This is set in the universe of Frontier, the classic computer game by David Braben. I started writing this in late 2000, but then real life got a bit too intrusive, and I didn't have much time to write between all the worrying and so on. I am hoping to get it finished one day.

Frontier

"There's another two coming up on the scanner!" called Commander Jameson.

"I see them!" replied the turret gunner, Paul Anderson.

The ship rocked as a missile hit the energy shields, depleting them by twenty per cent. "Nakky - what happened to the ECM?" demanded Jameson.

"That last explosion took it out," came the reply over the intercom from the engineer, Anne Nakasone. "Try and get them before they close within a klick." Calm as ever.

"Target, red, seven low, eight kay!" called co-pilot Anja Jordan, reading from the scanner.

Jameson tugged the control column left as he cut the engines. The nose of the Tiger Trader swung round to point at the nearest of the oncoming Imperial Guard Vipers. The big 20MW laser mounted in the nose spat a beam of white death towards it and sliced it in half like it a knife through butter. The silver-blue surface of Achenar Capitol's main ocean passed across the viewscreen as the ship continued to turn. The two people in the cockpit saw con-trails from yet more Vipers approaching them fast. They finished the turn and Commander Jameson hit the engines again. The massive engines kicked them away from the planet in a fresh burst of speed.

"Target, red, six high, five kay!" called Paul from the turret. Red light lanced from the turret to intercept the approaching Viper as a similar beam played over the Tiger's shields. Jameson cut the power again and tapped the manual retro switch. The Viper overshot, and both Paul and the Imperial pilot lost their fixes.

"Shields down to twenty-three per cent," said Anja.

"Sod it!" spat Jameson as he gunned the main engines on manual. He fired the main laser as the damaged Viper passed the gunsight. The drive exploded, sending the nose into the Tiger's shields, making the ship lurch again.

"Shields gone!"

"Targets?" demanded Jameson.

"None on scanner," replied Anja.

"Twelve in view, between forty and two-hundred kay," came the voice of Cargo Supervisor Sally Austin, acting as a rear gunner/observer in the absence of any cargo, the final member of the crew.

"We're going to have to abort," said Anne.

"How? We don't have enough fuel to jump," replied Jameson. "We've still got to buzz Fort Donalds - I say we do it and go down fighting."

"We're facing two hundred ships!" Paul yelled. "And that's just the police! If they decide to launch military ships, we could be facing five hundred Ospreys as well as the Vipers!"

"We die anyway," replied Jameson. "I say we complete the mission. All in favour?"

"Aye!"

"Aye!"

"Aye."

"No!" Paul again. "Tell them we surrender. Stand down and surrender. We'll throw ourselves on their mercy!"

"We've destroyed Imperial Guard Vipers, sabotaged ground defences and planted target beacons on military installations. They all carry the death penalty here. All in favour?"

"Aye," Paul growled.

"Punch in Fort Donalds on the autopilot," Jameson told Anja. She did so, and he returned to "engines-on" navigation.

"Vipers closing," said Sally.

"On scanner," confirmed Jameson. "Paul?"

"Ready," he snarled.

"Targets, red, four through six high, eleven kay!" called Anja.

"Got them!" replied Paul. He fired, and a stream of red light played over all three targets in sequence, doing little damage, however.

"Shields back up," said Anne. "You have ten per cent shields and rising."

In her cramped position between the two main engines, Sally began firing the heavy sonic frag gun. It was practically impossible to aim, but it fired tiny shells at close to lightspeed, which disintegrated into balls of pure sound, the effect of which was like a small missile, which was why it was so good for the rear gun position. The recoil from each round nearly slammed the breech into her face, but the pursuing Vipers didn't dare take too direct an approach now. In the engine room, Anne watched dials and twiddled knobs, feeding power to where it was needed, making sure that nothing overloaded, and keeping the engines burning fuel that was accelerating them away from the planet at 120 metres per second per second. In the transparisteel dome that was laughingly called a gun turret, Paul lined up crosshairs and pulled the trigger on a device which fired a 1MW beam laser mounted vertically below him, the beam of which was reflected through the barrel of the aiming piece in his hands. In the cockpit, Anja watched the scanner, calling out targets to shoot and avoid, watching the shield levels, and keeping Fort Donalds in the autopilot memory. Next to her, Commander Jameson flew the ship on through the storm of laser fire that was threatening to engulf them, dodging and jinking, turning the nose so that Paul always had a target, firing the main 20MW laser at any Imperial Guard pilot foolish or careless enough to let his Viper overshoot.

They were halfway to Fort Donalds when two Vipers managed to get them in a crossfire. They lost the last of their shields, and the starboard main engine was disabled. Jameson and Anja heard Sally's scream as the frag gun jerked from its' mounting and trapped her underneath it. Paul took out one of the Vipers as Anja was sent to help Sally. Jameson dispatched the other Viper as the nose swung around, but firing the main gun caused the whole weapons system to overheat. The cut-out failed to operate properly, and the power tap in engineering exploded, throwing Anne into a bulkhead as she tried to restart the starboard engine. Paul lined up on another Viper and pulled the trigger of the turret gun. Nothing happened.

"We've overheated!" Jameson called. "Get down to engineering and help fix it!"

