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Third Contact [MultiFormat]
eBook by Kenneth E. Ingle

eBook Category: Science Fiction
eBook Description: Sole survivor of a ruthless pirate attack on his planet, Joshua Penbrook vows revenge on the men who destroyed his home. Through a combination of skill and being in the right place at the right time, Joshua is able to gain control of a space warship and claim salvage rights. The Kingdom of Braeden, original owners of the ship, rejects Joshua's salvage claims forcing him into the role he most feared--that of pirate. Over time, Joshua gathers a dedicated crew and develops the reputation of one of the top pirates in human space. Braeden hasn't forgotten his disputed claim on what they regard as their ship and, over two generations, Braeden's Queens play a deadly game of cat and mouse with Joshua and his ship--sometimes using him to their advantage, and sometimes turning the planet's entire resources to Joshua's destruction. For the most part, Joshua is willing to play the game--he may be the mouse, but he's a mouse with very sharp teeth. For him, though, it stops being a game when Braeden's Queen decides to target Joshua's family as well. What nobody knows is that Joshua holds the long life gene... something that will allow him to outlive his enemies if they don't kill him first, but that would also make him the most valuable commodity in the human part of the galaxy. They also don't know that his heritage, born of the descendents of the original colonization ship Orion, gives him some unusual advantages in what is a largely unequal battle. Author Kenneth E. Ingle continues his story of the space exploration begun in FIRST CONTACT with an exciting adventure of space piracy, planetary exploration, and military strategy. Fans of the series will definitely want to read this one. If you haven't read the earlier books, THIRD CONTACT works well as a stand-alone novel.

eBook Publisher: BooksForABuck/BooksForABuck.com, Published: 2012
Fictionwise Release Date: February 2012

6 Reader Ratings:
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Terra, now affectionately called Old Earth, had become the place to go. Any deep space luxury liner worth its name included it on their tour.

Myslac, home world of the alien Kalazecis and Pagmok, remained well off the beaten path to Terra and in fact, that part of space, remained off limits, as had the friendly Homew world. There had been no contact between the species since the Pagmok destroyed New Earth. Terra explorers and others, as new worlds were populated, had found ample planets capable of sustaining human life. To avoid the Kalazecis and their meat eating Pagmok warriors required little encouragement. Humans spread across the galaxy. True to their nature, trade became common between the human worlds along with the attendant problems, wars, and dealing with pirates.

Joshua Penrose, descendant of Maria Presk, and Raybolt Presk Penrose, regained conscious. Disoriented, he climbed from the bunker. Having suffered through the devastating Cullen onslaught from orbit, he expected the worst. Smoldering ruins surrounded him and the silence added to the eerie scene. All around him, he saw nothing but remains: bits and pieces of what had been New Hope and home.

He'd taken refuge in a bunker when the Cullen began raking the surface with devastating energy cannons and his own weapon had lost power. Nothing could withstand such an attack.

Buried over thirty meters below the surface, Joshua worked to free himself. The dead lay where they had fallen. Somehow, he had survived. Using whatever he could as a tool to free himself, he stumbled over rubble to the planet surface. Off in the distance, he saw the shuttle and the crew boarding.

Fearing they were closing the ship to leave, he ran toward the spacedrome and the still open loading ramp. A few meters from the ship, he stumbled and hit a protruding girder knocking him unconscious. When he awoke, Joshua was aboard the transport and in space.

"You're it son," said the man attending him. "We looked for almost a T-week and couldn't find another soul alive. Whoever killed them did a thorough job."

Joshua Penrose was the sole survivor of New Hope--one hundred fifty thousand people slaughtered. Cullen would burn in his mind.

Six months from New Hope, the transport fell prey to pirates. Taken aboard the pirate ship, his friends cast adrift without food or water, Joshua could only watch. Joining up with two other renegade ships, the pirates fought off an attack by a Braeden corvette. Fearing loss of containment on the fusion bottle, the corvette crew abandoned the ship in their shuttle. Knowing that Braeden would relentlessly hunt them, the pirates left the corvette, Braeden being a traditionally anti-pirate planet.

Holed up in a cluster of asteroids the pirates repaired their damaged ship. Joshua stole their shuttle and made his way to the Braeden corvette. The safe still contained the credits each ship carried while in deep space to buy supplies and pay for repairs. The money was more than enough to make the ship space worthy and hire crewmen to space her. Joshua quickly learned he could not port without risk of capture. Braeden had made it known they wanted their ship and would hang whoever took it, Bucking the powerful Braeden navy wasn't to his liking as their navy had sacrificed men and ships defending New Hope but he had the ship and more importantly, needed it.

