By Blake Hutchins

June 2828 CE, Imperial Standard Reckoning

"I don’t like it."

Jonas Ngari sighed and looked up from the nav display. "You’ve said that three times in the last hour, Amanda. I hope you realize I heard you each time."

Amanda Rue, the sensop and Jonas’s rookie second officer, ran a hand through her close-cropped black hair and shrugged. "Can’t help it if I’m stating the obvious." She pointed at the holoscreen in the center of the bridge. It was a computer-generated representation of space which showed the Vreeland’s travel vector from Mars to the orbital facilities of Venus. An amber triangle represented the spaceship on its vector. Two ominous red dots a few inches Earthward of the triangle — hundreds of thousands of kilometers away in reality — pulsed and moved on their own vector lines. Their red lines intersected the Vreeland’s own line, clearly on an intercept course which would bring them onto a matching course with the Vreeland within about ten standard hours.. Green letters in Anglic flickered in a countdown for the dots’ arrival.

"I don’t like it," she said. "They have to know we’re here, but they’re not hailing us."

Jonas sighed and gave up trying to plot final approach vectors. They would keep for a day or two. He got up and went over to look at the display with Amanda. The bridge wasn’t roomy. Four acceleration chairs were set like pips on a die around the holoscreen, a solid cylinder of nanolayered opticrystals. Each station had its own arcboard of screens and controls winking their own particular displays. The controls were modular to a certain degree, reconfigurable according to user preference. In practice, the Vreeland’s crew hadn’t changed anything in years. Everything on this tramp vessel was well-used, long outdated. Well, almost everything. Jonas knew of a few recent modifications he hoped he’d never have to use, the main one being the microatomic charge embedded in the hull. As for the rest of the Vreeland, the crew just nursed the parts and prayed over the whole.

"Look, I agree those blips are Terran Defense Force vessels," he said to Amanda. "Big ones, probably Templar class. What do you expect us to do? In the first place, we shouldn’t be able to get such a close fix on them until they’re right on top of us. This ship isn’t supposed to have military grade sensor suites that can penetrate Teddy stealth measures. If we jink now, they’ll know something’s up and they’ll burn in hard. In the second place, we can’t lose them without tipping them off to our new stealth technology. You know that, too." Jonas thrust his face in Amanda’s. "We are not a raiding ship, you roj? So stop driving us dusting crazy, okay?"

She lowered her eyes. "It’s just hard to wait, that’s all."

Jonas grinned. "Copacetic, hey? You’re not used to this kind of op. We use a different kind of patience, that’s all. Not warrior patience. We’re strictly non-combat here." He stretched. "Why don’t you grab some sack time, run a virtuvid and relax? Maatiu’s due up after he finishes replacing those omni clamps on C deck. I can keep things together that long."

Amanda nodded and headed for the hatch.

"Don’t forget, we’re cutting burn in eighteen hours, hey? Turnabout time," Jonas reminded her. At turnabout, the shipboard environment would go to zero-gee while the thrust was cut and the ship oriented its drives toward the destination for the deceleration leg of the journey.

She threw him a sour look. "Nag, nag, nag. You’d think I don’t know anything about space travel." She cocked her head and smiled mischieviously. "Or maybe you think the raiders have some other miracle tech? Artificial grav? Reactionless drives? Teleporters?"

"Actually, I don’t want to know." Jonas held up his hand. "The less I know about what the movement has, the better for everyone. We don’t want TDF getting advance warning on any of it. I know what we got on the Vreeland, but no more. And you better forget you know anything at all, you roj?"

"Roj." Amanda looked thoughtful as she left the bridge.

