The bridge of Caree’s ship was already crowded when Rake stepped up through the hatchway.
Caree herself stood in the middle of the bridge. Rake glanced around, soaking in the details. She’s standing because she has no command seat, he noted with some surprise. Only seats available are the pilot’s chair and the navigation chair.
Both the aforementioned stations were occupied—the former by a dark-skinned man who looked like he came from a high gravity world, the latter by a pale girl with nearly-white hair that looked far too young to be voyaging into the space lanes. She can’t be more than fifteen years old, by Earth standards, he thought in dismay.
Two more crewman stood at the back of the bridge, a man and a woman with similar ice-blue eyes under dark hair. Brother and sister, Rake guessed. And, unless I’m completely wrong, that should be Caree’s entire crew.
“Captain Staka,” Rake said, keeping his voice even. No sense causing any trouble for her with the crew, he decided immediately. So keep it professional.
“It appears you have some friends, Rake,” she said lightly, but there was an undertone of tension in her voice. “Some more friends, I should say. They’ve been asking very politely if you’re on board.”
“And what have you been telling them?” he asked with a raised eyebrow.
“We haven’t officially replied to their query yet,” she said with a smile. “Until we figure out how to answer.”
“So who’s doing the asking?” Rake wanted to know.
The gorgeous captain reached up and pulled down two screens from the ceiling. She impatiently tapped the corner of one of the screens, until at last they yielded up images of two patrol craft. “These are your friends,” she commented. “They’re bearing the colors and identification codes for local militia.”
“What’s local?” Rake asked.
“What, did you forget your navigation charts?” Caree responded. “We’re in the Lantash system.”
“Lantash?” he repeated. “That’s hardly the first jump toward Clarion.”
“It’s the long way around,” the captain agreed, “but if you died on Clarion, and your policy was cashed in at one of the Terra facilities, skiptracers are probably going to be watching the usual routes. It’ll take more fuel, but it should have kept us from getting caught.”
“Except it didn’t.”
“Except it didn’t,” Caree agreed. “They must want you bad.”
“You think they already know I’m alive?” Rake asked.
“Maybe. From what I know of Slade, he was probably working solo, but it looks like they’re covering all the bases to try to grab you.”
“What are those patrol ships packing?” he changed the subject.
Caree tapped at the second screen. When it didn’t respond, she banged it with her fist in annoyance. After another moment, streaks of red began to light up on the diagnostic of the patrol boat.
Rake stepped forward to get a better look at the screen. The vessel was a sloop—hardly considered a capital ship by modern standards. At a hundred meters long, it packed two dozen small-caliber coilguns highlighted in red on the diagram, which would be plenty against any freighters or pirate ships plying the space lanes. A trio of powerful engines could propel it at decent acceleration, and a point drive allowed for intersystem travel. The whole vessel was vaguely wedge-shaped with smooth, flat surfaces, a typical design for a warship: it allowed for high-firepower, low-profile edges to point at an enemy.
“How much firepower does your ship have?” Rake asked quietly.
“The Starfall isn’t a warship,” Caree reprimanded him. “I can’t go to guns with two of those patrol boats—they’ll tear us to shreds.”
“How many gees can you pull?” was his next question.
“Running?” Caree raised an eyebrow at him, then looked at the diagrams. “They’ll take us to pieces before we can get out of range.”
“I have a hunch about that,” Rake said. “But we can outrun them?”
The captain nodded. “Yes, we can pull a lot more gees than they can.”
The navigator spoke up. “If we try to run, cap, we’re going to wind up stranded.”
Caree looked over at the white-haired girl. “Again?”
“We won’t have enough fuel for a jump if we run the engines for a long burn,” she explained. “There’s no way we could head back to Terra or continue on to Clarion without refueling.”
“So why didn’t you let me know we needed refueling?” the captain asked.
“Cap, we were going to refuel at one of the Terra stations,” the pilot interjected. “You told us it was going to be a simple pickup, and we’d have a few days in system.”
“Damn,” Caree muttered. “Damn, damn, damn. We’re caught because we’re out of gas.”
The navigator nodded. “We can outrun them, but wherever we choose to set down to refuel, we’ll light up their sensors like a candle.”
“Wait,” Rake interjected. “You just mean re-entry, right? That everyone will know we’re there from the fire?”
