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Chapter Forty-Eight

Lieutenant Charles Giolitti, Jungian Navy, on assignment to the MaGuire Customs Service, took the time to double-check his data as the boarding shuttle drifted towards the free trader Star Runner. He'd been intrigued when he first accessed the download-and noted the ship's list of auxiliaries-and he wanted to be certain he'd read it correctly.

The information was unusually complete for a recent arrival, he observed cheerfully. It wasn't unheard of for a foreign-registry vessel to arrive with absolutely no documentation, and that was always a pain. It meant its every centimeter must be scrutinized, its every crew member exhaustively med-checked, and its bona fides thoroughly established before any of its people were allowed groundside. Tempers tended to get short all round before the process was completed, but the Jung Association hadn't lasted for four centuries without learning to keep a close eye on visitors. In this case, though, Giolitti had a full Imperial attestation from the Melville Sector, which should cut the crap to a minimum.

He screened quickly through the technical data, eyebrows quirking as he noted the rating of Star Runner's Fasset drive. She was as fast as most cruisers-which, he thought wryly, coupled with her limited cargo capacity, was a glaring tip-off as to her true nature. Not that Jungians minded smugglers … as long as they didn't run anything into the Association.

Um. Crew of only five. That was low, even for a merchant hull. Must indicate some pretty impressive computer support. Captain's name Theodosia Mainwaring … young for her rank, from the bio, but lots of time on her flight log. The rest of her people looked equally qualified. Not a bad bunch for a merchant crew, in fact. Of course, free traders tended to attract the skilled misfits-the square pegs with the qualifications to write their own tickets-away from the military or the big lines.

As No incoming manifest. He snorted, remembering the diplomatic gaps in the last few entries from the Melville data base. So Captain Mainwaring had gotten her fingers burned? Must not have been too serious-she still had a ship-but it probably meant she was hungry for a cargo.

A signal chimed, and Giolitti glanced at the view screen as his vessel began its docking sequence on Star Runner's sole unoccupied shuttle rack. A somewhat battered cargo shuttle occupied one of the other two racks, not that old but clearly a veteran of hard service to collect so many dings and scrapes. Yet it wasn't the cargo shuttle that caught his attention.

Another shuttle loomed on the number one rack-a needle-nosed craft, deadly even in repose. He was familiar with its basic stats, but he'd never seen one, and he wasn't quite prepared for its size. Or its color scheme.

Giolitti winced as he took in the garish crimson and black hull. Some unknown artist had painted staring white eyes on either side of the stiletto prow, jagged-toothed mouths gaped hungrily about the muzzles of energy and projectile cannons, and lovingly detailed streamers of lurid flame twined about the engine pods. He had no idea how Mainwaring had gotten her hands on it, though she must have done so in at least quasi-legal fashion, since the Empies had let her keep it when they suggested she explore new frontiers, but the visual impact was … extreme.

He grinned as the docking arms locked. The Bengal looked out of place on its drab, utilitarian mother ship, but free traders tended to find themselves back of beyond with only their own resources, and he suspected ill-intentioned locals would think twice about harassing a cargo shuttle with that thing hovering watchfully overhead. Which, no doubt, was the idea.

The personnel tube docking collar settled into place, and Giolitti gathered up his notepad, nodded to his pilot, and opened the hatch.



* * * | In Fury Born | * * *