Chapter 36: Fires of the Phoenix

On the frigid outskirts of Kappa Phoenicis, a mid-sized blue star in the constellation of the Phoenix, nine ships emerged from hyperspace.  They came to a halt, formed a circle and linked their sensors to be certain no one lurked nearby.  Once satisfied they were alone in the dark, first wing formed a wedge and crept its way through the tiny ice dwarfs and sleeping comets to the inner planisphere.  The system had no major worlds but hundreds of dwarf planets, thick belts of asteroids and a wide smoky halo of circumstellar dust.

As they made their way sunward, a lone scout craft emerged from one of the small planetoids and hailed them, giving instructions to follow.  The slow journey of more than a dozen leagues took the better part of two days.  When they finally cleared the innermost ring of asteroids, the blue-white glare of Kappa Phoenicis filled half the sky.

Still in formation, first wing became a flaming spearhead of shimmering blue light within the aurora of their overlapping magnetic fields.  The solar winds were powerful and unpredictable here.  Not dangerous if you were suitably protected and kept an eye on things, but an unlikely spot for strangers to visit.  Near the edge of the asteroid field an iron rich hadean planetoid gave shelter to a trio of sutler cages, each large enough to accommodate the Queen or any two ships in the fleet.  Vessels from second wing were already here, in and around the floating pens; all flirting with the scrap yard to look at them.

Five wreckers, two tankers, and a dozen assorted supply craft were actively taking part in the repair work, hovering like giant metal surgeons gathered around their wounded patients.  Numerous warships ranging from lugers to barques waited on station near-by, The Lords’ ships from Margaritaville.  Two large galleons were also in attendance, disguised carrier vessels procured from the People’s Democratic Front, now calling itself the Democratic Stellar League.  Deacon, as always, had been busy a busy bee.

As they approached, Ghost Dancer contacted them and gave the count:  Fifty-six vessels of second wing, second talon on station.  The seventeen ships of first talon proceeding by alternate route: status unknown.

The Grand Corsair swallowed hard when the report came in, the losses were staggering and they had broken wing, just as he feared would happen.  As first wing joined in the procession, Julian was informed that Captain Mohammad was taking a jollyboat over to report in person.  He called down to Nefertiti’s quarters on the intercom, “Hey, Dark Meat, you up for taking the bridge a while?”

            “You bet your lily-white ass.”

            When she arrived a few minutes later, the shuttle was requesting permission to dock.  “No word on Floyd?” she asked.

            “None yet,” Julian told her.  About to say that with the ships they had, the attack on Lockhard City could at least move forward, he stopped himself.  He would not let himself think like that, not until he had to.  Reliable news of the other wings was hard to come by on the run but suggested Floyd’s scheduled attack at Prometheus was a stunning success.  Of third wing there had been no word at all.  In a sense, that was the best that could be hoped for, stealth being their only defense.  Still, this did nothing to keep him from climbing the walls in apprehension.

 

Four anxious days past with no sign of the others.  Aside from the mounting worry over Floyd, it had been hoped that third wing would arrive here first.  The delay did not bode well, especially without knowing how Floyd’s gambit at Malzonto played-out.   A collection of ships that large, many of them little more than wrecks to start with… People were beginning to tell themselves it had been an outside chance from the start.  They were one jump away from their goal but a dark cloud hung over everyone.  Wherever you went, people were somber and silent.  With the task still before them it was more than discouraging.

            Julian and Olga took one of the Queen’s boats over to a large galleon second wing captured along the way.  Yousef said he had a surprise for them but wouldn’t elaborate.  It was the first time Olga left the infirmary since Hypatia’s birth.  Bonesaw cleared her days ago but she refused to leave her infant daughter alone in her tiny box of a world.  The doctor finally threatened to have her sedated and strapped in bed, in her quarters, if she didn’t get out of his hair so she accepted her mate’s mysterious invitation.

            “It’s about time you got your asses over here,” Yousef said, meeting them on the hanger bay of the captured vessel.  “This is why folk don’t like dealing with your unsavory kind.  Always runnin’ on ghoul time.”

            “Up yours, camel-humper,” Julian said, taking his hand.  Their host led them down the spotless white corridor that ran along the ship’s spine.  A beautiful vessel that could be refitted into a fine corsair with some work and love; noting it possessed a full one-G gravity field, Julian instantly determined to have the Queen’s upgraded at first opportunity.

