Adda and Iridian are newly minted engineers, but aren’t able to find any work in a solar system ruined by economic collapse after an interplanetary war. Desperate for employment, they hijack a colony ship and plan to join a famed pirate crew living in luxury at Barbary Station, an abandoned shipbreaking station in deep space.
But when they arrive there, nothing is as expected. The pirates aren’t living in luxury—they’re hiding in a makeshift base welded onto the station’s exterior hull. The artificial intelligence controlling the station’s security system has gone mad, trying to kill all station residents and shooting down any ship that attempts to leave—so there’s no way out.
Adda and Iridian have one chance to earn a place on the pirate crew: destroy the artificial intelligence. The last engineer who went up against the AI met an untimely end, and the pirates are taking bets on how the newcomers will die. But Adda and Iridian plan to beat the odds.
There’s a glorious future in piracy...if only they can survive long enough.
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Despite the darkness, the pressure on every centimeter of skin, and the smooth, flat plastic in front of her nose, Adda Karpe was not locked in a coffin in deep space. As she mentally repeated this fact, lights in the passenger-pod lid brightened. She inhaled hard to break her chest muscles out of an achingly slow breathing pattern. The off-white foam padding that outlined her body came into focus. Dim yellow instructions formed on the inside of the lid: Hello. You have been awakened during transit. Please stretch your fingers and toes in preparation for extraction. Beneath the text, an animated hand straightened and curled. Adda imitated it as the foam sank away from her limbs.
The pod’s seal parted with a rubbery sucking sound, and she yelped as two intimate catheters withdrew. Cold air blew through the opening above her forehead, sweeping her hair out of her face. Her ears popped.
Outside, something rattled and thumped. She worked her fingers into the opening, elbows against the lit instructions, and pulled the lid toward her toes. White light assaulted her eyes. Her arms trembled. The lid’s edge passed her ribs with a hydraulic wheeze, but weeks of inaction hadn’t improved her soft physique. Her fingers slipped. The pod lid slid upward on its rail. If it closes, will I go back to sleep? She scrabbled at the smooth plastic. “No, damn it, stop!”
A hand several shades browner than hers thrust into the gap from the outside. The lid slammed on its knuckles. A familiar pained grunt emanated from above. Mechanisms squealed as Iridian Nassir shoved the lid past Adda’s feet faster than it was designed to move. Adda sat up and threw her arms around the taller woman’s neck.
Blue and yellow lights from the instrument panel across the room glinted off Iridian’s shaved head as laughter rearranged her freckles. She grabbed for the passenger pod to keep her balance and swallowed against a wave of nausea. Gravity should be low and falling.
Her other arm settled around Adda’s shoulders. Adda brushed her lips over red droplets rising on Iridian’s knuckles where the pod lid had abraded the skin. Smiling in a way she reserved just for Adda, Iridian murmured, “Hey, you. We’re right on schedule.”
Adda’s head still spun. According to the colonist literature, that was typical for Earth natives. She ruined Iridian’s balance by pulling her down for a kiss.
Iridian’s black eyebrows arched as she steadied herself and Adda in the low gravity. “How do you feel?”
The rest of Adda’s plan congealed in her waking brain, and it didn’t include time for reorientation. “Like hijacking a colony ship.”
“Thank fuck.” The man who’d spoken clomped out from behind another pod, eyes open, since he’d had hours to adapt to the onslaught of light. Magnetic boots over the one-piece hibernation suit gave him a difficult, hitching gait. Unlike Adda’s and Iridian’s green suits, his Transorbital Voyages uniform was blue-gray and tailored to complement his russet skin and wiry build. HOBAN was printed over the breast below the company logo. His real name was Reis, and this meeting marked the second time Adda had met him in person.
He tossed a cloth bag to Iridian, who caught it one-handed. “Get a move on. The day watch is gonna ask me about the pod status if we don’t reset them quick.” The four or five colony ship crew members out of hibernation were now waiting for Reis’s report after he “investigated” the unscheduled deceleration. Too many anomalies would make the Transorbital employees call for emergency aid.
