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Excerpt for Rat Pirates by , available in its entirety at Smashwords





Rat Pirates

By

Lazette Gifford

Copyright 2018 Lazette Gifford

An ACOA Publication

www.aconspiracyofauthors.com

ISBN: 978-1-936507-77-1



Smashwords Edition



Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you're reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

What happens when the Lindy Pirates from Vita's Vengeance and the Port Rats from Badlands get together?

Everyone worries.







Copyright 2018, Lazette Gifford, All Rights Reserved

ISBN: 978-1-936507-77-1

Cover Art copyright 2018, Lazette Gifford, All Rights Reserved

Cover art created with DAZ Studio and Adobe Photoshop

Published by A Conspiracy of Authors www.aconspiracyofauthors.com









Dedication:

For Russ because he still believes in my writing and encourages me in every way to keep at it.

Besides, he's a really nice guy.





The story so far....

I believe that Rat Pirates stands up alright on its own, but if you want the entire story, you'll need to read two other novels that take place before this one. The first is Vita's Vengeance, which follows the Aquila Fringe War and introduces the Lindy Pirates. The second novel is Badlands which introduces the Caliente Port Rat gangs. These two books do not appear to be connected though they are obviously both set in the same story universe.

I had a great deal of fun bringing the two groups together and I even found a chance to include IWCS Agent Devlin from the Devlin's Team books (though this was before she formed the team) and Captain San Rasi, who also appears, is in Vita's Vengeance, Living in Caine's Hold, and Tales from Grey Station 9: Season One (among other stories).

The IWC Universe stories often braid, overlap, and make use of characters more than once. I hope you enjoy seeing them turn up now and then.





Table of Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Four

Chapter Thirty-Five

Chapter Thirty-Six

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Chapter Forty

Chapter Forty-One

Chapter Forty-Two

Chapter Forty-Three

Chapter Forty-Four

Chapter Forty-Five

Chapter Forty-Six

About the Author

Preview: Tales from Grey Station Nine, Season One






Chapter One


Lt. Commander Palman entered the door of the Council Chamber and counted the number of people who had places in the line ahead of her. After that, she counted the panes of colored glass in the tall, multi-hued windows that artistically blocked the view of the bleak Martian landscape.

She even counted the number of times the Honorable Ambassador of the Special Relief Committee tapped his finger against the ornate and crowded desk behind which he sat. Two large vidscreens stood behind the man's desk showing him and the current applicant, their voices just loud enough to be heard above the whispers of the people still in the lines.

She'd watched this show six times already and twice made it all the way to the desk. The first time, she presented her case and the data files. The second time she had been put on the docket for additional information. This time, if her luck held, she might get all the way to the desk and if not get an answer of some sort, at least remind Ambassador Kirshlin that people's lives depended on quick action.

Unfortunately, quick was not a term one often used in the Inner Worlds Council's halls.

Palman had stopped counting the never-ending stream of diplomats who inevitably pleaded for a reduction in taxes for their world. She grimaced each time she heard a speech about their idea of disaster, and she didn't have much sympathy for the entire lot.

They were influential people, though, while she only held the post of a temporary ambassador to a world with a paltry population. Ask an educated person to name the planets that made up the conglomeration of the Inner Worlds, and they almost invariably forgot one: Caliente.

That didn't make the colony's needs any less pressing. While these fools prattled on about depressed trade and rising inflation, the inhabitants of Caliente moved closer to mass starvation.

Palman kept her place and forced herself to remain calm. She knew the ways of bureaucracy, having spent most of her adult life in the military. Making a fuss would only get her sent to the end of the line, and another two days minimum would pass before she got this far again. She carefully bided her time and tamed her anger by counting and forcing herself not to think about people who depended on her and waited for word.

Ambassador Kirshlin nodded to the woman before him and handed another set of files about tax relief to his secretary. The secretary would send the reports to the other members of the committee, and they would relay back information and questions to Kirshlin, who would then discuss the situation with the diplomat the next time he called her to the room. It seemed a long, laborious, and very frustrating cycle.

Kirshlin signaled the next person forward.

This one caught Palman's immediate attention. His plain black suit appeared quite regal compared to the fancy, and sometimes outlandish, finery of the others in the room. In fact, Palman hadn't noticed him until now. Had she counted him? Had she seen him at all?

He wore his dark hair long, and he looked younger than the other petitioners. The stranger seemed quite exotic in a room full of career politicians. Palman noticed how the secretary, who introduced each person, tapped her computer screen, looked at the name, and then looked back up, startled.

"Emissary-at-Large Alsandor Vita, brother of the President of Kai, Dasan. The Aquila Fringe Council confirms his credentials."

Ah, brother of the famous Elisa Vita Daren, and not even a member of the Inner Worlds. That did make him exotic ... and he certainly hadn't come here to discuss taxes.

"Ambassador," Emissary Vita said with a bow of his head to Kirshlin. He had a soft, musical voice and the room went silent to listen.

"Emissary," Kirshlin said, looking as surprised as everyone else. His fingers had stopped tapping on the desk, and he even leaned forward. "Welcome."

"I must admit to subterfuge, I'm afraid," Alsandor Vita said. From where she stood, Palman could see the flash of a bright smile. "I used my credentials and name to get me a place before the Council. Being the brother of Elisa Vita Daren does have occasional blessings."

Palman almost grinned at the obviously unspoken corollary: that being the brother of such a famous woman was not always pleasant. She'd heard a great deal Elisa Vita Daren who had directed the Aquila Fringe through a devastating war. Living in her shadow had to be difficult, though she remembered there was something else about the younger brother --

"May I ask what has brought you here to this committee, then?" Kirshlin asked. He hadn't asked anything from anyone in hours.

"Since the war, I have acquired a second citizenship in another settlement of the Aquila Fringe, and I have come here specifically at their request. I am presenting a petition from the Lindy."

