By C.T. Phipps
“You want me to be a pirate?” I asked, staring at the hologram of Commonwealth Inquisitor General Ida Claire.
The two of us were conversing in the Captain’s Quarters of the starship Melampus, which had formerly been hers before I’d taken it in a mutiny. We had a complex relationship as you might guess. I wasn’t a deserter from the Commonwealth Navy as it had been a free trading vessel, she’d been using to collect information on the old Archduchy of Crius. While she resented losing her ship, it wasn’t a vessel she cared about enough not to make deals to keep us from being on the Commonwealth’s Most Wanted list.
“Why not? You’re already one,” Ida said, speaking a thick New Atlanta accent. She was a small, dark-skinned woman who was over a hundred years old and dressed like someone’s rural grandmother with a wide-brimmed hat. Despite that, I knew her to be one of the most cunning and dangerous women in the Spiral.
“I’m a smuggler, not a pirate,” I said, annoyed.
“What’s the difference?”
“A pirate steals from fellow spacers, a smuggler steals from the government.” I also didn’t consider the Commonwealth to be my government. They had conquered almost all the human colonies in the Reclamation, but some people had given a better fight than others. My people had fought too hard, and it had resulted in a horrific price: they were hit by mass drivers with billions killed. I’d have hated them forever if not for the fact I saw the consequences of terrorism following their takeover of Crius’ colonies. At some point, someone had to lay down their sword and energy shield.
Ida shrugged. “Topato, Potamo. Different spelling, same nasty taste. I think you’re going to want to hear my offer.”
“I sincerely doubt that,” I said, about ready to shut off her feed. The Commonwealth’s power was waning, and they were a fraction of what they’d formally been. What went around, came around but usually not in a single lifetime.
Ida lifted her hand and gestured to her side. A schematic of a beautiful cigar-shaped vessel covered in coral-like growths, alien in manufacture, appeared. “Here is the Kvari Queen. It is a luxury vessel for the Point 100 percent of the galaxy’s richest. Over a mile long, excellent defenses, and the size of a small city.”
“Sounds delightful,” I said, softly. “Still not sure what I should want out of it.”
“Money for sure,” Ida said. “The ship maintains a vast collection of fire jewels as an untraceable currency useful for dealing with Border Worlds and Commonwealth investors.”
“Sounds too good to be true.”
“No, I mean that literally. I think you’re making this up to get us to rob this ship.” Ida chuckled. “Perhaps I’m exaggerating a bit.” “What do you really want?”
Ida blinked. “We want you to kill a man.”
“I’m not an assassin either.”
“You might make an exception for this one,” Ida said, conjuring an image.
I was pouring a bottle of Belenus Scotch when I overflowed the drink, seeing the hologram of the man involved. “Yes, I suppose you would.”
High Colonel Vincent ap Bastille was a man of Indras descent with long white hair tied into a functional ponytail. He was dressed in a black Engel-fighter spacesuit, but his expression was still one of smug self-assurance.
“The Betrayer,” Ida said. “Well, from your perspective at least.” “From any sane person’s perspective,” I said, hissing at him.
Vincent ap Bastille ranked among Judas, Brutus, and Radovid de Sanchez for loathsome traitors. When the majority of the Crius Home Fleet had been battling the Commonwealth at Hoshi’s Point, Vincent had used his position as commander of the Lunar Defense Station Grid to let the Commonwealth assault force through. The blood of billions was on his hand, and while he couldn’t have held his position, he might have delayed the attackers long enough to receive reinforcements or call for help.
The Commonwealth had saved Vincent ap Bastille from the vengeance of Crius but not his family or associates. They had all been hunted down by people, well, like me. Parades and celebrations on Albion featuring him had been a source of riots, protests, and even terrorism. Last I’d heard, he’d retired to a palatial estate with no one but bioroids for company.
“Perhaps,” Ida said, shrugging. “It’s never a good idea to toss away the traitors of the nations you conquer. They may be completely untrustworthy, but you never know when you’re going to need them.”
“Or throw them at vengeance-crazed Crius,” Cassius said. “I think Genghis Khan used this tactic a few times.”
“I’m not familiar with that individual,” Ida said. “Do I have your attention?” “Perhaps,” I said, upset with myself for still caring about the past.
I had been a High Colonel in the Crius military as well, one of the greatest pilots ever produced by my society, but it had not been enough. Worse, after the war, I’d been forced to confront the fact the Crius had been brutal imperialists. Everything the Commonwealth had done to us, we’d done to other people and worse over. It meant all of the people I killed, all of the heroics I’d done in the war, all of the lives sacrificed had been for nothing.
