Vendetta on venus stark.., p.1

Vendetta on Venus (Stark Raven Voyages Book 4), page 1


Vendetta on Venus (Stark Raven Voyages Book 4)

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Vendetta on Venus (Stark Raven Voyages Book 4)

  Vendetta on Venus

  By Jake Elwood

  Copyright 2015 by Jake Elwood.

  This is a work of fiction. A novella. Totally made up. Any resemblance to actual persons, places, con men or floating cities is entirely coincidental.

  Chapter 1

  They called it Pirate Alley, a shifting cone of space that encompassed the best routes between Venus and choice ports in the nearest arc of the asteroid belt. A vast fortune in minerals and precious metals flowed through Pirate Alley, every ship running a gauntlet of parasites and predators.

  James Chan gazed out at a little fleet of cargo and passenger ships, reflecting happily that they'd made the entire journey without seeing a single hostile ship. The fleet was inside Earth's orbit now, which meant Solar Force ships were never far away. He could relax and enjoy the perks of a plum assignment.

  He stood on the Sunset Deck of the interplanetary liner Athena, taking in the view. Sunset was a meaningless concept on a spaceship, and it seemed to summarize the entire absurd experience of traveling on a liner.

  Which was not to say that he didn't like it.

  Half of the little fleet was in view through the floor-to-ceiling windows in front of Chan. He could see a mish-mash of cargo ships and ore haulers and private yachts. The water haulers were little more than ugly, pitted tanks with navigational thrusters stuck on here and there, contrasting sharply with the glittering elegance of an upscale passenger cruiser a hundred meters from where Chan stood. Half the ships were armed with lasers or rail guns or cannons. Any one ship would make a tempting target for pirates. Together, they had enough firepower to make themselves reasonably safe.

  There was no sign of Chan's ship, which was keeping station on the far side of the Athena. Not that the Stark Raven would be easy to spot, even at close range. She was lean and sleek and painted matte black. She was made to be hard to see.

  Cutlery clicked against plates as waiters cleared the dining room behind Chan. A room dedicated just to eating felt like the height of extravagance to him. And the food! There was actual roast chicken, and vegetables so succulent you would almost swear they were fresh. It was going to be hard to go back to boxed dinners on the Raven, but invitations to dine aboard the Athena only came once a week or so.

  "Nice view, huh?"

  Chan turned to smile at the slim young brunette beside him. Joss had a way of making a perfectly sensible jumpsuit look like elegant evening wear. He wasn't quite sure how she managed it. "It's the same view we get on the Raven," he said.

  "Still," she said, gesturing at the huge windows, and he nodded.

  Joss was his favorite dining companion for these outings. The worst she was likely to do was tell a few outrageous lies. Every time he brought Liz he wondered if she might break some hapless waiter's neck. So far there had been no incidents, but with Liz you never knew.

  "If we don't get to Aphrodite soon I'm not going to fit into my clothes anymore," he said, patting his stomach ruefully.

  Joss chuckled. "Yeah, the food is pretty good." She smoothed the fabric over her hips. "I'm going to need an exercise program."

  Chan snorted. Joss was barely half his age, with the forgiving metabolism of youth.

  "Captain Chan?"

  They turned to see a waiter approaching.

  "Your shuttle is ready, Captain."

  The little skimmer was about the same size as the lifeboat Chan had once used to flee Saturn's Coriolis Station in search of a better life, what seemed like a lifetime ago. The skimmer would have made that journey much less harrowing. The little ship even had a light gravity field. Chan admonished himself to stop rolling his eyes at the extravagance and enjoy the journey.

  The Stark Raven appeared in the skimmer's front window, and Chan felt a familiar grin constrict his cheeks. His ship was beautiful, there was no denying it. She was easier to see than usual, with her running lights on, lit faintly by the running lights of the ships around her. Her transponder would be broadcasting too, Chan knew. This wasn't a stealth mission. The Raven was traveling with the fleet as a deterrent, and that meant she had to be seen.

  An ore hauler behind the Raven made the little black ship look like an inconsequential speck by comparison, but she looked all the more elegant, too. He glanced sideways, saw Joss watching him with an amused grin, and shrugged.

