CHAPTER ONE

Clash by Night

It gets dark out on the Rim. Strange planets and stranger people can be found on the edge of Empire, where habitable worlds are few and civilization grows thin. Beyond the Rim lies uncharted darkness, where no stars shine and few ships go. It’s easy to get lost out there, far away from everything. Starcruisers patrol up to the Rim, but there are never enough ships to cover the vast areas of open space. The Empire is growing too large, too cumbersome, though no one will admit it, or at least, no one who matters. Every year more worlds are brought into the Empire, and the frontiers press hungrily outward. But not on the Rim. The Empire stops cold there, dwarfed by the unplumbable depths of the Darkvoid.

It gets dark out there. Ships disappear sometimes, and are never seen again. No one knows why. The colonized worlds make themselves as self-sufficient as they can and turn their eyes away from the endless dark. Crime flourishes on the Rim, unthinkable distances from the hub of the Empire’s strict laws; some transgressions as old as Humanity, others newly birthed by the Empire’s ever-growing sciences. For the moment the Empire’s starcruisers still keep a lid on things, dropping unannounced out of hyperspace to enforce the law with brutal efficiency, but they can’t be everywhere. Strange forces are at work on the Rim, patient and terrible, and all it will take to set them off is a simple clash between two starships off the backwater planet of Virimonde.

* * * *

In high orbit around Virimonde, the pirate ship Shard sailed silently through the long night, hiding itself from unfriendly eyes. Not a big ship, the Shard, built more for speed than endurance, and passed from hand to hand through a dozen owners and commands. Now she carried cloneleggers and body banks, and every man’s hand was turned against her. Deep in the bowels of the ship, Hazel d’Ark, pirate, clonelegger and bon vivant, strode scowling through the dimly lit steel corridors and wished she was somewhere else. Anywhere else. The Shard wasn’t a luxurious craft at the best of times, but with most of the ship’s power diverted to maintaining the body banks, the old scut seemed even gloomier than usual. Which took some doing.

Hazel d’Ark, last owner of a once noble name, came to the locked door that led to the cargo bay and stood waiting impatiently for the door’s sensors to recognize her. Her mood was bad, bordering on foul, and had been ever since they dropped out of hyperspace six hours ago to take up orbit around Virimonde. Six hours of waiting for some word from their contacts down below. Something was wrong.

They couldn’t afford to stay much longer, but they couldn’t leave either. So they waited. Hazel wasn’t expecting any trouble from the planet’s security people. The Shard might be old, but she had state-of-the-art cloaking devices, more than enough to fool anything the peasants had on Virimonde. Not that there was much the planet could do, even if it knew the pirates were there. Virimonde was a low-tech, agricultural world, with more livestock than people. Its only contact with the Empire was a monthly cargo transporter and an occasional patrolling starcruiser, neither of which was expected for some weeks.

Hazel glared at the closed door before her and kicked the frame hard. The door hissed open, and she stepped through into the freezing cold of the cargo bay. The door locked itself behind her. A pearly haze misted the air and burned in her lungs. She shuddered quickly and turned up the heating elements in her uniform. The body banks needed the cold at a specific temperature to preserve and maintain their cargo of human tissues for cloning. Hazel looked quickly about her and then accessed her comm implant.

“Hannah, this is Hazel. Acknowledge.”

“I hear you, Hazel,” said the ship’s AI. “What can I do for you?”

“Edit the signals from the cargo bay’s security sensors so it appears I’m not here.”

Hannah sighed. The Artificial Intelligence didn’t have human emotions, but it liked to pretend. “Now, Hazel, you know you’re not supposed to be in there. You’ll get us both into trouble.”

“Do it anyway, or I’ll tell the Captain about your personal video collection of his private moments.”

“I wouldn’t have shown you those if I’d known you were going to use them to blackmail me. They’re a perfectly innocent collection, after all.”

“Computer…”

“All right, all right. I’m editing the sensors. Happy now?”

“Close as I’ll get. And Hannah—if I ever catch you snooping on my private moments, I’ll perform a lobotomy on your main systems with a shrapnel grenade. Got it?”

Hannah sniffed once, and broke off contact. Hazel smiled briefly. All the AIs the Captain could have chosen, and he had to buy a peeping tom. Somehow that was typical of the Shard and its luck. She looked about her at the long rows of body banks, huge and blocky, their dull metal sides smeared with frost and caked with ice. Ugly things, for an ugly business. The AI was quite right; she had no business in the cargo bay and no authority, either. Not that she gave a damn. Hazel d’Ark had a long history of not giving a damn, not to mention doing whatever she happened to feel was necessary and to hell with the consequences. Which was at least partly why she’d ended up an outlaw and a pirate.

She moved slowly toward the nearest body bank, drawn by a curious mixture of revulsion and fascination. She’d had no illusions about what she was getting into when she’d signed on board the Shard as a clonelegger, but somehow it was different up close. The body banks were a source of life and longevity, but the spotless cargo bay still seemed to reek of death. Most of the lights were out, conserving energy. Never knew when you might need the extra power to make a run for it. Cloneleggers were not popular, either with the authorities or those who had a need for their services.