He did as he always had, found a way to survive--he took what he needed--Joshua Penrose became a pirate but with a different stripe. He was no wanton killer and always left any ship he boarded with the means to survive.

Renamed Marauder, Joshua and his lusty crew plied their trade.

* * * *

1: Processed Manure

"What's going on? Tell me," Captain Abraham Wooster's voice almost a panicked screech hammered the bridge crew. Startled, he jumped, spilling the brew, when the Klaxon blared and raced to the plot table.

Standing next to his number one, he worried a third cup of coffee like a sinner fingered his beads and scanned the consoles. Dressed in a plaid shirt, and dungarees, with captain's hat pushed back on his balding head, he looked the part of a seasoned skipper. In reality, this was his first command.

"There's a ship astern closing on us, sir. They should overtake us in twenty T-minutes." Noah's Ark's astrogator who also served as first mate, turned his chair so he faced the captain, panic stressed his voice. "I believe we're going to be boarded, sir."

"How do you know? Who would want to? Our cargo isn't worth much." Wooster fired the questions making no effort to hide his angst. "No one's going to get rich off our load." Unless someone had seen their manifest, few knew what the freighter carried.

"Pirates, captain. Anyone else would have declared themselves by now." The first mate's matter of fact attitude belied the concern etched on his weathered face. And that wasn't all: he'd heard too many stories of how pirates left no witnesses. He'd survived one boarding only because a Braeden ship was in the area and came to their rescue. Standard approach courtesy required a ship overtaking another to identify itself at one million kilometers. Lacking that civility, you could expect the worst.

The neophyte captain was beside himself pacing the bridge, the diminutive man's stride pinched and quick.

Rarely was an old freighter like Noah's Ark boarded as they seldom carried anything worth the risk. Taking a ship that old in tow meant slow running and made both easy targets for raiders. Any boarding had risks. The other side of that argument was virtually the same. It was just what any navy wanted trying to protect commercial spaceships--a pirate shepherding an old freighter. That made pirates an easy target--something relished by every warship on the hunt. Most older ships were more concerned with government inspectors.

"Captain, if I'm right, we'll get a hail in a few minutes ordering us to cut power for boarding." Fear in the First Mate's voice came from experience on another space freighter.

"I'll not surrender my ship," Wooster's lip trembled as he spit the words his resolve hardened. Just the thought of pirates conjured up images he'd rather not have. Years as an orbit master assigning incoming spaceships a parking slot or vectoring outgoing spacers into their best launch position had ill prepared him for facing pirates. Perspiration beaded the man's forehead as he reached for the comm button.

"Sir, the few choices we have are not the best," the first mate said. His words seemed edged with caution, apparently concerned over what the captain might do.

"Choices?" Wooster said after a pause his voice hardened. "We either fight them off or just surrender." An outsider might have thought the man cavalier but the truth: he was scared.

"Yes, sir. That's about it."

The first mate's agreement wasn't what the captain wanted to hear.

Gripping the plot console, Wooster glared at his number one. "You want to give up the ship. Just let them board us and take what's ours."

"Yes, sir." Finality in the man's comment made the captain's face redden.

"No. Send a distress signal that pirates are going to board us." Inexperienced captains often broadcast when they feared being boarded, hoping a warship in the area might change the pirate's mind. Trying to scare off a raider with this obvious ploy didn't rank as a smart move. It only aggravated an already aggressive situation.

Before the captain could go any further, the first mate raised his voice. "Sir, I've been on a ship hit by pirates. I know what happens when--"

"No, by god. I won't permit it." Wooster cut him off with the wave of his hand. He palmed the intercom button, "Listen up people, there's a ship approaching and we suspect it's a pirate. Every crew member report to the arms locker and draw a weapon then assemble in the forward bay in five minutes." He released the button and faced his executive officer. He'd tried to keep his command voice steady but even he knew the bridge crew would pick up on the quiver he couldn't choke back. His expression changed from fear to embarrassment and back to fear, but he was a man determined to do his job as he saw it.

"Captain, with all due respect, if we do as you've ordered, we'll all be killed." The first mate's experience wasn't enviable but he had survived a boarding when few spacers taken by pirates had. "It's too late to send that signal. No ship is close enough to help us and all it'll do is piss off the pirates off--and they are an unforgiving lot." His voice no longer held a plea, just fact backed up by obvious fear of what would happen to the ship's crew if the captain sent the useless plea further angering the pirates.