  "She's beautiful," Joss said. "I'll miss being part of the convoy, but it's good to be home."

  They broke formation three hours later. The fleet's destination was Aphrodite Station, a huge metal sphere in a highly eccentric orbit that intersected the orbits of Mercury and Venus. The station was by far the cheapest way to travel between the two innermost planets, and it was a behemoth. The easy democracy of the long voyage in from the rings disappeared as the station scanned everyone's transponder. Aphrodite's computer queued them up with the luxurious Athena docking first and the Stark Raven dead last. Even the ore and water haulers took priority.

  "Well, I guess we know our place," Liz Jones said, stretching in her chair and propping her feet on the helm console in front of her. A beep sounded and she cursed, dropped her feet to the deck, and scrambled to cancel whatever order she'd just given by accident with her heel. Then she locked the console, gave her shipmates a warning glare, and put her feet up once again. "It's our last chance to steal a small fortune in iridium."

  "I don't think so, Liz." Chan thought she was most likely kidding, but the pilot of the Raven had a larcenous streak, and he wouldn’t entirely put it past her. "We have enough people chasing us already."

  "Yeah, I suppose." Liz cracked her knuckles and settled more deeply into her chair. "It's tempting, though."

  There was a suitcase full of iridium ingots in the safe under Chan's bunk. They'd picked up the cargo on Ceres in the asteroid belt and agreed to deliver it to a local courier company on Aphrodite. The fee for delivery would put them nicely in profit for the journey, even without the small fee they'd collected from the Athena.

  A chirp came from the console in front of Joss, and she looked down, then tapped a screen. A voice filled the bridge, a cheerful young man with a hint of a drawl. "Hello there, Stark Raven. My name's Geoff and I'm with Inner Planet Express. I understand you have a package for me?"

  She smiled. "Yes, Geoff. We're queued up outside of Aphrodite now. We'll let you know as soon as we're docked."

  "Well, now, that could be a good hour from now, by the way it looks from here. And that won't exactly help me, as I'm not aboard Aphrodite at the moment."

  "No?" A puzzled line appeared on Joss's forehead. "Where are you?"

  "I'm about fifty kilometers aft of you," Geoff replied. "Aphrodite's got the slowest docking services in the entire solar system, I think. I always leave early when there's a package coming in. Sometimes I don't dock at all. It's easier to make a direct transfer between ships, and it saves us both a lot of port fees. If you're amenable, I'll just dock with you directly and give you your paperwork."

  Joss glanced at Chan. He shrugged, and she shrugged back. "Sounds good," she said.

  "Terrific. I'll be there momentarily."

  Chan brought up an aft camera and watched as a little runabout appeared, a chubby white craft maybe half the size of the Raven. The ship had Inner Planet Express logos on both sides and the nose, which gave her a jaunty look as she swung in close. The ship dropped from view as she moved below the Raven, and a low clatter echoed through the deck plates.

  "She's docked," Liz reported, and rose, heading for the door at the back of the bridge. Chan followed, expecting her to go to the ventral airlock, but she disappeared into her cabin. He shrugged and turned to Joss. "Welcome him aboa
rd," he said, and headed for his own cabin.

  "Would you like me to move the suitcase for you?" Rhett, the Raven's fourth and final crew member, had followed him from the bridge. Designed as a butler and servant, the manlike black-and-bronze robot had proved to be a surprisingly versatile addition to the crew. He was also strong enough to lift forty kilos of iridium without apparent effort.

  "No, thank you," Chan said. Moving the suitcase himself was a point of pride, though he found himself wondering if he was being a fool as he heaved the thing out of the safe. Sweet Buddha, it was heavy!

  When he returned, dragging the suitcase behind him, he found Liz standing well back from the docking ring with a laser pistol held low beside her leg. He opened his mouth to object, then shrugged. He was holding a fortune in iridium, after all. A little caution wasn't a bad idea.

