A captain on the run from the horrors of his past
A girl on the run from the trap of her present
A ship that will bring them together
Captain Evridiki “EB” Bardacki was once a nova fighter pilot for a nation he truly believed in. Betrayal and failure sent him into exile and flight. Now owner-operator of the freelance star freighter Evasion, he treks the edge of human space, taking cargos that lead him ever onward—but there are lines he will not cross.
When those lines are challenged, EB makes enemies of the most powerful crime syndicate for a hundred light-years. When one of their victims stows away on his ship, he finds himself pursued by an enemy with assets everywhere he turns.
Caught between the devil and the deep dark void, EB has run out of places to run—but in a child looking to him for salvation, he may have found something to fight for!
CONTENT WARNING: This novel deals with themes and details of human trafficking and sexual exploitation.
“So, this isn’t good.”
Evridiki Bardacki—“EB” to everyone who knew him in his current life—scoffed at the observation by his navigator and executive officer.
“You mean the fact that there’s supposed to be a star here?” EB asked, the solidly built fifty-five-year-old freighter captain glaring at the display screens on his bridge. The screens that showed only deep space. “How the hell did we miss that the maps were that wrong?”
They’d just made a six-light-year nova—an instantaneous jump across three-dimensional space—aboard the freighter Evasion. According to the maps EB had purchased at their last stop, that should have delivered the ship and their cargo to the Agasoft System.
Instead, his forty-thousand-cubic-meter nova freighter was in deep space, at least as far from the nearest star as they’d been before their jump.
“Depends on how wrong the maps were,” his navigator, Vena Dolezal, replied. The dark-skinned and dark-haired man went by Vexer to most people, and he shook his head as he skimmed through the data. “In this case, I think our download overwrote a bunch of our local astronomical data to make our computer buy its modifications.”
“Well, there’s only one reason to have sold us a map like this,” EB said grimly. “Charge the guns, Vexer. Get the scanners up and running at full power and wake the rest of the crew.”
EB had once been Captain Bardacki of the Apollo System Defense Force, a star system a very, very, very long way away from there. None of the other members of his small crew were ex-military, though, and it wasn’t like Evasion had a battle-stations alarm.
As Vexer focused on calling and waking each of their crew individually, EB focused on the scanners. His headware interfaced with Evasion’s systems, adding additional virtual displays around him that only he could see.
“Everyone’s awake and I’ve got plasma feeding to the gun capacitors,” Vexer reported after a moment. “Turret self-checks are running.”
EB nodded distractedly. Evasion had been built in the Outer Rim and was underpowered by any standard EB could apply…except that they were now well past the edge of the Rim and into the only-locally-mapped Beyond. More than fifteen hundred light-years from the home star of the human race, out there, the only maps were those you bought from the locals.
And the only security was your own guns.
Since EB had known he’d been heading out this way, he’d made sure that Evasion was as good as the Outer Rim system he’d bought her in could build. The freighter had two dual-plasma-cannon turrets, each as powerful as the main guns on an Outer Rim destroyer.
Whoever was tangling with his ship was going to have a bad day, but EB had bigger problems than whatever pirate was chasing her. Those problems weren’t quite as immediate, he had to admit, but they were bigger.
“Got her,” EB said aloud as a flare of Cherenkov radiation marked the arrival of their problem. “Bandit is at three light-seconds. She just micro-novaed over to us.”
“Guess she’s not worried about us running away,” Vexer muttered. “She’s stuck with us for ten minutes, but we’re stuck here for twenty hours.”
“I know the damn cooldowns, Vexer,” EB replied dryly. “Might be more than ten minutes, depending on how far our friend jumped. Voids, she may have followed us from the last trade route stop.”
To nova somewhere, a ship needed very detailed maps of the target. The usual solution was designated spots where everyone jumped, each ship scanning the location and passing on their scan data. Those were the trade route stops.
Out there, though, those maps were closely held trade secrets. EB had paid through the nose for his map of the route to Agasoft, and he’d only got it in the end because he was carrying cargo there.
“Get us evading,” he ordered Vexer. “They’re not going to try to shoot us at this range, but let’s not make it easy.”
“No, they know we’re fucked and are going to order us to surrender,” EB’s friend replied. “Anyone else want to die for a cargo of sushi?”
“I’m not dying today,” EB said calmly. “I did not survive the clash of battlecruisers to be killed by some Beyonder asshole with a rusty gunship. Let’s see what they have to say for themselves.”