Paul scrambled from his perch on the turret's seat. "How did we get into this mess anyway?" he asked, as he made his way aft. Jameson knew exactly how they'd got into this mess. He had volunteered them.

 

On a whim, he'd decided to take his ship out to the Pleiades Cluster, in order to be the first human to actually see Pleione, Electra, Alcyone A and B, Merope, Maia, Taygete and Atlas A and B with his own eyes. In the absence of planets with breathable atmospheres to land on, he'd actually space-walked to do this. It had taken eight months to get there from Sol. When he brought his ship back to Quhoce on the edge of known space, it was a wreck. Half the systems weren't functioning, the drive was only operating at 70% efficiency from being fuelled on gas giant skimmings for over a year, the hull was badly battered from combat with lone nutters and unknown species (Inbeex and Ethqube both revealed highly aggressive unknown spacecraft), as well as minor collisions with various space debris, as well as problems with the life-support system, which rendered the lower decks uninhabitable except in spacesuits. The technicians at Fortress Strauss did the best they could, but the DF-306 still had to limp back to Sol, and eventually had to splash down outside San Francisco. Jameson and his crew were hailed as heroes, especially when the battered on-board computer revealed enough new combat encounters to raise his Elite Federation of Pilots rating from Dangerous to Deadly. That placed him among the top sixteen pilots currently flying. Only four people in history - Brett Anderson (2350), Sonja Harding (2524), Ross O'Shea (2892) and Matt Harrison (3000) - had ever made it to the rank above; Elite. What was special about Jameson was his huge fortune - rivaling that of some major corporations - and his rapid rise to prominence, which was the reason for his huge fortune. It was only 25 years since he had graduated top of the class from the Ross 154 Merchant Navy Academy, exactly 200 years after Matt Harrison had gained his Elite rating at the age of 64. At only 47, Jameson was by far the youngest person to approach the rating of Elite.

And so the Federal Military approached Jameson. While he had been away, war had broken out between the Federation and the Empire, based on Achenar. The war hadn't really got going yet - some disputed systems were experiencing system-wide dogfights and planet-wide guerrilla battles, and a few "border" systems had come under attack from massed fighter wings - and the Federal High Command wanted to end it as quickly as possible. The Empire wasn't talking though, and they were even marshaling their fleet in the Independent system of Zesola, ready to strike at Delta Pavonis, or other nearby Federation systems. The border was still open to trade, though.

"So?" asked Jameson, as he sat in the small dark room on Trojan at Eta Cassiopeia, the Federal Navy HQ.

Fleet Admiral Jennings looked down at him. "Commander, you have worked for us before. Your record shows that you attained the rank of Corporal, and gained the Certificate of Valour."

"Most people do," replied Jameson.

"It goes on to say that you also did a few missions for the Imperial Navy, and currently hold the title Serf with them."

"So?" he asked again.

"So, Commander, you are known as a good guy to the military organisations on both sides of the border, you are an accomplished pilot and combateer, you have visited the Imperial worlds many times before to trade and to carry out a few assassinations - yes, we know about them - and you have a knack for staying alive and being lucky."

"Which means what, exactly?" asked Jameson, helping himself to one of the Admiral's cigars.

"Which means," replied the Admiral, taking the cigar back, "that we are prepared to fund an expedition of yours into the Empire that could very easily end the war in a matter of days with very little loss of life."

The room was silent for a long moment. Then Jameson spoke. "What do I have to do?"

"You'll do it?"

Jameson nodded. "For a fee."

"Of course - you'll get two thousand credits for..."

"I get six hundred credits for delivering explosive capsules to a nearby star system. For a raid into enemy territory I want ten thousand credits. For each military action whilst there I want one thousand credits. If I complete the mission fully, I want a bonus of five thousand credits. I also want my crew's wages paying for the duration, at twenty-five credits a week, each, plus repairs to the ship and equipment from any battle damage incurred."

"Those are your terms?" asked the Admiral. Jameson nodded again. "Done." Admiral Jennings had barely hesitated. "We were planning to offer you two thousand credits to pay your crew for the duration, twenty thousand credits flat fee, and a completely new ship, but since you want to live rough..."

"I'll take your terms," said Jameson quickly.

"Too late, I've agreed the deal," said the Admiral, pointing to the digicorder on his desk. "We'll still give you the ship, of course, the DF-306 has had it."

Jameson nodded again.

"Excellent! Now, here's what we want you to do," said the Admiral, and activated a wall screen.

Jameson had a plan explained to him that had been in the making for fifteen years. Realising that any war between the Empire and the Federation would probably go to the Empire, or lead to huge losses for the Federation, the Federal Military had been developing a plan to show just how far ahead the Federation were, in terms of technology, as opposed to firepower.

