"Jolly Rogue"

Morning comes unnoticed on the frontier. At Horace Memorial Research Base, it's met with indifferent shrugs as a second set of workers hurriedly starts their shift, hornets in a nest. Last week there was another attack on a freighter carrying supplies, cutting down food rations to three-quarters. The hydroponics lab is back in action, but the vegetables taste like guano and the cultured meat like Playtex. Master Sorenson shakes his head and takes another sip of coffeehol. When will those damned mercenaries finally start taking the fight to the pirate nations?

H.M.R.B. revolves silently around Orpheus, a small gas planet in the Pelagon System. A commission colony classed scientific, its entire population of fifteen families all linked to the Sorenson dynasty is either busy at work studying the hardy alien microbes that dwell on the potato-looking asteroids Orphy calls moons, or getting ready for another six-hour sleep. Hundreds of kilometers away, the base's silent protector yawns and inspects his engines for the nth time. Somewhere in hyperspace, the Colonial Authority transport sent to restock the base suddenly gets a new set of coordinates and instructions.

And there is the heavily armed shark of space, ready to rob and kill them all.

The freebooter, née privateer was a cutthroat fellow with frugal tastes and expensive kills. He was no showy assassin, nor faux-humble bounty hunter. Nor was he an idiot armed escort, or Tengri forbid! a wretched raider scourer or pirate killer. No, he was once a privateer, a high-class pilot immersed in corporate intrigue and political maneuvering, flying sorties out in Sol, Great-8, and Terra space alike, never out for the highest bidder, yet never too attached to his home nation/corporation to resist a good price in exchange for swapping colors.

His name and nation is unimportant. However, his modus operandi is.

The ex-privateer did not prefer his legal status as "renegade," or his occupational condition of "freebooter." Ugh, the military always had their dreadful epithets on the J-Net, as if they were able to specify every single possible profession and condition a freelancer could have. Besides, he much preferred something along the lines of "loose cannon" or "rogue agent." Yes, loose cannon. It would fit perfectly.

Twenty jobs ago, he had grown tired of playing it safe by sticking close to the Terra System, which meant that he was on pretty good terms with the Colonial Authority. Sure, he was allowed to give the military men a good scare when they grudgingly called him to service, as his country was in the GAMDC's alliance at the time, but he got tired of it all. Admirals preaching, always throwing good ships and guns away against Aliens or stellarists, never really get their act together. Even being able to sail freely under his banner with letters of marque got him too constrained; there wasn't anyone worth a damn to fight! Sure, they had him raid the supply ships of so-and-so country's meager colonization program, or told him to destroy that-and-that company's threat against the monopoly, but they were usually protected by armed escorts, mercenaries of one of the lowest degrees. At one point, they even gave him a job to be an armed escort, by protecting a civilian ship of all spaceboats, some scientific craft carrying experimental samples. It was pricey stuff, alright, but the operation was so unimportant that there was absolutely no chance of action for anyone to disrupt the delivery, and so the privateer didn't have any action to look forward to. And it scared him. He didn't want to become just another career schmill.

And so he resigned. He made it clear by hijacking the transport compartments, destroying the transport, and completely bombing the hell out of the fighter squadron assigned to accompany him on the job. A few days later, he sold the experimental stuff to a shifty spotcoatted backlab operator on Atropos.

The only negative thing was that now he was instantly marked by all legitimate spacefaring governments, declared a freebooter, and condemned to die. But hey! The ex-privateer now has plenty of swashbuckling to look forward to, and so he relished it.

Ever since that humiliating assignment, he has hit a science vessel every few months, always GAMDC property. He likes to think that he's making the competition more even for the mom-and-pop space businesses barely eking out an existence outside of Gam-cee stranglehold.

As in any typical mission, he likes to combine the grace and stealth of a panther, the duplicity and deceit of a serpent, and the raw firepower of a 'roided Mariner, in that order.

He had made a warpjump made into the position where Orpheus was directly between him and the base. The flight to the station was extended considerably, but it was worth the caution. He then slowly continued on, neutralizing any sensors he could detect. As he expected, when had barely crossed to the other hemisphere of the gas giant, Horace Memorial's guardian-for-hire reared his ugly head.

