Captain Milton Tyrell made final checks with his fleet through his neural net. He stood before the captain's chair on his Argon Titan's bridge, his feet looped through grab holds to stop him floating from the deck in freefall. A man who had made astonishing progress in the Universe, both militarily, economically and both. He had the look of the successful businessman-cum-admiral: tall, straightbacked, approaching middle age. His black hair was only beginning to recede, and was edged with silver. Chiselled features and a cold, calculating glare completed the visage.

He was also a vain man, a side-effect of his success. So after pirates attacked one of his convoys for the third time in a wozura, he suffered one of his common bouts of ego, and decided to wipe such a disgusting affront from the face of this particular galaxy. He landed at his nearest holding, a solar plant two sectors away, and called for just above half of his capital ships, three quarters of his corvettes, and a quarter of his fighter fleet to him at best possible speed. The rest, he let guard his merchant vessels and stations. All his ships were of Argon design and manufacture, another vanity that let everyone know exactly where he came from and how patriotic he was. He thought it rather romantic.

His ships arrived over the next tazura. Three Titans, the Malevolent (his flagship), the Myrmidon and the Minerva; two Collossuses, the Indefatiguable and the Implacable; around 30 Centaurs, which he divided into two squadrons, their commanders being aboard the Havoc and Halcyon; and 250 fighters, with a mix of mostly M3s and '4s, along with a few M5s to provide interdiction and interception. He ordered that 100 fighters should land on the Indefatiguable and Implacable each, leaving fifty in space. All his combat ships were armed and shielded to the teeth, and were as fast as he could push his shipwrights to make them. He had the best crews he could find, and it showed: his maintenance costs were among the lowest in the known Universe.

He formed his fleet around the two carriers, with the Malevolent in front. The other two destroyers took up positions either side of the carriers, and the M6s formed a rough flat diamond at the back, ready to wade into the fray one they were at the pirates' asteroid base. The 50 fighters still in vacuum spread out in between the larger ships.

"All ships, engage jumpdrives. Target gate: Hatikvah's Faith, North gate," Tyrell said over the fleetwide comm. He had a politician's voice, one that inspired confidence and trust. One of the reasons he had made it this far.

It wasn't a long jump. All the ships arrived in front of the gate in almost exactly the same formation they had jumped in. They turned as one, linked by various scrambled and encrypted channels, and accelerated towards the base.

"Charge cannons, load missiles into the racks and power up shields. All sensors, spherical sweep. Anything with an engine, I want it tagged and IFF'd," Tyrell commanded. A ragged chorus of "Aye, aye"'s sounded through the bridge. He saw the rest of the fleet doing the same through his neural net.

As he usually did when about to enter a confrontation, Tyrell opened communications with the station before he attacked it. "This is the Admiral of the Fleet, pirate asteroid. We have a debt to settle."

A dishevelled and scarred head appeared over the holo-projector in the middle of the command deck. "Waddya want? I gots plentya debts, but I don't turn up with some masai armada to get 'em."

"You've been attacking my merchant fleet incessantly in the sector. I'm here to make sure you stop."

The head looked away, checking something behind the focus of the display. "Ah. Milton Tyrell. Quite the interstellar mogul, aren't we, eh?"

"Tyrell, please." He routinely cursed his parents for giving him such a ridiculous usename.

"Whatever. So. D'you want yer money back, or the goods maybe? Failin' that, we're always up for a fight." Even one lopsided as this? Tyrell wondered, mystified.

"I want to kill you all. You have offended me greatly. Me! Your better in every way. And you use the most underhanded, conniving -"

"We are pirates, Tyrell, you idiot."

Tyrell sat back in his chair, taking a deep sigh. "All ships, open fire. Reduce that rock to molten slag in the next mizura, and I'll double this week's wages." The holographic head blanched, then disappeared.

The pirates managed to launch a few fighters, but they didn't get nearly far enough away from the station to avoid the deluge of photons, plasma and warheads. There wasn't even a debris field from them. The asteroid started to rotate faster and faster, as the impulse from the leaking atmosphere took its hold. Tyrell smiled, satisfied. There really isn't any kill like overkill.

If he was hoping for a drink before getting underway and sending the fleet back to wherever the ships had been before he called them, he was disappopinted. His sensors officer called his attention. "Sir, new contacts bearing one-eight-zero mark plus four-five."

Above and behind. Typical pirate attack manouever. He was just about to ask which clan it was this time when the officer hailed him again. "It's not pirates, sir. Only three contacts, and they're big. Wha- sir, they just.. broke." By this time, Tyrell had floated over to the sensor station.

"Did anyone fire?"

"No, sir. They- now the pieces are moving under their own power, sir. Definite exhaust trail. Getting visual." Pictures of pyramid- and crystall-analogues filled the display. "Have you ever seen something like that before?" the sensor operative - Rourke, Tyrell noted - breathed, all pretence at military formality and decorum lost.

"Comms!" Tyrell barked. "Sound general quarters! Bring every single ship we have back up to combat readiness! Have the carriers launch all fighters, scatter pattern."

"Aye, sir."

"Rourke, get as much information as you can. Record every sezura, this needs to go to the Argon Parliament and Military Command."

"Already on it, sir."

The ships opened fire on the nearest targets: the Centaurs. They replied in kind, bolts of green plasma screaming across the void, but corvette after corvette flashed out of existence. For every one enemy destroyed, three of the fleet would pay for it. They were using some kind of beam weapon, which Tyrell had only seen on defense towers. But these were different. Purple, for a start. The fighters flew interference, diverting the enemy if ever it got close to the capital ships, allowing them to keep their laser and particle cannons trained. Space became an energistic maelstrom full of blinding bolts of plasma, burning atmospheres, drive exhaust, metallic debris, bodies and scintillating purple beams.

The Indefatiguable became the target of a determined attack. Engines fell first, then weapon capacitors. The pent up energy suddenly released burned through crossbraces, bulkheads, composite alloy pressure doors and personnel, and tore the ship apart, flinging thousand-tonne chunks of ship in all directions. The Myrmidon was struck by one such fragment, and carreened away, on fire. Innumerable physical impacts shuddered the superstructure of the Malevolent. One of the wide windows on the port side of the bridge cracked. A purple beam scored a line across the shields on the dorsal hull in front of the command module, making them flash silver. A spar from the deckhead fell under the stress of evasive manoeuvers and struck the deck next to Tyrell's chair. Sparks flew from the operations station.

"Shields down to thirty percent, sir!"

"Get us to the nearest gate! Best speed!"

"Engines answering full, aye."

They never got there. Suddenly as the battle started, it finished. Space was quiet again. The strange ships with the purple beams linked together, and disappeared. No communication was ever sent from any member of the fleet.