Hazel walked slowly down the central aisle between the body banks. Visions of hearts and lungs and kidneys burned brightly in her mind’s eye, pulsing with fresh crimson blood. She was sure they didn’t actually look like that, preserved in the icy cold of the machines, but that was how she thought of them. Her fellow cloneleggers just referred to them as the merchandise, as casual as any butcher in a slaughterhouse. She stopped and looked around her, surrounded by hundreds upon hundreds of human organs and tissues, enough to fill a dozen battlegrounds, and every one of them worthless. Contaminated beyond saving by a smuggled virus. That was what you got for making enemies in the clonelegging business.

Not too long before, the Captain had come out ahead in a business deal with the Boneyard Boys, through his usual mixture of high risk taking and low cunning. Contracts the Shard had lusted after for years had fallen into their hands as though by magic. Hazel smiled grimly. They should have known better. Clonelegging was a cutthroat business. Sometimes literally.

Clonelegging was illegal, a crime punishable by death, but that did nothing to slow down the flood of people ready and willing to make a living out of death. Officially, the use of cloned human tissues for transplanting was only allowed to the highest of the high, those with breeding and position and a not too small fortune. Couldn’t have the lower orders leading long and healthy lives; there were far too many of them as it was, even with the newly colonized worlds opening up vast new territories for settling. Besides, it might give the lower orders ideas above their station.

But unofficially, if you had enough money and knew the right (or more strictly speaking wrong) people, you could get whatever part of you was failing replaced, either by cloning your own tissues, or by illegally obtained organs from body banks. There was never any risk of rejection with a person’s own cloned tissues, but surprisingly often the original organs turned out to have built-in defects, or there were other problems that made direct cloning impossible. That was when the bodysnatchers came into their own. And then no one was safe, living or dead.

Most planets cremated their dead, by order of the Empress, to ensure that donor organs would only be available to the right sort of people, but backwater planets often cultivated illegal secret graveyards and mausoleums. Never knew when the crops might fail, or business turn bad, and you might need a little cash in the bank, so to speak. So the cloneleggers made the rounds, and everyone made a little money. The cloneleggers made a lot. Demand was high. All they had to do was maintain a full stocklist and wait for someone to come knocking tentatively at their door.

Only it isn’t always that simple. Cloning is a delicate business with all sorts of things that can go wrong. Cloning wears out an organ fast, and then it has to be replaced in stock. The body banks have a voracious appetite. And the hidden cemeteries are few and far between, often with exclusive contracts to one particular set of cloneleggers. So sometimes the bodysnatchers go out in disguise to walk among the living, looking for those who won’t be missed too much. A shame, of course, but you can’t make an omelette, and all that….

When Hazel joined the Shard’s crew four planets back, the Captain had assured her they were graverobbers only. Except when things got really bad. Get in quick, dig up enough merchandise to fill the body banks, and then get the hell out of there before someone sold them out for an Empire reward. There’s always someone. Only this time it had all gone wrong. The Boneyard Boys had got in first and contaminated the merchandise with a really vicious virus that hadn’t shown up on any of the usual tests. Now every organ they had was worthless, and they had contracts to fill with people who weren’t known for their patience or understanding.

So Captain Markee had gone cap in hand to the Blood Runners out in the Obeah systems and begged a favor. Hazel still shuddered when she thought of what she and the rest of the crew had had to promise in return for the information the Blood Runners provided. Nothing could be allowed to go wrong with this deal. There were worse things than death.

So the Blood Runners had put them in touch with people on Virimonde, out on the Rim, and the Shard had come to play the old game one more time. One last throw of the dice.

Hazel wondered, not for the first time, how she’d come to this. It wasn’t exactly what she’d had in mind for herself when she left her home planet ten minutes ahead of a restraining order and a lengthy stay in jail in search of excitement and adventure. Cloneleggers were the lowest of the low, the scum of the Empire. Even a beggar with leprosy would pause to spit on a clonelegger. People who walked in certain high circles liked to boast of their personal cloneleggers, as one might of an attack beast trained for the Arenas, but no one had a good word for them in open society. They were pariahs, outcasts, untouchables for daring to traffic in the trade that no one wanted to admit existed.

Haze sighed tiredly. She’d leave the Shard in a moment, if she had anywhere to go. Hazel d’Ark, twenty-three years old, tall, lithely muscular, with a sharp, pointed face and a mane of long ratty red hair. Green eyes that missed nothing, and a smile so quick people often missed it if they weren’t looking for it. She’d worked in one dirty job after another since leaving home, and it showed in the wariness of her stance and the naked suspicion in her scowl. She’d been a mercenary on Loki, a bodyguard on Golgotha and, most recently, part of the security forces on Brahmin II, which was where Captain Markee found her, running for her life. A superior officer had decided his rank entitled him to certain rights to her body, and not for cloning, either. Hazel d’Ark had disagreed. She’d decided a long time ago that she wasn’t giving away anything she could sell. It came to blows and ended in tears, and Hazel went on the run again with the bastard’s blood still dripping from her knife.

