In the distant Heracles system, at the edge of explored space, the last remaining crew of the infamous Crimson Star pirates are desperate to escape. Trapped between civil war and the Inquisition, they have nowhere left to run.
Their leader, ex-math professor TYBALT, is desperate to escape the system and attempt an experimental cure for the degenerative nervous condition that got him fired in the first place.
Their pilot, former mobster STAFF, clings to the hope that he can reconstitute the pirate fleet and return them to their former glory.
Their surgeon, the ascetic psychic TAMORA, has grown disillusioned with their lifestyle and is looking for something more.
Their enforcer, retired military AI robot NICODEMUS, could never find employment after retiring as anything except a janitor ... until a law enforcement agent approached him about using his military skills to infiltrate and take down an infamous pirate group.
They are the last of the Crimson Star pirates. And they are pursued by the legendary lawman NEIL TESSO. With the increased pirate activity in his home system, as well as the civil war, the Core government on old Earth is threatening martial law. Tesso hounds the pirates in a desperate attempt to save both his home and his career.
This boxed set contains two volumes,Devils & Black SheepandThieves & Beggars.
In a genre known for its memorable scoundrels, Ferguson's Crimson Star pirates are truly unforgettable. I love this band of unexpected and unruly rogues, from the captain who used to be a math professor to the pilot who used to be a mobster to the enforcer robot who used to be a janitor. Their vividly realized personalities and full-throttle outer space escapades make the Crimson Star pirates lots of fun to read and bring a strong "yo-ho-ho" spirit to the universe of this bundle. – Robert Jeschonek
"If you like Firefly, Farscape, heist novels, The Maltese Falcon, The Mandelorian, or Solo (the Starwars spinoff), you will find much to enjoy in Devils and Black Sheep."– Amazon Review
"Target in sight," Nicodemus said, his voice a flat robotic buzz as he watched the distant starship take shape on the sensor viewscreen. "Transponder shows it as the indy-flagged freighter Archangel. That was one of the cover IDs for the Maleperduis, according to Tamora's source at Purgatory."
Subtle moans and vibrations reverberated through the pirate ship Crimson Star as their corpulent pilot, Staff, slowed their approach vector with tiny coughs of thrust from the engines.
"Backing off," Staff said, his voice tinny and thin over the interlink. "Range?"
"Twelve point two. Your link signal is coming in weak," Nicodemus said.
"Okay. I'll take us in slow. Nothing I can do about my interlink. Been nursing it for months. Still can't convince Tybs to lighten up and buy us new ones."
Nicodemus looked out the window at the sensor antenna jutting out from the ship, piercing the cloud of streaking particles orbiting the ship, its tip vanishing from view as it poked out past the cloaking shield's event horizon. It was the only piece of the ship visible from outside the cloaking shield.
A cloaking shield trapped most radiation, including light, and pulled it into an orbit around the cloaked ship, creating a bubble of space nobody could see through. But, as the range between the observer and the cloaked ship decreased, the black bubble of nothingness eclipsed too many stars to be ignored. Flying a starship while under cloak took both a tremendous amount of skill and regular sensor updates to eliminate built-up errors in the ship's blind navigation.
Nicodemus tapped the controls for the ship's starboard multi-arm and watched outside the window as the long, antenna-like appendage twisted. Such things were normally controlled by a ship's AI. But the Crimson Star was an older ship with an older AI, so her crew did as many things manually as possible to keep her workload light.
"They're still leading with the fore. We're approaching from starboard, inverted. That puts their biggest sensor grid just barely to the port of center. I'll mark it."
"Still no sign they've got an early warning drone deployed?"
"No sensor returns, no."
As Nicodemus moved the Star's multi-arm out through the cloaking shield again to focus on the Maleperduis, he heard Tybalt's steady breathing on the interlink sink into a growl, a sure indicator the man was working his computer magic.
Tybalt was a retired—forcibly retired—math professor who could solve complex multivariable equations in his head, and he was one of the Crimson Star pirates' secret weapons.