Vexer had touched on EB’s bigger problem, though. Their cargo of refrigerated and vacuum-packed fish was perishable. If they didn’t make delivery within the next forty-eight hours, they might as well dump the cargo into space.
Which meant he couldn’t go back to the Tatare System and find a new map. They were three novas away from Tatare—at least sixty hours just to get back. He needed to correct his location and get a new map.
EB’s gaze settled on the gunship closing with his freighter.
“Ten thousand cubic meters,” he murmured, just loudly enough that he knew Vexer could hear him. “Probably built from the standard colonial database, so a Ten-X class one nova drive, standard Harrington coils, standard antigrav, probably six to ten single-gun turrets.”
“Yes, if we get the drop on her, we can vaporize her,” Vexer agreed. “But I know that tone.”
EB chuckled. He and the younger man were occasional lovers. Vexer was more aware of EB’s thoughtful tones than most people in the galaxy.
“Standard colonial database is old at this point, Vexer,” he said quietly. As he spoke, he brought up a database buried in his headware that he rarely touched anymore.
When the Apollo System Defense Force had gone to war against the Brisingr Kaiserreich, one Evridiki Bardacki had flown a nova fighter for the ASDF. He’d also flown NEWACs—nova electronic warfare and attack craft—for them, both before and during the war.
Every nova fighter—every combatant—in space carried the multiphasic jammers that could render a battlespace impermeable to anything except optics. But a significant portion of war took place outside of actual battles, and it was in those quieter moments that the NEWACs had flown, fighting a silent war of hack and counter-hack as they strove for an edge.
“If they’re running old hardware, I wonder how much better their software is,” EB concluded, pulling up the old programs he never should have left Apollo with.
“Nope, now I have no idea what you’re thinking,” Vexer replied. “Should I loop Ginny in?”
Ginerva “Ginny” Anderson was their senior engineer, but EB knew he was a better programmer and a much better hacker than her. He shook his head.
“No, Vexer, this one’s on me,” he said.
“I see our friend is finally calling us,” he continued as a new icon popped up in his view. “Let’s see what they have to say for themselves.”
“Freighter Evasion, we have you under our guns,” an anonymous voice proclaimed over the radio. A distortion program rendered the voice genderless and toneless.
“Our scanners can tell your nova drive hasn’t cooled down yet and you have no ability to escape or fight us,” the stranger continued.
EB eyed the charge metrics for Evasion’s turrets and multiphasic jammer. The freighter was no nova fighter, able to skip around a battlespace with a miniature FTL drive, but she wasn’t nearly as defenseless as the pirate assumed.
“If you stand down your engines and peacefully surrender, we will only take your ship and cargo and deliver your crew safely to a neutral station without ransom,” the voice declared. “If you run, we will disable you. If you resist, we will kill anyone who draws weapons against us and sell the rest into slavery.
“You have five minutes.”
The message ended and EB shook his head resignedly.
“Such wonderfully nice people,” he observed.
“You’re being sarcastic,” Vexer replied. “But by Beyonder pirate standards? That is nice. Normally, surrender just means they won’t kill us.”
“That only makes me doubt their honesty more,” EB said. “What a damned mess.”
He’d found what he was looking for in his headware database and was now loading the viral vector with the code to do what he needed.
“I assume we’re not surrendering, so what are we doing?” Vexer asked.
“Stand by the guns and wait for my order,” EB told his navigator. He issued a final compile order to the program he was assembling and then opened a channel to Engineering.
“Ginny, how are we doing in the guts?”
“I can’t cover the Jianhong radiation, boss; they know we’re cooling,” she told him.
“I know that,” he confirmed. “The pirates were counting on that. Can you conceal the capacitor charge for the turrets?”
There was a pause.
“It depends on how close they get,” she admitted. “They’re decently shielded as it is; Reggie and I can throw some EM blankets over them, but that won’t buy us much.”
“I just need them to buy that we’re surrendering,” EB told her. “They’re not going to do that if our guns are glowing red.”
“Depending on how much attention they’re paying, I can cover us down to about fifty thousand klicks,” Ginny said. “I can’t promise closer than that.”
“It’ll do. Make it happen,” EB told her.
“Surrender, EB?” Vexer asked, his face looking darker than usual. “I don’t trust their promises.”
“Neither do I,” EB agreed. “We’re luring them in and then we’ll deal with them, one way or another.”
“Isn’t that…” Vexer shook his head. “Isn’t that like a war crime or something?”