Orbiting Rock, the closest planet to Eta Cassiopeia, was a construction platform with a Long Range Cruiser inside it. These huge ships, nearly five kilometres long, could go from Altair to Sirius, 25 lightyears, in one jump, a feat which few normal-sized ships could manage - and those that could would have little or no room left in their hull for any equipment, let alone cargo. The Long Range Cruisers carried twin large plasma accelerators as their main weapons, and used 100MW beam lasers projecting from hundreds of turrets as secondary weapons. They carried a hundred missiles, and fifty fighters, and their shields were so strong they couldn't be measured by normal sensors. This particular Long Range Cruiser had only one small plasma accelerator, and 20MW beam lasers. It still had the same number of missiles and fighters, but the engines had been vastly improved. It had taken ten years to do it, and a huge team of scientists and engineers, but now they had an engine which could jump the ship 50 lightyears - from Altair to Achenar, the Imperial capital. While it wouldn't be able to stand long on its own against an Imperial Cruiser, the ship had extra advantages. It had powerful electronic camouflage to make it seem as if it was a full-size Long Range Cruiser. The main thrusters, bigger than starport landing pads, could put out an extra ten per cent thrust, accelerating the ship at 107m/s/s, as opposed to 98m/s/s. It also had the capability to land two hundred troops - normally the military had to rely on commandeered Lynx Bulk Carriers for troop transport. But there were some things it couldn't do.

For the new Cruiser to be effective, an advance party of commandos needed to be sent in. Unfortunately, commandos were just too valuable to use on an experimental project like this. Regular marines were out of the question, as were navy pilots - they simply didn't have the training. Then someone hit upon the idea - privateers! The Merchant Navy had three academies that turned out officers who had been trained to almost military standard. Independent fighters, combateers, traders, or freighters made up 70% of interstellar traffic, many of them went into dangerous systems every trip, and most of them were known in both the Empire and the Federation. There was a certain mindset that would find the prospect of sabotaging the enemy capital alluring - for a fee. After posing some discreet questions to some of their higher ranking freelancers, the military realised that no-one would be interested unless they had some serious motivation. The most valuable thing to a privateer was his ship, and so, as soon as war broke out, the Federal Military bought the WT-920, a Tiger Trader in grey, and waited for Commander Jameson's return.

"Yeah, right," he said at this point.

"Well, maybe not your return specifically - but we were hoping for it," replied Admiral Jennings. "Anyone who was qualified and wanted a ship would have done."

The WT-920 was outfitted with the latest equipment, all that was necessary for the mission. This also included some non-standard stuff - a bomb, fitted to the missile pylon like a mine, for blowing up starbase launch bays; targeting beacons, that Federal Military craft could get a weapons lock on from orbit, but wouldn't reveal themselves to Imperial craft; laser pistols and ammunition charges in a weapons locker, for ground operations; computer viruses, circuit breakers and demolition charges, for sabotaging ground defences and their control systems.

The WT-920 would be flown to Achenar and landed on Capitol, preferably at Duval City, the administration centre. The crew would disembark, and make their way to AAA batteries, radar stations, radio transmitters, and sabotage them. The targeting beacons would then be placed in or near military and police barracks, and the crew would return to the ship. Takeoff would activate the sabotage devices, and they would head for Fort Donalds, the orbiting city above Capitol that acted as a defence co-ordination centre and message relay centre. If the bomb were released into the launch bay, it would destroy it, and probably a large part of the station, rendering it inoperable. Then the improved Long Range Cruiser would be free to arrive and take whatever measures were necessary to end the war.

"So, you'll arrive once Fort Donalds is inoperative?"

"Yes. We'll try and time it so we arrive just after you've hyper-jumped away, but it will largely be guesswork, I'm afraid. Don't expect to see us while you're at Achenar."

"You're that confident we'll succeed?" Jameson asked sceptically.

"The odds are in your favour - the Empire will be taken by surprise, by a small force of non-military warriors who they thought were neutral, their key communications and defence facilities will be damaged or destroyed, and consequently their defence and security forces will be in disarray."

"What if the intelligence you give us is incorrect?"

"Most of the targets you'll have to mark or destroy should be pretty obvious to civilians - the Empire likes to impress and show off. Plus, you'll have your own memories of the place to work from as well."

"What if something goes wrong? What if the charges don't go off? What if we're searched? What if the viruses don't work?"

"There is a very low probability of anything going wrong, if the plan is followed properly. The charges and the viruses will work. If you're searched, the mission equipment will appear to be innocent extras."

"Yeah, okay. But supposing something does go wrong - how many Imperial Guard are we likely to be facing?"

"In Duval City itself, about two thousand troopers. Plus forty Viper Defence Craft that can be scrambled at twenty seconds plus notice. Each of the starports on Capitol will have forty Vipers, as will Fort Donalds. Stationed around the Achenar 6 sub-system are approximately five hundred fighters, Ospreys naturally, which may be ordered to intercept you. There don't appear to be any heavy ships in the area, and if there is a Cruiser in the system, it will be stationed near Baker Terminal, above Achenar 6a. If things are timed right, and all goes well, it need never know there was an incident until it's over."

"And how long do you think we'll survive against a full-sized Cruiser?" demanded Jameson.

"You'll have enough shields to withstand a quarter of a second of plasma-fire. Long enough for someone with quick reactions to press the hyperspace button."

"What makes you think I have quick reactions?" Jameson asked.

The Admiral pressed a button on the desk. A dart shot out of a picture on the wall to Jameson's left. He ducked, and it sailed harmlessly over the back of his neck. "That does," he replied.

Jameson had to put it to his crew, of course. He told the Admiral he felt they'd agree, and then left to tell them. They were enjoying an all-expenses paid holiday at the only five-star hotel at Eta Cassiopeia, on Feynman.

"So what you're saying is," said Paul, "that for thirty thousand credits for you, and two hundred credits for us, we get to blow up half the Imperial capital and risk getting cut to pieces by two hundred Vipers or five hundred Ospreys, or simply melted by a Cruiser."