  The hatch swung up, and a man grinned up from the hole in the corridor floor. He was in his twenties, wearing a blue jumpsuit with a company logo on the chest. He had tousled blond hair and a mischievous look that made him immediately likeable. He climbed into the Raven, looked at the three crew members, and handed a sheaf of papers to Chan. Then he gestured at the suitcase. "Mind if I take a look?"

  "Go ahead." Chan scanned the paperwork as Geoff opened the suitcase. It seemed to be the usual barely-comprehensible legal nonsense, taking five pages to essentially say, "Sign here for delivery of a suitcase."

  "Looks like it's all here," Geoff said, and closed the suitcase. He took the papers back from Chan, scribbled a signature on the last page, and handed them back. "Just bring these to any Inner Planet Express office or any bank that's part of the MVEM alliance, and they'll give you your fee."

  "That's it?" said Chan.

  "That's it," Geoff agreed. He lowered the suitcase as far as he could reach through the airlock, then let go. The suitcase started to fall, then drifted as it passed the limit of the Raven's artificial gravity field. "Pleasure meeting you folks," Geoff told them, then lowered himself through the hatch as well. The airlock closed on his side, and a moment later the deck plates trembled as his ship detached.

  "He was in a hurry," Liz said, frowning. She shoved the pistol into the cargo pocket on her thigh and hurried to the bridge.

  Joss frowned as well. "Can I see?" She held out her hand, and Chan handed her the sheaf of papers. The two of them followed Liz to the bridge.

  "He's heading orbitward at high speed," Liz announced, peering at a screen at the helm station.

  "Well, he's a courier," Chan said, trying to quell the unease that her agitation was triggering. "Time is money for him."

  Joss dropped into her usual seat and peered at the papers in her hand. "You should have let me see this before you let him go, Captain." She turned a page. "I don't know …."

  The ship shivered, and Chan took his own seat, then tapped a screen to life. "We're in the station tractor beam," he said. "If we're going to chase that courier, we have to do it now."

  Liz looked up. "I don't know," she said. "It's probably too late to catch him if he's a liar. I'll call Inner Planet Express."

  He looked at Joss, and she shrugged. "You know what contracts are like," she said. "It's almost incomprehensible. I'm sure everything is fine." She turned her attention back to the papers.

  By the time Liz got through to the courier company the Raven was sweeping rapidly toward the station. She spoke into a headset, then broke the connection and looked up. "Inner Planet didn't send anyone," she said. "They're expecting us at their offices on Aphrodite."

  Chan looked at Joss, and she shrugged helplessly, the paperwork rustling in her fingers. "I can't tell if this is legit or not."

  "I'm thinking 'not'," Chan said.

  "Aphrodite Control," Liz said. "This is Stark Raven. We need to go. We won't be docking after all." She twisted around to look at Chan. "They say forget it. We'll have to dock and then leave again."

  It was easy to see why. Aphrodite was a busy station. Departing ships flashed past every few seconds on either side of the Raven, and more ships queued up behind her. Chan bit back a curse and shrugged. "All right, then. We'll dock, evade the Inner Planet Express people as best we can, and leave as soon as possible." He pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to think. "Next step. Where are we going? How do we find that guy?"

  Liz turned back to her console. "He was going radial when he left," she said, using the common spacer's term for heading directly away from the sun. "There's nothing that way closer than the belt."

  Chan winced. "We'll need more than that." He surveyed his crew. "Anyone else? Anything?"

  To his surprise it was Rhett who spoke. He wasn't exactly the go-to crewman for leaps of intuition, but from time to time he managed to surprise people. "Mr. Geoff's accent is consistent with the second-generation colonists of Venus," the robot said.

  "Venus?" Chan scratched his head. "Are you sure?"

  "There is no way to be certain of his origins," Rhett said. "But the accent is consistent."

  "Well, we're pretty close to Venus," Joss said. "It makes sense. But it doesn't mean he lives on Venus now."

  Chan shrugged. "It beats flying off to the belt and hoping for the best." He turned to Liz. "How long until we dock? And how long after that until we can take off?"

  The pilot's face was long with despair as she answered. "That could be a while, Captain. Inner Planet Express got worried by my little phone call. They're asking Aphrodite Port Control to hold us until they can verify delivery of their iridium."