The captain started to speak but the mate interrupted him, his voice hard and not to be ignored. "Sir, we don't have much for these guys to take. They'll be crazy enough when they find that all we carry is fertilizer. So, let's not give them any reason to shoot us or worse; sending that message will do just that." The two hadn't worked together long enough for the first mate to know how the captain handled himself in a tough situation. Like it or not he'd know damned quickly in the next few minutes.

"We can't match the weapons they'll have, not to mention, most of our people have never fired a blaster or laser rifle. These pirates are skilled at what they do, take what they want, and could care less who gets hurt. Some of these bastards are psychos and kill for the sheer joy of it."

"Sir, we're being hailed," the comm operator said.

"Put it on the speaker." Captain Wooster grimaced at his own words.

"Freighter cut your engines. We're coming aboard. This is your only warning."

All arguments ended as the hard voice sent chills through the captain.

Wooster's fist clinched and he jerked upright as the comm blared across the bridge. A deep breath whistled through thin pressed lips. Reality set in. His face drawn like a man who could lose what he'd always strived for, he grudgingly said, "Maybe you're right."

After a considered moment, he hit the intercom, ordered the crew to stand down and return all weapons to the arms locker. He removed his hand from the comm and told the first mate to idle down the main drives.

Waiting in the boarding bay, face ashen, Captain Wooster flinched yet drew himself up to his fullest height, all of one hundred fifty two centimeters at the loud clanging as the unknown ship fastened onto the Noah's hull.

Following the first mate's instructions, fifteen of the seventeen crewmembers formed two lines, leaving as much space as possible between them and the boarders. As was expected when two ships joined, Wooster ordered the gravity generators shut down. Noah's crewmembers, all with grav-boots, waited--to a person smothered with apprehension.

Releasing the hatch-locking lever to permit entry, the first mate stepped back, his hands visible leaving no doubt in the pirate's mind he was unarmed.

A slight hissing sound echoed around the bay as the opening increased.

Wearing black full body armor, a grav-boot giant of a man dropped onto Noah's deck, pointing his flechette rifle at the assembled crew. "Who's runnin' this tub?" Without a doubt, the voice was that of someone accustomed to obedience.

"I am the captain." Wooster stepped forward, his voice conciliatory. By now he was reconciled to the idea it was best not to antagonize these men yet he tried to remain firm.

The pirate's grav-boots clanged against the deck plate, as the armed intruder made room for a second, much smaller man, who dropped through the hatch, likewise clad.

A third followed wearing no armor, in grav-boots. In a voice that seemed less intimidating, the third man asked, "Is this your entire crew?" He pulled a black beret from a pocket placing it over flaming red hair that stood on end thanks to the barge's docking bay's lack of artificial gravity. His ruddy complexion showed a man who'd spent a lot of time outdoors, something of a novelty with spacers. The last pirate, apparently the leader, flicked eyes around the bay looking for any threat.

"Two men in engineering. These are old engines." Wooster tried to mask his worry but his voice wavered, betraying him.

"I know what you mean," Joshua Penrose laughed. "You sir, and your ship are mine. What's in your cargo hold?"


"What? Ya' mean shit? Gauddamned shit," yelled the second armed boarder.

"Fertilizer. Processed manure," the reluctant captain repeated.

"What's the difference? Don't answer," said the one apparently in charge as he glared at his counterpart and waved his hand to stop. "I really don't want to know."

He brushed an imaginary speck from his khaki fatigues, rolled his eyes and with a tinge of disgust said, "Ding, bring some people aboard, six ought to do it and search the ship. Hands off their perishables, food, water, transceivers, and life support."

The giant spoke the orders into a shoulder mike.

"Captain, your crew may return to their posts. Make sure they understand my men will shoot if something goes wrong--maybe if they suspect anything's amiss," Joshua said his voice casual and added an admonishment that no distress signal from Noah's Ark. "So, remind them to behave and everyone may live to tell a tale to their grandchildren."

"You and I can talk while my men complete the search. Got a cabin or do we use the mess hall?" Grabbing the captain's arm, the pirate, broader of shoulder and a good head taller, in a robust but unthreatening manner guided Wooster along the passageway.

"Mess hall," the nervous freighter captain said in a quavering voice, "Coffee's fresh in there." He tried to put humor into the remark but his voice failed miserably.

The two continued up the stark corridor, the pirate's grav-boots pounding the deck plates. With no gravity engaged in the ship and even with grav-boots, Wooster had to use the overhead handholds to keep pace.

