Two alien empires control known space. Caught between them, the human race clings to a handful of planets.
On the fringes of all three, Captain Dara "Dare" Ross makes her living.
Her "easy job" starts with a shootout in the streets. Pirates, Port Authority, and an alien empire all seem to covet her cargo.
Stealing from Pirates, a space opera adventure with alien empires, starship battles, shootouts, space pirates and more, with the best crew since the Serenity and a female captain who could challenge Malcolm Reynolds and Han Solo. From Stefon Mears, author of The Telepath Trilogy.
Three more laser blasts hit the corner of the mining shop. Dara "Dare" Ross tucked her five-foot-two frame into an even tighter crouch and wished she had the money for a laser pistol. One solar battery each and even here on Io those pirates could keep her pinned down all day.
Or at least until they closed in for the kill, long after she ran out of ammo.
Worse, that ozone smell meant their shots would get absorbed by black and gray solar paneling on the building exteriors here in New Pretoria's pioneer district. The shopkeepers might not like the reduction in their business during a street shootout, but they wouldn't mind if a few safety-setting laser blasts added to their batteries.
Meanwhile if Dare missed with her hard beam pistol, she'd put divots in the buildings that would have the locals screaming for restitution.
"Come on, you blonde Basque bastard," she muttered. No sense in spending the focus on another signal to her second, Zorion Ugarte. He'd get here. The only question was whether or not she could hold off the pirates until he did.
Dare's grip on the pistol tightened enough to leave lines in her hands for hours. She had only one spare magazine in the many pockets of her black pants, and none at all in her turquoise shirt or brown suede jacket. Not exactly the absorptive armor the DUCKs used.
But then, no one hired a trader captain who ran around in powered armor either.
She took a quick count of her resources. No more than forty shots total, since she had to shoot to kill. And she knew she had to. That was one of her lessons from the Navy. "Leave a pirate alive and they'll kill you slowly later."
Forty shots. Plenty if she could be smart. Not enough if they rushed her. Of course, rushing her would risk the prize, which was no doubt why they were still willing to pin her down and pick their shots. For now.
Their silent shots. Not one of those lasers made a whisper of sound over the day's slight breeze, which meant that all of them had their auds disabled. Not good. Every laser was supposed to have an aud to make sure friend and foe and noncombatant alike knew there was a shootout going on. Usually a high-pitched whine, mimicking the hard beam weapons.
Even carrying a silent laser pistol was illegal everywhere. They were the weapons of assassins.
Why would pirates take the added risk? Anyone watching from one of the buildings would report silent laser fire, even if they wouldn't normally get involved.
Damn it. How long could Zor need to get back here? She'd sent for him after the first shot.
Dare dropped to the yellow dirt, tucked her long nut-brown hair back behind her ear and stretched around the corner enough to see a pirate in a generic white zip-up spacer suit try to cut across the wide street for the feed shop on the other side of the mining store.
Spacer suits were out of fashion, though tough enough to stop the slugthrowers that most upstanding civilians could get their hands on.
But Dare was ex-Navy. The green shot of her hard beam pistol punched a fist-sized hole through his chest.
Two dozen lasers opened up on her. Dare lost at least one lock of hair ducking back behind the corner.
"That's five of you," she yelled. "How many more do you want to throw away? 'Cause the Ross shooting gallery is open all day!"
She could have run. This was what passed for an alley in New Pretoria, which just meant a dirt patch between two buildings that needed back entrances so stock replenishment didn't have to interfere with the customers up front.
Three buildings in this alley's case, because it dead-ended at a bar. Dare could have blasted a hole in any one of the three doors, sprinted past an angry proprietor and headed for clearer streets.
But that was impossible without abandoning the haul. Twelve small, pale blue crates of Quickmesh, a mixture of two metals only found deep in the volcanic grounds of Io that combined to form a key ingredient for many of the modern prefabs. Light while separated in the crates. Heavy and stable once set, yet re-collapsible.
A haul she'd almost emptied her pockets to pay for. And a haul that would be worth a hundred times that amount out on Tau Epsilon, where import laws frowned on circumventing the tariffs, but the authorities would turn a blind eye for the right buyer.
Dare had spent the year since she mustered out establishing a reputation that would interest the "right buyers" on a dozen worlds.
But the chances were that those pirates couldn't say the same thing. This had to be too much effort for too little reward for them. They'd never bother going all the way to 'Ceti for the payday — if they could even get it — and the Quickmesh wouldn't sell for enough locally to be worth spilling their own lives.