The room went very still, and even Palman stifled a gasp of astonishment, though she would have thought herself immune to audacity after her months of dealing with the natives on Caliente. She looked around at the shocked faces throughout the room. After all, they'd never had a Lindy Pirate admitted into the presence of an Inner World Council Committee before.

Alsandor Vita stood there ignoring the attention. What the hell did the Lindy want with a committee whose work lay mostly in disaster -- and tax -- relief?

"You have our undivided attention, Emissary Vita," Kirshlin admitted. His hands remained still.

"To be succinct, I have come before you because this is the only body with authority to act immediately upon a delicate situation," Alsandor explained with another quick bow of his head. Very polite, this Lindy. He probably learned that from his political sister. "As you are doubtlessly aware, the Aquila Confederation has commissioned the Lindy to contract and ship supplies from the Inner Worlds to our planets. The problem, sir, is that there has been a certain amount of antagonism at the ports of call."

That didn't sound good at all, Palman decided.

Kirshlin appeared to understand the seriousness of those words as well. "Damage?" he asked.

"So far only minor damage and insignificant injuries," he replied, handing over a comp chit just like everyone else who came before the desk. "However, in two incidents, Lindy ships with mechanical emergencies were held in orbit. We have just come through a devastating war, and not all our ships are up to standard." Alsandor made a slight sweep of his hands in a gesture that conveyed frustration and concern. "We must come to some arrangement that will resolve this problem. If we do not, the Lindy will take the Aquila Fringe trade to a fringe sector. We are past the danger of immediate starvation that our worlds faced at the end of the war. We can take longer journeys for what we need. So, if we continue to face friction here, we will go elsewhere."

Handsome, soft-spoken ... and without a doubt Lindy. No one else would dare come straight to the Inner Worlds Council and attempt to blackmail them into cooperation. Alsandor Vita did it with such a look of friendly innocence that he even impressed Palman.

Kirshlin pushed the chit into his computer which was rather too trusting, Palman thought. The Lindy were good with computers, and that chit might have brought the entire system down. Ah, but it would have been too obvious, she supposed.

Alsandor Vita kept his place with every sign of patience. Palman wondered what he was doing here, though. The pirate wasn't stupid. He knew Kirshlin didn't have the power to control worlds and make people accept the Lindy without question.

What did he really want?

No one seemed anxious to see this little drama end. This would be something they'd talk about over meals for months ahead. Palman never expected to be in the presence of a Lindy Pirate, and certainly not in the heart of the Inner Worlds Council Headquarters on Mars.

"I have reviewed the situation," Kirshlin announced as he keyed something on his comp. He sat back in the chair, frowning. "Do you have any suggestions that would help?"

"There are two choices, as far as I can see." Emissary Vita flashed another quick, bright smile, and it certainly didn't calm Kirshlin or anyone else. "You could allow Lindy ships to use the facilities at the IWC military ports --"

"I don't think that would be wise, even believing we could get cooperation from the military," Kirshlin interrupted with a quick shake of his head.

Most of the people glanced at Lt. Commander Palman, standing there in her dress Whites, the very image of the IWC's military. Kirshlin was right: the army would mutiny before they let pirates onto the bases, even if President Pellin himself ordered it. The Lindy knew the first choice would be untenable, so he hadn't yet given his real suggestion.

"Then, sir, my second proposal is to allow the Lindy -- and by association, the rest of the Aquila Fringe -- maintain a private port of their own within the jurisdiction of the Inner Worlds."

Give the Lindy Pirates a lair within the carefully built walls of defense.

Or lose all trade with the Aquila Fringe.

The loss of trade was no small threat to an economic system so precariously built on production and exports. Palman even admitted to herself that there was a reason so many petitioners filed for tax relief. The economy of the Inner Worlds had been tottering on the edge of ruin for several years, and partly because the several highly-populated worlds of the Aquila Fringe hadn't consumed their regular imports during the long and bloody Aquila Fringe War.

The Inner Worlds needed the Aquila Fringe.

Kirshlin nervously ran his fingers through his immaculate hair. Nothing had unsettled him before this. "There has to be another answer. We might guarantee cooperation from the ports and the Port Guards. We could pass an emergency law --"

"Ordering citizens to be nice to the pirates?" Alsandor asked with a softer smile. "I doubt that would help either of us. Besides, how long do you think we could trust them? Are you going to keep guards on your own people to keep us safe?"

"There has to be an answer we can both accept. I'll need time --"

"Ambassador Kirshlin, keep in mind that if we lose a Lindy ship while this problem remains under consideration, the situation moves beyond something you and I can solve with words. Our ships are our worlds. If the Lindy stayed close to the Aquila Fringe, this wouldn't be a problem. However, since we are out here, months away from home, the animosity of others has created complications."

"No IWC committee can simply hand out pieces of worlds, Emissary Vita," Kirshlin said. "Even the uninhabited worlds are under someone's jurisdiction. We'll need to find someplace willing to let the Lindy move in, and quite frankly, I don't think we'll find one --"

Palman felt her heart do a quick, double beat. Hell. Why not?

"Gentlemen, I think I can be of aid in this dilemma," Palman said and stepped forward while her stomach fluttered. She'd spent far too much time with Carmen del Santo Palo; this was pure Calle audacity. "I'm Lt. Commander Palman, assigned as temporary IWC Ambassador to Caliente."

Kirshlin had started calling up more files. He gave a quick nod. "Explain your situation to the Emissary."

"I'm here because Caliente has just suffered a devastating cycle of drought and flood. There is only one settlement on the world with an outdated, but functional, port. The world never drew many settlers because Caliente is not a friendly planet. The terrain is almost entirely desert, and the native life forms are extremely dangerous. Still, the port might offer the Lindy a location they can use, and the Lindy might even help Caliente more."