"The thirty thousand is bounty money," said Jameson, "just like a courier job. Only this time we get six thousand each, not a hundred and twenty."

"But we still risk getting squelched," said Paul.

"You didn't seem to mind when I told you we were going to the Pleiades," said Jameson.

"I though there'd be no-one out there," Paul protested. "I was wrong."

"What I don't understand is, why you?" asked Anne.

"No-one else would do it," Jameson shrugged. "I don't think anyone else would have done it."

"You don't think the lure of a brand new ship with full equipment would have convinced someone to risk it?" asked Anja. She badly wanted a ship of her own, had done since before the Pleiades trip. She nearly had enough money for a shuttle, which she was going to race to win money to buy a fighter. She would use this to follow in Jameson's footsteps. Jameson had counseled her against it, advising instead to wait until she had enough for a combateer craft, unless she was very, very sure of herself.

"No-one wants to get in the sights of an Imperial Cruiser," said Sally. An ex-arms dealer, she had supplied the Federation with Imperial weapons research information, using a series of battered fighter ships between Facece and Arcturus, where she transferred to civilian charter transport. Jameson had carried her several times, and when things finally got too hot, she applied to join his crew. She had been with him three years before the Pleiades trip, and was quite eager to start up an arms sideline. This raid could be her chance to buy a Cobra and finally get a steady lucrative income. "I happen to know that Cruisers are only stationed at Achenar for two months at a time, with three month breaks in between. They do one show orbit of each planet, then go to Baker Terminal for their two months. We'll only have to worry about the fighters."

"All seven hundred of them," said Paul. He had graduated top of his class from the Mars Merchant Academy ten years ago - the year when the Merchant Academy couldn't secure insurance for replacements for lost spacecraft. Paul had been shot down after only six months - two weeks after buying a Viper and fitting it with an escape capsule. He never got a replacement ship, and consequently had been bumming round, trying to find work on starships, hoping to earn enough to buy another Eagle. After the Pleiades trip, he now had enough, and was merely waiting for Jameson to accept his resignation. "Assuming that we're unlucky and the Cruiser is there, how long would it take to get from six-a to six-d?"

"About eight hours," Sally replied. "We can be long gone by then."

"Great. So we can look forward to a slow death, rather than a quick one."

"No, we can look forward to being chased nearly half an AU while we go and scoop up fuel for a hyperspace jump," said Jameson. "We won't be able to carry all the equipment we've got as well as enough fuel for two jumps, and I doubt there'll be enough time to refuel at Duval City."

"Can't we get a military drive?" asked Paul.

"They don't make them that big," said Sally. "At least, not that I know of. Fighters may use military drives, but heavies use conventional drives, and Cruisers have to have theirs specially made, like Lynx Bulk Carriers."

"I did hear rumours of a Class 4 Military drive powering a Tiger just after I graduated," said Jameson, "but they petered out - so did the Tiger, apparently."

"That's not what they've given us, is it?"

"No, we've got a class five drive. Twelve lightyears range."

"Fast, but not too fast," said Anne. "Why a Tiger? Why not something else? What's wrong with a fighter, or a combateer?"

"Since the outbreak of war, the Military, and the rest of the Federation, has only had access to their own ship designs. The Federation builds airfighters, attack fighters, transports and heavy freighters," Jameson explained. "The Hawk, Kestrel, Falcon and Eagle are all too small. The Lion is too slow. And the Puma and Panther are just too damn lumbering. Getting a Tiger was the only viable option."

"But a Puma or Panther would have given us a chance against two hundred Vipers," said Anne. "They're big enough to carry about twenty shield generators, and they've got twin turrets."

"But they can't dodge, their control response is laughable, and their acceleration can be matched by a ground car. No, the Tiger really is the only option."

"Why hasn't the Federation got access to Independent ships?" asked Anja.

"Scared of losing neutrality," said Paul.

"Besides," said Jameson, "you ever tried getting an Indy ship cheap in Federal space?"

"No," admitted Anne. She had never tried getting any ship, since she was a trained engineer. The Vega Line Corporation trained her to be an engineer on their passenger liners. The repetitive runs with little to test her skills soon became boring for her, and she left at the earliest opportunity. She heard about Jameson's Pleiades trip and demanded to join, knowing that there would be lots of ways to test her skills to their full potential.

"So," said Jameson. "Are we all agreed? Do we go on this raid, and get a brand new ship, six thousand credits, and a fairly high degree of risk; or do you walk out on me, leaving me to find a new crew, while you squabble over who gets to keep the rust-ball that is DF-306?"

When he put it like that, they couldn't refuse.

Two days later, they made a start on the journey to Achenar. Their route was carefully planned and timed. From Eta Cassiopeia to 61 Cygni, then to Altair. From there, they followed the trade lanes to Arcturus, 36 Ophiuchi, CD-4611540 and Delta Pavonis. Then they entered the Empire with a jump to Exioce, then Vequess and finally Achenar. Once they arrived at Achenar they had a 60AU trip across the system to the gas giant that formed the centre of the Achenar 6 sub-system. They were attacked twice - Jameson had a fairly serious criminal record with the Imperial Guard, and still had a bounty on his head from eighteen years ago when he'd assassinated an Imperial Senator. Getting permission to land at Duval City proved no problem, but when the port authorities found out who the ship was piloted by, they insisted on a full search of the ship. Jameson and his crew were paraded in front of the ship while twenty members of the Imperial Guard searched the ship for anything suspicious. An officious Sergeant of the Guard, accompanied by a customs officer interrogated the crew.

