mega-clicks from anywhere.”

“Great,” Janet said, sighing. “Got any more good news?”

“Afraid not,” Trell said, looking earnest. “Whenever the pirates see a ship approaching on radar, they go into a challenge and authentication routine.”

Challenge and authentication schemes could be complex, or as simple as an agreed-on “word of the day.” They were impossible to crack, unless you got hold of a copy of the questions and answers. “That’s how they knew the Chinese rocket wasn’t a supply ship,” Janet said, “even though it appeared to be coming from Viking.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

Janet leaned back in her chair and cupped her hands behind her head. It was still an easier nut to crack than Norwich City — that ship wasn’t getting any ground support. “Do we or the Chinese have any indication as to who the lead pirate is?”

“The Chinese might,” Trell said, handing her a piece of paper. “They apparently are tapping a ground station.”

Janet looked at the paper. It was a transcript of some kind, but practically everything other than the date had been blacked out. “Well, this is fucking helpful,” Janet said, tossing the printout in the direction of her desk.

“Actually more than our Chinese friends think,” Trell said.

“Oh?”

“Did you see the message header?”

Janet looked sharply at him. “Cut to the chase, Mister Parker.”

“They’re communicating on NSAT-5,” Trell said.

Janet started to chuckle. NSAT-5 was operated by Space Rescue! “Those dumb fucks!” she finally sputtered.

“It takes a commissioned officer’s approval to dump the files,” Trell said, handing her another printout. “Sign at the X.”

“With pleasure,” Janet said.

###

Janet came in the next morning to find Trell at her desk again.

“I was just leaving you a note,” he said.

“I guess you don’t need to,” she said. “Can this keep? I had to drop off Mikey at preschool and couldn’t stop for coffee.”

“I can bring you a cup,” Trell replied. “How do you take it?”

“One sweetener, no cream,” Janet said. She smiled at the kid’s eagerness. “Thanks.”

“Coffee coming right up.”

He returned with a cup just as she finished bringing her system up. There didn’t appear to be any urgent emails, so she took a sip of the coffee and turned to look at Trell.

“You may fire when ready, Gridley.”

“Who’s Gridley?” Trell asked, a confused look on his face. “Never mind. I pulled the transcripts. It seems like the chief pirate is a guy named Boris Sokolov.”

So much for “retiring to the Black Sea,” you son of a bitch.

“Boris is back in the piracy game,” Janet said, leaning back in her seat. “I’ll be damned.”

“I take it you know him?”

Considering I spent a year with him on the Windy City, you might say that. “Not in the Biblical sense, much to his disappointment, but yes I do.”

“He appears to be physically on the Shen Neng, but he’s working closely with a guy named Don Hoffman on the ground.”

“Never heard of him.”

“He’s listed in the database,” Trell said.

Calling the haphazard list of names they had a database was an insult to databases everywhere. She looked at Trell. Supposedly he was a data wizard. How long do I have him?

“Oh?” Janet said, arching an eyebrow.

“He’s listed as ‘known associate of Source Alpha,’” Trell said. “Whatever that means.”

Janet favored him with an enigmatic smile. “I know what that means. Anything else?”

“No, Ma’am.”

“Well, the key to any direct action will be getting into Viking. So, see what you can find out about the place.”

“Aye, aye, Ma’am,” he said as he stood up and left.

I could get used to this having an assistant thing. She glanced at the time on her screen. Rachel Storey, AKA Source Alpha, was in Bradbury, eight hours ahead, and it was the middle of the night there. Janet sent the coded contact me email to Rachel, figuring Rachel would get back to her later in the day.

###

Janet logged out of her computer, stood up, and started packing her briefcase. It had been a quiet day, although tomorrow promised two long meetings.

Then the phone rang. The caller ID picture was Kate Yeargan – the woman Rachel Storey had gotten killed. Janet glanced at her watch. I don’t need to pick up Mikey for another hour. She looked at the phone. It’s either now or twenty-four hours from now. She closed her door and answered the phone.

“You rang, Master?” Rachel said, her red hair showing a clear case of bed-head.

