In the year 2537 A.D., the mighty Confederation of Planets sent a diplomatic mission to the war-torn Jebel Shammar Sector. The fate of this mission would change the political climate of the galaxy forever.
There was little in this asteroid belt to generate a reflection off the gleaming white surface of the luxury liner, Celestia. Her graceful lines and plush appointments were the pride of the Fair passenger liners. The passengers were by and large as plushly decorated as the ship itself.
No one who wasn't in the upper twenty-five percent of the income strata for the galaxy could even afford to rent a closet on the majestic Celestia. The passengers were draped in silks, rare jewels, and furs from a thousand worlds.
Kristin Dunvegan, one of the elite of the elite, was bored and frustrated. Her husband, Robert, was busy being the glad-handing politician, while she wanted to get back to work. Several pressing issues needed to be addressed before they made their next port in the Bishti system.
Bishti and its neighboring systems had been decimated by civil war for the past decade, and Robert had been sent by the Moderator of the Confederation of Planets to analyze the current situation, determine what help the Confederation could offer the ravaged sector, and attempt to bring the feuding parties to the peace table.
The well-connected Senator would seem to have been an excellent choice for the job. His record was exemplary. From a wealthy and political family, he'd gone directly into politics. With his father's fortune paving the way, he'd always been a golden boy, destined for great things.
Kristin Baird had seen in him a man who could change the galaxy for the better. The Bairds were old money, nowhere near the wealth of the Dunvegans, but well respected for their record of public service and philanthropy. Kristin could appreciate the power of the Dunvegans' money, and the Baird reputation could help deodorize some of the Dunvegans' less fragrant business and political dealings.
Kristin had liked Robert, the eldest male of the Dunvegan brood, who was obviously being groomed for high political office when they met. She saw him as a vehicle for passing much-needed social legislation for the good of the people of the Confederation. It wasn't quite love, but it was close enough.
Robert, for his part, was quite enamored with the lovely Kristin. A little over one and a half meters tall, with flowing brown hair, jade green eyes, and a sensuously slim body, Kristin was a fine catch in any man's book.
The partnership proved more effective than anyone could have expected. Kristin had a flair for political maneuvering and strategy, while Robert had charisma and an innate political savvy that could charm the wavering votes in any caucus. Strategy and charisma made them an effective team. The persistent rumors of Robert's womanizing were categorically denied by his wife and his staff.
They were just two days out of the Bishti system. It was there, at the Confederation embassy, that the Dunvegan team would be based.
This was an important, high profile assignment. The raw minerals that came out of Bishti were integral to both hull and engine manufacture for the Confederation's far-flung fleets. Nowhere else in the galaxy were these minerals so abundant. The recent internecine warfare there threatened the heart of the Inner Planets by cutting off the lifeblood of the starfleets. Armed intervention was being considered, but diplomacy would have its day first.
Kristin was jarred from calculating the political implications of the upcoming peace efforts when the ship lurched abruptly enough that the artificial gravity didn't have time to compensate. Mildly alarmed, she looked up to see her husband knock over two of the cocktails before him at the bar. It was only mid-afternoon so he could only have had a few, but Kris knew that the mess wasn't his fault, this time anyway.
Klaxons began howling over the ship's PA system, "This is not a drill," the speakers blared. "We have had a warning shot detonate near our bow. Emergency stations, everyone. This is not a drill."
"Pirates!" someone said in a too-loud voice.
Pirates, Kristin thought, just what we need.
She'd read that the civil unrest in this sector had diminished the security forces available to quell such menaces, but she'd never imagined that pirates would target a Confederation ship.
Robert came over to her. "Don't worry, honey."
She hated it when he used such banal endearments, endearments she suspected he used to address the objects of his phantom affairs as well. For political reasons, she'd denied that such trysts existed when the media asked, and she'd never actually caught him at anything blatant, but she had strong suspicions. She hadn't really wanted to catch him.
