Space Opera

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Chapter One

“Remind me to tell the commander we need more recruits from the Navy,” Torin muttered, checking the seals on Binti’s HE suit.

“That a comment about my piloting?” Craig asked as he maneuvered the Promise into position, carefully avoiding the line of sight from both Mictok Station Trilik and the pirate ship tucked between the station and the gas giant.

“You’re the best damn pilot I ever saw,” Torin told him, “but a boarding party says Navy to me.”

“A serley small boarding party,” Werst grumbled as Ressk checked his seals. “We need more recruits. Period. I’m not saying we aren’t the definition of kickass,” he continued, “but there’s only the four of us going in.”

“There’s only six non-Mictok on the station and two on the ship,” Alamber pointed out. “I’ll be into the system as soon as you’re inside, Craig will take the ship, and—given you’re facing less than two-to-one odds—I don’t understand why Binti and Ressk are going.”

Werst’s nostril ridges flared. “When you put it like that, it does seem like overkill.”

“No one dies,” Torin reminded them, using the pressure of her chin against the suit’s wide collar to turn the magnetic plates in her boots on, then off again. “Pirates may be a waste of oxygen, but I’m not spending the better part of a tenday filling out paperwork before having my ass hauled before the Rehabilitation Committee so I can explain why social expectations weren’t met.”

Binti grinned. “By us or by them?”

“Either. Or.”

The Hazardous Environment suits were bright orange, di’Taykan danger orange, although the color had been chosen for its visibility rather than any cultural reason. “The Marines don’t leave people behind,” Staff Sergeant Beyhn had told Torin’s group of recruits, as he’d told a hundred groups before and would tell a hundred after. “If you have one of these on,” he’d added before the warm fuzzy feeling of belonging had faded, “we’ve got a chance of finding your body even if the beacon craps out.”

The suits worn by Strike Team Alpha were Marine Corps suits, or as ex-Marine as Torin, Werst, Ressk, and Binti Mashona. The Warden’s insignia on the center chest was less overt than the Justice Department preferred, but as the Strike Teams were considerably more overt than the Justice Department preferred, Torin figured it balanced in the end. The helmet made use of H’san technology and held two different shapes; down the back like an empty bag and snapped up over the head into a rigid polarized sphere. Helmet up, the suit could support the tanks by filtering any combination of external oxygen and nitrogen into something essentially breathable. It recycled all fluids almost indefinitely. Self-contained, the suits were comfortable for six hours, livable for eight, and, if breathing remained an option, became progressively nastier after that.

If all went well, they’d be out of the suits before the plumbing had a chance to recycle the morning’s pouch of coffee.

Torin didn’t expect it to go well. Precedent aside, the anticipation of all hell breaking loose helped keep her people alive. Suits secured, she checked with Binti and the two Krai, then turned toward the control panel. “Ready when you are.”

“We’ll be in position in five,” Craig told her. “Opening inner airlock door.”

The airlock opened into the control room. Back when Craig Ryder had been a Civilian Salvage Operator, the control room had been the Promise’s single cabin, the greater part of the ship the Susumi drive. Justice had upgraded and expanded the Promise when she’d nearly been destroyed by pirates, adding the ability to attach packets as needed, but she remained Craig’s ship. The other Strike Team pilots flew decommissioned Navy Corvettes—the smallest Naval vessel with a Susumi drive. The other Strike Team pilots would have shit themselves before ghosting into docking position on a gas giant mining station using momentum and air jets and hard-earned skill.

“We’re still a surprise, Boss,” Alamber called from the second seat as the inner door opened and Torin led the four suited members of her team into the airlock. “Speed matched to within five point seven kilometers an hour. Exit in seven minutes . . . mark.”

The countdown appeared on the lower right curve of her helmet.

The inner door sealed, and the pressure began to equalize.

“You really think we can take back the station with six people, Gunny?”

“How many people do we have?”

Behind the lightly polarized surface of her helmet, Binti’s brows rose. “Six.”

“Then we’ll take back the station with six people.”

There’d been a rise in violence in Sector Seven—in MidSector as well as OutSector—spreading the Strike Teams thin, preventing them from doubling up. Torin would have preferred to take more Wardens into the pirate-held station, but as there weren’t any available, her preferences were moot.