“And good morning to you,” Janet said. “What does the name Don Hoffman mean to you?”

The reply was slow in coming. “I know a Don Hoffman. Why?”

“There’s a Don Hoffman in Viking, Utopia, who’s in bed with our old friend Boris.”

“I thought Boris retired,” Rachel said, a look of puzzlement on her face.

“Apparently not.”

“So what’s Boris up to?”

“He hijacked the Shen Neng. The owners would like it back.”

“And presumably Boris is using this Viking wherever as a base?”

“Exactly,” Janet said. “We need to get somebody in there to scope it out.”

There was a long pause before Rachel replied. “Don did help me out. But it was for a price. He’ll want more than my smiling face.”

“Sounds like a personal problem to me.”

“Fuck you,” Rachel said. “You and your high-handed...”

“Hey, Miss Dread Pirate Rachel,” Janet said, her temper flaring, “You forget that I’m with the Good Guys. Don’t get pissy with me, or I’ll hand your ass to Interpol.”

Rachel composed herself with a visible effort. “I’ll try.”

“Don’t try, do.”

The screen went blank as Rachel killed the connection. “That went well,” Janet said to the blank screen.

It was actually a typical conversation of late, Janet thought. Rachel was showing an increasing unwillingness to cooperate. She was also getting a reputation among pirates as a jinx, deservedly so, as Space Rescue was using her to bust up pirate rings. Rachel had also been singularly unable or unwilling to recruit more moles.

“It may be time to cut you loose, dear,” Janet said to the dead phone.





Chapter 5


Boxtown, Mars


Minty turned off the shower faucet just as the hot water gave out. Damn cheap-ass twenty-liter hot water tank. Her phone rang, with the ring-tone set for calls from her sister. Stifling a curse at Rachel’s timing, Minty hustled out of the tiny bathroom and headed to the cramped apartment’s all-purpose front room to answer her phone.

She grabbed her phone one ring before it was to roll to mail. “Hi, Rachel,” Minty said, looking at the screen.

“Good thing I’m alone,” Rachel said, her tone suggesting disapproval of Minty’s lack of dress.

“Why wouldn’t you be?” Minty asked.

“I could think of a dozen reasons, including the possibility that I was dead and somebody was using my phone.”

“Then they’d get an eyeful, and you wouldn’t care, what with being dead and all.”

Rachel let out an exasperated sigh. “One of these days, your flippant attitude is going to get you hurt.”

It already did. Chasing after my big sister the pirate got me stuck here. Minty took a deep breath. “You called – what’s up?”

“We’re about to have a parting of the ways with Space Rescue.”

“About time,” Minty said under her breath.

“What?”

“I said, you got my attention.”

“For once,” Rachel said.

She’s never one to miss a dig, is she?

“The Generalissima,” Rachel said, using a pet name for Janet Pilgrim, “thinks I’m in Bradbury on one of her errands.”

“You’re not, I assume?” Minty said.

Rachel smiled cruelly. “Correctamundo. I’m getting papers so we can blow this planet.”

“She’s still watching the Rock,” Minty said, referring to Mars’ moon Phobos, the main point of departure.

“There’s holes in her coverage up there. Holes she doesn’t know about.”

“If you say so, sis.”

“I do, little sis.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“Nothing. Well, nothing other than be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. Keep your passport and spare cash in your panties ready – after you put them on, of course. It will take me a couple of days to line things up here.” Rachel waved a finger at Minty through the video pickup. “When I’m ready, I’ll call and tell you to get your ass to Phobos. We’ll meet up there.”

“Anyplace in particular? It’s kind of a big rock.”

Rachel looked irritated. “I’m getting to that. There’s a fixer calls himself Nasim. Owns a coffee shop on the leading-side retail concourse. Find him, and tell him you’re with me. He’ll have a packet for you.”

“Got it. Anything else?”

“Nope.”

“Sis, be careful,” Minty said.

“I will,” Rachel replied as she broke the connection.

Minty tossed the phone down on the short kitchen counter. Space Rescue’s other main base was on Phobos, a fact that had gotten them both caught a mear ago. Holes or not, going back up there was problematic.