"How?" Emissary Vita asked though he looked hopeful.

"The population of Caliente is less than eight thousand, and they live under extremely hazardous conditions. A flood destroyed their grow-domes, and they can't afford to import food supplies. I am here trying to get aid."

Kirshlin winced, probably because it made the IWC look rather callous while people suffered. She would probably pay for this later, but she had taken the chance when she stepped forward, and she didn't intend to back down now.

"They need supplies," Alsandor said. "Caliente is on the Aldebaran run, isn't it?"

"Yes," Palman said, amused that the Lindy knew the world when most of the people in the room didn't. "Food and medical supplies are the most immediate needs, but rebuilding comes next. Beyond physical needs, though, the Lindy could provide Caliente with something it has never had before: a future."

"Your appearance may be to all our good fortune, Lt. Commander," Kirshlin said with a nod, though he still read through files.

At least this meant he wouldn't send her to the end of the line. Palman had suspected Caliente might look very good to Kirshlin under the circumstances, and particularly since it sat far away from Earth and Mars, although the world still fell well within the radius that the IWC claimed jurisdiction (though not always control) over.

They stood in silence as Kirshlin continued to read the reports. She saw Alsandor Vita give her a couple measuring looks, and he had to wonder why a member of the IWC Whites had been so willing to step forward and offer a place for the Lindy Pirates.

She wondered herself.

"Emissary Vita, from the information I have on Caliente, this may be the answer to your problem. The IWC had already considered turning the port over to local control so the military may be open to handing it to the Lindy instead, especially if it is a way to keep other problems at bay. I cannot, of course, simply authorize the Lindy to take over the port at Caliente. However, I will urge passage in Council. You will still have to come to an agreement with the Caliente population, however."

"That won't be a problem, sirs," Palman assured them. She might have to kill all the Altos first, and maybe the Rojos as well, but she would get the agreement. She didn't mention any problems here, though. She had learned something important from the Caliente Rats, especially when it came to making deals: Show no weakness.

"Despite how the Lindy have been treated, the IWC does have a law that all port bases on Inner Worlds must give aid to any ship in trouble. We also prohibit more than a minimal amount of military protection on any civilian base. You can call up all the regulations from the IWC library, and they will also be on file at the current port. If you have any other questions, you can address them to me or Lt. Commander Palman." Kirshlin leaned back in his chair, looking both pleased and a little worried. "This is by no means an agreement, Emissary Vita, but it is a start."

"I'm grateful for the immediate attention of the Council." Alsandor gave a slightly more flamboyant bow this time. "With your permission, the Lt. Commander and I will take care of the immediate details."

Smart man to get out of here while he had at least the first link to what he wanted, and before Kirshlin could really think about what he was doing. Palman was ready to go before she lost this hope for Caliente.

"Where can we reach you if there are any questions?" Kirshlin asked. Oh yes, there were bound to be questions before too long.

"I shall be leaving for the Aquila Fringe as soon as I am done here," Alsandor said. "Any Lindy ship can supply you with whatever information you request."

"If we need official authorization?" Kirshlin pressed. The Council liked to have names and places where they could demand answers and assign blame.

"Captain Tiasante Avrial of the Sanctuary will do -- as soon as I inform him that he's in charge of the project." Emissary Vita smiled, but Palman knew he wasn't joking, and she had to wonder how this other Lindy would take the news. "Assuming that there are no snags in the preliminary agreements, he should be to Caliente within six weeks standard. I trust he will be ... welcome."

Palman gave a bow of her head, but they both knew it wasn't going to be this easy. The Lindy had to expect trouble.

"I wish you luck, Emissary Vita, Lt. Commander Palman. Please forward to my office any more information as it becomes available." Kirshlin bowed his head in a nod of dismissal and Palman could clearly see the relief in his eyes. He knew, at the very least, that she had given him time to find a more suitable answer.

"Sir." Vita gave a bow and turned to leave. Palman saluted the Ambassador and spun to follow.

The people in the room made way for the Lindy, as though they suddenly found a wild animal stalking among them and didn't want to draw his attention. Alsandor didn't slow as he left the chambers. Palman caught up with him in the anteroom where more people stared; word about the Lindy presence had spread.

They reached the lifts at the end of the hall before he finally stopped and grinned.

"That was very quick of you, to throw Kirshlin just what he needed when he had little time to consider all the implications." He pressed a button that would bring a lift from the port. He plainly did not intend to waste any time on Mars. "I walked in there on pure bravado, you know, especially when I demanded a port of our own. I didn't expect to walk away with even a chance today. I thought it would take more than one visit to convince them of the threat."

"People always take Lindy threats seriously."

His smile brightened again.

"I didn't have much hope of my own when I walked in there," Palman admitted. "And I am desperate for Caliente."

"You must be to welcome the Lindy in."

"After a few months on Caliente, pirates don't worry me," she answered.

He started to smile, and then must have realized she didn't joke. Good that he took this seriously.

The lift opened, and they slipped inside with three others. Palman had every intention of making certain this Lindy didn't run into any trouble on his way off world. He glanced at her again and probably knew what she intended to guard him.

"As soon as I can get to my ship, I'll see if I can divert a couple grain shipments to Caliente. We can afford that much, even if the rest of this plan doesn't go through."

"You'd send grain before I can get any guarantees from the population?"

"I will not stand by and watch people suffer and starve while bureaucracies decide if they have a surplus of oats or corn they can part with. That reminds me far too much of the type of politics we had to deal with before and during the war. If I send the supplies, it will have nothing to do with the port."

"Thank you," she said and felt those words sincerely. "I'll send you what reports I can before you leave the Mars Station. Despite what I said, there is going to be some problems --"

"There are always some problems, Palman," he replied. "We learn to deal with them. I'll send the supplies as quickly as I can divert ships."