“Right. No need for fancy sensors or spaceport controls, just the physical signs we’ll be giving off,” she affirmed.
“Can you bring me up a system map?” Rake asked Caree.
The captain frowned but tapped the secondary screen’s corner again. Several irritated taps later, the image of the patrol sloop vanished to be replaced by a map of the star system. “Not to scale, of course.”
“Of course,” Rake murmured as he studied the display. At the center was, of course, the system’s sun. The two planets orbiting closest were both colonized and boasted first-class starport facilities, capable of accommodating ships even larger than the patrol sloops and refueling any starship short of a nuclear reactor. The third and fourth worlds were smaller, cold rocks incapable of hosting life. The fifth world was partly terraformed, but the process had been left incomplete by the Great War. The sixth planet was a ringed gas giant, while the seventh and last world was so small it was hardly considered a planet at all.
“This is perfect,” he murmured. “Lantash Six is the closest world.”
Caree frowned at him. “Lantash Six? It’s a gas giant. We can’t land there—the atmosphere is so dense it would crush us like a bug before we made it to the ground.”
“Which is why it’s perfect.” Rake glanced at the navigator. “Do we have enough fuel for an in-system jump?”
“Yes, but it doesn’t change the fact that we need to land to refuel,” the girl replied. “There’s no orbital stations for us to try to get fuel.”
“You’re right about that,” Rake agreed. “Do we have the power to run now?”
Caree glanced over at the pilot. “Wings?”
The dark-skinned man—Wings, apparently—glanced over his own status screens before answering. “Yes,” he answered. “Our engines are warmed up and ready after the cold jump from Terra.”
“What’s your plan, Earthstepper?” the captain asked him.
Rake tapped the display. “Are you familiar with the rings of Lantash Six?”
“I’m guessing there’s something I don’t know about there?” she asked instead of answering.
The man nodded. “Something, yes.” He tapped the display. “Put in a direct course for Lantash Two, full burn. As soon as you have the point drive spooled up, we jump straight to Lantash Six, as close as you can manage. It’ll throw the patrol boats off.”
“That’ll just burn up more of our fuel,” the navigator protested.
“Trust me.” Rake offered a confident smile.
“This is crazy, cap,” the girl said, looking past the passenger.
Caree slowly began to smile. “Lay in the course,” she said. “And start the calculations.”
“Cap,” Wings protested, “when I light the engines, those patrol boats are going to light us up.”
“No, they won’t,” the dark-haired woman said. “They’re hunting our friend here. Judging by that skiptracer back on Terra, I’d guess they want him alive. They won’t risk blowing us up.”
“They don’t know he’s on board,” one of the siblings said from the back of the bridge. “We haven’t replied.”
“Is our course laid in?” Caree asked.
Both pilot and navigator nodded.
“Get ready to punch up a full burn,” the captain ordered. “And everyone strap in. You too, Rake.”
As Rake strapped into one of the jump seats lining the back wall, Caree dragged one of the screens to the back of the bridge with her. The display hung up at one point until she jerked it, freeing it again to slide aft until it hung in front of Rake’s chair. The captain strapped herself in beside the fugitive, then slid the screen over until both of them could see it.
“Caree?” he murmured.
She grinned at him. “Trust me.” She reached out and touched the display and, for once, it responded immediately. The system map vanished, replaced by the image of a man in a uniform. “This is Captain Staka aboard the Starfall,” she announced. “I have Rake Earthstepper on board.” She grinned. “Catch us if you can.”
The ship seemed to leap out from under Rake as the pilot bunched in the full burn. He didn’t have time to contemplate it, though, as the monitor smashed into his chest, thrown into him under the massive acceleration. The very chair he was sitting in vibrated with the rumble of the vessel’s mighty engines.
He could feel shards of glass jabbing into his chest and guessed the screen had shattered under the impact. With an effort, he glanced over and saw Caree was similarly grimacing under the pressure. “I forgot,” she muttered with an effort. “This is exactly what happened last time.”
“Last time?” Rake managed. “You do this often?”
The freighter bucked, hard, but the crew was all firmly strapped in. “We’re taking fire!” the girl at navigation shouted.
“If they wanted us dead, our hull would already be full of holes,” Caree grimaced. “They’re making a show to try to get us to surrender.”
