To Colonel Gary S. Baker, USAF. Veteran of Vietnam and the Cold War, B-47 Navigator/Bombardier, AC-47 “Puff the Magic Dragon” pilot/advisor to the VNAF, and midwife for the C-5 (including being pilot #5 to qualify for midair refueling, and command of C-5 56th Military Airlift Squadron at Altus AFB).
For S., as always.
I remain indebted to my agent, Joshua Bilmes, for his ever-inspired suggestions and assistance, and to my editor, Anne Sowards, for her support and editing. Thanks also to Robert Chase, Carolyn Ives Gilman, J. G. (Huck) Huckenpohler, Simcha Kuritzky, Michael LaViolette, Aly Parsons, Bud Sparhawk, and Constance A. Warner for their suggestions, comments, and recommendations.
There was something about breathing the air of a new world, something about knowing that the oxygen you inhaled had never before sustained any human being. It felt crisp and new and strange and exciting. Not like Earth, which he had visited once, where every molecule had cycled through countless generations of humanity, where the same old stories had played out endless times on land trod by untold numbers of people. Here, this spot, right there, had never before felt the weight of a person’s foot. There, where trees with strange leaves and odd shapes marked where the grassland changed to forest, no person’s eyes had ever before rested. Compared to this world, even the planets in the Alfar Star System felt like what they were now called, an Old Colony.
The sun overhead wasn’t quite the right size for someone familiar with the sun that warmed the planets orbiting Alfar and looked a little too orange, but it was at the right distance from this world so that the heat it gave off allowed a person to walk about in shirtsleeves at this latitude and this time of the planet’s year. The air had that fresh relish to it and could be breathed by humans. The green of the plants felt a little too blue, but that was all right.
A flock of small, birdlike creatures rose into the air with a thunder of wings and high-pitched, warbling cries. Like every habitable world that humanity had discovered so far, this one held an array of native life but nothing that could be considered sentient. If other intelligent species existed in the galaxy, they were still somewhere out there, beyond the current boundaries of human exploration.
Robert Geary knelt and touched the grass, grinning. Behind him, he could hear the rumble of machinery coming off the landing shuttles that had brought the devices down from orbit. Soon enough, those machines would begin constructing the first buildings of a city. Not an old city, with memories of generations of people and buildings, but also something new, not burdened with history but still awaiting history’s first imprint.
A new world. A new beginning.
Unlike Alfar, the Old Colony he had come from. In human terms, a new place that had become Old in a few generations. Where “how we do things here” had fossilized rapidly into a society where no one was supposed to rock the boat because the rules set forth by the first colonists were the best and only imaginable ways to do things.
And if you could imagine other ways? If you wanted to try something different? Or, worse, change the way things were? Who do you think you are?
I think I am Robert Geary; therefore I am not going to put up with this when I can go somewhere new with other people who want to be able to breathe. Somewhere we can make our own rules.
The call from his comm unit jarred Rob from his reverie. He frowned at the worried tone of it. Why would the president of the colony’s governing council be calling him? “Here. Is something wrong?”
“A ship arrived at the jump point from Scatha five hours ago. They sent a message as soon as they showed up, which we have now received.”
“They say this star system is under their ‘protection,’ and we owe them what they call residency and defense fees.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Rob said. “I thought we were granted full ownership here by the Interstellar Rights Authority.”
“We were, and we intend on telling them that. But what if they don’t listen?”
“Why are you asking me? I’m not on the governing council.”
“Because that new arrival is a warship. And the warship is heading toward this world.”
He gazed upward, where the blue of the daylight sky drowned out sight of the countless stars. Somewhere up there was… what? A warship belonging to some other recent colony? A private corporation wanting to sell security services in a new part of space? A pirate, absurd as that seemed? “What does the council expect me to do about it?”
“We need advice, Rob. Advice from someone who knows something about this kind of thing. And in this colony, that’s you.”
Rob Geary touched the place on his collar where he had once worn the insignia of a junior officer in the small fleet of Alfar Star System. He had thought he had put that part of his life aside forever.