“Perhaps?” Ida asked, surprised. “I would have thought you’d have been all over this.”
“Murdering a man who is already reviled as an oathbreaker, traitor, and party to genocide is killing someone already half-dead.”
“Except for the billions of electric pounds in his accounts.” “My, you pay well for treason.” “Absolutely.”
I ignored that less than tasteful jibe. I’d never inquired to Ida’s role in the Scouring of Crius, but she’d only expressed disgust for it during the time I’d thought her a mere ship captain. A spy could never be truly honorable, but they followed their own oaths. I did not believe her capable of being part of the massacre there even as I knew it was not always easy to balance loyalty to one’s nations against unthinkable crimes. After all, war made monsters of us all.
Just some more absolutely than others.
“Let me ask a question,” I said, taking a deep breath. “Then I’ll throw away my distinction between pirate and smuggler.”
“Just one question?” Ida asked.
“Only one,” I said, processing what I felt. I still had a lot of hatred left inside me for Vincent, even though we’d never met and were separated by years. “Why are you throwing him under the bus and what do you really want?”
“That’s two questions?” “There’s an and.”
Ida snorted. “Third grade word games are beneath a pirate king.”
“I’m a count,” Cassius said. “Or would be if the planet I was count on wasn’t a smoldering ruin and the government I served wasn’t dissolved. I also believe I’m wanted for war crimes, which would be distressing if you hadn’t ruined the concept of them by going after people who killed too many Commonwealth soldiers.”
Ida frowned. “There’s a lot of blame to go around during the war. Mostly your way.”
Ida sighed. “Unfortunately, the High Colonel had an attack of conscience. He’s taken a lot of information from the databanks of the Watchers by using the money we paid to bribe contractors. Information that we’d very much like to make sure doesn’t end up in the hands of a reporter from Galactic Newsbook Weekly.”
I stared at her. “The trashy conspiracy e-mag?”
“The incredibly well-read trashy conspiracy e-mag,” Ida said, frowning. “There’s a reporter meeting him on the boat. He wants to do a physical handoff since the data is encoded but those assholes somehow have last month’s decryption key. Which is when he stole it and sat on it until the decryption key was low security.”
“Clever,” I said, blinking. “Why not send some of your own assassins?”
“That’s a lot more than one question.”
“I’m a liar.”
Ida smiled. “The Watchers aren’t what they used to be, and neither is the Commonwealth. By the time we get there, the jig will be up, and they could infocast it across the galaxy. We could blow the entire starship up and it’s fifty thousand passengers but you’re close enough that I think you could take care of this problem without drastic measures.”
“What is in the information he stole?” I asked.
“None of your beeswax,” Ida said. “The only thing you need to know is that if it got out, many innocent people would die.”
“And I have your word to take on it,” I said. “My word is as good as yours,” Ida said.
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
Ida snorted. “Here’s an image of what Vincent looks like now. He’s had a few surgeries since then. I’ve also included an image of the reporter, Anne Bonnie.”
“What?” Ida said.
“That’s the name of a famous pirate,” I said.
Ida raised her eyebrow. “Never heard of her.”
“Different cultures emphasize different things,” I muttered.
“I was too busy learning about real history,” Ida said. “Stuff that happened after the Earth exploded.”
I shook my head then looked at my datapad. In it was the full schematic of the Kvari Queen. The new form of Vincent ap Castille was similar but different enough to unrecognizable, a minor bit of work to fool the various spaceport facial scanners. The woman was a freckled blue-haired girl with Shogunate eyes and a petite size. There was a fierceness to her, though, which made me think there was more to her than merely being the vessel for Vincent de Castille’s “act of conscience.”
“Hmmm,” I said, looking them over.
“So are you taking the job or not?” Ida asked.
I sucked in my breath and thought about my dead wife and so many other Crius killed by asteroids fired onto the planet’s surface. “Yes, I’ll do it. What is the honor of not being a pirate compared to revenge?”
“But will your crew agree?” Ida asked.
I raised an eyebrow. “You do remember them, right?”
“Yes! Piracy!” William Balder, the ship’s Chief of Security, shouted. He was sitting at the round conference room table that the crew used as their snack room. Standing beside him was Clarice Rin O’Harra, the ship’s first mate, and my ship’s doctor Isla Hernandez. Both of them looked every bit as excited as William.
William was a large, well-muscled, obsidian-skinned man with a shaved head and blue overalls, Isla dressed in a white doctor’s attire more suitable for a hospital, and Clarice was dressed in plastisteel security armor with the helmet missing.