They reached the port level and stepped out, Palman still too stunned to say anything. Others moved past, some with quick looks. Alsandor Vita didn't stop until they reached the gates leading out to the shuttles. The guards on duty had been warned about the Lindy, and they watched him with hands on weapons. He'd be safe enough from here, and she wasn't going to walk him to his ship door, after all.

"I'm sure we will meet again, Lt. Commander Palman," he said. His voice sounded a little rough now. She thought that should mean something --

"Oh hell. You are Captain Tevon." She stood at the side of a Lindy who was a legend even among his own people, and mostly for his daring. And Elisa Vita Daren's brother? He couldn't have faked that part -- the scans would have caught him.

He grinned very brightly this time, gave her an even more flamboyant bow, and then turned and walked toward the shuttle that would take him back to the station. He had not brought the famous cutter here, his small and deadly ship.

And for reasons that had to be insane in a member of the IWC military, Palman laughed at the thought of Lindy Pirates and Caliente Rats together on the same world.




Chapter Two

Captain Tiasante Avrial watched the screens, double-checked the info, and put the ship down with a practiced ease that still made him smile. The Sanctuary was a small ship, and the port couldn't have handled anything larger. Caliente lacked modern equipment.

Caliente, in fact, didn't have much of anything. Avrial looked past the gleaming silver of the Port Tower to a landscape painted in bright white and dark shadows. The ship compensated for local gravity dropping them a few points less than what they'd had on the journey, which seemed the only marginally good thing he'd noticed about this desolate world.

He wondered when he would see Tevon again so that he could have a few words with his friend about giving him this astonishing new job.

"Look at that." Page leaned over Avrial's shoulder as they both stared at the screen. Page shook his head in disbelief. "I've never seen anything so desolate in my life. This makes Jade look pleasant!"

Avrial laughed agreement as he stood, stretching the muscles of his neck and shoulders. His piloting skills had remained dependable, even after years in ... another service. The landings made him nervous though. He had too much to lose now; too many friends traveled with him.

Page still stared out at the world and shook his head, plainly amazed by the sight of such an extraordinarily vicious world. Avrial refused to look at the readings for the outside temp, but the reports he'd studied coming in had given him a warning of what to expect.

"Well, you have your work cut out for you, Captain Avrial," Ashur said as he closed down the armaments. They didn't take chances coming to worlds these days. Ashur's silver hair seemed both flamboyant and natural with the green silks and silver ornaments he wore. This was a true Lindy, born to the famous asteroid belt, while Avrial and Page had both gone Lindy only in the last couple years. They had, all three, stood together on Verdi at the end of the Aquila War and made a bond that held after that last battle. "This doesn't look easy. Captain Tevon must have considerable faith in your abilities to work miracles."

Avrial snorted. "Tevon sent me here because I'm still Verdi Elite enough never to admit failure."

The others laughed, but there was more than a little truth in those words.

Avrial shut down his station while considering his luck that the Lindy accepted him. No other group in the Aquila Fringe trusted him -- unquestionably not his own people on Verdi, whom he had betrayed for all the right reasons. He wasn't trusted by those for whom he had fought, either. Kai, Jade, Milanda: people always stared and whispered. His face had become too well known at the end of the war, and people knew he had served as Idela's personal guard, even though it hadn't been his own choice.

So, he went Lindy. The decision had been simple and the one choice in his life that he didn't regret.

Besides, Tevon had gone Lindy, no matter what his illustrious sister believed now that she had contact with him again. Captain Tevon became Alsandor Vita only when he needed to work with her. Tevon had probably returned to the Aquila Fringe by now where he would explain the acquisition of this port to all the non-Lindy. The Lindy's need for the port had grown more apparent with each incident that threatened a ship. If they had started a discussion about the problem at the Aquila Fringe Council, it would have taken months to even start a serious discussion. Besides, the unfriendliness at ports hadn't all been at places in the Inner Worlds.

Tevon could deal with Madam President and the Aquila Fringe Council. He would make his sister understand, but even with her on their side, they would still likely face some anger. The difference was that if Elisa backed them, no one else would do much more than grumble. Elisa Vita Daren had an extraordinary knack for putting blocks in the way of trouble.

In the end, though, that left Avrial with the not-to-be-envied duty of making this work.

The Lindy had given him Sanctuary, and now Tevon handed him the Caliente base as well, which was far more responsibility than a mere ship. In a strange, ironic way, being Idela's guard had prepared him for this position. As her almost constant companion, he had watched her father, General Jarak, come far too close to subjugating the Aquila Fringe. That would have been only his first step. Jarak's hand had controlled every population -- except the Lindy -- by the end.

He had controlled Avrial, body and soul, thanks to mind blocks. He had broken through them, finally, but the controls still lingered there in his mind. He didn't know why the Lindy trusted him when he did not entirely trust himself.

"Ship is clear, Captain," Page quietly reported.

A paragon of efficiency, his second. Page had learned that ability working with Commander Tors while they fought a back-country war on Dasan. After the war, the boy who had lost one eye and both parents in the fight for freedom had been faced with forced retirement since he was not 'regular' army. He should have been given a high command, and Elisa -- who had been away for a few days -- came back in full rage. Too late, though; Page had already gone to the Lindy.

"We might as well go out, Page," Avrial said with one last glance at the screens. He still refused to look at the outside temperature readings, though he did find himself brushing his hand over the sleeve of his silken jacket, wondering if it wouldn't be wise to shed it now. No. They needed to go out there looking like Lindy. This was, after all, a part of the show. "You have command, Ashur. Don't fire unless something tries to eat the ship."

Ashur smiled. The one thing Avrial knew he needn't worry about was the Lindy dealing with trouble.

