“Welcome aboard, Mage Montgomery,” the spacer waiting just inside the starship told him. “Captain Michaels is waiting in his office. If you’ll follow me, please?”
Damien nodded as he carefully maneuvered himself through the zero-gravity boarding area. Behind him, a short metal boarding tube linked the central hub of the massive rotating rings of Sherwood Prime to the keel of the container ship Gentle Rains of Summer. He checked the personal computer wrapped around his left arm as discreetly as he could, making sure he was on time for his job interview with the Captain.
“Our outer ribs are on a low rotation right now, as some of our thrusters are under repair,” the crewman warned Damien as he moved toward one of the doors on the outer walls of the main keel. “We’re only under about a tenth gee, so watch your step.”
“That will be fine,” Damien told the man. He watched the spacer move from handhold to handhold up the ladder to the outer keel, and carefully followed suit. If necessary, he was able to control his own motion even in zero gravity, but Mages learned quickly that blatant, unnecessary use of magic didn’t make friends.
Damien was shorter and lighter than the spacer, though, so he was slower and more careful with the handholds until they reached far enough out on the rotating outer keel for the pseudo-gravity to kick in. He settled onto his feet with a carefully concealed sigh of relief, straightening out his clothes and unconsciously checking on the gold medallion settled into the hollow of his throat.
The medallion announced to all who saw it that Damien Montgomery had the Gift and was recognized by the Royal Orders and Guilds of the Protectorate of Humanity as a Mage. A member of one of those Orders would also recognize the symbols on it marking him as having completed a degree in Practical Thaumaturgy as well as being a fully qualified Jump Mage.
The last was why he was aboard Gentle Rains of Summer. The container ship consisted of a central steady-state keel with the boarding pod at one end and the engines at the other, around which four “outer ribs” rotated to give the living and working spaces a semblance of gravity. She was a wondrous technological creation capable of accelerating at several gravities while carrying up to twelve million tons of fuel and cargo, but it was the silver runes inscribed throughout the interior of her hull that made her a starship. With those runes, a Mage like Damien could jump her up to a light-year in an instant.
“This is the Captain’s office,” the spacer announced. He knocked on the hatch sharply and then stuck his head in. “The young Mage is here to see you, sir.”
“Come in, come in,” the man behind the desk said loudly as the spacer gestured Damien into the room. “Montgomery, right?”
“That’s right, sir,” Damien answered. “I’m here about the junior Ship’s Mage position?”
Most starships that could afford it would have two Jump Mages aboard. A Mage was only able to jump so often without using up so much energy as to fatally burn out their brains, so having two aboard would double how fast the ship would move.
“Yes, yes of course,” the Captain replied, gesturing for Damien to sit. “I’m Andrew Michaels, Captain of Gentle Rains of Summer. I’m afraid I owe you an apology.”
Damien took the offered seat, glancing around the Captain’s cabin. It had the lived-in look of somewhere the occupant spent much of their time. The bookshelves, filing cabinet, and desk were all worn green ceramics, and the floating projected terminal on the desk was a model older than Damien himself.
The only “decoration” in the room was a bronze plaque engraved with the silver runes that channeled mana to create magical effects once charged by a Mage.
“An apology?” Damien asked.
“Yes, I’m afraid we couldn’t contact you earlier this morning,” Michaels told him, to which Damien nodded slowly. Sherwood Prime’s internal communications net was oddly spotty for the main orbital dock of a world of two billion souls. “An old friend called me this morning and I’ve given the Ship’s Mage position to her son. I would have let you know in advance, but once we couldn’t, I figured I owed you an explanation in person.”
Damien swallowed. “Thank you, sir,” he said politely. He’d figured he’d at least get the interview, not be shut down almost before he’d introduced himself. “Is there any chance you’d be taking on a second junior Mage?” he asked carefully.
The Captain had the good grace to look somewhat sheepish. “I’ve actually agreed to take on two juniors already,” he admitted. “Kyle and Grace McLaughlin; I would guess that you know them?”
Damien nodded his recognition of the names of his classmates. The McLaughlin family were the core Mage family of the Sherwood system, traditionally providing the system’s Mage-Governor and generally acting as an established aristocracy. Kyle and Grace were two of six members of the family who’d gone through Jump Mage training with him—he knew them both well and had been “close” with Grace.
“Thank you for your time, Captain,” he said politely. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll be heading back to the station—I’ll need to see if any other ships have available slots.” He knew perfectly well that none did—and if any did, one of the other McLaughlin youths would likely have already snapped it up.
“I know it’s a point of pride not to lean on one’s parents,” Michaels said quietly, “but you really should see if your family knows a ship’s crew who owes them a favor.”
Damien focused his gaze on the spell plaque above the Captain’s head. “I’m a Mage by Right, sir,” he said quietly. “My parents were bakers…and died years ago.”
Mages by Blood were born to the core families of the Protectorate, the inherent nobility defined by the Compact that ended the Eugenics Wars of the twenty-second century. Mages by Right were identified by the testing every human child underwent at age thirteen. They had all the rights of Mages born of the main families, all of the powers and all of the official support from the officers of the Mage-King of Mars…but none of the family connections.
“I’m sorry,” Captain Michaels said quietly.
The young Mage shook his head in response, his gaze still on the spell plaque as his Gift traced the lines of power and he read the runes. He blinked at it confusedly. “Um, sir, what is that plaque supposed to do?” he asked, intentionally changing the subject.
“It’s a security spell,” the Captain explained, seizing on the topic change. “It detects if anyone enters the office with hostile intent.”
Damien traced the flow of energy through the runes and shook his head again. “You might want to have your senior Mage look at it,” he told the Captain. “The scribe used future imperative tenses instead of future-probabilistic. It’s actually slightly encouraging the chance of violence, not predicting it.”
He turned his gaze back down to the Captain, blinking away the lines of magic. “Magic doesn’t predict the future very well, sir. If the plaque was detecting hostile intent, it would be obvious to you well before it triggered an alarm.”
Michaels looked at the plaque and then back at Damien. “You mean I got scammed, don’t you?” he asked.
“A little bit, sir,” Damien admitted. “Like I said, have your Senior look at it; I may be wrong—I haven’t seen a spell like that before.”
As he left the office, though, Damien knew the Captain had been thoroughly scammed. He hadn’t misread a rune matrix since he’d started studying his Gift at thirteen years old.
The same spacer escorted him out of the ship but clearly sensed that the young Mage wasn’t interested in talking. Damien had contacted Captain Michaels as soon as the posting had gone up on the Sherwood internet—he knew he’d been the first to apply; the Captain had even told him so.
Nonetheless, he’d lost the position before he’d even boarded the ship. He thanked the spacer and crossed back to the twelve-kilometer-long cylinder that was the central hub of Sherwood Prime. He quickly grabbed one of the transit tubes that took civilians up and down the central hub to any of the twelve immense rings spaced evenly along its length, each rotating around the hub to provide the semblance of gravity. The sooner he was off the Hub, the happier he was—he was as comfortable without gravity as anyone born with it could be, but that didn’t mean he liked its absence.
His rooms were on Ring Seven. Flanked on either side by five more similar immense rings rotating around the hub once a minute, the central two rings were generally inaccessible by ship. This made Rings Six and Seven the cheapest places to live and eat on the immense space station.
