by Simon Challands

an Élite story

     Overhead point lights illuminated a semi-circular table and the five people sat around it. They were sitting around the curve, dressed in the stark military uniforms of Her Majesty's Space Navy, bearing no indication of their true position in the service, that of agents of Naval Intelligence. The chair at the flat side of the table was placed upon a slight platform, and was currently unoccupied.
     The man who entered to take the chair was older and was dressed in a richer uniform with admiral's stripes around the cuffs. The five stood to greet him.
     "Please, sit." He sat and continued "I'll be brief, because that's all I can be with our present knowledge. The Constrictor dilemma has reared its ugly head again. It was a remarkably well-built ship, not only in its shielding but also in its hull, and it appears that its destruction wasn't total. Various pieces of unusual duralium recently appeared in a scrap sale. GalCop always keep an eye on the trader in question and fortunately they recognised that there was something odd here. They passed on the metal to us and it as been positively identified as coming from the Constrictor. The scrap merchant confessed to having obtained it from a known pirate who was then traced by GalCop. It turns out that the pirate was killed a month ago. And with him went the last known link to the debris. We don't know if there was any more of it and where it might have gone, although judging from the state of the pieces we recovered it is quite possible that someone somewhere has some."
     The admiral stood and walked to the wall behind him. Pressing a pad on it caused a portion to illuminate. "This is the TS-ComDirect footage from the Cobra that destroyed the Constrictor." The screen showed the mysterious vessel swerving around trying to avoid the incessant military laser from the pursuing vessel. Its screens having nearly failed the stolen craft's only hope was to try and outrun the slower but more manoeuvrable Cobra. The laser fire caught the Constrictor again, penetrating the now-failed shields. The explosion of the doomed ship lit the screen but the victor had rolled his ship out of the line of sight before the aftermath of the Constrictor's destruction had died away.
     The admiral continued, "The Cobra did not stay to investigate any further. Image analysis was indeterminate as to whether or not significant solid debris was left behind but the likelihood was considered low and the matter was not pursued. Upon its return to a station we had the Cobra's logs of the event wiped as a precaution. The commander of that vessel is believed to be trustworthy but unfortunately we dare not risk interviewing him at the moment since he is involved in the current Thargoid campaign and drawing attention to him at this moment in time would most definitely not be a good idea."
     "I guess we're to track down whatever may be left of the Constrictor, then?" asked one of the five.
     "Correct. Its technology must remain secret. It was impressive enough on a ship that size. If it were to end up on a full-sized warship the results could be catastrophic for the Co-Operative. A transport will leave here at 1600 to transport you to Orarra. Vessels have been made available for you there. Good luck."
     There must be some genuine concern that some critical aspects of the Constrictor had found their way into the wrong hands to warrant this treatment. The Navy was usually too busy caught up in engagements with the Thargoids to spend much effort on slender-seeming risks such as this. The five agents thought so too and were pondering events as they waited for the transport vessel to leave the naval base at Xeer. The uniforms had been put away and they were now dressed casually. Four of them were human, the other an alien with a slight feline appearance, a native of the world Diso, unusual in an organisation dominated by the Old Earth species.
     A slight movement in their ship signalled the start of its flight. The giant gantries and arms of the Xeer New Devonport Naval Docks were seen drifting by as the the craft was slowly manoeuvred towards clear space. Xeer was a major naval base and shipyard and was bustling with more activity than would usually be seen outside the busiest civilian space station. To the left the skeletons of three half-completed Asp MkIIs lay enclosed by a web of metal. Small points of light showed where robotic construction equipment worked on the ships. On the opposite side was a squadron of new Sidewinder Scout craft that had just arrived from Onrira Orbital. Alongside them was one of the Sidewinder's heavier squadron leader ships, the Bushmaster (an oversight in its naming resulted in it being given the identical designation to the common mining vessel).
     The transport cleared the structure of the central shipyard station, bringing into view the planet of Xeer itself, a huge crescent below. On the visible slice grey cloud covered the plains from which most of the planet's agricultural wealth was obtained. A few concentrations of light could be seen in the dark area, mostly cities but two of the odder-appearing ones were the result of huge numbers of luminescent marine creatures that accumulated at two nights of every year making one of the more impressive natural sights in the galaxy. Up in space a Coriolis station span near to the main yard. This was where some of the more secret construction projects took place. It was rumoured that the Navy were developing their remote- controlled fighter in there, and the Constrictor had certainly been built within it, hidden from prying eyes. Until it was stolen.
     The theft of the Constrictor was still something of a mystery, even to Naval Intelligence. The thieves had never been identified. The project had been top secret but all those who were supposed to know of it had been accounted for. Despite much looking no evidence had ever been found of a leak. Since the theft to the time of destruction the thieves had remained as much out of contact as possible, destroying most of those they encountered. The only contact had been the delivery of a galactic hyperdrive and even then it was only seen fleetingly. The crew who went in to install it never came out again and the vessel departed before anyone came looking for them.
     Two of the team looking for its remains had been involved with trying to sort out the original fiasco. After a couple of months of futile searching it had become apparent that more help was needed, and with most of the Navy's resources directed against the Thargoids they were forced to turn to the public for assistance. It had been conceded that a hard-bitten trader who had survived numerous pirate attacks and knew all the tricks in the book, and a few more besides, might have better luck when it came to fighting the thing anyway. Angus Williams was one of the two agents trying to locate the missing ship. He had eventually traced the Constrictor to Colesque and managed to contact the last surviving independent trader on its tail. Williams had caught up with it too soon, flying the wrong craft, and was lucky to have escaped with his life. After that the somewhat embittered man was reduced to pointing the pursuing trader in the right direction, until he eventually managed to catch up with and destroy the Constrictor.
     The Disian was the other member of the group involved with the original chase. His task had been to try to find out who had stolen it in the first place, and his failure to do so had preyed on his mind ever since. The number of criminal organisations who might have liked such booty was high, but the death rate amongst them was also high in their high-risk business. GalCop had lost track of a number of them at the time of the Constrictor's destruction. Besides, the theft of a top-secret Naval ship from a heavily-guarded base was too daring for most of them. A number of planets throughout the galaxy were engaged in on-going wars. Those within the Galactic Co-operative were confined to fighting themselves but there were a large number of planets outside its jurisdiction fighting interstellar battles. Most of them had too few resources to attempt such a mission as the theft. The most deadly enemies of all, the Thargoids, were not known for their subtlety and when they wanted something they were more inclined to wade in with guns blazing to seize it by force.
     Then there was the even more puzzling question of how anyone knew about the ship. Security was tight at the shipyard and there was no indication of where it might have been breached. Grudgingly the case had been closed unless someone discovered new information.
     Of the remaining three one of them had lived in the region of the galaxy of Colesque, the area in which Orarra was located and had extensive contacts there. The two others had no particular knowledge or involvement with the Constrictor, and had been selected simply for being people good for the job who were available at the right time.
     They had now left the dockyard complex and were headed towards the co-ordinates for Witchspace entry. Numerous craft, both civilian and military, thronged the area. Police patrols, freighter convoys, private lone- wolf traders, and probably a number of pirates and a few bounty hunters masquerading as tradecraft were all present, and for the time being obeying the rules. Until they were as out of sight as could be managed and where everyone had to live on their wits.
     As a priority military mission SysCon had granted them immediate departure into the Faraway jump. The transport slowed, awaiting final hyperspace permission. When it came the ship moved forwards again, slowly, angling for the theoretically perfect position to make hyperspace as risk-free an event as could be possible. There was nothing else to indicate that the single-use galactic hyperdrive motor was powering up, that could send them hundreds of times further than the standard drives, into a completely different area of the galaxy. As a military model it had far greater precision than those available to civilians (which could only lock onto a random system when the craft was almost in the area) and had been targeted on Orarra, the last known location of the Constrictor. And in an instant it engaged, and the ship vanished.
     They emerged from hyperspace several days later. The planet Orarra was a scorched red-brown disc in the distance, burnt by its distant and hot sun. A few minutes later two more specks of light appeared. They slowly resolved themselves into Viper-class fighter ships, the escort for the relatively unprotected transport.
     The planet was reached without incident, and before long the task group was sitting in the quiet bar of the hotel where accommodation had been provided for them in the station Dodec Four. There were four stations orbiting the planet. One of the team would go to each whilst the fifth would contact the planetary authorities in the hope that they had any knowledge of what was going on. Not that there was much hope that they would have, but since only the space stations and not the planet were directly controlled by the Galactic Co- Operative the Navy had no official authority on the surface. Unofficial enquiries were only generally made after the gestures towards legality had been completed.
     Emily Barbeth was the member of the team to visit Orarra Station Three. Early next morning a shuttle flew her over. Moving away from the landing platform towards the information displays lining the walls at its back was a map of the station. The stations were built as a standard shell with the essential facilities included but the rest of the interior differed depending upon the local needs and resources. The headquarters of the Orarra Corporation, who controlled all interstellar trade at the planet, were located some distance away at the address of Carrock House, Sarros Square, Facet 4. Outside the spaceport and its jostling crowds of humans and aliens Barbeth found a taxi to take her there. The small autonomous vessel lifted off into the central void of the station. The walls and ceiling of the taxi were transparent and through them the interior of the station was an impressive, if dizzying sight. Straight above, three quarters of a mile distant the interior of the opposite face was a blaze of light in the sky. Curving around to meet it were walls no less impressive. The pentagonal facets of the station were difficult to discern under their covering of buildings, parks and farmland and the appearance was more of the interior of a sphere. The Dodo and Coriolis space stations found in orbit around all planets of the Galactic Co-Operative were more than just trading posts, they were small worlds in their own right.
     The taxi was heading towards one of the "walls". Since it was station daytime the whole interior was well illuminated, but the dense network of lighting still made the area ahead show up as being a largely built-up area. Numerous other taxi craft darted to and fro from the complex to the rest of the station, amidst them was the occasional larger bus or supply van.
     The taxi landed in a square in front of Carrock House. It was an imposing building as befitted the importance of the organisation it housed. Flags from poles jutting out the front proudly displayed the Corporation logo and its name was emblazoned above the doorway.
     Inside the building Barbeth was greeted with the usual unimaginative "How can I help you?" from the receptionist in the foyer.
     The permission to review the trading logs and more importantly the security video footage of the docked craft loading and unloading their cargo was obtained by means of a borrowed GalCop pass that Naval Intelligence had obtained for the job. It was unlikely that anyone carrying such a "hot" cargo would allow themselves to be seen like this, more probably they had left the system without going anywhere near the planet itself - if they knew what they had found.
     The man who arrived to assist her was smartly dressed, somewhat in contrast to his wild hair. He introduced himself as Darhil Peyers, one of the numerous managers of the Corporation. Bad publicity was something that they were keen to avoid and tried they usually tried to persuade someone reasonably high up in the organisation to deal with anything that looked like an official enquiry.
     Barbeth took his hand. "Nobody is checking up on you," she reassured him with a slight smile. "We just need to make use of your records to try to track down someone who might have passed through here."
     Peyers grinned back. "We just try to be of service as best we can. I'm here to help, not to put a good face on for what might be someone poking their nose into our business."
     "Should someone be?" Barbeth said.
     Peyers laughed. "Please come with me," he said, leading her into the heart of the building. "What is it you are looking for, then?"
     "Some salvaged scrap that might have passed through here recently. Anything that looks like it was just picked up from space."
     "You'll have a lot of searching to do then, I'm afraid," Peyers told her. The room they entered was equipped with a variety of computer interfaces. A couple of chairs were sat at a desk, a coffee machine stood in one corner. Barbeth looked at it curiously.
     "It's an antique," Peyers said. "It's not very valuable, though, and getting coffee for it is pretty difficult. I wouldn't bother trying it anyway if I were you. It's a traditional 'Makes undrinkable ditchwater' model."
     "Some things never change. I've got everything I need here. Thankyou for your assistance." She waved Peyers out, ignoring his slightly indignant expression at being so swiftly dismissed.
     The scrap merchant who had led them onto the trail of the debris had received it two months ago, and it would have taken a minimum of another four weeks for it to have reached him from here. At the other end of the scale the Constrictor had been destroyed two years ago. The amount of debris so far accounted for suggested that it had not had a chance to drift too far away from the place of destruction. So, anywhere within a twenty-one month period was the possible time-frame, probably nearer to the start of it than later. With hundreds of spacecraft passing through the system a day that was a dauntingly large time. The search parameters were entered into the computer. If nothing could be found she would know about it in an estimated three hours time.
     As expected the Orarra government was not particularly helpful. Ahcal Jalsa had spent four hours being told that the matter would be under the jurisdiction of some other department until the planet's more senior authorities dumped the problem onto their local police force. This was not a helpful start since planetary police were usually relatively small organisations, their influence extending no further than the world's surface, having little to do with interplanetary issues. As the local expert he had expected no less.
     The inspector who talked to Jalsa was clearly unhappy at being thrust into meeting with a Co-operative official, and began by insisting that there was very little chance of him being in a position to provide any information. To be fair to him his department had been quite thoroughly scrutinised at the time of the original incident.
     "Then give me everything that you gave us last time," Jalsa told him. "And see if anything else has happened." The policeman gave him an exasperated look and passed the orders on through his intercom.
     "Give me your number and I'll call you back when I'm done," he said. Jalsa did so and terminated the link.
     It was whilst he was waiting that three of the group returned, having found nothing. Barbeth arrived back half an hour later.
     "Some debris from the Constrictor definitely passed through here," she informed them. "It looks like the scavenger who found it had no idea what he was carrying and tried to sell it in the general market."
     "Any luck in tracing the purchaser?" asked Kirrik, the Disian.
     "Yes and no. She left for Tiriusri but never made it. She could have been the victim of a random pirate attack. Tiriusri's listed as a feudal state."
     "It's an unusual place," Jalsa intervened. "It's much safer than most such worlds. The ruling family has a history of being keen on working for the planet and kept good order before it even became a member of the Co-Operative. I think such an attack could easily be more than coincidence."
     "Perhaps." Barbeth continued with her information. "There's more alarming news, though. In amongst the debris was more than just pieces of hull plates and bulkheads. Nothing was complete enough to identify from a visual recording but there were several bits that could have been critical technology."
     "We'll have to find out what as soon as possible," said Erain Kalangu, the final member of the group.
     "All in good time," replied Barbeth. "Tiriusri might be the next place to look at, though."
     "Chasing around after hints?" said Kirrik. "That didn't get us very far originally, and I can't see it getting us anywhere now. We need something substantial, as soon as possible, not just flying around to see what we can pick up."
     Kalangu looked over at him. "So what do you suggest?"
     "We've still to wait if Jalsa's police can dig out anything. Furthermore, we still do not have any idea who may be behind the whole scheme. Find that out, and we find the Constrictor."
     "To find them we have to find the Constrictor," retorted Kalangu. "A vicious circle if you approach it in that manner."
     "Only to a certain extent. So far nobody appears to be suspicious enough or powerful enough to be implicated. That leaves someone we don't know about."
     This statement was considered more seriously than might be expected. In so large a universe the old rule "expect the unexpected" was the only reliable guide. Some powerful group, hiding their tracks and biding their time... It was not a completely unreasonable hypothesis, but one that would be very difficult to follow up on.
     Kirrik continued, "I'm not suggesting that we waste time on pure speculation, but I would suggest we don't dismiss anything slightly unusual we might find."
     From another room an "Incoming Message" tone sounded. Jalsa stood up. "Excuse me, please."
     As expected the message was from the police. "There's one bit of information I've found for you," he said. "Garhan Jersisallam."
     "Didn't him and his business vanish after the Constrictor's destruction?" asked Jalsa.
     "Yes. No trace of him ever found, but about eight months later a James Tebay, an employee of his, appeared briefly. Boarded a ship with a few others who had arrived with him and left but to where I haven't any idea. There's no record on the people with him, but they must have been crew for the ship."
     "What sort of ship was it?"
     "I don't know. You'll have to check System Records," came the unhelpful reply.
     "When exactly did he appear?" demanded Jalsa.
     "Third of March by Co-op dating. I've nothing else, I'm afraid."
     "Thankyou for being of help. Goodbye." The inspector looked relieved as he closed the link.
     Jalsa hurried back into the main room where they had been meeting. "When did the scrap turn up here?" he asked.
     "Second of March," Barbeth replied. She looked up at him. "What have you heard?"
     "Another coincidence that probably isn't one." He told them the news.
     "I remember the name of Jersisallam from the enquiry," said Kirrik. "He'd been suspected of dealing in experimental technology acquired by dubious means and selling it to those who probably shouldn't have it. We put in a lot of effort trying to find him but he's vanished completely."
     "It looks like nobody put two and two together when this Tebay appeared," said Jalsa. He sighed. "That's the problem with the bureaucracy of this place. No two departments talk to each other that much and information from one has to filter through to another in its own time."
     "I'll see what System Records has to say," said Williams. "We might as well head for Tiriusri, unless anyone has any better ideas?"
     Nobody had. "We'll meet you at the ship, then," said Kalangu.
     Williams caught up the the group as they were boarding the ship. It was a modified Ghavial, large enough to accommodate them and contain an impressive array of weaponry. As well as its two-man crew they had further accompaniment in the form of three Navy Iguanas, set up as heavy fighters with hyperspace capability. Whilst this flotilla was leaving the station Williams told the others what he had learned. Apparently Tebay had acquired a second-hand but well-maintained Fer-de-Lance Lightspeeder, a potent weapon in the hands of an experienced combateer. GalCop had no record of it either being destroyed or abandoned (although a deserted ship in deep space was never likely to be found again). What, if anything, could be found at Tiriusri remained to be seen.
     There had been no record of the ship docking at any space station in the Tiriusri system. The most likely possibility was that it had destroyed its target and hyperspaced out again straight afterwards. There was a slim chance that the attack had been witnessed, though, and with this in mind Kalangu found himself with a pile of police reports for the day the missing ship disappeared.
     After a couple of hours of reading about mostly inconsequential encounters he came across a statement that sounded a little more interesting. A police patrol had noticed two ships on long-range scanners, both moving erratically as if in combat. The distance had been too great to determine the nature of the vessels and it was all over before the patrol made it into range. The report noted that the slower vessel had vanished from scanners first, followed a few seconds later by the other one. When they reached the site they found the wreckage of a Cobra MkI and the particle residue of a hyperspace jump. The hull IR signature of the victim had been partially destroyed and no definite identification was ever made. Just another pirate incident, and GalCop hadn't made any more than a cursory look into it. Murder was a serious crime but unfortunately far too common to be fully investigated due to the tiny chance of success. Unless you were rich, famous or influential the officials were unlikely to pay your death too much attention if it didn't happen in front of everyone's eyes, and the best you could hope for was an "Offender" tag on your killer.
     The interesting thing in this case was the remnants of the IR signature. There was about a one in three chance that they were the remains of the unfortunate trader who had found the Constrictor's remains, and the police had accepted that conclusion. The scrap from the Cobra had been collected and sold off, leaving only a few samples for the record. Routine analysis of these remnants suggested that the weapon used against the unfortunate Cobra was a beam laser, probably a powerful one. As might be found on a Fer-de-Lance. But so what? It all fitted the speculation, but provided no clue as to what to look for next.
     Kirrik was somewhat more doubtful if that was all there was to it. "If they wanted the cargo that badly, I can't see them destroying the holding vessel," he stated. "There wasn't time to scoop up all the debris from the Cobra, and there was no trace of anything unusual in what GalCop discovered. And a Fer-de-Lance hardly has enough cargo capacity to carry what the Cobra was holding."
     "So what do you suggest happened?" asked Kalangu. "That the Cobra had already offloaded its cargo?"
     "Probably bullied into jettisoning it, and then destroyed anyway. There must have been other ships in the area to take the cargo."
     "I don't think so," Barbeth said. "The Fer-de-Lance followed the Cobra here, and certainly left on its own. There wouldn't have been any time for it to call for other forces to meet it here."
     "That doesn't matter," replied Kirrik. "It could easily have sent a cargo ship to collect the junk when it reached wherever it was going. That works out quite well, actually. The pick-up ship would probably have arrived fairly soon after before the debris dispersed, so it must have come from somewhere fairly close."
     "The original debris had had plenty of time to drift, and that was picked up," Barbeth pointed out.
     "That was found by chance. We aren't talking about people who leave much to chance."
     "There's no record of Tebay appearing in any registered settlement, or the Fer-de-Lance."
     What this meant was almost certainly a deep space outpost. System space was too well-monitored around civilised stars for a hidden base to remain so for long. In the immediate vicinity of Tiriusri the least stable system was Esgebi, but there an even greater watch was kept on every planet, asteroid and comet as the various powers there watched each other.
     Finding a deep space location was no easy job, which was exactly why they sometimes existed. Safely hidden in the vastness of space such a base was all but undetectable. The time taken for any careless radio transmissions to reach civilisation would provide ample time to move the base. Transmission via Witchspace would certainly not be made as it would very likely be picked up by relay probes sitting in the hyperspace channels. The Fer-de-Lance had probably not sun-skimmed at Tiriusri, otherwise it would have lost its prey. The distance between Orarra and Tiriusri was 2.7 lightyears. That left nearly six lightyears worth of fuel in an unmodified Fer-de-Lance. An impossibly large volume of space in which to find anything. The proverbial needle in a haystack was simplicity itself compared to space.
     Unless it survived in complete isolation, though, contact must be made with civilised space occasionally. That was the weak link.
     "I think it's time to investigate the affairs of this mysterious Jersisallam again," Jalsa said. "He used to have ships going to and from all over the place. A good candidate for supplying a hidden base."
     "More sifting through countless records. Wonderful," sighed Kalangu.
     "OK, we're leaving back for Orarra straight away," Williams announced.
     Searching through the records on Jersisallam was indeed a tedious and time-consuming task. As would be expected with his dubious reputation much information was missing, and much of it was doubtless fabricated. More reliable were the logs of ship departures and arrivals at various nearby systems, all of which had to be collected and correlated. On top of that it was considered wise to include as many ships that had, or were believed to have had, frequent contact with Jersisallam or anyone associated with him. Even with significant computing power at their facility, it was still over a week before the Naval team had any results.
     "We've several possible candidates for supply vessels," Jalsa told them one morning after he had looked through what the computer had reduced the data down to. "There was a handful of Pythons and an Anaconda freighter that often arrived at their destination a little later than would be expected. During most of these delayed journeys they were still carrying almost a full hold of registered cargo, though."
     "And nobody had much to say about these delays?" Kalangu enquired.
     "They weren't great, a few hours at most. Could have been due to pirate attack or equipment problems."
     "Or a diversion to a base just far enough away not to be detected," Barbeth added.
     "The same thought had crossed my mind. It's even less of a coincidence when you consider that about two-thirds of these delayed vessels were flying from Esdi."
     "If they were nearly full of registered cargo, and it was there at the other end, there wouldn't have been much room for supplies and equipment for a base," Kirrik reminded them.
     "They could have increased cargo space by leaving out some of the standard compliment of landing craft and shuttles," Williams pointed out. "Removing five Worms from an Anaconda gives you quite a bit of extra cargo space."
     "True. Unfortunately all those ships and most of their crew disappeared with Jersisallam," Jalsa said.
     "And the crew that didn't?" asked Barbeth.
     "All dead bar one. She was arrested for supplying convoy information to pirates and then hijacking an escape pod when they attacked. Unfortunately for her the pirates were intercepted by the police, and this Natalia Marchero is now sitting in prison. She's had two assassination attempts on her since then. Lucky to be alive, really. Probably would have been dead by now anyway except that she wouldn't say a word when questioned about Jersisallam's disappearance. She's kept under high security right in this system."
     "In a local or GalCop prison?" asked Kirrik.
     "GalCop. Does it make any difference?"
     "Only that we've no authority over the local one. We could arrange something for her if she's being looked after by GalCop," Kirrik pointed out.
     "They won't want to let her go, Kirrik," Jalsa replied. He looked at Kirrik enquringly. "What were you thinking of instead?"
     "Release into a low security facility if she won't co-operate. She'll probably be dead within a couple of months then. We might want to offer a change of identity when she's released if she is helpful."
     Williams smiled grimly. "If she was working for them then it serves her right."
     "I don't approve," Jalsa said. "However, I've no better ideas."
     "I'll see her tomorrow then."
     "Not on your own, Williams. I think I'll come with you," Jalsa informed him.
     Williams half rose. "You don't trust me?" he demanded, half-way to a shout.
     "You've had the same training as the rest of us. You know what the rules are when you've been personally involved in a case," Jalsa reminded him.
     Williams stayed half-stood. "I've never met this woman before. I've never had anything to do with Jersisallam before. How am I personally involved?"
     "You were attacked by the Constrictor. Your grudge against the pilots of that ship, and everything to do with them, is fairly well known. You know what the Constrictor's destroyer said about your opinions in his debriefing."
     "I think calling that thing a 'son of a bitch' was quite justified after it nearly killed me. But point taken," he said, sitting back down with a hint of a smile on his face.