Her phone beeped, reminding her that she had twenty minutes to get dressed and over to the Ritz. She padded to the bathroom and quickly fixed her hair, then tossed on a little lip gloss and some deodorant. Then she went to her bedroom, where she’d already laid out a dress, a black leather mini with a zipper the length of the front and shoulder straps that clipped to the dress on the front. The matching fuck-me heels were on the floor.

It wasn’t the kind of dress that one could wear a bra with, so she didn’t. She debated the issue of panties, and decided to skip them. Makes the pumping easier, and Rachel did say I’d have a couple of days notice. She accessorized the dress with a pink leather collar that locked in back and had an O-ring on front. Guys really dug it. Especially if she left the key at home.

That left the matter of a gun. The majority of the population of Boxtown was, if not nocturnal, more active of an evening. The streets would be full, and even if she was more conservatively dressed, an unaccompanied woman stood a good chance of drawing unwanted attention. Moreover, she had no idea when she’d be leaving the Ritz.

“Time for the gun that nobody’ll steal,” she said to the mirror. “It’s wheel-gun time.” She clopped over to her bedside table and pulled out the drawer.

Inside the drawer there was a small snub-nosed revolver that looked like crap. Most of the bluing had worn off. When she’d bought it, the grip was bare metal, leaving the firing spring and inner works exposed. She’d used cardboard and electrical tape to make something she could hold on to. But the gun, chambered in .327 Magnum, was mechanically reliable and the smallest six-shot revolver she’d been able to find. It was a bit of a handful to hold onto when fired, but more than enough to discourage the local rapists. Since the hotel guards were going to make her check the gun anyway, she skipped the canvas and string holster she’d made and just tossed it in her small handbag. She took a quick glance in the mirror and got her zipper set for the right cleavage, then added her phone to the grip bag and left.

###

“Sorry I’m late,” Tom said, looking down Minty’s dress as she sat on a couch in the lobby at the Ritz. “Were you waiting long?”

“No,” Minty lied as she stood up. No point in pissing off the guy I’m trying to get information from. She’d been cooling her heels for at least twenty minutes, even with the extra-vigorous pat-down she’d gotten from Security. One of the guards had actually offered to give her a “real gun” – of course, she had to go to his place to pick it up. “I got hung up in traffic.”

Tom chuckled as he looked her up and down, apparently appreciatively. “Traffic? In this tiny burg?”

Minty decided to play coy, and showed just a little spunk. “We may not be Los Angeles, but they don’t have airlocks either.”

Tom nodded his head to one side. “True. I was thinking we’d catch a drink at the bar before dinner.”

“Great idea,” Minty said. She decided not to note that drinks had gotten Rick and Hank killed.

###

They headed directly for the small and fairly crowded hotel bar for a pre-dinner drink. Tom had banged down a bourbon and was almost through his second before Minty had gotten halfway through her glass of cabernet. It was the Ritz’s house wine, but whoever made it for them locally knew what wine was supposed to taste like – it was almost as good as her uncle’s. The bar area was crowded enough that Tom had had to stand. Fortunately for Minty’s feet, he’d found her a bar stool.

“How long have y’all been on Mars?” Minty asked. Might as well get on with the pumping.

Tom frowned. “We made orbit four days ago. Got dirtside here yesterday morning local.”

“So last night was a celebration,” Minty said. She screwed a look of concern on her face. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t remind you.”

Tom looked away. “Yeah, it was a shame about Rick and Hank.”

“Where y’all close?”

Tom shrugged. “Yes and no. I mean, I wouldn’t have picked them for friends. But you spend what, over a hundred and fifty days in a can with somebody, you know a lot. And they were part of the program.”

“What program?” Minty asked.

Tom gulped the rest of his drink and put it on the bar. “Hi, Dad,” he said.

Minty, startled, swiveled in her seat and extended her hand to Andrew Breslin. She noted a rather pale but muscular man in a loud suit standing close behind Andrew. The other man’s suit had a gun-sized bulge.