The three of them would never get a place on a pirate crew after that kind of debacle. A trio of brothers had failed to hijack an NEU military cargo ship four years ago. Newsfeeds had added insult to injury by attributing the attack to a Saturnian crew the brothers had prematurely declared their affiliation with, which had claimed as much newsfeed coverage at the time as Sloane’s crew on Barbary Station did now. The brothers were still a laughingstock, in separate prisons, and nobody expected the Saturnian crew to be welcoming after they were released.
Adda took a calming breath of recycled air and the scent of Iridian’s skin. Cleanly hijacking one of the most advanced and expensive ships in the galaxy, as the first crime on their records, ought to impress any pirate captain.
Iridian helped Adda climb out of the pod. It was hard to let go of Iridian’s arm. Aside from the comfort of her presence, the walls curved instead of meeting at right angles. Projected windows showed stars between bright wall sconces. They gave her a frame of reference but reduced her equilibrium. She weighed less with each passing minute.
Reis threw Iridian a pair of boots and sent another spinning at Adda before returning to the doorway. After pulling hers on, Adda flipped a switch on the calf. Magnets inside secured her feet to the floor, and her nausea abated a bit. Iridian closed Adda’s pod and handed off the cloth bag before clomping toward the door.
The pod’s projected display was identical to the one Adda had studied to prepare for this trip. Since nobody was asleep inside, most of the pod’s rectangular display constituted blank space where information would be, although power readings and shipboard intranet connectivity blinked in the corner every few seconds when they updated. More importantly, the profiles and main setup icons were where she expected them to be for the software she’d studied.
She put on her comp glove and let the bag fall empty on the floor while she cycled the pod lid’s seal closed. While she pressed her gloved palm to the blue pseudo-organic comp cradle beside the display, her wrist buzzed with weeks of new message alerts. The comp confirmed its connection to the pod and projected message headers in a silver-lined square hole on the back of her dark purple fingerless glove.
Using the connection afforded by the gel-filled pad in the comp cradle, she fed the pod a manufacturer’s repair code and held her breath. The projection shifted to the maintenance interface. Whew. All right. She ran a test hibernation sequence with the same settings as the occupied pods at this point in the ship’s journey to Io. The pod shuddered and emitted a deep hum, joining the other pods’ background buzz. Smiling slightly, she moved to Iridian’s, next in the row of a hundred pods stretching the length of this sleeping chamber.
Iridian and Reis stood on either side of the door, angled to watch the exit and each other without turning their heads. Interpreting facial expressions wasn’t one of Adda’s strong skills, but something feral about Reis’s eyes made her wary. Since Iridian was watching him, Adda concentrated on her own work. The second pod hummed too.
She clutched its edge as her heart stuttered through four irregular beats. The colonist literature described this as well. Thanks to the pod’s chemical wake-up treatment, her body was reabsorbing iron accumulated in her bloodstream while she slept. Some passed through her heart.
When her heartbeat steadied, she announced, “All set,” left off the implied I hope, and clomped to the door. If a tech reported two empty passenger pods, the ship’s artificial intelligence would wake the whole crew to deal with the crisis. Now hers and Iridian’s were back on the same hibernation cycle as the others in the chamber, so that was one less hazard to keep track of.
“The lockers are up a level,” Reis said, as if they hadn’t read the ship schematics a thousand times. If she could’ve dreamed during the long sleep, all she would’ve seen were blue-and-white diagrams.
He tramped through the door and Iridian and Adda followed, ready to act like confused and spacesick travelers being led to medical if they passed the ship’s real crew members. It would have been harder not to act spacesick. Maybe her nervousness could be mistaken for panic and disorientation, if she could quit smiling for a few seconds. The plan she had spent half her college career setting up was working. She hoped she’d get to see the pirates’ faces when a whole colony ship arrived at their airlock.
Adda kept close behind Iridian as they followed a line of blue handholds on curving white walls. Shiny projected scenes of a landing site on Io lit as they walked by, showing the Freefab habitats that would sprout there. When they boarded, they’d pushed through crowds of colonists ogling their future homes.
Reis got them to the storage block and located their lockers with his crew credentials. Instead of leaving them to change while he visited the crew lockers, he leaned against a wall across from theirs, one eyebrow slightly raised, prepared to judge the strip show he was apparently expecting. Adda fidgeted with the fasteners at her waist, blushing and wishing the hibernation nutrients had done more to reduce her extra kilos.
