A pirate attack with only one survivor
A conspiracy woven across the planets
A vengeance that will not be denied
When pirates seize the inter-planetary freighter owned by Brad Mantruso’s family, he is dumped into space. Saved from death by a passing Fleet ship, he is left with nothing but his skills, a gun, and a burning desire for vengeance.
Acquiring a ship, he reinvents himself as the mercenary Captain Brad Madrid. Before he can pursue his enemies, however, he finds himself dragged into an unexpected conflict when his ship’s history draws new enemies to him.
Beset by pirates, slavers, and a woman who might be his savior—but definitely is a spy—it will take all of his skill, cunning, and new friends to claim his revenge!
Brad Mantruso was barely half-way down the hundred-meter length of his uncle’s ship, on his way to a date with the ship’s junior navigator Shari, when all hell broke loose, a screaming alarm tearing through the air.
Mandrake’s Heart wasn’t a large or fancy spaceship, but it was all that his uncle Boris was able to afford, a hundred-meter-long, twenty-thousand-ton interplanetary bulk freighter that hauled cargo between Mars and the asteroid belt for whoever was willing to hire a tramp.
The young security officer had barely finished turning in his tracks when his uncle, Captain Boris Mantruso, spoke over the intercom, his voice warring with the loud alert.
“Emergency stations, people. We have Dark-damned IR signatures closing in from behind. Three little buggers and something in the fifty k-ton range. They don’t read like Fleet and they’re too fast to be transports.
“We have no choice but to assume they’re pirates. I want everyone at their stations in five minutes. Bring your weapons and vac-suits. Move!”
Piracy was a sadly inevitable threat while sailing the spaceways, and it was even worse when your ship carried a load of monofilament. His uncle had tried to keep the news about their cargo quiet, but that obviously hadn’t worked.
Brad arrived on the bridge with less than forty seconds left in his allotted time. He’d swapped his fancy dinner clothes for a utilitarian gray vac-suit, strapping his weapon belt with his pistol and his monomolecular blade over the armor.
The bridge was an austere room, with a handful of stations for officers and their assistants. The only piece of decoration in the room was a series of intricately patterned crawling wires that covered the back wall—Brad’s own careful handiwork in a nano-manufacturing vat.
At the front of the bridge were the two consoles for the pilot and his assistant, where Shari was already sitting when he dropped into the engineering console barely two feet away.
“It looks like dinner is off,” the dark-haired youth told her as he slid into his chair, activating its artificial gravity field in case the main system went down.
“You get a raincheck, mister,” she replied without looking up, her voice strained. They’d been doing the careful dance of teenagers who’d known each other half a decade and not quite admitted that they’d fallen in love along the way for six months.
The Everdark certainly had it in for him that this mess had hit today.
“Good,” he said as lightly as he could, bringing up his displays. Since Heart only rarely needed a security team, his primary job was as second engineer—a job he had no formal training for but could muddle through, at least on this ship. “You don’t get an easy out like a pirate attack.”
He turned to his uncle. “Engineering is green, Cap’n.”
Boris nodded. “Thank you.” The burly spacer’s eyes never moved from the main screen, which showed the approaching pirates.
Karen, the woman at the coms panel, twitched. “Incoming transmission, Cap’n.”
The screen changed from basic movement vectors to the image of a man dressed in a black vac-suit—one almost identical to the one Brad and the others wore—with his helmet off.
The man held an aura of perfectly controlled power. Short-cropped black hair topped a scarred face with a pair of eyes that were as cold and blue as ice. The tattoo of a small red skull-and-crossbones highlighted his right cheek.
“Mandrake’s Heart, this is the Cadre vessel Lioness and I am the Terror. Cut your engines and prepare for boarding. Evasion or resistance will be met with lethal force.”
With that, his image died and silence reigned on Mandrake’s bridge.
Brad felt himself inhale involuntarily as his entire body tensed in fear. The Cadre was the most brutal pirate group in the Outer System—and the Terror was their leader. He wasn’t noted for his mercy. If he captured them, they’d end up as slaves in the Fringe, doing the jobs too dangerous to risk an owner-citizen on.
“Like hell I’m letting them make slaves of us without a fight,” Boris said, his thoughts obviously paralleling Brad’s. “Better a clean death than a life toiling for monsters.”