“You clean up quite nicely, Miss Storey,” Andrew said with a smirk. He took her hand to shake it, and latched on with a firm grip.

“Thank you, sir,” Minty replied. Well, this should make the pumping easier.

“Are you the same Arminta Storey who was on the Charles S. Price?” Andrew asked.

The problem with a unique name. Minty kept her face neutral. “Yes, I was. May I ask...”

“How did I know?” Andrew said. “As I mentioned, I’m not without sources here.”

“We were just going to dinner, Dad,” Tom said. “I’ve...”

“I booked a private room,” Andrew said. “For the three of us.” He looked at his son. “I hope you don’t mind.”

“Of course not,” Tom croaked. He turned away, and gestured at the barman for a refill.

“We’ll meet you there,” Andrew said, still holding onto Minty’s arm.

This dinner could get interesting. Like “Chinese curse” interesting.

###

With Andrew firmly gripping her arm, the four of them headed into the main dining room of the Ritz. The room was lined with a series of side rooms opposite the large aquarium. The rooms were made of glass and wood-grained fiberglass, and varied in size from seating for twenty down to a table for six friends or four strangers. They ended up in one of the smaller rooms, the table set for four.

Real wood table, Minty noted as she sat down, her chair moved by one of the small army of waiters who descended on them. One of the waiters asked her water preference as she rubbed her arm to get some feeling back.

“I don’t know, wet?” she replied, glad to finally have the use of her right arm again.

“House is fine,” Andrew answered for the group. “Is the calamari fresh?”

One of the waiters, a neck tattoo peeking out from his collar, pointed at the aquarium they had passed which dominated the opposite side of the room. “You can pick your own, sir, if you please.”

Andrew smiled a bit wanly. “I have faith in the chef’s selection.”

As quickly and quietly as the army of waiters had arrived, they left, leaving water glasses and large paper menus behind. Minty heard the door click closed, and noted Andrew’s muscle man was standing beside it at parade rest.

“I think you can give him a break,” Minty said, pointing outside.

“Perhaps,” Andrew said. “Tell me. How exactly is it that you are the only person who got clear of the Charles S. Price? All your fellow pirates are dead or in jail.”

Minty took a sip of wine before answering, trying to buy a little time for her nerves to settle. The Manifest Destiny movement had provided funding for that job as well as designated the target. Probably wondering if I did anything to blow that job. “I got lucky.”

“You may be wondering why I ask,” Andrew said, as Tom sat there like a rock on the dirt.

“Actually, no sir, I’m not,” Minty replied. “I understand you’re affiliated with something called a Manifest Destiny group.” She took another drink, this time of water, and noted that Andrew’s eyebrow went up. “We do have the Internet here.”

“Manifest Destiny Movement,” Tom said, earning a glare from his father and a glance from Minty.

“Yes, we are a movement,” Andrew said. “Tell me, Miss Arminta, what exactly do you know about our Movement?”

“Very little, actually,” Minty said, more-or-less truthfully. “You paid for a group of us to ’jack a ship and cut out a specific container for you.”

“So to you we’re just another customer?”

Minty shrugged. “I was just a Class B shareholder on that job. Kinda a ‘go where they tell you and shoot who they say’ girl. The Class A’s did the deep thinking.”

“Yet, unlike a number of the ‘deep thinkers,’ you survived,” Andrew said. “I’m curious as to how.”

“I got lucky, truthfully,” Minty said. “I was on the can when the alarm sounded about Space Rescue attacking. By the time I was getting to my post, my team had been bagged and tagged, and Rescue was moving on.” She told the rest of the story truthfully enough, but left out the important bit about Space Rescue waiting for her, guns drawn, just when she thought she was free and clear.

Andrew listened to her story impassively. When she finished, he said, “You don’t seem very sad about your team’s loss.”

Minty shrugged. “Crying about it won’t help.”

“Your sister, Rachel, also disappeared that night. Why?”

“If you find her, ask her for me,” Minty said.

“You don’t know where she is?” Andrew asked.