"We have grav-plates on the bridge and mess hall--well the heads too," Wooster said somewhat apologetically and commed the helmsman to restore gravity. They stepped into a mess hall barely large enough for a dozen people.

Both stopped at the coffee hatch, grabbed a cup and filled it.

"I know about you. You're Joshua Penrose and wanted by every jurisdiction." Seated at a mess table, the freighter captain said with an air of familiarity. He then offered a meek apology.

"Yep, you got it right. The last time I saw you, you were Saragosa Prime's orbital docking master. Finally got a ship, huh?"

Wooster seemed surprised that anyone remembered him, but the man didn't hesitate to show his pride as he answered. "Yes. My first command and what happens? You show up. I'll never get to drive another ship. Even if I do, what corporation would trust a cargo to me?"

Then his manner abruptly changed. "Last I heard Queen Rochelle's Navy was looking for you. Well, so is Saragosa Prime; you stole something and they want it back."

Joshua took a long hard look at the man. "You speak your mind. You've got balls." It wasn't a reproach but one man sizing up another. "Yeah, things change. One day we're pals with the queen, measured for a crown, next day she's offering a noose and we stay on the run. Works both ways but at least she's predictable.

"Captain, I suspect you have little of interest to me," Joshua continued. "So, all I want is a favor." He straddled a bolted down chair and waited, as Wooster seemed to consider his options, which were non-existent.

"Captain Penrose, I am totally at your mercy. I have no choice but to say yes. And I do as long as it doesn't place my crew and ship in further jeopardy." Watching Joshua's response, Wooster apparently realized his answer had antagonized his captor and started an apology, which the pirate cut short with the wave of his hand.

"Further jeopardy? Captain," Joshua laughed, "all I have to do is snap my fingers and everyone dies." Sometimes Joshua's casual approach ran the risk of captives trying something stupid, but the pirates knew their skipper, how he handled these things and stayed alert in case his style was misinterpreted. Fully capable of shooting anyone if it meant their life or that of another crewmember, Joshua never tolerated wanton killing, but he'd do what he had to for his ship and crew.

"Skipper, they ain't got nothin' but a boat load of shit," Ding said as his head stuck through the hatch. "Crew says it's shit, the bag labels say it's shit and I ain't openin' none to see for myself.

"Nothing here worth our time. You're going to get off easy, captain." Joshua set his coffee cup onto the table heavily. He leaned as far forward as the locked down chair would permit and almost in a whisper said, "I know you're going to report this boarding but," he stared hard at his prisoner, "don't mention my name."

For a moment, the captain appeared more confused than inquisitive by the statement. While most pirates wanted their boarding's unreported--they made sure since they left few if any crewmembers alive. Governments often put up bounties as the word spread after a pirate took a vessel.

"I don't want anyone to know I boarded a tub full of manure. Bad for the reputation." With that Joshua stood and gave Wooster a knowing look.

Not waiting for a response, the brigand headed for the exit hatch and motioned his men to follow. Weapons remained trained on the few freighter crewmembers still in the docking bay, as the pirates obeyed their leader.

Joshua floated into the corvette's docking hold, ordered gravity restored, kicked off the heavy grav-boots, and headed forward up the passageway.

Spacious like the rest of the ship, the captain's chair sat at the rear and slightly elevated. Control panels formed a semi-circle reaching port and starboard bulkheads giving the captain unrestricted access to all bridge stations. A large view screen centered the front, as did the astrogator's station. To the left were the weapons and on the far right the comm.

"Mr. Kochee, let's leave the Vega System before we attract unwanted attention." Standing orders for the capture of Marauder and its captain had existed for two T-years. Saragosa Prime had issued a felony grand theft warrant for Penrose's arrest, not a hanging offense, but it was an emotional issue with them and important enough not test their resolve. Joshua had never made known what he'd taken and no crewmember would have dared to ask. In a light tone that belied his real concerns, he issued coordinates to the astrogator and took his chair.

First commissioned as Braeden's HMS Interdictor, one of the original enhanced designs intended to serve as a command ship overseeing pickets, Joshua had found the corvette abandoned a few light months from Braeden. Information aboard the vessel indicated a mutiny during an armed engagement but there was little evidence of the crews' fate beyond the missing shuttle. Claiming salvage rights, he registered his find in accordance with established space law and renamed it Marauder. Pride stung at losing a prized corvette to a man that routinely outwitted them, Braeden's Queen Rochelle's Navy wanted their ship back and would take it by force if necessary. A generous bounty on the pirate's head and an added reward for return of the ship tempted every armed spacer.

