Friday, September 19, 2008

Starship: Pirate by Mike Resnick

The broad, burly, three-legged alien spun slowly down the battered, shopworn corridor, muttering to himself. He growled at a junior officer who didn’t get out of his way fast enough, glared at another who quickly stepped into a room to let him pass in the narrow corridor, and finally reached the small, cramped mess hall of the Theodore Roosevelt. He spotted his captain sitting at an oft-repaired table, nursing a beer, spun across the room in his surprisingly graceful gait until he reached the table, and then seated himself.

“I hate these chairs!” he muttered in his deep guttural voice.

“I’m glad to see you too, Four Eyes,” said the captain pleasantly.

“We have to get more furniture designed for Molarians if I’m going to continue to serve on this ship.”

“Maybe we’ll just jettison you into space,” replied Wilson Cole. “It’s probably cheaper than buying new chairs, and it would certainly be easier on everyone’s nerves.”

“You’d be lost without me.”

“Who needs you? I think we’ve been lost for the past three days.” Cole took a sip of his beer. “At the very least, we’re in uncharted territory.”

“Damn it, Wilson!” snapped the alien. “What the hell are we doing here?”

“I don’t know about you,” said Cole. “As for me, I’m drinking beer and listening to you show off all the new Terran words you’ve learned.” He paused and stared at the alien. “Are you going to keep it up, or would you like to tell me what’s really bothering you?”

“I don’t know,” said the alien. “When we decided to become a pirate ship, I thought life was going to be romantic and filled with adventure.”

“You want adventure?” replied Cole with a smile. “Go back into the Republic. They’ll give you all the adventure you can handle, or have you forgotten why we’re out here in the middle of nowhere?”

“I know, I know. The last time I checked there was a ten-million-credit bounty on your ugly head.”

“I hope you’re not feeling ignored,” said Cole. “As of last week they’re offering three million for Commander Forrice as well.”

“I can’t tell you how flattered I am,” muttered Forrice.

Cole laughed aloud. “I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. What I love about Molarians is that they’re the only other race besides Men who share our speech patterns and our sense of humor.”

“Only one of us is trying to be funny,” said Forrice. “We’ve been clear of the Republic and traveling the Inner Frontier for almost three weeks. Isn’t it about time we went about the business of pirating?”

“Soon.”

“What are you waiting for?”

“I’m waiting to feel safe.”

“You’ve been safe for three weeks,” said Forrice. “No one’s come after us.”

“I don’t know that, and neither do you,” replied Cole. “Look, I was the Navy’s first mutineer in more than six centuries. It doesn’t matter that they know I saved five million lives by taking over the ship. Once the press got the story and ran with it, there was no way I was going to beat the charges—and then the Teddy R made the Navy look like fools when the crew broke me out of jail. If you were the Republic, would you give up this soon?”

“They’re fighting a war, Wilson,” the Molarian pointed out. “They’ve got better uses for their assets.”

“I agree—but if they were that reasonable, I wouldn’t have had to take over the ship in the first place. The fact that we haven’t spotted any pursuit for the last few weeks doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve called it off. That’s why we’re in the emptiest sector of the Frontier we could find; it’ll be easier to make sure no one’s tracking us. And once I know they’re not pursuing us, I’ll buy you a cutlass and let you maim and pillage to your heart’s content—always assuming that Molarians have hearts.”

“You really think they might still be looking for us?” asked Forrice.

“If I’d killed Fleet Admiral Garcia or blown up a friendly planet by mistake, they might have given up by now.” Cole smiled ruefully. “But they’ll never forgive me for escaping while the press was gathered on Timos for my court-martial.”

“All this running away is getting on my nerves.”

“I didn’t know you had any.”

The Molarian stared at him. “I’m getting so bored that I even tried some of that stuff you’re drinking.”

“You mean beer?” asked Cole. “I wouldn’t think it would do much for the Molarian digestive system.”

Forrice made a face, which would have seemed hideous to anyone who was unacquainted with his race. “What it did was totally clean out the Molarian digestive system,” he admitted. “I was sick for a whole day.”

“We don’t have days out here,” noted Cole. “Just three eight-hour shifts of night.” He paused. “What else is bothering you, Four Eyes?”

“We’re running short of food.”

“We’ll synthesize some.”

“And fuel.”

“We don’t need fuel except for accelerating and braking,” answered Cole placidly.

“And there are no Molarian females left on this damned ship!” exploded Forrice.

“Ah,” said Cole with a smile. “Now we come to it.”

“You’d feel the same way if you didn’t have half the human females fighting for the right to cohabit with the great galactic hero!”

“Do I detect a note of jealousy?”

“Jealousy, envy, frustration—it’s all the same when you’re stuck on a ship without the opposite sex.”

“And I’m told Molarian females are about as opposite as they come,” said Cole.

“Enough,” said Forrice. “If anyone’s going to make crude remarks about Molarian females, it’s my prerogative.”

“By the way, I thought Molarian females were seasonal.”

“They are!” thundered Forrice. “I’m not!”

“There are two other Molarians aboard,” said Cole. “Go swap dirty jokes with them. But when you’re through, we’ve got some important things to discuss.”

“We have?” asked Forrice quickly. “You mean you and me?”

Cole shook his head. “The whole ship. But we’ll start with what passes for the senior staff, which means you, me, and Sharon Blacksmith.”

“So it’s a Security matter?”

“No.”

“Then why include the Chief of Security?”

“I value her opinion.”

“And you share her bedroom,” said Forrice bitterly.

“Actually, she shares mine,” replied Cole with no show of embarrassment. “It’s bigger. Why don’t you meet me there at 2200 hours, ship’s time?”

Forrice nodded his massive head. “I’ll be there.”

He lumbered off, and Cole finished his beer, stood up, stretched, and wandered out into the corridor. We really need to do something to modernize this ship, he thought; I’ll bet it hasn’t been touched in fifty years. Most of it looks like a cheap spacehand’s dive on a trading world, and the rest looks even worse.

He wanted to go to his cabin and relax, perhaps finish the book he’d been reading, but he decided it was more important to maintain the illusion that the captain was involved in the mundane day-to-day business of running the ship, so he took an airlift up to the bridge instead.

Lieutenant Christine Mboya, a tall, slender, grimly efficient woman in her late twenties, sat at a computer complex, studying screens, whispering commands and questions that neither Cole nor anyone else could hear.

Malcolm Briggs, an athletic-looking young man, also wearing a lieutenant’s uniform, sat at the weapons station, watching a holographic entertainment that was being transmitted to his gunnery console from the ship’s library.

Overhead, floating in a transparent pod attached high on the wall, was Wxakgini, the only pilot the ship had had for the past seven years. He was a member of the Bdxeni race, a bullet-shaped being with insectoid features, curled into a fetal position, multifaceted eyes wide open and unblinking, with six shining cables connecting his head to a navigational computer hidden inside the bulkhead. The Bdxeni never slept, which made them ideal pilots, and they formed such a symbiosis with their ships’ navigational computers that it was difficult to tell where one started and the other left off.