     The prison was a converted orbital station located above Orarra's third planet. It had once been the link between space and some mines on the surface, but they had been abandoned after the conditions on the choking carbon dioxide-wreathed globe below had proved too tough. Whatever amenities it had for miners escaping from the hell beneath it had largely vanished.
     The shuttle carrying Jalsa and Williams approached the prison from straight above the planet. It appeared as random collection of boxes, joined by a maze of twisting tubes. The structure looked tatty, years of hard solar radiation having taken their toll on the surfaces. Contrasting bizarrely with this mess were the large arrays of solar panels around the periphery, which doubtless had to be replaced on a regular basis. Rolling below this was the cloud-covered inferno of Orarra III. It presented as unwelcoming a view as could be expected for its purpose, and anyone who still had not caught the hint was reminded by the constant patrol of a squadron of dart-shaped Viper Police ships hovering around it.
     The shuttle moved closer. The docking portal was visible now, a circular opening in one of the outer boxes. Lights flickered around it, barely visible in the sunlight. There was a harsh hiss and a crackle of static on the viewscreens as they passed through the protective field. With a gentle bump the ship touched down. Two clangs echoes through it as the docking clamps took hold. The light from above was suddenly cut off as the portal doors closed. A few seconds later there was another slow hiss as the shuttle's air pressure equalised with the base's.
     The landing bay appeared deserted as they left the shuttle, although it would be watched by dozens of cameras and covered by dozens of lasers in the walls. A line of gravplates lined with barriers lead to a doorway in the wall, providing a disconcerting two thirds G in the otherwise near zero G environment.
     Awaiting Williams and Jalsa at the door were numerous security checks, identifying a dozen biological features and analysing every minute detail of their ID cards. There was a further delay as their appointments were confirmed not only against the computer database but with the chief warden. When these were completed the door opened into a small compartment. Here scanners searched for concealed weapons, narcotics, or any one of a hundred miscellaneous items forbidden within the prison.
     When these scans were complete the wall opposite the entrance slid open. On the other side was a reception area, clean and tidy but stark with bare white walls and smooth floor. A screened desk occupied the back of the room, with doors to the left and right. A few chairs stood against the other walls. Heavily armed security guards stood in pairs at each door and at the desk. As the two entered this room they stumbled, caught by the sudden change to one G gravity. The guards motioned them to the desk.
     "State your names, organisations and business here," the man behind the desk told them.
     "Again?" asked Williams.
     Williams shook his head slightly. "Angus Williams, organisation confidential to you but has been cleared, here to speak with Natalia Marchero. And you should have been informed that you are to to cause us no inconvenience whatsoever and to render every aid possible."
     The receptionist's face darkened. "I have been told. I will, once I'm happy with your credentials. Your name, organisation and business, please," he said, turning to Jalsa.
     "Ahcal Jalsa, and the same as my colleague. His point about your manners should not be ignored"
     The receptionist scowled at him, but made no further comment on the matter. "Please take a seat. You'll be called for in a few minutes." He disappeared through a doorway behind the desk.
     Jalsa sat down, but Williams started pacing back and forth across the room. The guards were watching him carefully.
     Eventually Jalsa said to him "Just sit, will you? You'll just get us into trouble, and one bad-mannered receptionist isn't worth that. Report him later."
     Williams stopped pacing and stood still, tense, for a few seconds before ungracefully dropping onto a chair. "Right," he muttered.
     Ten minutes later a woman entered from the door to the left of the desk to inform them that Marchero had been moved to an interview room, and that she was ready to talk to them. They followed the woman back through the door and into a bare corridor beyond. Apart from the door they had entered and a matching one at the far end it was completely featureless, bare white walls and the same smooth floor, the ceiling panels evenly lighting it. Quite claustrophobic, and very impersonal.
     The far end door opened on to a short platform, at which was waiting an internal tram. After they boarded the woman escorting them took out a card and placed it on a panel in the front of the tram. It immediately moved off. Moving into further into the prison it slowly passed through more identical corridors, eventually entering high in an open area. Thee other tram tracks emerged from the walls, crossing the space to disappear through holes on the far side. Steps led down from platforms at each track, and pairs of guards stood on each platform. The tram continued without stopping. Below were rows of tables, sat around them were dozens of men and women wearing identical grey prison overalls, eating.
     Once through the dining area there were more corridors. After passing an open area where several tracks converged, with more of the ever-present guards watching over the platforms their the tram entered a different corridor. Through small windows in its side the planet below could occasionally be glimpsed, and just visible was the wall of another section of the station.
     The tram had not travelled far in this section before coming to rest at a stop almost identical to the one where they had boarded it. "Easy to become lost in here," noted Jalsa.
     The woman nodded. "Helps to keep prisoners where they are supposed to be." She led them off the tram and into yet another corridor. This one contained more doors, was wider and featured a few notice boards on the walls. Still more guards stood outside one of the doors.
     Their escort pressed her card against against the door lock. It slid open. "Here you are." From a pocket she took two small devices bearing only a single white button, and passed one to each of them. "We've had the monitoring turned off as requested, but if you have any trouble pressing the button will turn it back on and call in the guards."
     The interview room was more comfortable than the rest of the prison they had seen, it was carpeted. Two padded chairs sat at one side of a table. On the other, on a bare metal seat, sat Natalia Marchero. She was in her late thirties, dressed in the same prison overalls they had seen in the dining area. Black shoulder-length hair surrounded a harsh face that stared at the wall, paying no attention to the two men who had just entered the room and sat down opposite her.
     "Hello," Jalsa tried.
     No response. No sign that she had heard them.
     Williams ventured "You'll have something to say soon."
     Once again, nothing.
     "Or you'll probably wind up dead," he added.
     This time there was a slight shrug and a twitch of the mouth that might have been a sarcastic smirk.
     "Not from us," Jalsa pointed out.
     "We've an odd situation here, you see," Williams mused. "Normally, cooperation might result in you being given greater privileges, transferal to a lower security facility, that type of thing."
     "In this case failure to help will result in that move," Jalsa told her.
     This seemed to be taken more seriously. Marchero spoke for the first time. "So you say."
     "Believe me, we have the authority to do that," said Jalsa. "Do you think we would be here if we didn't?"
     "You going to talk, then?"
     "About what?"
     "I conspired with pirates to steal from him. You should already know that."
     "Come on, you know we don't care about that. We're more interested in why you are here, watched around the clock."
     "I suppose he holds grudges."
     "To the extent of trying to have you killed twice? It's not as if he even lost much that time."
     "Some people aren't very forgiving."
     "Or don't like people on the loose who know things someone doesn't want known," Williams pointed out. "You were on one of his ships. It sometimes made diversions to somewhere when travelling from Esdi. Where?"
     "Yeah, right," Marchero snorted. "You saying that because it was late? That ship was a badly-maintained flying bucket. The cargo loaders on Esdi are are clumsy and lazy, and often damaged things in the process. The damage claims against them are probably on file somewhere. Damaged ship equals late ship. OK?"
     "Not really. Low security still beckons," Williams said.
     "Oh, fine, I'm a witchhunt victim. Drowned to prove I'm innocent, just because your guesswork falls short of reality. Enough!" She stood up and threw her chair back.
     "Sit down!" Jalsa barked at her.
     "Why? I've lost all incentive to do a thing you say. You're going to get me killed anyway."
     Jalsa held up his hand as if signalling Marchero to wait. "You've only heard one side of our offer so far," he said in a carefully controlled voice, not very successfully concealing impatience and anger. "The other side is out of prison altogether. With a changed identity. In any part of the galaxy you care to name."
     Marchero did not sit back down, but went and stood leaning against the corner of the room. "You're still assuming that I know whatever it is you're after."
     "True. But I think it's quite safe to assume that the ship was late for a better reason than carelessness on behalf of some drunken Groigans or unreliable robots. Unless Jersisallam was the type to become really upset with late ships."
     She stood straight now, and although she didn't say anything her expression was clear.
     "Everyone who had worked on any of these suspiciously late craft is dead. Apart from you. Stretching coincidence just a little, isn't it?" Williams informed her.
     Marchero half staggered back to the table. She pulled the chair back up and sat down, her head bowed and almost resting on her hands. "Not coincidence, no," she almost whispered.
     "So why, then?" asked Jalsa.
     Marchero looked up. "For a reason that I won't tell to you."
     "What? Was our threat lost on you?" Williams exclaimed. "And your only chance to get away? Even if you stay here for now they'll get you as soon as you come out of prison."
     "They might. If I'm stuck in low security they might. But if I were to give you one tiny clue as to who, what or where then might becomes definite. I'm not keen on joining my friends in death."
     "Friends? Who you betrayed to a bunch of pirates for a little money?" Williams said scornfully.
     "Those weren't friends. I only knew the captain of the Anaconda, and he was a thorough bastard. There were enough escape pods for most of them to get away, anyway."
     "I'm sure that must have been a great relief to whatever conscience you have," Williams retorted. "But it's irrelevant now. And we've offered you a chance."
     "Not a good one," Marchero said wearily. "You would have to be pretty impressive to convince me that you could hide me well enough. Besides, and this is almost more than I dare say, it's no good if they come along and blow this place up, and me with it, while I'm waiting to leave with my new ID. And yes, I think they are capable of doing that."
     "Then you'll come with us," said Jalsa.
     Williams stared at him in astonishment. "That's crazy! She's already demonstrated that she's a greedy opportunist with no respect for life. That's why she's here!"
     "Those pirates?" Marchero intervened. "That was personal, not greed. Part of the bargain was that only the captain's pod would be shot down. Nobody else would have been killed. Except from bad luck." Marchero shook her head. "Coming with you would be little better than staying. Police, Navy, whoever you are, I can't trust you."
     "Nor me you," Williams declared. "Seems like the safest thing to do would be to stick you in a shuttle with no drive and announce your location."
     "Then we're stuck, Angus. Have you any better ideas?" Jalsa asked.
     "No," Williams admitted.
     "Then she comes."
     "If she can be persuaded to, and if she's of any use. We're not certain of that yet."
     "Are you?" Jalsa demanded of her.
     "I'm wanted dead for what I know. Is that enough for you? Is it enough for me to help you?"
     Williams leant over to Marchero. "Perhaps you don't trust us. But I think that our success is the only chance you'll have of living. Even if you think it's a slim one, can you afford to miss it?"
     She sat silently for a while. "No, I don't suppose I can. Very well, I'll come with you."
     Williams rapped on the door. It was opened by the security officer outside. As he moved to enter the room Williams held out his arm to stop him. "Leave her there for a while, please."
     Jalsa continued, "Call the warden for us, too. Ask him to meet us here."
     The prison warden arrived fifteen tedious minutes later. "We need a word in private, please," Jalsa asked him.
     "In here," the warden said, showing them to another nearby room. This space was set out in the same way as the interview room Marchero was currently sitting in. The warden flicked open a panel in the wall and spent a few seconds pressing buttons and pushing cards into various slots. "I've disabled the mikes, what did you want?"
     Jalsa told him. "We want to take Marchero with us." The warden looked surprised, but didn't say anything. "Do you have any problems with that?"
     "I'm not happy with the idea, of course. I acknowledge your authority from the Co-operative, but I'll need to have some idea why before I authorise this."
     "You'll have to accept that she's a necessary part of our investigation," said Jalsa.
     "What investigation?" the warden asked bluntly.
     "I'm afraid I can't say."
     The prison official was starting to look understandably suspicious. "Can I have this request confirmed in writing?"
     "Very well. Although it would be much more preferable if you were to avoid making any fuss about this. Marchero will be at risk when she leaves here. Don't make that risk any greater," said Williams.
     "I'll escort you back to the landing pad personally, then. There are routes where you won't be seen with your passenger, although it won't be very long before word gets around in here that she's gone."
     The warden produced a datapad to record the request, and Jalsa and Williams signed it with their IDs. When they were back in the corridor he spoke briefly one of the guards, who gave him his rifle and left with his companions. They re-entered the interview room to find Marchero sitting on the edge of the table staring into space in a manner similar to that when they had first seen her. Minute differences in her posture and face gave a somewhat different impression than her couldn't-care-less attitude of earlier, though.
     "On your feet," the warden ordered. He gestured with the rifle. They followed Marchero out of the room and back to the tram station. The route back to the reception area took longer than it had on the way here, but passed through no communal areas, during which Williams dropped several hints about his opinions on the receptionist's behaviour. The warden dismissed the now nervous-looking receptionist and personally cleared the three for exit. There was a further delay whilst the shuttle returned to the landing pad, but eventually they were back aboard ship.
     Williams escorted Marchero to a secure room aboard the ship, but Jalsa headed off towards the bridge. "Call in the escort craft," he instructed the pilot. "Have them stand a hundred kilometres outside scanner range. Send the order via upsilon code." The pilot spoke the order to the computer and keyed it to transmit encoded on top of one of the standard navigation frequencies. This took a while as the message was sent out heavily encrypted and in tiny chunks at seemingly random intervals.
     They had been an hour from the prison when a short range transmission was received from the lead vessel of the group of three Iguanas that had been escorting the group to and from Tiriusri. They took up their positions and then vanished from long range scanners as they shut down main power to follow the shuttle as it coasted to its destination. Four hours later, and about half way into the flight the long range sensors located the output of a ship or ships running at high power in order to decelerate and intercept the shuttle. The shuttle fired up its engines, blinding out the image of the incoming ships but alerting the escorting Iguanas that it was concerned about the approaching vessels.
     It was fifteen minutes later before the unknowns were detected by the standard short range scanner, and from then on they could be tracked even with active engines. High magnification visual monitoring revealed two ships, a Cobra MkI and an Ophidian. Not serious opposition to the three Iguanas, and probably third- rate bounty hunting opportunists. Such types were known to occasionally make attacks on vessels leaving prisons in the hope that they would be credited by parties who didn't accept that a period of incarceration had been sufficient punishment or who hoped for public recognition by taking out a particularly despised criminal. These indiscriminate killers were usually regarded in much the same way, and their life expectancy was never great.
     The two ships were approaching backwards, engines exhaust flaring as they attempted to match velocities with the shuttle. They remained almost side by side, the faster Ophidian clearly not daring to fly far ahead and be left on its own. The Ophidian now raced ahead of the shuttle, loosing off a couple of laser shots in the process that had little effect. It circled round in a wide arc, its computers busy talking to its engines and directional controllers as it attempted to simulate inertialess flight relative to the chosen velocity.
     The slower drive of the Cobra had failed to achieve quite as good a velocity match, and despite having turned to face the shuttle it had overshot and was still moving away as it attempted to bring the velocity difference down to a level where it was capable of inertialess manoeuvring.
     This mistake left the Ophidian on attack approach whilst its companion was still trying to set up its run. It sported weak lasers, and on its own couldn't hope to make a quick kill. The shuttle swung around clumsily as it tried to evade the attack, but it was a slow and ungainly vessel. Normally an unarmed ship, this Naval version had been lightly armed and loosed a couple of pulse laser blasts at the Ophidian as it shot past.
     By now the Cobra was fully under control, and attacking at a slower speed. Several laser blasts caught the shuttle, some of their energy leaking through the shields to lightly mark the hull. The Cobra accelerated again as the shuttle turned to face it, and jinked aside slightly to pass its target. At its closest the Cobra released a missile, but its attack angle was too shallow from this point and its speed too great for the missile to hit on that pass. Before it had time to turn again an ECM burst from the shuttle sent the missile into an erratic spiralling path before it exploded harmlessly against nothing.
     The Ophidian was standing off, waiting for the Cobra to rejoin it so they could attack simultaneously when suddenly all hell broke loose around the Cobra. Unobserved by the would-be bounty hunters, two of the Iguanas had appeared, at high speed. Ahead of them was one of their missiles, which smashed straight into its target. Military laser fire played briefly from each attacking Naval ship before they rolled slightly to avoid collision. Behind them they left a wreck, just recognisable as a Cobra MkI but clearly crippled. Whatever was still functioning sufficiently to contain the engine safely finally failed, and the Cobra disappeared in a blinding flash.
     The two Iguanas had been moving far too fast to remain in the fray but the destruction of its companion had clearly rattled the Ophidian pilot. It was heading back to the shuttle, but this time continually accelerating as it attempted to flee. It shot as it passed the shuttle, but missed completely. Before it had managed to escape fire blossomed around it, a missile hit from the third Iguana that had now joined in at combat speed. The Ophidian tumbled, loosing its acceleration, and before it could regain control the Iguana was there, more military laser fire tearing into the damaged ship. Another explosion and the Ophidian, too, was gone, leaving nothing behind larger than small metal flakes.
     The three other members of the team viewed the arrival of Marchero without much surprise when they met up again in a room back at Dodec Four on Orarra proper. Marchero was left with two soldiers outside whilst Jalsa summarised the result of the prison meeting before bringing her in.
     "So, start us off with some general details, please," Barbeth said.
     "I was on a ship that made several runs to a deep space base about a quarter of a light year from Esdi," she began.
     Kirrik interrupted her. "I hope you've got better precision than that."
     "Not very. We jumped about two hundred AUs from Esdi on course for our destination, then re-orientated and jumped again. The best I can give you is estimates of the re-orientation angles."
     Williams rolled his eyes.
     "Upon exiting hyperspace we followed a nav beacon to the base. I've better details for that, since my post was in-system navigation. The beacon sent out a pulse every ten minutes on a time-determined frequency. Range of about twenty-five AUs."
     "We should be able to find it, then," Kalangu announced. "A high gain network of interferometry probes will give us sufficient range to detect and locate the signal if we're in the right general area."
     "You'll have to be quite persuasive to HQ for that type of resource," Barbeth laughed.
     "I will be," Kalangu told her. "I'll tell them we're looking for Thargoids. Most of those pen-pushers panic every time you mention the word."
     "What of the base itself?" Kirrik asked Marchero.
     "It's on an interstellar ice-rock asteroid. I think they're on it to use the ice for water and hydrogen. I've never seen more than a few small fighters nearby, but it looks big enough to hold quite a few more ships. I can't tell you a thing about static defences. I also once saw a couple of half-built ships on the surface."
     "What type?" Barbeth queried.
     "Probably Geckos. It looks like they've the equipment to build larger stuff, though."
     "And what of the people who own this base?"
     "I've no idea. Someone Jersisallam worked for. I honestly can't tell you a thing about them beyond that. I haven't a clue what they want, who they are, or what they are doing." Marchero said.
     "Take her out," Kirrik ordered one of the soldiers. He waited until Marchero was out of the room and the door closed before speaking further. "Our next step after finding this base?"
     "The choices would seem to be to infiltrate it or destroy it," Jalsa said. "Attacking it without knowing more would be extremely foolish." There was a murmur of agreement. "On the other hand, how do you get anyone close enough to infiltrate the base?"
     "We borrow something off GalCop," Kalangu said.
     "What?" demanded Williams.
     "They're working on a 'stealth device'. I believe they've got a prototype."
     "Oh, come on," Williams retorted. "The cloaking device has been a fictional tool for a thousand years."
     "And hyperspace was for the first few hundred years of them. GalCop seem quite confident that they are on to something. It's not a 'cloaking device', as you put it, anyway. I believe it works by masking out tell-tale EM signatures and analysing active scanners on other vessels and jamming them. It's still visible to the eye, though. You could always paint your ship black if that bothers you."
     "And you can persuade GalCop to lend it to you?"
     "You already want me to get hold of the probes. Why don't you try them?"
     "I'll do it," volunteered Kirrik. "I've got connections in the police."
     Kalangu managed to acquire the probes without much difficulty. Kirrik spent several frustrating days trying to influence people to pull the right strings and dropping subtle hints about blackmail possibilities before he had any results. It was three weeks later before the thing arrived, during which time the probes searched for the base and the rest of the group discussed plans, slept, ate, and became increasingly annoyed with Marchero, whose insolent nature had apparently only been temporarily curbed.
     "That's it?" Barbeth said incredulously when they met in a secure area of the station's docking bay to view the device. It consisted of a small grey box, several bundles of wire and two things about two feet high, roughly cylindrical in shape and apparently made up of random electrical and electronic components stuck to a central coil.
     "Apparently so," Kirrik replied. "The box is an interface to the ship's computer, the other objects are fixed to the scanner and shield generator. It works by actively modifying shield output."
     "If this is only a prototype I suppose there must be some down side to it?"
     "Er, yes," he confessed. "It's the first thing they've actually built for the project. It only works with a Viper, and makes the shields very unreliable for actual defence. It hasn't yet been properly tested for use over long periods either. GalCop think they've solved these issues in theory, but it will be at least six months before they make a better one."
     The most obvious of these disadvantages was that the Viper was a non-hyperspatial vessel. With the stealth device fitted to a hyperspace capable craft it could jump in quite close, but to carry a Viper a much larger ship would be needed. This would be detected if it ventured too near to the base, but jumping in at a distance from the target was not entirely safe either. It would have to wait for the Viper to return to it, and remaining in the area for some time would put it at risk of being found. The position was uncertain to within five AUs anyway, so a vessel without military grade receivers might jump in too far from the base to pick up the beacon's signals. With some reluctance the Navy agreed to provide a light carrier to transport the Viper after being convinced that a civilian-design ship would be too vulnerable to detection and attack.
     Not long afterwards the probes returned, having found very weak navigational signals being transmitted from a point in interstellar space within the search area. In the hope that the mission would reveal something about the original loss of the Constrictor Kirrik was to pilot the Viper, accompanied by Marchero. The Viper rendezvoused with the carrier outside the station, and then they left for a place close to Esdi.
     The carrier emerged from Witchspace into darkness. Esdi's star stood in bright yellow splendour but provided hardly any illumination. The Viper was held on an external docking clamp, its surfaces just a slightly lighter area masking out the stars behind, and only visible as a silhouette without eyes that had been resting in the dark.
     Marchero and Kirrik were still on the bridge of the carrier, Marchero sat at the navigation station searching for the beacon. The receivers could scan a huge number of channels simultaneously and were incredibly sensitive, but there was no guarantee that they would be looking at the right frequency at the time of the pulse.
     After half an hour Marchero announced "I've found it. Signal strength suggests it's at about eighteen AUs from here."
     "Right, up you get then," Kirrik ordered her.
     "Impatient cat," Marchero chided him. "We leave now and we might never find it again. I need to detect the next two pulses before I can predict the frequency."
     "Well be a bit quicker about it," Kirrik growled. "Can't you make estimates of the next frequency?"
     "Do it then, before I loose patience with you. And if you haven't anything useful to say in the mean time then keep quiet." Marchero chuckled to herself and turned back to the console.
     It was another half hour before two more pulses were detected. Marchero insisted on spending another twenty minutes in order to find the next two so as to be certain she was predicting them correctly. Finally she was satisfied.
     "Right, let's go," she told Kirrik. "And it might be an idea to change speed a bit. We're not close enough to see any movement in the signal position but the pulses are slightly Doppler shifted from their rest positions. Our radial velocity is several hundred kph backwards relative to the beacon."
     They left the bridge, leaving the crew to make the speed adjustments and headed to the airlock between the carrier and the Viper. As they were about to climb through Marchero announced "I'm flying."
     "No chance," Kirrik retorted.
     "Single-pilot craft. There isn't room for both of us in the seat, and that's where I'll need to be to navigate."
     "Fine. You want to stay awake for several days in one go? I can navigate just as well as you. Give me the frequency predictions and stay out my way as much as possible."
     Marchero groped around for some retort to this, but failing to find any grumbled "In you go, cat."
     "Stop calling me 'cat'. One more problem from you and I'll keep you sedated until needed." Marchero scowled back at him.
     The airlock opened through a disconcerting ninety-degree change of gravity, between the carrier and the Viper. Both of them squeezed in to the narrow entrance. Kirrik pressed a button and the iris airlock door closed above them. The space they now stood in was bare save for the airlock and doors leading to the bridge and the living quarters. Kirrik almost shoved Marchero through the latter, and locking the door behind him moved into the bridge.
     Through the bridge door there was a ladder descending to the pilot's chair. The bridge itself was tiny, and would more accurately be described as a cockpit. The bulk of the forward part was taken up with the main monitor. Around the sides were the controls and indicators for rest of the ship's systems, navigation, communications, life support and so on.
     Switching them on turned the bridge from claustrophobic dullness to brightness. The monitor flicked into life, just showing the hull of the carrier marked by flickering lights. Kirrik activated the comms to request launching clearance.
     "Docking clamps released. Move away at twenty kph until you are two hundred metres clear," a robotic voice instructed.
     With barely a shudder the Viper's engines came to life, slowly pushing it away from its mothership. Kirrik spun the Viper until it was facing away from the carrier and nudged it out. Switching the monitor to rear view the dark shape of the carrier's hull gradually receded. About forty seconds later the comm came to life again, this time with a human voice.
     "You're cleared to depart. Good luck!"
