Chapter One - Excerpt

"How dare you delay me! I am a representative of the Imperial Majestic Over-Vizier of the Third Royal Family of Gramor on an urgent mission to Pelion. Move aside at once or face the wrath of our Lord Olas."

"Gramor has no royal family. How about you send some ID before you face my wrath, pilot?"

Sethran Kada slipped into his pilot bench, a little surprised to find Air Command hailing him out here. He scanned for more unwelcome escorts and found another military cruiser between him and the jumpsite. Of course they had collapsed the gate as soon they emerged, making a quick exit impossible.

"Did I say Gramor? I meant Callas." He shifted his attention to the markers for two more ships approaching rapidly from the planet behind him, armed, fully shielded and definitely not belonging to Air Command. Those he did expect. Since eluding them on the Aikhor airfield he had kept well ahead of them but this encounter with the patrol was whittling away his head start by the second.

"Sethran Kada, it says here," the officer said. "Quite the sheet you have. Visual, please. What are you doing out here?"

An audible signal alerted Seth to the Union ship's scanners taking a closer look at the Dutchman, easily poking through the cruising shields to look at interesting bits. He kept his eyes on the few compartments liberally doused with sensor-scattering filaments. Their content remained invisible on the screens.

"That shouldn't be a mystery." Seth activated a camera to let the officer make a visual confirmation of his identity: Centauri, black haired and long-limbed like all of them, violet eyes that reflected nearby light, and a friendly grin that often charmed even the most bad-tempered of cops. The Human taking a snap of his irises didn't seem charmed. "Since I'm currently traveling on a mathematically correct trajectory away from the only two habitable planets in this sector and the only other point of interest here is this jumpsite, the astute observer would conclude that I am about to enter subspace."

He heard a sigh, followed by a dead silence suggesting some unheard conversation between the two military ships. Seth kept busy. The Dutchman confirmed the switch from auto-pilot to Seth's neural interface, giving him both mental and tactile control of all systems. He drifted toward the jumpsite aptly named Pelion Gate. It appeared on his monitors as an empty bit of space ringed by a set of Union-owned beacons waiting for him to align and activate.

Sites like these channeled commercial and military traffic among populated sectors of this small, crowded piece of their galaxy along easily monitored shipping lanes with great efficiency. The beacons enabled even the most untried of navigators to find a way through the dead nothing of subspace and emerge unscathed at the intended destination. Stable and accessible, allowing no deviation between entry and exit, these conduits provided safety as well as close surveillance of all those who passed through the ring of beacons. Seth usually had the means to counter their soulless intrusion, but not the Union patrol intent on waylaying him today.

"You're not actually supposed to be on Pelion, are you, Kada?"

"That's still before the ministry," Seth said, wondering when his contacts would get around to expunging that particular misdemeanor. "Besides, I'm not going to Pelion. Just passing through."

"To Callas."

"Maybe." Seth's scanners picked up the patrol cruiser's request for identification of the two other ships. It now broadcasted on a variety of channels; clearly their initial hail had gone unanswered. "What's going on? Never seen this gate manned before."

"Just the usual chatter among rebels."

"If it were usual you wouldn't be out here harassing tourists."

"Is that what you are? A tourist? You might as well wait for that incoming traffic and share the load."

"I'm expected. No time to waste." The two approaching ships were not the sort looking to hook up for the subspace leap. Entering a gate in a convoy significantly reduced the strain on each ship's processors as they worked together with the beacons but these two would have other priorities. For the most part, he supposed, blowing the Dutchman to bits was at the top of their list. Two bored Air Command patrol crews would not discourage them today. Perhaps it was better to just get out of everyone's way. "So I'll just get jumping, then."

"So you're vacationing on Callas, another three days away, and you can't wait a few more minutes to get there?" The voice of the officer aboard the patrol ship took on a less genial tone. Perhaps the continued silence from the heavily armed new arrivals was a little more worrisome than a minor felon entering Pelion Gate. "You'll want to stop at the station, Dutchman. That's not negotiable."

Seth cursed silently. The massive Union station on the Pelion side of this breach was, indeed, his destination but he had hoped to get there unannounced. Now his presence in the sector would no doubt be reported to the management of Pelion Gate as soon as he opened the jumpsite. The patrol's message packet sent through with him would arrive at the ring before he did. "Need service anyway," he said blithely. "You folks have yourself a lovely day."

"It's night."