But maybe not. Whether whoever controlled that other ship called themselves pirates or privateers or security professionals or part of whatever fleet Scatha had, they were playing a very ancient game. It looked like humanity had brought some old, bad habits along with it to new stars and new worlds. And as someone who had chafed at not being able to make changes, to make a difference, Rob wasn’t in a very good position to refuse to help when asked.
Fortunately, a shuttle had been about to lift back up into orbit to the ship, saving Rob time that could be valuable.
“What have we got?” Rob asked as he entered the command deck. The elderly passenger and bulk-cargo carrier Wingate, called the Wingnut by everyone, had been built to haul people and materials in a single star system, then had a new jump drive added on and instantly became an elderly interstellar transport. Aside from the up-to-the-minute jump control panel, the rest of the command deck was taken up by displays and controls that had been in service for decades—and showed it.
The main display flickered erratically until the Wingnut’s captain, a woman apparently as old as the ship, slammed her fist against a control unit in a spot already dented by many similar blows. As the display steadied, Rob squinted at the information about the ship that was demanding protection money. “It’s a Buccaneer Class cutter?”
“Yep,” the captain said. “Not good for much in the Old Colonies but still handy where there’s not much else to threaten them.”
“You don’t seem to be very worried,” Rob told her, not bothering to hide his irritation at her attitude.
“You already paid me,” the captain said, “and those guys from Scatha won’t give me a hard time because I already paid them a license fee to operate in this region.”
“License fee? You mean extortion?”
The captain spread her hands. “Call it what you want. Do you have a better idea? You going to fight that Bucket with your fists?”
Frustrated, Rob took another look at the display, then stormed off in search of the colony’s governing council.
Half the council were already gathered, crammed into Wingnut’s grandly named recreational room, which was just a compartment with several aging displays built in. The men and women of the rest of the council, still on the surface of the planet, could be seen on one of the displays. As Rob entered the compartment, a storm of argument dwindled as everyone looked at him. Council President Chisholm, looking unhappy, nodded at Rob. “Thank you for getting back up here quickly. What’s your assessment?”
He didn’t waste time asking why the leaders of the colony were calling on a lowly former lieutenant for his opinion. The Old Colonies tended to have really small military forces, which was why ex–junior officer Rob Geary was the most senior veteran among the initial group of roughly four thousand colonists settling this world.
“They have an old Buccaneer Class cutter,” Rob told the council. “It arrived at the jump point from Scatha, about five light hours from this planet we’re orbiting and colonizing. The information we have is still almost five hours light-delayed, but they were headed on an intercept for us at that time, and there’s no reason to think they’d change vector. Their velocity is point zero five light speed, and they can’t afford to push it any faster even if they had newer technology for their propulsion system. That means they’ll get here in a little more than three and a half days.”
“What can you tell us about the Buccaneer? How dangerous is it?”
Rob made an indecisive gesture with one hand. “Back home? Not very dangerous at all. The Buckets are nearly a century old, not very fast or maneuverable, and fairly small. They were built for law-enforcement duties like stopping smuggling and for search and rescue. All of the Old Colonies have retired and sold their Buckets, which is how a new colony like Scatha could get its hands on one for what was probably a cheap price. But in this star system, as the only ship equipped to fight, it’s as dangerous as it needs to be. The sensors on the Wingnut are too badly maintained to tell us any details about the Bucket that showed up here, but it’s probably got the standard weapons. That would be a single grapeshot launcher and a single pulse particle beam projector. Those are both close-in weapons. They’ll have to be right on top of us to hit us, and their particle beam is probably early second-generation equipment, which means its hitting power is limited.”
“But what can it do with those weapons?” Chisholm pressed.
Rob paused to think. “They could destroy our shuttles, preventing us from landing any more people or equipment, and stranding anyone up here in orbit. They could also decide to target this ship directly despite the owner’s having paid them off earlier. Destroying the Wingnut would take a lot of work, but hitting critical areas like access hatches, air locks, and shuttle docking sites could cripple us.”
“I kept saying we should invest in a warship of our own!” Council Member Kim complained.