     The ship turned again, now pointing towards the source of the nav signals, and hopefully therefore the target base. The ship started to vibrate slightly as the engines came on full power. For Kirrik the acceleration was almost unnoticeable as the artificial gravity changed direction and strength to compensate. Satisfied that the ship was safely on course he activated the stealth device. There was no change to the on-board conditions, and although the instrumentation announced it was working correctly he asked the carrier for confirmation.
     "That's affirmative, no active scanner image. The passive sensors are just picking you up, though. Try throttling back on the engine." Kirrik did so, slowly reducing the power. "You're gone," the carrier announced when the Viper's drive was operating at approximately two-thirds of maximum. "Recommend that you accelerate at maximum power but brake at reduced levels."
     "Acknowledged. There will be no further communications until our return. Over and out."
     Kirrik turned the comms off and flicked the controls to automatic. He had to twist around uncomfortably in the confined space to grasp the ladder to climb out of the cockpit. Pulling himself up and out he went aft to check on the accommodation.
     The Viper was designed to carry ten passengers, but this meant more that the life support was capable of handling them rather than there was enough space. GalCop didn't really mind cramming their prisoners into close proximity. Narrow bunks allowed six of them to sleep at any time, the rest had a small patch of floor to sit on. There was a separate room for the pilot, but this was not much better. An uncomfortable, narrow bed and very basic washing facilities, but at least it was private. Designed as a short-range "hunter-killer" it was rarely necessary to spend more than two or three days in it.
     Kirrik was not surprised to see that Marchero was not in the communal section, and resigned himself to her complaints when he tried to kick her out of the private cabin. She had locked the door, but the ship's computers had been programmed to give him complete access and the lock was easily overridden.
     Marchero was sat on the bed rummaging through a bag she had brought on board. She looked up when Kirrik entered, clearly unsurprised to see him.
     "Right, now you're going to try to order me out of here, eh?" she said sarcastically.
     "Well, I think I'll stay. I've had enough of being bossed around by you lot."
     "Hah," Kirrik snorted. "What did you expect with your attitude?"
     "You haven't exactly shown much gratitude for my assistance, have you?" She turned her back on him and went back to searching the bag.
     Kirrik started to gesture behind her back, but thought better of it. He walked round the bed until he was in front of her and hauled her to her feet. "The way you act I wouldn't be grateful for anything you did," he snarled into her face.
     "Let go," she shouted at him. She tried to push his arms away but he was much stronger than her.
     "When you've listened to me, and hopefully for once you'll pay attention." Marchero stopped struggling and stared at him with a look bordering on hatred.
     "This is going to be a long trip. It's eight days there and eight back. There isn't much room in this ship to avoid each other. It's almost certainly going to be a dangerous trip, too. If we make it there alive it's going to get worse. Being bloody-minded and confrontational will get us killed. Have the cabin, but in return remember that I'm in charge. If you haven't anything worth saying, shut up." He shoved her back down on the bed, and started to walk out of the room.
     At the door her turned back, and grabbed Marchero's bag.
     "Give it back!" she yelled at him. "What's in there is none of your business!"
     "That's what I want to be certain about."
     Marchero jumped up to snatch back her back, but Kirrik leapt through the door and had hit the close panel before she could reach him. He locked the door under his codes, and ignoring the hammering on the door and the yelling coming from behind it he emptied the bag's contents onto one of the bunks in the communal area.
     The contents consisted of a change of clothes, some washing gear and two information pads. Kirrik eyed them suspiciously but upon examining their contents saw that they contained nothing but a couple of novels, and a surprisingly good taste in literature considering his general opinion of Marchero. As a precaution he hooked the pads up to the Viper's computer to search them more thoroughly for hidden files, but they were clean. He flung everything back in the bag.
     Quickly opening the door, he threw the bag through. "Here," he called into the cabin, and closed the door before Marchero had time to react.
     For the next few days they did their best to avoid each other completely. Kirrik spent most of his waking time on the bridge, Marchero in the cabin. They had spoken only briefly, whilst Marchero told Kirrik the frequency prediction formula for the nav beacon. The tense atmosphere was still there, though, and now the engines had shut down and the ship was coasting the silence exaggerated it.
     It was, however, the boredom of the situation that eventually made them speak again. Unlike Marchero Kirrik had not had the foresight to bring with him anything with which to pass the time. Not surprisingly for a commandeered police vessel the Viper's computers contained very little in the way of entertainment. A little music he didn't like, a film he had already seen and some old police reports to read.
     Tensing himself for another confrontation he knocked on the door. There was quite a delay before it was opened. Marchero stood looking at him suspiciously.
     Kirrik didn't say anything for a few seconds, but eventually blurted out "Look, can I borrow a book?"
     Marchero's expression was one of incredulity for a moment, but then she laughed. "Yeah, OK. If you must." She bent and picked one of the information pads off the floor where they had been lying untidily. "You owe me a favour now," she told him, tossing the pad to Kirrik.
     "I doubt that. Thanks any-" he began, but suddenly an alarm erupted through the ship. "Stay here!" he shouted at her as he ducked through the doorway and almost jumped down into the bridge.
     The monitor was blank except for stars. The scanner showed nothing. But by his right hand another display was flashing a warning message.
     "What's up?" called Marchero from above his head.
     "The stealth device is playing up. I've no idea if we're visible to anything."
     "How far away are we?" she called back down to him.
     "About seven and a half AUs. Nearly time to start slowing down, but if we turn on the engines now I'm fairly sure we'll be detected."
     "What's wrong with it?"
     "Don't know yet, the diagnostics haven't come through."
     There was a nervous minute as the computer attempted to ascertain the damage. Eventually a message scrolled up below the warning.
     Stealth shield interface burnout. Scanner interface offline it informed. Kirrik told Marchero the news.
     "Any more details?" she asked.
     "No, the computer interface to it is down. If we're lucky that's all it will be." He hauled himself up out of the bridge.
     A panel in the back wall of the communal area opened into a crawlway heading into the ship's heart. Kirrik disappeared into it.
     He emerged with a very worried expression on his face.
     "Bad?" Marchero asked him.
     "The shield interface has completely had it."
     "So we're visible?"
     "At seven and half AUs? Not unless they've very long range active scanners. They'll see us when we turn the engines on, though." He lay down on the bunk he had been using, seeming thoroughly despondent.
     "You're giving up?" Marchero exclaimed.
     "No," he sat up and replied. "I'm trying to think." He lay back down whilst Marchero paced the room nervously.
     "Right," he announced all of a sudden. Marchero jumped. "The scanner interface looks fine. I think it was just confused by the demise of the shield one, but I can reset it. The interface isn't down, after all. It's just the wires that had burned through."
     "And your plan?"
     "Hook the scanner interface to the shields as well. We'll just have to hope it can take the strain. The software has backups in the main computer, so it shouldn't be a problem to re-program it. We'll have to loose active scanning, though. It won't be up to modulating that on top of everything else."
     "Any other bad news?" Marchero said. There was a hint of nervousness in her voice.
     "Yes. It probably won't work as efficiently. I'll start braking as soon as I've hooked up the interface, but even at a slower braking rate we may still be seen. We've no way of testing it now."
     "There is," Marchero declared. "I'll take the escape capsule out and check from that."
     "No you won't! Even the motors in that will be detectable without the stealth device. Someone is bound to investigate if they see it pop out of nowhere."
     "Sorry," Marchero muttered.
     "Go down to the bridge. Turn off all scanner functions and wait."
     This time Marchero did what he asked without arguing. Kirrik disappeared back into the equipment level.
     Marchero sat in the cockpit for an hour. The now blank displays might reveal anything were they active - just space, or a group of ships on an intercept course? Eventually Kirrik's voice was faintly heard. "Turn on passive sensors."
     Marchero turned them on quickly. The main monitor jumped back into life. The scanner ellipse illuminated, empty, although that was not a definite sign that you didn't have company when running on passive mode.
     "Start braking," came Kirrik's voice.
     "At what power?" Marchero shouted back.
     "Minimum to get us there, of course!"
     "Which is?"
     "Hang on." Kirrik extricated himself from the equipment level and headed back to the bridge. "Let me do it, then," he called down to her. She climbed out, and Kirrik dropped in. "Fifty-two percent will do from here," he said, after spending a few moments on the computer. The buzz of the engine started again as the Viper started to decelerate to meet the base.
     "Right, that's it," he declared. "If this isn't working they'll know we're here in about an hour."
     If the stealth device had failed any EM signatures would take about an hour to travel seven and a half astronomical units. Any alert broadcast by the target, perhaps to alert patrols, would take another hour propagate out as far as the Viper. How long it would take for any ships to reach them would depend upon the vessel, but would be at least a day. And without active scanners the first sign of company might be the screech of laser fire on the shields. Or death. The effect of the stealth device on the shields was a worrying unknown.
     A new tenseness gripped the small police vessel. Marchero's abrasive manner receded, but instead was replaced by a tendency to become angered by the slightest incident. Kirrik was supposedly trained to cope with pressure, and as a veteran of all sorts of campaigns he had come under it plenty of times before. Dealing with this kind of unknowing wait, though, began to try him too, and he often misread Marchero and heard insults where none were intended.
     Once they tried to put aside differences and discuss a plan, but because neither of them had much of an idea what they were going in to very little was achieved. Marchero produced a probably very inaccurate diagram of the base and they identified a couple of possible landing spots. It wasn't long, though, before they started arguing again. Kirrik was clearly frustrated with the lack of Marchero's knowledge, whereas she was becoming very annoyed with him continuously asking her about things she had already stated she did not know.
     They tried agreeing to avoid each other, but before long Marchero started bickering again. She eventually confessed that she found it less of a strain than sitting around waiting.
     Despite their worries the ship moved closer, unmolested.
     They did, in the event, reach the base safely. A confusion of lights marked its location. They were mostly clustered around one side of a vast, dark mass of the asteroid. Further points of light were ships patrolling the space around the base, or moving to and from nearby platform.
     Sat on the platform was a Python class deep space cruiser, made ugly by the four fuel scoops that had been fitted when it had only been designed for one. It was most likely doing service as a tanker, jumping to a lone, uninhabited system or an outer member of a multiple star group where it could collect Quirium Witchspace fuel without being spotted. Bright lights around the platform edge revealed a multitude of robots crawling in and out of the cargo bay.
     Kirrik was sat in the pilot's seat with Marchero clinging to the bridge ladder, watching the screen. "That's where we had to land," she pointed out, indicating the platform. "AutoShuttles took the cargo."
     "Anything changed since you last saw it?" Kirrik asked her.
     She indicated a structure on the edge of the main complex. "That looks new." As far as could be judged from their current location the new building was a processing station of some kind, perhaps for ice extraction and hydrogen production.
     "Hold on," Kirrik warned suddenly. "There's something coming this way." He nudged the Viper away from the flight path of the approaching ships. They made no move to intercept. Three Copperhead class fighters, barely recognisable in the gloom, swept quietly past.
     "I'm going to put us down on the edge of the base. There's a nice, dark spot where we won't be seen." The Viper started moving again, slowly edging towards the asteroid. Kirrik manoeuvred it away from the concentration of lights on the surface. When he a mere three hundred feet above the asteroid he swung the ship around to approach low from the barren side of the rock. When the first lights appeared over a hill he slowed down even further, now moving no faster than a running man, and dropping down lower until the ship was almost touching the ground. The ship jolted several times as it moved to avoid bumps that were invisible until they were almost crashed in to.
     Landing a ship like the Viper was a tricky business. Designed purely for use in space it usually docked with other ships or space stations, guided to rest by subtle manipulations of gravity generators or docking arms. Touching down in one piece on a high-G planet would be impossible. The comparatively tiny mass of an asteroid would hold it to the surface without it being damaged by its own weight.
     Kirrik managed to bring the ship almost to a stop, and let the feeble hold of the asteroid's gravity do the rest. The landing, when it came, was still uncomfortable. Without any legs to absorb the shock the whole ship was jarred. Marchero lost her grip on the ladder and collapsed on top of Kirrik. Clattering from behind indicated things falling over in the communal area.
     When Marchero had managed to clamber off the swearing Disian Kirrik ran a quick damage check through the ship, but everything appeared to be intact.
     There were two spacesuits secured in a locker in the cabin. Over a millennium of development and the space suit was still an encumbrance. The necessity of self-contained life support, to protect the entire body against the vacuum and intense heat and cold inevitably resulted in a piece of equipment that was a little awkward to use. Emergency systems, such as the RemLok survival mask, could protect against space with an almost invisible film. Similar devices using the same technology were sometimes used by crew making emergency repairs. None of these offered the same degree of protection, and operational time, as a full suit, though.
     Marchero was to leave the ship with Kirrik. Her technological expertise was unknown, and it was felt unwise to leave her alone on board where she might be able to over-ride Kirrik's lockouts. Taking her with him was perhaps an even greater risk. He watched with some concern as she struggled into the suit.
     "How much low-G experience have you had?"
     "A few hours in zero gravity," she replied.
     "Oh." This really should have been brought up earlier. "Zero gravity is nothing like low gravity. Jump too hard and you'll put yourself in orbit here. Not that that would bother me too much, but your body floating around might attract attention."
     She was about to retort when she noticed the grin on his face. "Thanks."
     With the suits on and system checks completed Kirrik hoisted a bag onto his back, and they moved into the Viper's entrance area. Clad in the spacesuits there was barely room for Kirrik to find the controls. With the bridge and communal doors shut tight the air was pumped out. The iris hatch lensed open, and they climbed out of the confines of the Viper.
     Confusing darkness was the initial impression. The ship's monitor had been lightening the scene as much as possible, and even then it appeared near to black. Having just emerged from the bright interior of the Viper their eyes could only make out the stars and the few base lights that were visible over the hill.
     Kirrik stood still on top of their ship, where its artificial gravity still made its presence felt. It was only a few minutes before he was satisfied that he could at least guess at the terrain. Marchero still could not see anything other than the lights.
     Kirrik took from the bag a short, stubby cylinder with a small box on its side.. Pressing a button on it caused it to telescope out until it was about four feet long. He then pulled the box away, revealing a fine filament one end of which was attached to the rod. The box clipped onto ship. The rod went into a power harpoon. Pointing it at the ground Kirrik fired, fixed a suit clip to the filament, and pulled himself off down the slide.
     Marchero followed reluctantly. Left to the asteroid's gravity progress would have painfully slow, if indeed it was sufficient to overcome the friction between the filament and the clip. She could not see the fine wire in front of her, and often flailed around trying to grasp it so as to pull herself along. There was no clear reference point with which to judge distance.
     It may have been because she was moving closer, or her eyes were starting to find some light to make use of, but she began to make out the shape of Kirrik standing at the bottom. With a point to make for she moved forward with greater confidence, and was soon standing beside him at the base.
     The rod Kirrik had fired was stuck firmly into the rock. Both of them undid the suit clips from the wire and re-attached them to the rod. Another button on the exposed end and the box still attached to the Viper came free and was brought back as it reeled in the filament. Kirrik took another cylinder from his bag, this one without a filament box on it. He clipped the box onto it, so the rod in the ground was joined to the new one he had just taken. The new one was fired it towards the hill. The first time the rod returned to him. He aimed a little lower, and fired again. This attempt was successful, and clipping his suit to the filament he moved off.
     Marchero followed slowly, often accidentally pushing herself away from the ground only to be brought up by the attachment to the wire. It was fifteen minutes before she had reached the end, and she slowly sat down on the ground to rest from her exertions. Once again Kirrik released and reeled in the filament, bringing the original rod with it.
     This process was repeated four times before the nearest building was reached. Marchero was exhausted, and Kirrik had to rest for a few moments.
     "See any way in?" he asked Marchero over the suit's very short range radio.
     "Wait a minute, will you?" she replied, leaning against the wall. She stayed there for five minutes while Kirrik examined the side of the building.
     "Over there," he gestured eventually, indicating a marginally darker patch on the wall. Close inspection revealed it to be a window. With no lights on the inside there was no hint as to what lay beyond it.
     The reason there was a window in a place with so little light and so little to look out on was a minor mystery itself. Marchero suggested that it might be an office, as some people found that being able to look out was a psychological boost, even under these conditions. Kirrik cautiously shone a torch through it. There was a room on the other side. Perhaps it had been an office once, but it was bare now.
     Another device from the bag was a probe. Tiny wires burned through the window, sampling the atmosphere on the other side without allowing it to escape.
     "Standard air mixture, nine-ninety millibars pressure, eighteen degrees Celsius temperature," he announced. "We'll go in here."
     The next piece of sophisticated gadgetry was a pouch containing a plasFibre tent. Kirrik sealed it to the window, and they both climbed inside. A small hole drilled through the window let air into the tent until it looked like an over-inflated balloon. Using a high-power laser cutter the window was soon removed, and they scrambled through it into the building. Kirrik fixed the window back in place, sealed the hole, and as a further precaution covered it with another plasFibre layer.
     They removed the suits in the welcome one G environment, folding them into packs that could easily be carried on their backs.
     "Time to find out what's beyond the door," Kirrik said.
     The door was unlocked, and opened onto a dimly lit empty grey corridor. Neither direction looked particularly distinguished, but from the outside the main complex had lain to the right. Kirrik shrugged and set off that way, Marchero tagging along behind him.
     They moved along many more corridors, heading in the direction they guessed was the heart of the base as they passed from one interconnected building to another. They had met no-one in the first three, the dim lighting suggesting that it was "night time" there.
     The fourth building was more brightly lit, and they began to move with greater caution. The corridors were often replaced with open areas, an empty canteen and a couple of recreation rooms.
     One of these rec rooms had a separate section behind a glass wall. Randomly scattered around it were comfortable chairs, and in one of them was slouched a human man, apparently asleep. A book lay on the floor beside him.
     Kirrik watched the man for some time, peering around a corner. He didn't move, and his eyes appeared closed. Eventually Kirrik left his cover and slowly walked into the room, motioning for Marchero to remain hidden. He crossed the room without the man in the chair moving. At the far side he signalled to Marchero to re-join him.
     When they were both safely out of side Kirrik peered back around the corner.
     "What are you waiting for?" Marchero hissed at him.
     "Making sure he's not waiting until we're out of site before raising an alarm," he whispered. "Keep an eye on the other direction."
     After five minutes Kirrik quietly said "Right, let's move. I can't afford to keep watch all night."
     "How much longer is all night?"
     "I haven't a clue. Tell me if you see a clock."
     The fifth building was equipped as a sports hall and gymnasium, and was empty.
     At the entrance to the sixth voices could be heard, and the frequent tramp of feet. "So much for night," Marchero murmured.
     "I think we're coming to the central areas," Kirrik pointed out to her. "They're probably running a shift system with different habitats on night at different times. Let's have a peek at them."
     Crouched behind the door he watched the movement outside. In ten minutes about thirty people passed by, mostly humans but there were five humanoid aliens of varying species. They were all dressed differently except for a dark green waistcoat with a curious emblem on it, a star flash with an arrow through the centre.
     From inside his clothing Kirrik withdrew an odd collection of rods and levers. He spent a few minutes screwing them together to produce an undersized looking crossbow. Marchero regarded it curiously.
     "Very handy little thing, this," he told her. "Almost silent, no power cells or explosives to be detected by the sensors and no energy discharge to alert them either. Unrecognisable to the untrained eye when it's in pieces, too."
     "That's official equipment, is it?" Marchero asked him.
     Kirrik laughed shortly. "Unofficially."
     He waited until the corridor was empty apart from one person, and casually shot them in the head with the crossbow. He jumped out into the corridor to pull the body out of site before anyone came looking.
     "Get the waistcoat," he told Marchero, while he turned back to await another victim.
     Marchero eyed the body with some distaste. A fairly young human woman, quite attractive. Or she would have been was it not for the flighted bolt sticking out of the side of her head, holding in all but a thin trickle of blood. She reluctantly removed the waistcoat from the limp torso.
     "Drag the body somewhere out of site," Kirrik instructed her without turning. Before Marchero could protest he hissed "Stop, quiet."
     The person now approaching down the corridor on their own was another woman, older and with a hint of grey in her hair. Kirrik raised the crossbow and fired.
     The bolt was not quite on course, and scraped the side of the woman's skull before clattering off the far wall. The woman yelled in pain and alarm. Kirrik swore and leapt out of hiding at her. The would-be victim recovered incredibly quickly from her surprise, and caught Kirrik's arm as he rushed at her. She twisted round and sent the Disian careering into the wall. Kirrik rolled himself along the wall out of her way as she attempted to kick him.
     As the woman moved to attack again she collapsed suddenly as Marchero came at her from behind and landed a blow at the base of her head. Kirrik started to drag the inert body away when the sound of voices came from down the corridor and around the corner at the far end.
     "Damn," he muttered as he wrenched the waistcoat off. He noted Marchero was already wearing hers, and he shoved her down the corridor away from the voices. A few seconds later he ran after her and jumped around another corner before the approaching people noticed him or the unconscious woman.
     Shouts from behind and the sound of running feet announced that the body had been found. Kirrik removed the spacesuit backpack and stowed it in his bag, and started to put on waistcoat as they moved. They darted round another corner into a much more busy corridor. The green garment fitted Kirrik tightly, but nobody seemed to pay any attention to him.
     Three men came running from behind them. Kirrik and Marchero walked on, ignoring them. Their pursuers were heard swearing as they were unable to determine who was responsible in the stream of people passing this way and that.
     "Now what?" Marchero asked quietly. "Presuming you don't intend to murder everyone here."
     "Look for a computer terminal," he replied. "And stop looking so tense, for goodness' sake. The alarm will have gone up by now. Draw any attention to us and we're dead."
     Such a terminal was nowhere to be seen in the passageways. They wandered around randomly for some minutes until Marchero stopped by a door that looked no different to a dozen others they had passed.
     "What are you doing?" Kirrik demanded.
     "Back down the other end of the corridor I saw someone walk out of here. Didn't see anyone inside, and there's a better chance of finding a terminal in here." Kirrik grunted in response.
     There didn't seem to be any security locking on the door, and it was opened without any problems. The room was indeed empty of people. Electronic constructions of unknown purpose lined the walls and covered two heavy benches in the centre of the room. Also on the benches, enshrouded by strange devices, were three fragments of twisted metal.
     Kirrik tossed a datapad to Marchero. "Find the terminal and plug this into it," he told her, and then turned to the benches.
     Marchero searched through the paraphernalia surrounding the walls until she found what she hoped was a standard SysInf socket. The pad accepted it without complaint. It did nothing for a few seconds, then beeped quietly. "Download complete," flashed on it.
     "Download?" she asked Kirrik.
     Kirrik was hunched over a bench, poking at various switches and studying displays with intense concentration. He either ignored her or hadn't heard her.
     "Download what?" she repeated.
     Kirrik looked up angrily. "I'm busy. Watch the door."
     Marchero scowled at him. "Catch," she called, throwing the pad back at Kirrik. It clattered to the floor.
     Kirrik turned around again. "Just pay attention, all right? And stop messing around."
     Marchero folded her arms and looked straight at Kirrik. "Or what? You'll shoot me, because it's convenient? Cold-blooded murder doesn't seem to bother you, after all."
     "I do what's necessary. If I was to do whatever was convenient you would have been dead a long time ago."
     "Oh, yeah, sure. The end justifies the means and all that," she retorted sarcastically.
     "This, coming from someone who tried to get a convoy shot to pieces to get at one person?" he replied with some surprise.
     "I've explained that several times, and the fact that everyone else would have got away."
     "How very convenient. And how is killing someone in a petty personal vendetta any better than doing it in a greater cause?"
     "That's worrying. I always worry when people start babbling on about 'Greater causes'. They can start justifying any atrocity in the name of the greater good. And if they can officially get away with it then they've got too much power."
     "What a fascinating speech. I suppose if we're attacked then it's fine to kill someone in defence? Possibly several people, even. Or just one or two to prevent that."
     "Hah. What a transparent excuse."
     "So you hold everyone in the universe with a combat rating greater than 'Harmless' in contempt? I can't see you as being quite that naïve. I believe you are 'Competent' yourself." He turned back to examining the bench. "Save your moral arguments for later," he said, not bothering to look at her. "For when we have the time."
     Marchero tried to bite back, but was ignored. Eventually frustrated by the lack of response she finally watched the door.
     It wasn't long before Kirrik stood up. "Found it!" he said, quietly but enthusiastically.
     "Found what?" Marchero snapped.
     "That these are pieces of the Constrictor!"
     "The what?"
     "None of your business."
     Marchero was starting to turn red, her temper clearly about to go again.
     "OK, it was a secret ship that was stolen, and then destroyed. Satisfied?" He picked up the pad from where it had been lying on the floor, and connected it to the computer interface again.
     The answer hadn't told her much, but seemed to have averted another argument. "And the computer?"
     "You downloaded some dataprobes. If Kalangu has done his job properly they should be able to sneak their way into secure data and arrange for it to be collected on this." He waved the pad. "They've also been set to pull out any other useful information. Like a map."
     Marchero raised an eyebrow curiously. Kirrik thumbed the pad's controls.