"Whatever." Seth sent a mental signal to the ship's chronometer to adjust the time to Pelion's rotation. The Union cruisers moved away and turned their attention to the incoming private vessels. Relieved, Seth began to feed the jumpsite, using the beacons to conserve energy. Instead of taxing his own systems, he let the site's processors work with the Dutchman's to calculate the traverse through the Big Empty. A slight tremor moved through the ship in preparation for launch.


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And then a forceful and all too familiar blow struck the ship. His hands gripped the armrests of his bench when the Dutchman switched into a defensive configuration without warning. The shields were already at full service for the jump but now the weapons systems came online as well. Power routed from the gravity spinners and all components signaled combat readiness.

"Damn." Seth dove out of the way of another volley emitting from the cruisers streaking toward them, his mental reflex faster than a physical interface could react. The Union ships, too, took up a defensive posture.

"Stand down, Air Command," a female voice cut into their sound systems. They heard excited voices of others in the background. "This is not your fight."

"Identify," the officer replied. "Identify and stand down."

"Those are Shri-Lan rebels," Seth supplied, naming the Union's greatest foe and the primary reason for Air Command's presence in this sector.

No time to question, no time to explain. The two rebel ships bore down upon the cruisers near the jumpsite, now targeting the forward shields of the Air Command patrols, more as warning than to cause damage. The shots impacting the Dutchman's shields hit home with far greater accuracy.

"We just want the Centauri," the woman said. "Move aside or we'll destroy you, too."

"Get out of here, Kada!" the Union officer ordered.

"Yessir!" Seth signaled the beacons surrounding the site and accelerated toward the slowly forming aperture. He relaxed into his headset, using only his mind to direct the Dutchman into the breach.

But would those rebels give up if he left? The patrol would have alerted the Union base back on Aikhor who would have scrambled by now. This was not rebel-held territory and an attack on a military ship was not only an act of war but also damn cheeky. The only way to escape now was through the jumpsite to the Pelion sector. And the only way to the site led past the undoubtedly very irate military patrol.

"Bitch took out my fucking aft shield!" The Union pilot's exclamation was edged in panic, betraying his lack of experience with Shri-Lan rebels bent on retribution.

Seth switched to the real vid display showing the field behind him. The rebel ships had fully engaged, no longer interested in avoiding a fight with Air Command to get at the Dutchman.

Seth allowed the newly formed field to collapse and whipped the Dutchman around to return to the Union ships, his hands flying over the tactical controls as he returned fire. He dove below the cruiser to his left and came up in time to blast one of the rebel ship's shield seams, using his neural interface to place the charge with precision. Wounded, the Shri-Lan ship spun away to present another side to the melee only to take another hit.

The Dutchman shuddered when a projectile rammed into its undercarriage. He reached up to slap a few internal shields into place when a containment warning appeared on the holo representation of his ship beside him. He moved back to let the Air Command cruiser take a shot at their enemy and grinned when it disintegrated over their heads. A few solid chunks of hull slammed into his shields, barely raising a note of concern from his monitors. He came around and lobbed a missile at the remaining rebels' left crossdrive, watching it crumble with a burst of quickly-extinguished sparks.

"Pretty!" he said.

"Remaining bogey's disabled," one of the officers transmitted. "I'm lame, too."

"Backup coming in from Aikhor," his colleague reported. "Should be here in a few hours. No other unidentifieds in the vicinity."

"Tourist, eh, Kada? What are you packing on that boat? You cut through that shield like churry lard."

"Lucky hit," Seth said and turned the Dutchman back to the jumpsite.

"I'd thank you for saving my ass but I think we have to thank you for starting all this to begin with."

"I have to go."

"Negative, Kada. You're staying here till we know what's so important about you."

"No, really. I'm expected." Seth moved into position. "I had fun, though. Thanks."


"Let Pelion deal with him," the officer on the undamaged ship said. "We'll know soon enough what had this Shri-Lan scum so excited."

"Unlikely," Seth said to himself after shutting down their com link. Unfortunately, whatever story the surviving rebels had to offer Air Command investigators was surely worse than the truth. They'd not pass up an opportunity to create more trouble.

He returned his attention to the jumpsite. A pleasant tone rang through the ship to announce the imminent jump. The Dutchman accelerated correctly, steadily, while ramping up all shields for the assault about to be unleashed upon it. The shields would form a small bubble of safety for pilot and cargo, allowing him to pass from one sector to the other in mere moments. He breathed deeply, steeling himself, before placing his hand on the control panel, confirming what his mind had already conveyed to the processor.

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