Chapter 1

Sometimes I feel like a spider sitting in the middle of my web; not that I've ever seen a spider, but that phrase was part of the heritage of every person of Solomani descent. I often feel like a spider when sitting in the small transparent-walled chamber in the data centre. Computer banks surround me, banks made by different races, different species, even one transported at hideous expense from the other side of the Imperium. Made by that most enigmatic of aliens the Hivers, whose home-world lay beyond the rimward-trailing frontier of imperial space. All these computers using their differing circuits and architecture to answer in their different ways the vital question; what is different, what is unusual, what is a threat?

That's my job. I spend my time checking on things the computers flag up as anomalies, categorising potential threats to this sector of the Imperium using a very slow, unreliable but useful computer; a sentient brain. A sentient brain can have intuition, insights, in short – hunches; and the Imperium relies on people like me getting them right. The hunches I was trying, and failing, to get at the moment, concerned the worst pirate menace to hit the Deneb Sector since the Civil War half a millennium ago.

It was worrying.

I work for the Office of Calendar Compliance, Statistical Division; I'm a civil servant, grade seven. The importance of the job is not reflected in the pay grade, but then people who want to get rich don't enter Imperial service, even the navy who still get prize money. The job does entail being the recipient of a lot of pressure but rarely as much as at present. I was getting pressure from five merchants associations, Tukera Lines, the Imperial Navy, Duke Peter from the planet below and even Archduke Norris himself! The nastiest pressure was coming from Tukera Lines; the most icily polite, and scariest, from His Grace the Duke.

The vid-phone chimed.

I turned to answer and the screen lit up with the image of Bwephulp my secretary.

"Yes?" I asked

"The shuttle carrying the Naval Liaison Officer for your meeting is on final approach, Mr. Beecher." She said, "would you like me to meet him?"

I thought for a moment, Bwephulp wasn't wearing her microtube clothing to keep her skin damp, so she must be at her home in the part of the complex with 85% plus humidity where Bwaps like her feel most comfortable.

"No" I replied, "don't bother to get suited up, I'll go." I said.

"Don't forget your pill" chided Bwephulp gently.

"I won't" I replied. It was a pity that my gopher hadn't returned yet from seeing her third uncle twice decayed or whatever, or she could have met the Liaison Officer and taken him to the briefing room.

oOoOo

I got to the docking bay just as the shuttle was docking. I had checked the file of the officer I was to meet earlier, Flag Lieutenant the Honourable Vincent Igadushta and met him as he came out of the docking bay airlock.

I stuck out my hand; "Thank you for coming Flag Lieutenant."

"You're welcome, Mr Beecher," he replied. If there was the slightest stress on the Mr., I didn't take offence; the navy was smarting badly over their failure to deal with the pirates.

"Please come this way," I gestured, leading the Lieutenant to the transit tube. As the Honourable Vincent didn't want to make small talk I whiled away the journey to the secure briefing room reserved for our meeting by studying him, I hoped, unobtrusively.

He was a tall man, taller than I with the typical bronzed skin tone of mixed Vilani-Solomani ancestry hinted at by his name. Handsome and athletic looking enough that I doubt he had any trouble finding willing partners in whatever liberty port he stopped at. The immaculate naval uniform the Lieutenant wore looked to be made of more luxurious fabric than a strict interpretation of the regulations would allow. The uncompromising solidity of the naval issue secure-comp he was carrying brought me back to the purpose of our meeting.

oOoOo

As soon as the briefing room door closed Lt. Igadushta and I, with almost identical movements, took out our security scanners. After a shared wry grin we studied our respective displays until we were both satisfied that the room was secure.

"Please sit down Lieutenant," I gestured to a chair while sitting down across the table from him.

"Tell me Mr. Beecher," he said "what do you know about piracy?"

"I know that it isn't like the tri-vids." I replied. I knew more than that, of course, but I reckoned that I'd get more cooperation from Lt. Igadushta if I let him feel superior to me.

"I'll begin by running through the basics" said the Lieutenant in a rather patronising tone I thought.

"As you know," the Lieutenant continued, "starships enter jump-space and can travel one to six parsecs* in 168 hours plus or minus 10%."

I remembered my first venture into jump-space on my way to scout training after induction. I was scared, exhilarated and downright curious as to what would happen. Nothing happened. The ship entered jump-space smoothly and indetectably; so much for youthful enthusiasm. My attention continued to wander as Igadushta droned on. I didn't bother to tell him that I'd served more than twenty years in the scouts before being invalided out after my last mission. I took out and polished some of the choicer memories of that time while the Lieutenant continued his lecture . . .

Occasional phrases of his interrupted my reverie. Yes I knew that safe jumps had to be done at greater than 100 diameters from any object with significant mass and hence gravity. Only sometimes Lieutenant the Honourable Igadushta, you have to jump when you can, even if you are within 100 diameters, particularly when you are plunging towards a gas giant planet and your manoeuvre drive has failed. Oh yes, Lieutenant sometimes a star's 100 diameter limit can intersect the path your ship takes through that weird mathematical conundrum that is jump space. And if a solar flare distorts a star's 100 diameter bubble your ship can fall out of jump-space unexpectedly with such a shock that the gravity dampers can fail, you get a broken arm and your best friend gets a broken neck! Be careful by all means Lieutenant.

"So you see, Mr Beecher" continued Lt. Igadushta "with all the uncertainties of arrival it's relatively simple for a pirate to lie in wait for a merchantman to arrive, threaten with his superior weaponry, board and seize the cargo."

Ah, you're getting to the gist of the matter now Lieutenant.

*A/N A parsec is approximately 3¼ light-years. Jump one travels one parsec, jump two two parsecs and so on up to six parsecs.