“Captain on the bridge!” announced Christine, jumping to attention and snapping off a salute the moment she saw him. Briggs followed suit a few seconds later.

“Cut it out,” said Cole. “How many times do I have to explain that we’re not in the Navy anymore?”

“Maybe so, but you’re still the captain,” said Christine stubbornly.

“I am an outlaw,” he said patiently. “You are an outlaw. Outlaws don’t salute each other.”

“This outlaw does, sir,” she replied.

“So does this one, sir,” added Briggs, saluting again.

“I think when we finally update this ship, the very first piece of new equipment I’m going to install is a mainmast, so I can tie insubordinate officers to it and flog the hell out of them,” said Cole wryly. He looked up toward the ceiling. “Thanks, Pilot.”

“For what?” asked Wxakgini, staring endlessly at some fixed point in time and space that only he and the navigational computer could see or comprehend.

“For not paying any special attention to me whenever I come onto the bridge.”

“Oh,” said Wxakgini tonelessly, all thoughts of Cole and the rest of the bridge’s personnel seemingly vanished from his mind.

“Now that we’re all through greeting each other and ignoring our Captain’s wishes,” he said to Christine, “is there anything to report?”

“Still no signs of pursuit, sir,” she replied. “We’ve passed eleven habitable planets during the last Standard day. None of them have been colonized or show enough neutrino activity to suggest any sign of industrial civilization.”

“All right,” said Cole. “Four Eyes is feeling ill-used. It’ll be a shame to spoil his snit, but I think it’s safe to say that the Republic has decided we’re more trouble than we’re worth, at least for the moment. They need every ship they’ve got for the war against the Teroni Federation.”

“What now, sir?” asked Briggs.

“I guess we wear eye patches and practice saying ‘Avast there’ and ‘Shiver me timbers.’”

Christine couldn’t repress a giggle, but Briggs persisted: “Seriously, sir, what do we do now?”

“Seriously, I’m not sure yet,” answered Cole. “I have a feeling there’s more to the pirating game than meets the eye.”

“I always thought it was simple and straightforward,” said Briggs.

“Okay,” said Cole. “Pick a target.”

“I beg your pardon, sir?”

“When’s the last time you or Christine spotted a luxury ship?” asked Cole. “Or even a cargo ship?”

“Eleven days, sir,” said Christine promptly.

“And the last planet worth plundering?”

“There were diamonds on two of the worlds we passed yesterday, and fissionable materials on three more.”

“But no industrial civilizations,” noted Cole.

“No, sir,” said Briggs.

“I thought you wanted to be a pirate,” he said. “But of course, if you’d rather be a miner, we can drop you off and come back in a couple of years to see what you’ve uncovered.”

“I think I’ll stick to piracy, sir,” said Briggs.

“If you insist, Mr. Briggs . . .” said Cole, unable to keep the amused tone from his voice. “As for ships,” he continued, “a lot of them will be better armed than we are, and some will have Republic escorts.”

“You’re the most decorated officer in the Republic,” said Briggs. “You’ll figure out the best way to go beat them, sir.”

“I am no longer an officer in the Republic, and none of my medals was for excelling at piracy,” said Cole. “This is as new to me as I hope it is to the rest of you.”

“But you’ve been thinking about it since we escaped,” said Briggs with absolute certainty. “I’m sure you’ve got it all doped out by now.”

“You confidence is appreciated,” said Cole. And don’t buy any bargain real estate, he added mentally. He turned to Christine. “I suppose you might as well start mapping out the most populated worlds on the Inner Frontier, and see if you can dig up any information about the major trade routes. There’s no rush on this; we’re probably days away from any of them, and to tell the truth I don’t know if I’ll use anything you manage to find. But on the assumption that I might need it, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to begin gathering the information now.”

“Is there anything I can do, sir?” asked Briggs.

“See if you can find out the schedules and routes of the largest spaceliners that travel to the Inner Frontier. They probably don’t hit more than a dozen worlds—Binder X, Roosevelt III, a few others—but see what you can learn. And be subtle.”

“Subtle, sir?”

“We are outlaws with prices on our heads,” he explained patiently, wondering how long it would be before the crew started getting used to the idea. “Don’t let anyone trace your queries back to the source.”

“Yes, sir,” said Briggs, offering a snappy salute.

Cole stared at him, considered explaining yet again that saluting wasn’t necessary, decided it would be an exercise in futility, and left the bridge.

“You’re going to break that poor young hero-worshiper’s spirit,” said a familiar female voice.

“You were monitoring that?” Cole asked of the empty air as he traversed the corridor on his way to the airlift.

“I like to snoop,” said Sharon Blacksmith’s disembodied voice. “It’s my job.”

“If you were snooping earlier, you know I want you in my cabin at 2200 hours,” said Cole.

“You always want me in your cabin at 2200 hours,” replied the voice.

“With your clothes on.”

“What fun is that?” asked Sharon.

“Fun time’s over,” said Cole. “It’s time we got down to the serious business of plundering the galaxy.”

2

Sharon Blacksmith showed up in Cole’s cabin at 2200 hours. She was small and wiry, and her uniform efficiently eliminated such curves as she possessed.

“This must be an important meeting,” she said. “This is the first time you’ve made your bed since before the mutiny.”

“I figure if I keep you busy enough criticizing my housekeeping, you won’t have time to criticize my performance,” he replied. Suddenly he smiled. “Besides, my office is a mess.”

“I know.”

Forrice arrived a moment later. Human chairs were not made for his physical structure, and he lowered himself gently to the bed.

“All right, we’re here,” said the Molarian. “Now what?”

“Now we discuss the future,” said Cole, seated at a desk. “Not the far future,” he added. “The immediate future.”

“What’s to discuss?” asked Forrice. “We can’t return to the Repub­lic. We have a whole ship and crew at our disposal. It’s time to go to work.”

“True,” said Cole. “But we have to start considering just what kind of pirates we plan to be.”

“What are you talking about?” demanded Forrice. “A pirate is a pirate.”

“Before we begin,” interjected Sharon, “are we waiting for anyone else?”

Cole shook his head. “No, there’s just the three of us—the ship’s senior officers.”

“Then I shouldn’t be here,” she said. “I’m not a senior officer.”

“You stood up for me when I took over the ship,” said Cole. “You were charged with abetting a mutiny. As far as I’m concerned, that makes you a senior officer.”

“But I’m not,” she said. “I’m Chief of Security.”

“The Captain says you are,” said Cole. “We’re no longer a part of the Navy. We’re no longer in the Republic. We’re an outlaw ship with no rules to guide us.” He paused. “Now, under those circumstances, whose word is law?”

“Yours,” said Sharon.

“Until someone decides to lop your head off,” added Forrice. “After all, we’re pirates.”

“I’ll count on the Chief of Security to protect me,” said Cole.