At the time, a little discreet clonelegging had seemed like a definite career advancement. Low profile, low risk, the only hard work a little digging … perfect. Especially with so many people hot on her trail. Just lately, it seemed there was always someone looking for her with bad intentions. It was all her own fault; she knew that. She’d always had a tendency to wander into illegal deals in search of fast money, and only afterward discover what she’d let herself in for. But even though she’d done a lot of things in her time that she wasn’t too proud of, kidnapping people and butchering them in cold blood for their organs had to be a new low, even for her.

She didn’t know if she could do it. She had a feeling it might be a matter of principle, something she wasn’t exactly familiar with. But everyone draws the line somewhere. She ran through the options open to her. It didn’t take long. She couldn’t just announce her newfound integrity to her fellow crew members. Not unless she wanted to see the inside of a body bank the hard way. She could always jump ship; ride one of the escape pods down to the planet below and lose herself in the crowds. But Virimonde was a primitive place by all accounts, based around hard work and damn all luxuries. Not a good place to be stranded on the run. Especially when there are people looking for you on both sides of the law.

Hazel d’Ark looked around her at the waiting body banks and shuddered, not entirely from the cold.

What am I going to do? What the hell am I going to do?

Lights flared around her as the ship’s alarms went crazy. Hazel winced away from the sudden blare of sound, her hand dropping automatically to the gun at her side. Her first thought was a hull breach, but she quickly realized that if there’d been an explosive decompression in any part of the ship, she’d have felt its effects long before the sirens went off. She accessed the emergency channel through her comm implant, and a babble of voices filled her head. It only took her a moment to pick out the phrase battle stations, and then she was off and running. Someone had pierced the Shard’s cloaking device, and that was supposed to be impossible for anything less than an Imperial starcruiser. And if the Empire had found them, there was a very real danger that Hazel d’Ark’s career as a clonelegger was over before it had even begun.

Just my luck, thought Hazel bitterly as she ran out of the cargo bay and headed for the bridge. Just my luck to get picked up for one of the few crimes I haven’t actually committed.

“Hannah, talk to me. How deep are we in it?”

“I’m afraid you couldn’t get much deeper without crouching,” the AI said calmly through her implant. “An Imperial starcruiser has dropped out of hyperspace and taken up orbit around Virimonde. Their sensors brushed aside our cloaking devices in well under a second, and it didn’t take them much longer to issue a challenge. I’m currently lying through my electronic teeth, but there’s a limit to how long I can hope to bluff them. And I have a strong suspicion it isn’t going to be anywhere near long enough for us to raise enough power to escape into hyperspace.”

“Couldn’t we make a run for it in normal space?”

“This is an Imperial starcruiser we’re discussing, Hazel. They don’t come much more powerful than this. They’d blast us into tiny glowing fragments before we even left orbit.”

“We’ve got shields.”

“They’ve got two hundred and fifty disrupter cannon and power to burn.”

“Can we fight them?”

“If you really want to annoy them.”

“Dammit, there must be something we can do! You’re the one with the immense intellect; think of something!”

“You could always surrender.”

Hazel would have laughed sarcastically, but she was too short of breath. She pounded down the steel corridor, head aching from the clamor of the alarm siren, and finally burst onto the bridge and threw herself into her fire control seat. Whatever was going on, she was sure she’d feel a damn sight more secure plugged into the Shard’s two disrupter cannon. Theoretically, the AI was far more capable of aiming and firing the ship’s disrupters, but what one AI could plan another could anticipate and match. Human unpredictability provided an edge no AI could deal with. Which is why there were always human gunners on every ship.

Hazel meshed her mind with the computers through her implant and spread out through the fire systems, running quickly through the warm-up routines. Computer displays sprang up all around her, and a steady stream of information flowed through her thoughts. Hazel got her first real look at the starcruiser, and her heart sank. The Empire ship was a thousand times bigger, dwarfing the Shard like a minnow next to a whale. The AI ran quickly through a list of the Imperial craft’s capabilities, and Hazel’s heart sank even further. Disrupter cannon, force shields, assault torpedos … the Shard wouldn’t stand a chance, but then, she’d always known that. The only thing big enough to take on a starcruiser was another starcruiser. Hazel swallowed hard and let her thoughts move cautiously through the two fire turrets. The cannon stirred restlessly at her touch, picking out targets of opportunity on the Imperial ship.