"Name?"

"Jameson, Commander."

"Your first name's Commander?"

"I don't use a first name."

"Why not?"

"They're not necessary."

"Hmmph! Well, Commander, what is your purpose here?"

"A little trading, maybe a little sightseeing. Like my new camera?" he asked, holding up one of the targeting beacons.

"No," replied the Sergeant. "Why are you all armed, if all you're doing is sightseeing?"

"There's a war on, haven't you heard?"

The rest of Jameson's crew were listening in fascination. Jameson's dry wit and dead-pan delivery were legendary, both for getting him out of trouble, and getting him into it, as well as at open-mike nights at spacer bars. Even the Empire knew about it, as it was Jameson's bullshitting that had got him off the death penalty for the assassination.

"Are you Imperial citizens?"

"Do we sound like we are?"

The Sergeant fumed and snapped "Then why are you carrying hand weapons?"

"Someone's got to."

"Only Imperial citizens are permitted to carry hand weapons on Imperial worlds in times of war!"

"What about Imperial servicemen?"

"You are not enlisted!"

"I carry a Letter of Marque from the Empire, permitting me to act on behalf of your Navy, and to assume the title of Serf when interacting with said Navy."

"What about your crew?"

"They are in my employ, and therefore covered by the Letter of Marque."

The Sergeant fumed some more. "Which system did you visit before this one?"

"Vequess," replied Jameson, giving the double-ess an s-h sound, as approved by the Empire. "We refueled and restocked at Dickens Base."

"What is the registration of your ship?"

"WT-920. It's written on the side, can't you read?"

"Why did you choose Achenar as a trading location?"

"It seemed the safest place to be. I mean, the Federal Military aren't going to be able to mount a strike here, are they? Not like your Navy, they could attack virtually anywhere in the Federation at any point."

That did the trick. The Sergeant and the customs officer preened. "Are you defecting?" asked the customs officer.

"Don't be a prat," retorted Jameson.

Their eyes blazed, and they moved down the line. "Name?"

"Warrant Officer Anja Jordan of the Merchant Navy."

The Sergeant ran his eyes over her shapely figure in its' one-piece flight suit. "Age?"

"None of your bloody business!" she said.

"She's with me," said Paul.

"Oh yes? And who are you?"

"Commander Paul Anderson of the Merchant Navy."

The Sergeant glanced at Jameson. "Two Commanders on the same ship? Is that possible?"

"Three Commanders," he said. "They've been rather unlucky in their choice of ship and insurance broker. I was commissioned first, so I outrank them anyway."

"So what do you two do, then?" asked the Sergeant of Anja and Paul.

"Co-pilot."

"Gunner."

"Gunner? So you are equipped for combat?"

"We'd be stupid not to. I'm in the turret."

"I see. Do you have any hostile intentions?"

"Only if you continue eyeing-up my bird," Paul growled.

The Sergeant huffed and moved on. "Name?"

"Anne Nakasone, Chief Engineer."

"Not a member of the Merchant?"

"The Merchant only train commanders, not engineers."

"So by what authority do you claim your title?"

"Vega Line trained me, and I applied to join this crew two years ago."

"A little old, aren't you, to have only two years with a privateer?"

"Between Vega Line and two years ago I worked for the Mafia on an enforcer ship." She meant a ship used by the Mafia to make sure no-one was encroaching on their turf. Their crews were renowned for the bloodiness of their enforcement - typically, ships weren't destroyed, they were captured, the crew tortured, sometimes slaughtered, and the ship sent on autopilot to a remote starbase as a warning to others. The Sergeant hastily moved on.

"Name?"

"Commander Sally Austin, Cargo Supervisor."

The Sergeant eyed her as he had eyed Anja. "And why don't you have your ship?" he asked.

"The Mafia shot it down."

"And she's with me," said Jameson, from the other end of the line.

The Sergeant backed away. "Hhmph. Right, well, okay, fair enough," he said. "Provided your passports check out, and your ship is clean, you can have full access to this system as is your statutory right. Enjoy your stay."

They all flashed their passports at the customs officer, then trooped off into Duval City. "You never told me you were with the Mafia," Jameson said to Anne.

"That's because I wasn't. I lied to him because I could tell he was after my body."

"You should have told him you were still using it."

They went into the starport buildings to freshen up, and when they came out, they looked very much like locals. Paul and Anja were in T-shirts and jeans (Capitol was renowned for its mild climate), Sally was in a smart suit that befitted an officer's wife, and Anne and Jameson were in full Imperial uniform for their ranks. Neither uniform was impressive, which was good, because it wouldn't attract attention.

They entered the city, and began planting the targeting beacons and demolition charges that they had carefully concealed about their persons. Anne's many-pocketed engineer's jacket proved especially useful for carrying things, including the low frequency transmitter that would be used to download the viruses into the Anti Airborne Attack batteries control systems. The virus chips were wrapped in tissue paper and slid into the belt loops of Anja's jeans, where a plastic sheath kept them in place. Paul and Anja made good use of their cover as lovers to remove them. The circuit breakers were in the lining of Sally's jacket, and Jameson made good use of their cover as husband and wife to remove them, and pass them to Anne as his servant.