“While we’re on the subject of senior officers,” said Sharon, “I assume Forrice has been promoted from Third to First Officer. But shouldn’t you be appointing a Second and a Third Officer?”

“We haven’t needed them up to now,” answered Cole. “All we’ve been doing is running without any sign of pursuit. Pilot, whose name I will never learn to pronounce, was able to handle that without any help. When we embark on our campaign, I’ll fill those positions.”

“Then let’s get on with whatever you called us here for,” said the Molarian.

Cole nodded. “We have some decisions to make, and as I said, the most important concerns exactly what kind of pirates we intend to be.”

“The kind who get rich,” said Forrice.

Cole touched a spot on his desk and made instant contact with the bridge. A pretty young woman’s holograph instantly appeared in front of him.

“Ensign Marcos,” he said, “send me a view of the nearest habitable planet.”

“Habitable by humans, sir?” asked Rachel Marcos.

“By humans.”

Suddenly the holograph of a green and gold world began revolving above Sharon’s head.

“Thank you, Ensign,” said Cole. She smiled and her image vanished. “There it is, Four Eyes. Ripe for the picking.”

“All right, there it is,” said Forrice. “So what?”

“Let’s say there are six families living there. Originally there were thirty, but eight fell to native predation and sixteen left during a three-year drought. There are currently eleven adults, and fourteen kids ranging from three months to sixteen years. They’re farming it. What do we do?”

“What do you mean, what do we do?”

“Let’s say we need to resupply the mess hall. Let’s further say that somehow, perhaps through Sharon’s good offices, we know beyond any shadow of a doubt that they’ve got an aggregate of eighteen thousand credits and some very valuable gold and platinum family heirlooms. It would take ten minutes to send a party down in a shuttle and rob them of everything they have. Of course, even if they put up no resistance and we didn’t kill them, we’d have to destroy any subspace radio we found so they couldn’t report us—”

“This is the Frontier,” interjected Sharon. “There’s no one to report us to.”

“I stand corrected,” said Cole. “All right, we’ll steal the radios—they must be worth something on the market—and we’ll certainly disable or destroy any ships they have so they can’t pursue us.” He stared at Forrice. “Sound like the kind of thing you had in mind?”

“You know it isn’t,” growled the Molarian.

“Let me give you another example. A Republic ship is racing through the Frontier. Lieutenant Mboya or Ensign Braxite charts its course and tells us that we can alter our own course and confront it in five hours. The ship has some weaponry, but we can outgun it. And I’ll give you one more thing to consider: its cargo is worth ten million credits.”

“That’s it?” asked Forrice.

“That’s it,” answered Cole. “A ship from the hated Republic, poorly armed, and carrying an incredibly valuable cargo. What do we do?”

“We attack, we disable it, and we plunder its cargo.”

“Do we kill the crew?”

“Not if they surrender,” said Forrice. “We set them down on the nearest oxygen world.”

“But they can identify us.”

An alien smile crossed the Molarian’s face. “How much more can the Republic hate you?”

“Point taken,” said Cole. “So we disable the ship and take its cargo.”

“Right.”

“Want to know what the cargo is?” asked Cole.

Forrice shrugged. “Why not?”

“Very rare, very unstable vaccine, valued at ten million credits. It’s being shipped to a colony world where a new plague has broken out. If it doesn’t get there before it spoils in three Standard days, a couple of million colonists will die. And so it won’t seem like a loaded example, the colonists aren’t Men or Molarians—they’re Polonoi. And every last one of them is as stubborn and wrongheaded as the Polonoi captain I deposed a few weeks ago.”

“You can’t let two million innocent beings die,” said Forrice. “Even Polonoi.”

“I’m sure our three Polonoi crew members would agree,” said Cole. “But we don’t have to let them die. Once we disable the ship, strand the crew, and appropriate the vaccine, we contact the Republic and offer to deliver the vaccine before it goes bad—for thirty million credits. Oh, hell, why think small? For two hundred million. That’s only a hundred credits a colonist, and now if they die we can say it’s the Republic’s fault. Let’s further hypothesize that I was killed while we were taking the Republic ship, and now you’re in command. What’s your decision?”

“You know what it is,” said Forrice.

“If I didn’t, you wouldn’t be on board,” said Cole. “But now you see why we need to know what kind of pirates we plan to be. It sounds like a contradiction in terms, but we need to create something akin to a Pirates’ Code of Ethics, even if it applies to just the Teddy R.”

“You know,” said Forrice, “you’re exactly the kind of hero I hate.” He rumbled deep in his chest. “Whatever happened to heroes who didn’t think everything through, but just walked in with weapons blazing?”

“They’re buried in graveyards all across the galaxy,” said Cole.

“I’ve got a question,” said Sharon.

“Go ahead.”

“I asked it before: What am I doing here? You obviously know what kind of code you want to operate under.”

“I gave Four Eyes some loaded examples,” answered Cole. “But saying that we won’t kill a few innocent families for peanuts, or that we won’t hold two million lives hostage, is not the same as saying what we will do, and that’s what we have to discuss. Who and what is fair game, and who and what isn’t? Under what circumstances will we use deadly force and under what circumstances won’t we? Will we stay on the Inner Frontier, or will we make forays into the Republic? The Republic’s at war with the Teroni Federation. Until a few weeks ago, so were we. If we chance upon a Teroni ship, do we give it safe passage or engage it?”

Forrice sighed deeply. “You know, piracy was a lot simpler when it only had me thinking about it.”

“Well,” said Sharon, “we’re here because of the Republic. Not its citizenry, and certainly not the Teroni Federation. So I think that unless we have cause to attack someone else, we should limit our activities to those things and ships belonging to the Republic.”

“That’s a start,” said Cole.

“What about your hypothetical medical ship?”

“Of course we’re not going to attack a medical ship,” responded Cole. “But we still need to decide what is fair game. Any suggestions?”

“Anything of sufficient value to warrant our risk,” replied Sharon. “And the plundering of which will not cause undue harm or suffering to innocent people, whether they’re Republic citizens or not.”

“Go back to my first example,” said Cole. “Doesn’t the loss of an heirloom cause suffering? And if the person we take it from isn’t a member of the Republic’s military or government, wouldn’t you call that suffering undue?”

“If you put enough restrictions on it, you’re going to limit yourself to robbing only heavily insured banks on Deluros VIII,” said Sharon. “We need some flexibility. How can we know at this moment what the effect of attacking a ship nineteen days from now will be? What kind of ship is it? Who’s on it? What’s it carrying?”

“I’ll give you something else to think about,” said Forrice, who had been silent for a few moments. “Let’s say the ship is a military ship. So were we, until the mutiny. Let’s say that they defend themselves against what they’ve been told is an outlaw ship. We would have.” He paused. “Do we really want to kill a crew that is doing precisely what we spent our whole careers doing—following orders and defending their ship?”