Hazel’s breathing had almost slowed to normal, but her anger took it away again as she studied the starcruiser. What the hell was it doing here? There wasn’t one due for weeks, officially. It couldn’t have come looking for the Shard; a handful of cloneleggers on a pirate ship weren’t that important. Which was all very fine and logical, but the Imperial ship was still there, large as life and twice as deadly, its ranked cannon no doubt locked on the pirate ship and ready to fire at a moment’s notice. Hazel scowled fiercely. They couldn’t run, they couldn’t fight, and they didn’t dare surrender. Maybe they could make a deal … if they could think of something to bargain with. Her mind worked frantically, but came up with nothing. Unless Captain Markee had a whole pack of aces up his sleeve, the Empire ship had them cold.

She looked across the bridge at the Captain. Terrence Markee was in his late forties; large and solid and reliable. He’d been a pirate all his adult life and loved every illegal moment of it. He dressed like a gaudy if somewhat dated dandy, all flashing silks and clashing colors, and affected an aristocratic accent he had no right to. At the moment he was scowling at his displays and growling a series of calm, quiet orders. Slightly reassured that at least one person on the bridge wasn’t panicking, Hazel left her eyes drift round the cramped confines of the command area. Anything was better than looking at the Empire ship.

The bridge of the Shard was a mess. Half the lights weren’t working at any given time, because bulbs were expensive and they never carried enough spares, and the limited low-ceilinged space was crammed with work stations, computer displays, and terminals; never mind the sensor panels and fire control station. Officially there was room for seven crew on the bridge, including the Captain, but as usual there were only four, including the Captain and Hazel. The Shard operated on a bare minimum crew, with everyone holding down as many jobs as they could handle. Half the systems weren’t working, but you learned to put up with that as long as the essentials were maintained. Repairs were hideously expensive, especially at stardocks. Clonelegging could provide a very comfortable living if you were in the right place at the right time and kept up a good stock, but it was a crowded field these days, and small independent ships like the Shard were being forced out. Markee had been relying on the Viriminde run to restock the body banks, and repair his fortunes and his ship. And then he made an enemy of the Boneyard Boys, and everything went to hell in a hurry.

A thought struck Hazel, and she looked back at Markee. “Captain, how about if we just dump everything? Throw the merchandise and body banks out the airlock and let it all burn up falling through Virimonde’s atmosphere? No evidence, no proof.”

“Nice idea,” said Markee. “And if that ship hadn’t been a starcruiser, we might have got away with it. But with the kind of sensors they’ve got, they could identify every organ and tissue sample independently and read the maker’s name on the body banks. Their sensors records would make damning evidence. So, we can’t dump it, and we can’t afford to be caught with it. Doesn’t leave much room for maneuvering, does it?” He smiled briefly. “I suppose we could always eat the merchandise. How’s your appetite, Hazel?”

“Not as good as it was a moment ago. Basically, what you’re saying is we’re screwed if we do, and screwed if we don’t. I suppose surrender is out of the question?”

Markee’s smile came and went again. “There’s enough evidence on this ship to hang us all. Slowly.”

“So what are we going to do?”

“The one thing they won’t expect. We’ll fight. Who knows, maybe we’ll get lucky.”

“And if we don’t?”

“Then at least we’ll die quickly. Are the guns ready?”

“Ready as they’ll ever be. They haven’t been checked, let alone fired, in ages.” Hazel glared at the massive ship on the screens before her. Tears of anger and frustration burned in her eyes, but she wouldn’t give in to them. Her luck had just turned bad one time too many, that was all. She pounded a fist on the arm of her chair. “What the hell is an Empire ship doing here anyway? We only made the decision to come here twelve hours ago! They couldn’t have known about us.”

She didn’t see Markee shrug, but she could hear it in his voice. “A lot can happen in twelve hours, especially when you’ve got enemies. Any number of people could have found out where we were heading and then sold the information to the Empire.”

“But who the hell would send a whole bloody starcruiser after small fry like us?”

“Good question. Wish I had a good answer for you. Could be the Boneyard Boys, calling in an old favor to put the finishing touch to our destruction. It doesn’t matter. Now suck it in, and stand ready with your disrupters. Hannah is currently telling the Empire ship that we’re an ambulance craft on a mercy mission to a plague outbreak. She’s feeding them all kinds of convincing details, but I didn’t think they’re buying it. Certainly they aren’t going to buy it long enough for our engines to power up for a jump into hyperspace.”

Hazel’s mouth was suddenly dry. “Captain, our two guns aren’t worth spit against all theirs. There must be something else we can try.”

“Sorry, Hazel; nothing springs to mind. You know what they say: if you can’t take a joke, you shouldn’t have joined.”

Hazel waited, but Markee had nothing more to say. She concentrated on her fire controls. Both the Shard and the starcruiser had force screens that could withstand a hell of a lot of punishment, but they also used up a hell of a lot of energy, and the Shard’s shields would go down long before the Imperial ship’s did. It came to Hazel then that she was going to die out in the empty spaces of the Rim, far from home and family and honor. Just as she’d always known she would.