     "The map's there," he said. He scanned through a little more of the stolen data. "Uh-oh," he muttered.
     "What's up?" Marchero asked quickly.
     "These bits of rubbish here," he said, gesturing towards the metal on the bench, "are just hull plating. They were made with a new technique, but it wouldn't be worth all this effort for them. Apparently a ship is being built, though, right here. And so are some very unusual shield generators for it."
     "Which suggests that was part of your 'Constrictor'," Marchero guessed.
     "Yes," Kirrik replied, looking at her darkly. "According to this they had enough pieces of the shield generator to work out something. The specs aren't as good as the originals, but it's still bad, bad news."
     "So let's get that ship, then!" Marchero announced.
     "I suppose so," Kirrik said dubiously. "It's probably in the most secure area here."
     "Does it say why they want some high-tech shields so badly?"
     "No," Kirrik admitted.
     "Then the answer might be on that ship."
     Kirrik agreed with this. "Wait a minute, though. I need to skim through the rest of this."
     He had only been studying the pad for a few seconds before the door opened.
     The man who had been about to enter the room stopped in surprise.
     "Who the hell are you?" he demanded.
     "Construction wants a check on the hull material," Kirrik bluffed.
     "Right." The tone was sarcastic. "So they send someone who hasn't a clue about procedure." Too quickly for Kirrik or Marchero could react he pressed a button beside the door. Kirrik rushed forward to attack the man. He quickly managed to shove him out of the way, and both Kirrik and Marchero darted out into the corridor before he could stop them.
     Before they could make an escape, though, both ends of the corridor filled with soldiers, armoured plating covering their bodies and laser rifles held ready.
     Marchero reacted without thinking, and darted back to the door they had just emerged from. Kirrik followed her as the soldiers opened fire. Firing from each end of the corridor the soldiers often hit each other, but the weapons were on low power and their armour protected them. Without protection Kirrik and Marchero were vulnerable, and as Marchero dove through the door she heard a yell and a thump from behind her.
     Inside the room the dazed technician had struggled to his feet and was trying to find a commlink. The startled man was caught by surprise by Marchero's rapid return and she knocked him down again before he had time to react.
     Out in the corridor Kirrik was trying to crawl towards the door, one hand held to his hip and blood oozing from between his fingers. The soldiers were fast approaching, and it was clear that he would not make it in time. With his free hand he managed to shove his equipment bag along the floor, then collapsed.
     As soon as the bag skidded through the entrance Marchero shut the door. Quickly hunting around it she found the lock, and having activated it she stood back and kicked its controls as hard as she could. It caved in beneath her foot. The mechanical part of the lock remained in place, holding the door shut.
     A quick look around revealed no means of escape. There were no other doors from the room. A ventilation grille high up in one corner was only about a foot square. She ran around the room, flinging equipment aside and looking under the benches, but to no avail. There was noise behind the door, they were trying to break through.
     The locked door did not last long under that pressure. It soon burst inwards, and the soldiers came pouring in through it. Now trapped Marchero was forced to surrender. She was grabbed roughly by two soldiers and clubbed unconscious by a third.
     She awoke, but could see nothing. She tried to stand but the effort nearly made her vomit. As she lay gasping on the cold, metal floor the only noises were her own breathing and a distant hum of ventilation pumps.
     She lay shivering for some time. The darkness grew no lighter, and there was nothing new to hear. She tried to stand again, and this time managed to make it to her feet. She tried to take a step forwards, but the after effects of the blow to her head and the complete lack of any visual reference brought her crashing down again.
     She tried edging her away along the floor. She soon touched a wall, as cold and bare as the floor. With something to lean against she attempted to stand for a third time. With a shoulder against the wall she slowly moved along it.
     The wall did not end. There were no markings, no hint of a door. She leaned face on against the blank metal, and spread her arms out. Her arms pushed her shoulders back slightly more than they should. The wall curved. It was impossible to tell how much, though, and if the room was elliptical and not circular it wouldn't mean much.
     Marchero slid to the floor again. If the idea of stepping away from security of a vertical edge to cross the room had occurred to her she had dismissed it. She sat staring into the darkness, and eventually fell asleep.
     When she awoke nothing had changed. Once again she sat and watched nothing. Time dragged by, without any means of determining its passage.
     She started to fidget, aimlessly tugging her clothes or feeling the lump on her head where she had been hit. Soon she was kicking at the floor and wall. This pointless exercise eventually caught her attention, and she managed to hold herself still.
     Still nothing happened. As time passed she dozed, went back to fidgeting, or even incoherent yelling. But there was not change in the circumstances.
     This remained true long enough for her to sleep several times, and for the confinement to start to effect her body as well as her mind. Her occasional mutterings became more and more harsh as her throat dried out. The cell began to stink, although she wasn't really coherent enough to notice.
     When there was a faint clank above her she yelped in alarm. Nothing happened for a few moments. Then their was a mechanical groan from somewhere above her head. A thin crescent of blinding light appeared, gradually growing larger and brighter as the ceiling moved back.
     The cell was finally revealed as being circular, and about twenty feet in diameter. Apart from Marchero and its now soiled floor it was indeed completely featureless. Its height had been impossible to determine in the darkness, but was now shown to be at least half again as high as her.
     Marchero was huddled against the wall, shielding her eyes with her hands and moaning quietly. A ladder was lowered into the pit. She ignored it.
     "Up you go," a voice called down from somewhere above her. She didn't move. "Come on," the voice ordered impatiently. After waiting for a few seconds without a response the voice sighed. It was heard talking to someone else nearby. Two figures climbed down the ladder, and dragged Marchero over to it. After much pushing and shoving she slowly climbed out.
     The room above the pit was nearly as blank as the cell had been. A small balcony surrounded the near edge, a railing marking it off from the downward opening. Two buttons were mounted on the railing, there were hooks on the wall to hold the ladder, and a door out.
     When Marchero had managed to drag herself clear of the pit the two figures followed her up the ladder. Once on the balcony they hauled it up after them, and secured it to the hooks. One pressed one of the buttons, and what was now the floor ground shut.
     The two figures who had brought Marchero out of the pit were nearly as untidy as she now looked. Both were men, unshaven, and wearing tattered clothes. Neither of them bore the green waistcoat that the base crew had been wearing. They said nothing to Marchero, she said nothing to them.
     One of them left the room, the other prodded Marchero to follow. She stumbled out after him.
     They moved for some time through an apparently deserted part of the base until eventually they moved into a room. The floor was covered in cargo canisters, and more hung from the ceiling. With a great deal of effort the men managed to drag one of the canisters away from the wall. With a nominal loaded weight of one tonne, it must have been empty for them to be able to move it at all.
     Behind the canister was a narrow wall panel. One of the men tapped on it, and it was pulled open from the inside. Marchero was pushed through. When they were all in one of them picked up a clamp attached to a rope, fixed it on to the canister, and they dragged back. After releasing the clamp the panel was fixed back into place.
     Behind the panel was a steeply sloping rock tunnel. Gravplates lined the floor, but the walls and ceiling were rough. A row of lights hung from a wire that was suspended from the wall by a series of bolts. The man who had opened the panel for them looked pointedly at Marchero, and asked "Just her?"
     "Apparently not," one of the others replied.
     Once they had moved away from the entrance the passageway appeared level, the gravplates imposing their sense of direction over the feeble one provided by the asteroid. It carried on for about a hundred yards, ending at an imposing metal door. This opened into a vast cavern. It appeared to slope upwards, merely by contrast to the apparent level surface of the passage to it. Rough buildings were scattered at random around the cavern, and much of the rest of it was filled with piled junk. The whole was dimly lit by a few lights around the walls, but brighter light shone out from some windows.
     Marchero was escorted to one of the smaller buildings. The door was locked behind her, but this prison was much more comfortable than the one she had just left. The room she was in was carpeted with various scraps of material, and several soft but battered chairs were scattered around it. At one end an area had been curtained off. On a crude trestle table stood a pitcher, a couple of mugs, and a loaded plate and bowl.
     The pitcher was full of water, and she drained half of it quickly. The food was simple, bread, some dried fruit, and the bowl was full of some unpalatable processed mush. She didn't seem to notice the taste, and crammed it in.
     Feeling light-headed from the effects of overdoing the food and drink she made her erratic way to the curtained area. It contained five bunks and a proper door. Sitting on one of the bunks was a pile of clothes. Through the door was a cramped bathroom, just managing to contain a shower, basin and toilet.
     She showered, despite the apparent lack of soap, and left the shower running with her clothes sitting in it. There was no dryer, which she compensated for by pulling a rug off one of the bunks and using it as a towel. The clothes on the bed were tatty and baggy, but they were clean and dry. Lying down on the conveniently placed bunk she quickly fell asleep.
     Voices from the main room woke her up. Struggling to her feet Marchero parted the curtain to see what was causing the noise.
     The two men who had brought her in earlier had returned, dragging a limp form between them. Marchero started in surprise when she recognised Kirrik. Whatever she had gone through must have been nothing compared to his suffering. Crude bandages covered much of his torso, limbs, and head, speaking of injuries other than the one he had sustained when they had been captured. His head was hanging down too far for it to be seen whether or not he was conscious or not. Only shallow breathing indicated that he was alive.
     The two men carefully lowered him onto one of the chairs, then left the room. Marchero sat down and watched him.
     Kirrik gradually raised his face to look at her. One eye was swollen completely shut and the other could barely open. He whispered something, but too faintly for Marchero to hear. She moved over to him.
     "Who's this lot?" she managed to hear, as he whispered again.
     "I don't know. They've barely said a word since bringing me hear."
     Kirrik sighed and leaned back against the chair. "What's happened to you," Marchero asked him, but he did not reply.
     It was not long before the door opened again. Only one man entered this time, a different person to the two who had brought them in to the room. He was carrying a case from which he produced various medications and clean bandages.
     Marchero said nothing whilst Kirrik was attended to. When he was done, though, she spoke to him. "You're just going to put on a few bandages?" she demanded.
     The man scowled at her. "We're very short on medical supplies. I've used some regeneration accelerant on the worst wounds and cleaned the rest. That's the best I can do."
     "And why?" she queried him.
     "You'll find out shortly," he replied, and departed before she could question him further.
     For three hours nothing happened. Kirrik slept, and Marchero nibbled some more food, and with the lack of any other way of passing the time dozed herself.
     When the tedium was broken it was by the arrival of a group of three people. Standing at their head was a man who looked at least sixty, with grey hair and a scarred face. He was dressed in richer and less ragged garments than the other people Marchero had seen in the cavern, and sported some pieces of jewellery in the form of gold cuffs. The two people accompanying him, a man and a woman, were younger and as untidy as the rest of the people here had been. In their hands they held pistols, currently pointed at the ground.
     The older man sat himself down in one corner of the room. One of his guards gently shook Kirrik awake.
     Kirrik slowly looked around the room, as if seeing it for the first time. When he noticed the grey haired man he managed a half laugh.
     "Long time no see, Kirrik," the man said. "Looking about as good as the last time I saw you, though," he added wryly. Marchero stared at them in confusion.
     The man noticed her puzzled look. "You haven't a clue what's going on, have you?" he asked.
     Marchero shook her head.
     "So what are you doing with this pirate, then?" He nodded his head in Kirrik's direction.
     "Pirate?" she replied in amazement.
     "Yep. Him and me. Had a ship called the Sai Pas." Kirrik was growling at him, but he ignored it. "Spent our time hanging around anarchic systems blasting other pirates and traders foolish enough to venture there."
     "He was one of the Sai Pas?" she replied incredulously.
     "Ah, you've heard of us. The price of fame. Or infamy." Infamy indeed. Being on a pirate vessel that had destroyed a Galactic Co-Operative vessel on its way to Rabedira with real hope of ending its civil wars. Which meant that at one time Kirrik was on of the most wanted men in the Co-Operative.
     "So what's he doing here, then?" she demanded.
     "Why don't you ask me?" Kirrik told her. He spoke loud enough to be easily heard, although his voice still sounded strained.
     "Would you tell me?"
     Kirrik shrugged slightly. "Might as well. If I won't Aeyris will."
     The man, Aeyris, grinned at him. "Go right ahead."
     Kirrik tried to cough, then spoke. "To put it quickly, I was on his ship. We misread the signs and tried to attack a Naval patrol, and were shot to pieces. Aeyris shoved me in one escape pod, and I haven't seen him since. I was picked up by the Navy. You can guess the rest."
     It was now the turn of Aeyris to be startled. "You work for the Navy? Heaven help the security of the galaxy. Still, I suppose it explains why you're here."
     "Perhaps," Kirrik replied. "And you?"
     "I stayed on the ship when it was attacked. They thought it wrecked and left it. I managed to survive long enough to be picked up by another of my ships. Then I continued with piracy. I found this asteroid and started up a nice, hidden base here. Things were going quite well until those bastards showed up and killed most of us." He leaned back in his chair. "And now the survivors are marooned here, until they find this place too."
     "And you picked us up for old times' sake?" Kirrik returned.
     Aeyris shook his head. "I didn't know who you were until I walked in here. It's about time I had a pleasant surprise, though."
     "Why rescue us then?" Kirrik pressed.
     "Because your presence suggests someone official has decided to do something about that lot. We've tapped into their security system, and saw your capture. It's a pity I didn't recognise you there, or I might have tried finding you earlier."
     "Thanks," Kirrik muttered.
     Aeyris sighed. "It would have been too dangerous to try. I would have had to wait until you had been left alone anyway."
     Marchero responded angrily to this. "What about me, though? If you were going to rescue both of us why leave me to go crazy in that pit first?"
     "If I had you plucked from the oubliette before I could rescue Kirrik the commotion it would have caused would have probably made rescuing him impossible."
     "They might have come and killed me anyway!" she retorted.
     Their new captor shook his head. "That particular hole lives up to its name. When they shove people in there they leave them to rot. Just the occasional bit of food and water to prolong it."
     Marchero grimaced at the fate she had nearly been left to. "Then they wouldn't have known I was gone."
     "They would. They quietly check every now and then to see if you are dead yet." Aeyris sat up straight. "That's enough reminiscing, though," he announced. "Now it's time for you to convince me that saving you is going to save me."
     Kirrik groaned. "Look at me. I'm hardly in a fit enough state to do anything for myself, let alone you."
     "Too bad," Aeyris replied. "You'll have to pull through, and soon. It won't be long before your absence is discovered, and then its going to be very difficult to do anything."
     "I can barely walk!"
     "I've enough medical supplies to get you on your feet, if it's absolutely necessary."
     "Whatever," Kirrik conceded. "I need a few answers, first."
     "Such as?" Aeyris asked curiously.
     "Who are we dealing with. What are they doing. What are their goals."
     "Supposing I don't know?"
     Marchero laughed at him. "They've already tried this one on me."
     Aeyris looked suspiciously at her. "What do you mean?"
     "When I was dragged into this. His lot," she nodded at Kirrik, "seemed convinced I knew everything, and weren't happy that I didn't. Kirrik was the worst of the lot on the way here."
     "Hang on. Who are you? Not with the Navy?"
     "I was forced into this by threats, just because I had a vague idea about where this base was. I used to work on a freighter that delivered here."
     "Oh, wonderful. What's the use of you, then? I should have left you in the dungeon. Still, we need everyone we can get. Make yourself useful and I'll let you live."
     Marchero shuffled uneasily on her seat. "I'll do whatever I need to to get back at them."
     "What about my questions?" Kirrik asked pointedly. "Can we keep to the conversation, please?"
     "Your pet here is right. I don't know much," Aeyris told him.
     "They call themselves The Gateway. What to, I don't know. They've got some shipbuilding project they seem obsessed with, although they seem to have just about finished with it now. I've access to some of the cameras in its construction hangar."
     Kirrik eased himself forward until he was sitting upright. "Can I see them?" he asked eagerly.
     Aeyris shrugged. "OK." He talked briefly to one of his guards, who then left the room.
     When the man returned he was carrying a hand-held monitor. Aeyris played about with it for a few moments. "Here you are," he said as he passed it to Kirrik.
     The monitor showed a large hangar, cranes and gantries hanging from the ceiling. One wall was covered with screens, although what they were showing was impossible to see. In the centre of the hangar stood a strange ship, about the size of a Cobra MkIII. Dull grey in the hangar's lighting, it was roughly rectangular, blunt-nosed and somehow menacing. Scaffolding covered some of it, but robots were in the process of dismantling the metal web.
     "Bloody hell," muttered Marchero, who had moved round to stand behind Kirrik and view the monitor.
     "That's it," said Kirrik.
     "Your Constrictor?"
     "Yes. This is not good. I was hoping they wouldn't have had time to map out the ship that completely before it was destroyed."
     "If they managed to get the plans away before it was blown up why did they need the pieces?" she demanded.
     "How should I know?" he replied, his tone angered.
     "Can't you guess?" she replied with some exasperation.
     "A complete guess would be that their information was incomplete, or at least needed confirmation. I was expecting them to fit the new parts to an existing design."
     Aeyris had been listening curiously to this. "You know what they've got here, I take it. Would you mind telling me?"
     Kirrik briefly covered the origins of the Constrictor, and a few of its unique features. He pointed at the monitor. "This thing here is probably a bad copy, though. Hopefully it won't be as capable as the original."
     Aeyris sat thoughtfully for a few moments. "I would think your concern is more what they intend to do with it than what's in it. But that can wait until I don't need your help."
     "Very well. How many people have you here?"
     "Eighteen." Aeyris paused before adding tersely, "Out of fifty-two."
     "We're going to need that ship then."
     "You're crazy," Aeyris replied flatly.
     "From what I saw on the way all the large ships that come here dock on that platform. You'll never manage to ferry that many people over there."
     "How did you get here?"
     "In a Viper. It's probably been discovered by now."
     Marchero chuckled. "GalCop's not going to be happy when you loose their toy."
     "Fine, then, something must have brought the Viper here," Aeyris insisted.
     "Perhaps. But it's not coming all the way here. It would be far too dangerous," Kirrik declared. "Look, that pseudo-Constrictor is the only ship here big enough to take everyone. Even then it's going to be hard."
     "You're assuming that it holds the same number of people as your stolen one," Aeyris pointed out.
     Kirrik shrugged, a movement made awkward by his injuries. He grimaced at the effect of the gesture on his battered body before saying, "That had a crew of ten. The life support systems were designed to cope with twelve. You'll probably loose some people trying to take it, anyway."
     Aeyris jumped to his feet and rushed over to Kirrik. His raised his right hand to hit the Disian, but controlled himself with obvious effort. "If I loose any more people," he snarled straight into Kirrik's face, "I'll hold you responsible. And avenge them on you as much as The Gateway."
     Kirrik hadn't flinched during this threat. He waited until Aeyris backed off before saying, "You live a high-risk business. People get killed when doing dangerous things."
     "How can you be certain that there's no other ships with the capacity? We've seen the odd Fer-de-Lance on the cameras. Crew of twelve, and usually room for several more. And there's one here right now." Aeyris returned to his chair.
     "Whatever we leave in, they're going to try to blast it as soon as they see it. If they've built that ship right it's probably the only one here that stands a chance of escaping."
     Aeyris didn't reply, but Marchero murmured to Kirrik, "Or are you just refusing to leave without it?" He ignored her.
     Eventually Aeyris said, "We'll take the Constrictor. It's in the nearest bay to us, and the more of the base we'll have to go through the greater the chance of being stopped."
     "It's also going to be the most heavily guarded!" exclaimed Marchero.
     A harsh smile appeared on Kirrik's face. "When they interrogated me I think I left them with the impression that there area couple more of us here. Looking for our phantom companions is going to keep them out of mischief."
     "Well?" she asked the pirate captain.
     Aeyris held his hand out to Kirrik, who passed the monitor back to him. He looked thoughtful. "The place is swarming with soldiers, mostly in the area you were first seen. Which isn't all that close to here. There's a few standing around the hangar, but it'll be possible to take them out. Seems you've fooled them well enough, if they are only leaving enough people to mind against a couple of others." He stood up and ordered his own guards to bring together the rest of his people.
     They arrived in no order, sixteen men, women, and unknown, not counting Aeyris and the two who had been notifying them. Two were non-human, one a strange insectoid being and the other a humanoid giant, eight feet tall, with huge muscles under sparse brown fur. All were dressed untidily and randomly. Amongst them was the medic that had attended to Kirrik earlier. Under Aeyris' instructions he returned to the Disian, using up several of their limited medical supplies on him.
     After a few minutes of random chatter Aeyris called them to order. Some sat in empty chairs, others slouched around the room.
     "These two," he began, waving at Kirrik and Marchero, "seem to think we can get out of here. They've stirred up a hornets' nest, anyway, and if we don't leave we'll doubtless be dug out soon. And we're going on that strange ship we've all been wondering about for so long." A babble of voices broke out, some surprised, some eager, and some clearly thinking that their leader had gone mad.
     Aeyris eventually had to shout some of them down into submission. Grumbling to themselves, they fell silent.
     "There's not much to say until we're on the ship. Anyone we come across on the way, take them down quickly. We're dead if they can call in help. If there are too many lurking around a corner then wait. Keep all weapons on minimal power. Only go up if you see someone in armour. It doesn't matter if we kill or just put to sleep. Arrachachak, take the cannon anyway. You've got five minutes to arm yourselves and assemble outside. Go!"
     They filed out, apart from the medic, who was still working on Kirrik. Two minutes later he too left. Kirrik stood, grimacing slightly.
     "Can you make it?" Aeyris asked.
     "I'll do. Come on." He walked from the room, Marchero and Aeyris following.
     A dozen people were milling around outside. Some of them were buckling on armour, mostly consisting of DurFibre breastplates and helmets. They carried a variety of weapons, mostly light laser blasters, although three were armed with rifles and the giant, Arrachachak, had a huge cannon balanced on his shoulder, connected to a power-pack slung onto his back. It looked suspiciously like a light ship-based pulse laser with several of its systems removed and handholds welded on.
     A few other people were emerging from a nearby building. Aeyris led Marchero and Kirrik to it. The building was an armoury, various weapons lay scattered around tables inside. Pieces of broken armour were piled in a corner, and a few heavier weapons stood against the walls. Aeyris took a rifle for himself, and picked out laser pistols for Kirrik and Marchero. "Stay at the back," he ordered them.
     They rejoined the rest of the group, and moved out of the cavern. At the end of the tunnel one of the women eased back the panel slightly and held a scanner to the gap. "All clear," she announced. The panel was pulled clear, and the cargo canister on the far side pushed out of the way. The first two through ran through the room to its door, and stood at either side with their weapons held ready while the rest of the group emerged from the tunnel.
     The area beyond the door was scanned, and again announced clear. Through the door Aeyris took the lead, his crew trailing behind him. Kirrik and Marchero were not quite at the back, behind them was the insectoid. Its eyes sat on the end of stubby antennae, which it could turn to both see where it was going and what was behind it.
     As it had been when Marchero was brought to the pirates this area of the base was still deserted. They moved quickly but cautiously for a while, until Aeyris held his hand up to halt. He looked to the woman with the scanner, and jerked his head towards the corridor junction they had been approaching. She advanced, and crouched down just before the corner. Turning back to the rest she pointed left, and held up one finger. One of the pirates moved forward, but the woman signed to him to wait. A few seconds later she signalled with thumbs up.
     They moved off again, turning right at the intersection. The next corner was clear. They had not travelled far down this passageway before they stopped again, this time beside a door. It opened suddenly, without a chance to scan.
     The room was large, with robots standing in rows on one side. They appeared inactive, at least they paid no attention to the opening of the door. More robots lay on diagnostic benches, with half a dozen technicians working on them.
     Several of the pirates reacted instantly, opening fire on the surprised technicians. The weapons were barely audible, operating on minimal, but the effects were noticeable. Four of the techs were caught and sent crashing to the floor. The other two managed to hide behind the dismantled robots. The pirate group rushed into the room and ran around to find them. As they passed around the corner of the benches a laser blast caught the man in the lead in the chest. He was without armour, and was thrown back with a scream. The second attacker was also struck, but he was wearing armour and it was strong enough to protect him.
     The shot had come from one of the techs, who had found a pistol from somewhere. He had paused to increase the power of his gun, but before he could fire again he was also stunned. The final man was desperately searching a table. He was also taken down before he found what he was looking for.
     Some of the team went with the scanner to ensure the rest of the room was secure. Others jammed the door they had come in through. The medic examined the technician's victim, but it didn't require much medical skill to see that he was dead, an ugly hole burned through his chest. "Unlucky bastard," the medic told Aeyris. "Right in the heart." Aeyris swore, stamped over to the unconscious defender, and kicked him hard.
     It was not long before the scanning group returned. "Let's get on," Aeyris announced. "Stay moving as quickly as possible."
     They passed through a series of rooms, mostly workshops of various kinds. People were in some of them but were removed without any more difficulty. In one room a confused robot rushed around babbling nonsense. Arrachachak grabbed it with his spare hand and smashed it against a wall.
