Chapter 25: Scorpion’s Nest

“Is there no one with a fucking tow rig?” Wing Captain Love threw up her hands and shrieked in fury, long and hard.  This was madness.  No one that might be able to grab the crippled ships and drag them to safety had any chance of reaching them in time.  Trying to force the issue would only result in another collision.

The commander of third wing leaned back in bitter resignation, watching two ships full of people in her care sink from view in the orange, hypersonic cloud band.  Those not killed in the accident could be heard over the com lines, pleading to be delivered.  Everyone in the fleet listened in silence.  An instant before the signal died they heard the stomach-turning sound of the imploding hull.  Those on the second doomed ship heard it as well and screamed in terror, then static…

            They arrived at Epsilon Scorpii, in the constellation of Scorpius, six days and twenty-two hours behind schedule because of an attack at Herbert, an unassuming red dwarf two weeks earlier.  A trio of independent pirates from the Spinward Marches hid themselves behind a remote kuiperian ice dwarf upon the fleet’s arrival and attacked the final group as it made ready to shunt away.

Only a single armed clipper, the Eddico, remained to guard twenty civilian ships, badly outclassed by the armored brigs the indis were flying.  One of only ten armed ships in the wing, Eddico’s mariners gave their lives to buy time for their charges, lost with two transports and a refrigerated food hauler.  Three of the seventeen ships that escaped were badly damaged, forcing them to wait on repairs, wasting time and supplies that were growing short by leaps and bounds.

Captain Love spent the next fourteen hours on the bridge, not surrendering her chair until the last of her ships had been refueled and found its place in the jump line.  People were getting sloppy and their lines had been stretched-out by sluggish captains at their last two stops.  She decided to replace the next one to let it happen.  Lag too far behind an accelerating fleet and there came a point where there would be no catching up.

Returning to her cabin she tucked herself into her hammock, passing out almost instantly.  Not two hours later she awoke to the beeping intercom.  She reached over and answered it, still half asleep.  “Unless this star is going nova I’m throwing you out an airlock.”

            “Debbie, we need you up here.  We have sensor contacts.”  It was Hernshaw, pulling night watch on the bridge.  The wing captain groaned unhappily but affirmed.  She crawled from her now wondrously comfortable nest and pulled herself along the access tube to the bridge still in her night shirt and sweats.

            “Do we have an ID yet?” she asked, strapping herself in.  Part of her hoped the pirates from Herbert had come looking for more trouble, Thunder Child was no clipper and they would find her less then forgiving.  Little Rifter blood remained in this galaxy and every drop spilled cried out for vengeance.

            Hernshaw took his place at operations and examined the sensor data.  “It’s a flute, unarmed, coming from the inner planet.  Looks like a prospector.  Hang on, we’re getting a transmission.”

            “Put it through.”  A voice was faintly audible over the hisses, pops and whining but no words could be discerned.

            “Someone’s jamming it.”  Hernshaw adjusted his instruments.  There’s a second craft, a corvette, closing on them.”

            Debbie rubbed her eyes.  “Range and time to intercept?”

            “They’re a half league sunward,” Hernshaw said.  “We can do that in nine hours, twenty minutes in overdrive.”

            “Do it.”  Debbie opened the fleet channel:  “T-C to wing, remain on station and look sharp, we’re not alone.  Whydah and Pain, on my fins.”  She closed the channel and got out of her seat, pointing at it as she covered a yawn with the back of her hand.

            “I’ll get you up in about seven hours,” Hernshaw told her.

            “Alright,” she said.  “But otherwise I meant what I said about the airlock.”

            “I know you did,” her ship master told her laughing.


By the time they arrived at the battle site the small corvette had managed to heel the fleeing cargo vessel and was nearly home.  The freighter tumbled end over end without power, showing signs of a savage beating.

            “T-C to Pain and Whydah, secure the flute and check for survivors.  On your guard, the wild wind’s a blowin’.”

            The clippers dropped back to hog tackle the derelict as Thunder Child sped on.  Within another hour they were drawing close and found the corvette in low orbit.  Putting on her hardsuit, Debbie found her heart to be pounding, her vision sharpened.  Every nerve in her body suddenly alert and active for all that exhaustion could tax her.  It was good to be on the hunt again; this business had her playing the chase far too much for her liking. Alarm klaxons set the crew to donning their helmets just as she entered the bridge, two minutes to decompression.