The commission colony was a low-level one, beyond the care of the Colonial Authority's protection. Fortunately, the old patriarch Sorenson had hired a mercenary in one of the more exclusive sections on JobNet, an armed escort with more skills and guile than the usual. The paid hero had hidden in the upper reaches of the planet's atmosphere, his ship hidden in a snug, beaten-up metallic envelope disguised as a trash metal orbital platform. The merc was sneaky enough to burst out of the shell and head for the loose cannon in a roundabout flight, immediately launching his formidable particle beam guns. The freebooter grinned- his foe flew a trashy-looking Machete-class fighter, all barrels, weak scanners, neither speedy nor sturdy. Maybe it was augmented, but he doubted that the craft was any better than his; he took one-man freebooting seriously as a fine art.

Machete: one-man fighter, mercenary ship. Engine: Augmented W-4. Weapons: Standard laser gun, particle beam cannon, gamma ray gun, 5x Harbinger homing missiles, 7x Pelican torpedoes. Auto-Shield equipped.

Loose cannon's Epée was a small one-man fighter but hid an arsenal of weapons both deceiving and devastating. He took the first particle beam hits with stride, and launched his Gun Satellite, which detached from the underbelly of his fighter and flew head-on at the mercenary ship. The armed escort was distracted momentarily as the gunsat shot at him with a triple-shot of green rays, bringing down his shields so that the freebooter could hit him with an EMP round.

The ASM made a slight popping sound as the Machete's shields disappeared, along with his guidance, navigation, and weapons systems. The freebooter had made a lucky shot after the gunsat had hit the armor at a critical point. The armed escort, having lost control of his ship, continued to fly off in the same vector, gradually accelerating away from the freebooter, Orpheus, and the Pelagon System itself. At about twenty kilometers away, the freebooter fired a homing missile, which chased after the Machete until there was nothing left of both except for a cloud of ionized plasma.

Not missing a beat, a mixed squadron of three Daggers and two Bayonets flew out of the base, heading towardsthe Epée for an attack run. For most military pilots, he was in a bad position to be- in his fight against the armed escort, he was oriented so that the bottom of his ship was directly facing the open hangar door, completely vulnerable.

Daggers: one-man fighters, general-purpose ships. Engine: Military standard. Weapons: Standard laser gun, 2x Standard torpedoes. No Auto-Shield.

Bayonets: two-man fighters, interceptor ships. Engine: Military standard Mk. IV. Weapons: Standard double laser guns, 3x Ballad torpedoes, 2x Oracle homing missiles. Auto-shield equipped.

Before they started, the renegade sent them an announcement: "All who withdraw from this match shall keep their lives without cost. All else remain for your demise. I have no wish to hurt women or children." When none left, he cried a mighty "En garde!"

Not breaking a sweat, the gunsat revolved around the ship to the bottom and blasted away, severely damaging the shields of two Daggers. The freebooter followed it up by rotating to face the attackers and shot the Daggers with the EMP. One had its shields down, and instantly lost all control. The Bayonet behind it collided into it, its shielding completely wiped out along with its armor, chassis, and everything else in a blaze of ignominy. Bayonets were supposed to be tough. The other proved to be no more, as the freebooter neatly zapped the shields with a one-burst high-powered maser followed by the EMP. This time, the pilot turned out to be smarter, dodging right after the shields dropped to escape the freebooter's signature weapon. The renegade shrugged and turned to destroy another Dagger with a torpedo, one that had been stupid enough to face him directly with eighty percent of its shields missing.

That left one Dagger and one Bayonet. The two were smart enough this time to work in tandem, especially frustrating since all three were going into a typical spaceduel- the enemies flew against each other, unloaded their weapons, then fired thrusters at an angle so the ships would become vertical in relation to its earlier position, drop back to the horizontal position a distance away from each other, and then return once again. The freebooter frowned on such tactics- so coarse, like archaic horseback jousting. So, tiring of the sport, he simply adjusted his rockets to slow his movement the third time he realigned his ship for the duel, sat in position, and fired his missiles and torpedoes. While the other two ships had made some progress earlier by flanking him on two sides, damaging his shields, they were now quickly cut down.

They hadn't been military, or mercenaries. They were no more or less pilots who had lived and died for their colony.

Within his Epée, the renegade saluted the men. Their loss was his gain, and it was gentlemanly to acknowledge it. He fired at the base 21 times in salute.

Aboard the base, the dynasty's savant-colonists heaved a collective sigh of "Blast, we're piffed."

The freebooter turned his attention to them, flicking on the comm. system. "Attention, fair tinkers, this is your amicable local loose cannon speaking. My sources tell me that recently your base has received a hefty shipment of asteroid crystal. How that relates to studying space lichen, I can't possibly know. But we both know that the refined crystal is quite… treasured in the proper markets. So I would be very delighted if you would share your crystal with me. All of it."