“No. Haven’t seen or heard from her since the Price went tits up. She’s disappeared before – like the first time she went pirating.”

“So what brought you here?”

“Well, by the time I got clear, news radio was talking about pirates being captured on the Price. I figured that they’d give my name up soon if they hadn’t already, so I needed a place to hide. Boxtown seemed a good bet.”

“That was eighteen months ago,” Andrew said, using the Earth calendar. “What have you been doing since then?”

Besides passing information to Space Rescue? “If you say so. We have a different calendar around here.”

“Whatever,” Andrew said, waving his hand. “My question still stands.”

They were interrupted for a moment by the arrival of the calamari. Minty tapped on her wine glass for a refill and Tom gestured at his drink, but Andrew waved off the waiter.

“You were saying?” Andrew said.

“Rachel had told me she’d done some business with Mike Gerulitas...”

“Kettlebelly?”

“He is kinda fat,” Minty allowed. She really wished she could get a read on how much of this he was buying. Dying was not part of her plan. “So I got a few odd jobs with him, enough to cover the air tax, and ended up owning a shoe store.”

“Owning?”

Minty smiled. “Won it in a poker game.” This was true, although when she got it the place was completely abandoned and had no stock in it. The cash to re-stock and open had come from Space Rescue. And she was still milking Space Rescue for subsidies, even though the place was turning a small but steady profit.

“And doing odd jobs for out-of-towners like me,” Andrew said.

“The shoe business is not especially lucrative,” Minty said.

“What exactly were you doing in Mos Eiseley’s last night?”

“They’ve got a hot band. Also, since the Chopsticks run the girls in there, you can go and not get hit on too much.”

“The Chopsticks?” Tom asked.

The dude who skewered your buddies.

“Local gang, son,” Andrew said with a touch of exasperation. “How convenient, Minty, that you were there and able to save my son.”

“Sir, like I said, I was just a second-string gun, and I had no idea who you were until I ran into Tom this morning.”

“Which was also convenient,” Andrew said. “Why were you here?”

“Tyler Hansen. He’s on the night desk, and I was going to meet him for breakfast.”

“Oh?” Tom said. “Just breakfast?”

“Tyler’s gay,” Minty said. “He hooks me up with higher-end clients for a small cut. Men looking to buy nice stuff for their side squeeze.”

“Or men looking for a side squeeze?” Andrew said, a piece of calamari dangling from his fork.

Minty shrugged. “Air tax is due the fifth of the month. They kick out the dinks on the tenth.”

“Dinks?” Tom said.

“Delinquents,” Andrew and Minty said at once.

“People that don’t or can’t pay,” Minty added. When they kicked the dinks out, you could take bets on how many seconds they stayed upright. There was also a profitable little business buying up air tax chits and making the dink work them off, but a rich fuck like you wouldn’t understand that.

Andrew smiled, but with no humor. “You seem to have an answer for everything.” He pushed away from the table and stood up. “Enjoy your dinner,” he said, walking out of the room.

“He always this paranoid?” Minty asked as a couple of waiters came in. Suddenly the room was awfully hot.

“Just lately,” Tom replied.

Minty noted that the bodyguard remained standing outside the door to their room.

###

Andrew came back in just as the desserts were arriving. Tom, who seemed to have an amazing tolerance for alcohol, had been talking about some juvenile prank that had gotten him kicked out of his third, or maybe fourth, college – Minty couldn’t keep them straight.

“You missed a wonderful steak,” Minty said, wondering if she’d just eaten her last meal.

“I’ve had better,” Andrew said. “Well, Miss Storey, I am pleased to discover that you’ve been exceptionally truthful with me, so far.”

“No reason to lie,” Minty said.

“So are we...” Tom said.

“We are not,” Andrew replied. “I look forward to meeting this Tyler fellow. But please enjoy your evening.”

###

Since Tom was still grounded to the hotel, they ended up in his room of course, with Andrew’s muscle stationed outside. If Tom thought anything was weird about the arrangement, he kept it to himself. He seemed quite surprised, however, that Minty wasn’t wearing any underwear. “Must be kinda drafty,” Tom had said.

