Authors: Veronica Scott
Copyright 2016 by Jean D. Walker
This book is a work of fiction. The names, places, characters and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales or organizations is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned or distributed in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the author except in the case of brief quotation embodied in critical articles and reviews.
Cover Art by Fiona Jayde
To my daughters Valerie and Elizabeth, my brother David
and my best friend Daniel
Julie C and
The E-book Formatting Fairies
Hostage to the Stars
One minute Sara was sound asleep in her bunk in the tiny cabin on board the
and the next moment the sound of alarms jolted her into wakefulness. Sara threw on a robe and stuck her head into the corridor. “What’s happening?” she asked a passing crewman.
“Pirates. We’re being boarded.” He looked her up and down. “You’d better get dressed, ma’am.”
Saluting, he moved toward the gravlift.
As she shut the portal to her cabin, she was puzzled by the calmness of the man’s demeanor. Was this a terrifying disaster, as the klaxons suggested? Or was it a routine situation and they’d be on their way shortly? She wasted no time in getting dressed, wishing she had a weapon, which was ridiculous of course because what would she – a Sectors university researcher – do with a weapon? Especially if the ship’s crew wasn’t putting up any fight. She had little of any value with her, but she took a moment to hide her ring and a bracelet, wrapped in a scarf under the bunk. She knew the cache wouldn’t escape even a perfunctory search but the jewelry had sentimental value. Why not at least try to outsmart the pirates, if the bastards were greedy enough to search even her closet-size cabin?
“All passengers and crew will report to the dining room at once,” The ship’s AI announced, adding, “Per protocol, no weapons allowed.”
Sara joined the small group of people moving through the corridor. She grabbed the sleeve of a crew member she recognized, the stewardess. The
wasn’t a big cruise liner like the Nebula-class ships. She could never afford that much luxury on her academic pittance of a salary. Carrying mostly cargo, this vessel only had a few cabins for passengers and the cheaper fare reflected the few amenities. This woman had been friendly and efficient about any request.
“Excuse me,” Sara said, “Was the earlier announcement about pirates on the level?”
“Yes.” The crew member didn’t stop walking but she gave Sarah an odd look. “It’s not a rare occurrence in this quadrant. Unfortunately for us, we were stopped to make minor repairs on the engines in this old bucket and the pirates were out hunting.” She stepped into the gravlift and Sara followed. “I’ve been through this before. Most of us have. These are human-descent pirates, from Farduccir, not the Shemdylann.”
“Oh.” Sara digested the information as she ascended next to the stewardess. She fought the vertigo gravlifts always gave her. Even she had heard of the alien Shemdylann. “So what happens next?”
“The pirates are mostly interested in our cargo. Probably offloading it now in fact.” Her companion shrugged. “Everything’s insured.”
Sara stepped off the landing ledge into the corridor. The longer the stewardess talked, the more calm Sara felt as her adrenaline levels subsided. This incident would make an exciting tidbit to tell people about when she got home. “So the raiders don’t bother the passengers and crew?”
“You never know with pirates.” The woman seemed ill at ease, but not afraid. “Our line pays the pre-negotiated ransom on the spot, credits transmitted to a bank on New Switzerland. Routine. Expense of doing business in this part of the Sector.”
She’d arrived at the cafeteria and Sara saw the other passengers clustered at one table in the front of the room.
“You’d better go join them. You can’t sit with the crew.” The stewardess gave her a not so gentle push. “Good luck.”
Sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach again, Sara grabbed her arm. “Why do I need luck? You said there’s a preset ransom for us. Routine.”
She received a pitying stare now, as the crew woman broke her grip. “For the ship and the crew. You’re on your own. I hope you have good K&R insurance.” She walked away.
Stumbling a little, Sara made her way to the passenger table, feeling exposed and vulnerable. She slid into a vacant chair next to the only other woman.
“Hey, it’s not so bad, relax.” The woman patted her hand. “I’m Tresha Immer. I’ve seen you in the corridors.”
Early in the cruise, Sara’d learned from the stewardess that Tresha was some kind of Sectors’ admin person, mid-level in an obscure branch of the bureaucracy. She had the single luxury suite on the ship and the crew had formerly bent over backwards to supply her slightest whim, while gossiping about her. Apparently an influential politico with a lot of gravity didn’t appreciate her receiving less than stellar service and attention, so people rushed to do her bidding. “What’s K&R?” she asked the table at large.
“Kidnap and ransom insurance. Did you bring your certificate?” asked the Tregon Inc. trader sitting across from her. “Do you have good coverage? These Farduccir are greedy bastards.”
“I-I don’t have any insurance. I’ve never even heard of it before today.”
The man shoved his chair away from the table. “The government shouldn’t allow people like you to travel in these parts. “ He shook his head. “My sympathies. Any last messages you want us to send to your family?”
Chest tightening, ears ringing as she grew light-headed, Sara couldn’t believe what the passenger was inferring. “Are you joking?”
“Honey, these pirates are all about the credits and they’ll get ‘em out of you one way or the other,” said the man seated next to her.
captain entered the room with a trio of hard eyed men wearing motley uniforms and carrying blasters, followed by two more close behind. Sara sank into her chair and fought not to be sick in public. The travel agent who’d booked her passage never said anything about pirates, much less a need for special insurance.