“Last time I checked, my friend, we weren’t soldiers,” EB replied. His hands flew across the panel in front of him while he gave mental orders through his headware.
The code package he’d assembled had compiled. There was no time to test it, not with the pirates’ deadline rapidly approaching.
“The problem, Vexer, is that we need a map that can get us to Agasoft in two novas or less,” the freighter captain continued. “And the only one I see around here is on that gunship.”
“They’re not going to just give us their maps, no matter what,” Vexer said. “Maps are life and death out here.”
“I know. And that is why I’m taking theirs,” EB replied.
His program was now concealed in the formatting data for a video transmission and EB activated the recorder.
“Unknown ship, this is Evasion,” he said, trying to sound as pathetic and afraid as he could. “This ship is my life, my business. I can’t let you have her! But…I can’t let my people die. I’m cutting our Harrington coils and awaiting your approach.
“Surely, we can come to some compromise?”
He ended the recording and sent the message.
“Kill the engines,” he told Vexer. “Let’s look as meek as we can until my code is done.”
There was a long silence on the bridge.
“What did you just do, EB?” his navigator, executive officer and sometimes boyfriend asked slowly.
“Sent them a computer virus that will download their entire navigational database and transmit it to us,” EB replied. “Even if they’ve upgraded from the SCD, it should work…but given the rest of that ship, I think they’re screwed.”
The standard colonial database was the archive of science, technology, literature, history, and schematics sent along with every colony ship. Every planet from the Rim inward—everything within fifteen hundred light-years of Sol—had access to a slowly advancing library of public information and open-source technology that formed the core of the SCD and the baseline technology of any human world.
Even in the Beyond, those updates would percolate, and it was reasonable to assume that any system had access to the full SCD—which meant that they could build antigravity coils, class one nova drives and Harrington coils. Any system with the SCD could reliably build cheap ten-thousand-cubic interstellar ships.
Like the gunship closing with Evasion.
“Any idea how long your virus is going to take?” Vexer asked. “Because they are coming in fast.”
“We don’t get a nice, neat loading bar for how fast the virus is proceeding,” EB replied. “We’ll know it’s succeeded when it takes over the pirates’ transmitter to send us the data it’s searching for.”
Another icon popped up on his screens and he sighed and hit Play.
“Maybe we can reach some kind of compromise,” the toneless artificial voice told them—lied to them, EB was reasonably sure. “I’m glad you see reason. We’re closing with your ship, and if we see any sign that you’re not playing by my rules, we open fire.
“We’ll be sending a shuttle over as we get closer. I expect to see all of your crew in the landing bay, unarmed. Then we can talk about compromises.”
“I think they’re going to sell us into slavery,” he observed. “They’re being far too willing to accommodate.”
“You’re probably right,” Vexer agreed. “So, what do we do?”
“Let them close for now,” EB said. “And we do not, no matter what, let that shuttle board. I doubt we’d be lucky enough to fight off a pirate boarding team once they get aboard.”
Luck didn’t even have that much to do with it. While all eight members of EB’s crew had blasters and stunners of their own, those were sidearms. None of them would burn through even half-decent armor.
There were only two heavy blasters on the ship, and the only armor EB was sure of was his. His shipsuit—the one-piece uniform-slash-emergency-spacesuit worn by every spacer—was the one he’d been issued as a nova-fighter pilot a long time before. It had the ballistic and energy-dispersal web layers to resist light blaster fire—and he had a suit of proper power armor, from the same system as Evasion, as the centerpiece of his limited “armory.”
But he expected that pirates would be coming with heavier blasters and proper armor. There was no way his collection of freighter techs could hold the ship against a serious boarding party.
“If the virus fails, we need to force them to give us a map,” EB said softly. “That means we blow away the shuttle and try to disable the gunship’s weapons. I need to know if she’s cooling down.”
“I’m not detecting significant Jianhong radiation,” Vexer warned. “I’d say she was waiting for us and then novaed over. I’d guess she still has ten to fifteen minutes of cooldown left, but…she’s not trapped here with us.”
“And that she was waiting for us with that much accuracy tells me we were set up,” Evasion’s captain said grimly. “But by void and stars, I will make this damn delivery and I will get paid.”
Evasion resembled nothing so much as a square loaf of bread held in a horseshoe. At her heart were four five-kilocubic cargo bays, stacked two on top of the other two in a twenty-meter-by-twenty-meter square fifty meters long. The engineering hulls were mounted “above” and “below” the cargo space, with a fifth pressurized cargo bay and the operations hull attached to the very front.