“We didn’t come out here to fight wars!” Chisholm snapped at Kim. “We went out to find the freedom and the room to follow our dreams! It’s easy to say now what we should have done, but when all of us here decided where to put the money for this colony, we found that we couldn’t afford even one warship like this Buccaneer cutter.”
“We can’t afford to lose any of our shuttles or pay this extortionate demand, either!” Kim tapped his comm pad furiously. “If we pay this, we’ll barely be able to proceed with building the colony.”
“According to the message from the warship, Scatha Star System says we need to be protected,” another council member said. “Shouldn’t we learn more before making a decision to reject their, um, offer?”
“They are not making an offer,” Chisholm said. “Scatha is making a demand. That is not the action of someone seeking to help us.”
“Do we know anything about Scatha?”
“All we know,” Chisholm said, “is that the name they chose for their star system, Scatha, appears to be derived from that of an ancient warrior goddess. That and the fact that their first interaction with us is a demand that we pay them a very large sum.”
“Appeal to Old Earth!” Council Member Odom urged. “When they hear—”
“They won’t hear for months,” Chisholm said. “And then what will they do? Old Earth has made it clear that while they love having their children spreading colonies among the stars, that love does not extend to actually helping them when they run into trouble.”
“Old Earth got badly beaten up during the last Solar War,” Kim grumbled. “They’re still trying to rebuild. We can’t expect them to help us. Which is why I wanted to buy our own protection!”
“Can’t the police force do anything?” Council Member Odom asked plaintively.
“Twenty men and women with nonlethal weaponry?” Kim asked, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
“We have some weapons,” Odom insisted.
“Hand weapons for hunting.” Chisholm looked to Rob again. “What can we do?”
“I don’t know,” Rob said. “There are two other veterans among the current batch of colonists, and they’re both former enlisted specialists from Alfar’s fleet. They might know something about the Bucket that could help.”
“You were an officer,” Kim pointed out. “Surely you know more than any enlisted.”
“Being an officer meant I knew enough about the systems on my ship to know how to best employ them,” Rob said. “Most officers are generalists. The real equipment experts are the enlisted. I’ll ask them. But regardless of what they tell me we can do, I need to know what we’re willing to do.”
Chisholm looked around, most of the other council members avoiding her gaze. “I know how criminals work,” she told them all. “They’ll take as much as they can, returning to hit us up repeatedly, while still leaving us enough to survive and generate more loot for them. We can’t afford to give in to that. I need options beyond refusal and hoping they don’t carry through on their threats,” she finished, gazing at Rob once more.
“I’ll see if we’ve got any,” Rob told her.
Lyn “Ninja” Meltzer was still aboard the Wingnut, naturally enough. Also, naturally enough, she wasn’t where the colony’s individual locator software said she was on the ship even though that software was supposedly hack-proof. Rob punched her ID into his pad, hoping she would accept his call. “Ninja, where are you? We’re dealing with a reality-bites situation.”
Her reply came in moments later, showing her head against the top of her bunk. He had only met Ninja a few times, but she smiled in welcome at seeing him. “Hey, Lieutenant! Reality for real?”
“Yeah. Break time is over. Do you know anything about the old Buccaneer cutters?”
“What about Torres? Do you think he’s familiar with them?”
Meltzer grinned. “Corbin Torres served six years on a Bucket.”
“How do you know that?” Rob asked.
“He’s the only other fleet vet with this mob. Who else am I going to swap stories with?” Meltzer eyed Geary. “I heard there’s another ship in-system. We’re dealing with a Bucket?”
“Yes. Let’s you and me and Torres get together and brainstorm this.”
“Corbin isn’t going to want to play.”
Rob exhaled slowly. “Tell Corbin he either meets with me and you in the break room on the third deck in ten minutes, or the police will show up in fifteen minutes and drag him there.”
“We’re not being recalled, are we?” Meltzer asked. “Because I wouldn’t like that, either.”
“No one is being recalled. But the council, and all the other people with us, need you and me and Torres to figure out if there’s anything we can do about that Bucket. If you and Torres want to go walkabout after we’ve hashed over the problem, I won’t try to stop you.”