“Pirates are not people to admire, they’re crim—” I stopped speaking. That was not the best track to go with my crew who was quite proud of their status as outlaws.
“Weren’t you a pirate?” Isla asked.
“No!” I snapped, horribly. “I was never a pirate.”
“Yes, you were,” Clarice said. “You were a privateer for Crius before you got a promotion to heading up the starfighter core.”
I shifted my eyes back and forth them. “Being a privateer and commerce raider is completely different from being a pirate.”
Everyone looked at me, skeptically.
“Why are we friends?” I asked.
“I’m sleeping with you,” Clarice said. “So is Isla.”
“I’m sleeping with you too,” Isla said to Clarice.
“I don’t like you, but I have bills to pay,” William said.
I shook my head. “In any case, I’ve already devised a plan.”
“Is your plan to sneak onto the ship, kill this guy, and sneak off without looting any of the valuables onboard?” William asked.
I blinked. “Yes.”
“Then your plan stinks,” Clarice said.
“Are we that hard up for money?” I asked, stretching out my hands.
“Money is like women,” William said, shrugging. “The more you have, the better your situation.”
“That’s disgusting,” Isla said.
“I agree,” Clarice said. “At least about the money part.”
I sighed. “I’m open to suggestions then. Getting Vincent de Castille is my primary goal, however.”
“Agreed,” William said, pausing.
“Agreed?” I asked, not expecting William to join me in this. He had about as much honor as, well, I didn’t have a word for it aside from someone with none.
“Yes,” William said, looking to the others. “Imagine how much money we can get from the families of all those victims in exchange for gutting him on a live holo.”
“Homeless refugees and impoverished patricians are not a great source of wealth,” I said, disgusted.
“One credit a piece across a few billion in the Crius System colonies alone,” William said, making a portrait square with his hands. “Not to mention however much the Commonwealth would be willing to trade in exchange for that information he’s handling.”
“Assuming it even exists,” I replied. “Ida lies like she breathes.”
“Only about the important stuff,” William said. “That she was a spy, she was using it, and that she planned to use us as her assassins for the rest of our lives.”
“We’re not assassins,” I said, not sure what I was going to do with Vincent when I caught up with him.
“You don’t want to kill this guy?” William asked.
I thought about my answer. “After the Fall of Crius, I joined the resistance against the Commonwealth occupation for a few years. One of the acts involved tracking down people who had been part of dropping the asteroids. At one point, we set off a bomb that killed fifty of them in a restaurant. It had a lot of collateral damage. I don’t know if it made the universe a bad place or just killed more people.”
“My heart bleeds for the people party to genocide,” Clarice said, putting her hand over her heart. “They were just following orders. Boo hoo. This guy deserves to die for what he’s done and I’m not even a citizen of Crius.”
I’d killed a lot of people following orders. Some of them had been innocents, either caught in the crossfire or part of the targeted bombing campaigns I’d performed as a pilot. Yet, I hadn’t turned against my world. I hadn’t betrayed my people. At least not until I had no world to side with. Yet, here I was, working with the Commonwealth too.
Did I have any honor left to judge him with? Did honor matter here? In the end, that would be up to God to decide or history. I pushed that aside and focused on the one thing that made sense: the mission. Good or evil, I would carry it out to the best of my ability. “I have another plan on looting the ship.”
“This was your brilliant plan?” William said, standing beside me at the Kazun tables. “Buy a fricking ticket?”
The two of us were wearing black suits with white ascots as we were surrounded by hundreds of human guests on this level specially designed for members of our species. There were a couple of aliens present, the multi-armed Kresh and squat quadrapod Veddo, but it was mostly humans as far as the eye could see.
Which was far as the interior of the central chamber used a combination of holograms and lighting to make an image of a Belenus sunset over a garden party. Most of the humans were dressed as aristocrats from Nouveau Paris. Frankly, we looked shockingly underdressed for the fops and trillionaires playing noble.
“We’re in alien territory now, outside the Commonwealth’s jurisdiction. Buying a ticket was a good way to get us in. So was also mugging some of the crew for uniforms.
Clarice walked up, wearing the revealing attire of a glittering two-piece swimsuit with butterfly wings, carrying a serving tray. “Why are you not wearing something like this?”
“I’m the captain and William has been putting on the pounds lately,” I said, dryly. “In any case, Isla is a bioroid so she’s able to interact with the ship’s computers better.”
Clarice grumbled as I pulled a drink off her tray.