  "Well, damn it," said Chan. "We need to go to Venus to get their stupid iridium, and they're holding us here? What next?"

  "Well …" said Joss.

  Something in her tone made Chan's stomach tighten. He looked at her. "What is it?" he said.

  "You remember that contract we signed when we picked up the suitcase."

  He nodded. The document had been every bit as dense and baffling as the papers in Joss's hand.

  "There was a whole section on failure to deliver," she said. "Most of it was about late delivery or the delivery of damaged goods."

  Chan nodded again. He'd scanned the document briefly and dismissed that section as irrelevant boilerplate. Iridium ingots weren't susceptible to damage in any meaningful way. If he turned them over dented or chipped, no one would actually care.

  "There was a paragraph on failure to deliver," she said. "I didn't give it too much thought at the time. After all, we were going to make delivery. The only way we'd fail would be if pirates destroyed the ship completely." She winced. "Or that's what I thought."

  Well, it's more thought than I gave it. I don't think I even saw that paragraph. "Go on."

  "In a nutshell, we agreed that, in the event of non-delivery, Inner Planet Express could seize assets up to the value of their cargo."

  "Okay," he said, trying to ignore a hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach. "We're talking, what? A hundred thousand dollars?"

  "Two hundred and eighteen, according to the contract," Joss said promptly. "They inflated the value a bit, but since it's far more than we can pay, it hardly matters."

  Chan nodded, then tried to summon enough moisture in his mouth to speak. "Okay, that's not good. Do we have any assets that can cover a loss like that?"

  "Just the ship," Joss said.

  As if to punctuate her words, the Raven slid into Aphrodite's cargo bay. A vast metal claw, designed for moving ships through the crowded bay, closed on the Raven, and a metallic clang echoed through the ship, as ominous as a funeral knell.

  Chapter 2

  Joss stared numbly through the windows in the front of the bridge, watching the station's vast landing bay whiz past. She felt responsible. Chan was a good leader and a capable captain, the solid core that the entire ship revolved around. Liz had piloting skills and a talent for violent action. Rhett, unflappable and utterly reliable, had a range of skills they still hadn't fully explored. But Joss was supposed to be the one who knew people.

  Yet Geoff had fooled her co
mpletely. Reading people had always been Joss's gift, and she'd read him entirely wrong. He was like her, she realized. A chameleon. And he was good. Very, very good. He might even be better than Joss.

  "We have to get off the ship," she said. She hadn't realized she was thinking about it, but her certainty grew as she spoke. "We can't stop them from seizing the Raven." She glanced around at the bulkheads and fixtures that had, unexpectedly, become a home. Losing it was unthinkable. "If we want to get it back, we have to recover that suitcase." She made a frustrated gesture with the worthless papers in her hand. "That means we have to stay free. They could charge us with fraud, you know. They could lock us up. If that happens, we'll never find Geoff."

  "All right," said Chan. "We'll buy tickets on a commercial passenger ship." He snapped his fingers. "The Athena," he said. "She's going to Venus next. Maybe Captain Jonas will give us a lift as a professional courtesy."

  "It's not quite that easy," Joss said. They were all looking at her, and she squirmed. She hated revealing anything about her past. "There's only one city on Venus. Montgolfier. That's it. And it's a … pretty exclusive place."

  "Exclusive?" said Liz. "What do you mean?"

  "It's, well, upscale." Joss shrugged. "The locals made a fortune early on with mineral extraction from the clouds. And they made the city to be sort of a rich person's playground. There's casinos. The best hotels anywhere. Designer stores and places where you can buy a ten-thousand-dollar watch. It's crazy."

  Chan shook his head. "Who pays ten thousand dollars for a watch?"

  "The problem," said Joss, "Is that a place like that attracts beggars and grifters and con men and burglars. You wouldn't believe how much money there is in Montgolfier. So they screen their arrivals. They don't let just anyone in." She shook her head. "They don't let in people like us."

  "You seem to know a lot about it," Liz said, eyes narrowed. "You sound like you've been there."

  Joss nodded miserably.

  "Do you have a rich uncle we don't know about?"

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