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Prologue

   A dozen ships hung silent and motionless in a jumbled formation over the Mohawk L-point. The largest of them was a heavy corvette, that looked as though it had been constructed from a dozen different ships each of different liveries and markings. In fact every ship in the group, from the other dreadnaught-class corvette to the patcoms, cutters, tugs and a freighter all bore the colours and markings of different clans, companies, and organizations. Like their lead ship, most were chimera of parts cobbled from several different ships. Like their lead ship, they waited in silence.

   An energy spike at the LaGrange point heralded the arrival of the vessels they awaited. Soon they would see the small bubbles of capsule space force themselves to rejoin our universe in a visible flash as different physical realities forced themselves to reconcile. The ships within these capsules were about to be returned to normal space, and dropped directly into the trap laid for them. On board the heavy corvette, commanding the waiting group, a single message to the entire group broke the silence.

   “Target only those vessels designated by me. We’ll take out the strongest escorts first, then cripple the rest, starting with the freighters. Do this quickly and exactly as I direct you. Anyone who tries to get creative gets vaporized. Stand by.”

   Four city-class freighters, all fully loaded, emerged at the L-point. The League-registered freighters were immediately followed by an escort of League vessels: two corvettes and four armed tugs. Comms burst to life in a cacophony of chatter and panicked warnings. The alerts came too late. One League corvette, the MARSALIS was already cut to pieces and dying in a series of explosions, the second, the BELGRANO had succeeded in launching two missiles and fired off a few PBC shots before succumbing to a withering barrage of PBC fire. It tumbled away from the L-point badly damaged; once it was no longer a combat threat, the attackers turned their attention elsewhere. The freighters were targeted next, to entice them to lighten their loads. One League tug erupted in a flash of expanding gas, hull plates and structural components as it attempted to protect the freighters. The remaining tugs were quickly disrupted or damaged, forced into submission by the group of pirate vessels. They were completely overwhelmed. The freighters had already been halted and were dumping their cargo. Pods were transferred to the waiting freighter, tugs plucked a few more out, and the rest were left to drift amongst the crippled League ships.

   It was all over within a few minutes. The pirate freighter and tugs had departed with their looted cargo, all leaving on different vectors once they’d exited the LDSi field. The heavy corvette and its escort supervised the final stages of the operation before offering a single message to the stunned League survivors in their damaged ships.

   “Thank you for your contributions to the growing needs of The Weeds. Remain exactly where you are until we’ve withdrawn. Have a nice day.”

   A single League spider-class tug, the SPARKY, just free of the effects of the disruptor missile that had crippled it, turned to bring its forward weapons to bear on the nearest pirate patcom. It never completed its turn, nor did it have a chance to fire a single shot. The pirates had been ready for heroics, and dealt with it swiftly in a concentrated hail of PBC and cutting beam fire. The SPARKY exploded in one violent spasm. The shockwave felt by its final destruction dissipated into the emptiness of space leaving nothing but memory as evidence of its existence.

_____

   Mohawk Docking Station was described by most of its visitors as a “backwater” station. The administrators, workers, and inhabitants who found themselves still there after a few years simply referred to it as “home”. Two men in their early twenties, Arne and Jukka Saarinen, strolled one of the main corridors of the station, looking for a place to eat. Jukka was the younger of the two by three years, and he stood a full head taller than his half brother Arne. He was heavyset, and moved with an awkwardness that falsely implied clumsiness. In fact Jukka and Arne were both remarkably adept when it came to scrambling around and between the machinery and mechanical mazes of shipboard engine rooms. They had been raised aboard an asteroid mining rig. The drilling and ore-processing rig had been a family-run enterprise for as long as they could remember, and that was the problem. Shipboard systems had been their playground and classroom, and they’d had enough of it. Both of them had the straight nose and strikingly light blue eyes of their shared paternal line. They also shared the desire to get out into the Badlands on their own, and make their own way. They dreamed of finding adventure, fortune, and most of all: female companionship. Arne, athletic looking and the darker of the two, had his mother’s smaller bones, but his father’s thirst for excitement. Jukka tended to be the voice of reason, but not always. Especially when they’d gotten a few drinks into them.

   The two of them were walking toward the main intersection of the 3rd level, heedless of the looks they were drawing from station residents, as they discussed their next stop. Jukka held the e-pad up in front of Arne, as if to emphasize a point he was trying to make.

   “We still haven’t gotten everything on the captain’s list.” Jukka protested. “He specifically told us to make sure we’d completed the provision order and arranged for its delivery before we considered ourselves on ‘leave’. All we need is to go to the outfitters by the dock, and THEN we can go to the rec level. He’s going to be pissed as it is, if he finds out we’ve stopped for a beer already.”