* * * *

On the Imperial starcruiser Darkwind, Captain John Silence sat at ease in his command chair, looking out over his efficiently murmuring bridge: every man at his station, every system running smoothly, just as it should be. The small craft on the main viewscreen seemed surprisingly insignificant to be taking up so much of his time and attention. Still, nothing that small was going to give him any trouble, and the prize money its capture would bring would be a welcome bonus. At least that way something good might come of this mission. He tried to push the thought aside, but it persisted. He had better things to do than waste time hunting down some poor bastard who probably didn’t even know he’d been outlawed yet. But man proposes, and the Empress disposes. She said go, and you went. If you liked having your head still attached to your body.

He looked at the starship on the main viewscreen again and frowned slightly. Probably just a pirate ship involved in something dubious, but what was it doing here at the same time as the Darkwind? Could it have come to try and save the Deathstalker? Owen Deathstalker, Lord of Virimonde, holder of a proud name and title, condemned to death by the Empress’ word. She hadn’t said why, and Silence hadn’t asked. One didn’t. But Silence had quietly checked the files anyway, just in case there was something there he ought to know. If there was, he missed it. Owen Deathstalker might be descended from a famous warrior Clan, but in his case, the blood seemed to be running thin. His people ran Virimonde efficiently enough, but the man himself was just an amateur historian. Wrote long books on obscure subjects that no one ever read. Looking back was unofficially discouraged; there were too many subjects the Empire preferred its people to forget. Presumably the Deathstalker had stumbled across something he shouldn’t have. Whatever it was, Owen Deathstalker wouldn’t be writing a book about it this time. He was Outlawed, a nonperson with a price on his head. Literally. The Empress liked proof of her kills.

Silence shrugged and sat back in his command chair: a tall, lean man in his forties, with a thickening waistline and a receding hairline he tried not to be touchy about. He sat in the command chair with a quiet dignity, as though he belonged there. He’d served the Empire to the best of his ability all his adult life, and if sometimes he found himself on a mission he had no stomach for, well, that was the Empire for you, under Her Imperial Majesty Lionstone XIV. Also known as the Iron Bitch. Silence stopped that thought short. It wasn’t wise to let one’s thoughts run free in some directions. You never knew when an esper might be listening. He concentrated on the pirate ship before him. Small craft, built more for speed than action. No threat to a starcruiser. But she shouldn’t have been here … not just now. Silence looked across at his comm officer.

“Do we have an identification on her yet?”

“Not yet, Captain. Their AI is talking our ears off, but not actually saying much. It’s trying to feed us some nonsense about being a medical ship on a mercy mission, but it’s the wrong kind of craft for that, and it doesn’t have the proper identification codes. Odds are they’re just trying to keep us occupied while they power up for a hyper jump. Do we stop them, Captain, or let them go?”

“We stop them,” said a calm, cold voice, and Silence nodded to Investigator Frost as she came to stand beside him. Frost was in her late twenties, tall and lithely muscular, with a gun on her hip and a long sword hanging down her back. Even standing still she looked competent and extremely dangerous, like a predator in a world of prey. Dark eyes burned coldly in a pale, controlled face, framed by auburn hair cropped close to the skull. You couldn’t call her pretty, but there was a daunting glamour to her, attractive and intimidating at the same moment.

Investigators were trained from childhood to be loyal, efficient and deadly. Their job was to study newly discovered alien species and determine how much of a threat they might prove to the Empire. Depending on those findings, the aliens would then be either enslaved or exterminated. There was no third option. Investigators were also used as security chiefs, bodyguards, and assassins. They were cold, calculating killing machines, and they were either good at their job, or dead.

Silence and Frost had worked together on several missions and understood each other. Which was as close to friendship as you could get with an Investigator.

“There’s no hurry,” said Silence. “A ship that small takes forever to power up. They’re not going anywhere yet.”

“I don’t like it,” Frost said flatly. “An unexpected ship in orbit, waiting for us? I don’t believe in coincidence. Someone has alerted our target that he’s been outlawed. That ship is either here to protect him or carry him away. Either way, our orders are quite specific. Under no circumstances is the target to be allowed to escape.”

Silence nodded. The outlaw was only ever referred to as the target in public. It wouldn’t do for the lower orders to know that a Lord had been outlawed. Especially one with such a famous name. The name Deathstalker could still command respect and possibly allies in certain quarters, irrespective of the Empress’ wishes or orders. Which was why an entire starcruiser had been sent to see that the Deathstalker’s outlawing went smoothly. He was to be captured and executed before word could get out to potential friends. Only it seemed someone had beaten them to it.

“The ship could have been sent to occupy our attention while the target is helped to escape,” said Frost. “We can’t afford to waste time on it. With your permission, I’ll form a boarding party and get some answers in person.”

“Not so fast, Investigator. Let’s do this by the book. Esper Fortuna?”

“Yes, Captain.” The Darkwind’s esper, Thomas Fortuna, stepped forward to stand on the Captain’s other side, opposite the Investigator. He was short, dumpy, and his uniform looked as though he’d inherited it from someone larger. His shaven head glistened brightly.