He can hack, slice, or spike any normal computer, Nicodemus thought. Some primitive AIs. I've never met anybody who could work a system over the way he does. It almost makes me sad I have to kill him.
"I've got it dialed in," Tybalt said.
That any starship's computer system could be blinded by one man seemed strange in the age of interstellar travel. The fact the starship in question was across the vast featureless void of space from them made the task even more challenging. But Tybalt had proved himself up to the task many times before.
Indeed, he seems to almost relish the challenge.
"Tamora, are you ready?" Tybalt asked.
"Ready," the petite doctor said, her voice soft and reassuring.
Tamora normally stayed back during their raids, preferring to keep her own crew alive to assaulting other crews and stealing their cargo. But, when the situation dictated it, she wasn't shy about getting involved… as long as it didn't involve killing.
"Okay, the ship's cover identity is locked in. Systems are now running as the Four Mirrors, and all emissions show positive data lock. Everybody, sound off your status," Tybalt said. "Give me a go/no-go for the raid. I'm go for AI and comms hack."
"I'm go for sensor grids," Nicodemus said.
"I'm go for life support," Tamora said.
"Go for dock," Staff said.
"Go for cargo transfer," the Crimson Star's AI said, its voice soft and feminine and whispery.
"I still think it would have been easier to infiltrate the crew and shut the Maleperduis systems down from inside. Or else mark targets for drones to hit," Staff said.
"Too much risk of getting caught," Tybalt said. "Drones could do the job, but we need eyes-on to make sure they're totally blinded. They're a full-sized combat ship; we're just a converted courier. If it comes to a shootout, we wouldn't last ten minutes."
"Don't worry, Staff. We've got this," Nicodemus said. "I marked the targets on the images Tamora got when we were planetside. They were so clear I could read the printed instructions on the airlocks. Three sensor suites on each flank. One is live feed, so we can ignore it. If I take out the other two, the Maleperduis will have no record of who raided them."
"It all rests on Tamora. That's an awful lot of faith in her," Staff said.
Nicodemus winced at the venom in Staff's voice.
A lot of faith in a special talent, you mean, Nicodemus thought. Or, I guess Staff wouldn't call her a special talent. He wouldn't give her that courtesy. He'd call her a witch.
It was no secret Tamora possessed a "special talent"—the Core's term for loyalist psychics, since most psychics were on the rebel side of the ongoing civil war. But it was also no secret Staff held a particularly brutal opinion of psychics.
"Shut it, Staff. I don't want to hear a word of it, especially during a raid," Tybalt said.
"It's a fair assessment," Tamora said. "Those images are four days old now. They could have done some work on the ship while they were planetside."
"That's not what he meant, and you know it."
"Sorry. Let's start this party. Star's taking a heavy hit on this one," Staff muttered. "It'll take days to get her back to full mission readiness."
The Crimson Star was already notoriously high-maintenance under the best circumstances. The radiation from the nearby gas giant wreaked havoc on the ship's biologic circuits, and fine dust particles from its great sweeping rings scored her skin like razors while they hid in them, waiting for the Maleperduis.
"All stations are go for raid," Tybalt said. "Party in ten… nine… eight…"
Nicodemus feathered the multi-arm controls forward again to push the arm back outside the cloaking shield. He flicked the supplemental attachment control open and readied a finger over it.
The multi-arm could accept a number of different attachments, all of which could be manipulated from inside the ship. For this raid, Nicodemus's heavy rifle, man-portable but still capable of punching holes in armored men and light vehicles, jutted out from the tip, ready to blast the sensor grids before the Star dropped the cloaking shield.
Cloaking shields didn't absorb radiation indefinitely. They trapped it in an orbit around the cloaked ship until it built up to biologically dangerous levels, typically within a few hours, and had to be released. The resulting bloom of trapped radiation was a miniature supernova every sensor on the near side of the star would see. To eliminate any chance the Maleperduis would later come after them, Nicodemus intended to blast the sensors in the last instant before they dropped their shield.