     When they came to the last of the rooms they were faced with an open door, beyond which people could be seen walking past.
     The group gathered out of site of the door. "We're nearly there," Aeyris whispered to them. "Most of those people are unarmed, so we'll just rush on. Shoot anyone who gets in the way, but don't waste time chasing them down. Someone will escape to raise the alarm within two seconds of us passing that door whatever we do. Set weapons to full power, and hit anyone carrying a weapon. Arrachachak, blast the hangar door as soon as you see it."
     As they rushed out into the corridor people started shouting, some running off either way, others attempting to block the attackers. After five of them had been shot the rest turned and ran, yelling for help. The pirates were running now, two of them carrying Kirrik between their shoulders, who was still not in a good enough state to keep up with this pace.
     The rush continued. A few more people who tried to stop them were killed for their efforts. They passed through two doors without any serious opposition, but a pair of soldiers met them around a corner. Laser fire shot out in each direction, and the soldiers did not last long in its face, but they managed to hit one of the attackers. A woman of about Marchero's age caught a blast that sent her crashing into the man behind her. Two pairs of hands hauled her upright, her face grimacing in pain at the wound in her side.
     When they passed through a third door Aeyris' followers found themselves in an empty passage. They paused to examine the wounded woman, but she had already died. She was gently lowered to the floor, and then they hurried onward.
     The room passage opened into a vast hall. Trucks loaded with miscellaneous equipment stood scattered around it, and a number of people and robots were running around, sprinting in and out of other entrances. On the far wall was a huge pair of doors, in front of which were eight heavily armed and protected soldiers. Accompanying them were two guard robots.
     Two of the soldiers remained at the door, the rest of them rushed out to meet the attackers. Another flurry of laser fire, and the advancing soldiers were down, as well as five more pirates. The rest of the people there disappeared as fast as they could. Long range shots between the remaining two guards and the pirates were largely fruitless. They ducked back through the doorway as the robots also opened fire with frightening high-speed blasts. Another attacker, the insectoid, was injured, loosing an arm. It appeared to take no discomfort from the injury, though, and with another limb was firing back.
     Some bolts caught the robots, with no effect. A slight shimmering distortion around them indicated shielding.
     "Arrachachak!" Aeyris yelled. The giant had braced himself against a wall, and was trying to aim his cumbersome weapon. A hideous screech, almost a bang, as it went off. The blast missed the robot, blasting a portion of the wall out. The human guard nearest to the impact was flung aside, where he lay twitching on the floor. The robot shuddered, but continued firing.
     "Hurry up!" Marchero yelled at him. "Fire again!"
     "Just keep shooting yourself, and leave the cannon to Arrachachak," one of the pirates snarled at her.
     It was ten seconds before the cannon had cooled down. The next blast caught a robot straight on, obliterating it. So did the third, taking out the final guard with it. Aeyris himself took a glancing hit in his left leg.
     When the cannon hit the doors they buckled under the strain, but stayed in one piece. It took two more shots to open a hole in it, but as soon as it did they left their cover and ran for it, Kirrik and Aeyris being helped along, and Arrachachak wincing at the effort after the bruising jolts he had received each time he had operated the pulse laser.
     They all made it through the door, some picking up nasty burns from the cooling, twisted metal. As Arrachachak ducked through the gap dozens of soldiers appeared in the hall behind them. Arrachachak took several steps back from the door, and loosed his cannon upwards. Without anything to brace against he was hurled to the floor, smashing the power pack on his back. From above, though, came a pile of twisted metal as the cranes and gantries that had been torn free from the shot crashed down to block the door.
     They were in the hangar, fourteen of the twenty-one who had started. No other people could be seen, only service robots who were oblivious to anything that did not directly concern them. And in the centre of the hangar sat the new Constrictor.
     "Over to you," Aeyris told Kirrik. His voice was steady but his face was pale and his leg bloody.
     "Over to me what?"
     "Where's the door? How does it open? It was your idea to come here, so I hope you had an idea about how to get in."
     Kirrik looked up at the grey metallic mass. "Around the other side," he told them. They walked around to the far side of the ship. One of the pirates glanced back at the mess surrounding the hangar's entrance.
     "Can't see or hear any sign of anyone trying to break through," he pointed out.
     There were a few puzzled looks from the rest of the team, until Marchero's face suddenly took on a look of panic. "In the ship, fast!" she shouted.
     "Why aren't they trying to break in? Why not just seal off the area and let the air out?" She was greeted with several worried looks, and several questions along the line of "How do you know?"
     "It's a guess, OK?" she snapped back. "Any other ideas? Or do you want to stand around and find out if I'm right?"
     Kirrik found the door. At a touch it slid open, much to his surprise. "No lock? Never mind that now, everyone on board."
     Most of them were on when machinery started up at the far side of the hangar. The last few took a panicked glance at the hangar doors and leapt in after their companions, cramming together in the narrow entrance.
     "Close the bloody door!" someone at the front yelled. The pirate at the back looked around in alarm.
     "With what? There's no panel here, just a bundle of wires!" he exclaimed.
     "Well go out there and close it from outside!"
     "Get lost!"
     "You'll die just the same. Only we all will if you stay here."
     "You go then."
     "I would if you lot weren't piled in the way."
     "Like hell you would!"
     "Shut up everyone!" Kirrik's voice rose above the noise. "Get out of my way and let me get to the bridge. I'll see if I can close it from there." There was much shuffling and cursing as he forced his way from his place in the middle of the crush. The air started moving, out of the ship and through the hangar.
     Kirrik had disappeared from view. The wind had turned into a gale.
     "Help!" a man exclaimed, uselessly, as his ears popped. People furthest from the door were trying to make their way deeper into the ship, people near the back were trying to grab hold of the people in front to stop themselves from being blown out. A few abandoned weapons bounced out of the hatch, and clanks and clangs resounded over the ship as pieces of equipment and debris bounced off its hull.
     Then the door slid shut. Hands were removed from ringing ears; they popped again as the ship's reserves restored air pressure to normal. When Kirrik returned he was greeted by cheers, even Marchero grudgingly thanked him.
     "I didn't have time to take a close look, but it seems this ship is close enough to the original for me to know what to do. Aeyris, are you still as good as you were?" he asked bluntly.
     He quickly scanned all that remained of his gang. "Silsi, can you fly this?" he asked.
     An attractive young woman announced "I'd love to give it a go."
     "Not you?" Kirrik asked Aeyris.
     "I need to have this leg sorted out, and my reactions aren't what they used to be. Silsi's as capable as anyone. Made it from Harmless to Deadly in five years, in all sorts of ships, too."
     "Fine. Marchero, you can take the navigation console. It's about time you proved yourself useful. Aeyris, pick someone for secondary gunner, will you? The rest of you, find somewhere out of the way. We'll sort other positions out when we need them."
     Aeyris chose another of his pirates for the secondary gunner, and sent the rest off to search the ship and make an inventory report. Their doctor was sent looking for medical supplies. Kirrik lead the rest of them to the bridge.
     The Constrictor's bridge was spacious, five chairs sitting at various stations and a sixth at the back for the commander. The girl Silsi took the foremost one, sitting in front of the main monitor. Kirrik indicated a chair on the left wall to Marchero, next to her he sat Aeyris' gunner, a nondescript middle-aged man.
     Kirrik sat himself at the bridge engineering station, on the opposite side of the room to Marchero while Aeyris rummaged around in the lockers looking for a first aid kit.
     Kirrik found the engine controls and brought them on. There was a sharp protesting whine from somewhere back in the ship as the drive was powered up quickly from cold. Possibly for the vessel's maiden flight, not a reassuring thought. The readouts stabilised rapidly, though. Indicators flashed on throughout the bridge and previously blank consoles illuminated. The viewscreen came to life, showing the hangar wall and the wrecked doorway. The piled junk had been too heavy to have been moved much by the decompression, but as they watched it shifted under the force of the bulldozer that had appeared behind it. A passage was quickly cleared, spacesuited soldiers were following it in.
     Kirrik left his place and moved to the commander's chair. He flicked the viewscreen onto rear view, where it now displayed the main hangar door.
     It had not been necessary to open it completely in order to decompress the hangar, and it the gap was not wide enough for the Constrictor to pass. Aeyris gave up looking for a first aid kit and ordered, "John, hit the door!" The secondary gunner found the controls for the rear laser and let loose.
     The laser was powerful, and destroyed the heavy door where it hit it. But it was strong enough to remain intact away from the blast point. Kirrik glanced across to the engineering console. The engines had powered up without problem, but the motivators had not yet charged.
     "Silsi, any movement?" he demanded.
     She shook the controls. "Nothing yet," she replied.
     Kirrik returned to the controls on the chair of his arm. He attempted to key the entrance door controls, but it would not lock. Switching the viewscreen revealed the soldiers moving around to that door. The charge reading crept up.
     "Keep trying to move," he ordered. Silsi obeyed, but the ship stayed still.
     Suddenly there was a shudder from somewhere, not the ship moving. A light indicated the external door had opened. Kirrik managed to close it again. Then it was opened, and this time it would not shut. Instead he closed every other door in the ship.
     Another shudder from the ship, and the image on the viewscreen moved. "We're off!" announced Silsi, although the charge meter was still only indicating eighty percent. "Controls are sluggish, though."
     "Never mind that, just get us out of here."
     The ship turned slightly. The secondary gunner took out more of the blockage, gradually carving his way across it as the turning presented undamaged metal to the laser. When she was satisfied the gap was large enough Silsi spun the craft around and nudged the engines.
     It lumbered forward. Under the partially charged engines controlling its movement was difficult, and it caught the edge of door with a hard jolt. Warning lights flashed up around the bridge, but none of them announced more than superficial damage. The ship was free in space.
     Aeyris took opportunity of the respite to call for his medic over the intercom. Someone replied "We can't get to you, there's a depressurised area between us."
     "The external door's stuck open. Is there a spacesuit there?"
     "We haven't found one. What's sticking the door?"
     "You're isolated until we can close it."
     "I'll survive here for the time being."
     Further discussion was curtailed by a jolt and someone announcing "Incoming fire!"
     "Where from?" Kirrik demanded.
     "Nothing of note on the scanner," Silsi announced. "Could be base guns." Another jolt, and the shield indicator on the main display dropped a little. Silsi threw the ship around. "It's livened up at least," she commented.
     "Marchero, set hyperspace target."
     "Anywhere not here!"
     "Targeted on Esdi, hyperdrive engines will be up to power in five minutes."
     The ship flew on on a seemingly random course, but they were gradually moving further away from the base. A few more shots from it hit the Constrictor, taking the rear shield down to fifty percent and marking the front.
     As one threat receded another appeared, half a dozen marks on the scanner, leaving the asteroid. The secondary gunner, who had been monitoring them identified the approaching ships as Sidewinders, small, fast and deadly. They quickly intercepted the erratically flying Constrictor.
     "Still two and a half minutes to hyperspace," Marchero told them as the Sidewinders neared.
     The attackers struck simultaneously. The shields screeched in protest, but held against the fire. Two of the Sidewinders skimmed past, dropping their missiles at close range. Silsi had managed to slew the ship round, and they struck the less damaged forward screen, causing it to shake violently and briefly spin out of control. The front shields collapsed.
     A brief "Aargh!" from Aeyris, then a surprised comment, "We're still here? Seems like you were right about this ship, Kirrik."
     Kirrik grinned at him, then frowned as six more ships appeared at the edge of the scanner. Silsi had managed to point the Constrictor at one of the first wave of attackers, and pressed the laser control. The Sidewinder disappeared into a dust cloud. The rear gunner lashed out at another ship. This one spun to avoid the attack, but took a glancing blow to the wing. Still flying but damaged it turned and fled the scene.
     Another two of the base's ships attempted the same missile attack as previously, but this time released too far from the target. The Constrictor's ECM system removed the threat, and its laser fired again as one of the Sidewinders shot past the bow. It was hit squarely but continued on as its shields took the hit.
     More incoming fire hit the front of the ship, six lances from the second group of Sidewinders. The energy reserves started to drop as emergency power was taken from them to supplement the depleted shield capacitors. The hull wailed in protest as it was scored under the incomplete protection now given to it.
     Kirrik's eye was caught by a light flickering on his chair's control panel. "The door's shut!" he told Aeyris.
     "Great, we'll work that out later. If we get out of here."
     Another strike from somewhere hit the rear shield. "Five seconds," Marchero told them.
     Yet another missile launch, striking the poorly-protected front. An alarm sounded around the bridge, "Energy Low" flashed on the main screen.
     The view distorted in impossible ways. Time flickered - one moment people were moving with impossible speed, the next as if they were in deep water. The main screen illuminated with the Witchspace tunnel.
     Then it vanished, almost as soon as it had appeared. Once again the ship was floating in normal space.
     "Quick," the secondary gunner remarked laconically.
     Marchero was searching her console in confusion. "We're not at Esdi."
     "At least we're still alive," said Silsi. "Jumping without proper control like that, we're lucky to be." Still in one piece didn't answer two important questions - where were they, and when. The jump was short, so the risk of time and space displacement (away from the intended target) should not have been too great. Probably.
     Marchero turned her chair to say, "We've only jumped about five hundred AUs. Not in any significant direction, as far as I can tell. Where do you plan on going next? There's a really nice bit of empty space I know near here. Maybe even medieval deep space, if we've moved too far in time. Well, Sir Knight, when are we?"
     It was a few minutes before Aeyris, exploring the comms equipment, found a timing beacon. "I'm sorry to disappoint Milady, we're only out by forty-three minutes." He gave Marchero a sarcastic smile.
     "Right, re-program the hyperdrive. We'll have the leisure to do it properly this time."
     The co-ordinates for Esdi were re-entered. Then they sat back whilst the computer tried to calculate the ideal jump parameters, to a far greater tolerance than before.
     While they were waiting the bridge door opened. The pirates' medic came in, carrying a few bits of a very basic first aid kit. With him came another pirate, holding a twisted metal rod. Part of it looked like it had been melted at some point. "Someone had wedged the door with this," he said. "We've been in a fight, have we? Looks like it took a direct hit."
     The medic quickly cleaned and protected Aeryis's wound. "How's Tikapora?" Aeyris asked him.
     "Fine apart from being one arm down, as far as I can see." The medic shrugged. "Doesn't seem to have caused him any distress at all."
     "That's good." He gingerly touched the bandaged leg, then leant on it. "Seems like it'll hold for a while. How's everyone else?"
     "A few bruises from being tumbled around," he was told. "No-one is seriously injured. I'm more concerned about longer-term issues. Garath found primary life support monitor, and he says that quite a bit of the reserve oxygen has been used up in having to re-pressurise twice. And there are more of us in here than it's designed to cope with."
     "How long will it last?"
     "No idea. There's been no noticeable change in CO2 levels yet. Everything else checks out fine, for the moment."
     Aeyris walked over to the unoccupied engineering station, limping slightly, and sat down. "What's the inventory report?"
     The man holding the metal bar stepped forward. "There's very little on board. Only enough food for three days, and water for a week. The water recycler's damaged. We're looking at it right now." Aeyris dismissed the two; they left the bridge to return to searching the ship.
     It was not long before they were due to hyperspace when Silsi found something. "There's a weak signal on the edge of the scanner," she informed, a note of surprise in her voice.
     Almost before anyone could reply to this unexpected news Marchero added "And I think that the hyperdrive had been pre-programmed to bring the ship here."
     "Visual ID?" Aeyris asked.
     "Too far away."
     "Ship status?"
     "No serious damage," Kirrik told him. "The shields are nearly recharged, and the hyperdrive should be ready in a minute or so."
     The bridge descended into silence. The other three were watching Kirrik and Aeyris, waiting for a decision.
     It was Kirrik who spoke first. "I want to investigate. We'll go in carefully, and jump if there's any trouble." Aeyris shrugged in response, so Kirrik ordered Silsi to move in slowly.
     The scanner image grew stronger as they moved closer. On the viewscreen a point of light became gradually brighter, slowly resolving into several separate spots. The mark on the scanner remained single. Other sensor readings started to register low EM emissions, seemingly white noise.
     As they crept closer it became apparent that the object was large; the lights appeared to form a ring, although no details could yet be discerned.
     Eventually their ship was drifting close to thing. The ring was torus, two hundred feet across and with an internal diameter of at least half that. They had approached it almost straight on, and it was not until they were close to it that they saw there was a series of eight rings, in a row. The lights illuminated a multitude of protrusions and indentations on the surfaces, and webs of wires and girders linked them together. Three shuttles had been tethered to it. Close scans on them revealed high energy output, as if they had been loaded with generators to power the device. Nearby were four Fer-de-Lances and a Boa, too close for the scanners to have been able to separate their signals from that of the object. They were inactive, displaying only parking lights.
     "Kirrik?" asked Aeyris.
     Kirrik turned from his contemplation of the viewscreen. "I have no idea."
     "How about that?" Aeyris said, pointing at the arm of Kirrik's chair. "Incoming message" was flashing on the small screen there.
     Kirrik acknowledged the message. A voice announced "Commencing activation. Turn engines off in ten seconds, and good luck!"
     "Do it," Kirrik said.
     "Ignore him," Aeyris snapped. "I want us out of here before we fall into more trouble."
     "This is what it's all about, and this is the only chance we'll get to find out what it is," he said firmly.
     "I couldn't care less, and this ship is full of people loyal -" The ship lurched forward, towards the device. "Silsi, back off!"
     "I'm not doing anything! We're being pulled in!"
     Readings on various sensors started to increase. "Disengage engines!" the remote voice repeated urgently.
     Silsi put the drive onto full reverse. The ship throbbed, and warning indicators rocketed. The viewscreen image started to break into noise as a series of vicious electrostatic discharges from the device voided against the shields.
     For a second everyone was caught in amazement, then Aeyris shouted "Turn the engines off!" As soon as the ship's power was reduced to minimum levels the discharges ceased and the view returned to normal. The sensors now revealed a stream of charged particles spewing out from some part of the device. Over the radio the voice sounded angry, but the details of its words were lost in noise.
     Other phenomena were starting to appear, gravitational distortions that only the ship's advanced equipment could detect, and a glowing green mist in the torus that could be seen by everyone.
     "The hyperdrive has gone off-line," Marchero announced. Aeyris cursed it, and started to work at the engineering station. In a minute he had re-configured it to allow him to attempt analysis of the strange effects.
     "Damn it!" he exclaimed, slamming his fists against the console. "It's something like a Witchspace entrance, but far deeper into hyperspace. I can't tell what's going on."
     The glow grew brighter, then suddenly flashed into a blinding light that passed down the row of rings. It rapidly distorted, clearing in the centre and growing brighter around the edges, forming a tunnel. Into it the ship was being pulled.
     "Oh my," Aeyris muttered. All eyes turned to him. "It'll come out a long. long way from here."
     "Where?" the secondary gunner demanded in alarm.
     "Can't tell. Maybe a thousand light years, maybe more!"
     Silsi started to frantically grapple with the controls, but with the engines off only the manoeuvring thrusters were active. They had no effect whatsoever. She tried the laser, which drained its capacitors rapidly and then cut off. Marchero shrieked at her to stop, although her worry was unfounded as the weapon did nothing. In vain Kirrik tried to activate the hyperdrive, despite Marchero's announcement. The ship was still drawn onwards.
     When the Constrictor passed into the first ring all the external sensors, including the viewscreen, went dead. The lights flickered and then steadied. For a couple of seconds everyone waited. Then the ship started shaking, its hull groaned under some immense stress. The shield indicators started to slowly decrease. Time fluctuations started to appear, although they were quite unlike the entrance to hyperspace, and the ship started to roll.
     Next the vessel started to twist around the pitch axis. The dive/climb indicator registered no movement, but the artificial gravity was acting as if it was. Most of the bridge crew wore belts, Aeyris managed to do his up before being tipped out of his chair.
     Suddenly there was a huge bang, and the lights failed, apart from a few glows from the systems monitors. The pitching stopped as the gravity vanished, to be replaced by a violent roll as it no longer compensated for the real movement of the ship. People were shouting in fright or anguish. Aeyris was trying to restore order, but no-one could see him clearly in the dark or hear him amidst the noise.
     The roll gradually subsided, something was still working. Next the lights returned. Everyone appeared intact, strapped in their chairs, although the secondary gunner was clutching his head in discomfort and Marchero looked green.
     Random fluctuations on the systems monitors gradually calmed down to show that the shields had failed, and the energy reserves were low, and not climbing.
     The intercom crackled into life, with a rather predictable and angry "What the hell's happening?"
     "We've been pulled into a something," Aeyris told them unhelpfully. "What's your status?"
     "Everyone is bruised, five people have various broken bones, and Garath is unconscious."
     "Can you deal?"
     "Tarmarchi thinks everyone will live."
     "Good. Get someone into the equipment sector and see if you can restore gravity, and try to get some external scanners on line."
     "Have you got a decent engineer?" Kirrik asked Aeyris.
     "Not any more," Aeyris replied sourly. "He was the man that tech killed."
     "Humph. Well, I've others who know a bit or two. They should do if it's a matter of patching some obvious damage."
     Two hours passed. The repair teams discovered that the sensors had all shut down to protect themselves, and their control software would not re-initialise. Further investigations revealed some damage to the computer core, the unofficial construction of the vessel had provided inadequate power breakers. When the damaged processors were removed the sensors slowly returned to functionality. They pronounced the system usable, but advised that there might be a noticeable delay if too much was done at once.
     When the viewscreen returned it revealed a strange tunnel. Patterns of multi-hued light shifted about it in an almost hypnotic pattern. Movement through it may have been imagined, although it could just have easily been an optical illusion.
     The other sensors confirmed Aeyris' suspicion that they were indeed in a Witchspace tunnel of some description, but unlike anything that anyone had experienced before. The drive systems had been re-started, although the engines were not running. The power from them was being used to re-charge the energy banks and the shields, although progress was slow. Their were strains on them that no ordinary hyperspace jump would produce.
     Once the ship was in as good an order as could be achieved its crew had little choice but to wait. The unconscious Garath soon woke, and the broken bones were splinted and bandaged with various bits and pieces that had been scavenged from the rest of the ship. The only medicines on board had been painkillers and anaesthetics, along with some bandages and dressings. Without any regenerative equipment the injured just had to cope.
     Another three days went by. The life support seemed to be coping fine with the extra demands being placed upon it. A shift system had been established for the bridge stations, mostly because there weren't enough bunks for everyone to sleep at the same time. The three days' worth of food had not yet been eaten, but on short rations all were hungry. The water recycler had been repaired after a fashion, but it was unable to keep up with the demand.
     There were a few minor incidents, scuffles brought on my anxiety and worry. As time went by they became more frequent but less severe. People were feeling the effects of the rationing, and lacked the energy to continue a fight for long. The rest tried to take their mind off things by playing games in a cramped wardroom behind the bridge.
     Then the ship dropped back into normal space. Unlike the entry to the tunnel this was a much more gentle affair. The bridge team even failed to notice anything for a few minutes, then Arrachachak, who was squeezed tightly into the front seat, glanced up and shouted "We're out!"
     Another bridge member, the insectoid Tikapora, left the bridge to rouse Kirrik and Aeyris, who were both asleep at the time.
     When they arrived they looked around in some hope at their surroundings. Arrachachak had turned the ship around. Blotting out the stars behind it was a dark ring. Wherever they were it was dark, darker than the place they had left. No lights illuminated this device, but other than that it was, as far as could be discerned, identical to the one they had entered three days earlier. Sensors showed it to be dead, exhibiting no sign of energy production or usage.
     "That's why they had the shuttles at the other end," Kirrik mused. "Where are we?" he asked louder.
     Marchero was again at the navigation station. "Uncertain," she said. "The computer is having some difficulty in finding a matching chart to this region."
     "Where are we, neglecting names?"
     "I mean what's the nearest star."
     "Why didn't you say so, then," Marchero replied acidly. "There's an M2 class dwarf point six-five light years away."
     "We need supplies, and I think that thing," Aeyris pointed at the dark circle on the screen, "needs power if it's going to take us back. Let's drop a buoy and get to the nearest station."
     Kirrik looked thoughtful for a while, and then nodded.
     After the buoy had been released Marchero had managed to get a label for the nearby stars.
     "The red dwarf nearest to us is Wolf 1421, apparently. Not a catalogue I recognise, but it's twelve hundred light years from Esdi."
     "Bloody hell," Arrachachak said. "Has anyone ever been here?"
     Marchero shrugged. One of the other people on the bridge, though, started to laugh.
     "What?" Aeyris demanded of him.
     "You really aren't going to believe this," the man said. "But several dim stars in the general vicinity of Sol are named 'Wolf' something."
     The human members of the bridge crew started arguing amongst each other in surprise, and Kirrik was looking thoughtful. Arrachachak rolled his eyes in an overdone expression of amused tolerance.
     When the noise eventually died down Kirrik pointed out that Marchero could easily check against the charts. She scowled at him, and then examined the console for a few minutes. Shaking her head in disbelief, Marchero said, "You're right. Sol is forty-five point eight light years from here." More arguing, until Kirrik shouted them down.