“Have you done the DNA scans?” I asked, having selected her for this portion of the mission primarily because she wouldn’t screw it up like William. William was very capable, but I fully believed he’d kidnap Vincent for the money and go off on his own if it was possible. Not that I’d blame him—it was a lot of money.
“Yes,” Clarice said. “I’ve found them.”
Vincent ap Bastille wasn’t a fool and hadn’t gone onto the Kvari Queen with the form Ida had identified but had it changed again. Still, there were always traces of the DNA you’d been born with when such kind of transformations were made. There was no way to hide from who you are and that was a lesson that would be Vincent’s end.
“Where?” I asked.
Clarice pointed to a depressed looking man talking to a beautiful redhead about a foot shorter than him.
“Good,” I said, tapping a small communicator on my ring and giving the Melampus its signal. I tapped it two more times to give Isla a signal in the cargo hold. “I’ll deal with Vincent. You make sure you get the rest of the ship’s valuables.”
“Are you sure we’re going to have enough time?” William asked.
“The rest of my plan is better,” I said, smiling.
That was when the entire ship shook, and the lights flickered ominously. That was when all the video screens and holo units across the ship projected the skull of a Crius dragon with two crossed horns at the bottom on a red background. A masked version of myself appeared and then started speaking in a modulated voice. “Here me, Kvari Princess! You are under attack by the dreaded Crimson King! Evacuate the ship or you’ll be blown to smithereens!”
“Smithereens?” Clarice asked. “Really?”
I shrugged. “The only pirates I know of are desperate scum, or from movies. I figured the latter were more intimidating than the later.”
That was when the ship rocked some more.
“Are we really being hit?” William asked.
“Not in the slightest,” Cassius said. “Isla is just messing with the gravity. It turns out the mechanics on this ship are as poorly paid as the rest of the staff. They’ll also lock the door to the bridge and cut off control from there. You think you and the rest of the crew can seize it?”
The guests around us looked confused but so did the staff. Space piracy was rare in this part of the galaxy, but people were aware of it enough to believe this might not be a joke or prank. Fear crossed the eyes of some while most were more upset at having their vacation interrupted. The super-rich were not used to being afraid for their lives and the only people who seemed truly concerned were servants.
“Against these mall cops?” William asked. “Easily.”
“You won’t have to deal with them either,” I said, hearing Isla’s voice over the speakers. “This is Vice Captain Isla Hernandez. The ship’s reactor has been critically damaged. We’ve summoned the Commonwealth fleet to aid us, but we must evacuate. Your valuables and belongings in the hold will be ejected out of a special launcher into jumpspace while the Nostubb insurance company will pay for everything else. Please depart in an orderly fashion to all escape pods.”
“Is any of that true?” William asked.
“They might depart in an orderly fashion,” I said.
I was still iffy about becoming a pirate but if I was going to do wrong then I was determined to do wrong right. I also was going to make sure that I removed as many obstacles between myself and Vincent as possible. Seeing the hundreds of guests start to depart, some faster than others, I started walking toward Vincent and his partner.
Vincent moved toward one of the side doors, not the exit, but to the Engineering Level. Anne Bonnie followed him, looking protective and pulling a handheld laser cannon from her purse. I maneuvered toward them, bumping into several overly dressed aristocrats even as I did my best to move around them. I paused to help someone up and barely missed being shot in the head by Anne Bonnie, who made me. The blast went into the back of an obese Commonwealth Merchant Prince, causing an immediate panic to break out.
“I’ve been made!” I shouted.
“No kidding!” William said.
Clarice pushed away the others and I continued after the duo. By the time I reached them, they’d already passed through the door and burned the controls. I growled and pulled out my own fusion pistol before blasting it, kicking it open. It opened to an octagonal metal chamber that stretched down ten stories. There was a disabled elevator by the door, its controls blasted, as well as an old-fashioned grate set of stairs leading down toward the engines. I saw my quarry heading down the stairs a good eight stories down.
“It’s over, Castille!” I shouted down at him. “You can’t escape your crimes anymore!”
“I’m not trying to!” Vincent shouted back.
Anne fired another blast of her hand cannon toward me. It exploded behind me, sending down a shower of sparks.
“I guess we’re doing this the hard way!” I said, shouting. I adjusted my personal energy shield, generated from my belt, and threw myself over the side. I fell close to a hundred feet and landed in a sticky kinetic bubble that cushioned my fall. It also meant I was completely unprotected against Anne’s hand cannon fire.