Interdictor's design was for long duration station keeping and came equipped with crew recreation facilities matched only on cruisers and larger spaceships. To picket ship crews, liberty meant a few days aboard the corvette--not as good as dirtside but a welcome change to break the month on month boredom. Marauder's crew of forty plus three officers lounged in luxury.

Joshua flipped the comm switch and responded. "Yes, master cook what can I do for you?" Underway for two weeks, boredom was a constant companion.

"Captain," Jerboas Finney broke the silence, "we're running low on almost everything. Need to stock-up before traipsing too far off the beaten path." Second to sign on Marauder following first mate Kochee, Finney, usually known as Cookie, handled all medical needs. His nasal speech, the result of a nose displaced during a boarding that turned dirty, made his voice easy to recognize.

"Mr. Kochee, what's the nearest friendly port?" Knowing they could encounter trouble at any moment Joshua was ready for some safe time and the crew for liberty.

"With how you feel toward this part of space, not here in the Vega System," said the cook. "Looks like Soffett is our best bet. It's close to a T-month off our present course but the only safe open port close enough to do us any good. If we don't restock, we won't last much more than a month." Finney's voice brooked no nonsense.

"Certainly gets my attention." Joshua motioned to Michelle Barstow, helmsman, to make the course corrections.

"Okay, master cook, your logic is overwhelming. We'll do as you suggest." Finney had a checkered past as did most of the crew. A dropout from med school, he had a penchant for cooking that led him to answer two calls Joshua had made: one for a cook and a second for a med tech. A perfect fit as far as both men were concerned.

Joshua Penrose was a rare pirate in two respects: first, he owned his ship, most others belonged to corporations or governments, secretly of course; and second he had the respect of his crew. Some say it was more fear--well placed if true. Joshua Penrose had proven several times a capable fighter. None that served aboard Marauder had ever seen him lose a fight, with or without weapons, in space or dirtside.

He flipped the intercom switch off just as the communications operator, his voice casual, said, "Cap, there's a broad band deep space comm coming in."

"Put it on the speakers, ship-wide." Little anticipation showed in Joshua's voice. Seldom did he exclude information from his crew. As in the days of the infamous Blackbeard, most pirate ships were true democracies and this one was only a little different. Joshua owned Marauder instead of being elected captain. True to custom, he included the crew in most every decision, always where a boarding was concerned.

"This is Lord Jordan, Naval High Admiral of The Kingdom of Braeden. The pirate ship, Winsome Bogarddy, acting on behalf of rebel Braeden officers, boarded the liner Raven en route to Saragosa Prime and took Princess Sophie, daughter of Her Highness Queen Rochelle, hostage. The kingdom offers a reward of one million credits to anyone who returns the princess unharmed. Included at the end of the message is their last known vector." The comm went dead.

Joshua pursed his lips and stared at the floor. Before he could say a word, Michelle said again with intensity, "Captain, an encoded tight beam incoming."

"Put it on ship-wide," Joshua again ordered assuming it was the High Admiral wanting to add some forgotten information.

"Captain Penrose." His attitude changed at once as a familiar voice broke the silence. It was Queen Rochelle. "Lord Jordan broadcast the message of Sophie's kidnapping to every spacer. Some junior officers seem to dislike me and have rebelled against the throne. They shall not prevail. I know we've had our differences but I'm ready to put them aside. You have access to the other side of humanity and that may be our most valuable asset. I am prepared to issue a warrant making you a Privateer of the Realm. Will you accept the commission to help find and save my daughter?"

His first reaction was to wonder how she'd found them. She'd have to know their location with precision to send that message tight beam. His second question was whether the warrant had a time limit.

"What's the comm time to Braeden?" he asked.

"Braeden has signal boosters in this sector, so a little over two weeks," Michelle answered.

"Have all off-duty personnel assemble in the shuttle bay at fourteen hundred." He said to Bolster Kochee, putting his concerns aside. Bolster Kochee, a former officer in the Federation of Aligned Planets Navy had earned Joshua's trust beyond any man he'd known.

This was a decision only made by the entire crew. Majority rule would decide if Marauder and her crew would help Queen Rochelle. For the last two years, Marauder had raided a number of ships that tested every man and woman in the crew. Each boarding gave Joshua a chance to spot any psychotics, identify those who had what he wanted in a crew, and rid himself of the worst of the worst. Those who'd survived were the best of the lot.