     "You want to go there? Have you any idea what we might run into?"
     There was a sudden silence, until Aeyris spoke. "We're going to have to get some help. The device here looks out of it."
     "There's a good chance that there won't be anyone around here who would want to help us."
     "Say what you mean," Marchero snapped.
     Kirrik glanced at her, irritation in his eyes. "Why haven't we had any contact from your home systems for over three hundred years?" he reminded her.
     "The Thargoids are sitting around at our end," Marchero said.
     "We don't know what they've been doing in the other direction, though," Kirrik pointed out.
     "If we stopped them in the Co-Operative then they will have done so here, too," Aeyris said.
     "Who knows? And do you want to risk leading them to a back door into the middle of the Co-Operative? You might not have much loyalty to it, but I'll wager you have less to the Thargoids. They might be able to slip a fleet through that portal, not just the few raiders they can get through our lines at present."
     "You're paranoid," Marchero said. Kirrik just shrugged in reply.
     "What's so great about coming here, though?" Aeyris asked. "Sure, it's nice to get a link back to Sol, but why all the secrecy and illegal activity?"
     "Probably for the technology," Kirrik answered. "Or an opportunity elsewhere. Who knows how the tech here corresponds to ours? Especially since we've had Thargoid trouble to force us to advance."
     "Can I remind you," the man who had identified their location interceded, "that we've got more immediate concerns. Like what do we do now?"
     "Jump range?" Aeyris asked.
     "Twelve l.y.s on the original," Kirrik said. "They were based on the latest Asp engines."
     "This one can manage ten," Marchero said, her station clearly displaying the information. "But we've only enough fuel for half that."
     "What's within five light years?"
     "That one unimpressive star."
     "Remote place," Arrachachak commented.
     Marchero nodded in agreement. "The easiest inhabited system to reach is rho1 Cancri. Well, according to this," she indicated the map on her console, "there were people living there three hundred years ago."
     "How far?" Aeyris asked.
     "We'll need to sun-skim Wolf 1421, then jumps of nine and eight and a third light years. There are a couple of other inhabited systems closer in a straight line, but they'll need more jumps to reach."
     "What sort of name is rho1 Cancri?" snorted Arrachachak.
     The expert glared at him. "These stars were seen from Earth before we even left our planet. The historical reasoning would be lost on you."
     "Stop it," Aeyris snapped at them. He turned to Kirrik, and gestured to him.
     Kirrik walked over to Aeyris. "We haven't enough supplies to last long enough to get there," he said quietly.
     "I know," Kirrik replied. "And so, I imagine, does everyone else."
     "The charts are three hundred years out of date, and not very detailed. There aren't many stars without something nearby."
     Aeyris frowned. "Back home, that's true. Things could be different here. And even in the Co-Operative nobody would bother with an remote red dwarf with nothing of interest."
     "Fine, let's just not mention anything and go for it anyway."
     The passage to Wolf 1421 did not take long, and ignoring Co-Operative regulations they brought the ship out of Witchspace dangerously close to the star so as to minimise real-space transit time. Immediately upon exit the bottom half of the viewscreen was filled with a glowing sphere, red around the edges but pure white in the centre where the cameras for the screen had been saturated. Close up even a small, cool star was an impressive object. The view quickly dulled to complete red as it adjusted to the light levels.
     Arrachachak steadied the ship so it was at rest relative to the star, and then re-orientated it to skim past as close as the ship could safely go. The Constrictor accelerated, its engines working hard to match the desired course and counteract the gravity of the star. The sphere grew, but moved down out of the view.
     Eventually the computer announced that the fuel scoops were operating, gradually filling their Quirium tanks as the scoop's ReQax converters worked on what solar wind they could steal.
     It took some time to completely re-fuel, the quiet solar wind providing poor pickings. By then their trajectory had almost carried them past the star, and Arrachachak stopped using the engines. They had already provided enough speed, coupled with that from the gravitational slingshot effect, to ensure they would be thrown clear on a purely ballistic course.
     It was as they emerged from the blinding effects of being close to a star that the sensors started to pick up something. A small notification flashed on the view; Kirrik replaced the visual scene to one showing sensor data.
     What it showed was a radio signal coming in almost the exact opposite direction to Wolf 1421. It was clearly artificial in origin, although the signal hadn't triggered any automatic response from the ship, and if it contained any message it wasn't obvious.
     "Interesting..." noted Aeyris.
     "This signal is not used by the Co-Operative," Kirrik said. "It could be a Thargoid code."
     "I don't think so. It's too regular to be a message. Perhaps it's a radar."
     "Can it see us?" Marchero asked.
     "That'll depend upon the receivers. Get a triangulation fix on it as soon as you can," Kirrik told her.
     They drifted on for a while longer. Marchero worked on fixing a navigational lock on the signal, whilst everyone else waited.
     Eventually Marchero gave up. "Either it's a long way off, or we're moving straight towards it."
     Whatever it was it had noticed them. "Incoming message," flashed on the screen. Aeyris looked at Kirrik, who shrugged.
     "Calculate the next jump, just in case," Kirrik ordered, then acknowledged the message.
     There was no visual, just a voice over the speakers.
     "This is Deep Space Listening Post W1421 calling unknown vessel. Please identify." Nothing really unexpected there, apart from the very presence of the post.
     "Do we answer?" asked Arrachachak.
     "What with?" sneered Marchero. "Who can we say we are? 'Hello, this is a bunch of rogues in a stolen ship which had been illegally built in an unknown yard over a thousand light years away.'"
     Kirrik smiled at her, and then repeated what she had said in response to the hail. Marchero responded with a predictable sarcastic comment.
     "Why are we bothering at all?" the man who had first guessed at their location said. "We need supplies, we've got nothing much to trade with, apart from bucketloads of piss that the water recycler can't cope with, so why not just take what we need?"
     "Great idea, Mychov," Aeyris said. "Let's annoy the locals and attack an installation we know nothing about. Including its defences. Thinking like a pirate isn't a good idea at the moment."
     It was four minutes after the sent their reply when they received another transmission. It was fairly simple. "Please identify yourself," it repeated.
     "We have no ID."
     There was another four minute light-travel delay.
     "You will be intercepted by our fighters. We have preliminary scans on you, do not attempt to attack our ships or jump out of this system, an alert will be given throughout the Alliance if you do not comply."
     "Seems like we've already annoyed the locals," Mychov commented.
     "No offence to you, Arrachachak," Aeyris said, "but we might need Silsi at the helm. Go and find her, will you?"
     Arrachachak extracted himself from the controls and left the bridge without protest. Silsi arrived a couple of minutes later. "Arrachachak briefed me," she said. "What are we going to do?"
     There was a brief discussion between Aeyris and Kirrik. "We'll go along with them for the time being," Aeyris said. "We're going to have to meet someone eventually."
     When Silsi, at the helm controls, managed to identify the incoming fighters, she looked up in surprise. "They're a couple of Vipers!" she said. "I thought we were supposed to be somewhere near Sol!"
     "We are," Mychov said. "We must have sold them the design before the Thargoid blockade."
     "Well, two Vipers isn't any threat."
     "I wouldn't get too cocky," Kirrik warned. "They've had plenty of time to update them." Detailed examination of sensor and scanner information failed to reveal anything conclusive about the offences or defences of the approaching ships.
     The Vipers made no hostile moves, but took up station near the Constrictor. When they were stationary one of them hailed the intruder to instruct them to follow them to their base. They moved off slowly, Silsi followed them.
     When they were satisfied that the Constrictor was complying with their demands they accelerated faster. They were probably uncertain about how quickly the Viper could move, and didn't feel inclined to ask.
     During the journey there was no more direct communication between the Vipers and the Constrictor. When the Vipers changed velocity the did so without any warning, but waited while the Constrictor followed the manoeuvre and returned to station.
     At last the listening post came into sight. Compared to a space station it was small, a cylindrical structure with a wide variety of receivers and transmitters at either end. From a spherical section in the centre of the tube two curved arms protruded, to which were attached six more Vipers and a couple of small ships of an unknown design. A larger ship was parked close by. The approach continued silently until they were a bare half a mile away. The Vipers came to a halt, followed by the Constrictor.
     Once again they were hailed by the post. "Dock in the main section. Doors will open in thirty seconds."
     Aeyris called the rest of his crew over the intercom, suggesting that they arm themselves and take up station to guard the ship's entrance port and the bridge. Back on the view a previously unseen door opened in the central spherical section. Beyond it there was a small docking bay, just large enough for the Constrictor to fit into.
     Silsi carefully nudged the ship forward. As it drifted towards the base the Vipers remained in place, so that the Constrictor moved forward between them. Inside the bay there was only the bare essentials of equipment, docking clamps on the floor and ceiling and what was probably a cargo lift tucked in one corner. Against the back there was a tightly closed door.
     There was no change in movement when the Constrictor entered the confines of the bay, although a sudden hiss over the speakers suggested passage through a force field. Silsi fired a brief burst on the manoeuvring thrusters, and they came to a halt. After a few seconds a clang and a shudder echoed through the ship as the docking clamps took hold. Following that there was another shudder, and the ship dropped a little.
     "Stay here," Aeyris told the bridge crew, as he and Kirrik left.
     They were met near the door by half a dozen armed pirates, ready to cover them if they we greeted with a hostile response. Kirrik walked up to the entrance, then shook his head in annoyance when he saw the bare spot where the door control panel should have been.
     "Forgetful," one of the pirates commented.
     "Go back to the bridge and get them to open the door if conditions match," Aeyris told the nearest pirate.
     When the door opened there was a brief rush of air into the ship. Kirrik looked out to see that the docking clamps were holding them a couple of feet off the ground. And looking up at him were a dozen soldiers.
     "One of you come out," a soldier called out. "The rest of you remain in the ship."
     "I'll go," Kirrik said, although not loudly enough for the soldiers to hear him.
     "It's my place, since nearly everyone on here is my crew," Aeyris contradicted him. "That gives me the say. You're already responsible for getting us here. Let's not end up in even bigger trouble."
     "Oh, that's fine. Sending a pirate captain out is going to really impress them. I've got an official position, so we may as well make use of it."
     "So what?" Aeyris replied with a short sarcastic laugh. "Whatever proof you may have had of that is back on that asteroid."
     Kirrik shook his head in exasperation. "I've had training in dealing with people. You haven't."
     Their argument was interrupted by the soldier shouting out to them "Hurry up."
     "We've got a joint leadership, which is proving awkward at this moment," Aeyris said.
     There was a pause from the soldier, then "How many people do you wish to send?"
     "Very well, two will be acceptable. Leave any weapons on board."
     "We want assurances for our safety, and a comm link to our ship available at all times," Kirrik shouted out.
     "Very well. Now get out of there."
     "Just a minute whilst I fetch the link."
     "You've got thirty seconds."
     Aeyris quickly rushed back to the bridge to grab a link. When he was back at the entrance he ordered one of his men "If you loose the link break out of here and blast the place."
     He carefully hopped out of Constrictor, wincing when he put his weight on his still sore leg. Kirrik followed, just as uncomfortably. Five soldiers came forward, guns pointed slightly down to suggest that they were not about to be used, but held high enough to be fired instantly at the first sign of trouble.
     They left the docking bay surrounded by soldiers, and were marched into the station. They had not gone far before they entered a wide room, where display screens stretched around most of the walls. People were watching them, others were working busily on consoles, and a murmur of voices filled the air. What words could be picked up did not sound like casual conversation.
     Another room opened onto the control centre, on its far side a window looked out to space. One of the post's docking arms could be seen through the window; it caught the red glare of the star and threw it into the room. There was no other light source, so when the door closed the figure standing on the other side of a desk was silhouetted in the dim glow.
     The figure stood watching them silently. The outline was almost human, apart from the wide head and peculiar stance. The head moved slightly, as if turning to look from Kirrik to Aeyris and back again.
     "Space can bring many strange things," it said at last. The voice, if it were human, would have sounded androgynous, and had a peculiar accent and oddly musical tone.
     "You are human," it stated at Aeyris. Turning slightly to face Kirrik, it continued "But you I do not recognise. Not from a Treaty world, nor any Schriy planet I know of. Perhaps your claims are true?"
     "Claims?" asked Kirrik.
     "That you come from the Far Colonies. Your ship is of strange design, yet we see familiar hints in it, ones which bear a greater resemblance to designs from there. Yet who knows what may have changed in hundreds of years?"
     "And what are you?" Aeyris said.
     "I say nothing about myself until I know you. Security is a concern, greater than courtesy. Where are you from, why are you here?"
     "Security is a concern of mine, too," Kirrik said. "So I'm not saying anything either."
     "This cannot be allowed. I am in the stronger position here."
     Aeyris started to speak, until Kirrik elbowed him in the ribs. Aeyris responded quietly but angrily. "We aren't going anywhere without the help of this lot," he whispered. "Your concerns are over-ruled this time."
     "Interesting," noted the strange alien. "Self interest against a larger cause. Selfishness versus paranoia? Or the realisation there might not be a threat against a very possible one? You cannot resolve this without knowing what is here. And the same concerns work in me. Yet remember that you are alone, and I am not." This could have been a threat, but the expression in the voice had not changed.
     "We're always bickering," Aeyris said.
     "Very well," Kirrik sighed. "I was investigating an illegal base on a remote asteroid. I was caught, but rescued by his people," he nodded at Aeyris,"who had been stranded on the asteroid when the base was built. We all escaped on the ship you've got here."
     "How did you reach us?"
     "Some ancient device. The ship was programmed to take us to it."
     "Tell me about this device."
     "We've nothing to say," Aeyris said. "It pulled us in, three days later we found ourselves over a thousand light years from home."
     The creature on the other side of the desk sat down, and pressed a button. Artificial lighting suddenly illuminated the room. Aeyris covered his eyes with his hands in the unexpected brightness. The alien's face was revealed at last - widely spaced eyes, nose and mouth almost a muzzle, pale grey fur covering the skin.
     "You have passed unmolested through Thargoid territory," it stated.
     "What?" said Aeyris, who was still concentrating on blinking in the light.
     "I said what about the Thargoids?"
     "Never saw any sign of anything. We weren't travelling in ordinary hyperspace."
     "Then what?"
     "Don't know."
     Their interrogator sat silently, without any discernible expression. When it spoke again it was without any warning. "Give me your sensor and scanner logs," it ordered.
     "May I?" Kirrik asked Aeyris. Aeyris handed him the commlink.
     "Have you got a storage unit handy?" he asked the alien.
     It pulled open a draw in the desk and took out a small box and handed it to Kirrik. He held it next to the commlink's interface port and tapped a few buttons. There was a pause of ten seconds or so before an artificial voice spoke "Device understood."
     "Come in, ship," Kirrik said.
     "What's up?" asked a voice that sounded like one of the pirates.
     "Nothing. Send sensor and scanner logs for three minutes up to entry of the portal at Esdi."
     "Give us a moment, then," the voice replied.
     Time passed with Kirrik standing and watching the commlink, Aeyris fidgeting with his hands, and the alien watching them quietly.
     "OK, transmitting," the same voice said. A message "Receiving data stream" appeared on the commlink's tiny display. "Anything else?" the pirate on the ship said a minute later, as the message flashed off.
     "Not yet. Kirrik out." He tossed the box to the alien.
     The storage device fitted into a slot on the desk, then a screen popped up next to the slot. With it's usual lack of expression the alien studied it for several minutes, seemingly ignoring the two people standing opposite it.
     "Interesting, I'll agree," it announced when it had finished. "This will be analysed further. If it is a fake we'll know. Return to your ship."
     They were escorted back to the Constrictor. In their absence numerous scanners and cameras had been placed in the docking bay, no doubt to ensure that nobody tried anything hostile.
     Back on the ship, things were tense. Armed guards stood in the entranceway, and they found two more on the bridge. They were making no move to prevent anyone from doing anything, but their presence was certainly not a reassuring sign.
     Better news was found in the wardroom. There was another soldier there, but the injured Garath was being looked over by a doctor and Marchero and Arrachachak were eating food that must have been provided by the post.
     "Well?" Marchero said as they entered the room.
     Aeyris glanced at the soldier. "I'm not sure. Things are fine, so far."
     "That's a lot of help. You must of had as much luck getting information out of this lot as we have. This guy here," she said, jabbing a spoon towards the soldier, "hasn't said a word." Kirrik winced at her cavalier attitude towards an armed and possibly hostile woman.
     "Ah, let's forget it then," Aeryis said. "I'm lying down." He left the room heading for the sleeping quarters. Kirrik watched him leave, then shrugged and sat down at the table.
     "Any more food?" Arrachachak pushed a half full bowl of soup over to him. Kirrik finished it, then sat back, looking around. The guard stood near the doorway they had entered from. Marchero was eating a chunk of what appeared to be a bread of some kind, and not paying much attention to anyone else. Arrachachak was in turn watching Kirrik. Although attempting to read alien body language was a pointless exercise for someone not very familiar with the species, he may have been curious as to what Kirrik was thinking. The doctor was busy tending Garath, who in turn was more concerned with his state than anything else.
     Arrachachak caught Kirrik's thoughtful look at the medic. "He's no more interesting than the soldier," he told Kirrik. "Only says what he needs to say to do his job."
     "Hey, doctor!" Kirrik called out.
     The doctor stopped working to answer him. "Do you need medical attention?"
     "A bit. They didn't do a great job of patching me up earlier. I'm Kirrik, by the way."
     "I'll attend to you when I finish with this man." He returned to Garath.
     "See," Marchero snickered.
     "Here's an idea," Arrachachak said. "Can you irritate the doctor into saying something as much as you do with Kirrik?" Kirrik shook his head slightly, but Marchero chuckled.
     "What did you find out?" Arrachachak asked him.
     A shrug, then "Suspicion, of us. Understandable, I suppose. The person we saw mentioned some treaty and a race or group called the Schriy."
     "Who did you see?"
     "Might have been the base commander. He, or she for all I know, or it, didn't say anything about themselves."
     "Not human, then?" Marchero said.
     "No. Why bother asking, as if you only expect your lot here? A bit arrogant, aren't you?"
     Marchero threw a piece of bread at Kirrik. "Calm down," Arrachachak told them. "We've only seen humans here so far, that's why she asked. What's the problem with you two, anyway?"
     "Oh, his lot rub my nerves raw. Running around the galaxy expecting everyone to do their bidding to help fulfil their high and mighty goals," Marchero sneered. "They've been treating me like a slave, really."
     Kirrik replied with short shake of his head and a "Hah."
     "Why join them then?" Arrachachak asked her.
     "You think I had any choice? Dragged out of the frying pan and into the fire."
     "I think you're irritating personality predates your meeting with Williams and Jalsa," Kirrik stated.
     "What do you know about me? You spend all your time ordering me around and ignoring what I say."
     "And you spend most of yours trying to wind me up. It's infantile."
     "It keeps me from thinking too much about the mess we're in," Marchero muttered.
     Kirrik opened his mouth to speak, but then stopped in surprise at her revelation.
     "I still can't stand you, though," Marchero added.
     "How nice, we're all, well, slightly less hostile, at any rate," Arrachachak announced.
     The doctor had finished tending Garath, and broke up their exchange by occupying Kirrik with questions about the nature of his injuries and what had been done to treat them. Marchero returned to her food, and Arrachachak dug around in a cupboard until he found a pack of cards, and tried to persuade Garath to have a game.
     When the door opened it wasn't a pirate or another soldier entering the room, but the being Kirrik and Aeyris had spoken to earlier.
     "Well?" Kirrik asked.
     "All very strange. So there is a ship on the way to take you back to base."
     Garath looked up from his cards. "I'll fetch Aeyris," he announced, and disappeared out of the room.
     "He's loosing," Arrachachak grinned.
     Aeyris strode in a short while later, with several members of his crew loitering around behind him. "Are we under arrest?" he asked.
     "In a manner of speaking. After all, you have trespassed on military territory. For the time being I accept your explanation and ignorance of this fact."
     "Thanks," Aeyris muttered.
     "What are your intentions regarding this ship?" Kirrik put in.
     "It will be examined by our engineers."
     "I'm not sure I can allow that," Kirrik stated sharply.
     "I am not sure you can prevent that. Anyhow. If we are eventually satisfied you are here in innocence you will be provided with a replacement vessel and will be free to go your own way. If not you will be imprisoned."
     "Back the way we came?"
     "That is not up to me to decide. The device which brought you here will be studied. You might be permitted to use it." The alien departed without waiting for a response, but this time all the guards went with him.
     "Can we force our way out?" someone asked, after peering through the doorway to see if any of the post's soldiers remained.
     "No chance," Aeyris stated. "We'll have them all over us as soon as we power up."
     "You just want to wait?" Marchero replied scornfully.
     "It's all we can do."
     Four two days waiting was all they did. Food was supplied to the Constrictor, but not enough for more than a day. It was agreed that they would ration themselves and try to build up a store, although they were unable to accumulate much. Technicians from the post repaired some key life support facilities such as the water recycler, and whilst the main door was open the post's systems provided fresh air and heat. Some of the crew voiced the opinion that the technicians were secretly trying to probe for information about the ship, but only Kirrik was slightly concerned by the idea.
     The waiting was not broken by the arrival of the ship that was supposed to be coming for them. Late in the nominal night Tikapora was awake and standing idly near the ship's door, watching the soldiers that still stood around the landing bay. Suddenly a brief look of discomfort passed over their leader's face, as if he had just received disturbing news on the headset he wore. Tikapora tensed slightly, before quickly heading back into the ship.
     The insect-like creature woke Aeyris and Kirrik, and they retired into the mess room.
     Aeyris rubbed a bleary eye. "Something's up?" he assumed.
     Tikapora spoke a strange collection of sounds that would have been very difficult for the human larynx and mouth to even approximate. When he finished the translator he always carried interpreted.
     "I saw something upset the soldiers. And I heard faint alarms, probably too faint for you to hear."
     Aeyris nodded, but Kirrik stood up. "Wait a minute," he told them.
     When he returned, Kirrik confirmed Tikapora's brief story. "The soldiers are standing there the same as ever, but I can also hear a faint alarm."
     "You've good ears to match Tik," Aeyris noted.
     Aeyris tapped his fingers on the table. "I think we should keep this to ourselves," he said finally.
     "Why not tell the others?" Tikapora queried.
     "Sorry, I meant all of us, and not let our captors know. It might give us an opportunity if they don't know we know we may have one."
     "Er, yes," Kirrik decided after a couple of seconds. "Let's rouse the others."
     Most of them were crowded into the mess room, eating whatever they could scrape together for an early breakfast, when they were interrupted by the leader from the landing bay guard.
     "You're free to go," he announced.
     The room erupted as everyone started asking questions at the same time.
     "Quiet!" shouted Aeyris, then "Quiet!" again as the noise failed to dim. Eventually it died down to mutterings between people sitting next to each other. The soldier had been watching the rabble with a hint of a sneer.
     "Why?" Kirrik asked.
     "The ship should have been here three hours ago. Two hours ago we heard enemy communications nearby. One hour ago ships were seen entering the system. There's a cargo bay next to this landing pad. Take what supplies you need and get out. We are evacuating; self-destruct has been set for thirty minutes. Broadcast L-01 to activate the launching sequence." The soldier jumped out of the ship as several people jumped up to grab him and demand further information from him.
     Once again Aeyris was forced to shout at his crew until they calmed down. "Arrachachak, Mychov, go and grab as many of those supplies as you can. Tikapora and Mu, have a poke around the immediate area to see what else you can find. I want Silsi, Marchero, Edwards, and Sawaka on the bridge. Everyone else, find something useful to do," he finished vaguely.
     As people scuttled off in various directions Kirrik turned to Aeyris. "No need for secret planning, after all."
     "Humph. Bit of a surprise, them telling us."
     "You've spent too long with pirates. There are still a few decent people in the universe."
     It was only a few brief minutes before Tikapora and Mu returned. "We can't get out of this area," Mu announced. "Everything apart from this place and the cargo bay has been sealed off, and there are no terminals to be seen."
     "Too bad," Kirrik said. "You might as well join the others."
     Ten minutes later Arrachachak and Mychov returned. Mychov was driving a lifter, carrying a couple of cargo canisters on a trailer.
     "Someone open the cargo doors!" he called out.
     "I don't think we've found them," Garath shouted back from the main door. "Chuck them in here, we'll worry about storing them later."
     Arrachachak jumped up into the ship. Mychov dropped the trailer and turned the lifter around. With some struggling with the unfamiliar controls he eventually managed to make the lifter's claws crab a canister.
     "How long?" he shouted at the ship.
     "Don't know - at least fifteen minutes. I think," Arrachachak yelled back.
     The lifter headed for the ship. Mychov missed the door, and jammed the canister into the side of the ship. Swearing at himself, he backed off and tried again. This time he was closer, but in his hurry it caught the side of the door. The canister dropped into the entrance as it was jolted from the claws' grasp.