The small warship hailed the approaching raider, warning that they trespassed in a chartered ConCo system in violation of numerous company and Federation regulations.  They were then informed of the very serious penalties for these offenses; Debbie had heard enough.

            “Open a channel,” she said.


            “I have a question for you; what lives for five minutes then begs for death?  I’ll give you a hint…”  The com channel closed with a gesture from the captain who ordered a salvo of four Pila that smashed the corvette.  She then put her boarding crew on alert, another armed vessel always welcome.

The capture was protracted and the boarding difficult.  Thunder Child could only inflict modest damage and still make use of her with no port facilities and minimal time to affect repairs.  Even restrained by clamp and cable, the corvette fired her engines trying to wrench herself loose.  The resistance proved in vein however, the corsair raider party making short work of the crew once they affected entry, finding only twenty men aboard.  Apparently they had launched in haste to catch the flute.

            Whydah and Tom Paine arrived a little over an hour behind, having rescued three survivors from the ill-fated prospector who were shuttled over to Thunder Child on a jollyboat.

            “Thank you, Captain.  Thank you.”  The leader of the trio was dirty and dressed in rags.  His face and hands a mass of scar-tissue and calluses.

            “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Debbie told him.  “You deliverance was more curiosity then benevolence.  Where did you come from?”

            “The ninth moon of the inner gas giant,” the miner told her.  “There’s a ConCo operation there.  It started up just over two years ago.”


            “Twelve-hundred miners, about sixty admins and maybe two-hundred guards.  Please, there isn’t much time.”

            “Time to do what?” Debbie asked.  “How far did you think you were going to get in that heap when you escaped?”

            “We weren’t trying to get away,” the miner told her, “we were trying to reach you.  Your ships were detected by a sensor buoy orbiting the outer planet when you entered the system, the uprising started over a week ago but they have us trapped in the mines.  Please, you have to help us we’re running out of supplies and won’t last much longer!”

            “Hold it right there,” Debbie said sternly.  “Look, I’m sorry about your situation but I’ve got an impressive one of my own right now.”

            “You must!” he cried.  “Please, I beg you.  More than twenty of us died storming the launch pads so we could contact you, you’re the only hope we have.  Let me talk to Captain McAllister, let me explain to him.”

            “Julian?”  Debbie was startled.  “How do you know about him?”

            “They’re talking about you on the news feeds constantly, it’s all anyone’s talking about,” the miner said.  “You’re corsairs, from the Rift, aren’t you?”

            “Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, yes.”

            The miner seemed to relax at this vague conformation of his hopes.  Perhaps deflate would be a better word as he had to steady himself by leaning on one of his companions.  He took a deep breath and continued.  “There are supplies at the base.  Rations, water, medicine, medical equipment, lots of that. . .  Uranium ore if you want it.”

The captain had them fed and watered while she and Hernshaw stepped into the corridor to discuss the very awkward situation they now found themselves in.  She looked at her feet for a time, mumbling to herself before addressing her ship master.

“We don’t have much of a choice as I see it.”

 “None,” Hernshaw said.  “We can’t leave witnesses we’ve been this way, certainly not a bunch of cog slavers.”

“Best to move handsomely,” Debbie agreed.   “I’d rather bring a few more corsairs in but there isn’t time, they know we’re here and someone might try to make a run for it.”

            Hernshaw shrugged indifferently.  “We’re more than enough to deal with some bilge rat hired guns.  Besides, you know what the Rex always says; ‘Where’s the fun in anything if you can’t get killed doing it?’”


“Impressive, Captain, very impressive.”  The grizzled old leader of the rebellion nodded his head in approval as the raiders piled up the dead ConCo guards; having stripped them of weapons, armor and ammo.

            “We aim to please and shoot to kill, Mister Park,” Debbie told him, more than a little impressed herself.  The miners were nearly half-starved to death and fully half-worked to death.  She expected them to hang back and allow the corsairs to finish the deed but they were only emboldened by reinforcement, fighting with the recklessness zeal that only a people long abused can muster.

            “The rest of the wing is in orbit,” Hernshaw reported.  “We’ll be ready to start transferring supplies from the surface within the hour.  There are five more cargo flutes on the pads outside, all serviceable.”