Jonas seated himself at his station again and looked at the holoprojection worriedly. Those two dots bothered the dust out of him, of course. Aside from the penalties for smuggling contraband, the Empire was in the habit lately of confiscating even inocuous cargoes if they were useful to the war effort. That was why the Vreeland carried luxury items with little military utility, such as tanks of Martian brandy, crates of ice from Io, a case or two of handmade curiosities from various Belter artisans. The ice was bound for the Aphrodite-Spoils-U mineral water company, a rebel front on Venus. Bottled water from Io was all the rage on Venus and Terra Mater these days. Not much use for the Teddy military, but great cover for concealing the real shipment: bubblepaks of new weapons components from the Masters’ cache on Mars. The rebel material was smuggled on board while the Vreeland was docked at the Phobos Orbital Haven. Easy. And they didn’t have to play any games with the manifest at all. The Io ice would withstand any spectroscopic analysis. Definitely from Jovian space. All in all, it made for long voyages, but the cover it provided for the Vreeland was worth gold to the rebel movement.

The ice did sell for a good price, besides. Kept water in the mass tanks and paid for crew. Some of the profit found its way back to the movement. Revolutions cost money, just like anything else.

The ship creaked slightly. She did that sometimes, showed her age. Jonas patted a nearby conduit affectionately. The air smelled dry and slightly lemony. An old crewmate had kept a small hydroponic orchard once, and some of the fruit had gotten into the scrubber system after a series of mishaps. The lemon smell had faded with time, and nobody minded much, so the scrubber kept its place. At least this time they didn’t have any problems with Martian dust, that common hazard of ships that spent much time dealing with Martian trade. The fine red dust found its way everywhere, like rats on the old seagoing ships of Earth. It was a rare venture when it didn’t show up on people’s clothes or in supposedly sealed crates.

Jonas hated the dust. He hadn’t set foot on his birthplanet in years. The dust symbolized all the reasons he preferred to stay in the sky.

No sign of Maatiu yet. Jonas yawned and ran a systems check. The drives showed optimal readings, although he knew the number two nozzle needed new heat shielding. Currently, the Vreeland accelerated at point-oh-one gee, its Karasumi fusion reactor blasting a stream of superheated plasma in its wake. Much higher speeds were possible, but not economical for merchants like the Vreeland, given the huge amount of reaction mass that was necessary for interplanetary travel in the first place. Military craft, now, they could really burn through distance. Jonas checked the holodisplay again. The red dots were holding course. Teddy had started running patrols in pairs since the raiders began their hit-and-run strikes, surprisingly effective even against TDF ships of the line.

Jonas heard the sharp tapping that signalled Maatiu’s arrival. Every spacer had a quirk or three. Maatiu Akimbo’s was that he constantly tapped any handy surface, as if keeping time to some internal metronome. Fortunately, Jonas had gotten used to it, but newer crew members found the habit profoundly irritating.

Maatiu sauntered in, his shipboard jumpsuit covered with a kaleidoscopic jumble of patches, military insignia, souvenir pins, flashpix of popular maffick bands, whatever caught his fancy. He shared the same African ancestry as Jonas, but was darker and taller than the Mars-born captain, with the characteristic slenderness of someone born and raised in microgravity. Jonas knew Maatiu claimed citizenship from the High Nubia platform, but Maatiu had never seemed the type. He was the least aristocratic person Jonas knew, nothing like the pro-Imperial Hi-Nubes.

"‘Eyy, Jonas. What’s up with Amanda’s dots?"

"Still there. You think the Teddy will board?"

"They’ll probably send somebody over, sure." Maatiu produced a couple of plastic bottles and handed one to Jonas. "Want some beer? Obelisk, from Tharsis City."

"Why not?" Jonas flipped up the sipcap and sucked down a mouthful. "Thanks. Here’s to good Martian beer."

The two men sat in silence. On the long voyages aboard the relatively cramped quarters of a spaceship, the ability to grant privacy marked the difference between a good crewmate and a bad one. Jonas had been with Maatiu long enough that the two men could spend entire days in one another’s company without needing to say a word and without feeling any sense of intrusion at the other’s presence. Like most true spacedogs, they were meticulously clean. Dirt and grime could interfere with delicate circuits, wear away at crucial seals. In space, it was the small things that kept you alive. If the big problems ever came up, you were pretty much a goner unless you were real close to home.