* * * *

2: Princess Sophie

Rochelle had come to power when her husband, Barrymore II, died almost twenty T-years before. He'd had a reputation for prowling the brothels and rumors circulated among the population suggesting that's where he'd found his queen. It was a rumor never repeated where some loyal subject could hear and report to the monarch. Whatever her origin, most had learned not to sell the queen short. Joshua didn't take her offer to become a privateer for Braeden as weakness, but just the opposite. She would use every asset possible, no matter the past, to save Sophie.

Kochee, a few seconds late to the meeting, opened the intercom for the entire crew to hear. With a serious tone to his voice, he said, "That's some nerve the old gal has."

"Yeah, today she measures us for a crown." Standing next to his first mate, Joshua smiled, leaving unsaid that she'd not mentioned the noose. He pawed the deck plate with the toe of his shoe. For his own reasons, he wanted to help but his was only one vote.

"Anyone want a replay of the queen's message?" Joshua talked above the noise created by the assembly.

No hand went up.

"Okay, who's first?"

One crewman wanted to know why in the hell that they'd even consider helping the bitch. She'd meant it when she swore to hang them all after her navy had chased Marauder across too much of their part of the galaxy.

"Seems to me it's a chance to maybe show the old gal we ain't all that bad," another said. "Sooner or later, our luck's gonna run out and we'll need all the help money can buy to keep from swingin'. Or in this case, all the help a good deed can bring,"

Joshua acknowledged both men had points and had spoken most elegantly.

"We gonna keep takin' ships while were chasin' this pampered princess?" yet another asked.

"Of course," the captain said in a resolute voice, "We have bills to pay just like everyone else." A chorus of hardy laughs echoed off the bulkheads.

Joshua made sure each crewmember that wanted to had a say and noted no one mentioned the officer rebellion--something he knew added another threat to him and his ship.

"How 'bout you Cap'?" asked the first officer.

"You men know what we've faced over the last year. It hasn't been easy. Queen Rochelle's Navy came close to trapping us at Belo's Crossing. She'd have hung us if we hadn't gotten damned lucky," said Joshua with a glance at the crew, his voice low and intense. Belo's Crossing was off limits to pirates, something he had learned the hard way. Rochelle's navy nearly trapped the pirate, only a tactical error by the Braeden ships and Joshua's skill saved Marauder and her crew.

"Common sense says we should run. But--somehow, I can't. The Queen's daughter needs help. Rochelle is right. We should know more people who may have information that could help rescue the princess than anyone in her fleet. It's hard to say no when we might be the best chance to save her."

"Let's vote," someone yelled.

"Starboard forward--you're the duty watch, you vote first," said Bolster imitating the yell.

Of the forty crewmen and three officers, thirty-five voted to help find the Princess.

"It's decided, said Joshua his voice a bit hesitant. "Anyone who voted no, if you want," he paused and took a breath and with reluctance added, "can leave the ship when we orbit Soffett for supplies. You'll get any monies due in credits. Nothing will be held against anyone who decides they want no part of this." There were a couple he'd just as soon see leave, especially Forgus Broz; the man wasn't to be trusted. Still, he was fearless in a boarding. So far, that had kept him part of the crew.

Joshua dismissed the crewmen and headed for his cabin with mixed feelings. Queen Rochelle was no one to mess with. A miscalculation could get them all killed. With the warrant, the queen would lay off during the hunt for her daughter. He knew the day after the princess gained her freedom, his hardy band would be on the run again with no consideration given to the previous agreement. She'd hang them if she could. The queen was resolute and maybe just a bit biased. Nevertheless, that was the world she lived in and nothing he would do or say would change who she was.

In his cabin, sitting at the comm station, he took some time collecting his thoughts. "Your Highness, the crew of Marauder has voted to help find and rescue Princess Sophie. Soffett is our next port of call to take on supplies. Transmit any useful information that might help us. I'm assuming the warrant's time is limited to the princess' freedom." There was no sense trying to bargain with or butter her up. Either might happen but he knew it would have to be on her initiative.

"Computer, tight beam to Braeden, Her Royal Highness Queen Rochelle."

He put in the encrypting codes, hit the message send key, and now would wait. It still bothered him that Rochelle was able to tight beam a message to Marauder. Maybe the shit barge they'd left in the Galen Sector had reported the boarding. At least that was what he wanted to believe. It would bear watching just in case one of his crew had betrayed their heading and destination.