“It’s something to think about,” agreed Cole pleasantly, as if to say: It took you long enough to think of that.

“It’s something to avoid,” said Sharon.

“Actually,” said Forrice, “the truth of the matter is that the Teddy R should have been decommissioned half a century ago. The odds are that we’ll be outgunned by any Republic or Teroni ship we come across.”

“I don’t know about that,” said Cole. “This is the Frontier. The only way a souped-up warship is going to come here is if it’s in hot pursuit. I think the Teddy R is precisely the kind of military vessel we’re likely to come across here.”

“Which means we’re likely to kill some young officers and crewmen who are guilty of nothing more than protecting their ship,” said Sharon.

“I agree,” said Cole. “Where does that leave us?”

“Perhaps—” began Forrice.

“Oh, shut up!” said Sharon wearily. She turned to Cole. “Why don’t you simply tell us, since you obviously had your mind made up before calling this little meeting.”

“It never hurts to have the people who work with you draw the same conclusion,” he replied without denying her charge.

“Well?” she said.

“I should think it’s obvious,” said Cole. “We don’t want to kill or even rob innocent civilians. We don’t want to kill military personnel who are just carrying out orders and defending themselves. We don’t want to get into a pitched battle with any Republic or Teroni ship that might outgun us. We don’t even want to get into a battle with one we can beat. After all, there’s no economic reward in destroying a military vessel; all it does is cost us casualties and ammunition.”

“What’s left?” asked Forrice.

Cole smiled without answering.

“Oh my God!” said Sharon a moment later. “It never occurred to me!”

“It still hasn’t occurred to me,” complained Forrice.

“Pirates!” exclaimed Sharon. “We’re going to plunder pirates!”

Suddenly the cabin was filled with thunderous hoots of alien laughter. “I like it!”

“We don’t want to rob or kill innocent victims,” said Cole. “If they’re pirates, they’re not innocent. We don’t want to get into a pitched battle with warships from either side. If they’re pirates, they’re not in a warship. We want the reward to be commensurate with the risks. If they’re pirates, it figures to be.” He paused. “Another consideration is that we’ve been running shorthanded since we left the Republic. Who better to recruit than pirates who know how our rivals operate and where they’re likely to be?”

“Sounds good to me,” said Forrice. “When do we start?”

Suddenly Rachel Marcos’s image appeared above Cole’s computer. “Excuse me, sir,” she said. “But I thought you should know that we’ve spotted a ship.”

“Republic?” asked Cole promptly.

“No, sir,” replied Rachel. “A class-QQ ship of Taborian origin, unarmed. Chlorine atmosphere, which is what Taborians breathe. I’d say it’s a colony ship, sir.”

“Thank you, Ensign. Keep tracking it, but don’t hail it or alter course. If they send any radio messages, let me know.”

“Yes, sir,” she said, flashing him a sharp salute and a smile.

Her image vanished.

“She still hyperventilates at the very sight of you,” noted Sharon dryly.

“You’d prefer she hyperventilated for Four Eyes?” asked Cole with a smile.

“For someone who’s not old enough to be her father, anyway.”

“I hate to interrupt,” said Forrice, “but let’s get back to this ship she spotted.”

“There’s something like four hundred and fifty billion sentient beings in the galaxy,” responded Cole. “That we know of. We couldn’t expect not to come across some of them out here sooner or later.”

“You’re not worried that they’ll report our presence?” persisted the Molarian.

“To whom?” he replied. “We’re in a vast No Man’s Land. Let’s take it at face value and assume they’re looking for a chlorine planet to colonize. And even if we’re wrong, by the time the Republic could get here we’ll be a few thousand light-years away.”

“I thought we were all through running.”

“We are,” said Cole. “But we’re not going to just stay in this empty sector. Tomorrow we start searching.”

“Searching?” repeated the Molarian. “For pirate ships?”

Cole shook his head. “For all the things we need,” he answered. “We’ve been traveling without a doctor since we escaped. We need at least one, probably two—one who specializes in humans, one who can work with the non-human species we’re carrying. We need a safe haven, some port that we can use as our headquarters.”

“Why not just use the ship?” asked Forrice.

“Because it can be pretty damned hard for a fence with a warehouse to find us when we’re hiding between engagements. And since he’ll almost certainly be operating inside the Republic, we don’t want to get anywhere near his world, let alone touch down on it.”

“It’d be nice if we could trade the first shipload of plunder for some better weaponry,” suggested Sharon.

“I wouldn’t hold my breath,” said Cole. “Who trades in the kind of pulse and laser cannons we’re looking for?”

“You pass the word and flash enough money, and somebody will,” said Forrice with certainty.

“Anything’s possible,” admitted Cole. “But if I were you, I wouldn’t hold my breath until it happens.”

“Well, that’s that,” said Sharon. “May we assume that this Pirates’ Code of Ethics was a bunch of bullshit?”

“Not at all,” said Cole. “Every member of the crew put his life and career on the line for me. They deserve to know what our policy is, since they’re going to have to abide by it.”

And the next morning there was a message posted on every private and public computer aboard the Theodore Roosevelt:

CODE OF ETHICS

1. The Theodore Roosevelt will not attack any innocent individual of any race.

2. The Theodore Roosevelt will not attack any innocent ships, even military ships, that are going about their business.

3. The Theodore Roosevelt will not plunder any innocent individual's or group's property.

4. Pirates are not innocent.

3

Cole stood at the entrance to the Gunnery Section of the Teddy R. The sole crew member stationed there amidst the laser and pulsar cannons was a large, heavily muscled man who snapped to attention and saluted.

“Good morning, sir,” said Eric Pampas.

“Good morning, Bull,” said Cole. “And I keep telling you that you don’t have to salute or call me sir.”

“It just seems natural, sir,” said Pampas. “By the way, sir, I saw the ethics code you posted.”

“And?”

“I never liked the thought of holding up civilians or colonists at gunpoint. This sounds a lot more like what we’ve been trained for—our ship against other pirate ships.”

“Is that pretty much the general attitude among the crew?” asked Cole.

“Well, among the gunnery staff anyway, sir,” answered Pampas. “I haven’t spoken to anyone else today.”

“Which brings up a question,” said Cole. “Now that you and Four Eyes have had a chance to train them, how many crew members would you say are qualified to work in this section?”

“Eight, maybe nine.”

“That’s a lot better than it was when I was transferred to the Teddy R,” said Cole. “Starting tomorrow, you’re relieved of duty.”

“Sir?” said Pampas, frowning.

“You can choose your own successor as chief of the Gunnery ­Section,” continued Cole. “You know each of their capabilities better than I do. We have enough Men heading other sections, so try to pick a non-human.”

“With all due respect, sir,” said Pampas, “nobody knows these weapons better than I do.”

“I don’t doubt it.”

“Have I done something to offend you, sir? Or broken some ­regulation?”

“We’re a pirate ship,” said Cole. “We no longer have any regulations. Until I create some new ones, anyway.”