"Spiking," Tybalt said with a slight tremble in his voice. "I'm starting the clock at twenty-two minutes."
Nicodemus concentrated on the screen that showed the multi-arm's view, waiting for some sign the AI was silenced. The Maleperduis had been painted a brilliant white across its entire hull. It had ornithopteric wings stowed on its back and umbilical tentacles curled along its flanks, with spike-tipped claws at their tips. Under its belly, which Nicodemus hoped to avoid, the ship had a garden of blisters, each marking a retracted weapon emplacement. At least one of them was a sand cannon, according to Tamora's pictures.
Not effective against armor, but wicked against sensors. I'm glad they'll be blinded. One good blast from those things would utterly destroy most of our exposed systems.
"She's down," Tybalt said. "Nick, go! Twenty minutes."
Nicodemus glanced at the screen to double-check his sight picture, then squeezed the trigger. His rifle thumped once, and a tiny sparkle sped towards the first sensor. He jammed the control stick over and watched the ship's bright white hull. When his weapon was aligned with the second sensor, he squeezed off a second round. A moment later, the first and then the second external sensor panels on the Maleperduis shattered into a glittering cloud of particles.
"Staff, go!" Tybalt said.
He's definitely worried. Or excited. There's more energy than usual in his voice. Does Tybs know something we don't about this raid?
When Staff dropped the cloaking shield, the event horizon blinked out of existence and the bright cloud of particles burst away from the Star. The Star rolled towards its prey, and the hull rattled and groaned as her fusial thrust engines roared to life.
Why is he taking us in so fast? Is he worried too? Maybe Tybs told him something in person. They're both in the cockpit, so they may be talking off-link.
"Moving to the airlock," Nicodemus said.
Though his heaviest weapon was attached to the multi-arm, Nicodemus still had a formidable arsenal attached to his robotic body. He pulled a rifle free from his bandolier and checked its battery level as he dropped down into the airlock on the lower level. His feet slammed into the ground, a shrill sound that echoed through the ship. He winced but stepped up to the airlock door.
That was too loud. Tybs won't like that. He'll talk to me about it after the raid, guaranteed.
"Eighteen minutes," Tybalt said. "Tamora, go."
He sounds calmer, this time. The spike and sensors must have been what he was worried about.
"Ready to breach," Nicodemus said as he raised his rifle to his shoulder with one hand and rested the other on the airlock controls.
If he had been programmed with the ability to smile, Nicodemus would have smiled right then. An obsolete and retired infantry android, he always felt most content when he could put his original skillset to good use.
"Wait for Tamora's signal," Tybalt's hard-edged voice answered. "These guys are scum, but I still want to do this by the rules. We're pirates, not murderers. Seventeen minutes."
That's so typical of Tybalt, pretending he's not a criminal, Nicodemus thought.
"If we let them live, they might hit another transport like the last one," Nicodemus said.
Not my job while undercover with these pirates to stop other pirates, but if I can and not break my cover, so much the better.
"I know, Nick. I've taken it all into account. It's not our call to make," Tybalt said. "Tamora, are they out yet?"
"Stand by," Tamora's soft voice whispered calmly. "Their vitals are low. Almost there."
"Clock's ticking," Tybalt said. "Sixteen minutes."
"That's it," Tamora said. "They're down for the count."
Nicodemus slammed his mechanical hand against the airlock controls and flung the armored door back on frictionless hinges. He twisted around the bulkhead and stepped into the entrance of the pirate ship Maleperduis, rifle raised and ready to fire. Two pirates lay on the floor, neither moving. Curiously, both of them were armed. Nicodemus kicked their weapons away from them.
"Tybs, this is Nicodemus. Two down in the airlock. Both armed. They were expecting company."
"Maybe I didn't hack their systems fast enough," Tybalt said. "Or maybe their ship's AI is one of the more advanced models. Star, put out probes and listen for transmissions, just in case."