Minty was quite surprised that, given the amount of booze Tom had guzzled down, that he was able to do anything about her draftiness. Not that he was particularly proficient or anything. Although considering some of the arrangements she’d seen made to not be a dink on one’s air tax, a roll in the clean sheets of the Ritz with a drunk and spoiled rich kid was cake.

Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, Minty had to pee. Tom had insisted on leaving the lights on, but since he was passed out, Minty resolved to turn them off when she finished. She walked out of the bathroom, naked except for her collar, to find Andrew standing in the room. A cold chill that had nothing to do with room temperature ran down her spine.

“And good morning to you,” Minty said.

Andrew looked at her unabashedly. “I see you had fun this evening.”

“We did, thank you. Is this where you have your goon take me out back?” She faked a smile, trying to look like she was making a joke. I really miss my gun.

Andrew smiled. “No, I think you can live. Your friend Tyler is quite the character. I think he was hitting on me.”

“He’s looking for a sugar daddy.”

“A pity then that he’s not my type.” Andrew suppressed a yawn, which Minty took as a good sign. “Actually, I may have a more substantial job for you, if you’re interested.”

“I may be, but right now I’m interested in getting some sleep. Us small-town Martian girls need our beauty rest.”

“I understand,” Andrew said. “I’m going to bed myself, then I have meetings all day tomorrow. I’ll know for sure in a couple of days if I need you or not.”

Minty forced a yawn. “Let me know. Your son’s got my number.”

“So do I,” Andrew said, managing to make that innocent remark seem sinister. “Well, good night then. Oh, and leave the lights on. Tom has a terrible phobia about the dark.”

“I will, sir.”

Andrew turned and left, and Minty took a gulp of air, just now realizing how tightly her guts were wrapped around themselves. Being alive was kind of nice.

Minty suddenly felt a little unsteady on her feet, and she slipped into an armchair. The adrenaline from the evening started to wash out. She glanced over at the still-sleeping Tom, sprawled out face down on the bed with his bare black ass exposed. “I guess I’m pumping the right person.”





Volunteer Space Rescue Base, Port Lowell, Mars


Trell climbed out of the trolley car at its stop in front of the main gate/airlock leading into the Space Rescue base. Nick Lopez, who had joined him for lunch, climbed out behind him. One of the recruits on guard detail flagged down Nick as they walked in. Several boxes had arrived, and Trell helped Nick carry the boxes into the day lounge being used by the Anti-piracy group.

“The El Tee’s been here,” Nick said as they walked in.

“How can you tell?” Trell asked, setting his share of the boxes on the longest of the tables in the room.

“Poster,” Nick said, gesturing at the wall. The AR-70 poster had been changed. Now it was set to show a shirtless man with a fashionably hairy chest holding the rifle.

“Oh,” Trell said. He looked more closely at one of the boxes he’d carried in. “What’s a Ruger Whisper?”

“Suppressed pistol,” Nick said, producing a pocketknife to open one of the boxes.

“What’s suppressed mean?”

“Open it up and look,” Nick said.

“Okay,” Trell replied, feeling a bit uncomfortable. “It’s not loaded, is it?”

“Nobody ships a loaded gun, Trell,” Nick said. “Go ahead, it won’t bite you.”

The Ruger box proved to contain what looked like a standard automatic pistol, except with an unusually long barrel. “Is this a silencer?”

“Yes,” Nick said. “Although since it doesn’t make the gun completely silent, we call it a suppressor. It suppresses the sound.”

“How quiet is it?”

“Why don’t we take it to the range and find out?”

###

The Rescue Service shooting range was a long and narrow room in the basement, shoe-horned in between various mechanical spaces. They brought three guns with them, the Ruger, Nick’s revolver and a new rifle from the recent shipment, which they both fired.

The un-suppressed guns were loud, even through Trell’s earplugs. If he hadn’t been wearing the hearing protection, they would have been painful in the confined and brick-lined space. The Ruger, on the other hand, while not being nearly as whisper-quiet as silencers on videos, was no louder than a hand clap and could be fired without any hearing protection at all.