At age thirteen, every child on a planet under the Protectorate was tested for the Mage Gift. For the children born to the noble Mage families that served the Mage-King of Mars and bound His Protectorate together, the testing was a formality, as they were all Mages. For the vast majority of the rest of the population, it was also a formality but for the opposite reason—children like Damien who had no Mage parents and became Mages were barely one in ten million.
Damien found himself wandering ring seven aimlessly. He paid for his room out of the small stipend the Mage-King provided every unemployed Mage. While his parents had lived, they’d received a larger stipend—an encouragement to have more children since they’d proven they would likely have Mage children. Damien’s younger brother and sister had died in the same crash that had killed his parents, long before either was old enough to be tested.
The discovery of his Gift had changed his life, though. The Royal Testers, men and women who reported to the Mage-King, not the McLaughlin’s government of Sherwood, had arranged for his education to expand and for him to eventually attend the elite school of magic that trained the noble children—Mages by Blood, versus Damien’s Mage by Right—of Sherwood.
Despite that, the Testers couldn’t provide the interlinking web of connections the Mages by Blood—especially the grandchildren, nephews and nieces of a man as powerful as the McLaughlin, recently re-elected Mage-Governor of Sherwood for his seventh term.
Lost in his thoughts, Damien realized he’d wandered off of the central concourse, which was brightly lit and patrolled by security even on as cheap and dingy a section of the space station as Ring Seven. He was still in public corridors, but these hallways didn’t have wide-open storefronts and bright lights.
Instead, easily a third of the lights were broken, and sealed doors with small nameplates or even just numbers were the only exits. Finally starting to pay attention, Damien realized that someone had scratched out the corridor numbers on the intersection nearest him, and touched the medallion around his throat for reassurance—no matter how run-down the area was, no one was going to attack a Mage.
Conceding that his funk had resulted in his getting very lost, he brought up the map function on his personal computer, a black plastic band wrapped around his left wrist. Its holographic display flickered in the air for a moment, with a small warning in one corner about connection issues, and then identified his location and a route back to his rooms in the main concourse.
“Nice PC,” a voice said behind him. “Too nice a PC for so small a bit, don’tcha think?”
Damien slowly turned around to find four large men, the smallest easily twice his own size but carrying a length of black piping where the others were unarmed. He was hoping that the sight of the medallion would cause them to back off, but the largest man simply grinned at the sight.
“Waay too nice a PC for a tiny Spark, boys,” he repeated. “Why don’tcha jes’ take it off and pass it over? Avoids anyone getting hurt.”
The PC turned off, the holographic display and interface disappearing back into the band around Damien’s left wrist as he stepped back away from them.
“None of that now, little Spark,” the big thug told Damien. “You PC, you cash, and that lovely gold medallion—or we start breaking limbs. You can’t spark with no hands, can you?”
Damien drew on memory for a self-defense spell, reaching for the glove that covered the silver runes engraved on his palms, but a massive fist slammed into his stomach before the glove came off.
“Oops, me fist slipped,” the man told the Mage with a grin. “Guess the Spark won’t play nice, will he?”
The massive fist wrapped itself around Damien’s throat and lifted him off the ground. Damien was small and slight; the man likely lifted arm-bells that weighed more than him.
“Like I said,” he said directly into Damien’s face, “The PC, the cash, and the medallion.”
He reached for the medallion and Damien closed his eyes, finally remembering the spell he was after—and knowing what would happen when the thug touched the gold coin.
The security spell carved into the runes under the collar holding the medallion flared into action as soon as it was forcefully removed from Damien’s neck. A blast of super-heated air shot out in all directions, burning the thug’s hand and throwing him back with telekinetic force.
Damien hit the ground and released his own spell. A mental baseball bat slammed into the leader’s knees, and he heard one of the man’s kneecaps crack as the spell hit them. His face half-burnt and a kneecap broken, the man fell to one leg with his hands over his face.
Before Damien even started to run, however, the thug was moving again. With one eye closed and his face bleeding from the heat burns, the thug rose on his one good leg and grabbed Damien with both hands. He threw the slight Mage bodily into the wall, crushing the breath out of him.
Still balancing on one leg, the thug slammed one hand around Damien’s neck, crushing him against the wall, and then smashed his other fist into the Mage’s stomach.
Unable to breathe, Damien began to choke, his vision graying out and pain tearing through his body as the thug struck him again. And again.
Then one of the other thugs flew bodily into the leader’s back. Still, the man remained on his feet, dropping Damien as he turned to see who was interrupting.
Damien barely recognized the spacer from Gentle Rains of Summer before the “liberated” length of black piping crashed into the leader’s head. The thug wavered for a moment, and then the piping slammed up between his legs, and the mountain of a man finally crumpled.
Damien’s consciousness crumpled with him.
Captain David Rice figured he was about to die.
The pirate ship had been waiting for the container ship Blue Jay when they emerged from their second-to-last jump en route to the Sherwood system. Compared to the freighter’s four spinning ribs wrapped around its core and containers, the hundred-meter-long cylindrical ship was tiny.
Unlike Blue Jay, though, the pirate ship had antimatter thrusters, a Mage who hadn’t just jumped, and fusion-rocket long-range missiles. The last were the cause of the muscular Captain’s sense of incipient mortality.
He stood on the freighter’s bridge, watching the display from his ship’s cheap but functional sensor suite with one eye, and the video link to the simulacrum chamber at the center of the ship showing his Ship’s Mage’s exhausted face with the other. The sensors showed the pirate just less than two million kilometers distant—and the missile salvo it had fired several minutes before, accelerating toward them at over two thousand gravities.
“Four missiles,” his first officer, Jenna Campbell, reported in a strained voice. “RFLAMs engaging.”
The ship had two Rapid-Fire Laser Antimissile systems: defensive turrets containing a dozen rapidly charging gas-chambered pulse lasers. The ship mounted one at the bow, where the four ribs and the central keel combined into the protective shield dome. The second was at the rear of the ship, where it guarded the vessel’s immense engines.
“I’ll see what I can do,” Kenneth McLaughlin told Rice through the video link, the Mage closing his eyes and reaching out. Even from the simulacrum chamber, no Mage could reach very far, and jumps were exhausting. There was no way McLaughlin would save them.
“RFLAMs each got one,” Jenna reported grimly. “Two more inbound—shit! One’s out of the gun’s field of fire!”
“Got it,” Kenneth said grimly. A third blinking icon on the screen disappeared as the Mage reached out and turned part of the missile into superheated plasma.
It wasn’t enough. The immense, multi-megaton mass of Blue Jay lurched as the last missile slammed into the forward RFLAM turret. Rice expected to die in that moment, only to blink as nothing more happened.
“What the hell?” he demanded.
“Either it was a dud or a straight kinetic,” Jenna told him harshly. “Not that it matters—the RFLAM is gone, as is half the bow dome. We try any major maneuvers and we’ll open up like a rusty tin can.”
“I am not dying like this,” Rice told her, engaging the maneuvering controls himself. He took it gently, trusting the XO’s assessment, but he slowly turned the ship so her main fusion rockets—and the last laser turret—faced her attacker.
“We’re being hailed,” Jenna told him. “Playing it.”
“Captain Rice,” a sardonic voice told him. “I do believe your ship may be a bit banged up! Please don’t run too hard; you might hurt yourself.”