            Park took a deep breath.  “Captain, you have done us a great service and I do not mean to sound ungrateful…  But how much do you intend to take?”

            “Everything of use,” Debbie told him, “to include you and your people.  We can’t let you go on your own, you might be captured and give us away.  Once we reach our destination the flutes will be returned to you and you’ll be free to do as you like.”

            “We have no plans beyond getting far from this place,” Park said.  He nodded at the administrators who were lined up on their knees with bound hands and feet.  “What of them?”

            Debbie glanced at the captives, “I haven’t decided; something unpleasant.  Out of curiosity, Mister Park, it’s always good to see honest working folk killing their employers but what brought this on?  It was blind luck we showed up and you must have known you stood little chance on your own.”

            The old man said nothing at first, long miles in his eyes.  “This way,” he said and led her down a corridor to the station’s medical bay.  The facilities were extensive for such a small outpost.  There was a large multi-station operating room that reminded Captain Love of the medical triages they used to handle casualties during battle.  The equipment all high-end and brand new, much of it she had never seen before.  A half-dozen surgical bots stood ready in alcoves within the sterile white chamber.

            Continuing through the infirmary and down another hallway, they came to a heavy steel door.  Park stood motionless for a time, staring at the handle.  At last he reached for it slowly, only to stop, a terrified look in his eye.  Debbie noticed the man began to tremble and had tears running down his face.  With life brief and brutal in places like this, she couldn’t believe this crusty old miner who had just led an uprising to be any species of weakling.

            “It’s alright,” she said placing a hand on his shoulder.  Turning her gaze back to the mysterious door she found herself filled with dread.  Whatever’s behind here it’s bad, she thought, reaching for the wheel latch and turning it.


Hernshaw noticed the wing captain return with the old miner, Park, in tow.  There was an angry look to her gate, recommending he belay any questions as to what she found.  Without a word she marched up the line of kneeling prisoners and shot them, one by one, in the head.  Oddly, the doomed men made no sound of protest as she dispatched them, cringing in silence and awaiting their turn.  They had the look of men who knew this was coming and expected much worse.

            Warrant a slower death as they might, a single thought repeated in Debbie’s mind: Kill them, kill them all, kill them now.  An unsounded urgency beyond all consideration moved her hand.  The burning need was not to punish them, how could that be done?  Nor was it even to kill them.  They simply had to cease being; at once and at all cost.

            With the matter settled she gave her orders.  “I want this place stripped to the walls and the reactor rigged for overload inside of two hours.  We break orbit by twenty-one hundred.”

            Hernshaw was startled.  “We still need down time to–”

            “Twenty-one hundred,” she repeated, disappearing into the lift.


As soon as third wing made the shunt from Epsilon Scorpii, Captain Love left Hernshaw in command of the bridge and returned to her quarters.  She had been up for days now on a scant few hours of sleep but had no ambitions of more.  Not after today, not after what she found in that room.

            After the stifling heat outside, the frigid air of the large chamber made her body shake with sudden violence; her breath a dense fog obscuring her vision each time she exhaled.  Stretching back for fifty meters she could make out table after table, each with a body sealed in a translucent plastic bag; their heads all cleanly shaven.  There were a hundred or more of them.

            Along the right-hand wall she could make-out a large collection of glass jars filled with human heads, submerged in a viscous amber fluid and connected to a large machine above through a series of tubes and wires.  She jumped for fright, thinking one of them moved.  On closer examination, they all moved: blinking, twitching, working their jaws…

Extensive files were kept on the research.  They had experimented with a number of techniques:  neutralizing various parts of the brain to various degrees, using an implanted CPU near the base of the spine to control decision making.  The doctors had come to agree that surgically lobotomizing the aggression centers by of the brain caused the least impediment to normal function, despite motivation problems which could be easily overcome through something called “remote pain therapy.”

A common theme throughout the reports was the favorable comparison of “Adjusted Labor” to the supposed virtues of “Artificial” and “Semi-Artificial” labor, the latter of which derisively termed “engineered demi-humans” in several documents.  These seemed to be competing concepts for something nebulously referred to as The Ascendance Project.  Experience taught her to expect the inhumane, but this was simply inhuman.  Never in the most dismal pits of her bleakest nightmares had she imagined the like of it.  She feared now her dreams would never be without it.


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