After awhile, Jonas voiced his main concern. "Amanda’s going to give us away if the Teddies see her face. She’s not ready for this kind of job."

Maatiu nodded.

"She was on a raider crew, for Hunter’s sake. Why put her on with us?"

Maatiu leaned back and drew a long, thoughtful swallow from his Obelisk. "Maybe she be the real cargo," he said.

Jonas leaned forward. "What makes you think that?"

"Think on our cargo, Jonas. Probably in parts, yes? Be there instruction manuals? Or does Rebel Command hide the ball from Teddy? I’m thinking we be taking along someone who has seen stuff work, knows what it does, knows how to put it together, you roj?" Maatiu’s dark features creased in a smile. "Our Amanda, she not be staying long with us, I bet."

It made sense, Jonas admitted to himself. Amanda had been a pretty quick transfer after his second officer came down with a bad case of Martian whipples. Tomaszeck had aspirated some terraforming spores during a bad duststorm. It happened that way sometimes. The only real complication involved getting a trustworthy replacement for this run. Rebel Command hadn’t wanted to wait for Tomaszeck to grow a new pair of lungs, so they sent Amanda over to fill the opening in the cell. She was more than qualified, but seemed to lack the proper temper for the slow pace of life on the Vreeland, not to mention the patience to play ignorant trader to the Imperial customs inspectors.

"Dust, I’m getting old, Maati. Okay, supposing you’re right. She’s the instructor, the real cargo. She’s also pretty young, but the rebellion recruits from a variety of people. Why not tell us?"

Maatiu finished his beer, stood up. "Prob’ly just don’t want anybody knowing she be the main event here." He pushed the bottle into the recycle valve. "Still, this one supposed to be a quiet run. They up on Mars prob’ly never thought we be hitting Teddies on this heading."

"The Dirtboys are more active now. Ever since the raiders hit that Teddy supply depot at L-4. Dust, but that was a crazy idea. Had to be that new guy in command that thought of it."

"New boy?"

"Yeah. I hear rumors he’s a Dirtboy himself, some kind of hotshot exile." Jonas went over and pushed his empty into recycle. "Dirtborn or not, he’s proved himself to Mole Command."

He looked at the holodisplay and muttered a curse. The red dots were moving faster. A lot faster. He took a deep breath and told himself to calm down. "Maati."


"The dots are on the move. We need to get Teddy ready."

"Roj. ETA?"

"Looks like ninety minutes. Let’s run the Victim Gambit. Take ‘Zelle and Ping-Pong outside nd burn open that patch job on the number three tank. Make it look recent. I’ll dump some reaction mass here, tweak the log to make it look like we ran hard awhile. Have someone take a las-torch to our broadcast link, too. That’ll explain why we couldn’t shout for help."

Maatiu gave him a toothy grin. "Think Teddy gonna bite?"

"Why not? We’ll welcome them with a case of Gen-Viridian from the hold. Figure we’ll kill a couple bottles ourselves. The raiders cut and ran, roj? We didn’t know why until the TDF boys showed. Dust, we’re not Imperial Naval Academy, not TDF warriors. Let’s throw a party for our ‘rescuers.’"

"Imperial dirtboys party with a bunch of colonial mutts like us? Be the day." Maatiu’s grin vanished. "What about Amanda, boss?"

Jonas looked at the ceiling and sighed. "I’ll have Mariko dial up a dose of Somni. Put her out for about twenty hours."

Maatiu hesitated, then nodded. "Aye, aye. What do we tell the Teddies?"

"The approximate truth. She’s a new crew member, worked herself into a panic, so we knocked her out to get her out of our hair."

"She not be liking it, my friend."

"So? We take care of our cargo. She doesn’t have to like it, roj? Even if she dustin’ reminds us of it every two minutes for the rest of the trip."