“Shit, shit, shit, SHIT,” Jenna exclaimed as the hull lurched again, this time much less noticeably.
“Asshole painted us with an x-ray laser while we were busy listening to his transmission,” she said bitterly. “Now the aft RFLAM is gone.”
Jenna didn’t wait to play the second transmission; she just threw it on when it arrived.
“In the name of the Blue Star Syndicate, I order you to heave to and be boarded,” the voice ordered. “Continue running, and I will put a kinetic warhead through your bridge and then collect your cargo and bodies from the debris field.”
Rice shared a helpless look with Jenna and McLaughlin. If the Blue Star Syndicate boarded the ship, he was dead. If they blew out Jay’s bridge, he was dead.
Now Captain David Rice knew he was going to die, and his crew with him.
The Ship’s Mage took a deep breath and looked him in the eye.
“Not happening, sir,” he said quietly. “Ready the ship for jump.”
“You just jumped,” Rice told him. “You can’t jump for at least a few hours!”
Regulations said a Mage should jump every six hours. If you had a strong, brave Mage, you could jump after three…once. They’d arrived at the final jump zone short of Sherwood barely twenty minutes before.
“I’m sorry, David,” Kenneth said quietly. “I won’t let everyone on this ship die.”
The camera to the simulacrum chamber cut out, and David turned back to look at the sensor board and the pirate ship closing. Then the indescribable sensation of teleportation took hold, and the whole bridge faded out.
When it slowly faded back in, the sensors were clear. They were a day’s regular flight out of Sherwood Prime.
“Get the camera back,” he ordered Jenna. “Kenneth, answer me, dammit!” he snapped.
The monitor flipped back on, and Rice swallowed hard. The simulacrum chamber was at the center of the ship. It had no gravity, only the small model that was always, somehow, at the exact direct center of the ship it was a copy of.
One of Kenneth’s hands was caught in the model. The rest of him had started to float away when his eyeballs had exploded out of his head.
Blue Jay’s only Ship’s Mage, the youngest son of the Mage-Governor of the planet they’d just arrived at, was very, very dead.
Damien woke up to bright lights and white walls, blinking as he slowly realized that he could breathe and wasn’t in pain, both facts a minor surprise after having a human-mountain hybrid try to choke him to death.
He managed to make it about a quarter of the way into a sitting position before a nurse realized what he was doing, arriving in time to stop him from collapsing back onto the clinic bed he was occupying.
As the brunette clad in light blue scrubs helped him upright, he glanced around a room that any citizen of a Protectorate world would recognize. The Charter defined a minimum standard of health care as a human right for governments to provide, and Olympus Mons helped meet that standard by providing funding and a standard prefabricated clinic-in-a-box with a certain set of diagnostic and medical tools.
“Hold still,” the nurse ordered once she had Damien upright. This was followed by a series of scanners, pokes and prods. Apparently finished, she grunted and disappeared out of the clinic room with a sharp “Stay here.”
Still dizzy, Damien thought that might have been the most useless instruction ever. The room slowly stopped spinning while he waited, but the nurse eventually returned with three other people.
The last of the three newcomers was the spacer from Gentle Rains of Summer. In front was an iron-haired gentleman in a white lab coat reading over a datapad the nurse had passed him as they entered the room. In between was a tall redheaded woman in the dark blue uniform of Sherwood System Security.
“I am Dr. Anderson,” the man introduced himself. “This young lady is Nurse Kosta—remember to thank her on your way out.
“You are lucky to be alive, young man,” the doctor continued, setting the datapad down next to Damien’s bed. “Your trachea was damaged and several of your ribs were cracked. The dizziness will fade, though you will be very tired for a day or two—a normal side effect of the bone-mending process.”
The doctor asked him a few questions, ran a more complex scanner the nurse hadn’t used over him, and nodded in satisfaction.
“We’ll keep you in tonight for observation, but you’ll be free to go in the morning,” Anderson told Damien. “If there’s anything that needs to be taken care of at your home—pets to feed or a girlfriend to let know—let Kosta know and we’ll get it taken care of.”
“Neither,” Damien told him, coughing to clear his throat after he spoke. “Thank you.”
“Now Kosta and I will leave you with Captain Harrison,” the doctor continued. He turned to the SSS officer. “You have fifteen minutes,” he said sternly, “and then I am kicking you out of my clinic, clear?”
“Perfectly, Doctor. Thank you,” the Security officer said calmly.
The doctor shuffled out, and Captain Harrison pulled two chairs up beside Damien’s bed, gesturing for the spacer to sit.
“I kept Mr. Casey here around, as I figured you’d want to thank the man who saved your life,” she said quietly. “Brian Kendall—the thug who worked you over—is known to System Security. Given the number you’d done on him, he was going to kill you. Mr. Casey’s intervention prevented that, and his witness statement is going to put him behind bars for a very long time…after the doctors finish fixing his knee. That was you, I presume?”
Damien nodded. “I… didn’t think he would keep coming after that,” he admitted. “I was trying to calm things down.”
“With most thugs, that’ll work,” Casey told him with a small smile. “But that Kendall…’e seemed a piece of work.”
“Thank you,” Damien told the spacer. “I’m not even sure why you were there, but Captain Harrison is right—he was going to kill me.”
Casey slipped a small paper envelope from his jacket onto the table by Damien. “The Cap’n wanted to give you a little something for your help with the ward,” he told him. “’E sent me after you to hand it over. I, um”—he gave a sideways glance at the Security Captain—“pinged your PC for your location…and hurried when I saw where you were.”
Harrison was studiously looking at Damien’s medical monitor, pretending she hadn’t heard the spacer confess to a minor crime. Personal computers were keyed to a user and contained all of their personal information—accessing one without permission was considered a form of personal assault.
After a moment, the Captain turned her eyes back to Damien and tapped her own PC.
“I need you to give me a recorded witness statement,” she told him. “After that, I shouldn’t need to call you in for anything, but we’ll hold on to your contact information in case. Is that acceptable?”
Damien nodded, and Harrison pressed a button on the computer. “All right, let’s get started.”
It didn’t take very long for Damien to give as complete a description as he remembered of the incident. Some of his memories were clouded from being choked into unconsciousness, but at least the start of the encounter was clear.
“One last question for the record,” Harrison finally told him. “How many spells do you know that would have killed Kendall?”
Damien blinked, confused. “Sorry?”
“I’m aware of at least some of the spells taught in the self-defense portion of the Practical Thaumaturgy curriculum,” she said. “Your response was nonlethal, but you were capable of a lethal response—correct?”
Damien thought about it. He’d learned self-defense spells around various forms of energy manipulation—heat, cold, electricity. Even the straight force spell he’d used could have been deadlier if directed at, say, Kendall’s neck.
“At least five,” he finally answered quietly. “At most basic, a fire spell would have inflicted significant third degree burns if not killed him.”
“Thank you,” Harrison said, turning off her PC. “That will be sufficient for the courts, I think.” She was shaking her head slightly.
“What?” he asked.
“I think you are the first Mage I’ve ever met to default to a nonlethal level of force when threatened,” she told him. “Most Mages go straight for fire or lightning—we spend a good part of the training for the System Security Mages teaching them to use a targeted level of force.”
“I thought I could scare them off,” Damien admitted. “I was wrong.”