     When Mychov tried to back the lifter out the claws caught on something. With more cursing he tried to move forwards again, to loosen them, but without success. He backed again, using all the lifter's power. It did not budge.
     The claws had broken through the interior wall, and had caught on a reinforcing strut by the door. Arrachachak tried pulling and pushing from the inside, and had no success either.
     A voice suddenly boomed out over some loudspeaker in the landing bay. "Ten minutes to destruction."
     Mychov abandoned the lifter and climbed into the ship, having to squeeze between the loading manipulators he had wedged there.
     Arrachachak was joined by several other people, but there were still unsuccessful in freeing the lifter until Mu turned up with a laser cutter.
     "Where did you get that?" Mychov demanded.
     "The hold. This ship hasn't had all its finishing touches completed, remember?"
     "Sod that," Arrachachak snapped. "Get to work."
     It only took a few minutes for the powerful cutter to separate the claws from the rest. With a huge heave Arrachachak managed to push the rest of the lifter out of the doorway.
     "Get to the bridge and tell them to shut the door," he ordered Mychov.
     The door started to move, then slowed and stopped with an unpleasant grinding noise and the scream of overloaded motors.
     "Five minutes to destruction," rang out the speaker.
     Again Arrachachak pushed, this time at the door. There was a sharp snap, and it slid shut.
     "We're clear!" he shouted back in the direction of the bridge.
     "We might have compromised air tightness," Garath noted. "We'd best get out of this section."
     On the bridge, Aeyris was sitting in the command chair. Kirrik was standing by the doorway, mumbling complaints about pirates.
     When they heard Arrachachak's shout Aeyris gave the launching clearance code. The engines were already running properly, and there was only a slight drop as the bay's docking clamps released them and its gravity vanished. On the main screen the read view showed the doors opening.
     Without waiting for another order, Silsi backed the ship out. Once clear of the confines of the bay she turned the ship around, and the main drives moved them away.
     Several ships were visible on the edge of the scanner, moving slowly away from the base.
     "Intercept them," ordered Aeyris.
     The Constrictor closed with the other ships quickly. The were revealed to be the ships from the listening post - a transport of some kind, and the sixth Vipers and two others in close formation around it. As they closed the message "Incoming transmission" flashed on the main screen.
     "Acknowledge," Aeyris called out to the computer.
     "Follow us if you will," announced the voice of the post's alien commander. "I will transmit our jump destination when we are ready to depart."
     "Why not jump now?"
     "The Schriy can trace our jumps from this range. I do not want them to."
     "Oh, but you trust us now?"
     "More than them. There are four ships approaching. They will need all of them to attack the base, giving us time to escape."
     "So you hope. Aeyris out."
     "You want to go with them?" Kirrik asked him curiously.
     "We've nowhere else to go," Aeyris shrugged.
     The Constrictor fell in behind the transport, and they flew on for three hours without further communication. Eventually an impatient Aeyris hailed the evacuee's ship.
     "How long until we can jump?" he demanded.
     "Uncertain. One enemy vessel is closing on our position."
     To their credit the people on the Constrictor's bridge reacted calmly to this news, only a few quick intakes of breath demonstrating any signs of nervousness or surprise.
     "What ship?" Kirrik demanded of the alien commander.
     "Schriy raider," it replied, unhelpfully.
     "That means nothing to us. Can you send details?"
     "No. Detailed tactical information of enemy vessels is not in this ship's computer. Schriy ships use a variety of lasers, high explosive torpedoes, and guided missiles. Their shielding technologies are not understood. Out."
     An uncertain silence enveloped the bridge. Some people opened their mouths to speak, only to stop before uttering a sound. Kirrik turned from person to person, watching their reactions.
     "What's the matter with you all?" he eventually said, his voice no louder than normal but enough to make one or two people twitch.
     Silsi was turned away from her station to face inwards, towards the rest of the bridge crew. Her eyes rapidly moved from side to side, seeing her crewmates make no answer.
     "What is it?" she exclaimed. "We've been told nothing much at all. Even running up against a Thargoid ship I would at least know what to expect!"
     "Death," muttered Marchero. Kirrik's mouth twitched at her, a clear "shut up" signal without audible words.
     "Try asking them again," snapped the woman in the rear gunner's position, Sawaka. The rest of them started arguing once more, whilst Aeyris attempted to open a comms link.
     Kirrik spoke out above the noise. "Lock the hyperdrive on anywhere convenient. If there's a fight we'll have a look at how those Vipers react, and we'll get out of here if there are any problems."
     Aeyris nodded to his crew to carry out these orders. Silsi turned around again to settle back into her chair, hands tensed near the weapons controls. Marchero was slouching, apparently not paying much attention to her console, but she spoke suddenly.
     "Something's just registered on long range navigational sensors."
     "Confirm?" Kirrik asked.
     "Negative on combat scanner," Silsi informed. Sawaka reported similarly.
     "What can you tell, Marchero?"
     She shrugged. "Nothing at this range. It's there, it's moving, and that's all."
     "Ship status?"
     The man on the engineering station glanced at his displays, but with a worried frown started to examine one system more closely.
     "The shields report they're working, but the Zieman emitters are only drawing minimal power," he said in fright. "If we've got any shields, they're pretty negligible."
     Marchero's face whitened, and Silsi's hands moved away from the controls to grasp themselves tightly.
     "What's wrong with them?" Aeyris demanded.
     The man waved his arms at the screens. "I don't know! One thing says they're working, other things indicate they aren't! The whole bloody system's crazy!"
     "Well get out of here and go and have a look!" Aeyris shouted at him. As the man stumbled off the bridge he added, "And take someone else with you, idiot!"
     "You used to cope better with stress," Kirrik noted.
     "So did my crew. Will you take engineering?"
     Kirrik gave a slight jiggle of the head that might have been a nod, and sat down in the empty chair.
     "Let's see... Is this thing engine output?" he asked no-one, poking at a random switch.
     "Stop messing about," Marchero said.
     Kirrik looked over his shoulder to grin a sarcastic smile at her before going back to a more serious examination of the display.
     "Well, I don't know what's the matter with it," he said after a while. "We'll just have to wait and hope. How long have we got?"
     No-one answered, but they were all watching Marchero. "Don't ask me!" she exclaimed. "I told you just a minute ago that I couldn't tell yet."
     After leaving the bridge Edwards stumped out into the mess room. There were three people sitting there, talking loudly and holding onto a variety of drinks containers that appeared to contain beer. He snatched one off Garath and took a swig.
     "Oi! Give that back!"
     The mug was returned to its owner with noticeable reluctance. "Where did you find that, Jim?" Edwards asked in disbelief.
     Garath tapped the side of his nose.
     "Oh, be like that then," Edwards replied. "I'd only end up throwing over that idiot's head. Put it down and give us a hand, though."
     "With what?"
     "The shields aren't working, and there's something heading this way," he announced.
     "What?" Arrachachak asked from the corner he was reclining in.
     "I don't know! Nobody seems to have a clue what's going on," he said in an exasperated voice.
     "Great." Garath took a long drink, then stood up. "Lead on," he announced.
     They left the same way Garath had entered. Back in the main corridor, Garath pulled back a panel next to a closed door and peered into the wall.
     "What are you doing?" Edwards demanded.
     "Just wondering if there's any air behind there," he replied, gesturing towards the door that now sealed the entrance off from the rest of the ship.
     "Forget it," Edwards told him. "Come on."
     Garath dropped the panel onto the floor as Edwards unbolted and swung open the door into the equipment level. A cramped corridor led down the side of the ship, at the end of which openings passed into the cargo bay and the drive sector. Next to this entrance was a small locker, from which Edwards took two pairs of ear defenders.
     Access was gained by releasing several latches and ducking under a low lintel. With the ear defenders in place conversation was still possible due to strategically placed microphones picking up the engine noise and subtracting it from other sounds that were relayed to speakers in the defenders. Most ships used better insulated engines.
     They carefully threaded their way between the engine's ancillary equipment until they reached the sealed off compartment containing the main drives and generators. Edwards peered at the maze of pipes and cables in the ceiling.
     "Looks OK," he noted. "Pass us the toolkit."
     "What toolkit?"
     "There was one around here somewhere when I was looking earlier."
     Garath cast his gaze around until he found a box wedged between a bulkhead and the hyperdrive feeds. "This it?" he called back.
     "Yeah, cheers." Edwards quickly extracted some sort of wrench from the kit and started tightening connectors. He put the wrench back, pressed a button on a wall-mounted intercom, and asked the bridge for a report.
     "No change," Kirrik informed him.
     Edwards passed the toolkit back to Garath and took a couple of steps back. Probing around the ceiling, he quickly found a catch, which when released caused a roof panel to swing open. He reached up and grabbed a handle, twisted it, then pulled down, at which point a ladder dropped down from the hole in the roof. At the top of the ladder he squirmed round to disappear into the narrow opening.
     There was a bit of banging and a curse, then Edwards' head reappeared in the hole. "Chuck the tools up."
     Garath took hold of the ladder in one hand and jumped onto the bottom rung so that Edwards could reach down and easily take the kit from him. Freed of the burden, he also climbed up into the ceiling.
     The crawlway was tight but short, and opened into a low, wide space. Across it the area between floor and ceiling was taken up with an arrangement of plates contained within a clear box. Bunches of cables entered the box at numerous points; the two largest collections passed fore and aft into the rest of the ship.
     Via one of the ever-present intercom points Edwards warned the bridge that he was about to shut down power to the shield distributor, then peered into box.
     "Think I've got it," he grunted after some minutes.
     "Oh?" Garath asked curiously.
     "There's a charge plate going. Give us a hand with the cover."
     With one of them working on each side they quickly undid the bolts holding the transparent cover in place and carefully levered it off. Edwards reached in to remove the defective plate.
     There was a sudden flash and a bang. Garath instinctively jumped and cracked his head against something hard in the confined space. He lay there groggily for a while, unaware of the questioning voices on the intercom. When he finally managed to lift himself from the floor he saw Edwards sprawled back against the crawlway entrance.
     There was no sign of life on the body. Garath hauled himself back over to the intercom.
     "Edwards is dead. Residual charge in the plates, got him as he reached in."
     "That shouldn't be possible with no power," Kirrik's voice informed.
     "The power's off. Must be something to do with the fault." His voice sounded tired.
     "Can you do anything?"
     "Forget it. I'm out of here." He flicked the intercom off and headed back to the drive sector.
     On the bridge Kirrik snarled at the now dead commlink and stood up.
     "I'll go myself," he told Aeyris.
     Kirrik met Garath as he was climbing down the ladder. He opened his mouth to shout at the man, but stopped himself when he saw blood dripping down from Garath's head.
     "Get that looked at," he ordered him, then climbed up as Garath staggered out.
     Kirrik ignored Edwards' body and moved straight to the defective device. Nearby lights claimed that there was no power to it, and any built up charge should have dissipated itself when the unfortunate Edwards came into contact with it, but Kirrik took something from the spilled toolbox and gently tossed it towards the plates.
     The spanner hit them and dropped down onto the floor in a completely unspectacular manner. Somewhat satisfied that it was safe he quickly found the plate Edwards had been trying to remove, and pulled hard. Half of it came away in his hand, but the rest remained where it was, too closely surrounded by the others to be accessible. The break had been there before, causing an intermittent connection that stopped the continual smooth flow of power the Zieman emitters needed, but leaving half a plate in would disrupt the field to the point where it could cause the entire assembly to burn out.
     The toolbox contained nothing that would be of any use, and there wasn't anything else lying around that could have assisted either. Kirrik jammed the broken half back into place as hard as he could, replaced the cover, and gingerly turned the power back on.
     "If we're lucky there might be enough contact for the shields to work intermittently," he told the bridge. "Or they may burn out totally."
     There was nothing more that could be done than wait for the approaching ship. The Constrictor could easily have opened the distance between them, but the transport they were following showed no inclination to move any faster. The Vipers maintained their formation about it.
     As it approached the scanners were able to take better readings of its course and speed and provide a better estimate of its intercept time, but they gave little other information. The ship was probably larger than the Constrictor, by an uncertain amount, although not as great as one of the massive Anaconda class freighters or a Naval cruiser.
     Instruments recorded that the shields were functioning. During the wait Edwards' body was placed in the cargo hold where some of his crewmates paid him brief farewells.
     There was some excitement as the approaching vessel crawled its way onto the short range scanners. The Constrictor was equipped with military grade sensors, and whilst old (and almost certainly illegally obtained) they could now begin to attempt some analysis of the ship.
     The shield technology wasn't understood by the locals, and the Constrictor's computers were unable to read any such defences. Details about its overall size could now be more accurately determined, a very rough mass estimate made, and the amount of power needed to move it was calculated. Various readings indicated the state of the ship's power source, which was clearly capable of producing much more than was being put into the engines, but it would be impossible to find out more about weaponry until it was actually used.
     There was no radio traffic between the fleeing transport and the intercepting craft, no threats or calls for surrender. Aeyris tried hailing it without success.
     Before it came within firing range three of the Vipers suddenly broke away from their escort stations and rushed back towards the invader. The main screen on the Constrictor's bridge changed view to watch.
     The three Vipers diverged to approach from different angles, gradually dwindling to specks in the rear view. With the zoom changed to maximum they could just be seen as tiny arrows. The mystery ship appeared to consist of two distinct sections, a conical nose joined by several struts to a more bulbous rear.
     The Vipers struck simultaneously, lasers flashing out into the void. Their target refused to be intimidated, and flew on as if the attack had no power to harm it. The scanner showed a small object leave the vessel and speed towards a Viper, which swung around to face the approaching missile. At the last second the missile exploded, but the Viper carried on undamaged.
     "Fancy shot," Marchero commented.
     "It didn't fire a laser at it," said Silsi, who had been following the encounter more closely on her combat console. Sawaka concurred.
     "A close-in missile defence system?" wondered Silsi.
     "Must be," Aeyris said. "This might mean they don't have ECM systems. We could have an advantage here."
     The Vipers continued their attack. Occasionally there was a laser burst from the larger ship as a target crossed the line of sight of a fixed weapon. There was also the odd strike from a smaller but more mobile gun, low powered but enough to eventually drive one of the Vipers to open the range to allow its shields to recharge.
     The primary purpose of this laser was revealed when a missile was shot at the ship. It lashed out at the remote weapon and hit it on the fourth attempt, before returning to make opportune blasts at the nearest vessel.
     "Right, that does it," Aeyris announced. "Silsi, turn to attack!"
     Seeing this new and unknown threat, the Shriy craft turned slightly to point its primary gun at the Constrictor. An intense beam sprang from it, burning nothing as Silsi evaded. Both ships moved, the pirates' vessel trying to keep out of the line whilst closing to within its guns' range and the other one attempting to soften the approaching craft.
     The next beam caught the nose of the somewhat unwieldy Constrictor. It juddered sharply and the viewscreen died before quickly flickering back into life. The fore shield indicator fluctuated wildly before settling down at three quarters of its previous level.
     "So far so good," declared Kirrik.
     "But that was some blast. I don't want to face many more of those with the shields in an uncertain state," Aeyris retorted, carefully watching the enemy and Silsi's manoeuvres. "Back off and take a wider approach."
     The Constrictor swung around, causing the next shot to miss. The raider did not follow, but returned to its original course as the Vipers struck again. Now they were closing from a different angle, more slowly, but hopefully away from being struck.
     There was a brief warning "whoop" and the "Incoming Missile" message flashed on screen. With a light tap on his chair's armrest controls Aeyris activated the ECM and grunted in satisfaction as an explosion lit the forward screen. He wasn't the only one to notice. The nearest Viper aborted its attack run and retreated to take station near the Constrictor.
     "What's he doing?" Marchero asked indignantly.
     "Ignore it," barked Kirrik.
     The Schriy raider was not ignoring it, though, and turned to abandon its pursuit of the transport in order to face the two craft now hurtling towards it.
     "Slow!" Aeyris told Silsi. "Don't run ahead of the Viper. Sawaka, lock a missile on that ship."
     Now they took a curving path to delay the time when they themselves would once again be targeted.
     "Problem!" Sawaka announced suddenly.
     "The shields aren't recharging! Look!" The indicator was, indeed, still sitting on the three quarters mark.
     "We're lucky they work at all," Kirrik pointed out.
     Still they closed, and they were well within range before Silsi fired. But when she did, she was certain that the military lasers would strike their target. They did, producing a spectacular flare of light. The Viper opened fire shortly afterwards, but whereas the Constrictor had hit rear section it struck against the cone. The flare dimmed and spread, but nothing touched the hull.
     All at once the Viper veered out of the way, its drives glowing brightly as it changed course as quickly as it could. For a second no-one gave it much thought, then suddenly Kirrik yelled, "Get back! Abort the run!"
     For a moment Silsi instinctively turned to stare at him, nonplussed.
     "Turn away!" Kirrik screamed again. The pilot recovered and pulled hard on the joystick, attempting to dump forward velocity at the same time.
     The ship seemed to explode; there was a bone-wrenching crash and a glaringly bright flash before the lights went out, leaving the odd chaotic flicker from a confused instrument. For a brief moment there was no sound from anyone, then voices broke out, screaming in terror, swearing in anger, crying in pain.
     Another jolt. The noise increased, in amongst it was Aeyris' futile attempt at trying to restore order. From somewhere drifted the acrid stench of smoke.
     A third time something slammed into the Constrictor. The screaming voices on board were silenced. The ship tumbled into space, spinning fast and out of control.
     The room was long, with windows down either side and in the ceiling. The only break from the black space beyond them were the steady lights of of a couple of ships; the stars could not be seen from the illuminated room. Eight makeshift beds lined the walls, their occupants battered and still unconscious. A pair of nurses were was moving down the rows, examining each patient before leaving the room.
     Arrachachak was the first to awake, and even then it was a while before he began to notice his surroundings. The giant tried to sit up, but grunted in pain and laid back.
     "Anyone here?" he called quietly from his prone position. Nobody answered.
     The time passed slowly as he lay there, staring at the ceiling, until he heard a rustling and a groan from elsewhere in the room.
     "Who's that?"
     The other person groaned again as they began to come round.
     "Arrachachak?" Sawaka's voice asked.
     "Right. What's going on? I can't move much to see."
     Sawaka was lift herself up on her elbows and peer around the room and give a report.
     "I don't know where this place is," she began, "but it looks like a hospital ward. There are several other beds."
     "Who's in them?" Arrachachak asked urgently.
     "I can't see them all properly," Sawaka replied in a tired voice. "Marchero's next to me. There's Garath, and I think it's Mu next to him. Kirrik's here, that's probably Silsi over there. I can't see who it is in the corner."
     "I don't think so." She dropped back onto the bed and closed her eyes. "What's going on?" she asked plaintively.
     "Like I know."
     One by one the six other people gradually woke up, revealing the man in the corner to be Mychov. All were hurt, some more than others, but the fact that they had come round at vaguely the same time suggested they had all been kept asleep artificially.
     Recollections about what had happened were understandably vague, and no-one could remember beyond the final bang when the ship had died. Talk of those events distressed a couple of them, and soon they all gave up on attempting conversation.
     They were eventually attended by a doctor, recognisable as the man who had treated some of them back on the listening post. He proved almost as uninformative as previously, only this time there was the odd flicker of a grimace on his face as he tried to evade their questions.
     It must have been close to a day before they received answers, by which time they had all recovered by various degrees. Arrachachak was comfortably propped up in his bed; some of the others were able to walk, although there was nowhere to go apart from the bathroom at one end of the temporary ward. Mychov had been peering through the windows, his hands screening his eyes from the room's lights.
     "Vipers," he announced eventually.
     "The same ones that were in the fight?" Kirrik suggested.
     "I didn't see the fight," Mychov replied flatly, taking his hands away from his face.
     They were interrupted by a chime at the door.
     "What's the point of ringing when we're locked in?" Marchero called out. There was a pause, and the door slid open, revealing the post's alien commander.
     It's gaze passed around the room. "You are recovering? Yes, it would seem so. That is pleasing," it noted.
     "What does - he? she? want?" Marchero sighed to Mu.
     "'He' will suffice," the alien informed her. "Although it is not entirely accurate."
     "It would be inappropriate of me not to visit you at some time. I offer a thank you for your assistance."
     Kirrik laughed at him. "It didn't seem to do much good."
     "On the contrary. Your collision with the Schriy's shields was enough to reduce them sufficiently for our ships to destroy it."
     "Shields? We weren't even close to it!" Silsi exclaimed.
     "You were informed that the technology was different. Did your sensors not show you the extent of the protective field?"
     "No," she replied angrily. "Thanks for telling us now."
     The alien seemed unperturbed by her hostile reaction to his information. "Then I apologise," he said simply.
     "Where are the others?" asked Arrachachak.
     "The rest of the crew of your vessel, including the man in joint command, are dead."
     There was an angry buzz from the patients.
     "You should have told us straight away!" someone shouted.
     The alien looked as calm as ever. "It was the opinion of my medical officer that you should start your recovery first."
     From his perch on the edge of his bed Garath hopped to his feet and starting to make his threatening but limping way towards the commander.
     "I had your wellbeing in mind. You are not in a condition in which to fight, anyhow."
     "Too bad!" Garath screamed back, continuing his slow advance. Marchero grabbed him by his shoulders. He tried to shake her off then yelped suddenly as he twisted his hurt leg. With a final shrug he freed himself and hopped over to sit down on the nearest bed.
     "We won't forget this," he snarled.
     "And we will not forget your assistance in the battle, which enabled us to escape. I wish to discuss your future with you, but I perceive that task must wait until a later time. Goodbye."
     Left on their own, they were sitting in uncomfortable quiet, one or two, including Garath, muttering silently to themselves, the rest lost in a private depression at the news. Marchero stood where Garath had left her, watching them suspiciously.
     "Look, it happens in your business. People die."
     Without warning Garath swung around, still sitting, and lashed out at her. He caught her on the side of the head, and she was sent reeling back. Marchero recovered quickly and stepped back out of reach of his next blow.
     "You little bastard!" she screeched at Garath, now darting forward to hit him. Her fist knocked his head back but he shoved her away at the same time, causing her to stumble over a bed leg and fall in a heap.
     "Stop it!" Kirrik called out from his prone position. Garath made no attempt to move, but sat there glowering. Marchero was starting to rise, only to collapse suddenly. Her opponent started to taunt her until Kirrik called at him to shut up.
     Arrachachak, who's bed she had stumbled over, rolled onto his side to look at her.
     "She's out of it," he called.
     "She hardly even hit her head," Garath retorted scornfully.
     "Stop babbling!" Kirrik called. "Go and get some help, quick!"
     "Why? Let the bitch die."
     Silsi ignored him and started pounding and yelling at the door. When it slid open there was only a guard standing on the other side.
     "What?" she demanded angrily.
     "Get your doctors. Someone's just collapsed."
     The guard snapped a quick order at someone just out of sight, then disappeared, leaving the door open. Another soldier stepped in to fill the gap.
     Two doctors arrived a minute later, pushing a floating stretcher along with them. They quickly examined her before demanding, "What happened?"
     "Squabbling and fighting, as usual," Mychov remarked.
     "What?! She's already suffered internal injuries. Haven't you people got any common sense?"
     "Considering the fact that's the first you've told any of us about what's wrong with us, possibly more than you," he returned.
     The doctors lowered the stretcher to the floor and gently lifted Marchero onto it. As they were carrying her from the room one of them turned back to the rest of the Constrictor's survivors.
     "For goodness' sake, keep yourselves under control. I'll be back later to tell the rest of you what's up, if it's the only way to keep you from killing yourselves."
     With the medics gone, and the door shut, Garath remarked nastily, "With her gone we've less cause to get into fights."
     "Look, I know how bloody irritating Marchero can be," Kirrik told him. "But the doctor's right. We've got to calm down."
     "That's fine, coming from you. You got us into this mess!"
     Silsi clenched her hands to her temples. "Why are we always arguing?" she exclaimed. "There's been nothing but bickering ever since we left Esdi. Can't it wait until we're out of trouble? We can fight all we want when we're back home. Marchero didn't kill Aeyris and the others."
     "Your flying did," Garath said flatly.
     "Garath!" Arrachachak snapped. He rolled over to offer a sympathetic reply to Silsi, but she appeared more angered than hurt. She glared at Garath, then stomped out into the bathroom. When she emerged a minute later her face and hair around it were damp with water, but she seemed to have regained her temper.
     "It's tough without Aeyris," Sawaka declared. "We're now missing a leader, and we need one. No offence to Kirrik, but you're an outsider."
     "As such, I'll make an observation, then," he announced. "Aeyris was a good man, as far as a pirate can be, and you all seemed content to let him lead you. From what I've seen you are all too used to following to take over his position."
     "That's true." Mu shook his head sadly. "Look at us! None of us have even shown any desire to take over his position."
     "You aren't much good as typical pirates," Kirrik noted. "Most of the ones I've met jump at any chance to finish off their superiors and take their position."