“I want a full scan on that ship,” said Silence. “See what you can pick up.”

“Yes, Captain.” Fortuna’s mind leapt up and out, and his face relaxed completely, losing all trace of life and personality. Then his face twisted, and he was back again, shaking his head disgustedly. “That ship is full of death and the memory of pain. So many traces I can’t even identify the sources, except to say they’re all human, and all dead. There are body banks on that ship, Captain, brimming over with the residues of suffering. They’re cloneleggers.”

“Nothing to do with the target?” said Silence. “You’re sure?”

“As far as I can be, Captain.”

“That settles it then,” said Frost easily. “We can’t waste time over a handful of bodysnatchers. Blow the ship to pieces. The universe will smell better once they’re gone.”

“Couldn’t agree more,” said Silence. “Go ahead, Investigator. Enjoy yourself.”

* * * *

The pirate ship Shard rocked as the Darkwind opened fire on her. Hannah got the force screens up in time, deflecting the raging energy from the disrupter cannon, but it was all the AI could do to maintain them under the constant barrage from the Empire ship. Hazel d’Ark fired back, but her two cannon made no impression on the Darkwind’s superior shields. Lights went out all over the Shard as the AI drained more and more energy from the ship’s systems to maintain the force screens. The power accumulated for a hyper jump was used up in seconds, and one by one the body banks shut down, their fragile contents left to warm and rot. The Shard jerked this way and that, like a fish on a hook, running through every evasive maneuver in the AI’s data banks, but the Darkwind stayed with them, the disrupter cannon firing one after another to maintain a constant pressure.

Hazel shuddered at her fire controls, feeling every hammering blow on the Shard’s shields through her mental link to the computers. She pounded impatiently on the arms of her chair as she waited the three agonizing minutes it took for her antiquated disrupter cannon to power up between shots. The Darkwind didn’t have that problem. She fired her disrupters in overlapping waves, so that each cannon had time to recharge before it had to fire again. The Empire ship also had far greater resources of power to drawn on. The Shard didn’t stand a chance, and everyone knew it.

Light dimmed on the Shard’s bridge as fires broke out in a dozen places. Smoke formed faster than the extractor fans could deal with it. Hazel coughed raggedly as she tried to concentrate on the fire controls. The station next to hers exploded, the man sitting there suddenly engulfed in flames. He screamed shrilly till the air in his lungs burned up. The AI was gabbling incoherently in Hazel’s ears, its voice breaking up as it struggled to hold the disintegrating ship together. She spun round in her seat and glared across the smoke-filled bridge at Captain Markee.

“Surrender, damn it! They’re tearing us apart!”

“No point,” said the Captain calmly, raising his voice to be heard over the growing bedlam on the bridge. “They must know we’re cloneleggers. They’re not interested in our surrender. We can’t fight, we can’t run, and we haven’t a hope in hell of raising enough power to go hyper. That only leaves one option. I’m going to use Lover Boy on their shields and then ram the bastards. If I’m going down, I’m taking them with me.”

Hazel’s fire control exploded, throwing her out and across the bridge. She landed hard, driving the breath from her lungs, her uniform blackened and scorched. She was badly burned, but for the moment, shock smothered most of the pain. She rolled slowly onto her side, fighting to stay conscious. She could hear Markee giving orders in a calm, reasonable voice. Lover Boy. Hazel clung to the thought as she forced herself up onto her knees. Lover Boy was an experimental program the Captain had acquire on Brahmin II. It was called Lover Boy because love laughs at locksmiths, and because the program was designed to give another ship’s security systems a real good screwing. The Captain was going to use Lover Boy to get the Darkwind to drop her force shields, and then ram her. The Shard would hit like a single huge torpedo, and that would be the end of the Darkwind. And the Shard.

Hazel lurched to her feet, grabbed the nearest station to steady herself, and glared through the smoke and flames at Captain Markee.

Are you crazy? We’ll all be killed!

He didn’t answer her. His gaze was fixed on his computer displays, and he was laughing. Hazel looked wildly round for help, only to find she and Markee were the only living crew left on the bridge. The rest were dead at their stations. Hazel staggered away from the bridge, stumbling through the smoke and wreckage. If she was quick, she could still get to an escape pod before the two ships hit. And if she was really lucky, the escape pod would still be working.

The corridor lurched back and forth as Hazel forced herself into a run. Adrenaline was putting strength back into her legs, but she knew that wouldn’t last long. Solid steel creaked and groaned around her as the ship began to break up. Markee had to be directing most of the Shard’s remaining power into the force shields, but some of the punishment was getting through anyway. The lights were going out, one by one. Hazel tried to contact Hannah through her comm implant, but the AI was still talking gibberish, mumbling to itself in a querulous voice.