“That wasn’t your mistake,” Harrison told him. “Your mistake was not escalating as soon as you realized you couldn’t. Training can fix that—have you ever considered joining the SSS?”
“I’m trained to be a Jump Mage,” Damien answered. “That’s what I’m going to be—as soon as I find a ship.”
The Security Captain looked like she had swallowed something sour.
“Every Mage wants to Jump,” she told him. “There are what, ten thousand Mages in Sherwood? Out of two billion people—ten thousand Mages. Everyone, from System Security to the Shipwrights to the damned power company, needs Mages. They’re desperate for anyone who can cast a spell—and you are sitting up on this station, doing nothing, complaining that you can’t find a place on a starship?”
Damien touched the collar he wore—the product of years of study and training so that he could Jump. Getting into Jump training wasn’t easy, for the exact reasons that Harrison had just thrown at him.
“I earned the right to Jump,” he told the cop. “You’ll excuse me if I don’t give up on that just yet.”
Harrison took a deep breath. “I’m sorry,” she told him. “It’s frustrating trying to recruit Mages and watching there be not enough Mages for anything except Jumping—and too many Jump Mages. Just…keep it in mind, hey? You’d make a better cop than most.”
“I’ll think about it,” Damien told her. He even might, if he went long enough without finding work on a starship.
It took six hours to get any of Blue Jay’s massive fusion engines working after they’d jumped into Sherwood. Rice had made his way along the ship’s zero-gravity core after the first hour to help out—without engines, they were dead in space and unlikely to even show up on sensors so anyone knew they were in trouble.
Finally, the Captain was shoulders deep in a maintenance box, reconnecting wires, when he heard the ship’s engineer shout, “That looks like it, Skipper. Get clear; I’m going to open up the hydrogen feeds.”
David pulled himself free of the open panel and glanced up at the even-blacker-than-usual face of his senior engineer, James Kellers. “Go for it,” he told the man.
“Everyone clear?” the engineer asked loudly. Both of the two assistant engineers responded in the affirmative, and the wiry black man threw a toggle on the datapad he was carrying. The engine room was on the aft end of the gravity-less main core, so they all felt it when the engines kicked. The room had a sudden, very faint sensation of down.
“Well?” David asked.
“It’s not much,” Kellers admitted. “We’ve got the thrusters back at about fifty percent, but the main engines are shot to hell. Call it…two percent of a gee.”
“It’ll get us inbound—and make it so the Fleet can detect us,” David told him.
“And if they do, you should be on the bridge, not immersed in Jay’s guts,” Kellers replied. “We can take it from here, boss.”
Rice looked down at his hands, which were covered in ash from the burnt-out conduits he’d been helping replace. It had been years since he’d worked Kellers’ job, but he hadn’t forgotten which way the circuits went in. He knew from when he’d done that job, though, how filthy his face was after crawling into a burnt-out maintenance panel.
“I don’t know; looking like this might get help from the Martian boys faster,” Rice observed, but he was carefully making his way up the engine room against the very slight pressure of the ship’s acceleration.
For once, he’d welcome “the Martian Boys”—the Royal Martian Navy of the Mage-King of Mars, more commonly simply the Protectorate Navy—showing up.
Given that any Navy ship would have to at least wait until the lightspeed signature of Jay’s engine reached them, though, he probably even had time for a shower.
“Captain to the bridge,” Jenna’s voice echoed over the intercom. “Captain Rice to the bridge, ASAP.”
With a sigh, David increased his pace up the core.
Jenna had somehow managed to get the main viewscreen for the communicator online, and it was showing an impeccably turned out officer aboard the disgustingly neat bridge of a Navy warship.
“This is Mage-Captain Adrian Corr of His Majesty’s destroyer Guardian of Honor,” the fair-haired man in the dark blue uniform told David as he entered the room and faced the concealed camera over the viewscreen. “You are Captain Rice of Blue Jay?”
“I am,” David replied. “I have to say I’m glad to see you boys so far out.”
He counted in the back of his head until the Mage-Captain responded. He made it to four seconds—the destroyer was still two full light-seconds away. Close in interplanetary terms but still quite a distance away.
“We were doing an outer-system scan as an exercise, and one of my officers identified your jump flare,” Corr said in his neatly precise tones. The blond hair with the slightly angled eyes and the soft accent marked the Mage as a Martian, one of the old Mage families. “When she did not see an engine signature, she recommended we investigate. My apologies for the delay, Captain—my first officer believed that even an in-system jump was my decision, not his.”
“As you can see, Mage-Captain, Blue Jay is in no state for me to be complaining about any help present.”
“Of course.” Corr nodded. “My apologies again—are you in need of medical assistance?”
“We have no significant injuries,” David told him. “Only minor injuries and one fatality.”
“What happened?” the Mage-Captain asked.
“A pirate ship jumped us at our last jump layover,” Rice answered. “Disabled our defensive turrets and was preparing to fire into us when our Ship’s Mage jumped us.”
The Navy Officer’s wince, four seconds later, was small but noticeable. “Early,” he said. It wasn’t a question.
“We will take your ship under tow when we arrive,” Corr informed Rice. “I will pass your report on to System Command. We will investigate this pirate.”
David nodded his agreement. “Thank you,” he said quietly.
“We serve the Mage-King of Mars,” the Martian noble told him. “What does his Protectorate mean if we do not protect people?”
Guardian of Honor was unable to tow Blue Jay much faster than the battered freighter could move on her own power. While the destroyer’s engines were both more powerful than the freighter’s and fully intact, the Navy ship had done a full sensor sweep of the freighter—and Mage-Captain Corr judged her only capable of surviving about a quarter-gravity of acceleration.
At that much-reduced rate, it took the destroyer several days to haul the ship into something resembling real-time communication range of Sherwood. David spent most of the trip on the bridge, watching the battered thermal scanners carefully for any sign of trouble. A million-ton warship was a lot of reassurance, but after watching pirates try to blow his ship away, he figured he was allowed some paranoia.
He’d sent Jenna to get some rest earlier, which meant he was the only one on the bridge when Blue Jay received the first of the two transmissions he was dreading.
The transmission was a video signal carrying the image of an expensively dressed dark-haired woman with the kind of perfectly imperfect prettiness that spoke of either natural beauty or truly expensive cosmetic surgery.
“Office of the Sherwood Governor,” the woman announced herself. “Please connect me to Kenneth McLaughlin.”
It was phrased as a request, but the tone made it very clear that the woman expected to be obeyed instantly.
“I’m sorry, miss, I can’t do that,” David told her with weariness tingeing his voice that had nothing to do with having been conscious for over twenty hours.
A few moments later, he could tell when his response arrived. The woman blinked, clearly surprised by his response. “And why not?” she demanded sharply.
“Kenneth McLaughlin is dead,” the freighter Captain told her simply.
This time, he could time the lightspeed lag to the microsecond. As soon as his words arrived, the haughtiness took a full-on body blow, and the woman’s lips tightened until they were almost white. It took her a few seconds to even minimally recompose herself.
“Hold for the Mage-Governor,” she instructed sharply before the screen threw up the eagle and bagpipes of the Sherwood planetary crest.
David waited out the crest patiently. They were slowly decelerating toward the massive station in orbit around Sherwood. Even with Guardian of Honor’s tow, Blue Jay wouldn’t dock for another five hours at their current pace. There was no rush.