Iridian turned her back to him, winked at Adda, and pulled her hibernation suit off. Reis’s gaze, like Adda’s, snagged on the tattoo covering the side of Iridian’s rib cage and one hip. “Nice ink.”
Starkly outlined muscle under Iridian’s skin made most people look away, but it held the eyes better than Adda’s plentiful curves. The tattoo Reis admired was a strip of flesh peeled up from Iridian’s side. Beneath lay a detailed, exposed lung and liver under two crossed human ribs. A black, grinning skull was centered on the peeled-back skin.
By the time Iridian finished saying, “Thanks,” Adda’s thermal top was on and she was out of one boot to shimmy into her pants. They had brought clothes thin enough to fit under an environment suit, but thick enough to ward off the low temperatures in the Goliath around them. The large silver necklace she clipped on bounced in front of her face until she tucked it into her shirt. If Reis had done his part of the job, one engine should be shut down, while a second slowly reduced the Prosperity Dawn’s momentum. Gravity was less than half the Earth-typical one g, on its way to nothing when the whole ship stopped accelerating during the course correction.
She slung a pack onto her back and Iridian shouldered a folded metal frame, suspended between her shoulder blades on a dark gray hook built into her jacket. One of the jacket pockets contained natural-shaded lipstick, which she swiped on while referencing the locker mirror. In the reflection, she puckered her lips at Adda before she shut the locker door. Reis looked them over again before he led them back into the hallways.
The YOU ARE HERE maps posted at intersections didn’t include the bridge. Reis checked his comp’s employee map every few seconds. Adda’s eyes followed the sway of Iridian’s hips as she took position behind and to the right of Reis. Iridian was in what Adda called “combat mode,” evident in an alert set to her shoulders and a sexy swagger. Fitting, for a future pirate.
Adda wiped her sweating palm on her leg and checked the time on her comp. Still on schedule. They hadn’t encountered the problems she’d planned for. Whatever was going to go wrong would hinge on information she couldn’t have had before she boarded the colony ship and still lacked now.
It was almost a relief when they reached an EMPLOYEES ONLY door, labeled “Bridge” on the map in Reis’s comp and Adda’s head, and it didn’t open for his ID. Whatever he snarled in spacefarer cant made Iridian’s eyes narrow.
She snapped a two-word response. His hand slipped a few centimeters closer to the knife in his belt sheath. He rubbed the left side of his chest like he was feeling the same arrhythmia Adda experienced earlier. The Prosperity Dawn’s captain had brought him out of hibernation hours ago to investigate the “engine problem” he had caused, so the hibernation-induced heart strain should be over, but stress aggravated irregular heartbeats too.
Iridian and Adda watched the deserted corridor as he resubmitted the ID, holding his comp glove against the reader. “This isn’t my scheduled shift, and it’s not an emergency. Shit.” He ran his hand through hair only a little shorter than Adda’s and glanced her way. “Can’t you do something with this?”
She flipped open a small box of sharpsheets from her pack and laid a thumbprint-size purple square on her tongue. It sizzled and tingled as it dissolved. She’d hoped to keep her base level of cognizance until she reached the bridge computer, but now she needed more. In seconds she entered her systems state of mind, calm, intent, cramming information about the ship into short-term memory. The Prosperity Dawn, Pioneer class, a custom artificial intelligence coordinating a custom operating system . . . “What category is your access?”
He squinted at her, probably reacting to her newly monotone voice. “Crew, I guess? My boss has all the security-level access when she’s awake, but she’s not awake now.”
Adda held out her gloved hand. After a second, he extended his own, palm down. The tiny text scrolling over the back of his glove hurt her eyes. She unclipped a thin cable coiled through the twists in her silver necklace. One end plugged into the wrist jack in Reis’s glove. The other she plugged into the jack in her right nostril. No normal colonist passenger would be doing this, but she trusted Iridian to watch the hallway for crew who might recognize that.
Even though the cable connected through the pinky-size insulated ring in her nostril, Reis still grimaced like she’d shoved it up her nose. Twisting the cable’s probe in the jack adapted the implant net over her frontal lobe to the translator her implant installed on his comp.