Which meant something worse was going on. Something that required silent lasers.
Which meant Dare was going to kick Zor's ass if he didn't get here soon.
Two dozen more shots came in a burst, and more kept coming, scorching the yellow dirt as often as hitting the buildings. Filling the air with a smell like burning coal and ozone.
The pirates were coming.
Dare pulled back from the spray of laser fire and started shoving crates of Quickmesh against the side of the mining goods store, stacking six of the two foot cubes three high. She gripped the barrel of her pistol sideways in her mouth while she worked.
She could hear their pounding boots now. A wave of them, getting close.
Clenching the pistol tight in her teeth Dare scrabbled up the crates and crouched down, peeking over the edge with her pistol ready.
She started firing as soon as the first pirate cleared the corner. She took down three more of them before they pulled back out of her line of fire. She could almost hear them making plans, but couldn't pick out the words. Or the language. Sounded like pidgin Afrikaans.
Damn it, Zor.
"We just want the Quickmesh, Ross," called one that sounded like a leader. Rough voice. Cracked with age. "Back away to the bar and take off. Keep your pistol ready if you like. We won't take a shot."
Back behind her, she heard the creak and thump of a door opening.
They weren't even willing to risk one of those crates to shoot at her where she hid? If she'd known that, she'd have pushed a couple into the street as cover.
"Sure, I'll leave," she said, leveling her pistol for the next target. "Poke your head around the corner and watch me go."
Finally Dare heard the sound she'd been waiting for. That low hum with a hint of rumble. Faint right now, but getting louder even as she noticed it. Hope washed down her spine. The sound of home.
Zor. About damn time.
"You hear that?" Dare didn't try to keep the grin out of her voice. "That is the sound of death coming for you bastards. I suggest you not be here when it arrives."
But the sweet sound of her approaching ship was not all Dare heard. She could hear the clacking crunch of inbound DUCKs. An acronym for Defensive Units Countering sKelms, DUCKs formed the heavy end of the starport patrol here on Io. Powered armor with enough firepower to shoot down a small ship.
Say, a ship the size of hers.
And while all pirates were skelms — whether they were hunting from their ships or somewhere else in the starport — Dare might count as a skelm for participating in an unsanctioned fatal shootout.
The pirates fanned out in the street, holstering pistols while three of them set up a tripod for a heavy laser.
They brought a heavy laser?
A flash of blue light and a low groan resounded through the air, like sixteen tons of tortured metal. Every pirate she could see collapsed to the ground.
Stunned? Zor used the stun cannon on pirates?
But before Dare could even mutter an obscenity she found herself in the welcome shadow of her ship, the Narrow Margin. Fifty yards long through the body and fifty yards across including the wings. The body consisted of three great gray spheres connected by ten-yard-wide tubes, with the front sphere narrowing to a cone at the bridge. The wings were shaped like wide, curved chopping blades with the engines woven in underneath.
Zor always complained that the ship was a freakish mess that got its name because it was only spaceworthy by a narrow margin. But to Dare it looked like a gray swan with the wings folded mid-flap. Beautiful as the day she and Fabunni finished assembling it from salvage in the Navy shipyard.
Her wrist comm pinged, and Zor's deep voice crackled. "Are you ready for pickup or do you want to play on the cargo boxes some more?"
"The DUCKs are coming, you idiot!"
She could hear those clacking crunches coming closer. Several. Sounded like at least a squad.
"So is that a yes or a no?"
"Get me out of here or so help me—"
"All right, all right."
Under the center sphere the cargo rays glowed red, and Dare felt herself lifted up swiftly, followed by the crates. And just in time because she could now see the DUCKs arriving on the scene. Like ten foot tall humanoids as white as the feathers of their namesake, except for the black barrels of the triple-guns mounted under each arm and the black-transparent face shields.
Dare couldn't help smiling as she waved goodbye to the DUCKs.
After all, she'd named her ship the Narrow Margin for a reason.
The internal comm light flashed red, but Zor was too busy talking to the New Pretoria Port Authority to answer. He was alone on the small bridge, tucked into his co-pilot station in the right side of the nose, with overrides lighting up panels on his work board to show that he had control of piloting, communications, sensors and armament.
The core of the ship at his command. But that internal comm light warned him that he wouldn't have so much power for long. He didn't need to answer to know that part of the message.
Instead he imagined the flashing light kept the time with his hands while he fired off three small adjustments to the Narrow Margin's level and eased the atmo engines to speed at a rate that shouldn't look like he was rushing.