It was early evening when they finished, and they were just making their way back to the starport when a many-medalled officer that Jameson recognised as a Count in the Imperial Navy approached them. He was followed by a retinue of two Sirs, who wore the red flashings that denoted slave status.

"Jameson! Good to see you again! Heard you were dead up towards the Pleiades Cluster!"

"Good to see you too, Bradley," said Jameson through a forced smile.

"This the family?"

"Yes, and my crew." His crew were now all standing round Jameson. "Count Robin Bradley, this is Commander Sally Anderson, my wife, and those are Commander Paul Anderson and Warrant Officer Anja Jordan, my son and daughter-in-law. The engineer's my servant, Anne Nakasone."

"Pleased to meet you all," said Bradley. He looked at Sally again. "Face rings a bell. Ever done any business with the Navy?"

"Robin was on the task force supposed to catch illegal arms dealers, a while back," Jameson said before Sally could reply.

"Oh... I did a few things - hand weapon prototypes, that sort of thing," she said.

"Really? Fascinating. Listen, Jameson, you must come and have dinner with me this evening, catch up on things a bit."

"Bit rushed actually, Robin. Got a package to deliver over in Liabeze, been hanging around a while."

"It can't be that urgent, looks like you've been sightseeing all day."

"It's their honeymoon," Jameson confided, nodding towards Paul and Anja, "took them on a working holiday to the Empire, see the sights. Great scenery, you know."

"Not in Liabeze," Bradley remarked. "It's a mining colony."

"Got the package in Exioce. I'm going through Cegreeth on the way back."

"Now that is a sight to see," replied Bradley. "Now, come on, dinner."

"Bradley, much as I'd like to, I really can't."

"Well, I'm ordering you! You're in uniform, you can't duck out of an order. Bring the family, you can tell me how you all met, and what the Pleiades were like."

With no excuses left, Jameson led his crew after Bradley towards a posh restaurant overlooking a plaza. Paul walked next to him. "Dad, who is this nut, and how do you know him?" There was a trace of a smile on his face.

"He was my lawyer at my trial for the assassination eighteen years ago. Well - legal advisor. Knew jack-all about the law, probably still does. I talked my way out of a firing squad, and his family name did the rest. He was already in their Navy, ranked a Squire. Risen a good few ranks since then, mostly in anti-incursion and military irregularity departments. He thinks I'm quite the hero, since his first promotion and posting to a cushy number were thanks to 'his' performance at my trial - he knows it was really me who got him that job. We've kept in touch - the Empire wanting to keep tabs on me, I suppose."

"So why the happy families?"

"About fifteen years ago, he went after Sally Austin, who had stolen the plans to the latest Imperial defence satellite."

"I see. So she's still got a criminal record here, then?"

"Very likely. Now go and tell your lovely young wife, and remember that Anne is my servant, and is considered second class."

"What about his retinue?"

"They are Sirs, so they outrank me, but they are slaves, so they have no rights. Anne has more status than them, and so do we, but they'll be utterly loyal to Bradley, and won't hesitate to pull guns on us if we make a break for it."

Paul nodded and returned to Anja's side to fill her in on the details. Sally had been listening, and now asked "So what's my story now, then?"

"Your life up to twenty years ago is as you led it. Twenty years ago, you tried to sell the Imperial Navy a new sidearm, the Firedrop. They didn't buy it. You met me here, fell in love, and nine months later Paul was born. You caught up with me three years later, we married on Earth, and honeymooned at Vega."

"Twenty years ago, I was eight months out of the Academy!"

"Which was why you couldn't sell the Navy the Firedrop."

They reached the restaurant, curtailing any further discussion. For the next two hours, Bradley and Jameson caught up on what had been happening on their sides of the border in the past few years. A sticky point was the fact that Jameson had never mentioned the fact he was married, or had a son.

"Didn't want to spoil your perception of me as a lone hero, carving my way through the galaxy with just my ship and my wits," Jameson told Bradley. He seemed to buy it. Paul and Anja took to their roles as Jameson's children like ducks to water, and were obviously enjoying making up stories about their childhood to try and embarrass him. Anne was less thrilled with her role as servant - it meant she had to eat at a separate table with the Sirs (who didn't talk), and serve Jameson and the others whenever a new course was brought in. Eventually, the meal was over, and they parted company. Jameson and his crew hurried back towards the spaceport as fast as they dared.

"A couple of hours isn't going to matter much," said Anja, "they're not even going to arrive here for another ten days."

"You hope," replied Jameson. They reached the starport in good time, grabbed their things from the lockers where they left them, and rushed to their ship. They boarded, and Jameson and Anne began the pre-flight while the others changed. When everyone was ready, Jameson asked for launch clearance.

"Clearance denied, traffic control busy," came the reply. Jameson checked the scanner, it was blank.

"Busy my arse - they're stalling. I bet Bradley was sent to stall us too."

"Stalling? For what?"

"Perhaps they think we've planted bombs somewhere, and want us to still be around when they go off."

"But..." Anja began, and stopped. Jameson had a finger to his lips, and was using his other hand to check under the instrument panel.