Though the Crimson Star didn't answer, Nicodemus knew the ship's AI would comply. The Star wasn't the newest or fanciest AI out there, but as ship's AIs went, she was one of the most reliable. Having been the ship's AI for several decades, she was intimately familiar with its crew and systems.
"Nick, Staff. I'm coming up behind you," the pilot's voice called over the interlink.
"I'm clearing right. You take left," Nicodemus said.
Thunderous footsteps signaled the overweight pilot's arrival at the airlock, and Nicodemus glanced back at him. Staff finished snapping a carved mask down in place over his helmet and pulled the breech open on his shotgun. He tapped on both of the shells inside to make sure they were chambered, then slapped both magazines to make sure they were seated.
"Let's do it," Staff said.
Nicodemus turned and continued up the hallway, pausing and sweeping each room with his weapon, checking to make sure all the Maleperduis pirates were, indeed, unconscious. When he arrived on the ship's bridge, he lowered his weapon and reported in.
"Fore is clear. Seven down, no resistance. All armed. No cargo or cargo access."
"Maybe we should strip them while they're out," Tamora said. "If their ship's empty and we can't get any booty out of this, we could at least pawn their gear."
"Wouldn't be worth it," Nicodemus said. "Their gear is junk."
"Doesn't surprise me. I'd expect it from the kind of people who slaughter civilians."
"I still think we should kill them," Nicodemus said.
Too bad I wouldn't be able to take credit if we did. Can't break my cover now. Have to stay in character. I've almost ended this crew. Three more, and I'll have ended the Crimson Star pirates forever.
"We're not killing anybody, Nick," Tybalt insisted. "Not unless they try to kill us first. Fifteen minutes."
"Aft is clear," Staff said on the interlink, his voice broken and distorted. "Five down, no resistance. All armed. Found the cargo hold."
"What's our haul?" Tybalt asked.
"Define 'not much,' Staff."
"One shipping crate, about the size of a coffin. Manifest says it's machine parts. Inspection seal hasn't been broken."
Someone cursed over the interlink. Nicodemus guessed it was Tamora. She had been working extra hard in the last few weeks, trying to build up enough money for the crew to bribe their way out of the system. She seemed to be feeling increasingly desperate to return to her home planet and leave the pirating life behind.
"They must have just recently fenced everything."
"Probably planetside, four days ago," Staff said.
"I'm coming aboard," Tybalt said. "Fourteen minutes."
"I'll meet you at the airlock," Nicodemus said, looking at Staff and shrugging.
Tybalt won't be happy about this. We don't have enough yet to bribe the jumpgate operators to let us through. If one crate of machine parts—or whatever else it might be, because I'm not convinced it really is machine parts—is all we get out of this raid, we'll have spent more than we earned from it, no matter what it is. If we don't get through the jumpgate, I can't finish my mission.
There is no way I'm letting any agents in this system take credit for my operation. Taking down the Crimson Star pirates will be my accomplishment, and mine alone. That means they go down in deep space, between star systems, or else in foreign star systems with no knowledge of my status on the crew. Then I'll be the hero, I'll get the promotion, and I will be in charge.
At the airlock, Nicodemus kicked unconscious pirates aside so Tybalt could walk faster through the hallway. When Tybalt finally stepped through the hatch and onto the Maleperduis, Nicodemus almost laughed at the look on his face.
Tybalt frowned and held a hand over his mouth.
"Do they ever clean their ship?" he asked.
"Not as often as you insist we clean ours."
Stepping past the pirates, Tybalt rested a hand on the grip of one of his sniper pistols.
He hasn't drawn those things in some time. I wouldn't be surprised if they're stuck in those holsters. He wouldn't know the difference. But I guess it doesn't matter. He prefers to stay behind a computer. That's fine. He's more useful with a computer than he is with a gun, anyway. That'll only become truer as his condition progresses. Has he told the rest of the crew yet? No, of course not. He hasn't told me. How long does he think he can keep it a secret from an android and a psychic?