“Then why—?”

“It’s not a demotion, Bull. I have a more important job for you.”

“More important than manning the weapons?” asked Pampas.

“Think about it, Bull,” said Cole. “We want to plunder pirate ships, right?”

“Right.”

“If you blow one up with one of our cannons, what’s left to plunder?” asked Cole. “From now on these weapons are strictly for self-defense, not attack, and the gunnery crew’s job is simply to make sure they’re functioning. Christine or someone else on the bridge will program their targets into them.”

“I hadn’t thought of that, sir,” admitted Pampas. “Of course we can’t annihilate the ships we plan to rob.”

“I’m glad we’re in agreement on that,” said Cole dryly.

“But all I’ve done since I enlisted seven years ago is work on weaponry,” said Pampas. “It’s what I know.”

“You know a little more than that, Bull. You put four crew members into the infirmary for using drugs, remember?”

“You told me to stop them,” said Pampas defensively.

“I’m not castigating you, I’m reminding you,” said Cole. “One of them was a warrior-caste Polonoi. You damned near killed him.”

“He was endangering the ship. We couldn’t allow him around the weapons in that condition.”

“I don’t disagree. But any man who can beat a warrior-caste Polonoi with his bare hands knows how to use them.”

“They are a little different from normal Polonoi,” agreed Pampas.

And indeed they were, reflected Cole. All Polonoi were heavyset and muscular, but what differentiated the warrior caste was that their sexual organs, their eating and breathing orifices, and all their soft ­vulnerable spots—the equivalent of human bellies and midsections—had been genetically engineered so that they were on the warriors’ backs. They were built to win or die. For a warrior-caste Polonoi to turn his back on an enemy was to present that enemy with all his vulnerable areas, whereas their fronts were heavily armored with bony plates and were practically immune to pain.

“Still, it was a lucky blow, sir,” continued Pampas.

“I hope to hell you’re being modest,” replied Cole, “because I want a man with what I take to be your physical prowess on our boarding team.”

“Boarding team, sir?”

“If we’re not going to blow the enemy out of the sky, and we want to appropriate its cargo, sooner or later we’re going to have to board it,” said Cole as if explaining it to a child. They can’t really be this dumb, he told himself; they just haven’t started thinking like pirates. “Would you have any problem killing a pirate with your hands or your weapons?”

“Not if he wanted to kill me, sir.”

“What if she weighed a hundred and ten pounds and looked as young and pretty and vulnerable as our Ensign Marcos?”

“Put a weapon in her hand and Ensign Marcos can squeeze the trigger just as easily as a five-hundred-pound Torqual can, sir. I don’t have a problem with defending myself.”

“Okay, you’re hired,” said Cole.

“I could stay on duty here until we spot a pirate ship, sir,” suggested Pampas.

Cole considered it, then shook his head. “Who the hell knows when that’ll be? I want you fresh. Besides, if the weapons are working now, they’ll be working when we come across a pirate ship. I’m sure anyone you’ve trained can handle any minor adjustments that are needed.” He paused. “I wish we had a gym for you to work out in, or a target range. But the Teddy R has barely got enough room to turn around in, so just keep yourself in shape as best you can in that tiny exercise room.”

“Yes, sir,” said Pampas, sensing that the interview was over and saluting.

“And try to get out of the habit of saluting.”

“Like I said, sir . . .”

“I have my reasons, Bull,” said Cole. “We’ve gotten rid of the Republic insignia on the ship. We’ve already jettisoned all our military uniforms. If we board a pirate ship, and they’ve got someone hiding out of sight, waiting to take a couple of potshots at us, there’s only one way he’s going to know who to kill first—and that’s whoever it is that everyone else salutes.”

“I hadn’t thought of that, sir,” said Pampas. “I’ll do my best not to salute, sir.”

“Or to call me sir,” added Cole. “I ask it of the bridge personnel, but they’re not going anywhere. I’m going to demand it of the boarding parties.”

“Yes—” He stopped himself just in time.

“Fine. Pick your successor, clear the name with me or Forrice, and kiss this section good-bye at the end of your shift. And make sure all your hand weapons are in working order.”

Cole turned before he could see if Pampas saluted him again, and walked to an airlift. He rode it up to the bridge, where Braxite, a Molarian, and Vladimir Sokolov, a tall blond man, were on duty.

“Captain on the bridge!” shouted Braxite, jumping to attention. Sokolov, who was working the computer consoles, stood up and saluted.

“Knock it off,” said Cole wearily. “Has anyone got anything to report?”

“Lieutenant Mboya left orders that I was to continue the charts she started making,” said Sokolov. He uttered a brief order to one of the computers in a language that seemed to be all numbers and formulae, and a moment later a three-dimensional star chart filled the space above his console. Another order and seventeen stars glowed a bright yellow and began blinking on and off.

“Each of these systems has one of the most populated worlds on the Inner Frontier. Fourteen are oxygen worlds, two are chlorine, and one is ammonia. The distance separating the two farthest apart is about three thousand light-years.”

“That’s not much, given the size of the Frontier,” noted Cole.

“People tend to congregate together, sir,” said Sokolov. “Especially out here, where there are so few of them.”

“What about trade routes?”

Another incomprehensible command from Sokolov, and some seventy-five flashing purple lines popped into existence, each leading from one world to another. More than half the lines went directly from major mining worlds to unshown worlds of the Republic.

Cole turned to Braxite. “Anything on spaceliner routes or schedules?”

“Just what’s posted, which anyone in the galaxy can access,” answered the Molarian. “But I can’t find out which ones travel with Republic warships as escorts, and each ship has so many fare levels that it’s impossible to figure out which has the most affluent set of passengers. The luxury cruise ships, the ones with gambling and entertainment, never venture outside the borders of the Republic, and while they don’t have military ships protecting them, they each hire mercenary ships for protection. Most of them also hire former police and military officers to patrol the ship itself. All incognito, of course.”

“Of course,” said Cole. “Well, we didn’t want to rob any innocent parties on spaceliners anyway.”

“An observation, sir?” said Sokolov.

“Yes?”

“If they’re amusing themselves on a gambling ship during wartime, how innocent can they be?”

“I don’t know how innocent they are, Lieutenant,” answered Cole. “But if they’ve got mercenary ships and police guarding them, they’re too well-protected to interest us. We’ll stick to pirate ships.”

“There figure to be a few thousand ships in this general area”—Sokolov waved a hand toward the seventeen flashing systems and about half the trade routes—“at any given moment. How will we pinpoint the pirate ships?”

“We won’t.”

“Then how will we—?”

“We’ll let them find us,” answered Cole. “Tell Slick I want to speak to him.”

“In person, sir?”

“No, that’s not necessary.”

“In private, then? I can have him transmit his image to your quarters.”

“Right here is fine,” answered Cole.