     "We've done that together," Sawaka told him seriously. "Once we were part of a bigger organisation. Aeyris was sometimes ruthless in moving his way up, and he succeeded with our help, and we benefited from it."
     "And are now left with a problem," Kirrik reminded her. "If you want someone to get you back, I'll help you, and then leave you free."
     "Can we trust you?" Arrachachak asked bluntly. "Or will you turn us in when we get back home? You can assist us for the time being, but I don't want you in sole command."
     "There you are!" Kirrik said. "You're being assertive, and you're thinking of your companions. If you need one of your lot to follow, I think Arrachachak is as good as any."
     There followed several days of recuperation. After three of them Marchero rejoined the group, although she was clearly in some discomfort and stayed much quieter than normal. Apart from the problems associated with tedium in a group forced together in the same place there were no further incidents. The doctors eventually raised screens around each bed to provide a little privacy.
     The fate of the Constrictor was of only mild interest to most of them, but Kirrik was understandably concerned. He moaned about it on occasion to the others, but since the only crew of the ship they saw were the doctors he didn't raise the point with them.
     During this time the vessel stayed apparently motionless. Not even the most sensitive-eyed amongst them could see any illumination on the other nearby vessels that could not be attributed to artificial lights from the small fleet, and the only ships they saw were the ones that had fled the post at Wolf 1421.
     At last a crewman appeared, asking them all to follow him. They formed into a ragged group, with Kirrik supporting Marchero, and with the soldiers who had been guarding the door escorting them they were led through the ship.
     The room they were shown to was spacious, with cushioned chairs and sofas scattered around in an informal circle. The far wall was entirely transparent, although all it looked out on were stars. A low table had been placed in the centre of the room, and a small selection of food and drink was laid out on it.
     The alien commander was already there, standing across from the door. When everyone had entered the soldiers left, and he sat down.
     "Help yourselves," he said, gesturing to the food. Some, but not all, of them did.
     "Some of my officers have persuaded me that it is unfair to leave you uninformed. I think that giving you information you can do nothing about is a pointless exercise. Nevertheless. There are certain things that do need to be discussed."
     "What's going to happen to us?" Mychov asked, rather predictably.
     "That is one of the things to discuss. So far you have not attempted to cause us any serious trouble, and you have provided assistance. Your occasional outbursts are not unexpected, given the situation, and therefore I do not take them into account. You are not prisoners, but I need to know what you wish to do next."
     "Return home," shrugged Kirrik. "Although I can't speak for everyone else."
     "Home?" asked the alien. "In what sense?" He stood up, and walked to the massive window. At a quick command the lights in the room dimmed. "One of those stars is the original home of the human race." He pointed, although against the galactic backdrop it was impossible to tell precisely which sparkle of light he was indicating. "Arrangements can be made for any of you to visit. If you so desire, permanent habitation might be possible."
     "That's rather generous," Mu said suspiciously.
     "The likelihood of being able to return you to the place you came from is unknown. There is no civilised alternative. There is a price, however."
     "We observed you using an advanced anti-missile device during the fight. We want it. If you give it to us then we will also assist in repairing your ship and returning those who wish to go through your 'gateway'."
     "Fine by me," Kirrik replied after a moment's thought.
     "You surprise me," Marchero noted.
     Kirrik sighed. "It's common technology back home, and the version in that ship is a standard one. I doubt you could slip an invasion fleet through that gate, and we'll be watching it from now on."
     "If you get back," Silsi reminded him.
     "The only way any threat is going to get to us," he continued, ignoring Silsi, "is through the Thargoids, and anyone who can manage that would probably end up with an ECM anyway. As well as impossibly strong ships."
     "Thargoids?" the commander interrupted.
     "The ECM anti-missile system was originally a Thargoid device that the Navy copied from captured ships."
     "You're all forgetting something," Marchero pointed out smugly.
     "The Constrictor is obviously still around, and intact, otherwise he wouldn't be able to ask for bits of it."
     "Correct," the alien informed her. "We grappled onto it and jumped here. That is why we are here. With the extra mass and the additional distortion to the Witchspace geometry we could not do more than make it a short way out of the area. Our hyperdrive burned out, which is why we are still here. A repair vessel has been summoned. Your ship is badly damaged, but not beyond repair, although it is of unusual technology and the quality of the repairs cannot be guaranteed."
     They continued to discuss plans for some time. Some of them clearly wanted to stay, probably for the chance of having a clean criminal record. Kirrik, having no connections whatsoever with Sol and the surrounding area, and with a nagging sense of duty, wanted to return to the Galactic CoOperative as soon as possible. Others decided to wait a little and see what the place was like.
     The repair dock was part of a huge station complex that could have accommodated a Dodo-type space station somewhere in its midst. The dull brown sphere of the third planet of Psi5 Aurigae lurked below, its small asteroid-sized moon a dark blob racing across the surface.
     Somewhere in the tangle of station modules and docking arms the Constrictor was docked, with swarms of robots and living mechanics working on it around the clock. Its ECM system had been removed immediately upon arrival and quickly whisked away elsewhere. Kirrik attempted to supervise the work, but aside from clearing up the odd confusion about various basic aspects of the vessel's design he was unable to provide much help.
     The station was primarily a naval facility, but it appeared that private ships made use of its services from time to time, and there was an area set aside for their crews' use. The Constrictor crew had been quartered here, and had not been given access to anywhere else except for passage to the repair bay. In this area were a variety of shops, restaurants, bars, libraries, and so on. There was also a large park area whose day and night illumination seemed to be out of sync with the rest of the station's twenty-six hour system.
     To the fascination of some, and the complete disinterest of others, they soon discovered that this was because it was lit on a twenty-four cycle for the benefit of its flora and fauna, which notices claimed to be exclusively from Earth. A cynical Arrachachak claimed they were no more interesting than the lifeforms from many other worlds, although even he turned to glance at a particularly exotic-looking bird.
     After so long spent in the confines of spacecraft and the untidy cave on their asteroid most of them took to spending long hours in the park, often in the cafes and bars that lined the side of it. In payment for their assistance and the ECM they had all been provided with a generous credit to spend during their stay.
     If the timing was right and the station facing the right direction the coverings over the park's roof were opened, allowing the natural sunlight of Psi5 Aurigae to stream in. Despite the background noise of the station and the shadows of the latticework of thick reinforcing beams in the ceiling a person with imagination, standing at the right place and looking in the right direction, could almost pretend they were on a world's surface. Earth's surface.
     All of them appeared recovered now, although some people had been advised to take things easy for a while. Silsi, Marchero, Arrachachak, and Mu were following that advice at a cafe in the park.
     "Made up your minds, yet?" Arrachachak asked them, sipping coffee from a mug that was almost lost in his huge hands.
     "About staying?" Mu asked. "I think Mychov wants to."
     Silsi shook her head. "What are they going to want to keep scum like us for?"
     "Scum?" Arrachachak replied, his tone amused.
     "Pirates aren't generally held in very high regard," Marchero pointed out.
     "And most of them would kill you there and then for a remark like that," Mu warned.
     Marchero shrugged. "Most people I meet don't seem to think I'm much better, anyway."
     "Come along!" Arrachachak exclaimed. "Why's everyone doing their best to put themselves down at the moment?"
     "Look, let's face it. Pirates are vicious-minded killers who don't give a damn about anything or anyone other than themselves," Silsi sighed. "And we've all done it. You see a Boa explode, and it never crosses your mind that maybe twenty people have just died. No, there's a cargo canister, quick, grab it!"
     "Our own survival," Mu said.
     "What?" Marchero asked, confused.
     "Why the hell do you think I ended up in that game?" he retorted. "Kill or be killed, probably in some gutter in a wreck of a city on a hole like Isveve."
     "Are you saying pirates are basically decent people who are just a little too concerned with their own problems?" Marchero replied incredulously.
     "How have you managed to survive this long with that mouth?" Silsi asked. She continued, ignoring the flash of anger on Marchero's face. "Not decent, but we, at least, aren't psychos."
     "Zarenda was," Mu muttered.
     "Who?" Marchero queried.
     "Just some guy who used to work with us. The type of person who kicks the crap out of people for the entertainment of it. He would attack small shuttles with no cargo capacity if there wasn't anyone around to get him for it."
     "Ended up being vapourised shortly after storming out of a station at Isinor after a Cobra pilot he claimed had given him a funny look in the bar," Arrachachak smirked.
     "Is there a point to all this self-justification?"
     Arrachachak finished off his coffee, and twiddling the mug on the table said, "Some people become pirates because they are violent yobs. Some because they are just hopeless, or desperate, or insane. Most of our lot could make it in a more acceptable life, given the chance."
     The sceptical expression Marchero had been wearing had not vanished. "I've known plenty of desperate or down on their luck people who didn't resort to robbery and murder."
     "Like you did?" Mu pointed out.
     "Kirrik's told us how you ended up in prison, then with the Navy," he reminded.
     Marchero's face darkened into its usual scowl. "If he's staying here then I'm going back, and vice versa."
     Arrachachak was gazing out through the trees of the park.
     "You can ask him now," he noted.
     When Marchero twisted round on her chair she could just see Kirrik's dark form threading its way through a cluster of pines. "What's he want now?" she muttered, turning back around and sipping her drink, deliberately ignoring the approaching Disian.
     When Kirrik reached them he dropped a notepad onto their table. "The ship's ready," he told them. "I'm leaving in the morning." He gestured towards the notepad. "Can you put your names to the list of who's staying or going?" he asked.
     "I think that's a decision we should all make together," Arrachachak pointed out. "Has anyone else made their minds up yet?"
     "No," Kirrik shrugged. "Suit yourself, anyway, as long as you get it back to me within the next few hours. I need to organise supplies. Oh, if you do return, I'll get you all clean legal records. And you," he said to Marchero, who was still concentrating solely on her coffee, "Our offer still stands, if you want to return. Whatever I may think of you personally, I can't deny that you haven't been useful on this little escapade." He walked off the way he had come from.
     On the Constrictor's bridge were six people, all who were intending to undertake the dangerous journey back to places they knew. Kirrik was there, as was Arrachachak, neither of whom had any particular connection with their current location. Kirrik was obliged to return to the Navy, whilst Arrachachak had decided to go where most of his people went. Most of the pirates had decided they would rather stick together in the world they knew, instead of seeking a new future in a complete unknown. Two of them, though, took up that challenge. Mychov had long wondered about the almost legendary Sol system, and to everyone's surprise Sawaka insisted on going with him. Apparently they had been together for some time, although they had played it so low key that nobody had even guessed.
     Even more of a surprise was Marchero's decision to return. Although she had made a few comments about hoping to have a chance of seeing Kirrik come to a bad end it seemed more likely that she was not prepared to face what might be a significantly different world to that which she was used to.
     The local forces had already sent ships ahead to the co-ordinates of the gateway, and reported apparent success in powering it up. The final test - that of establishing a link to the gate near Esdi - would await the Constrictor's arrival.
     The Constrictor itself had been overhauled in a professional shipyard, although in a few cases Kirrik had insisted that work was only carried out by robots that subsequently had their memories erased. With full supplies, equipment in working order, and a much smaller crew than before their previous worries about food and water were hopefully a thing of the past. As were troubles with the door. Instead of the patch of bare wires there was a tidy panel.
     On the final approach to the gate after leaving hyperspace Marchero started to fiddle nervously.
     "You sure this is going to work?" she asked everyone in general.
     "It did on the way here," Kirrik replied calmly.
     "This gate was unknown. Heaven alone knows what might be waiting at the other end!"
     "We've been some time. They might very well think we were destroyed in the transit. I would like to know if they get any warning that something is coming through, but we'll have to put up with that."
     "This is suicide," she muttered.
     "That's why you had the chance to stay behind," Arrachachak pointed out. "The worst that I think is likely to happen is a minefield or a ship parked across the exit."
     "Thanks," Marchero snapped.
     They continued in silence, watching the distance markers on the main screen gradually decrease. The lights of ships eventually grew visible. The lights of several ships, some quite large. Someone had decided that a not insignificant military presence was a wise decision.
     As the ship came to a halt near the gate a bulky vessel manoeuvred into position above them. It dropped a tube to an access portal on the upper hull, and began pumping Quirium fuel into the tanks. There had been continued reports of Schriy activity in the nearby Wolf 1421 system, and scooping there so as to enter the gate with full tanks had been viewed as an unnecessary risk.
     Its job finished, the tanker backed off, as did all the other ships except those providing power to the collection of rings.
     "System charged, as far as we know. We'll try to open the gate on your command."
     "Acknowledged," Arrachachak replied. "Shut down," he told the bridge. Lights went dead and displays disappeared as most of the ship's systems were turned off. This time they were standing some distance clear of the rings, facing exactly down their tunnel.
     Satisfied that they were as ready as possible, Arrachachak re-opened communications.
     "Start it up," he asked simply.
     "Starting. Good luck, and we hope to hear from you some day! IPT Alexander out."
With most of the Constrictor's sensors switched off they could not see the build-up of Witchspace distortions that had heralded the the first opening, other than by telemetry from several sensor buoys that had been placed nearby. A minute passed before the first hints of the glowing charge appeared in the rings. The telemetry data started to go wild, although with the majority of the computer subsytems shut off they were unable to analyse it.
     There was a distorted crackle over the speakers, out of which an artificial voice could just be heard. "Deep layer hyperspace link apparent to uncertain location in Far Colony territory." So far, so good.
     The ship started to move, without any effort from its drives. A few sparks shot out from the nearest ring and were absorbed by the shields. The glows coalesced, exploding into a blinding flash that briefly illuminated the device and the nearby vessels. The Constrictor was drawn into it. In an instant the light vanished, and so did the ship. The instruments on the buoys reset themselves a few moments later, but all they could see were the emissions of their own ships.
     For the travellers that world was behind them, and currently the least of their concerns. The passage had been smoother than before, but the ship was still tumbling wildly and it was still pitch dark. Held in by their belts, they clung on to the side of their seats and gritted their teeth.
     The stomach-churning motions slowly subsided, then faded away completely.
     "Initialise re-start," Arrachachak ordered, his voices loud in the silence. The computer picked it up and started waking the primary systems. The lights came on and sections of the consoles started to come back to life, allowing their operators to keep a careful eye on them as they brought dependent components back up.
     Protected by the cautious entry the ship was in better shape than it had been during the first passage. Nothing appeared damaged, although the shields had been knocked down to ten percent and the energy banks had taken a battering from somewhere. As far as they could tell they were travelling in the same manner as before. There was no means of measuring progress, and all they could do was assume that the subjective time would be identical.
     With only six people on board the ship seemed empty. The crowding that had so irritated some people had become as much of the Constrictor as the layout of the bridge or the noise of the air pumps. With nothing that needed to be done and nothing to do only two people were usually present on the bridge, and two or three would be sleeping, or trying to. When awake and off duty there was the collection of information they had brought with them to browse through, or videos and music from Earth, but they failed to lift the subdued atmosphere.
     When, by their reckoning, they only had a couple of hours left until they re-entered real space, Arrachachak and Silsi were on the bridge. Arrachachak was lounging in the command chair, idly watching the hypnotic display on the view screen. Silsi was supposedly monitoring the flight control readings, but the slow, regular pattern of her breathing suggested she had dozed off.
     Arrachachak squirmed, as if his seat was becoming uncomfortable. At the same time Silsi twitched awake, glanced at the monitors, and closed her eyes again. Five minutes later there was a shudder, as if the vessel was a sea ship on an ocean with a gentle swell, which quickly died out.
     Mu staggered onto the bridge. "What're doing?" he demanded at Silsi.
     "It's not me," she replied.
     Mu dropped himself into a chair and peered at the sensor readings. He spat. "It's changed," he said, "although heaven knows what it means."
     "Duck down a bit," Arrachachak ordered, moving over next to Mu and trying to read the screens.
     "Damn," he breathed after a moment. "Mu, kick everyone up and get them here at once!"
     "What?" Silsi began.
     "Let's wait for everyone else," Arrachachak replied firmly.
     Soon people were ambling into the bridge, a couple alert and with worried expressions, the later two dull-eyed and sleepy.
     "This had better be good," Marchero yawned as she sat down and slouched in her usual seat.
     The swell rocked the ship again. A subtle change in the light caused heads to turn to the viewscreen. The same distorted tunnel pattern was there, but now there seemed to be faint pulses of light passing by in the distance.
     "Err..." someone muttered.
     "Kirrik, have a look at this," Arrachachak asked, pointing at the sensor readings Mu had noticed.
     Holding onto various chairs and walls to brace himself against the motion, Kirrik stumbled over to the console.
     "Everyone strap themselves in!" he announced suddenly, staggering over to the empty secondary gunner's chair. There was a brief period of chaos as people stumbled around to obey, but they were quickly secured.
     "The tunnel is being distorted," he informed them when they had settled down.
     "Which means?" Mu snapped.
     "We could be torn apart if it gets worse," he said calmly, even though the disturbances seemed to be quietening down.
     "Aren't you worrying too much?" Marchero commented.
     "I can't see how anything could be changed without outside influence," Kirrik replied. "Which probably means someone is fiddling with one of the gateway portals."
     "Destroying it?" Silsi asked incredulously.
     "Shooting at it, moving it, whatever. I can't know," he said sharply. His point was reinforced by the sudden return of the distortions. This time the ship started to buck about severely, causing hands to grip tightly the side of their chairs. The shield indicator started to drop, suggesting that what they were feeling was only part of the story.
     "Bloody hell!" someone yelled, then a hopeless "Help!"
     "Marchero, target the hyperdrive!" Kirrik snapped.
     "On what? There's no point of reference!"
     "Well guess, then!" Arrachachak shouted at her. "Whatever happens it can't be worse than staying here!"
     Marchero struggled with the controls, her fingers having difficulty finding the keys in the rollercoaster motion. "Set up for untargetted jump."
     "Hold on!" Arrachachak announced, moments before the hyperdrives started up.
     Empty space. Darkness punctuated by pinpricks of light, like the distant audience of an vast amphitheatre, present but completely removed from the floor.
     A shimmering distortion appears as various exotic particles and antiparticles appear out of nowhere and just as quickly annihilate themselves. A small dark shape is just visible against it, and it remains, now only noticeable as it occults the stars after the distortion dies away.
     It tumbles on, going nowhere significant. After some time a faint glow can occasionally be seen from the object, vanishing as its spinning turns a different face.
     Its presence is detectable elsewhere in the electromagnetic spectrum, a faint radio voice crying softly into the void.
     For days it moves where fate had pointed it, the odd disappearing star, the glow not much brighter than a distant nebula and the radio whisper marking its presence. Then three new lights, all close together, gradually resolve themselves from the starry background. They draw closer to the falling vessel. It is apparently oblivious to their presence.
     Two of the lights manoeuvre to take up station on either side of the ship. Bright beams appear from their pointed noses, shining on the stricken Constrictor, and partially illuminating each other. The third new craft descends out of the darkness, the Iguanas' torches showing up the vivid star painted on its hull and the flashes of the Galactic Navy's Search and Rescue insignia.
     The rescue ship, a Moray Starboat, slowly closes with the tumbling Constrictor. Four small cylinders drop out of the Moray's torpedo tubes. Jet flashes appear from the cylinders as they shoot off around the spinning craft, until they suddenly dart in and latch themselves to it. Their jets fire more brightly as they slowly cancel out the Constrictor's spin.
     The Moray locates the door to the dead vessel and extends a docking tube from its own main hatch. With an airtight link established people move down the tube and start working on the door.
     Huddled in the heart of the ship, wrapped in every blanket they could find, the crew were ignorant of the arrival of the rescue mission. Wedged in various corners of the room against the tumbling, the first they knew of it was when the bulkheads started to press less uncomfortably against them. When the spin was damped out they were floating free in the Constrictor's mess room, staring at each other in disbelief.
     The lights were dim, life support was operating at minimal level, they were freezing cold and condensation covered every surface and soaked into everyone's clothes. Yet for the first time in days there was the unbelievable prospect of not suffering in hopeless misery until they finally froze, or starved, or asphyxiated.
     Arrachachak pushed himself against a wall, sending himself drifting across the room. He caught hold of a cupboard handle near the door and jammed his other hand against the opening panel. The light flickered off briefly as the ship's minimal power resources were used to open the door.
     It slowly slid aside to reveal a spacesuited figure carrying a flashlight in one hand. The figure waved it through the door, and taking into account the unsuited appearance of those on board unlatched its helmet.
     "Atmosphere OK," the revealed man reported into an intercom on his suit. "It's bloody cold, though." There was a mechanical grinding from somewhere to his left and a brief rush of warmer air. Light poured through from the same direction.
     "It's your lucky day, sure enough," he called out to those on board. "Let's get you off this wreck."
     The doctors had quickly ascertained that all six were in reasonable physical condition, and whilst they were relaxing with their first hot meal in days Kirrik and Marchero were met with another surprise.
     Into the room strode a man in his forties, with a Naval uniform and familiar features.
     "Ahcal?" Kirrik started in surprise, jumping up to greet his colleague.
     "You sound surprised? What do you think it's like for us, finding you out here? And with this lot?" His eyes passed slowly around the others, as if trying to read them. "You're still dragging her around, I see," he noted, looking at Marchero.
     "Worse... No, I won't say that. Whatever her opinions, she's done us a service, and we should be grateful."
     "I'm glad," Jalsa commented. "Anyway, we'll go through the full debriefing later, but I think it's best that we know where you've been as soon as possible."
     "Around the vicinity of Sol," Marchero told him smugly.
     "Yes, thankyou," Jalsa replied sarcastically. "Kirrik?"
     "She's right. You'll have an interesting time reviewing the logs from that Constrictor, if the computer is still working, anyway."
     Jalsa eyed Kirrik suspiciously. "You're serious, aren't you?" he said after a while.
     "Of course."
     "That might explain why you were away for four months instead of three weeks," Jalsa noted drily.
     "What four months?" exclaimed Silsi.
     "That's what it's been since Kirrik and Marchero were last seen," Jalsa pointed out.
     "It's possible," Arrachahcak told her. "We've no idea what time passed between there and here, and we're lucky to have landed in the right millennium with that last hyperspace jump."
     "The story?" Jalsa reminded them. Kirrik began, but he had only got as far as the discovery of the mysterious "gateway" across a thousand light years of space before Jalsa interrupted.
     "What's that?" he jumped in. "We didn't find any hint of something else on the asteroid!"
     "You've been there?" Kirrik asked.
     "When you didn't return a strike group was sent in, and we captured it. They had had time to wipe a large amount of their computer system first, though. We did find a few things about the original theft that might interest you, but they can wait. The prisoners are being interrogated but we haven't got much from them."
     The discussions continued for some time, but with that news a team from the Moray went straight to the Constrictor to try to extract the critical co-ordinates from its computer.
     The bridge of the Naval frigate was crowded. Apart from its crew the team of Naval Intel officers who had first started out on the search for the remains of the Constrictor were present. Marchero was also there, mostly because no-one had yet decided exactly what to do with her. The shadow of a Fer-de-Lance Lightspeeder hung in space before them, captured from the asteroid base and given to Arrachachak and his crew as payment for their services. Unknown to them it had also been fitted with an advanced tracker, in case they decided to return to their previous career of piracy.
     Ahead of the Fer-de-Lance were a series of broken rings, with other debris scattered around nearby. Lodged within them was the wrecked hulk of a Python freighter, holding them together. A few small fighter craft were darting around nearby, the remnants of the Gateway's forces that had been stranded here when their primary base had been attacked. Navy fighters were pursuing them, whilst other Co-Operative forces had already boarded the Anaconda that appeared to be their command ship.
     "Too greedy to try to hang onto their booty," Kirrik noted sadly, as another fighter vanished in the flash of an explosion.
     "And it's only a wreck, too," murmured Barbeth.
     "Our link home gone?" Jalsa asked.
     "Perhaps," Barbeth replied. She shook her head at the debris. "Why destroy it, though?"
     "I don't think they did," Kirrik said. "We did, I think, when we tried to jump when in transit."
     "And what about the other end?"
     "Who knows? We were much closer to here. Lucky for us, too, otherwise who knows where we would have come out of hyperspace? Too far for our SOS to ever be heard, no doubt."
     "The remains will be studied, of course," Jalsa said. "It may be possible to rebuild it."
     Marchero had been standing quietly behind them. "What will that lead to?" she asked. "We certainly leapt before we looked when we went into it."
     Jalsa looked over his shoulder at her. "That's what adventure is all about," he grinned. "And you might still have one ahead of you. There might be some people wanting their revenge on you. They'll blame you for that," he said, turning back to nod at the scene of the wrecked device. "But you've already come through quite a difficult situation. And from what Kirrik says, still keeping the same abrasive and unpleasant manner."
     Marchero closed her mouth on her retort when she saw his grin.
     "If you want to stay hidden for some time I think we'll might be able to find something for you to do during it," Jalsa offered.
     Marchero's face stayed set, but without a reply she suddenly turned and walked off the bridge.


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