He hoped that he had sounded both intimidating as well as dashing enough.

In any case, the colonists quickly gave in. The axle the torus-shaped base rotated around shifted a little as compartments rode on external tracks on the side of the colony's hull. When it faced the Epée, the colonists launched the compartment, a giant metal box holding hundreds of tons of crystal.

It flew for a minute, as the base was still relatively far away from the ship.

"Much obliged. Please wait a tic," said the freebooter with a smile.

He sent a probebot flying to intercept the compartment. The device was more former than latter, not much more than some sharp sensors in a sphere connected to arm-like grasping tools and propelled by rockets. The probebot met the box and held on to the side with the arms, telescoping a metal proboscis out of the sphere chassis and connecting the scanner to the box. It scanned for a few seconds as the probebot's thrusters fired, slowing both to a near stop.

Standard cargo box: 50x50x20 meters, composed of space-steel alloys, propelled by SchemaSort official cargo rockets. Contents: 250.23 tons of high-quality flammable commercial incendiary materials.

After a moment, the freebooter spoke. "So, what's group of nice civvy frontiersmen doing with hundreds of tons of Splamo! in a box meant to contain looty?"

He then instructed the probebot to fly the shipment back to the orbital slowly.

Someone finally radioed him back. "Sorry! Er… must've gotten the wrong shipment last time. The military, y'know, not that reliable."

The freebooter chortled. "Well, that's to be expected. Now send me the crystal-box or I'll blow your bliddly bollocks off."

They complied, and he jollily shot the explosives-box at an angle so it collided with one of the far points of the axle, lighting up the void around. Disappointingly, it had contained less Splamo! than he expected, and didn't even damage the actual torus. So he then proceeded to fire his laser at the weak points of the base a few times before letting loose his EMP cannon. Alive or dead, it would still be the last time this band of peoneers doubted the accuracy and perception of an ex-privateer… loose cannon.

"Just a favor returned!" he laughed through the comm. "By-the-by, colonials!"

And he warpjumped at the exact moment two military battleships abruptly appeared in the system.

But not before the military Rapier cloaked right behind him transmitted a germ.

OOOOO

"Blast it, what the hell are your boys doing?" demanded Master Sorenson.

The members of the secret ops force sketched out the plan, and he shook his head.

"This is the sort of dissembled, high-tech crap job that would never have worked in the Belt Conflict," he said, displaying his age.

"We understand that, elder. But this is time for grand discoveries."

The older man snorted and drank more coffeehol. "Each new generation says that. I do not forget so easily."

"Think of all of your cousins and nephews who died from the attacks."

"I know. I also think of the late shipments. I give you full authority within my commissioned lands."

"Thank you, sir. We shall avenge your kinsmen."

"You'd better!"

OOOOO

It's pretty much impossible to locate anything within hyperspace by the human eye, but the freebooter ex-privateer loose cannon could tell there was something wrong.

A man of impeccable care, his massive array of sensors and gyros required the consistency of his onboard computer, or his scan-'em and stun-'em tactics would be only half intact, or less. It wasn't until five minutes into hyperspace that the tronics started going haywire, the letters and figures scrolling erratically and his screen even sparking a few times. But before that, he knew he had been set up.

It's purple.

Hyperspace, as any decent spacefarer knows, looks no more than a tunnel of love on noxes. A hallucination-seeker's ultimate fantasy, one can see billions upon billions of spatial phenomena up, down, right, left, and in your face protruding from a hyperspace canal. And behind it, like an old tablecloth studded with billions upon billions of holes, is space, black as a penguin in a tuxedo.

Except now it's purple.

Which meant that someone somehow macked their way into his computer, re-routed his destination, and caused him to diffuse their way, against the will of his previous plans. With his hyperdrive now incorrectly calibrated, his hyperspace route was all screwy. Warpjumping's a complicated mode of movement. But if someone manages to take you over, then they're probably someone quite considerable.

The freebooter shrugged. If it's Colonial Authority, then finally. He's been willing to fight the military leadlegs ever since the day he took out their affiliated transport and their squadron of Skeans. New and maneuverable, his eye patch! They died as easily as any slow-stomached ship from the inner core.

He smacked the computer a few times, but it refused to budge. He cursed, but fortunately he had back-up systems for his sensors, and could even check his engine and weapons status with them. The worst thing about it was that whatever 'jacked him was powerful enough to utterly defeat his flamewall and heroware programs.