“Coming right up,” announced Sokolov, and suddenly Cole found himself facing the full-sized holographic image of the Teddy R’s only Tolobite. It was a squat, shining, bipedal being. Its skin, smooth and oily, literally glowed. Its upper limbs were thick and tentacular, more like an elephant’s trunk than an octopus’s legs. There was no neck; the head grew directly out of the shoulders, and was incapable of turning or swiveling. Its mouth had no teeth, and seemed equipped only for sucking fluids. Its eyes were very dark and wide-set. No nostrils were evident. Its ears were mere slits at the sides of the head. It actually did possess most of the features that seemed missing or inadequate, but it possessed a unique one as well: a Gorib—a living, thinking symbiote that functioned as a protective second skin that filtered out all germs and viruses.

Cole found its name unpronounceable, as he did most aliens’, so he had dubbed it “Slick” because of its shining false skin, and as far as he was concerned, Slick was the most valuable member of the crew, because its Gorib enabled it to function for limited durations in the vacuum of space or on the surface of chlorine and methane worlds, without any chance of an equipment malfunction, because except for the Gorib Slick wore no protective suit.

“You wished to speak to me, sir?” asked Slick in heavily accented Terran.

“Yeah. Remember when I had you climb outside and replace the ship’s Republic insignia with a skull and crossbones right after we escaped?”

“Yes, sir.”

“We were celebrating, and I wasn’t thinking clearly,” said Cole. “In the cold light of day, it’s obvious that the very last thing we want to do is advertise the fact that we’re pirates.”

“Do you want me to just remove the skull and crossbones, or replace it with something else?” asked Slick.

“You’ll be replacing it.”

“What with, sir?”

“Hold on a second.” He turned to Sokolov. “You’re of Russian descent, right?”

“God knows how many centuries ago, sir.”

“Can you give me a Russian name or location?”

“How about Stalin?”

“No, New Stalin’s a major Republic world,” responded Cole. “Try another.”

“Samarkand?”

“That’ll do.” He turned back to Slick’s holograph. “Wherever you remove a skull and crossbones, I want you to replace it with a logo for the Samarkand Cargo Lines.”

“A logo, sir?” asked Slick.

“Mr. Sokolov will create a batch of them for you. I’ll want it on the front and back of the ship, and you might as well put it on all four shuttlecraft as well. Can you get it done today?”

“Probably,” said Slick.

“If it’s a strain on your Gorib, you can do it over two Standard days,” said Cole.

“The Gorib can handle it, sir. It just depends on how long it takes me to remove the skulls and crossbones. The old Republic insignia was partially worn away from the handful of occasions the ship had entered various atmospheres to land—but the skulls and crossbones have never been subjected to that kind of heat or friction.”

“Well, get started as soon as possible, and let the bridge know when you’re done.”

“Yes, sir,” said Slick, ending the transmission.

“Remarkable being, that Slick,” said Cole admiringly. “Give me fifty like him and I could conquer any chlorine world in the Teroni Federation.”

“Or the Republic,” added Braxite.

“Or the Republic,” agreed Cole. “They’re peas in a pod.”

“Whatever a pea is,” said Braxite. “And whatever a pod is.”

“Sir,” said Sokolov, “I take it you want me to create a logo or an emblem for something called the Samarkand Cargo Lines?”

“Yeah,” said Cole. “Once you’ve got it done, make it up in a dozen different sizes, each big enough to cover the skulls and crossbones just in case traces of them remain. Slick will bond them to the ship. Make sure they can handle heat and friction if we have to set down on a world.”

“An oxygen world?”

“Any kind,” answered Cole. “We don’t always have a choice.”

“I’ll get right on it, sir,” said Sokolov. “Do you want me to show it to you before I make a bunch of them up for Slick?”

“What do I know about designs?” said Cole. “Show them to Lieutenant Mboya. She’s got the most orderly mind on the ship.”

“Yes, sir.”

Sokolov went to work on his computer, and Braxite turned to Cole. “Would I be correct in assuming that we plan to pose as a cargo ship to attract pirates?”

“A cargo ship in distress,” said Cole. “If we were just a cargo ship en route to a destination, they couldn’t be sure they could catch us, so they’d probably shoot to disable us—and at those kind of distances and speeds, who knows? What they think of as a disabling shot could be off by two seconds of a degree and blow us all to hell. Much better to give them a ship that’s already disabled.”

“We can’t be the first ship to think of this, sir,” said Braxite. “I’ll bet the Navy does it all the time out on the borders between the Republic and the Frontier.”

“I doubt it,” said Cole. “The pirates have no reason to board a Navy ship. They’d blow it to bits from a safe distance.”

“Then a cargo company that’s tired of being hit—”

“Look,” said Cole, fighting back his annoyance. “The Inner Frontier covers something like a quarter of the galaxy. We’ve been here, traveling at light speeds, for more than twenty Standard days, and so far we’ve seen three ships. I don’t know where all the pirates are. Four Eyes doesn’t know. Now, unless you know, it makes more sense to entice them to come to us than the other way around.”

“I apologize, sir,” said Braxite. “I didn’t mean to be argumentative.”

“There’s nothing wrong with questioning orders that don’t seem to make sense,” replied Cole. “Unless we’re being shot at, at which time I’d really appreciate some blind obedience.” He paused. “I’m getting hungry. Tell Mr. Odom to meet me in the mess hall.”

“Yes, sir.”

Cole left the bridge, walked over to the airlift, rode it down a level to the mess hall, walked past three tables that were in use, and took an empty one in the back. A moment later Mustapha Odom, the ship’s chief engineer, and the only crew member allowed to work with the nuclear pile, entered, spotted Cole, and joined him.

“You wanted to see me, sir?”

“Yes,” said Cole, ordering a sandwich and a cup of coffee from the menu that suddenly appeared in midair. It vanished when his order was complete and he found himself facing Odom again. “At some point, tomorrow or in the next few days, we’ll want to convince another ship that we’re disabled. We have to assume they’re not stupid, that their sensors are going to go over every millimeter of the Teddy R before they try to board us. We’re going to need to keep the life-­support systems working. If the light drive is dead, is that possible or does it look too suspicious?”

“No problem. We’ve got an emergency power reserve for life support and for the infirmary, too. I think just about every ship does.”

“I don’t want to just float in space waiting to be approached. That smells too much like a trap. If the light drive is dead, can we travel at sublight speeds?”

“You’d be traveling at light speeds even with no drive,” answered Odom. “The only time we really need it is to accelerate or brake. Once you’re at the speed you want, there’s no gravity or friction to slow you down.”

“That won’t do,” said Cole. “If they wait too long, we’ll be able to reach a planet. Hell, if we’re faster than they are, they might never be able to catch us even if we’ve theoretically blown the light drive. I need them to think we’re a sitting duck, there for the taking, totally helpless.”

“Let me think about that, sir,” said Odom. “What else?”

“If our weapons are functional, is there any way to fool an enemy’s sensors into thinking they’re not?”

“None.”

“Wait a minute,” said Cole. “I’m not thinking clearly.”