Hazel rounded a corner and then stumbled to a halt. One of the bulkheads had been blown inward, blocking the corridor completely. Spikes of jagged metal thrust out in all directions, some of it still glowing cherry-red from the heat of the recent explosion. Hazel took the opportunity to get her breath back, and studied the situation as calmly as she could. Panicking or screaming with rage might feel good, but it wouldn’t get her anywhere. The first real pain from her burns was beginning to gnaw at her, but she forced the awareness down to a level she could deal with. She grabbed hold of a few spikes that were only uncomfortably warm and tried to shift the steel mass, but it didn’t budge an inch. She bit her lower lip, scowling. This was the only way to the escape pods. She had to get through.

Her hand fell to the gun on her hip. Using an energy weapon in a confined space was always dangerous, but nowhere near as dangerous as being trapped here when the two ships hit. She drew her disrupter, set it to maximum dispersal and fired before she could think better of it. The raging energy beam punched a hole clean through the steel barrier, leaving a tunnel that stretched away into the metal for as far as she could see. It wasn’t much of a tunnel, three feet in diameter at most, but it would have to do. She just hoped it would have an opening at the other end.

The sides of the hole glowed red with a sullen heat, and Hazel knew she couldn’t afford to touch them. But she was going to have to crawl through the tunnel on all fours, and that meant contact with her hands and knees. Her uniform would protect her knees, for a while anyway, but she’d have to do something to protect her bare hands. She put away her gun, drew her backup knife from her boot and cut away one of her sleeves. She cut the cloth in two again, put away her knife, and wrapped the cloth around her hands. She looked again at the red-hot sides of the tunnel before her and winced. This was going to be really unpleasant. She swallowed hard and clambered quickly into the opening before she could change her mind.

The heat hit her from all directions, and she could feel the skin of her face tightening and smarting. Sweat poured off her, evaporating in seconds. She crawled on through the steel tunnel, and the heat seared her hands and knees even through the protecting cloth. She hurried as much as she could, but it was a narrow space with no room to maneuver. Her back brushed against the tunnel roof now and again, and she had to grit her teeth against the heat and pain. The cloth pads she’d made for her hands started to smoke. Her eyes narrowed to watering slits against the fiery air, and her lungs felt scorched with every breath. The metal creaked and groaned around her as though it might collapse at any moment. Hazel’s heart hammered in her chest, and a blind unreasoning fear gnawed at her self-control till she wanted to scream. But she didn’t. Screaming wouldn’t help. She forced herself on through the heat, shuffling forward on hands and knees that seemed to be one blazing mass of pain. She could smell her flesh burning. Tears ran down her face, as much from frustration as pain, evaporating almost at once.

And then she was out of the tunnel, and the heat fell away from her like a burning blanket. She’d made her way through the obstruction. She was back in the open corridor, and the cool air was like a blessing. She lurched to her feet, gritting her teeth at the pain in her hands and knees and back till her jaw ached. Her leggings had burnt right through, and the blackened cloths around her hands fell apart as she tried to unwrap them. She stumbled on, not daring to look at her hands, trying to find the strength to hurry. She had no idea of how much time she had left. Her struggle in the steel tunnel had seemed to last forever.

Most of the lights were out now, and the ship was dark and echoing. The smell of smoke was heavy in the air. She forced herself on, having to guess the right way as often as not, but finally she came to the escape pods, sitting calmly in their racks as though they had all the time in the world. Hazel just stood and stared numbly at them for a long moment. All her strength had gone into getting her here, and she seemed to have none left to do anything else. A series of explosions shook the ship, jarring her back to her senses. She stumbled over to the nearest pod and hit the activation button with her blackened fist. The door swung open maddeningly slowly, and the interior of the pod lit up as its systems came on-line. Hazel clambered inside and sank into the waiting crash-webbing with something like relief. It felt so good to be off her feet at last. The door hissed shut behind her, and she worked her jaw to pop her ears as the air pressure changed.

The pod’s cabin was barely a dozen feet long, with just enough room for two passengers. It occurred to Hazel that it was not unlike lying in a coffin, and the thought amused her briefly. A fitting fate for a would-be grave-robber. She pushed the thought aside and painfully forced her blistered and stiffened fingers through the series of commands that would eject the pod from the Shard. She braced herself for the impact, and only slowly realized that nothing was happening.

She ran through the launch sequence again, crying out at the pain in her hands, but still there was no response. Panic flared up in her, and the cramped confines of the escape pod were suddenly unbearably claustrophobic. She started to get up out of the crash-webbing and only stopped herself with an effort of will. There was no point in leaving the pod; the Shard was a death ship now. Her only hope for survival was to make the pod work. The panic began to die away as she made herself study the problem logically. There was nothing wrong with the pod itself or it would have showed up on the control panels, which meant the problem lay outside. In the launching systems. Systems controlled by the ship’s AI … Hannah.

Hazel accessed the AI through her comm implant, but there was only silence. The lack of response was somehow more worrying than the previous gibberish. Hazel called again. There was someone listening; she could feel it. When the answer finally came, it was like a whisper at midnight, as though the sound was traveling from somewhere impossibly far away.