He glanced at Shari. “Or worse.”
Boris turned to Michael, the lead pilot. “Give me as good an evasive pattern as you can. See if you can generate a vector they can’t intercept us on.”
“I can tell you right now that I can’t, Cap’n,” the pilot said.
“Try anyway,” Boris ordered flatly, and then turned to Karen. “Can you send out a distress signal?”
The blonde shook her head jerkily. “They’re jamming us. If I had a target, I might be able to punch a laser through, but no general transmissions.”
Boris swore and turned to the rest of the bridge crew. “Split into groups of two. Brad, take Shari. Jordan, take Karen. Ryan, take Ferris. Cover the locks with guns and blades. Stop them if you can; bleed them if you can’t. Michael and I will hold the bridge as long as we can.”
Jordan, Ryan, and Brad were the ship’s three “security officers.” Each had other functions as well, but they were the best-trained fighters in the crew. They’d lead the resistance.
Brad stood slowly and turned to Shari as calmly as he could. “Let’s go.”
Boris looked at the two teenagers with haunted fear in his eyes. “Take the upper lock. May the Everlit guide your paths.”
Brad bobbed his head at his uncle, struggling to keep a level voice and a calm mind as his heart tried to pound out of his chest. “And may they keep the Dark from yours.”
He wondered if he’d ever see the last of his family again.
Brad and Shari stopped outside their assigned airlock, looking at it cautiously. Brad glanced over at her and drew his mono-blade. A small panel on the unadorned cylinder slid aside at the touch of his thumb, revealing a switch.
He flicked it and a meter of monomolecular filament uncoiled with a snap as electric current surged through it, extending the small ball at the end that was both necessary to keep the filament straight and an unavoidable impediment to using the impossibly narrow blade as a thrusting weapon.
The charged filament emitted an azure glow that lit the compartment. A moment later, a slightly paler blue joined his as Shari charged her own blade with its slightly different filament tuning.
The hum of the blade was calming, reassuring. Brad had never been in a real fight before, but he had hundreds of hours of practice with the weapon. Its weight in his hand brought back programmed muscle memory—memory that didn’t include a fear-accelerated heartbeat.
He smiled at Shari as he drew his pistol with his left hand. Mostly ambidextrous, he’d trained to shoot with his off hand to allow this exact dual stance. He might not be the best shot—but in the tight confines of a starship, he didn’t need to be.
Shari took up a two-handed stance with her blade. Unlike Brad, who had trained with both gun and mono-blade, she’d only learned to use the traditional weapon of a spacer.
Most spacers never bothered to learn to shoot. Pirates in particular seemed to shun the weapons in favor of blades. Maybe because the idea of having limbs lopped off—or heads—was terrifying to most of their victims—and even carefully designed guns tended to put holes in the spaceships they were trying to capture.
“I love you,” Shari said, her voice carrying over the quiet hum of their blades. “I haven’t said so before, but I might never get the chance if I don’t say it right now. I love you and I have for a while. I’m so sorry we’ll never find out where that takes us.”
He’d known. He’d known for a while, but it was still a shock of warmth to his body to hear her say it.
“I love you, too,” Brad told her softly. “Stay beside me and I’ll protect you. We’ll make it.”
The timing was awful and the odds were bad. They’d most likely be dead in a few minutes, and he’d never know what admitting their love for each other would lead to.
“Activate your grav-boots,” Boris said over the vac-suit’s comlink. “I’m about to shut down internal gravity. They’ll board in a couple of minutes. Be ready.”
Brad checked his readouts, making sure his boots were active, and then glanced over at Shari. She nodded in reply to his unspoken question. Another piece of mundane, of ritual and process, that allowed him to calm his taut nerves and racing heart.
A sudden surge in the ambient temperature warned him that the pirates were close enough that their deceleration was washing the hull in energy. Moments later, the first thump of docking shook the ship. A second and third followed, the last on the hull right beside them.
As they watched, the intense red flare of an industrial plasma cutter burned through the airlock hatch and then began to melt its way up. They’d be through in seconds.
Somewhere along the way, Brad had fully regained his calm. His fear was gone; all that remained was a grim determination to protect his family and his ship.