He and Page headed down toward the airlock. The ship wasn't large, and the crew numbered only two dozen, most of them true Lindy in all their colorful and flamboyant styles. They all looked excited about the idea of having a port on a real world. The only other Lindy ports had been on the asteroids, and one hidden port on Paradox, in the Jade system back in the Aquila. Having a planet base on a breathable world seemed very odd to all of them.

They reached the airlock. Avrial keyed the inner door open, let it seal behind them, and then opened the next one, eying the white world beyond. He and Page stepped out as the walkway descended to the cement pad. Despite trying to prepare himself, Avrial still nearly stumbled as he took his first breath, drawing the hot, dry air down into his lungs. He tasted the dust, which seemed to be everywhere.

"They can't expect us to work like this!" Page pulled at the lace sleeve of his shirt. "Do people actually live here?"

"Apparently so," Avrial replied with a wave toward the port's single small tower building. A figure emerged and headed their way.

"Maybe not." Page squinted, brushing his long brown hair from his face, and then self-consciously adjusted the patch over his eye. There had been no proper med units on Dasan during the war, and later work to repair the injury hadn't worked. A cyber-eye hadn't appealed to Page, and the patch did rather give him a rakish, old-world pirate look. "That one's wearing IWC whites. She's not a native either, just another poor soul suckered out here."

Avrial grinned as the two started towards the person. Avrial's hair began sticking to his neck, though the perspiration quickly sublimated in the heat. Damn inhospitable place, he thought. They kept their pace steady and managed to meet the IWC woman halfway between the tower and the landing pad.

"Welcome to Caliente," she said and then laughed. "And don't look so worried. It does get better."

"Does it?" Page said, glancing around. "This is a desert, right?"

"Oh yes, but things get better once the sun goes down. I’m Palman, the IWC advisor here."

"Lt. Commander Palman," Avrial said with a bow of his head.

"My rank means nothing here. There are only a small group of IWC on world and not enough to make command important. Besides, I doubt you Lindy really care much about my rank and the locals certainly aren't impressed by it."

"I'm Tiasante Avrial," he said with deep, Lindy-style bow.

"Ah! Our new Port Commander!" She smiled, looking genuinely pleased. He thought that strange behavior from a person wearing IWC Whites, but maybe she saw him as a way for her tenure in this hell to end.

Or maybe the heat had gotten to her.

"This is my second, Page Clair," he said, introducing his companion.

Page gave a Kai military salute, and Palman grinned and returned it, like two strangers passing a secret handshake that made them brethren in a cause.

"Let's get out of the sun," Palman said and turned back to the tower. "That's the first rule you learn on Caliente: sleep during the day and come out at night."

"Are there many such rules to learn?" Avrial asked. He glanced at abandoned ruins some distance off, almost lost to sight since the glaring light made them no more than white shapes in a white world, though a few stark shadows outlined some walls. The faint shape of sharply eroded hills rose over the white city, but in this light he could barely see them, either.

"There are laws you need to know, yes." She sounded less amused as she kept pace with them. Avrial had thought she would want to rush, but then he realized that would not be wise on this world. "Caliente isn't friendly, and there are traps for the unwary. I'll fill you in when we can sit down and relax."

He nodded and glanced at the ruins again. An errant breeze blew white dust into a swirling cloud, obscuring the view. Ghost city.

They reached the tower, and she hit the palm lock and stepped aside to let them in. Avrial went first, and Page followed close behind, plainly not trusting even an amiable IWC officer. They were Lindy, and pirates seldom received cordial welcomes.

The tower lobby appeared deserted, and the sudden coolness of the air conditioned room almost won a shiver from him.

"Damn Alto techs," Palman grumbled as she closed the door behind them. "They keep it too cold in here. Prestige: technology marks them as different from the Rats, so they flaunt it. That's murder on those of us who sometimes must go in and out during the day, though."

"You don't have control here?" Avrial asked, surprised by what she'd said.

She sighed and pointed to a couch covered with lovely bright colored cloth. Avrial took that place while Page settled on the arm of the sofa, still ready for trouble. Palman didn't seem to find this unusual behavior. She gathered three glasses of water for them which was more than welcome after the walk in that heat, and then she took the chair across from Avrial.

"Captain Avrial, I have only one dozen troops here," she admitted after she had sipped her water. He did the same, welcoming the coolness on his throat. "And believe me, I couldn't have control even if I had a full regiment. I sent reports before he left the Mars Station, so I thought your Alsandor Vita understood there would be problems with the population."

"He's Lindy," Page said with a shrug. "We deal with problem populations all the time. And he's Kai's Alsandor Vita, but he's our Captain Tevon."

"Lindy legend and Elisa Vita Daren's brother. That's all really true?"

"Yes, it is."

"Must make life interesting."

"That's just one of those Lindy eccentricities you'll have to get used to if we take over the port here," Avrial replied. He liked Palman. "And if you stay around, of course. You say there's a problem with the population?"

"Yes." She sat back and shook her head with a look of disgust, which surprised him. He had started to think she liked it here. "Caliente has been a scene of conflict since the first settlement. It rarely breaks out into total warfare like happened just before the flood, but there is always trouble."

"The locals don't want us here?" Page asked. Avrial thought there might be a hint of hope in his voice.

"They're divided on the question," Palman answered. "They're divvied on everything; it's nothing new. The Altos -- they're the tech-trained elite -- decided policy for Caliente before the last war. Now the Rats demand their own say and are getting it. There are two main groups of Rats. Those who live in the Inner Pueblo, close to the church, are settled and conservative. The other sector, the gangs, are generally younger and radical. There are four gangs: Rojo, Cuchillo, Peligro, and Calle. There was a fifth, but the floods virtually destroyed the Noche. That doesn't mean there won't be a Noche resurrection. The gangs fight each other and everyone else."