Finally, the crest cleared to show a man David had only met once before, though he’d seen the face on dozens of newscasts.
Miles James McLaughlin, patriarch of his clan and seven times elected Mage-Governor of Sherwood, was a tall, steel-haired man with cold blue eyes. He wore a plain black suit, but pinned to the breast pocket of the jacket was a small red ribbon with a golden planet hanging on the end—the Mars Valor Award, given to a much younger Mage-Commander McLaughlin after single-handedly ending one of the nastier anti-pirate campaigns in recent history.
“Where is my son?” he demanded.
“In the morgue of the destroyer Guardian of Honor,” David told him quietly. “We didn’t have the facilities to properly preserve his body.” Or the spare manpower to clean up the awful mess Kenneth had left of himself, but the medical team Guardian had sent over had taken care of that too.
“What the hell did you do?” McLaughlin snarled. “I sent my son with you so he’d stay safe, not so you’d get him killed!”
“Kenneth saved our lives,” David told him. “We were ambushed by pirates—he jumped early, saving everyone else aboard.”
“Pirates don’t find ships at random anymore. What the hell are you involved in, Rice?” the Mage-Governor demanded.
“Your son died a hero,” the Captain repeated, his voice even quieter. “I have no idea how the pirates found us.”
“Heroes happen when other people fuck up,” the McLaughlin said sharply. “You won’t be dragging any more children of Sherwood into your disaster, Rice. Get out of my system.”
The connection terminated, and Rice stared at the screen wordlessly, glad none of his crew had been on the bridge. Getting out of Sherwood wasn’t an option, not with no Mage and the damage Blue Jay had taken. Staying in the McLaughlin’s system after he’d told you to get out wasn’t wise, though.
Before he could begin to come up with a plan, the communicator announced the second call he’d been expecting—this one from his insurance company.
With a sigh, he opened the channel.
The medallion of a Mage opened a lot of doors—even for an unemployed Mage like Damien. When he’d heard that a new freighter was coming in, he’d made his way down to Sherwood Prime’s zero-gravity hub. His medallion had earned him a respectful nod from a security guard as he entered an observation lounge he’d normally be barred from.
There was a neatly marked and signed line between the zero-gravity hub and the luxury lounge. The signs warned Damien, so he was ready when his feet dropped sharply toward the ground when he crossed over the rune-inlaid carpet. Like so much else, artificial gravity could be created with magic, but runes like those woven into the carpet required recharging by a Mage at least once a week. Only warships, with their multiple Mage crews, would expend the resources to have gravity throughout the ship.
Damien reveled in the experience of full gravity for a moment as he made his way to the massive windows. Even the rotating rings only maintained about seven tenths of a gravity, but this lounge was spelled to Sherwood’s nine tenths. Weirdly, the slightly heavier weight he was bearing was…relaxing.
The lounge was quiet at this time, roughly midnight by the station’s clocks, which was likely part of why the gold medallion at the base of his throat had been enough to get him into the lounge unquestioned. Lounges like this were the only ones in the hub with tables and chairs, and he settled into one by the windows.
The windows were impressive. Normally, an “observation lounge”, even on the hub, was just a set of viewscreens, but the Angelus Gravity Lounge had managed to get itself a place right on the edge of the station’s hull—and right above the main docking arms. The owners had then paid an astronomical sum of money to magically transform the complex ceramic-and-metal composite of said hull to be transparent.
Damien ordered a small coffee from the cute but tired waitress and settled in. From here, he could see Gentle Rains of Summer at a far docking arm, having cargo containers slowly maneuvered into locking positions on the massive ship’s keel. Closer, a fast passenger liner rested at another docking arm, its sleek lines suggesting that it, like the Angelus Lounge, had magical gravity.
Eight of the slender docks were visible from the cafe, half of the civilian docking arms on the station. The other eight were on the other side of the hub of Sherwood Prime’s ever-rotating wheels. Of those sixteen docks, four were full. Sherwood wasn’t one of the Core systems around Sol and Mars, but it was a hub of interstellar trade by MidWorlds standards, let alone the Fringe farther out.
The distinctive star-white flare of an antimatter engine took Damien’s attention entirely away from the incredibly good coffee the waitress delivered. No civilian ship used an antimatter torch, and the young Mage stretched his eyes for what he knew had to be out there.
The Protectorate destroyer swam out of Sherwood’s corona like a swimmer from the surf, carefully short bursts from its rockets slowing it as it guided its charge home. An even pyramid, one hundred meters on a side, at this distance its hull was a smooth white, the weapons it bristled with invisible.
He was so shocked by his first sight of one the famous Martian ships that he almost missed what the ship was doing. Massive cables, visible only by the occasional glint of sunlight on them, linked the destroyer to a long and rounded container ship. Like Gentle Rains of Summer, this ship had a long, solid keel with four rotating ribs arrayed around the keel and cargo like an old eggbeater.
The ship was about a third of the size of Gentle Rains, and even from several hundred meters’ distance, Damien could see someone had worked the freighter over hard. Scorch marks marred an already dirty gray hull, with the engine so battered the Mage wasn’t surprised that the ship had needed a tow.
From the looks of it, the freighter might need a Mage, but sadly, he didn’t think they were going to be hiring one anytime soon.
Wondering both at the sharp lines of the destroyer and the battered curves of the freighter, Damien sipped his coffee and watched Blue Jay arrive at Sherwood.
A full day after finally easing Blue Jay into the docking arms at Sherwood Prime, David Rice found himself walking the ship with the insurance agent, a thin man in a cheap gray suit. The agent said very little as they walked the docking arm, viewing the exterior damage from the windows. He occasionally took a picture with his PC and spent much of his time making notes on a keyboard visible to him.
When they reached the entrance to Blue Jay so they could survey the internal damage, they were interrupted by the agent’s PC buzzing,
“Excuse me, Captain Rice,” the man told David before stepping aside to answer the call. Only the occasional small exclamation was audible of the conversation, but when the man returned, his closed exterior was replaced with a wicked grin that belonged on a prank-pulling schoolboy, not an insurance agent of a company notorious for nickel-and-diming every claim they ever received.
“I’m pleased to inform you, Captain Rice, that my superiors have confirmed that the damage to your ship is covered under the piracy clause in your contract,” the agent told Rice. “As such, only half the usual deductible will apply, as the damage is entirely beyond your control.”
“I thought that was what you were here to assess,” Rice asked, and the agent shook his head.
“I’m assessing the value of the damage,” the agent told him. “I have no authority on my own to confirm or deny your claim—the branch head retains direct control over all claims related to starship damages.”
“Ah,” Rice observed. “So, if I may ask, what is the joke I’m missing?”
The agent’s smile faded slightly but not completely. “Off the record, my manager is the worst I’ve ever met for rejecting claims on any grounds,” he admitted quietly. “But Mage-Captain Corr called the office and let us know that he and his crew would be perfectly willing to supply their professional analysis of your telemetry data if there was need to support the piracy claim—and then reminded him that Guardian of Honor is slated to be on-station for the next two years, so they couldn’t even push it off until the ship left. It feels good to watch that tightwad get stuck in a corner.”
“I see,” Rice agreed, understanding at least part of the other man’s thoroughly unprofessional glee, and grateful for the Martian officer’s assistance. Without Mage-Captain Corr leaning on the insurance, it would have taken longer to get the claim cleared, and if they’d managed to declare it an accident, it would have doubled how much of the repairs he had to pay for—a difference that would almost have bankrupted him.
