Authors: Jason Fry
For Emily and Joshua, the best crew any pirate could imagine
ycho Hashoone was doing his math homework when the alarms started shrieking.
For a moment, Tycho was confused. The quarterdeck of the
was dark, and the rest of the bridge crew had retired to their cabins hours ago. The only light came from the white square of Tycho's computer monitor and the readouts on the other crew consoles. Outside the viewports lay deep space, filled with stars like spilled jewels.
A moment before, all had been quiet except for the hum of the
's atmosphere pumps. Now, it was
“Knock it off, Vesuvia!” Tycho yelled, his hands shaky with adrenaline. “I'm awake! I was awake before! What's going on?”
“Long-range sensors indicate a single object,” said the cool, flat voice of Vesuvia, the software program that the
's computer brain used to communicate with her crew. “Length of object estimated at approximately two hundred meters. Distance to object approximately fifteen thousand kilometers and closing.”
“Great,” Tycho said. “Turn off that stupid alarm before I go deaf. And get these math problems off my screen.”
“You have not completed your homework assignment,” Vesuvia objected. “Your mother will not approve.”
“Come on, VesuviaâI'm not going to complete it during an intercept,” Tycho said, sighing in exasperation. It was true that he was only twelve, but he
the watch officer.
“Acknowledged,” Vesuvia said. The alarms stopped wailing and the math problems disappeared. “Awaiting orders.”
Tycho reminded himself.
Think! You've done two intercepts already and been through this drill hundreds of times.
“Put the tactical readout on the main screen,” Tycho said. “Send all sensor data to my monitor. And bring up the lights.”
“Acknowledged,” Vesuvia said.
Tycho blinked at the sudden brightness of the quarterdeck lights. On the main screen, a cross marked where the
lay in wait behind a thin screen of dust and debris that had once been an asteroid. On the other side of the map, a flashing triangle showed the mysterious object's location. A dotted line showed that if the object kept to its current course, it would pass very close to where the
“Shall I charge up the engines and guns?” Vesuvia asked.
“Let's wait until we know what we've got,” Tycho said, feeling calmer now. “But give me full power on all sensor masts and scanning antennas.”
“The plural of âantenna' is âantennae,'” Vesuvia corrected him. “Order acknowledged.”
Tycho heard a faint hum as the
extended her sensor arms into the vacuum of space, scanning the approaching object.
“Ion emissions detected,” Vesuvia said. “Calculating profile.”
Tycho grinned. Ion emissions meant the object had a power source attached to it. It wasn't some rogue asteroid tumbling through the vast darkness of the solar systemâit was a ship. But what kind of ship? And more importantly, what was her allegiance?
That question made Tycho stop grinning. If the approaching ship turned out to be an Earth warship, the
would have to make a run for it. Most Earth warships were bigger and better armed than the
, and all of them treated privateers as enemy vessels.
“Now you can charge the engines and guns,” Tycho told Vesuvia. “And where's that sensor profile?”
“Still calculating,” Vesuvia said.
Tycho drummed his fingers on the surface of his console, reminding himself to be patient.
“Calculations complete,” Vesuvia announced. “Profile fits Orion-class bulk freighter attached to long-range fuel tanks. Ninety-seven point six two percent match to factory model.”
“Yes!” Tycho exulted.
Freighters carried cargoesâsometimes valuable onesâand privateers like the Hashoones made their living by seizing those cargoes.
As Tycho's mother, Diocletia, never failed to point out, privateers weren't the same as pirates. Pirates ignored the law, preying on any spacecraft that had the misfortune to stray into their gunsights. They stole cargoes and mistreated the ships' crews they imprisonedâif they didn't sell them into slavery or kill them.
Privateers conducted themselves differently. They obeyed the laws of space, kept careful records about the cargoes they seized, treated prisoners well, and released them as soon as possible. And they used force only when necessary. Those rules were part of the Hashoones' letter of marque, the document that authorized them to attack enemy ships on behalf of their home government, the Jovian Union, composed of the nearly two dozen inhabited moons of Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus.
The sensor profile strongly suggested the ship out there was just a big, lumbering freighterâbut whose freighter? If she was Jovian, Tycho would have to let her pass. If she flew the flag of EarthÂ .Â .Â .
“Hail the bridge crew!” he ordered Vesuvia. “And beat to quarters!”
Tycho heard the bridge crew before he saw themâtheir footsteps echoed as they descended the forward ladderwell connecting the quarterdeck with the top deck above, which housed his family's living quarters. From belowdecks, meanwhile, came the urgent call of pipes as the bosun played the tune ordering the
's crewers to lash up and stow their hammocks. Tycho could hear the leaders of the gunnery crews barking orders, preparing to fling open the
's gunports and winch the barrels of her weapons out through the hull. The crewers not assigned to the guns would be strapping on pistols and swords, singing and boasting about what they would do with their shares of the prize money from a freighter full of rich goods.