"Blasted flies," he growled. "Paul! Anne! Sally! I've just spotted a bluebottle. You'd better hunt round in case the shore patrol let any more on board."

Anja nodded in understanding. They both checked the cockpit for bugs, while Paul, after a search of the turret, went to check the crew quarters. After ten minutes, the search was complete. There had been two bugs in the cockpit, another in engineering, one in the cargo bay, and one in the mess hall. Jameson collected them all in the airlock. "Placing concealed listening equipment on a neutral ship without the owner's consent is illegal. I can't be arsed going through the proper channels, so I'm just going to smash them," he spoke into them. He put them down and stamped on them, crushing them, then threw them out the airlock. He returned to the cockpit, where the rest of the crew was waiting. "Did anyone speak about the mission?"

"We had a laugh about dinner," Paul said.

"I said we'd be late," said Sally.

"But you didn't mention specifics?"

"No."

"Good, we've probably got away with it then. Right, back to your posts. Traffic control! Request launch permission!"

This time, they got it. Jameson waited until everyone was in place, then fired the engines. As they lifted off, the demolition charges went off. At the same time, circuit breakers cut in and viruses began their invasion of computer systems across the city. And the doors to the five hangars around the starport opened to reveal four Imperial Guard Vipers behind each.

"They knew!" hissed Paul from his turret. He could see it all.

Jameson and Anja could see on the scanner. Twenty red blips had just appeared, and Sally, in the rear gunner position, could see right into a hanger not forty metres away. Anne couldn't tell what was going on. "What's happening?" she demanded, as Jameson gunned the engines.

"Vipers launching! Red alert!" Jameson yelled. "They must have guessed our mission! They couldn't act until we did, so they forced us into rushing to make it look obvious!"

A message came over the speakers. "WT-920. Sabotage is not tolerated here. Stand down, or we will destroy you."

"Do you have proof?" Jameson demanded.

"You were followed," came the reply. "50% of your devices were disarmed."

"That you know of," snarled Jameson, pulling the nose up.

"Do I fire?" asked Paul.

"Only fire if fired upon," said Jameson, working to put as much distance between them and the starport as possible. Ten seconds later, eight red beams lanced towards the Tiger Trader, three of them hitting their target. "Return fire!" roared Jameson as he jerked the control column to provide a firing solution.

Sally opened up with the sonic frag gun, taking out two Vipers almost immediately. Paul fired on the nearest targets he could see, damaging two and crippling a third. Four more Vipers fired, and two fired missiles. Jameson activated the ECM, and the missiles self-destructed. Paul took out two of the pursuers, then Jameson cut power and spun the ship. The 20MW main laser scythed a path of destruction through the Vipers, wiping out most of them with a single hit. Jameson got them back on course and gunned the engines again, putting as much distance between the WT-920 and Duval City starport before the second wave of Imperial Guard Vipers could be launched.

 

And so it was that twenty minutes later two Vipers caught them in a crossfire, taking out the shields and disabling the starboard engine. Jameson fought for control alone in the cockpit, as the Vipers swarmed around him. Momentum was carrying them towards Fort Donalds, but un-powered and under fire, they were slowing.

Anja arrived at the rear gunner's position and saw Sally trapped under the gun, with one hand trapped over her chest. She was trying desperately to lift the barrel with her left hand, but it weighed nearly a quarter of a tonne. Anja dived to her side and tried to lift the barrel, but it was too heavy. "Can you breathe properly?" she asked.

"Just about," gasped Sally through gritted teeth.

"We need a pulley! I'll see what I can find!" Anja left for engineering, where she found Anne unconscious and Paul trying to bypass the burned out laser cooling device. "I need a pulley and sling!" she shouted.

"How am I supposed to know where that is? Use your belt, or something!" Paul replied. It had been years since he'd had to do any serious engineering work, and was close to panic. He was disconnecting cables from around the main cooling system, and attaching them to the auxiliary cooler, using trial and error to find the correct connections that would allow the lasers to be fired.

Anja dashed to her cabin, where she grabbed all her belts from her wardrobe. She ran back to the rear gun position and began linking them together. She looped a thick leather one round the barrel, and used a thinner leather one to take the main weight. She draped the next one over a pipe near the ceiling, and the next one went under the ammunition chute. The other belts were fabric, so she doubled them up and pulled them over another pipe near the ceiling.

"Will it work?" grunted Sally.

"Cross your fingers," replied Anja. "Right, on the count of three, push. One. Two. Three!" She heaved on the makeshift pulley, and Sally pushed up with her free hand. The heavy barrel rose a few inches. "Can you get out?"

Sally tried wriggling out from the seat, but it was cramped in the small bay, and she couldn't hold the barrel up as well as move out of the way, she just wasn't strong enough. "Ammo crate," she said, desperately.

Anja looked, and saw a crate of spare ammunition near her foot. It was a metre square. She got her foot round it and shoved it towards the gun barrel. With a little help from Sally, they wedged it under the barrel, giving Sally a few more inches of space. She crawled out, exhausted. "Are you okay?" Anja asked.

"My arm's broken, I think. I'd better get something done."

Anja grabbed another belt and used it to make a makeshift sling, while she explained. "Anne's unconscious. Paul's in engineering trying to bypass the coolant system. Until he does, we've got no weapons. Then he's got to try and fix the engine, and I don't think he can."