“You shoot them, you clean them,” Nick said as they finished.

“Seems reasonable,” Trell replied. “Question.”

“Answer.”

“How do I get on Special Operations?”

“Your mom...”

“Is not in my chain of command.”

Nick smiled. “I was hoping you’d see it that way.”

###

Late that afternoon, Trell sat down with Lieutenant Pilgrim and went over his findings about how to get into Viking Utopia. There were several holes in his plan, which Pilgrim quickly pointed out. She called them “rookie mistakes” which didn’t make Trell feel any better. The biggest problem was that they had to time their arrival to coincide with a scheduled overland trade convoy.

“I’ll take this home tonight and noodle over it,” she ended up saying. “There’s the basics of a good plan here.”

“One more thing, ma’am,” Trell found himself saying. “I’d like to go on this mission.”

“Pardon?” Pilgrim asked, arching an eyebrow.

“I’d like to go. As just one of the guys, not in command or anything.”

“Why?”

“I feel bad sending people someplace I’m not going to,” he replied. It was the only feeling that Trell cared to share.

“You’re not sending, because I’m leading this team.”

“I understand, Ma’am,” Trell said. “But still, I want to help.”

“You’re not range-qualified,” Pilgrim said, “nor have you been through any training.”

“We’ve got two weeks before we can attack,” Trell said, pointing to the trade convoy schedule. “I can get up to speed. And you need everybody you can get.”

“That I do,” Pilgrim replied. She looked at the pile of briefing papers before her, then pushed them at Trell. “Let me think about it overnight.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”





Chapter 6


Boxtown, Mars


Minty glanced from the front counter in her store towards the children’s section – really just a long rack – and looked at her only customer. The woman, vaguely Asian and worn-out looking, was bent over one of her two toddlers. For Pete’s sake, lady, pick a pair.

It had been a slow couple of weeks. After her dinner and pump-party at the Ritz, Andrew and Tom Breslin had left town, off to parts unspecified for vague meetings with unidentified people. You’d think they didn’t trust me, smiling at her own joke. At any rate, the two of them had gotten back in town sometime yesterday, and Andrew had called, asking her to come to a “working dinner” tonight with him and Tom.

Minty’s phone buzzed. She glanced down at it and, recognizing the caller ID, put in her privacy earbud before answering. “Storey’s Shoes, we got a shoe for you.”

“Anybody else there?” Janet Pilgrim asked. Minty noted that Janet was apparently in civilian clothes.

“One customer with her two kids. If you’re coming down soon, I’ll stay open for you.”

Janet smiled wryly. “I shop elsewhere. Look, I’m going to be off the grid for a few days. Anything I need to know?”

“Not really. The B’s are back in town and I’ve got a meet tonight.”

“Cool. Call M if anything comes up.” She meant her boss Mfume.

“I will,” Minty said.

“Be good,” Janet said as she cut the connection.

Minty looked up to see the woman standing at the counter, two pairs of children’s casual shoes in her hands. “You really want fifty bucks for these?”

That’s what the price tags say, dear. But actually I couldn’t give a shit less. Minty shrugged. “What do you think they’re worth?”

The woman named a lowball figure. They haggled a bit, but Minty’s heart wasn’t in it, so the woman got most of what she wanted. She and her toddlers left, and Minty locked up behind them.

As she entered her apartment, her phone rang again with Rachel’s ring tone. Minty answered, noting that Rachel was wearing a particularly unbecoming gray tank top.

“Hi,” Minty said.

“Hi yourself,” Rachel replied. “Look, I gotta talk quick – La Generalissima will be calling you soon.”

“She just did – said something about going off the grid.”

The phone caught Rachel’s predatory grin. “Yeah, she’s going off of the grid, for a long time.”

“Oh?”

“She’s coming up to Viking Utopia, where she thinks she’s going to be a hero.”

“I take it you have other plans?” Minty said, making the logical assumption that Rachel was at Viking wherever.

“I do. For all of us.”

“Which are?”