Tycho's older brother, sixteen-year-old Carlo, was the first of the bridge crew to arrive. He rubbed sleep from his dark brown eyes.
Carlo grunted at Tycho and buckled himself into his own chair on the port side of the quarterdeck, just forward of Tycho's console. He jabbed at switches, bringing his instruments to life. With a whine, a U-shaped control yoke rose from beneath Carlo's console. His hands closed around it and Tycho saw him stretch slightly, feet finding the familiar pedals.
“Vesuvia, test pilot controls,” Carlo said with a yawn.
“Acknowledged,” Vesuvia said.
Carlo manipulated the control yoke with a practiced hand. The
's systems could be operated from any of the stations of her quarterdeckâeach station had its own yoke and pedals that could be used for steering. But Carlo's station traditionally belonged to the
's pilot, just as Tycho's was normally used for communications and navigation.
“Controls feel good, Vesuvia,” Carlo said, yawning again. “What's going on, little brother?”
Carlo was an expert pilot, with a natural feel for the
's controls. Tycho knew it would be wise to let him steer the ship. But Tycho was the current watch officer, so that was his decisionâand he didn't like that his brother simply assumed he'd take over the piloting.
“Looks like an Orion,” Tycho said. “She's eleven thousand klicks out.”
Carlo instantly looked more awake. “Whose flag is she flying?” he asked.
“No response to transponder queries,” Tycho said. “She's probably trying to figure out who we are.”
That wasn't a surprise. Unless they were traveling very close to home, freighters and civilian starships rarely used transponders to automatically identify themselves and where they came fromâthat would just make the job of pirates and privateers easier. Tycho and Carlo knew the freighter's crew must be frantically scanning the area ahead, trying to figure out what kind of ship was lying in wait for them and whose flag she was flying.
's bells began to
, as they did every half hour. Five bells meant it was 0230.
A thud marked the arrival of Tycho's twin sister, Yana, who'd grabbed the outsides of the ladder and dropped onto the quarterdeck without bothering to put her feet on the rungs.
“This better be good, Tycho. I was having the
dream,” Yana said.
“Is an Orion good enough for you?” Carlo asked. “Sensor scan indicates she's fully loaded, too.”
Yana whistled, then grinned. Ships seized under the terms of a letter of marque were considered prizes. Privateers sold their cargoes to the Jovian Union for a small profit, with the Earth corporation that owned the prize paying a ransom for the return of ship and crew.
“Whose starship?” Yana asked. She didn't mean the freighter out there in the darkness. In the specialized language of starship crews, she was asking who was currently in charge of the
“My starship,” Tycho said. “Carlo can fly the ship, but I'm keeping the helm.”
“You've done what, two intercepts?” Carlo objected. “That's a big prize out there, Tyke. Mom's not going to like it if she gets away.”
“Don't call me Tyke,” Tycho said. “My watch, my starship. If you can't follow orders, go back to your cabin.”
Yana began buckling the harness that would hold her in place if the
maneuvered quickly or took damage. Her usual station was starboard of Tycho's and was typically used for monitoring sensors and engineering. She glanced up from untangling her shoulder straps to shake her head at her brothers.
“Quit fighting, boys,” Yana said. “Mom's gonna take over anyway. Want me to run sensors, Tycho?”
“Please,” Tycho said, grateful that his sister didn't also feel like challenging his authority.
“I've got sensors, Vesuvia,” Yana told the
's computer. She peered at her scope. “Distance to target eight thousand klicks.”
The ladderwell rang with new footsteps as their parents, Diocletia Hashoone and Mavry Malone, descended to the quarterdeck from the crew quarters above. Diocletia gathered her black hair into a hasty ponytail as she looked over Tycho's shoulder.
“It's an Orionâfully loaded, no transponder code yet,” Tycho told his mother. “Seven and a half thousand klicks.”
“Why do prizes always have to come during the middle watch?” asked Mavry with a yawn and a stretch, sitting down at the first mate's station on the starboard side, forward of Yana and across from Carlo.
Diocletia said nothing, her eyes leaping from the main screen to the other scopes. Three minutes ago she'd been sound asleep; now her brain was swiftly taking in sensor and navigation data, drawing conclusions, and making plans.
“Do you want the helm, Captain?” Tycho forced himself to ask, trying not to make it obvious how badly he wanted her to say no.
His mother said nothing. She took five steps forward and sat in the captain's chair, behind the console closest to the bow. She snapped her fingers, and her instruments came to life.
“Captain on deck,” Vesuvia announced, and Tycho waited to be relieved of command. But his mother surprised him.
“Your starship, Tycho,” Diocletia said. “Let's see if you've been paying attention.”