“Shall we go see how much we have to fix, then?” he asked the agent, gesturing back toward the ship.
The rest of the tour with the agent was much more pleasant than the exterior tour had been, as if the certain knowledge that he wasn’t going to be forced to screw the ship’s crew took a large weight off the man’s shoulders.
David was finally relaxed for the first time in days when he settled in at his desk to call the Ship’s Mages Guild to post for a new Ship’s Mage. The video screen on his desk showed the gold icon of the Guild, the same three stars that every Jump Mage wore carved onto the medallion at their throat, and the Guild’s Latin motto: “Per Magica Ad Astra”—“Through Magic The Stars.”
The young woman who answered the call did not wear any such medallion—no one would waste a Mage on reception and booking duty. She did wear a fetching skirt-and-blouse combination in green and white that accented her black hair in a manner that reminded David it had been two years since his divorce.
“Sherwood Ship’s Mage’s Guild, Melanie speaking, how may I help you?” she chirped cheerfully.
“Good afternoon, Melanie,” David greeted her calmly, refocusing his attention where it belonged. “I need to put up a posting for a Ship’s Mage position.”
Among its many roles and tasks, the Guild maintained the job board on the system communication net. A ship’s Captain could be fined for posting a Ship’s Mage role on a more general classified board, and none of the Jump-qualified Mages in a system would be looking for jobs anywhere else.
“Of course!” Melanie told him. “That will only take a few minutes. Do you have an account with the Sherwood office?”
Of all the wonders that magic had given humanity, one that the Magi hadn’t managed to pull off was any type of large-scale interstellar communications. A few facilities, massive monstrosities of runes and power, allowed a Mage to transmit their voice to a specially built, equally massive receiver, but data transmission of any kind was impossible. It wouldn’t matter if David had accounts with every other Guild Office in the Protectorate; he would need an account for Sherwood.
“I do,” he told the girl. He’d hired Kenneth in Sherwood, though that hadn’t been through the Guild but through a favor to an acquaintance in the government. He reeled off the account number. “Captain David Rice, aboard Blue Jay,” he concluded.
Melanie cheerfully started inputting data into a computer below the edge of the screen and then stopped in confusion.
“I’m sorry, Captain,” she said slowly. “I’ve never seen this before, but I have a note here that your ship is blacklisted and I can’t authorize any job postings or hiring contracts.”
The ground fell out from underneath David in a way the rapid rotation of Blue Jay’s ribs to create gravity didn’t explain.
“I can put you through to a manager and you can try and sort out what it would take to get you un-blacklisted?” she offered, still fully in “help the customer” mode. The girl didn’t realize what a system-wide hiring blackout meant to a man like David. The McLaughlin had just killed his ship.
“No,” he said faintly. “I will contact them later. Thank you, Melanie,” he managed to squeeze out before cutting the connection, staring at the screen as it dropped back to an automatic rotation of the cameras around the docking bays, showing him Blue Jay and the other ships in dock.
Miles James McLaughlin, it seemed, did not fuck around. When he’d said that David would drag no more of Sherwood’s Mages into his affairs, the Mage-Governor had clearly leaned on the system’s Guild to block his hiring any Mage in the system. Since David hadn’t committed any of the acts—lack of payment, for example—that would normally result in being blacklisted, he knew it wasn’t a Protectorate-wide blacklist. He could send a note on another ship to another system’s Guild, hire a Ship’s Mage sight unseen and ship them to Sherwood.
The risks and price tag of that option made him sick, and the shifting images on his screen weren’t helping. He touched the screen, freezing the picture on a single camera, and then stopped in thought.
Off to the side of the camera view he was watching was Gentle Rains of Summer. Four times Blue Jay’s size and capacity, the ship likely had more than one Mage aboard, and Andrew Michaels was an old friend of David’s.
Maybe they could work something out, at least to get Blue Jay out of this ill-begotten system with its vengeful overlord.
With his rooms tucked away deep in the cheaper areas of Ring Seven, Damien didn’t think that anyone knew where he was staying—he certainly hadn’t given anyone the name of the cheap hotel or his room number, so when the buzzer for his door went off, he had a moment of panic.
Remembering after a second that he was paid up for a full week and it was unlikely to be the landlord, Damien opened his door. Waiting on him was the last person he expected: Grace McLaughlin, one of the two McLaughlin mages who’d beaten him out for Gentle Rains’ junior Ship’s Mage slot…and his on-again, off-again lover from the Jump Mage program.
“Hi, Damien,” she greeted him with a mischievous grin. “Hurry up and invite me in; this is one shitehole of a neighborhood you’ve picked to slum in.”
Damien was too surprised to do more than wordlessly step back and gesture her in. The petite redhead ducked under his gesturing arm and closed the door behind her, rapidly finding the room’s sole ragged couch and perching on it, eyeing him like a cat with a favorite toy.
“You know, I know you’re trying to save money, but would it kill you to have asked for a little help?” she asked him. “I don’t know what you’re paying, but I’m sure we could have found you somewhere nicer for about the same—the family always knows somebody.”
“It doesn’t work that way for most of us,” Damien told her quietly. He’d spent a lot of time around the various McLaughlin scions of his age, and continued to wonder at their view of the world. They weren’t arrogant, they were too driven to help and serve to be arrogant, but they knew that everyone on Sherwood would happily do them favors at the drop of a hat.
“It works that way for family,” Grace told him, locking her gaze on him. “And you went to school with six of us and Granddad likes you—you practically are family.”
Grace, as Damien had not found out until after he’d shared her bed, was the eldest daughter of the Governor’s eldest son. She was the only adult in the entire system that would refer to the McLaughlin as “Granddad”. Damien wasn’t so sure the Governor liked him—he’d barely met the man after all.
“How did you even find me?” he asked finally. “It’s not like I even told your Captain where I was staying.”
“Casey,” Grace answered simply. “First rule of being shipboard—the Bosun can always find out what they want to know. I asked her, she sent me to Casey, who apparently lifted your address from your PC while he was saving your life. An incident, I’ll point out,” she said sharply, “that you didn’t mention to me, my sister, or my cousins.”
As usual when dealing with Grace, Damien was starting to be overwhelmed. He was never sure why the woman had picked him to be her lover, though he would never have dreamed of complaining. She ran at roughly twice his speed on a good day.
“Everyone involved is spending a very long time as guests of System Security,” Damien told her. “Beyond that, what was the point of telling anyone?”
Grace sighed loudly and pushed Damien down onto the couch to hop into his lap, snuggling up against him in an extremely pleasant way.
“Because, you adorable dolt, we actually care and worry about you when we don’t hear a peep for weeks?” she told him. “To hear about you getting beaten up from the spacers on my new ship on top of that is not my idea of a good day.”
Damien hugged her back, not sure what to say.
“I’m sorry about Gentle Rains,” she continued after a moment, her voice quieter. “I wasn’t expecting Mom to call in favors quite that heavily. If it helps, she promised to make sure the next Captain heard about you first.”
Arya McLaughlin was, as well as the daughter-in-law of the system governor, Head Administrator for Sherwood Prime. Her prodding ship Captains about Damien couldn’t hurt him, but he felt uncomfortable at the thought of strings getting pulled on his behalf.