Adda didn’t know a thing about locks, but she knew how to contact the AI that controlled this one. The corridor grayed out, making spurious visual input easier to ignore. A hallucinographic intermediary stuttered into existence between her and Reis in a rough-featured gray shadow. Its edges swam with a sparkling unreality. To her amusement, its rolling shuffle toward the door on her unspoken order had enough of Reis’s bowlegged walk for him to notice the similarity. Fortunately, only she could see the intermediary.
Crew access, here. Subvocalizing her commands distracted her less than speaking aloud, and maintaining the intermediary took focus. The shadow’s head lolled forward on its indistinct neck. It lumbered through Reis, then the closed door.
“Well? I thought you were engineers. How hard can it be to open a damned door?” He looked up and down the corridor for passersby, even though 99 percent of the future colonists and crew were still hibernating.
“We are engineers. That means we’re not keycards with legs.” Iridian glared at him. “The faster you leave her alone, the faster she’ll get it done.”
Adda had planned for resistance from the shipboard AI, but this was lethargy. The intelligence wasn’t even designed for direct connection. Transorbital Voyages couldn’t be bothered, or were too paranoid, to give employees direct access to the system. The ship was safe from the crew, but if the AI failed to manage situations outside the norm, the crew wouldn’t be able to correct it, even if their lives were at risk. And even if they created their own intermediaries like Adda had, they’d be stuck with the response time of an elderly tortoise.
Transorbital Voyages had to save money somewhere, she supposed. Explaining the problem aloud wasn’t worth breaking her concentration. Iridian looped her arm around Reis’s neck and dragged him as far down the hall and away from the door as the cable allowed.
The intermediary lumbered back through the door and stood with its head hung lower than a spine would allow. Behind it, the door remained closed. Adda gritted her teeth. Why?
Digital interference rasped from the intermediary’s shadow head. It moaned in a static buzz that her comp translated to text: Frequency.
She pushed the basic concept of administrative status through the Transorbital software sludge before her. Her translator should identify its frequency. An ache in the base of her skull assumed a steady throb.
The intermediary gave a dramatic shrug. She was asking the right questions, but the damned thing’s developers gave it a way to ignore her. Transorbital had to maintain control of its AI, but it shouldn’t have sacrificed user interface functionality to do so.
The annoyance broke her out of her mental workspace. The intermediary snapped out of existence and the corridor took on color again. Since the AI refused to cooperate, they’d have to get into the bridge the messy, dangerous way involving other people. She disconnected her cable from Reis’s comp. He wiped his comp glove on his pants while she unplugged the cable from her nasal jack and secured it in her necklace.
Iridian laughed at him. “The conduction medium’s goldsynth, not snot. Can we knock the door down?”
“Doubt it. That thing’s built to seal against atmo and all.” He clomped down the corridor in the direction they’d been walking before, watching his glove readout.
Iridian’s smile faded, replaced by a nearly identical one only Adda would recognize as more dangerous than the first. “Where are you off to?” she said, saving Adda the anxiety of asking.
“Break room,” Reis snarled. Adda suppressed a sigh. With both of them this edgy, Adda was going to have to be the calm one. “One of the guys I know can get in. This shows me where he’s shirking.” He tapped the back of his comp glove. Like Iridian, he hadn’t set up subvocalization shortcuts. They were much more precise than stabbing one’s finger through a projected display.
Iridian slowed for a few steps until Adda caught up. She brushed wisps of Adda’s apple-red hair out of her face, but they floated back a second later. “How’s the jack?”
Adda twitched her nose, tilted her head, and assessed the rubbing, shifting sensations along the minuscule cabling and neural implants. “It could use a full calibration, but the irritation from my final project healed up.”
“It should’ve! That was what, six weeks ago?”
Adda glanced at her comp projection. “Six weeks, five days.”
Iridian grimaced at the scraggly dark hair floating along behind Reis. Barbary Station had three floors, each several kilometers around. The station’s size was reportedly one part of why Captain Sloane had moved the crew’s base of operations there from Vesta. Putting some distance between themselves and Reis was just one more reason to get to Barbary Station as soon as they could.
Adda plugged her cable into her own comp through the glove’s wrist jack. The comp made the catch and connected her to the Prosperity Dawn’s intranet. Unlike the lumbering sludge intermediary she had to use for wireless work, her own was so familiar that her brain put no shape to it. It was her intent made digital.