            “No von can have anyting as nice as you,” Olga chided.

            “No, they can’t,” Julian confessed and the three shared a welcome laugh.

            “These were on their way to the governing council on Pegasus II,” Yousef explained as they neared their goal, a large cargo bay.  “They’re all absolutely beautiful.”  He activated the iris valve hatchway and led them inside.  The smell instantly recognizable to the newcomers, Olga smiled widely and yelped for joy when the big white mare stuck her head out over the low-hanging cage door.

            “Vui krasiveshaya vesh,” she cooed, scratching the beast behind its ears.

            “How many?” Julian asked, astonished.

            “Two dozen,” Yousef said, “twelve male, twelve female.”

            “What are you feeding them?” Julian asked, watching Olga kissing and hugging her new friend.  Inquiring as to where she could get a carrot, Captain Mohammed indicated a storage container in the corner and she hurried over to fetch bonding supplies.

            “Plenty of food and medical supplies.  She seems to have her heart set on that one,” Yousef smirked.  “What are we going to do with them though?”

            “We’ll keep them,” Julian said.  “There’s plenty of room on Lockhard.  They’ve got a big park on the top level, hundreds of acres.  Olga and I went while we were there.  I hadn’t ridden in years, not since the last time my mother took us; Billy, Deacon, and me.  I couldn’t have been more then thirteen.”

            “You had a lot of horses on Antigua?” Yousef asked, curious.

            “Oh, yea,” Julian confirmed.  “All the cabbies inside the walls used horses.  A lot of farmers still used them and there were big horse farms just a few miles outside the city.”

            “Curacao as well,” Yousef said.  “The finest in the Rift, my family bred horses there from the time the planet was settled.  And back on Earth since before the God War.”

            “Where’d your family come from on the homeworld?” Julian asked.

“Saudi Arabia.  Nothing there now but a sea of broken glass, but the finest animals in all the world came from there once.”

            “Seems the governing council on Pegasus has an eye for horse meat,” Julian remarked as they walked the length of the container to examine the animals.

            “Not according to the trainer,” Yousef said.  “We captured him with the ship, he was hiding down here.  Said the buyer they sent didn’t even know what a horse was.  They don’t ride there but the hunts are becoming popular these days, all the best people are doing it.”

            “Where’s this trainer now?” Julian asked; his voice suddenly brusque.

            “Floyd put a bullet to him,” Yousef said.

Julian nodded.  “I’d have cut his throat and pissed on him, myself, but that’ll do.”

The Hunts, as they were called, got their start in the sprawl near the New York Archology more than a century ago and were spreading throughout the civilized worlds.  Executives would pay hefty sums to be led out by urban enforcers and have a formal mounted hunt for the nomadic prols that invariably found their way into restricted areas because of overcrowding, gang violence and what have you.

Objections were periodically raised in the more liberal circles of the archologies but advocates argued that controlling these populations required proactive thinking.  A bullet is a kindness compared to starvation, is it not?  In any case, a portion of the proceeds was traditionally donated to some worthy cause such as a prison, labor camp, or vocational rehab.

            “Getting worried?” Yousef asked after a long silence passed.

            “Me?” Julian laughed, “What could go wrong?”  They both started snickering at that; the levity welcome, however facetious.

“Rex,” a voice came over the intercom, echoing in the stable compartment.

            “I’m here,” Julian called to the ceiling-mounted unit.

            “We’ve just been contacted by third wing’s scout.  Thunder Child and her charges will be shunting-in within the hour.  They report nine ships lost: three to breakdowns, two in a refueling accident, and four more to hostile action.  A corvette, eight flutes and a thousand new passengers cattled-up along the way.  No enemy contacts within the last month.”

            Julian bent over and rested with his hands on his knees.  After a moment he rose up, lifting Olga into the air and spinning about.  “Let’s get this shit over with!”

            “If you will excuse me,” Yousef said, “I must thank merciful god for this news.”

            “If you must,” Julian said, trying his best not to be sarcastic.

            Yousef smiled.  “Is there anything I can ask him for, on your behalf?”

            “No,” Julian told him.  “Just tell your imaginary friend to keep doing nothing.”

            “Allah knows you don’t really mean that,” Captain Mohammad laughed.  “He knows you’re a big cuddly teddy bear, Jules.”

            “Fuck you,” Julian said, laughing himself.

 

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