He started to lie down on his bunk but tired as he was, changed his mind and returned to his desk. "Computer, access Princess Sophie, Sophie Derrick, daughter of Rochelle Bruning and Barrymore II, Arthur Derrick." He didn't know Sophie's middle name but how many Princess Sophies could there be in the galaxy? He hit the enter key and the screen filled.

Sophie Megan Derrick born on Braeden, twenty-five years old, only child of Rochelle and Arthur Derrick, King and Queen of Braeden. Graduated University, major in physics. "Wow, a real brain," he whistled. Never married, Betrothed to Lord Denton who died of wounds in the battle at Urbage's Point. He ordered the display ship-wide for the entire crew to see, returned to his bunk, and slept.

Still two T-weeks from Soffett, Joshua, and Cookie finished a food inventory. Food stores were short, meaning that if they encountered any delays making port, the entire crew would be in serious trouble.

"Cap, tight beam incoming comm."

"Put it through, Bolster."

"Captain Penrose. I am grateful for your cooperation. If you will set a course on the heading transmitted as we speak, our freighter HMS Cloister's closer than Soffett and she can resupply you. When you rendezvous with Cloister, Captain Ashman will give you all the information we have on the kidnapping. Please convey my appreciation to your crew. And by the way, if you care to help with the officer rebellion, I am prepared to remove any time limit on your commission. Rochelle."

Seven days later, Joshua watched through the porthole; at ten thousand meters, Cloister was one hell of a large freighter. Over ten million mass/tons, her speed approached three-tenths c, she looked like a floating city. Her usual route included Braeden, Saragosa Prime, Namaycush, and all the small enclaves along the way. Protein, hard to come by, filled her bays. Hauling fish had proven to be one of Braeden's most lucrative businesses. Corralling that market had been a major victory for Queen Rochelle. Not one fish-hauling freighter had suffered an attack since they'd seen fit to paint an image of a fish on all four sides of every protein-hauling freighter in the fleet, over one hundred total. Not everyone on Braeden agreed with the art applique since Joshua Penrose had offered the idea during a previous repartee session between Rochelle and him, the most recent time she'd vowed to hang him. The fact Braeden had the largest and most powerful naval fleet in space did have its advantages.

"Captain Ashman," Joshua said. "Thanks for the invitation but duties here will prevent my accepting your gracious dinner offer. Our shuttle will be in your loading bay within the next few minutes. Any craft you can spare to help with the transfer will be appreciated." Joshua keyed the comm off. Marauder had taken up station a thousand meters off Cloister's starboard. Had the ship not been a Braeden, he might have taken the captain's offer if for no other reason than to taste a different dinner fare. The Queen's freighters often transported military personnel between duty stations and Joshua wasn't ready to expose himself to those types. He would follow his instincts and stay on Marauder. It might make the difference between being dead, captured and getting away.

Two hours later, Marauder's shuttle returned, followed by a Cloister launch.

"Cap, docking master here. I got a comm from the launch. They want to dock ahead of our shuttle."

"What did you tell them?"

"That our bay is only large enough for one ship at a time and the docking rails are set for the shuttle. They'll have to wait their turn," the bay master said.

"Good man." Joshua didn't like demands, particularly those made at the last minute.

Suspicious by nature, he thought the request a bit questionable. Cloister's launch, over three times the size of Marauder's shuttle, waited a few hundred meters behind.

Marauder's shuttle settled into the bay and, after the hatch doors, closed unloaded. Dressed in spacesuits, a few of Marauder's crew moved the last of the supplies from the bay. That complete, the hangar's space doors opened, the shuttle backed from the landing bay and took a position to the port side, clearing the way for the waiting Cloister launch.

As it settled into the locking rails, the giant bay doors closed slowly, and sixty armed Marines led by a Major, all in full body armor but without space suits, piled into the bay. In a loud command voice, he ordered Marauder to surrender.

The cargo hatch remained open in anticipation of unloading supplies from the Cloister launch. Normally sealed from the loading bay, the loadmaster's booth lay exposed to the Marines. Jabbing the panic button, the loadmaster set off the klaxon and sealed the operators hatch just as one Marine fired his blaster striking the man's left arm and leg.

Seated on the bridge, Joshua reacted immediately issuing a stream of orders.

Thirty-five pirates armed with heavy weapons converged on the bay. Their blasters and flechettes, no lasers as they ran the risk of damaging the ship's structure, would cut to ribbons anyone who tried to leave the docking bay.

"Okay, Marines," Joshua said. "The shuttle bay is sealed and you can stop trying to blow the hatch. You can't get to any other part of the ship without going through us. Surrender now. Your other choice, I open the bay doors and all of you die within seconds."