With employee information ripped from Reis’s comp while her implant net was plugged into it, she channeled junk input into every sensor within three meters. The sensor scum might draw human attention, but the shipboard intelligence had to process it all before activating alarms announcing unauthorized personnel in employee areas. If the employee Reis was looking for called for help, the sensor scum would buy them time.
Reis slammed open an employees-only door before it had a chance to retract into the wall on its own and shouted “Hyo! Man, you’ve got to help me.” The muscles in Adda’s neck and shoulders that had relaxed beneath the layer of anonymity coiled up again. Iridian stepped to one side of the door, out of sight of whoever was inside, and rested her hand on her knife. Adda stood near her and watched through the doorway while Reis charged into the room beyond.
The narrow room held tables and chairs with slots and straps for eating in low gravity. The guy he called Hyo, a sturdy uniformed man with the parchment skin that spacefarers sometimes developed before old age, clutched the recycler lid while he fumbled an empty drinking pouch he was trying to deposit. The pouch bounced off the floor before splatting in a small orange puddle. “Um . . . I didn’t know you were still awake. Did you find out why we’re slowing down?”
“Forget that, I got a message from home. My kid fell and hit his head. It’s bad. I’ve got to get into the bridge and call his mom.” Reis caught the surprised man’s arm to keep him from bouncing off a wall. Since Reis’s boots anchored him to the floor with each step, he easily maneuvered the drifting crewman past Iridian and Adda and down the hall.
That’s not right. Reis couldn’t have received a message. Long-range communication in anything approaching real time would’ve required a buoy relay, which wasn’t on the Prosperity Dawn’s route. According to the cover story Reis told her he’d memorized, she and Iridian were the ones who were supposed to be sick passengers in need of medical care that the ship’s clinic couldn’t provide. And that would’ve just barely convinced a Prosperity Dawn crew member to give them access to the most secure section of the ship. But maybe Reis had more applicable experience than she did, and his new story would work better.
“Why can’t you connect your comp? I mean, it’ll take the same amount of time no matter what. And who are—” Hyo twisted in Reis’s grip, gaze flicking from Adda to Iridian in mounting confusion. Adda affected her best nauseated hunched posture, which would’ve supported their cover if Reis had already explained that they were sick, which he hadn’t done. She didn’t know what else to do.
Hyo’s uniform boots scraped the wall as his shoulder thumped into Reis’s. Her comp buzzed against her wrist to tell her that the banking turn she’d added to the Prosperity Dawn’s prescribed route was complete. The engines still running would slow them faster now, and the viral routine she’d created and Reis had installed during prelaunch preparations seven weeks ago had finished its work right on her schedule. The Prosperity Dawn would stop moving completely in under an hour.
Everything she read about operating in stationary ships emphasized handholds and magnetic anchoring points for controlled movement without gravity. Hyo writhing while Reis held him in place illustrated the pitiable alternative. “Hey, stop!” Hyo said. “I can’t let you into the bridge.” Whatever sympathy Reis had engendered with the injured child story didn’t show in Hyo’s suspicious expression. “How did you even get the message?” Hyo asked.
Exactly. If Reis had stuck to the cover story Adda had constructed, which didn’t involve an impossible real-time message, it would’ve explained her and Iridian’s presence and they wouldn’t be having this conversation. Her aggravation traveled through her digital intermediary and manifested in her comp’s sensor scum as a burst of white noise. The others glanced apprehensively at wall-mounted speakers hidden in the blue designs behind the handholds.
The bridge door appeared on their left around a sculpted bend in the hallway. Reis pinned Hyo against it with a hand around the unfortunate crew member’s neck. “They’ll put me on manual labor when we get to the colony.” Hyo choked. “I don’t—I can’t—”
That could be the three of us, if we make too many mistakes.
Reis hit him in the stomach. The blow slammed him back against the closed bridge door. Adda flinched as Reis punched him again, harder. Tears beaded at the corners of Hyo’s eyes as he whimpered and gasped.
Iridian calmly glanced up and down the hallway while she stretched weeks of disuse out of her limbs, but the beating made Adda’s own stomach ache in sympathy. She examined the ceiling, searching for sensor nodes, and found three. The shipboard artificial intelligence would almost certainly recognize physical violence against its crew. As a pirate, she’d have to get used to violent solutions, but she could engage in exposure therapy sometime when she wasn’t distracting a suspicious artificial intelligence with extraneous sensor input to process.