She replied, "If it really is pirates, we can probably outrun them. If we can't outrun them, it should only be a matter of ransom, and you and I would be at the top of the list to be ransomed back."
The ship lurched again, harder, and the lights went out. They came back on in a moment, as the emergency power kicked in, but they were dimmer and flickered occasionally.
Oh, God, she thought, we must have taken a hit in the main power plant. Will the life support hold out?
The artificial gravity suddenly failed, and her stomach lurched. Robert promptly puked. Fortunately, he was facing way from her at that moment. The action of ejecting the vomit propelled him backwards into her, though, and the two of them were launched gently into a bulkhead just as the gravity came back on. The vomit, which had been wandering in the direction of the bar, splatted to the floor. Robert rolled off her and puked again. Sensitive stomach.
Kristin stood up and said, "Get up, Rob. We're in trouble."
Robert giggled hysterically. "No shit?"
His wife grabbed the Senator and pulled him to his feet.
"Come on," she said. "We need to get to the lifeboats, just in case."
Dragging an alternately giggling and sobbing Dunvegan, Kristin headed toward the lifeboat bay they'd been instructed was assigned for their section of the ship. Robert's bodyguards and some other passengers began to follow her, since she seemed to know what she was doing. None of the crew had appeared yet.
Kristin wondered who or what had attacked the ship. It could be any one of several warring factions of the region, or a ship of the Desoto Empire, the Confederation's long-time opponent. It could also really be pirates, or it could be some combination thereof.
It didn't matter. This was clearly an act of war, and Kristin wanted to get out of the line of fire.
They made it to the lifeboat bay just as a couple of crew members arrived from the opposite direction.
She breathed a small sigh of relief. Lifeboats were supposed to be easy to operate, but that ease was relative. They might be easier to run than a starship, but they were still more than she wanted to handle with no training.
Just then several armed men came around the corner of the corridor. They shouted something, and, when the two crewmen turned to reply, the gunmen shot them down without warning.
Kristin noted absently that the killers used slug weapons, very unusual for atmosphere-conscious spacers. She also wondered at her own detachment. Her mind was icy calm.
She looked around at the small group of passengers behind her. They appeared frozen in shock, like a deer caught in a flitter's headlights. Robert, too, looked stunned.
The gunmen approached, their weapons pointed at the unarmed passengers.
One of them shouted in Terranglo tradespeak, "Everyone, hands on your heads. No one moves. No one talks." He gestured with the old but still deadly rifle in his hands.
Kristin put one hand behind her head, raising the other to get the attention of the gunman who seemed to be in charge, the one who'd spoken.
This man she thought of as the leader had long greasy hair and a mustache that drooped menacingly around his mouth. He wore desert camouflage pants and a grubby cotton shirt. Worn combat boots of some sort and a beret that was badly in need of an oil change completed his garb.
He stuck the muzzle of his rifle an inch from her nose and said, "Hands behind your head, bitch."
He started to turn away, but then the muzzle swung back to her nose. Still detached, she thought she might have pushed things a little too hard at exactly the wrong time.
"What did you want? To go wee-wee?" He and his fellow slimeballs laughed harshly.
"My husband and I are Confederation diplomats. Detaining us might not be a good idea."
The mean one sneered and said, "We're taking this ship as our rightful prize. You have violated Hamad space, and you and your craft are forfeit to the sovereign star nation of Hamad."
One of the passengers objected, "I thought Hamad hadn't been an independent planet for fifty years."
The passenger who had spoken appeared offended that he should be captured by an unrecognized government.
The gunman next to the pirate who had been speaking shot the man in the head. Skull and brains splattered onto the man and woman standing beside him as his body flopped around on the floor, and then was still. The smell of blood, brains, and parts of the body that should never see the light of day began to fill the corridor.
"You are all prisoners of the Supreme Ruler of Hamad. Remain silent, and do what you are told, and you will be ransomed back to your respective governments."
Mute example of what would happen if they got out of line lay on the floor of the corridor.
Robert threw up again.