The cutter slowly moved across the top of the hatch and then down, leaving an intense afterimage in his vision. When it completed the last burn on the bottom, the remains of the hatch crashed to the deck, its edges white-hot.
Even before the metal stopped moving, Brad lunged for the opening. Muscle memory carried his blade through the armored vac-suit of the lead pirate before he’d made it into the ship. Gore splashed across the corridor as the bisected man crumpled to the deck, the first Brad had ever killed.
If Shari was to survive, it couldn’t be the last.
Brad dodged aside, adrenaline warring with nausea and renewed fear as a shotgun inside the airlock barked. He fired a return shot in the general direction of the shooter without exposing himself. A muffled scream indicated he’d hit someone.
A live pirate exited the airlock and Shari attacked him. The slight man barely managed to interpose his own blade to block her two-handed slash as the young woman aggressively pushed him back.
Their blades bounced away from each other, but Shari brought hers snapping back to neatly remove the pirate’s head. She stopped, staring in horror at the headless corpse.
Two more pirates charged out just as Shari finished her man. Both came after Brad, recognizing the threat of his pistol—a threat Brad managed to deliver on. It took four rapid shots, but he dropped the leader with his pistol and engaged the other in a duel of flashing blades. The man was decent.
The pirate deflected Brad’s first slash and managed to lock blades with him, resisting the tendency of the blades to bounce away from each other. He pushed Brad back one step. Then another.
Three more pirates dashed into the space the man had created for them. Shari roared and charged, her blade swinging.
Fear for her flashed into him, and Brad twisted to fire a single shot into his opponent’s stomach. The pirate fell back, clutching himself. Not willing to trust the man to die quietly, Brad shot him in the head, his adrenaline spiking before he could hesitate.
He spun to find Shari facing off against two pirates with the third floating gutted nearby, his legs attached to the floor but not his body. Before he could intervene, another pirate lunged at him from the airlock. This was getting old.
The air, filled with floating gore, betrayed the bastard. A glob of blood splashed across the man’s faceplate, blinding him.
Training spoke again and Brad opened him up lengthwise. He turned back to help Shari again—just in time to see yet another pirate step from the airlock and engage her.
Three against one would be terrible odds for him. She never stood a chance.
The new man slashed his sweetheart open, sending her crumpling away from his blade with blood spattering the corridor wall.
“No!” Brad brought his pistol up and shot the man in the head, far too late to do any good.
His entire body lit up with adrenaline as the remaining pirates turned and charged him. He shot the lead man in the sternum as he brought his blade up to parry the other pirate’s attack.
Rage drove him and he launched a vicious flurry of strikes and the pirate desperately defended himself. He pushed the man back. When his opponent stumbled on one of his compatriot’s bodies, Brad sliced through the man’s upper body.
As the pirate crumpled, Brad released his pistol and grabbed a grenade from the pirate’s belt, running on instinct and his uncle’s “dirty tricks” training. He yanked out the pin and threw it into the pirate ship. The crystalline shrapnel in weapons like this was designed to kill people without knocking holes in the ship, so it should be relatively safe.
The sharp explosion stopped the fresh movement he’d been hearing. He grabbed his pistol before it drifted off, and risked a glance inside the airlock. No one else was coming out of there alive.
He deactivated his blade, holstered it, squatted beside Shari, and took her hand in his. She was still alive, but that wouldn’t last long.
She coughed blood across the inside of her faceplate, trying to say something. Swearing, he pulled her helmet off and then removed his own.
“You’re going to be fine,” he lied softly, his throat tight.
Shari started to laugh, then coughed, spitting up more blood. “Like Dark…I am. Love you…”
Whatever else she might have said was lost as she went into another coughing fit and then went limp.
Brad lifted her hand to his lips. “I love you, too. I’ll see you as soon as I take care of a few more things.”
He didn’t want to leave her there like that, but he had people to save and pirates to kill. Nausea and adrenaline rippled through him at the thought, but his family was on this ship—by blood or by crew, everyone on this ship was his.
No one had come out of the pirate ship, so he felt fairly certain that there was no one left inside. It was a risk, but he didn’t have time to search it and still save the living.
Moving slowly he headed back down the corridor, he listened at each turn for pirates. Mentally crossing his fingers, he put his helmet back on and tried calling the bridge. There was no response.