The Epée materialized in the middle of a patch of nothingness, just as he planned. But he wasn't in the Deneb System, he gathered once his computer unexpectedly stopped seizing up and told him something useful. The closest object was a dim red star the size of a fist below his ship. Using that and other stellar observations, the computer extrapolated his current location: Not on the Charts.

A grin. This was definitely military territory. A special invitation, just for him? He wondered which branch of the Unholy Triad was hosting him. An uncharted star could mean that GAMDC owned this land somewhere beyond the frontier, or maybe it was under the dominion of the Colonial Authority- the actual military.

The sensors picked up an object in flight in the distance. It appeared for a moment, then flickered invisibly.

Or maybe it's Secret Ops.

ASM was on, but the freebooter could hear nothing. That meant the ship could either mask its special spatial signals- impossible, period. Or it could fly fast enough to escape detection. Certainly ASM choked up and died whenever anything involving hyperspace was involved.

He turned up the ASM so that he could hear his own ship moving forward slowly, the sound of a light gale as he flew at a hundred km. a second. Nothing. He boosted up the aural synthesizers up enough so he could hear the star moving in the distance, a sound like waves crashing into hot lava, steam rising. Nothing. He cranked it up so loud the very stars in the area joined in the chorus, shrieks of steam sizzling until they became static, the sensors unable to satisfy his high requisites.

Nothi- something.

The freebooter had heard everything, from the great rolling military fleets out for bug-hunting to the metal-on-ice screeching of the AFBs themselves. This was different. It whistled through the air, whooshing like an arrow with an odd reverb effect following the initial sound, an audio afterimage. It came from no distinct location, but from all around the Epée, appearing faintly, calling out for a few seconds, and disappearing.

The freebooter activated his gunsat and launched a probebot. It scanned the surrounding area, and was blasted into smithereens. Its owner shrugged. This at least told him where the enemy ship was.

He flew towards the spot, the red star growing larger and larger until it was the size of a basketball. Then the Adjudicator appeared.

It was an eerie ship, post-industrialist design, all covered in ugly angles. From above it looked like an asterisk, its main body and wings forming a cross, while four bizarre metal tubes protruding out from the cross in the shape of an x. Some rumored they were exhaust ports, other they were more rockets. Few have ever seen the experimental craft, and there were no recorded tales of anyone actually facing one in combat. Secret Ops and deep black status and all that.

The renegade snorted. "Adjudicator." A self-important, sanctimonious name, like any of the military's so-called superfighters. The Sword-class fighters and bombers were as potentially dangerous- it only depended on the pilot and the configuration.

Of course, those were the two things the Unholy Triad specialized in- along with control of all of the resources, the ability to mold colonial society into its own liking, legitimacy granted by the Earth powers, the inclination to actually govern the mess, and scads and scads of credits, military superiority was what made GAMDC, Secret Ops, and the Colonial Authority and its military (what's the difference) the rulers of the outer universe.

But to the freebooter- Sagacity, Vindicator, or Adjudicator, superfighters were just merc ships, except the mercs were the highest bidders with the highest kills. This ship may be speedy, but its shiny-sleekness belied its soulless, corporate-manufactured origin. It would prove to be no match for a pilot of heart and courage, no matter his legal status. The freebooter locked on to the superfighter and gave chase.

He immediately found out that his EMP couldn't do any damage- even with its heavy shields down, the armor would reflect such a pulse. Ray and particle guns had little effect as well on the actual craft, though they tore through the shields. So he would have to rely on explosives. How crude.

The Adjudicator, black as space, flew away from the star, the two rear lines of the "x" blinking blue. The freebooter marveled at its maneuverability, and its aft weapon's surprising accuracy. Probably computer guided, which was cheating, or at least expensive. Automated weapons, such as the gunsat, tended to rely on overwhelming force rather than hitting the correct weak spot. The Adjudicator, on the other hand, quickly brought down the Epée's front shielding and almost hit the cockpit.

Unidentifiable Spacefaring Object??? Not recognized by official Colonial Authority database!

The renegade fought back bitterly, no longer amused. He twisted and rolled, firing explosives. The enemy was agile enough to avoid his wasted torpedoes, so he focused on the gunsat and the missiles. The Adjudicator hurt him greatly, but didn't put up a full fight- he could have been space dust in the first five minutes had the Secret Ops pilot put out his full force in a real duel.

The freebooter realized this as they flew farther from the star. He also saw that the Adjudicator was leading him on to go faster and faster. So he decelerated, spun, and flew away from the superfighter. The freebooter thought himself wily enough to escape a military trap. He was mistaken.