"…and so," he continued his tale to the Port Authority, "I had no choice but to pick up my captain and our cargo in town which I'm allowed to do under Port Code section … thirty-four-A, I think…"
Zor kept his words as measured and even as his acceleration tried to look. No sign of bogeys on the sensors, but he didn't trust this cobbled-together monstrosity in the friction of a planetary atmosphere. What he did trust were the clear gray-yellow skies he could see ahead of him.
"…and now that I have her we're continuing with the flight plan I logged."
The internal comm pinged with urgency now. Probably Hurit or Fab warning him that Dare was on the warpath. Again. Not that Hurit would ever use the word "warpath."
Zor tried to imagine the beautiful doctor — who was prouder of her Algonquin heritage than any of the other three nationalities she admitted to when pressed — using the word "warpath." Didn't work.
And between that mental image and the dance of Zor's fingers across the controls as he prepped the space engines and signaled Ilse that she might need to stay in the low turret, he completely missed what Port Authority said in response.
"Roger," he said anyway. "Proceeding along flight plan alpha."
"Negative! You will return to port immediately for customs verification of your cargo."
Zor sighed into the comm and pushed his acceleration just a little, heading up along an escape trajectory.
"I've already told you. Those pirates have been identified as flying under the Drakkan banner." A bluff, but likely in this neck of space, so close to the edges of both great stellar factions. Zor sipped from his cup of actual terran coffee before setting it back in the cup holder attached to his seat's left armrest. "If I take the time for customs, they'll have our flight plan before we reach space and hit us just outside your jurisdiction. I'll check in on Earth before we offload."
"Negative! Port Code is quite clear. Direct your course to return route beta immediately or I will signal space defenses to detain and impound your ship. Re-sending route information now."
The bridge door spun open behind Zor with a whir and click. He could hear Dare's angry boots clanging on the prefab alloy floor.
Zor held up a forestalling finger over his left shoulder and eased a bit more speed into the atmos.
"I told you the plan before we lifted off" — Zor spoke to the comm, ignoring the angry captain behind him — "and we're getting sunspot … interference … comms…"
Zor cut the comm and pushed the atmos ahead full. He looked over his shoulder at Dare, who had one fist raised and ready.
Dare stood a good foot shorter than he did and had a face that was on the adorable side of cute when she wasn't snarling like that. But she was wiry strong, and Zor knew from experience just how well she could punch.
She was also wearing a turquoise shirt.
"Nice top, Captain," he said. "How did the date go?"
She punched the seat cushion just beside his head, hard enough to rock the chair. She grabbed his coffee cup and drained it, then dropped into her pilot's chair — the captain's chair, really, because no one else ever got to sit there — and took back pilot controls.
"Why are all the handsome men either stupid, bad kissers, or both?" Dare said.
She didn't need to look at Zor for him to know she currently had him in the stupid category. She wouldn't know about the kissing part.
"I'm sorry, did I or did I not just pull your ass off of the firing line?"
"Stun cannons? On pirates? And you were buying coffee and didn't bring me a cup?" Dare double-checked everything Zor had done in the last five minutes while she complained. "You know those bastards are going to hit us again in two hours, right?"
"They might," said Zor, who was busy mocking up the right kind of interference from the comm mod that Fab built so it would be ready when Port Authority hailed them again. "But in the meantime, I got us a pound of beans to roast for the long haul. And at least the Port Authority can't say we're killing to keep secrets, much less murdering people in the streets of New Pretoria. I mean you do want to come back here sometime, right?"
"I'd just as soon skip the whole star system if we could afford to."
Zor knew Dare had been born on Earth, but not why she never wanted to go back. Not even so her second-in-command could actually visit the birthplace of their species. To say nothing of the original homelands of his people.
"You have our flight plan listing Earth as our next stop." She made the statement an accusation. "Why?"
"Figured those guys were Drakkan. Didn't want to advertise that we were heading for Tau Epsilon."
That actually got him a smile from Dare.
"Knew there was a reason I didn't hit you," she said.
"Not all handsome men are stupid," said Zor. He turned on the half-jammer and hailed Port Authority rather than wait for them to call him.
"You must be a bad kisser then." Dare wasn't even looking at him. She was staring at something in the distance, just at the edge of visibility. Something like looked like the flare of engines. "I'll have to warn Hurit."
Before Zor could raise Port Authority, the ship's comm whistled a hailing signal.
"Attention, Narrow Margin, this is Captain Neville of the Kwa-rekk Federation Patrol Ship Jove Three. You will power down all weapons and prepare to be boarded."