“We’re going to capture her and her team,” Rachel said. “Boris and Hoffman think they can ransom them, and get Space Patrol to stop bashing pirates.”

Minty made a quizzical face at the phone. “Didn’t we see this video before? Capturing Space Rescue pukes is what got them into anti-piracy in the first place.”

Rachel shrugged while holding the phone farther out. The video wasn’t great, but it looked like Rachel was going un-holstered under the tank top, and it wasn’t the sort of shirt one could easily do that in. “Not my problem.”

“Well, if you’re where the hostages are...”

“I won’t be,” Rachel replied. “After I hand over La Generalissima and her minions, I’m leaving. So are you. Space Patrol will be so busy dealing with their problems we’ll be able to get lost in the shuffle.”

It might work. “Assuming you’ve got new ID paper for us.”

“I will,” Rachel said. “Remember what I told you?”

“Yeah, Nasim at the coffee shop.”

“Right.”

“Sis,” Minty said.

“Yes?”

“Be careful, will you?”

Rachel smiled. “Always.” She looked over her shoulder. “Gotta go.”

“Bye,” Minty said. “I love you.” She was talking to a blank screen.

Minty felt a tang of loss. Her sister was her only surviving family, and had protected her from their stepfather. Minty owed Rachel a lot. Her eyes started to water.

“Stop this,” she said. “Not now.” Minty next called up the commercial rocket schedule for Boxtown on her phone. There was only one rocket leaving tonight, at twenty hundred, but it was full. The next launch was the dawn patrol at oh-five hundred local. It’ll have to do. She booked a seat via her pocket device. Looks like I can keep my date with the Breslins.

There was no telling what the “working dinner” would involve, but if Tom had a vote it would surely include a romp in his sheets. Better get cleaned up and dressed for the part.

After a quick shower, Minty changed into a red silk dress. It wasn’t as brief as last week’s leather number, but made up for it in being thinner and generally more clingy. She again skipped the bra, but decided to go with the red panties that had come with the dress. She capped the outfit off with red heels and a silver purse. The latter was just big enough for her phone, passport, some money and the battered Ruger revolver with its homemade canvas holster.

She paused and looked at her apartment. There was nothing personal there, no keepsakes, just some clothing and used furniture. She tossed a few items into a backpack, more for convenience sake than need. She could buy clothing on Phobos. She’d done more than her share for Space Rescue – if anything, they owed her, and she owed nothing to anybody else. Earth, here I come.

That last was a bit scary. She’d never been to Earth. But Rachel had, so she’d have a guide. Minty squared her shoulders and left her apartment.

###

Unlike his son, Andrew was on time, and was standing in the lobby waiting for her when she cleared the Ritz’s security checkpoint.

“I like a lady who’s on time,” Andrew said with a smile.

“I try, sir,” she said.

“Please, call me Andrew. Everybody does.”

“I will, Andrew.”

“If you don’t mind, I’d prefer to eat in a less pretentious location.”

“Not at all,” Minty said. “Where’s Tom?”

Andrew smiled. “I have Tom working on other tasks.”

###

To Minty’s surprise, they left the Ritz, which involved a brief delay as Minty retrieved her gun.

“That thing actually work?” Andrew asked.

“I wouldn’t carry it if it didn’t,” Minty said. “You point a gun at somebody, they either get quiet or pissed off. If they’re pissed off, a broke gun is liable to get you dead.”

“I’d have thought after what I paid you could afford a better gun,” Andrew said.

“Oh, I have good-looking guns,” Minty replied. “The fact that this is so ugly is the only reason it doesn’t get stolen.”

“Makes sense, I guess.”

As they talked they walked across the market area to Pete’s. It was a decent-enough place, but definitely not the Ritz. For one thing, it didn’t have a security checkpoint at the door. One of Pete’s daughters, an olive-skinned girl with a prominent Greek nose, took them to a table in the nearly empty back room.

“Secluded,” Minty said.

“Yes,” Andrew replied. He picked up a menu. “What’s good here?”

“The roasted chicken is very tasty,” Minty said. “Also the tilapia.”

They made awkward small