Joshua had taken up a position behind the loadmaster's station. He reopened the intercom and with casual indifference added, "You might want to consider my generous offer. It's all you're going to get. Otherwise, you bastards can die."

Recognizing only one Marine at a time could get through the cargo hatch, even if they managed to breach it, which appeared unlikely, all sense of purpose seemed to drain from the Marine Major's face. Seeing the uselessness of their situation, he ordered his men to lay down their arms with only one shot fired. In minutes, the intruders were disarmed and herded toward Marauder's brig.

Joshua seated himself in his quarters and waited as two guards escorted in the Marine major. Afraid he might lose self-control, he remained seated but his voice still rose to an uncomfortable level as he glared at the Marine. "It was a goddamned trap. I should shoot you right now." He cursed Rochelle.

"Major, if you have anything to say that might save your ass and your men, you'd better say it now. You'll not get another chance. If my crewman dies, you and the shooter will stand trial for murder." He waited.

"I can only tell you Captain Ashman planned an arrest had you accepted his dinner invitation aboard Cloister." It was probably the Marine's first time to face a pirate. Maybe he believed the stories of how they treated prisoners. Sweat ringed his brow as he licked his lips.

"Bastard. Were you acting under the Queen's orders?" Joshua said through clenched jaws.

"Sir, I have no way of knowing," the major answered, his voice respectful.

"Major, you, and your men are my prisoners. I haven't decided whether you're to be treated as prizes or prisoners of war," Joshua responded in kind.

"We are prisoners of war." A shudder visibly ran up the Marines back.

"Yeah? I'd say the same thing in your shoes. Are there more officers?"

"A captain and lieutenant," the Marine seemed to relax with the question.

Joshua told the Marine his men would remain prisoners until he'd decided what to do with them.

He ordered the non-commissioned and the rest of the prisoners taken to the brig, and the three officers under close guard in the quarters next to the ship's jail.

"I prefer to be with my men."

Joshua rose to his feet. His hand dropped to the blaster strapped on his hip, "Argue with my orders again, major, and I will shoot you. Do we understand each other?"

The major quickly saw the other side of the pirate, took a step back, nodded, and followed the guards into the passageway.

"Comm, open a channel to Cloister," Joshua ordered as he entered the bridge.

"Captain Ashman, you have violated every rule regarding a vessel granted privilege by your Queen." That same deadly intent the Marine had heard moments before filled Joshua's voice. "I should blow your ass to space dust. Your Marines shot one of my men. He was unarmed. Captain, do you have any idea what will happen to your major and the Marine if my man dies?"

He waited but got no answer.

"Helmsman, set a course for Soffett, best speed," Joshua ordered.

Palming the intercom key he asked, "Launch bay, what supplies did we get?"

"Cookie says half of what we needed," a voice replied. "Says we gotta have the rest, but we got a shit load of blasters, flechettes, ammunition, Cap'n. 'Bout everything you could want. Even got a Gatling flechette. These guys came to do some killin'.

"If our shuttle hadn't landed first, our food locker would be empty before we reached Soffett no matter what happened with the Marine boarding. Planned to starve us out if we didn't surrender." Vindictiveness laced Joshua's voice. Diverting to meet the Queen's ship had taken them far off course, adding considerable distance to Soffett and causing them to use up precious supplies. Now feeding the prisoners would use more. With some rationing, they could safely reach the Governance but just barely and if nothing else interfered.

"They came ready for a fight," Bolster said standing next to the weapons station in a less than laid-back voice.

Joshua was pleased with the munitions haul--he would like to have made use of it, a little payback. With an effort, he pushed aside his anger. Marauder needed to get the hell away from there. Most likely, Captain Ashman had already signaled the nearest Braeden naval warship requesting assistance. Against any ship of the line, his corvette stood no chance under normal conditions. He decided to cast the launch free, and Marauder's shuttle returned to the docking bay.

"Computer, tight beam to Braeden," Joshua, now in his cabin, sat at his desk.

For a few minutes, he thought over what he would say. It wasn't going to be cordial. He knew there'd be a tomorrow and long ago, learned not to close off further talks with Rochelle. But this was too much: the queen had gone too far this time.

"Your Highness, I've met my share of dishonest people but no one as deceitful as you. Your plea to save Princess Sophie was just a lie. Your inept attempt to trap me failed. Next time we meet it will be different." He keyed the transmit button and didn't bother encrypting the message, "Her Royal Highness, Rochelle, Queen of Braeden."

* * * *

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