“Sir?”

“If we turn off all power to the weapons systems, they’ll read as if they’re dead, won’t they?”

“Yes,” said Odom, smiling. “But they won’t be dead. You can activate them on a second’s notice.”

“Yeah, that should work,” said Cole. “Hopefully we won’t need them, but you never know. Now, if the life-support systems are on, can the communications systems be functional?”

“Internally? Absolutely.”

“How about the subspace radio?”

“Right now it’s powered by the nuclear pile, but if that stops working, I’d have to rig it to run off the emergency system.” He paused. “Are you sure you’ll need it?”

“How are we going to broadcast an SOS without it?” asked Cole.

“Okay, I’ll take care of it.”

“Any way we can hide the fact that our small arms are functioning?”

“Not with our burners and screechers, sir,” answered Odom, referring to laser and sonic pistols. “They run off battery packs, and nothing that happens to the ship’s pile would affect them. Pulse guns, perhaps. Have you got any projectile pistols on board, the kind that shoot bullets?”

“I sure as hell doubt it.”

“Too bad. How about knives?”

“They’re not standard military equipment,” said Cole. “I suppose we can rob the mess hall—but I’d hate to put a kitchen knife up against a burner.”

“Like I said, let me think about it. Maybe I can come up with something.”

“I’m open to suggestions,” said Cole. “Just remember: We have to assume that our prey isn’t stupid, so we can’t pretend we’ve all got some new alien disease or anything like that. It’s got to be something that not only makes sense, but happens often enough that they don’t become so suspicious they just decide to walk away from it.”

“All right,” said Odom. “Give me a couple of hours to think about it.”

“Where’ll you be?” asked Cole.

“Right here.”

“Don’t you need access to your computer?”

“Why?” asked Odom. “I know everything it knows. Besides, you’re asking me to improvise, and computers aren’t very good at that.”

I just hope we’re a little better at it than computers, thought Cole as he left the mess hall.

4

Cole lay back on his bunk, reading a book on the screen that hovered just in front of him and trying to ignore the miscoloration on the ceiling. Suddenly the text vanished and Sharon Blacksmith’s face appeared.

“What is it?” he asked.

“You’ve been talking to everyone else all day,” she said. “I thought you might care to let the Chief of Security know what your plans are.”

“Since you’ve doubtless been observing and recording me, you already know,” said Cole. “So what’s your real reason?”

“I’m bored.”

“Cherish the feeling,” said Cole. “Once the action starts, you’ll probably remember your moments of boredom with great fondness.”

“I know,” she said with a sigh. “But this isn’t like the war with the Teroni. No one’s going to fire on us just for being the Teddy R. Once you start playing dead in space, it could take days, maybe weeks, before anyone approaches us.”

“It’ll take less than a day,” he assured her. “If the pirates don’t come, some well-meaning do-gooder will try to rescue us.”

“That doesn’t make me any less bored.”

“If this isn’t the preface to a sexual proposition, I can give you something to do.”

“What?”

“We’ll need a boarding party of half a dozen, so I want you to start picking out some names. Once we attract a ship and subdue their boarding party, we still have to board them and come away with something valuable enough to make it worth the effort. However many they send onto the Teddy R, they’ll leave more aboard the ship. It won’t be any cakewalk, subduing them and appropriating whatever they’ve got.”

“Has it ever occurred to you that they might not have anything valuable on board?” asked Sharon. “I mean, if they’ve recently plundered a ship or a colony, wouldn’t it make sense that they’d have dropped the goods off with their fence before going back out?”

“It’s a possibility.”

“And if it happens?”

“Then we’ll steal information from the crew, which can be more valuable than anything else.” He smiled at her. “I assume that the Chief of Security knows a little something about extracting it?”

“The Chief of Security has access to about half a dozen drugs that will elicit any information we need.”

“Good,” said Cole. “Because I’ve been thinking that the best way to fill out our own crew is with pirates we capture, and at least this way I’ll know whether to believe their pledges of fealty.”

“You’re assuming that we’re going to survive and capture some of the enemy,” she noted.

“There wouldn’t be much sense in making plans and attending to details if I expected to lose,” answered Cole. “Getting back to that boarding party, I’ll need four names, and I definitely want Eric Pampas on the team.”

“The Wild Bull? Good choice. But that’s only five. I thought you wanted six.”

“I’m the sixth.”

“You can’t leave the ship!” said Sharon adamantly. “You’re the Captain.”

“So what?”

“It’s against regulations.”

“I wasn’t aware that pirate ships had regulations,” said Cole dryly.

“Damn it, Wilson! You’re our leader. Every crew member walked out on the Republic solely to serve with you. We can’t have you getting killed on our first encounter.”

“I don’t plan to get killed.”

“Have you ever known anyone who did?” she shot back. “Wilson, you didn’t win all those medals because of your brawn. Let me put together a boarding party composed of Bull Pampas and Luthor Chadwick and that Mollute, what’s his name, Jaxtaboxl . . .”

“I call him Jack-in-the-Box,” interrupted Cole. “Jack for short.”

“I don’t care what you call him!” she said. “Let me add three more like that to the list, and you stay in command of the ship where you belong.”

“A Captain is supposed to lead his crew, not follow them.”

“A Captain is suppose to delegate authority and run his ship,” said Sharon. “Damn it, Wilson—you know I’m right!”

“I’ll think about it.”

“What would you have said if Fujiama or Podok had left the Teddy R?” she asked, referring to the last two Captains.

“If Podok had gone, I’d have said good riddance,” replied Cole. “And if you’ll recall, Fujiama did leave the ship.”

“And promptly got killed,” she reminded him.

“I’m not Fujiama.”

“Wilson, you lead a boarding party and you can find a new ­bedmate.”

“What the hell,” he said. “Rachel’s chomping at the bit, and except for being ten years younger than you and twice as pretty—”

“And three times as dumb!” snapped Sharon.

“That’s not always a disadvantage in bed.”

“Take a good long look at her and engrave it in your memory,” said Sharon. “Because if you lay a finger on her, I’m going to claw your eyes out.”

“I’m certainly glad to see we’re maintaining the simple, uncommitted relationship we agreed upon,” said Cole with a smile.

“You’re not leaving the ship,” she repeated.

“May I go back to reading my book now?”

“Fuck you, Wilson Cole!” she snapped and broke the connection.

“I guess that means yes,” he said to himself.

The problem was, he knew she was right. He was a little shorter than average, a little older than average, and would never have survived his first year in the service if he’d had to count on his physical abilities instead of his brain. And much as he resented it, that brain told him that his place was on the Teddy R, not boarding an enemy ship that could be hiding fifty armed men or be rigged to explode.