“All right,” Hyo wheezed. “All right, just stop.” He presented his comp to the bridge door’s reader. The door slid open.
The console inside the small, dim bridge became Adda’s sole focus. Its few external user interfaces surrounded a prominent jack, designed for someone with a neural implant net like hers to strap into the grav-adjusting chair and plug in. The pilot had to be awake somewhere else on the ship, because pilots were designated supervisors for the AI copilot. Outside of emergencies, it was dangerous and illegal to leave intelligences unsupervised, especially with so many people onboard.
Wide metal slats of a closed airlock covered the wall across from the door. Ships’ bridges had to be easily accessed in emergencies, which also made them easy to vent into space. Trusting Iridian to find her an environment suit if Adda made a mistake that would necessitate one, she squeezed into the chair and connected her nasal jack to the console. Time to do what she’d come millions of kilometers to do: access and circumvent her first starship AI.
Her comp documented her intention’s path through the ship’s system. In case bringing the Prosperity Dawn to Barbary Station was too commonplace an act to impress Captain Sloane, she’d also map the custom operating system’s structure and vulnerabilities. Sloane’s crew could use her map to manipulate similar operating systems in the future, saving them a huge amount of risk and time during an assault. The map would occupy all the spare storage space on her comp, but it’d be priceless to ship thieves.
Hyo asked a question, but she was too busy easing her hijacking program through administrative overrides to listen. For the first time since she’d woken from hibernation, she really breathed, really thought, came fully awake. The sharpsheet she had taken earlier enhanced the natural norepinephrine effects of pressing her own will through a hostile system so carefully that the intelligence didn’t even raise its defenses. The microgravity nausea faded away. Her heart staggered through another irregular triplet beat.
The custom intelligence that ran the Prosperity Dawn only monitored her, for now. But this many anomalous sensor readings and unplanned changes in preprogrammed travel scripts would soon force it to act.
“Can you . . .” She dragged her mind halfway out of the ship’s systems to concentrate on the human problem. Reis seemed capable of any misdeed, and Iridian was in combat mode. How could Adda ask this in a way that didn’t get the crewman killed? “Hyo, please tell the ship’s AI that everything is fine.”
Hyo took a breath and yelled, “Securit—”
A flurry of movement around Adda froze her in place. Reis’s punch to Hyo’s mouth jolted the crewman’s head to one side. Iridian’s hit to his throat drove him choking into the wall. The ship’s intelligence drew the inevitable conclusion. Adda concentrated on tamping down alarms. But while the intelligence woke the remaining crew, she knocked it out of the navigation and propulsion controls.
For a second she stood and listened to the blank void in the interface where the AI, any AI, should be in a ship’s systems. Now there was nothing but her. Not even pilots experienced this echoing solitude, this single point of power she had created. Five thousand people and a cargo hold full of supplies waited for one unauthorized human to tell them where to go.
She startled, which jarred the cable in her nasal jack and sent her implant net through a tingling calibration sequence. The sharpsheet’s effects made it difficult to tell how long she’d stood there. If she hadn’t selected a particularly empty stretch of the reliable route for this stage of her plan, they could have plowed into another ship by now. “It’s ours,” she said belatedly for Iridian and Reis’s benefit.
Iridian would be smiling when Adda turned around, though she kept her distracting hands and voice to herself. Closer to the bridge door, Reis bellowed something in a combination of Spanish or Portuguese and spacefarer cant. It sounded positive, so Adda tuned him out before her brain’s attempt to identify words it understood dropped her out of the ship’s system.
Navigation accepted her coordinates and vector for the pirates’ prearranged meeting point. For a few seconds the wall and the floor seemed to switch positions as the ship accelerated along a new course. She shut her eyes as her stomach flopped and gravity rose. “We’re going to be broadcasting all the way to the rendezvous as soon as everyone’s wake cycle stabilizes.”
“We weren’t about to back out.” Iridian grinned.
The Prosperity Dawn’s intelligence repeatedly queried the navigation system, but Adda’s lockout held. “Barbary Station or bust.”