   Arne waved at the e-pad as if dismissing Jukka’s argument. “Yeah, but we still have to eat, don’t we? I’m hungry NOW. Let’s go the rec level, grab a quick bite, and since we’ll be there already, we’ll just have a look at the casino. I promise we won’t stay long. Just a couple of drinks, maybe one spin of the wheel, OK?”

   “And what are we going to gamble with? We haven’t been paid yet, and we can’t dip into our savings from home.” Jukka was starting to sound a little frightened as he grasped Arne’s intentions. “No WAY. Not yet!”

   Arne was unfazed and continued his smooth sales pitch. “All we have to do is use SOME of those savings. I can pretty much guarantee you we can build our savings up two or three times what we already have in one afternoon. I know it’s meant for emergencies like getting us back to the SOLVEIG from wherever, but we’ve been gainfully employed for more than three months now. There’s no emergency. I just want to ‘grow’ it a little. That’s all.” Arne turned at the intersection toward the lift that would take them to the rec level.

   Jukka caught up with him and grabbed his arm, spinning him halfway around to face him. “That’s not YOUR money to play with. It’s OURS. And I say we leave it alone. You’re not going to gamble with my ‘escape pod’.”

   “Jesus, Jukka! Sometimes you can be such a…” Arne’s words were interrupted by a loud broadcast over the station-wide announcement system. The public announcement system was usually the source of easy-to-ignore background music, or even-easier-to-ignore advertising announcements.

   “Attention. Attention. Code White. All security and station personnel please proceed immediately to level two, section C. Repeat: Code White. All security personnel please proceed to level 2, section C.”

   Arne looked up at the nearest speaker nestled between a pair of dying plants suspended from the ceiling, and said. “Hey, section C. That’s where the bar is. We just came from there. That’s where we saw Janeane, isn’t it? I’ll bet a thousand creds that call was because of her!”

   Jukka turned and headed away from the lift toward the docking area. “What did I say about gambling?! Let’s get the last of the stuff on the list. Then we’ll go get that drink. Janeane can take care of herself.”

___

   First Mate Terrence Vassiliakis stood in the doorway of his captain’s office, just a few metres down the hall from the main bridge. Terry was a tall lean man whose hair had gone silver white many years earlier. This had the effect of making him look older than his years when he was in his thirties and forties, but now simply made it very difficult to estimate his age. A man of very few words, considerable wisdom, and calm disposition, he had become an important consultant and friend to his captain. Captain Carl “Rudy” Rudnicki sat at the workstation that served as his office desk, elbows resting on the flatscreen and his head bent forward as he kneaded his temples and forehead with his thumbs and fingers. Terry’s voice was remarkably calming as he spoke in his slowed Kompiran idiom.

   “Look Carl, you’re the captain and I’m the first mate, so ultimately it’s your call. I’ve been your first officer for, what, coming up on three years now, right? And we’ve been friends for longer than that. You’ve almost always asked my opinion, and I’m always happy to oblige. We both know how badly we need a contract right now. I’m just saying that we should be more careful right now. We don’t know this Angelion Shipping Company at all.”

   Rudy sighed again, stopped massaging his temples and looked sideways at Terry. “I agree, but this was Aggie telling me about the contract, not just anyone. I ran into him earlier today when I was on the station. He said he was here on business, trying to find an independent hauler for a new client. I practically had to drink him under the table to give it to us.” He looked like he was still suffering the ill effects of that feat. “We’ve known Aggie for a long time.” He paused to emphasize his next point. “I’ve known him for longer than I’ve known you, and he’s never screwed me over. I trust him. Besides, I owe him money.” He turned his head and looked back down at the surface of the darkened screen between his elbows. “I owe a lot of people money. The fact that our return contract load still hasn’t shown up means that we’re losing money waiting for it, and our port fees continue to climb. We simply can’t afford to sit here and wait any longer. This new contract will get us back into the black with a little left over.”

   Terry shrugged his shoulders in reply. He took a step back into the corridor that ran the length of the command deck, and looked toward the bridge. There was an expression of resignation on his lined face. “Not much to discuss, then, is there? We need the money, and this contract is it. When do we start?”

   “Probably tomorrow. I need to go over the contract, then get some sleep. Tell Marney she’s got watch, then get some sleep yourself.” Rudy said.

   Terry nodded, the expression on his face remained neutral, but his eyes betrayed a hint of concern.