“Ready to jump at any time, cap,” Wings called.
“Don’t wait on account of me,” the woman answered.
There was another gut-wrenching jerk, and then Rake felt as though his bearings were again entirely stripped away. It wasn’t as bad, this time—he didn’t lose consciousness. Nausea swept over him, but he managed to keep from retching as the ship vanished from one location and appeared in another.
The roar of the engines fell away, and the ship quit shaking a few moments later. Out the viewport, Rake could see the massive, colorful swirl of Lantash Six nearby. It was further than he thought, of course—gas giants were huge, and appeared closer than they really were.
The rings of Lantash Six were a phenomena unmatched in the Expanse. Planetary rings were, by and large, colorful bits of space debris. They consisted of bits of dust and small rock and stray gases, and while solid-appearing from a distance, they were quite insubstantial while at close range. In some ways, they were as deceptive as clouds.
Except the rings of Lantash Six.
There was speculation among scientists that they had been formed of molten material ejected into orbit by a series of meteor strikes; others held that the rings were simply so ancient they had accumulated massive amounts of free-floating space debris. In either case, the rings of Lantash Six were utterly unique.
They were solid, unbroken, fused stone.
And they were barely five hundred meters away from the Starfall.
Wings yelped in surprise. “Plotted that one a bit tight, didn’t you?”
Rake was pressed back into his seat as Wings applied power from the engines. The Starfall’s nose came up, but thousands of tons of momentum kept pushing it toward disaster. The freighter shuddered as the pilot applied full thrust, the engines roaring in response. Painfully slowly, the vessel’s momentum changed, even as the vessel skimmed along the ring. Mountains thrust up like fingers, jagged from millennia without the eroding effects of wind or water. The freighter slowed as Wings applied counterthrust, using every technique he had to avoid disaster.
There was a tiny “ping”, barely audible over the scream of overdriven engines, and then the Starfall was gaining altitude, pulling away from the ring.
Rake blew out a sigh of relief. “That was too close.” Then he winced as pain stabbed through his chest again. “Ow.”
Caree grimaced as she pushed the broken monitor away from the two of them. “Next time, Joy, could you leave a little more margin for error?”
The girl at navigation—Joy, apparently—looked up with an abashed expression. “Sorry, cap. I plotted that a bit tight.”
Rake shook his head. “That was insane. I’ve never seen someone plot a jump that tight.”
“She’s just that good,” Caree said as she looked down at her bloodstained shirt. “She’s a lot smarter than her captain, too.” Her gaze lifted to lock with Rake’s. “Since this was your idea, where to now?”
“We’ll need a scan of the ring’s topography,” he instructed as he looked at his own blood-soaked shirt. So much for the clothes I left behind, he thought. “We’re looking for a canyon two kilometers long, with a single mountain capping either end.”
“I don’t have anything like that where we can see it,” Joy said.
“I didn’t expect us to be that lucky. We’ll have to orbit until you see it.”
“And what’s so important about this canyon?” Wings asked.
Rake’s smile was small and tight. “Back during the war, Lantash was controlled by Terra, but not all the locals liked it. The Earth loyalists set up a resistance base on the rings. Friendly forces coming through used it for refueling and repairs, and the Terrans knew it was there, but they never found it.”
“But you knew where it was,” Caree stated.
“Not until after,” Rake said with a shake of his head. “After the war, the loyalists there turned it into a smuggler hole. Now days it’s used for brokering deals and fueling ships that can’t, for whatever reason, deal with the local authorities.”
“Like us.” Caree smiled broadly. “How did I never know about this?”
“It’s not widely advertised,” Rake said. “Even on the worlds I frequent. The few people that know about it have plenty of reason to keep it quiet—after all, if word got back to the officials on Laranth One, or even Terra, they’d send in a couple of frigates to clean the place out.”
“So, when we find this canyon, what do we do?” Joy asked.
“I transmit the code clearance, we land, we pay exorbitant prices for fuel, and then we get the hell out,” Rake said grimly.
“Great plan,” Caree said. “I’ll make sure we charge the fuel to your account. Come on, let’s go down to the medical bay and get cleaned up. This could take a while.” She offered a small smile. “You and I have some things to talk about.”