Each of the engineering hulls held enough reactors and Harrington coils to move the ship, plus one of the freighter’s dual turrets, currently pretending to be locked down while the pirate ship closed.
“I’m not seeing anything special about this gunship,” EB observed as the bandit closed. “Standard eighty-meter lozenge. Four guns on top, four guns on the bottom.”
“Unless she’s hiding more accel than I think she is, we could outrun her,” the navigator noted. “Though she does have twice as many guns as us.”
“SCD cannon,” EB pointed out as he distractedly ran through the electromagnetic spectrum from his scanners. Evasion’s guns came from a middling Outer Rim power that had owed an old colleague of his a favor.
Out there, they might as well be Excalibur against most of the ships he was running into, and Vexer knew that. They’d test-fired the guns since he’d come aboard.
“We’ve got at least three times their throughput and I’d eyeball twenty percent sharper focus. I doubt our friend over there even begins to realize it, but he is completely outgunned.”
Even by the standards of the Beyond, a pure SCD gunship was trash. There might be sections of the Beyond where that wasn’t true, but they were only a hundred light-years past the Rim. They were beyond both the official fifteen-hundred-light-year line of the “Beyond” and the unofficial line where the mapping companies stopped running automatic updates, but they were still in a region in communication with “civilized space.”
“Range is a hundred thousand kilometers, and our friend is matching velocities,” Vexer warned. “I expect… Yeah, here comes the shuttle.”
EB took a moment to scan the data on the shuttle itself. It was about what he expected. Like the gunship, it was built with pure SCD tech. By the standards of the Mid-Rim navy he’d once served, it was slow, blind, stupid and toothless.
By Beyond standards, it was still a respectable threat, with a quartet of light plasma cannon and probably twenty armored troops aboard.
“ETA?” he murmured.
“About two minutes,” Vexer replied. “I mark their cooldown as just about done, too, EB. And they’re going to see through whatever Ginny and Reggie have done with the guns.”
“I know,” EB agreed. “You have control of the guns?”
“It’ll take about three seconds to pull from locked position and target the shuttle,” Vexer told him. “Half that to pop the jammer.”
The multiphasic jammers would render all communication and complex sensors useless for a one-light-second bubble around Evasion. EB assumed that the gunship had jammers of her own—any warship should—but they were almost certainly assuming that Evasion didn’t.
The pirate would be confused as hell when Evasion started jamming. Unfortunately, once they started jamming, there’d be no way to get the transmission from the virus if it succeeded in its mission.
“Give it more time,” he told Vexer. “But stand by the guns. The moment the shuttle twitches, we blow her out of space. Then we see if the gunship will talk.”
EB was starting to run the numbers for an evasive course that would put Evasion in position to disable the gunship when the communications system chimed again.
“Burst transmission from the gunship,” Vexer told him. “Looks like a couple dozen terabytes of data. Formatting looks like nav data, but it’ll take the computer some time to crunch.”
“Good enough,” EB barked. “Bring up the engines and fire a warning shot at the shu— What the void?!”
The gunship had gone dark. Her Harrington coils cut off with a suddenness that would have taken dozens of hours off their operating lives, her active scanners died—even her power signature was rapidly falling off.
“My virus…shouldn’t have done that,” EB said slowly, mentally reviewing the code he’d plugged in and then grimacing. “Okay, okay, I forgot about that part.”
“You forgot that part?” Vexer asked drily.
“The intrusion-code module I used has a default terminal code section that attempts to shut down the target ship,” EB admitted. “I forgot because I’ve never seen it work—the core engineering computers and such to do so are usually separate enough to require an entirely new round of intrusion measures.
“So, not only is our friend a crap ship, she’s a terribly designed ship.”
“Warning shot at the shuttle, Vexer,” EB repeated. “Time to wrap this up.”
The shuttle was already flipping, shedding velocity as they tried to get back to their mothership. The blast of plasma that flashed through space in front of them definitely registered.
EB smiled thinly and brought up the video-transmission software again.
“Pirate craft, this is Evasion,” he said calmly. “You are now under our guns. If everyone now plays very, very nice and leaves me and mine alone, you’ll live. If your shuttle so much as twitches toward my ship, or your gunship attempts to repower her engines or guns, I’m going to vaporize all of you.
“I suggest you stick to my rules now.”