The six of them, in pre-Strike Team Alpha days, had taken down an entire pirate fleet. A single ship draining the tanks at a Mictok-run mining station should be a walk in the cake. Torin frowned. Maybe not cake. Pie? Not for the first time, she missed the late Sergeant Hollice and his command of oldEarth idiom.

Over the last five tendays, three other mining stations had been hit, quick and quiet, the Wardens informed after the fact. The violence had been minimal by Torin’s standards, but two Mictok and a Bril had been killed. The Elder Races hadn’t fought back because the Elder Races didn’t fight back, which was one of the reasons the strike teams existed—the Younger Races cleaning up the damage done to their three species over the long years of the war. That said, everyone agreed the Bril’s death had been accidental. They were a strangely fragile species with some of their important parts in unexpected places. Informed of the previous attacks, the manager of Mictok Station Trilik had adopted the very non-Mictok attitude of assuming the worst and had deployed long-range scanners. The moment the scanners had picked up an unscheduled tanker in-system, they’d sent a message to Berbar Station, the Justice headquarters in Seventh Sector and evacuated all but essential personnel, fully aware that had they waited until the tanker came close enough to identify, it would have been too late. The pirates would have blocked the signal.

Having noticed ships leaving the station en masse, smart pirates would have headed for home. Perhaps the pirates thought the Mictok—who had close to a monopoly on mining the Confederation’s gas giants—hadn’t shared information about the previous attacks. Perhaps they thought the Mictok would be embarrassed to send for help before they knew for certain they needed it. Perhaps they’d never actually spoken to a Mictok, as Torin didn’t think it was possible to embarrass one of the giant spiders. Perhaps, after three successful robberies, they’d gotten cocky. There hadn’t been resistance, so there wouldn’t be resistance.

Wrong.

Three minutes.

With the pressure equalized, the outer airlock door opened.

One minute.

“Speed matched to within six meters per hour. Five. Four. Three . . .”

“On my word.” Torin watched the seconds count down.

“Speed matched.”

Three. Two . . .

“Go! Go! Go!”

The Promise was one hundred and one meters from the station—one meter closer and the station’s docking computers would have taken over, announcing their approach. Craig could have nestled his ship up to the airlock—to any airlock—without help, but the Mictok insisted on safety first, most likely because a good seventy percent of the gas they mined was combustible. Thirty percent of the seventy was highly combustible. The potential for disaster put the docking arm used for the arrival and departure of personnel on the opposite side of the station from the gas giant, the bulk of the station a shield against the planetary storms and the tanks filled with potential explosives. This also put the airlock the Strike Team was heading for on the opposite side from the tanks and the pirates emptying them.

On the one hand, they were less likely to be seen.

On the other, they had the entire width of the station to cross once inside.

Torin unmagged her boots three meters before she hit metal, twisting and allowing the much less powerful magnets in her gloves to make first contact, preventing eighty-six accelerating kilograms from slamming into the station and setting off an impact alarm. The piercing, panic-inducing nature of the alarm meant no one, on any station, wanted the sensors reacting to every passing piece of space debris so only those large enough, fast enough, or solid enough to damage the outer hull set off the klaxons. These large, fast, and solid measurements were consistent across the Confederation and, for all Torin’s comments about the Navy, the entire boarding party had done this before. A few meters to the right, Ressk filled her peripheral vision. Werst touched down above them, his head to theirs. Binti’s aim had put her close enough to the airlock controls she had to shift to the left when Ressk hand-walked over.

No one expected people to cross vacuum and open the door. No one set alarms for the unexpected.

On the other hand, as no one wanted personnel trapped outside a station should the worst happen, the emergency access codes for the airlocks were also consistent across the Confederation.

Torin believed the definition of the worst needed changing.

By the time Ressk had keyed in the access codes and the outer door had begun to open, they’d all moved close enough to quickly slip inside.

The inner door opened automatically when the pressure equalized, reminding Torin of how few Primacy attacks had come this far into the MidSectors.

*All life signs still gathered at the tanks, Boss—six Human, two Miktok.*

Humans had been the only species positively identified by survivors at the other stripped stations. “Please tell me the two life signs still on the pirate ship aren’t Human.”

*Wish I could, Boss, but the ship has a hard shell up and I can’t get more than the basics. The happy making news is that I’ve got clean air and, even happier, no one’s monitoring the station sysop. You’re clear to advance.*

“You heard him, people.” Torin unsealed her helmet, rigidity releasing as it dropped down her back. “Let’s go.”