"These gangs are the trouble then?" Avrial asked.

"Sounds that way, doesn't it?" she replied and shook her head. "Well, that's what most of the Altos and Inner Pueblo Rats want to believe. The gangs are trouble, beyond a doubt. They have their own ways, and they defend their rights and territory. However, the Altos, my Lindy friends, are the real problem. They want control of Caliente again, and you are a threat to them. Don't be quick to judge the gangs. In fact, I'm hoping that because of who you are and your own reputation, you might come into this with an open mind."

"Who is the authority on this world? Whom do we deal with?" Page asked.

"There is a General Council, newly formed, with twelve members: six Altos, an Inner Pueblo Rat and one Rat from each gang. Padre Julius -- he's the Rat's Catholic Priest -- oversees the meetings. Put all twelve of them in the same room, and they won't agree on which way to set up the table. However, individually, they are all people of note."

"If this Council is so useless, how does anything get done?" Avrial asked, feeling more and more like this had to be a mistake.

"Things get done by necessity. The colony faced starvation until the Lindy brought in supplies three weeks ago. Everyone cooperated for distribution and getting food prepared. They cooperated to bury the dead after the flood when they faced the risk of serious epidemic. Now they're managing to get one of the grow domes up and functioning again."

"As long as they're faced with an emergency, they can cooperate," Avrial realized. "What happens when the world goes back to normal?"

"The Altos retire up to the Spires, the Inner Pueblo Rats hide behind their walls, and the gangs have a go at each other and anything else that wanders their way. Calle and Cuchillo have a truce now, and that will hold while Carmen and Cristobal keep their places as leaders. Peligros are under Isobel, and she's new, but she isn't playing the games yet. However, her people are starting to get antagonistic. Carmen says that's a sign of trouble coming. The real problem, though, is with the Rojos and especially their leader Enrique. If Carmen backs one cause, he's bound to take the other side."

"Does Carmen back the Lindy base?" Avrial asked.

"Yes."

"Then this Enrique is the problem," Page said. He seemed to accept Palman at her word, and Avrial decided to do the same. He had to trust someone until he learned differently. "Who sides with him?"

"The Altos have taken his side because they see that letting you settle here means they'll lose the only power base they have on Caliente. Marcu is an Alto who went Rat -- moved down into the Pueblo -- during the early part of the war. He has friends up in the Spires, and he's been able to get them to keep a little dissension going up there, which may help. They're not all stupid, and they know the IWC is going to abandon the port, so they need someone to take over the site. Everyone is mostly waiting to see where the battle lines are drawn in this mess. That's what it invariably comes down to on Caliente."

Avrial sat silently for a moment before he looked from Palman to Page. His Lindy companion looked amused and appalled. "Whose idea was it to bring the pirates into this mess?" Page asked.

"Mine," Palman said with a bright smile.

Page didn't look surprised by the admission, but Tia had to wonder about this woman's sanity. This place didn't need a new faction.

"And Tevon agreed," Avrial said with a shake of his head. "He should be here to handle this mess. That's only fair. I don't know why he thought it should come to me, but I guess I'm stuck until I can trap him into taking over."

"Even after coming here and hearing about the troubles, you are still willing to give this a try?" she asked, and for the first time, he saw the worry on her face. For a moment, Avrial thought the look came because Palman didn't want them to stay -- but no. She feared the place would be abandoned. She'd clearly taken her responsibility to help here very seriously.

"We need the port," Avrial admitted with a slight shrug. "This is the only spot the IWC is likely to give us. You aren't actually from Caliente, are you Palman?"

"No. I've only been here a little more than three months standard. And don't ask me why I've become so involved. This is a hostile, maddening and contrary world. And the people are twice as bad. I got caught up in their problems, though, and I want to believe they'll survive after I'm gone."

"When do we meet with this council?" Avrial asked.

"Sunset tonight at the church. That's neutral ground," she said and stood. "Do wear weapons." 




Chapter Three

"This is insane!" Zahir complained in a whisper of indignant protest as they leaned against the alley wall, lost in the shadows. "Why the hell are we sneaking around like this? We won the damned war!"

Tevon almost answered but the slight echo of movement nearby silenced them both. Someone passed within a meter of the shadowy alley where they hid with their dark cloaks pulled up around them. The Jadian night felt too cold, and sand shifted in a slight breeze. Above them, the stars burnt like Jadian jewels set in ebony. During the war, Tevon had fought mostly on Jade. He found he still felt more comfortable with the gravity here and with the hot sunny days rather than the rainy weather at his home on Dasan.

Just another sign that made him more Tevon rather than Alsandor, he supposed.

The first person walked on, humming slightly. Things had improved on Jade, though they still suffered from Jarak's mismanagement during the war. Every world in the Aquila Fringe continued to suffer, in fact, but with Jarak dead they no longer had to fear the return of the war.

No one spoke much about Idela and what she might yet do. They didn't take her seriously enough, Tevon thought, but he knew she was capable of as much devastation as her father.

Another shadow passed to the right of the wall where the two stood. Even in the faint light, Tevon recognized the man who had led the Jadian Underground. He smiled, remembering how often they'd met like this in the past, though it had rarely been in the city of Mesa.

"Lastor," he said softly, a sound barely louder than the breeze.

Lastor spun with a start, his hand going to where he once carried a laser pistol. "Damn Lindy! One of these days a stunt like that is going to get you killed!"

"I told you this was crazy!" Zahir said, nudging Tevon forward.

"The message said we should be discreet," Tevon reminded them both.

"Discreet, not clandestine!" Lastor suddenly laughed.

"No one saw us," Tevon replied with a quick shrug and nervous glance out into the street. People moved a block away, but no one looked at them. "I assume that was the idea?"

"That's true enough. Come on. Israel is anxious to see you."