Before he expressed that thought aloud, however, Grace laughed and kissed him.
“You, of course, have an even greater portion of pure Sherwood Scot stubbornness than any of the family,” she told him. “Which is a small, teensy portion of why I’m spending my last night on the station here.”
“You leave tomorrow?” Damien asked, surprised.
“Yeah, we ship out at eleven hundred hours station time,” Grace told him. She sat up straight, remaining on his lap but creating some distance between them. “Which, given that I need to be on ship two hours beforehand, means we only have about twelve hours. I’d better get business out of the way.”
She slid a tiny data disk out of her cleavage and dropped it on the side table.
“That’s from Captain Michaels,” she told him. “It’s the contact info for Captain David Rice on Blue Jay—they’re the ship that came in damaged from a pirate attack a couple of days ago. Trick is, they lost their Mage on the way in—but for whatever reason, the Sherwood Guild has blacklisted them. Rice can’t post for a new Mage.”
“You mean…” Damien said slowly.
“Rice asked the Captain if he knew anyone,” Grace told him. “Then the Captain asked Kyle and me if we knew you—and I said I was trying to track you down since we were leaving, and he told me to tell you to contact Rice if you still wanted a Jump job.”
For a long moment, Damien was silent, looking at the tiny disk on the table. Finally, he looked up at Grace.
“Thank you,” he said quietly.
“You’re welcome. Now, I believe I mentioned spending the night?” she continued with a familiar wicked grin.
Damien didn’t get a lot of sleep that night, but when he did wake up, Grace was gone. He wasn’t sure when she’d left, but by the time he woke up, it was only an hour short of when she’d said Gentle Rains of Summer was due to leave. Running his hand down the slight indent her body had left in the cheap motel mattress, he realized he could still clean up and make it down to watch the freighter leave.
Making sure to grab the data disk Grace had left with him, he made his way down to the same observation deck he’d watched Blue Jay arrive from, slipping into the window table in the Angelus Gravity Lounge in time to see the last lines drop away from the big freighter.
The Summer was one of the biggest freighters the worlds of the Protectorate built, rated for twelve million tons of cargo and massing over twenty million tons fully loaded and fuelled. This close to the even-greater mass of Sherwood Prime, the immense ship moved slowly, running on secondary ion thrusters to avoid damaging the station itself.
Her gravity ribs were locked as she maneuvered out, so Damien could clearly make out the four flattened structures that contained crew quarters, and the hundreds of standard ten-thousand-cubic-meter containers attached to the central keel’s cargo spars.
Launching from the central, immobile hub of the station forced the ship to build up her momentum entirely on her own. It took easily ten minutes before the minuscule thrust of the ion thrusters moved the Summer out of the station’s safety zone and rotated her to face out-system. Once the ship was in position, the massive fusion rockets at the end of the central keel flared to life. The window between Damien and the rockets darkened noticeably to prevent the light of those miniature suns from injuring the patrons’ eyes.
Watching the ship burn away from Sherwood, it finally sank into Damien why Grace had been looking for him even before her Captain had asked her to. It would be months, even years, before Gentle Rains of Summer returned to Sherwood. If Damien went on another ship, it was exceedingly unlikely that he would be in Sherwood when the ship returned. Last night had been the last time they were likely to see each other.
Damien pulled the data disk out with a sigh and eyed it. The PC on his wrist could read it and place a call. On the other hand, Blue Jay’s dock was only ten minutes’ drift through the zero-gravity section of the station.
“David, there’s a young Mage here to see you,” Jenna told Captain Rice, sticking her head into the office just off the bridge. The bridge and his office, located on Rib Four, had only had gravity restored about two hours before, and David was trying to catch up on the paperwork his insurance agent was inflicting on him.
David suspected he’d never seen this much paperwork for insurance before because he’d never seen insurance work progress so quickly, but the agent was taking an almost-gleeful pleasure in ramming through Blue Jay’s repairs before his superior could find some way to argue against the sworn affidavits of the bridge crew of a Martian destroyer.
“A Mage?” he asked to be sure he’d heard correctly. His best efforts to try to track down a Jump Mage without going through the Guild hadn’t produce much more than vague promises, and his best hope of poaching a junior Mage from someone had just left port, with Michaels assuring him that “steps had been taken”.
“He says his name is Damien Montgomery—and that Captain Michaels sent him,” his first officer advised, glancing at the small pile of authorizing data disks on Rice’s desk. The stocky blonde flashed a bright smile at her Captain. “I’ll send him in, shall I?”
“Any distraction from Mr. Clarke’s mountain of helpful paperwork,” Rice told her, agreeing with her significant glance. For that matter, David was willing to meet with any Jump-qualified Mage, even if they had three heads and spoke Sanskrit.
The “young Mage” that Jenna showed into his office a minute later, though, was barely more than a boy. Dark-haired, short and slim, he was probably older than he looked, but David would have placed him at maybe sixteen years old.
“Captain Rice, I’m Damien Montgomery,” the youth introduced himself calmly. Instead of the tie that David would have worn with the dark-slacks-and-shirt combination he was wearing, Montgomery wore a black leather collar holding a gold medallion against the base of his throat. As the youth stood across from David, the Captain recognized the tiny three stars carved into the medallion that marked him as Jump-qualified.
“Have a seat, Damien,” Rice told him. “I’d ask if you were here about the Ship’s Mage posting, but I’m afraid there is no posting.”
“So I was told,” Montgomery said quietly, settling into the proffered chair. “The Governor has blacklisted you. The Guild won’t let you hire anyone.” He paused and shrugged. “I’ll jump for you.”
Rice regarded him levelly.
“As you said, the Guild has blacklisted us,” he said carefully. “Our last Ship’s Mage died jumping too early to get us away from a pirate attack. Jumping for us may be risky and will definitely get you in trouble with the Guild. Why?”
The youth shrugged again. “I Jump-qualified in the same year as six children of the McLaughlin clan,” he said quietly. “Their families have connections and wealth to buy favors. My father was a baker and died several years ago.”
Rice nodded slowly. “What you’re saying, Mage Montgomery, is that we are both desperate?”
The Captain eyed the young man across the desk for a long moment. To qualify as a Jump-Mage, a Mage had to have made at least twenty supervised Jumps, but he suspected that those jumps were the only time Damien had ever cast the spell. He hesitated to put his life—and his crew’s lives—into the hands of a youth with no experience.
“Are you prepared to have me review your Jump calculations?” he asked bluntly. Normally, a Jump Mage’s work was extremely private, with no oversight except maybe a more senior Mage. After thirty years on merchant ships, though, David knew enough to at least tell if the calculations were wrong.
Damien paused again, then nodded. “I think that might even make me more comfortable,” the young man admitted, looking sixteen again for a moment.
“Fine. You’re hired,” Rice told him. “Jenna will find you a bunk—we only just got our ribs rotating for gravity, so you may have to lend a hand cleaning up around the ship, if that’s all right?”
“There is a lot I can do to help ‘clean up,’ I suspect,” Montgomery told him. “If nothing else, I will need to review the rune matrix before we jump. From what I saw of the damage, I want to be sure it wasn’t compromised.”
That wasn’t a thought that had occurred to David yet, and he shivered at the potential danger. Hopefully, the young Mage in front of him knew his job. At best, a compromised rune matrix wouldn’t work. At worst…it would scatter the ship in pieces across the full length of the jump.