Sergeants and above came out of both branches of the military with communication implants set into their jawbone. About two thirds of the Strike Team personnel had arrived with implants, and Justice had offered installations to the rest. Weapons used during the thefts at the earlier stations raised the odds the pirates were ex-military although there’d been no other identifiers. Once they had the stations locked down, they transferred the contents of the storage tanks, and were gone—no images, no sounds, no DNA left behind. If the assumption of a military background was correct, a percentage of the pirates had to have implants, opening a way for the Strike Teams to eavesdrop or jack in and use the technology as a weapon.

This trip out, Alamber had been unable to locate a signal.

With Mictok held hostage, they were left with no option but to put boots on deck and do it the hard way.

Out of the docking arm, the corridors through the station were wide and well lit, the bulkheads covered in the art the Mictok were admired for throughout the Confederation. Considering that a high percentage of Confederate species were mammals and the Mictok most decidedly were not, that either made art a universal language or art critics as a subspecies listened to their hindbrains and refused to piss the Mictok off. Torin glanced over at the thick ridges of color and decided it was likely six of one, half a dozen of the other.

Excluding the tanks and the docking arms, the station was round; eight main corridors headed diagonally from the rim into a central space. Their path took them in, across the center, and out. Fast and easy. Except that the central space had been filled with webbing. Going around meant backtracking and making their way through side corridors that hadn’t been designed for the convenience of bipedal visitors.

“Fuk me,” Werst muttered.

As they approached, Torin studied the thick white cables laid out in an obvious path through the middle of the web and knew if she stopped on the edge, she might not get going again. Knew that if she kept running, so would her team.

“You know, without boots,” Ressk began just behind her left hip.

“No.” Krai feet were almost as flexible as their hands, and Ressk wasn’t wrong; without their boots they could cross the webbing as quickly as a Mictok, but no one skimmed out of an HE suit. If they’d had that kind of time, they could’ve gone around.

The web flexed as Torin landed on it, one boot on one cable, the other on an identical cable fifteen centimeters away. A continuation of the main corridor design for visiting bipeds, the cables had been connected by a thinner cable in a pattern woven too closely to slip through. Slipping off didn’t appear to have been considered. Mictok didn’t slip. The cables rose and fell under Torin’s boots, the undulations rhythmic enough she could keep her balance.

Until Ressk joined her. Just over a meter high, he was heavier than he looked, and his shorter stride on the cables set up a competing rhythm. When Binti joined them, the cable went up where a stride before it had gone down. Torin’s right leg sank knee-deep into the interior webbing before springing back up again with enough force her knee nearly smacked her in the chin. She’d have fallen had the gravity not been a third less than she was used to and had Ressk not grabbed the loop of strapping at her hip and thrown his weight against it.

The whole web rippled.

“Werst . . .” She swayed, but regained her balance. “. . . implant cadence. Double-time.”

From the back of the march—historically, pre-implant, the position most likely to be heard, codified over the centuries by the militaries of all three Younger Races—Werst began a mouth-closed hum, laying down a rhythm they’d all been trained to follow. A rhythm that let their feet move without any interference from their brains.

It’s too narrow.

It’s wobbling.

It’s a web!

Which was not to say Torin’s brain, at least, didn’t try.

“That was fun,” Binti forced out through clenched teeth as she reached the other side. “I vote we strip to our skivvies and travel through the cold, merciless vacuum of space on the way back.”

“Be a lot easier without boots,” Ressk agreed.

“Missing my point,” Binti told him. “It’s a spider thing.”

“Human spider thing,” Werst grunted, jumping up onto the deck beside his bonded.

*I saw that vid. I didn’t get how they could have missed the obvious thing to do with eight arms.*

“Alamber . . .” A di’Taykan could turn anything to innuendo. And, if given the chance, usually did. That said, he had a point about the eight arms.

*Still a clear run to the tanks, Boss.*

“Let’s go, people.”

The control room for the mining operation took up about a third of the arc facing the gas giant and overlooked the two docking positions on either side of the stacked tanks. The pirates, plus the Mictok hostages, were currently in the control room. It being unlikely they’d surrender without a fight, Torin wanted the pirates in one of the docking arms, an area designed to deal with explosive decompression.

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