"You won't need them," Nicodemus said, nodding towards Tybalt's pistols. "The ship is secure. Cargo hold is this way."
"The Star can handle the transfer," Tybalt said, shaking his head. "I want to pull their logs. Thirteen minutes."
Nicodemus returned to the cargo hold and helped Staff guide the Star's heavy lift crane through the cargo airlock.
"Ten minutes," Tybalt called over the interlink just as Staff closed the cargo airlock door and slapped the dust off his hands.
"We just finished. The Star's retracting the cargo right now. What'd you find?" Nicodemus asked.
"I've got their last few log entries. This is the ship that scuttled the Fishing for Mermaids and slaughtered her crew and passengers."
"I thought they would be just as desperate to get out of the system before the Core declares martial law," Tamora said. "Destroying civilian passenger liners and slaughtering everyone on board won't get them any closer to getting through the jumpgate, but will bring martial law a lot closer, a lot faster."
"The last thing we need is to be stuck way out here when the Inquisition comes calling," Tybalt said.
"How's the hack holding up?" Nicodemus asked.
"Still good. Their comms are still down and their AI is still daydreaming. But let's not push our luck. Back to the Star. Make sure they have enough food and fuel to get to the nearest depot on radiation drive. Take everything else. Tamora, come on board and look at their greenhouse. See if there's anything we can take. We've got nine minutes."
"Hope they have some brown algae," she said. "We've been losing ground on our supplies, consuming too much edible plastics. We don't have enough to be sustainable."
Tamora didn't hesitate to investigate the Maleperduis greenhouse. She seemed excited at the idea of new plants to take care of, and possibly to supplement their pantry. Nicodemus watched with amusement as the short woman—unusually short—rushed past him. Never given to vanity, she had pulled her hair into a simple ponytail under a wool watch cap, and stray bands of hair had broken free and draped down to frame her dark-skinned face. She moved with the easy grace of a dancer, but her face was hard and serious, with none of the gentle lines he might have expected from a woman or anybody else trying to wear a friendly face. Her look was penetrating and serious, her mouth unflinching, her brow low and suspicious. Her coveralls were clean, but stained and worn, and she wore an even more heavily faded leather jacket over them.
Seven minutes later, their greenhouse had several new plants in the quarantine chamber.
"With our increased raid tempo, our coffer doesn't seem to be getting any fuller," Nicodemus said as he closed and sealed the airlock.
"With each raid, we're closer to martial law," Tamora said.
"That's the real deadline," Tybalt said, slicking his hair back. "After the Inquisitors arrive, our chances of begging, borrowing, bribing, or stealing our way out will be gone. Total sociopaths, every one of them."
As the Crimson Star rocketed away from the still-silent Maleperduis, Nicodemus glared at the embroidered panther curling up the back of Tybalt's jacket. His fingers twitched, and he imagined a curl of smoke drifting up from his pistol and a smoking hole in the man's back.
I could do it. I could kill all three of them and end this assignment. But if I do, the Authority will take credit for it. Probably the Director herself. Rank has its privileges. If she doesn't, the Bureau will claim at least partial credit. No, I have to be patient. I spent decades as an infantryman, fighting other people's wars for them and letting them take credit for every victory. Never again. I'm done. I will never let someone else take credit for my work, my accomplishment, my sacrifice.
"Total sociopaths," Nicodemus agreed.
"That could have gone worse," Tybalt said as he and the last of the infamous Crimson Star pirates rocketed away, vanishing under their cloaking shield. "Clean sweep."
"Except we got almost nothing to show for it. This could have been the one that did it. It could have put us over the top," Tamora said, frowning.
"But it didn't. Let's get back to Hades and fence our cargo. Tamora and Nick, resupply. Staff, check out the debris field we logged on the way in. See if you can find anything worth salvaging. Don't try to recover it. Remember what happened the last time you tried doing this on your own. Just find it and mark it."