“What about registering your employment with the Guild?” David finally asked: another unpleasant thought.
“I…would prefer to do that in a system not Sherwood,” Damien suggested, and the Captain laughed.
“I think we can both agree to that.”
Damien took a long, slow look around the tiny room he’d been living in for the last two months. It had never been much of a room, though Grace had managed to add some pleasant memories to the space before vanishing out of both the room and his life.
When he’d left the surface, he’d sold or given away anything large or heavy he’d owned, so it had taken him under ten minutes to pack a single mid-sized bag with all of his worldly belongings. Now the room was sparse and empty, merely awaiting a simple transmission to the landlord to deliver his last payment and cancel his access code.
Once he left this room, it was done—he was leaving Sherwood and unlikely to return. Even if he switched ships later on, the McLaughlin was unlikely to forget that Damien had defied his blacklisting of Blue Jay and returning to Sherwood would be unwise.
From the moment he’d tested positive for the Mage Gift and his life had changed forever, Damien had known he wanted to be a Jump Mage. He’d failed the entrance exams for the Protectorate Navy—by the skin of his teeth, in a year when no Mage on Sherwood had passed the exams—which meant the merchant ships were the only way to Jump.
His family had passed on before he graduated with his degree. Grace had left aboard Gentle Rains of Summer. Nothing held him to Sherwood, but he still hesitated for a moment.
But it was only a moment. He sent the transmission to the landlord, shouldered his bag, and headed for Blue Jay.
Jenna was waiting for Damien when he reached the transfer tube to Blue Jay, a zero-gravity transfer cart waiting by her. She glanced at his single bag and arched an eyebrow at him.
“I brought the cart to help carry your stuff, but I see that wasn’t necessary. Light packer?” she asked.
“I lived alone; I didn’t have or need much,” Damien admitted. “Anything specific I should make sure to have?”
“Not really,” the heavyset officer told him. “Food and such are included in your pay. Grab the cart; let’s get aboard.”
Damien grabbed the cart and pushed it forward, keeping a hand on it as it drifted through the zero-gravity boarding dock. Not much more than a metal tray with clips for keepings objects attached to it, the cart was useful to keep things from drifting away while moving through zero-gravity zones such as the central hub of Sherwood Prime, and the transfer tube that linked it to the keel of Blue Jay.
“Blue Jay is a Venice class freighter,” Jenna told him as she kicked off into the tube. “We’re rated for three megatons of cargo—three hundred standard ten-thousand-cubic-meter cargo containers at their max mass.”
“To carry that, she’s almost a full kilometer long, with four rotating gravity ribs. With a crew of eighty-five, we have quite a bit of cubage to give people living space.” She paused as they entered the main lock and gestured to a storage rack on the side of the plain room. “Since you’ve just the one bag, stow the cart there.”
Damien obeyed, carefully propping himself as he slung the bag back over his own shoulder.
“Through here is the rear access point for the ribs,” Jenna continued, launching skillfully and catching the handle by the open door out of the loading zone. The room beyond the door held four “elevators” that would spin up to match the ribs, and then slide into tubes heading out to the edge of the ship.
“Your cabin is on Rib Three,” she told him, “the same cabin as the last Ship’s Mage.
“Don’t worry,” she said after a pause, “we already sent all of his stuff onto his family.”
“What happened to him?” Damien asked, following her into one of the elevators
“We were jumped by pirates,” Jenna told him grimly as she carefully oriented herself feet-first toward the outside of the ship before hitting the button to start the tiny cab rotating around the ship. “Kenneth jumped us before he should have, and burnt himself out.”
Damien wasn’t sure if the bottom fell out of his stomach due to the memory of the lectures he’d had on overexerting his magic, with attendant pictures of the results, or the sudden acceleration-induced shift in apparent gravity.
“Are pirates common?” he asked slowly, holding onto the safety railing and determinedly ignoring his inner ear’s confusion.
“In the Fringe and the UnArcana Worlds where the Navy is sparse, they can be,” she said quietly. “But normally, a major MidWorlds system like Sherwood is so safe as to be boring.”
The sensation of gravity changed again as the elevator stopped accelerating sideways and Damien’s stomach lurched as the pod shot outward toward the rib.
When it finally came to an apparent halt, there was a comfortable sense of about half a gravity of centrifugal force, and Damien breathed a sigh of relief.
“The elevators take some getting used to,” Jenna told him with a grin. “But you do get used to them.”
She led the way out of the elevator, pointing out the stairs leading “down” toward the outside of the ship. “Each rib is arranged in four decks,” she explained. “The outermost deck is storage, systems, and radiation shielding. Quarters are on the inner two decks, and working spaces on deck three. Follow me; I’ll take you to your cabin.”
Damien’s cabin, it turned out, was on Deck One of Rib Three—the innermost deck.
“The ribs are about two-thirds the length of the overall hull,” Jenna told him as she led him along the corridor. “Even after curvature, shielding, and the rotation motors, there’s about five hundred meters of usable length on each one, so we have no shortage of space. There’s a saying in the merchant fleet—‘cubage is cheap, mass is expensive.’” She gestured at the doors they were passing. “We have individual cabins for one hundred and sixty people, almost twice our crew, but crew are restricted to less than one hundred kilos of personal possessions.”
“Do we ever carry passengers?” Damien asked.
“Sometimes,” she confirmed. “We keep Rib Four’s cabins empty for just that purpose, actually. I’d say we have passengers maybe a quarter of the time—we’re no luxury cruise liner, though.”
She palmed the scanner by one of the cabins and the door slid open. “Put your palm on the scanner,” she ordered, and Damien obeyed. After a moment, the device beeped at him.
“It’s now keyed to you,” Jenna told him. “The Captain or I can override it if we have cause, but no one else can enter your rooms.”
Damien almost missed the plural until he stepped into the cabin. The room was bigger than the space he’d rented on Sherwood Prime, though it only contained a single, extremely lightweight couch, an entertainment screen, and a desk.
“Bedroom to the right, bathroom straight ahead,” Jenna told him. “You can pick up some furnishings on the station if you want, but, like I said, one hundred kilos max. The Captain and I have the same restriction—mass is expensive,” she concluded with a grin.
“Thank you,” Damien told her, looking around the living room with a small degree of shock. “Are all the cabins like this?” he finally asked.
“This is an officer’s cabin,” she admitted. “The crew cabins are only a single room and the workspace requires you to sit on the bed, but they still have the couch and entertainment screens. Blue Jay’s first owners outfitted her for the long runs in the Fringe—it makes sense to keep the crew in style if you’re in the boonies for months at a time.”
The Mage nodded, dropping his single bag—much less than a hundred kilos—on the bench and looking around for a moment.
“Where is the simulacrum chamber?” he finally asked, figuring getting to work was probably a good idea.
Jenna laughed. “You’ve been on the ship less than ten minutes, and we aren’t leaving port for at least three days,” she told him. “In any case, I have to get back to the bridge for a conference call with the repair company and our insurance agent. How about you get unpacked and grab a bite to eat, and I’ll give you the grand tour at eighteen hundred hours?”
Damien looked around the somewhat excessive cabin and at his tiny bag. Unpacking wouldn’t take him long, but he could probably order some useful items through the communications net for delivery if he had three days.
“Call it a plan,” he agreed.