Previously: The year is 3301. It’s been two weeks since Commander Jason Frimantle committed an act of piracy under Federal law, strong-arming new hires of his father’s shipping company over valuable cargo.
“…and if you look to the starboard side of the spacecraft, you will see what is colloquially known as a ‘hot Jupiter’.”
Jason Frimantle muted his comm and sighed softly. When he’d first seen the astronomical wonder a week ago, he too had been surprised by the vibrancy of color and violence in the storms visible on the gas giant’s surface. Trapped as it was in the competing gravity wells of two nearby stars, the tidal forces in its titanic hydrogen and helium pockets would have torn a planet the size of Earth to shreds. From here, though, the Dolphin-class passenger liner was perfectly safe, and Jason was almost certain that at least a few of his passengers were taking holo-vids, pointing, and making awestruck noises.
All Jason could think of was the paycheck.
The problem with working for a company like Baroness Starsight Tours was that they were tied to one particular place. And at that place, they kept personnel records, bureaucrats… weak points. So far, Jason’s stunt on Abel Prospect had gone unreported, as far as he could find out. And thus far, no bounties had been posted on him at any of the stations near Baroness Starsight’s headquarters and main ports of call.
“Pilot?” The voice crackled from the comm located in the passenger compartment. “Did you bring any food aboard?”
“Refreshments are available in the cabinets located aft. All credit programs accepted.”
“What? We have to pay?”
Jason rolled his eyes. Of course you have to pay, it was in the contract you signed. “Standard Baroness Starsight contracts include the pricing for all refreshments available aboard —”
His comm buzzed. His external comm.
It was a statement. Not a question.
Jason flipped channels. “This is Baroness Starsight civilian vessel ‘Deveraux’, how can I help you?”
“This is gonna look bad on my resume.” Jason looked at the ship sending the signal. It was an F-63 Condor, being flown by a commander ranked as Expert. “Get your passengers into escape pods. They’ll be safe, and I know that ship’s insured. I’ve been told you’re worth more alive, but if you try anything, like holding them hostage, I’ll be a lot less inclined to be gentle.”
“Hostages? What are you talking about?”
“Pirates are known for that sort of thing, Mister Frimantle. Please, I’m asking nice.”
Jason checked the information again. ‘Marcus Corso’. Bounty hunter, more than likely.
Don’t panic. Do not panic. Don’t you dare.
He flipped the comm back over. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your Commander speaking. Return to your seats and secure yourselves at all points. I am about to take evasive maneuvers.”
He took a deep breath, then flipped to the external channel. “Commander Corso, I’m not going to hold anyone hostage, and I’m not going to turn myself over to you. I’m plotting a course back to Independent space now. You’re welcome to try and stop me.” He reached under the console, pulled off a particular panel, and tweaked a few of the wires. This ship wasn’t designed for many pilot modifications, and tampering with it could cost him the contract. But this seemed a bit more important.
There was a laugh. “I have to admit, kid, I like your gumption. Your dad said you might be difficult. But you’re in a Dolphin-class space bus. I’m in a cutting-edge Fed fighter. There’s no contest.”
“If I were staying to fight,” Jason said, “I’d agree. But you’re about to eat high wake. I suggest you get clear, this beast can breach pretty big.”
The ship’s computer warned Jason that Corso had deployed his hardpoints. In the next moment, laser blasts spattered against the ship’s shields. Jason banked the ship hard to port, firing the portside reverse engine. As soon as his aft was pointed at Corso, he hit the boost. With a surprisingly dolphin-like whine, the liner leaped forward at maximum velocity. The frame-shift drive charged, and they were yanked across space at super-relativistic speeds.
Jason didn’t hesitate or rest once they dropped back into supercruise. He plotted the course back to the home port and made one jump after another in rapid succession. He barely stopped to scoop extra fuel to make sure they didn’t get stranded. It wasn’t until the ship was in the station and docked that Jason managed to breathe again.
There was no sign of pursuit. Corso hadn’t popped into space outside of the station. In fact, as far Jason could see, there’d been no F-63s at all anywhere near them. He ran a hand through his hair, leaving the cabin behind to greet the passengers as they disembarked. He hoped none of them would note that those blonde locks were matted with sweat.
A couple of the passengers — a concerned father, a bureaucrat who barely stopped talking to her personal comm, a little girl with pigtails who kicked him in the shin — gave him grief over the abrupt end of the trip. Still, they’d hit their goals and gotten home safe. Jason would get paid.
And then he’d leave. Somewhere else, somewhere the Wayfarer could take him even further from Federation bounty hunters and system authorities…
He blinked, coming back to where he was standing. He was looking at a familiar face. Reddish-brown hair, light brown eyes..
She smiled. It was a wide, warm thing, tinged with mischief. Not an expression worn by the shipping magnate bureaucrat back on Lave Station. It was about then that he noticed that while her fashion was similar to the commissioner’s — pencil skirt, business-style blouse and jacket, heels — it had its own spin on the look. The skirt was just a bit shorter, the cut of the jacket a little more daring, the top two buttons of her blouse unbuttoned. She wore spectacles, which the other had not, and while she wore her hair in a similar fashion, curling locks of it fell to frame her face, and the chopsticks in the bun were more vibrant and eye-catching.
“I see you’ve met my sister.” Her voice, again almost identical to the other’s, was smoother, more relaxed. “Kind of stuck up, isn’t she?”
Jason swallowed, feeling very much on the spot. “She’s a conservative sort, yeah.”
“That’s putting it mildly.” Her smile widened. “Parker’s my name, yes. My twin hasn’t gotten married — can’t imagine why that is — and neither have I. But I don’t commission a thing. You can call me Stephanie.”
He nodded. “And you know my name.”
“I do.” Her lips pursed in an interesting way, at least to Jason’s eyes. “And I’m aware of your skills, and cool head under pressure.”
He thought of the sweat that’d trickled down his cheek. “Thanks.”
“Listen. I represent a… certain organization. We’re always on the lookout for new talent. Especially commanders who can handle themselves in a crisis and aren’t afraid of running afoul of… antagonistic parties. The pay’s fantastic, and we’ll provide your first ship. Interested?”
Jason thought about it for a moment, and then nodded. “Sure. If it gets me out of Federation space, especially.”
She put out her hand. “Shake on it.”
He did. She had a firm grip, and her fingers lingered on his palm for just a moment.
“Good. Be sure to sever your ties with Baroness Starsight. You’ll find your new ship in Landing Bay 24.”
“Twenty-four,” Jason said with a nod. She smiled at him again.
“Looking forward to working with you, Commander.” She turned and walked down the corridor, heels clicking whenever they touched the deck. Unlike her sister’s heels, they were stiletto-style, and the seams of her stockings ran up the back of her legs in clean, straight lines.
Jason really didn’t know how to process what just happened.
He made his way to the Baroness office to collect his pay and hand in his resignation. Then it was to Landing Bay 24. There, he found a small ship that he knew was capable despite its size: a Viper Mk.III fighter. He ran his hand over its hull with a smile. It was already fitted with registry numbers saying it was his. He got in and checked the cockpit. He found a note on the pilot’s seat, shocked to discover it smelled faintly of Stephanie’s perfume. He opened it.
Don’t forget that you owe us. This isn’t a gift; it’s an investment.
A chill ran down Jason’s spine.
What had he just been talked into doing?
To be continued…