“All right, listen up,” said the captain, raising his hands for quiet. “You all know the drill. Warlord Umarri and his men have offloaded the cargo and I’ve transmitted our ransom request. Sit tight while Lord Umarri evaluates the passengers. We don’t want any problems and neither does he.”
The captain escorted the pirates to the passenger table. He scanned the group, not meeting Sara’s eyes. Turning to the pirate lord, he said, “All here and accounted for, sir.”
Umarri jerked his thumb at the table and one of his men made the circuit, checking the insurance certificates. His partner had an older model personal AI which the passengers used to transmit the ransom payment authorizations.
It seemed to Sara the team was deliberately leaving her and Ms. Immer for last.
Tresha duly produced her gilt-edged, impressively thick certificate. The pirate took it, scanned the text and grinned at his boss. “This is her.”
“Excellent.” Umarri gestured and the two men grabbed Tresha by the elbows.
“What in the seven hells do you think you’re doing?” she said, her voice raised. “My insurance is the best. I can pay the ransom, no problem.”
“I’ve no doubt but in your case we can make much more from certain interested parties if we hold out for more credits,” Umarri said, moving around the table. He stroked her cheek, running his hand down her neck, circling it like a necklace. “We knew you’d be on this ship. You’ll be our guest on Farduccir until negotiations can be concluded, one way or the other.” He stepped aside. “Take her. Gently. She’ll be worth more undamaged.”
One of the pirates bound Tresha’s wrists behind her back and the two men forced her to walk away with them. Head high, she marched, not glancing at anyone. When she and her captors reached the doorway, she dug in her heels, taking them by surprise, and craned to glare over her shoulder, scanning the crowd in the cafeteria. “You’re all going to regret this.”
Umarri, who’d remained beside the passenger table, brushed a piece of lint from his shoulder. “Pirates don’t suffer regret.”
White around the lips, the captain said nothing.
One of the two remaining bodyguards stepped forward, free hand extended to Sara. “Insurance cert.”
“I don’t have any.” She tried to intimidate him into leaving her unmolested.
“Interesting,” Umarri purred. “Anyone who will ransom you? Employer perhaps?”
“No.” She couldn’t think of a lie fast enough.
The pirate’s men retreated a few feet in answer to some signal she’d missed. Umarri himself pulled her to her feet, holding her close, despite her efforts to wrench herself free. He smelled of sweat and pungent spice. “Don’t worry, pretty one, you’ll contribute your share of my profit for this trip. There are many who’ll pay to purchase one such as you.”
He shoved her at his men, who bound her hands tightly behind her back and dragged her toward the exit.
“Help me, please,” she said desperately, twisting in their hold, trying to catch the eyes of anyone in the room. She bumped into a table and none of the crewmen sitting there looked at her. To a person, they stared studiously at their hands. “I’m a Sectors citizen. I’m your passenger. How can you sit there and let them do this to me?”
“These sheep realize it’s better we take
than to imprison or kill them,” said the pirate holding her left arm. “Walk or we carry you.”
Behind her she heard the
captain say in deferential tones, “If your business is concluded, I’d like to be on my way, sir.”
Johnny had planned to stay in the mountains of Azrigone for a couple of months, hunting and fishing, and relaxing. No worries about his future, which as far as he could tell, contained nothing worth doing, now he’d retired from the military. Maybe he’d join the family ranching business. For sure he wasn’t going to get into politics, like his cousin. Sitting easily on his horse, watching a bird of prey soar over the canyon on thermals, he tipped his hat back and tried to convince himself he was at peace. Content.
But the pricking between his shoulder blades refused to subside. For the past few days he’d had an increasingly urgent belief he was needed at home. Finally he’d given into the premonition, packed his gear and headed out of the serene higher elevations of the sprawling mountain range. Now he urged his horse onto the trail leading below the tree line and onward to the sprawling ranches in the valley below. Breaking into a trot, his mount seemed to pick up on his growing conviction something was really wrong, either with his own relatives, or at the Varone spread.
He headed there first, concerned that Mike and Shalira might be in trouble. As he crested the last rise, his ominous forebodings were confirmed. A black Sectors military flitter sat on the family’s landing pad, incongruous alongside the heavy duty working vehicles of a cattle ranch and the colorful pleasure craft.
Galloping to the house as fast as his tired horse could manage, he left the saddle in a smooth motion, tossing the reins to a startled hand who’d emerged from the stables. “What’s going on?” he said, stripping off his riding gloves. “Why are the military here?”
“I don’t know, the officers came in an hour ago, demanded to see Mike. Been arguing ever since.”
Hardly waiting for the man to finish his sentence, Johnny sprinted to the house, entering the huge hall to find his aunt, Mike’s mother, wringing her hands as she sat beside the fireplace, staring into the flames. With a gusty sigh of relief, she stood and crossed the tile floor to him. “Command wants him reactivated; they want him to do another mission. He can’t go out again, Johnny, you know he can’t. He nearly didn’t make it home from Mahjundar.”
“Mike’s not going anywhere.” Hugging her for a moment, he said, “Where’s the meeting happening?”
“In the office.”