"Is he in trouble?" Tevon asked, worried as any hint of humor disappeared.

"Not the dangerous sort," Lastor quickly assured him. "The Jadians -- well, they just love him, their young prince and war hero --"

"And he wants his freedom," Tevon said with sudden understanding.

"They want to make him king." Lastor carefully led them away, though they kept in the shadows along the streets. Others were out, though not many. The city used to be alive at night, but they had lost too many people. "He declined and insisted the government of Jade become a regular council democracy. So now they want to elect him president."

"Sometimes there is no easy way out," Tevon replied. They crossed one wide street, and he could see a park nearby with more people there. That made him feel better. "Elisa has me back on the Kai Council an as an Ambassador for the Aquila Federation as well."

"Elisa Vita Daren's brother." Lastor looked sideways at him for a few steps and then shook his head with obvious amazement. They passed by a café, and people in the window looked out, but they were mostly still in the shadows. Tevon began to relax. This was not the same Jade as during the war. "If I knew I was courting Madame President's wrath every time I risked your life, I'd have sent you packing the first time we met."

"Hell, if the Lindy had known, even we might have thought twice about working with him," Zahir admitted.

"If I had so much as whispered my true name, Elisa would have tracked me down and dragged me back, and neither the war nor the Lindy would have been much of a challenge to her."

No one argued.

They didn't head for the famous gray castle that towered over the city, which didn't surprise Tevon. Israel wouldn't go there to hide from the rest of Jade. Besides, the place must feel very empty with all his family dead. Instead, they went to a quiet residential area not far away and stopped at a modest, stone-faced house. Tevon smiled when Lastor used one of the old knock-codes at the door. In a moment, the door slid open, and Israel let them inside.

"I got them here, but I have to go," Lastor said, a hand holding the door open a crack. "I have a late night financial committee meeting to attend. I'm glad I could help you out, Israel. Nice to know I haven't lost my touch. Though God knows how I would have explained sneaking through the streets of Mesa with a couple Lindy."

"Always wise to keep your abilities fine-tuned," Zahir said. "We all know how fast things can go bad."

"Or so Zahir hopes," Tevon added, glad to be inside the building. "He wants to get back to piracy before he loses his touch."

Lastor laughed as he departed. Tevon waved a friendly farewell. He hoped to see Lastor again under less discreet circumstances.

"Come in and sit down." Israel waved them past the narrow unlit entry and into the house. Heavy cloth curtains covered the windows in the main room, keeping them hidden from anyone outside, and a scanner kept electronic watch all around the building. Tevon suspected guards were not too far away.

None of the furniture looked new, and the place had a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere. For people who lived in a little ship like the cutter, the building seemed rather immense and opulent.

"Sorry about all the subterfuge," Israel said as he sat in a chair by the window. He clearly listened there for any sounds of people coming too close. They all remembered tricks they'd learned during the war. "Few people even know I'm on world."

"That's all right. I have to keep a low profile myself," Tevon admitted and grinned. He slipped off his cloak and settled into a comfortable high-backed chair. "If Elisa finds out where I am, she'll have me escorted home again."

Israel smiled, probably remembering his own times with the famed president of Kai. The prince knew Elisa's reactions first hand, and he apparently appreciated the jest. Israel looked better than the last time Tevon had seen him on Verdi the very day the war had ended. He could still see scars, some from the final battle and others from his short captivity in Jarak's hands. However, he'd gained weight and seemed to have recovered some of his old princely refinement. He looked very good.

Zahir wandered around the room for a moment before he took his own place closer to the door. He did relax. Israel had a pitcher of tea and iced glasses ready, and he poured the beverage himself, remaining silent for a moment before he handed the drinks to his two companions.

"Let's get to business," Israel said after a quick sip. "Word reached me that the Lindy are having trouble at Inner World ports and you're attempting to negotiate for a private port. I know you've just returned from the IWC after your first venture --"

"I got the port," Tevon said. Word had spread quickly after he sent a report to the Aquila Fringe Federation.

"Got it?" Israel sat forward, clearly amazed by the answer. "One trip to the Inner Worlds Council and you get the Lindy a port? How the hell did you manage that one?"

"I went straight to the IWC Special Relief Committee," he said with a bright grin. "At least all the years serving Elisa taught me how to find the place where I could best get the answer I wanted."

"You actually talked the IWC into this insanity? In one trip? Damn -- you really are Elisa's brother!"

"Being Elisa's brother did get me in, but being Lindy convinced them I was serious. Most people wouldn't consider the port I got as much of a win, though. It's on Caliente."

"Caliente?" Israel said with a frown. "That's an Inner World? I don't believe I've ever heard of it before."

"Exactly." Tevon sipped his tea before he continued. The one thing he had never done well with was the dryness of Jade's air. "From all the reports I've studied, I think it must be the least habitable open-air world ever colonized. There was a vein of stiginite, but that didn't last long. The entire population isn't much more than eight thousand, and they're all concentrated around their archaic port. Palman -- Caliente's temporary IWC advisor -- thinks we won't have too much trouble convincing most of them to let us set up. The world just suffered a triple disaster of drought, war, and flood. They need the help more than we need the port. I diverted a couple shipments of supplies there while I was still in the Inner Worlds. We've done some good, no matter how this situation ends. The report Palman forwarded to me did say there will be one group that won't want the Lindy -- or anyone else -- to come in. We'll handle them."

"I asked you here because I thought I could help finance the matter," Israel said. He leaned back in the chair and still looked stunned. "I figured the IWC would, at best, want you to buy a port or lease it."