The problem was that he trusted himself more than he trusted anyone else. He didn’t believe in senseless bloodshed, even if it was all being spilled on the other side. He’d recently freed the planet Rapunzel without firing a shot. He’d taken command of the Teddy R not to kill more of the enemy, but to avoid killing five million Men who were in the middle of things through no fault of their own. He didn’t doubt for a second that Bull Pampas and Jack-in-the-Box and the others could handle an attack in close quarters far better than he could—but he was convinced that no one aboard the ship could prevent such an attack better than himself.

He was still considering his options when Mustapha Odom contacted him.

“I hope I’m not disturbing you, sir,” said the engineer.

“No,” replied Cole. “I’ve been waiting to hear from you. What have you come up with?”

“There are a number of ways to do it, but I think the best way is to disable our external stabilizer.”

“Would you care to put that in terms I can understand?” asked Cole.

“The external stabilizer is what prevents the ship from rolling or spinning if one thruster becomes inoperative. If I disable it, as well as shutting down the power plant, we could spin gently in a circle without going anywhere, or we might enter into an endless series of—how can I describe it?—somersaults in space.” Odom smiled. “That should convince any observers that we’re helpless.”

“Why will that be more convincing that just shutting down the light drive?”

“They know that anyone can shut down a power plant and then start it up again if the situation gets too dangerous,” answered Odom. “But if you try to go to light speeds while the ship is spinning or somesaulting in space, you’ll break it into pieces.”

“How will it affect the crew inside the ship?” asked Cole. “Will we have to strap ourselves in?”

Odom shook his head. “Not if we spin in a circle rather than head over heels. Part of any ship’s emergency life-support system is the artificial gravity.”

“Right,” said Cole. “Can’t have internal organs and body parts floating away during emergency surgery.” He paused. “So you’re assuring me that no one will float away, or lose their lunches?”

“That’s right, sir.”

“How long will it take to set it up?” asked Cole.

“Once you reach the spot you want and we brake to sublight speeds it’ll take from one to ten minutes to come to a complete stop in space, depending on how fast we were going, and then just a few seconds to start a very gentle spinning.”

“If I were a pirate ship approaching the Teddy R,” said Cole, “I’d want to know how it managed to start spinning if its power was dead.”

“Allah was not a neat craftsman, sir. The universe is filled with His leftovers. Any solar debris could set us spinning. It couldn’t be something as big as a meteor or an asteroid; that would crush us or break us apart. But I assume we’re not going to be doing this inside any star system, so we’re not going to come across any meteors or asteroids anyway.”

“All right. As soon as we decide upon the area we want, I’ll have you contact Christine Mboya and explain what kind of debris we’re looking for, and she can have Pilot position the ship so we’re surrounded by it. This debris isn’t going to stop another ship from approaching, is it?”

“Not as long as they’ve got power, sir,” answered Odom promptly.

“And if they didn’t, they couldn’t approach anyway,” concluded Cole. “Thank you very much, Mr. Odom. You’ve been most helpful.”

Cole broke the connection, decided he wasn’t interested in reading after all, got to his feet, walked out into the corridor, tried as always not to wince at the dilapidated condition of the ship’s interior, and took the airlift to the bridge. Forrice was there, along with Domak, a warrior-caste Polonoi female, and Christine Mboya.

“Don’t say it,” muttered Cole as Christine jumped to her feet and announced: “Captain on the bridge!”

Forrice didn’t bother to salute, but Domak and Christine did. They knew better than to wait for Cole to return their salutes, and both sat back down at their stations.

Cole walked over to Christine, glancing at all the incomprehensible formulae on her various screens. “Any progress?” he asked.

“I think so, sir,” she replied. “The closest of the major trade routes seems to be between Binder X and Far London, which is at the edge of the Republic, just two parsecs from the Inner Frontier. We could position ourself between them in less than a day at maximum speed, maybe sooner if Wxakgini can pinpoint a hyperspacial tunnel.”

“Keep looking,” said Cole. “That’s too damned close to the Republic. We may have removed our insignia, but if they spot an unidentified class-JZ starship, a type that hasn’t been manufactured in close to a century, they’re going to guess who it is and come after us full force.”

“I beg to differ, sir,” said Christine. “The Teroni Fleet recently launched a major attack in the Terrazane Sector, and my guess is that every available ship from this section has been transferred there. They may have left a few ships behind to protect the local planets against a surprise attack, but they’re not going to desert their posts just to chase after a ship that may or may not be the Theodore Roosevelt.”

“I didn’t know about the Terrazane attack,” admitted Cole.

“There’s no reason why you should have, sir,” she replied with a smile. “You were in jail, awaiting your court-martial, when the attack came.”

“All right, that’s where we’ll set things up. Once you’ve picked out an area, have Mustapha Odom speak to Pilot and explain exactly what kind of conditions we’re looking for.”

“Yes, sir.”

“So we’re all set?” asked Forrice.

“Pretty much so,” answered Cole. “I’ve got Sharon working on the boarding party.”

“You, me, and who else?” asked the Molarian.

“The Captain and the First Officer don’t both leave the ship at the same time,” said Cole. “That’s the stupidest thing you’ve said in months.”

“All right—me and who else?”

“Why you instead of me?”

“To start with, I’m stronger, faster, and younger than you, and I can see better in the dark. Besides, the Captain can’t leave the ship in enemy territory.”

“Since when has the Inner Frontier been enemy territory?” asked Cole.

“Since we became pirates,” answered Forrice promptly. “You’ve got to stay with the ship.”

“Et tu, Brutus?” said Cole.

“I don’t understand the language or the reference,” said Forrice. Suddenly he smiled. “But I can intuit the meaning.”

“Sir?” said Christine.

“Yes?” asked Cole, glad to have the conversation interrupted.

“I’d like to volunteer for the boarding party.”

“Absolutely not,” said Cole. “I need you aboard the ship.”

“But—”

“If Four Eyes is going to go, I need someone I can trust right here.” He paused and stared at her, then nodded his head as if he’d made up his mind about something. “You’re my new Second Officer.”

Her eyes widened. “Me?”

“Would you rather I didn’t trust you?”

“No, sir.”

“Then it’s settled. Choose your eight-hour shift—red, white, or blue. I’ll try to arrange to sleep while you’re in charge.”

“You’ll need a Third Officer while I’m off the ship,” said Forrice.

“I’m working on it,” answered Cole. “That’s enough promotions for one trip to the bridge.”

“You really meant it, sir?” asked Christine, still surprised.

“Why not?” answered Cole. “You certainly know the ship better than Four Eyes or I do.”

“I’ll try to prove worthy of it, sir,” she continued.

“No speeches,” said Cole. “You’ve already proven worthy of it or you wouldn’t have been given it. Now the sooner you decide where we’re going to play dead, the sooner Mr. Odom can tell Pilot where to park us.”

“Yes, sir,” she said, saluting again, then turning her attention back to her computers.

He lingered a few minutes, decided there was nothing else for him to do on the bridge, and returned to his cabin, where he found Sharon waiting for him.

“I guess you’re not such a bastard after all,” she said.

Starship: Pirate © Mike Resnick

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