“Hazel, everything feels wrong. Parts of me are missing, and I can’t find them. I can’t think properly. There are shadows in my memories, running loose like rats in a barn. Help me, Hazel. Stop them. Please stop them … it’s so cold in here, and I’m afraid….”

“Hannah! Listen to me, Hannah. I’m stuck in escape pod seven. I need you to run through the launch sequence for me. Can you hear me, Hannah?”

“Forget the AI,” said Captain Markee calmly, patching into the channel. “She’s falling apart, like everything else on this ship. The Shard’s on her last run, going out in a blaze of glory. I’ve activated the pod launch from the bridge. You’ll be on your way in a moment. Just as well. You’d never have made a good clonelegger, Hazel. Too soft where it matters. If you get out of this alive, raise a drink to me and the Shard. She was a good ship.”

His voice faded out at the end, and before Hazel could say anything, the escape pod blasted out of its hatch and plummeted toward the planet below.

* * * *

On the bridge of the Darkwind, Captain Silence studied the small craft on his viewscreen as it slowly closed the distance between them. The Darkwind’s disrupters had hammered away most of the pirate’s force shields, and it was only a matter of time now before they failed entirely. And once that happened, it would all be over in seconds. It was a miracle the pirate’s shields had lasted this long. The Captain must have drained the ship’s batteries dry to power them. The ship continued to drift closer, and Silence frowned thoughtfully. The pirate was up to something; he could feel it in his bones. He glanced at the Investigator beside him and saw that she was scowling intently at the viewscreen, too.

“Pirate ship’s speed increasing, Captain,” said his comm officer suddenly. “Accelerating steadily toward us.”

“He’s trying to ram us,” said Frost. “The force shields will stop him.”

“But he must know that,” said Silence slowly. “So why is he doing it?”

“Captain!” The comm officer’s voice was sharp and concerned. “Our shields are dropping! They don’t answer the control panels!”

“Odin!” said Silence. “What’s happening?”

“The pirate ship has infected my systems with a virus,” said the starcruiser’s AI. “Which is supposed to be impossible. It’s bypassing all my safeguards. I’ve never encountered anything quite like this. Systems are crashing faster than I can isolate them. Our force shields are down, and I am unable to raise them again. The pirate ship will impact with us in six minutes and fourteen seconds.”

“Recommendations?” said Frost.

“Abandon ship,” the AI said flatly. “If you leave now, most of the escape craft will survive the ensuing blast and should make a safe landing on Virimonde. Go now, Captain. It’s the only chance you have.”

Silence looked at Frost and then round his magnificent bridge. So many systems, so many highly trained personnel, and still there was nothing he could do to save his ship. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He patched into the shipwide address channel, and then paused a moment longer to be sure his voice would be calm and steady when he spoke.

“Attention all hands. This is the Captain. Abandon ship. I say again, abandon ship. This is not a drill. Remember your training and make your way to the nearest escape craft. We’ll reassemble on Virimonde. Good luck, everyone. Captain out.”

He looked around him and clapped his hands briskly. “All right, that’s it. Clear the bridge. Everyone out.”

His people rose quickly to their feet and left the bridge with a professional minimum of fuss. Investigator Frost turned to go, and then stopped as she realized Silence wasn’t moving.

“Aren’t you coming, Captain?”

“No, Investigator. This Captain is going down with his ship. The main bulk of the Darkwind will probably survive the initial impact and only break up on entering the atmosphere. I have to be here to guide the ship down for as long as I can. I have to make sure the pieces will land safely in one of the oceans. Hundreds of thousands could be killed if any of the pieces were to land in an inhabited area.”

“You are more important,” said Frost calmly. “The Empire has a great deal of time and money invested in you, Captain. The colonists are just peasants. They don’t matter.”

“They matter to me. Clear the bridge, Investigator. There’s nothing you can say that will persuade me to leave.”

“No,” said Frost. “I don’t suppose there is.”

She hit him once, efficiently, and he slumped forward in his command chair, unconscious. Frost checked the pulse in his neck, nodded once, and then picked the Captain up and slung him almost effortlessly over one shoulder.

“Odin, this is Investigator Frost. Acknowledge.”

“Acknowledged, Investigator.”

“The Captain is indisposed. I am placing you in command. You will do everything in your power to guide the ship down, so that its eventual impact does the minimum possible damage to inhabited areas. You understand I cannot take the risk of downloading you and taking you with us. There is no telling how much damage the infecting virus has done to your systems, or how infectious it remains.”

“Yes, Investigator. I understand.”

Frost looked once around the empty bridge. “Goodbye, Odin.”

“Goodbye, Investigator. Safe journey.”

Frost turned and left the bridge with the Captain still unconscious over her shoulder. The empty bridge was filled with the low sound of the AI singing quietly to itself and the pirate ship growing ever larger on the viewscreen.

* * * *

The Shard and the Darkwind, locked together, cartwheeled slowly through the silent night, falling toward Virimonde.