"Okay, I'll go. I don't know if I'll be much help, but I can't operate a gun turret with one hand."

Sally went to Engineering to help Paul while Anja returned to the cockpit. She told Jameson what had happened.

"Right. I've got enough control to keep us out of their laser beams, but we can't fight back until we either bypass the cooling system, or we get the main engines fixed. You get to engineering and help them, I've been dodging enemy fire since before your first day at kindergarten."

Anja went, leaving Jameson to do what he was famous for - flying. She arrived at engineering to find Sally and Paul working together on the cooling system. She decided to start work on the engines when Paul exclaimed "Yes! We have weapons!" He dashed to the intercom. "We've got the laser cooling system working! The main system's burnt out, so we're on auxiliary. That means pulse mode, so don't expect too much!"

It was enough for Jameson. A 20MW laser, pulse fired, was still a fearsome weapon. A direct hit could easily cripple a Viper, and Jameson was a very good shot. With so many targets to choose from, it was a case of when, not if, each Viper would be destroyed. Still gliding towards Fort Donalds, Jameson kept turning the nose and hitting the fire button when a Viper went past the gunsight. The reaction control jets were working overtime, and their fuel was nearly spent - normally they were only used for landing and docking, but with the main engine out, the attitude rockets couldn't be fired.

In the engine room, Anne had woken up. She was working to tap power from the main engines into the auxilliary cooler, so it would be able to dissipate the heat given off by continuous firing of all weapons. The other three worked on getting those engines working again. All the electric components on the starboard engine had overloaded - fuel management, ignition, driver coils, containment, sequencer, all were out. The only damaged parts were the driver coils and the sequencer, which needed to be replaced. Once they had, the whole thing would work. Replacing the burnt-out sequencer was easy (every ship carried spares), but the driver coils weighed twelve tonnes each, and there were two to each engine. Anja momentarily stopped undoing one of forty restraining nuts.

"Anne, is there any reason why we can't just fire up the engines now, and sod the driver coils?"

"Yes. The coils accelerate reactants into the fusion chamber, and exhaust products out the back. If the reactants aren't going fast, no reaction occurs. If the exhaust isn't going fast, it won't provide enough thrust to move us, and it'll clog up the exhaust port and blow us up. Besides, the engines'll be unbalanced, so they wouldn't fire even if you tried."

Paul darted past with one side of the winch straps. "Come on, get unscrewing! We're sitting ducks without engines!"

Anja obeyed as Paul attatched the winch to the driver coil. When all eighty restraining nuts were off, he ordered Anja and Sally clear, then started the motor winch and lifted the coil away. "Coil one, clear!" he called. "Coil two, incoming!" The replacement coil swung ponderously over the engine, and Paul lowered it into place. "Ready!" Anja and Sally began fastening it in place with the nuts they had just taken off the old coil. After a minute, Paul began unhitching the winch and maneuvering it over the the other coil.

"Coil two secure!" called Sally, when she finished. They moved on to the new one, and now Anne joined them, having finished the modifications to the laser cooling booster. The second coil was replaced much faster than the first with her help, and the starboard main engine was ready.

"Clear!" she ordered. Paul and Anja jumped down from where they were and headed for their posts. Sally scrambled clear and joined Anne at the main control panel. "Everything in place, circuits secure, readouts normal for shutdown." She tapped the startup code, and several lights on the panel turned green.

Nothing else happened.

"Shit!"

"What's wrong?" asked Sally, as Anne made her way to the engine.

"Keep an eye on those lights," Anne ordered, "let me know when each one changes. Engines are at shutdown status, so a failsafe must have closed the fuel valves. Got to open them manually."

The green lights were already turning back to red. First the inlets, then the heaters, then the chargers, then the coils, then the distributers turned red. Only the containment and sequencer lights stayed green. Sally called each one out as it changed. Then the lights indicating the inlet valves turned green. "Inlet valves ready!" called Sally.

"Both chambers?"

"Yes!"

"What about exhaust?"

"Still red!" Sally waited as Anne fiddled about under the engines. Then six more lights turned green. "Main exhaust and attitude rocket exhaust ready, both engines!"

"Great!" Anne replied, and hauled herself out from under the engines. She hurried to the panel, gave it one last look, and tapped the startup code. Distributers, coils, chargers, heaters, inlets, ignitions, exhaust coils and finally the 'reaction in process' lights turned green. They could hear the low rumbling of the reaction behind the noise of battle outside, indicating that, at last, they had power.

"Engineering to bridge," she spoke into a comm unit.

"What?" Anja's voice replied.

"Engines are running at cold status. It'll be ten minutes before they're running hot and we can move, but for now, all ship systems should be functioning at full power, and you should be able to use the lasers properly."

"Remind me to give you a bonus!" Jameson replied. Then "Lasers are still on pulse mode! Get them working, woman!"

Anne dived to the cooler and opened a panel. She flipped some switches and called "Try it now!"

A pause, then Jameson replied "Wonderful! Now what about shields?"

Sally checked the board. "Shields holding at one per cent."

Anne joined her. "I can get them up to ten, but you won't get more until the engines are at full strength."

"We are facing two hundred Vipers," Jameson snarled, "I'm sure I don't have to draw you a picture!"