"Well --" Tevon looked over at Zahir who gave a quick nod. "The Lindy want to build a proper port on this world and make a real go of this enterprise. The Caliente port facilities are badly outdated. However, even the Lindy didn't come through this war with much working capital for outside projects. We've put nearly everything into our supply contracts, and the payback is slow from worlds still devastated by the war. I can front some of the funds from my part of the Vita finances, but not enough to handle everything I fear we will need. And I do not want to ask Elisa for help."

"I am still rich you know." Israel smiled, looking pleased. "I've handed over all but one of the family mines to the Jadian government. They insisted upon paying me for the other nine with a percentage of every year's collection. I thought you might need to ... well, buy a world. I can probably afford to finance some construction instead."

"A loan. We'll base the interest on the Kai banking system, adjustable per quarter."

"Fine," he said without a qualm. "Best keep my name out of it. Don't let the IWC people know the Lindy are less able to handle this than they believe. Never show them any weakness. For that matter, don't let anyone else in the Aquila know, either."

"Politics," Zahir said with a shake of his head.

"Be glad you have us, friend," Tevon replied and sipped again. "If it weren't for our political intrigues, life would be pretty damned boring these days."

"Really? Is that why you decided to remain Captain Tevon the Lindy Pirate rather than return to being Alsandor Vita the Kai Councilor?"

"A person can only take so much political excitement, Zahir. Look at Israel; he has to hide from it."

Israel laughed. He took another sip of tea and sat the glass aside. "I'll give you about two and half million credits in jewels now," he said as he stood.

"Are you saying you have that much on hand? Right here?" Tevon asked, shocked for the first time in a long time.

"In jewels. That's not very many, at least not of this quality. I have them on hand because I had decided to offer them to you already. This should get things going. If you need more, send someone I know. Are you going to run the Caliente port?"

"No. Tal Atira gave me the discretion to do what I thought best, so I put Tiasante Avrial in charge."

"Excellent choice."

"He's probably arrived by now. I really wanted to be there when he reached Caliente, but I'm due back on Kai. The Council has been on hiatus, but that's almost over, and I don't dare miss the opening session. Besides, I have to explain to Elisa why I used her name to help get the Lindy a port."

"You will be careful," Israel said, trying not to smile.

"I'll go armed. And if I dress down --" Tevon brushed a hand over the silks of his shirt "and look less Lindy, I'll get away with it. If she can see past my eccentricities to the necessity of the act, she's pretty reasonable."

"And if you don't survive, we'll name the port after you," Zahir offered.

"Nice to know I'll be remembered. Israel, what are you going to do? You can't keep hiding here forever."

"I know this looks bad. I don't want the government in my hands, but I'm not willing to leave until I'm certain the transition is going well."

"Leave?" Zahir said.

"I'll have to go somewhere else, at least for a while. I want to give these people a chance to forget they have a prince. I really do want to get away for my own reasons as well. Jade has changed, and so have I. I don't fit here anymore."

"The war changed all the Aquila," Tevon said, fighting back a surge of emotion that he felt remembering all the loss -- and the lost.

"Change, right!" Zahir said with an exaggerated sigh. "The Lindy are grain merchants. This isn't normal change, my friends."

"Looking at changing things back?" Israel asked.

"Oh no. All this political intrigue is far too addictive."

"Well, just to remind you of the old days, I'm going to give you two and a half million credits worth of Jadian jewels and let you walk through Mesa with them in the middle of the night."

Zahir looked appalled, and Tevon grimaced, his hand reaching to make certain he still had his laser pistol.

"And I won't add that Jadian law prohibits carrying weapons in the city," Israel added as he stood.

"We're Lindy," Tevon replied with a pat on the handle of the weapon. "Weapons are an essential part of our dress code and ornamentation."

"You know, I suspect Lindy could get away with that one," Israel agreed with bright smile. He headed toward a hallway. Tevon glanced at Zahir wondering how his friend felt about this matter. Tevon seriously doubted the Lindy had ever taken out a loan before.

Things change.

Israel quickly returned with a long metal box that he held by a handle. He put it into Tevon's lap and taped open the lid. The glitter of the numerous glowing jewels filled the air with rainbow colors and even won a gasp of surprise from Zahir. Tevon stared for a moment and only looked back at Israel when he settled into the chair again.

"You know, the Vita family has never been poor," Tevon reminded him. He carefully closed and secured the lid. "But I doubt even Elisa has ever held more than half a million credits at once. Damn Israel, I'm impressed. Can you really afford to do this?"

"I have a steady income from the last mine, and it is in full production. I've already made a fortune or two since my return. Those jewels are part of the payment for the other nine mines that had been owned by my family. I've been looking for something special to do with the income. I want to make retribution for what my father gave away and what the Lindy sacrificed so much for to give it back for us. Few of the locals understand Tevon, but I am buying a little peace of mind."

"And that I do understand," Tevon said. "For reasons of my own."

"Alsandor's reasons," Zahir corrected. "That's not you."

Tevon didn't answer, but Israel gave a nod. They understood each other very well. "Let me know when you need more funds," Israel said. "My family made many mistakes, and I'm prepared to pay to help rectify them."




Chapter Four

As the white-hot sun dropped behind the mountains, Palman at last lead Tia and Page out into a different world.

Though dusk had barely drifted across the world, Tia could already see a drastic change in the settlement as they crossed the open area and into the ruins. Halos of blue-green lights began to dot the way along a narrow path leading toward the heart of Pueblo. People moved along the dusty streets ahead of them, some glancing back.

Looking up, he saw lights coming on in the hills beyond which the sun had disappeared. That would be the Spires, where the Altos lived in their isolationist, elite world. The Altos believed themselves superior to the Rats because they had long denied the lower city the right to technology.

Tiasante Avrial hated tyrants.

He had not expected to find such a complicated society in this closed little world. Avrial had also never visited any other colony so cut off from the rest of civilization. He would have expected something like this somewhere out in one of the Fringes, but not within a few hour's slide of Mother Earth.


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