Another craft appeared out of hyperspace in front of him. It completely blocked his view of the sun. Incidentally, the sun was only the size of a Christmas light by that point. But size was not what mattered.

The ship was red, scaly, almost swollen-looking. It was the beyond the horrors of the human imagination, an almost organic-looking behemoth that gibbered softly into the ASM. It looked like a magma octopus with its tentacles removed mating with a bagpipe that had no pipes but instead was made of rock and crystal. It gleamed on wavelengths that dipped into the visual range, shimmering its borders with unholy light.

A true Alien vessel.

This was no saucer, not even a star cruiser. This was something of a different class entirely, nay, of an entire school. This ship… or was it a creature itself? was no bigger than a schooner that could fit twenty passengers and compartments of goods, yet seemed to be continuously growing in place. Odd lights glinted from the crystals, which expanded and deflated. Control of crystal? The renegade stared at it, then rotated sharply and flew away.

It did not avail him. The first shot penetrated his already-weakened shields and froze his ship. Ironically, he was now facing the same suffering he had inflicted on his victims. His navigation, weapons systems, and precious sensors all gave out. Only by sheer luck was he partly protected by his gunsat, which had been slightly in the way when the blast hit. It now hung uselessly in space, flung out of orbit of his ship and left hundreds of kilometers behind him. The renegade shrugged. When he got out of this, he could always buy or snatch another. If he got out.

Along with life support, his hyperdrive was miraculously on-line. With a pull of the lever, he warpjumped into the closest system on his list of safe spots.

OOOOO

Decatur was once again in search of work. His last job to infiltrate a pirate nation's socnet and do recon was easy enough, and he had even managed to bring out the nation from within simply by destroying its capital. Of course, the pirate nation was a very minor one the size of one half-settled province on an insignificant moon, and its gov't worked out of an abandoned warehouse, but he was still rewarded… appropriately. Now he was out to find another brigand to bring to justice.

Conveniently, the renegade suddenly appeared out of hyperspace, dazed and bleeding fuel recklessly.

Decatur immediately scanned the ship. It was a pretty Epée that had been badly smashed up was all that he could register. The only other helpful fact was that it belonged to a former privateer, now a freebooter.

He shrugged. A scoundrel's a scoundrel. He gave a quick chase, shot it several times with his laser. The soon-wreck fired back with rear cannons, but Decatur's newly upgraded shields protected him.

The freebooter damned his luck and launched homing missiles. Why, oh why did he have to wander into a pirate killer on the frontier? In any other circumstance the merc would be toasted, but he just had to meet him on a very bad day. But no matter, it wouldn't last for long, he thought. There was still enough fuel for another warpjump. Then he would be free of the military, this greeyaz, and that… thing.

An icy hold gripped his heart as he fumbled with the lever. He wanted to pull it, knew that it would be escape ready for him, but… he couldn't do it. The picture of the Alien ship was all he could see, the memory of that awful abomination with tendrils protruding from a heavy carapace, crystals growing on it like mold, deadly blasts delivered from its orifices…

His hand stumbled, and found that he could no longer see the screen. The image of the craft burned into his mind's eye. His contorted hands wrenched at the console. Just as Decatur developed the final blow, striking his reactor and incapacitating his ship, he tore out the eye beneath his patch and slumped against the console.

The pirate-killer approached the loose cannon's ship warily. The once proud raiding vessel was devastated. The cargo box filled with crystal was still intact, however. Sometime before fleeing into Decatur's waiting gun sights, the freebooter had forgotten his capital rule: always leave what you can't carry fast enough.

Five military vessels arrived from hyperspace. Two were huge dreadnoughts flanked by three battleships. They surveyed the area and contacted Decatur.

"This is Captain Riviera of the Boundless. That craft belongs to a dangerous renegade and enemy to the public's well-being. You can confirm that by querying for his ship on JobNet…"

Decatur nodded impatiently. "Yes, I know that already," he said to the cold-stared, inhumanly stony captain.

"We are prepared to award you a reward given your initiative and effort in aiding the public's interest," continued the military man. A moment later he added, "Payment completed. May the stars guide you."

Decatur logged online to check his account, which was up again. "Thank you. He's all yours, gents," he said and left the system.

The privateer's crystal was returned to the coffers of the commissioned outpost. The Epée was dismantled as scrap. The freebooter was hauled out muttering softly to himself, and taken to a Secret Ops prison.