He continued toward the rear of the ship, swapping his partially spent magazine for a fresh one with auto-pilot-driven fingers. When he reached the engineering hatch, he paused to catch his breath, struggling against the turmoil in his mind.
As he did, the gravity came back on. He didn’t have much time.
Three voices carried through the open hatch, discussing how to get the engines running. A mirthless smile crossed his face. It appeared the little surprise the chief engineer had set up in the drives had worked after all. Now he just needed to get to the console and set off his own gift to the bastards.
Brad deactivated his grav-boots and drew his mono-blade, leaving it off for the moment. Activating it would alert the men he wanted to kill. As ready as he was going to be, he took a deep breath, steeled his nerve with the memory of Shari, and stepped into engineering.
One of the pirates was more observant than his companions and raised a shotgun.
Brad threw himself to the side as the weapon boomed. The flechettes tore through the open hatch and missed him. Barely.
He shot repeatedly at the man as he rolled back to his feet. The pirate fell heavily, hit at least once.
One of the remaining men charged him, his blade coming to life with a sharp snap, while the other scrambled for the fallen shotgun.
Brad activated his blade in time to parry the first man’s attack before kicking him in the groin. Their suits were armored, but a man’s testicles were far too sensitive for the protection to prevent pain and an automatic reaction.
As the attacker stumbled back, Brad emptied his pistol magazine into the pirate fumbling with the shotgun, then snapped his blade around as his enemy charged again.
He was only trying to parry, but a mistimed slash by the pirate bounced his blade into the man’s neck, sending blood squirting across the compartment. The pirate’s blade slipped from his suddenly nerveless fingers as he began trying to staunch the arterial spray.
That effort ended when Brad completed the kata and removed his foe’s head.
Brad crossed to the main console, brought up the interface, and started accessing the fusion reactor’s control systems. He’d only just begun when a slight hum behind him sent him diving to the side. A blue filament flashed through where he’d been standing.
He came to his feet with his activated blade in his hand, but had no time to do more before his new attacker was upon him.
Their blades clashed in rapid succession as each probed for weakness. The man was good. Better than good. Better than him.
Brad ducked a horizontal slash and tried to take the man’s legs off, but the bastard nimbly jumped over his swing, grinning through his transparent faceplate.
That’s when he saw the red skull and crossbones on the man’s cheek. It was the Terror! Rage and fear alike filled him as he straightened.
“I’m going to kill you for Shari,” he ground out between clenched teeth, using his anger to hold down his fear.
“Much as I’d love to dance, I have better things to do,” the man said with a grin. “Have a nice trip. Kill the grav and open it!”
Brad had been so focused on his opponent that he hadn’t seen the other pirates slip into the engineering compartment. One of them stood beside the massive equipment lock.
He tapped the controls and the hatch slid open right as the gravity cut out. He must’ve overridden the safety interlocks, too, because the air rushed out in an instant.
Brad was just a moment too late activating his grav-boots. The hurricane sucked him off his feet and hurled him out of Mandrake’s Heart in a flash.
Spinning wildly, he caught glimpses of the ship as he tumbled away. That was it, then. It was over. Nausea from the fight and the spinning hammered into him and he vomited into his helmet, releasing his blade.
Safety systems in the helmet sucked away the vomit, and safety systems in the weapon deactivated the blade. It hung by its strap, spinning with him.
His weapons were useless now. Nothing could change his fate or save his ship. He was as dead as Shari. As dead as the rest of his family. His body just hadn’t realized it yet.
His vac-suit had minimal emergency thrusters, but even as he watched, Mandrake’s Heart’s engines flared to life. The freighter and the escorting pirate ships dove away into the deep dark, leaving him behind.
The Terror had turned him into a Dutchman. His frozen corpse would orbit in the unrelieved darkness of space for eternity.
For a moment, he considered ending it. It wouldn’t be easy, not with his pistol empty and both weapons drifting by their safety straps, but he could manage it.
The stars were peaceful, though. He didn’t want his last moments to be violence and death and hatred. He had a few hours of air, and he could find a better use for them than suicide.
He could spend his remaining hours remembering his family. His ship. The woman he’d never truly had a chance to love. His memories were the one thing the Terror couldn’t take from him.
Death could have him when he finished.