I drew first, though, aiming at the pair as they came down to where I was located. “Drop your weapon. Raise your hands.”
Anne, surprisingly, did so and I breathed a sigh of relief. I didn’t want to kill anyone more than I had to. Vincent, unfortunately, raised his hands in surrender as well. I’d killed people in cold blood before but not many of them. Still, a part of me just wanted to gun him down and be done with it.
Vincent looked at me before his eyes widened. “Wait, Cassius Mass? The Fire Count? Are you fucking serious?”
“People are always getting us confused,” I said, dryly. “You’re coming with me.” “No!” Anne said, behind him. “You can’t.”
“I’m not going to be torn apart by the mob for what I did,” Vincent said, his voice cold. “I did what I did to try to save the people of the Spiral.”
I stared at him and almost pulled the trigger on my pistol there. “Are you serious? You’re going to claim your treason was an act of nobility?”
“I will not be judged by the Butcher of Kolthas,” Vincent said, staring at me in contempt. It was another one of the titles I’d earned during the Archduchy-Commonwealth War.
“Why did you do it?” I asked, staring at him. I realized that was the reason why I’d come here. Just to hear it for all the billions of people killed.
My wife included.
Vincent lowered his gaze. “Did you know what we did in the war, Cassius? Do you know how many millions we slaughtered? The war was doomed from the beginning. I thought lowering it would keep the casualties to a minimum.”
“It didn’t,” I said, hissing.
“Yes,” Vincent said, his voice low and cold. “That’s why I need to get this information out to the galaxy.”
“What is it?” I asked, suddenly intrigued. “What could you possibly do to fix your damned reputation.”
“Not fix it but maybe…” Vincent’s voice trailed off. “A peace. It’s a list of all the war criminals of the Commonwealth. All the people involved in the destruction of Crius, the massacres of Xerxes, the Belenus suppressions, and assassinations of religious leaders.
There’s also a list of those involved in collaboration with the Commonwealth. It’ll—” “Make your treason seem less uncommon,” I said. “It’ll also get millions killed.” “If that’s the price of justice.”
I almost laughed. Vincent had decided to play the noble victim because the rest of society, even his so-called allies, treated him like a pariah. I would have had a lot more sympathy for him if he hadn’t waited a decade of living in absolute luxury to do this. No, this was the mid-life crisis version of being Paul on the road to Damascus.
“You’re coming with me,” I said, keeping my pistol trained on him.
“For what purpose?” Vincent said, clearly not wanting to die.
Anne, meanwhile, was moving behind him and obscuring my vision.
“The Commonwealth has you and knows about your actions. We’ll go through your list together and release it in parts. You don’t get to judge everyone. War makes monsters out of us all. Vincent Castille will die but maybe you’ll be able to actually find something of a new life.”
I was surprised at how little I cared whether he lived or died. Death after all would come for him eventually and it was clear the guilt of what he did was crushing him. Perhaps I recognized a fellow mass murderer with delusions of honor. Maybe I just remembered the real people responsible for Crius’ destruction were part of the Commonwealth that was presently employing me to kill him.
“I—” Vincent started to say before a handcannon blast went through his chest and over my head. His body collapsed to its knees before his face landed against the ground. Anne Bonnie was standing behind him.
“You wanted your story that badly?” I asked, looking at her quizzically and adjusting my personal energy shield’s frequency with my free hand.
“My name is Lucia ni Castille,” Anne said, her voice full of disgust. “Vincent was my father.”
“Ah,” I said, understanding more than she could probably guess. “You survived the purge.”
Anne nodded. “I thought I hid myself better. The Commonwealth didn’t do anything to protect mama or my sisters, they were four and eight, but showered my father in gold. I rebuilt my life under a new identity and he still found me using that stolen fortune. Wanted to make amends as if you can wash away blood with anything but more blood.”
“That information will get other families killed,” I said.
“It will redeem the honor of the Castille family,” Anne said, raising her nose in disdain. “I will also be known as the woman who killed Cassius Mass, a hero who betrayed his nation to work for the dogs of the Commonwealth.”
Anne aimed her gun and fired, only for her blast to strike against my personal energy shield and dissipate. I had managed to acquire this back when I was still richer than Croeus and it was above military grade. Her eyes widened as I aimed my fusion pistol upward and gunned her down.
I checked them both for the information Vincent stole on the way out. It had been in his dinner jacket pocket and was completely fried by Anna’s blast. No one was getting their honor back today.
So, I focused on the millions my team made selling the Kvari Queen back to its holding company.
Copyright C.T. Phipps