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"We need advice, Rob. Advice from someone who knows something about this kind of thing. And in this colony, that's you."

Rob Geary touched the place on his collar where he had once worn the insignia of a junior officer in the small fleet of Alfar Star System. He had thought he had put that part of his life aside forever.

But maybe not. Whether whoever controlled that other ship called themselves pirates or privateers or security professionals or part of whatever fleet Scatha had, they were playing a very ancient game. It looked like humanity had brought some old, bad habits along with it to new stars and new worlds. And as someone who had chafed at not being able to make changes, to make a difference, Rob wasn't in a very good position to refuse to help when asked.

***
 
Fortunately, a shuttle had been about to lift back up into orbit to the ship, saving Rob time that could be valuable.

"What have we got?" Rob asked as he entered the command deck. The elderly passenger and bulk-cargo carrier Wingate, called the Wingnut by everyone, had been built to haul people and materials in a single star system, then had a new jump drive added on and instantly became an elderly interstellar transport. Aside from the up-to-the-minute jump control panel, the rest of the command deck was taken up by displays and controls that had been in service for decades—and showed it.

The main display flickered erratically until the Wingnut's captain, a woman apparently as old as the ship, slammed her fist against a control unit in a spot already dented by many similar blows. As the display steadied, Rob squinted at the information about the ship that was demanding protection money. "It's a Buccaneer Class cutter?"

"Yep," the captain said. "Not good for much in the Old Colonies but still handy where there's not much else to threaten them."

"You don't seem to be very worried," Rob told her, not bothering to hide his irritation at her attitude.

"You already paid me," the captain said, "and those guys from Scatha won't give me a hard time because I already paid them a license fee to operate in this region."

"License fee? You mean extortion?"

The captain spread her hands. "Call it what you want. Do you have a better idea? You going to fight that Bucket with your fists?"

Frustrated, Rob took another look at the display, then stormed off in search of the colony's governing council.

Half the council were already gathered, crammed into Wingnut's grandly named recreational room, which was just a compartment with several aging displays built in. The men and women of the rest of the council, still on the surface of the planet, could be seen on one of the displays. As Rob entered the compartment, a storm of argument dwindled as everyone looked at him. Council President Chisholm, looking unhappy, nodded at Rob. "Thank you for getting back up here quickly. What's your assessment?"

He didn't waste time asking why the leaders of the colony were calling on a lowly former lieutenant for his opinion. The Old Colonies tended to have really small military forces, which was why ex-junior officer Rob Geary was the most senior veteran among the initial group of roughly four thousand colonists settling this world.

"They have an old Buccaneer Class cutter," Rob told the council. "It arrived at the jump point from Scatha, about five light hours from this planet we're orbiting and colonizing. The information we have is still almost five hours light-delayed, but they were headed on an intercept for us at that time, and there's no reason to think they'd change vector. Their velocity is point zero five light speed, and they can't afford to push it any faster even if they had newer technology for their propulsion system. That means they'll get here in a little more than three and a half days."

"What can you tell us about the Buccaneer? How dangerous is it?"

Rob made an indecisive gesture with one hand. "Back home? Not very dangerous at all. The Buckets are nearly a century old, not very fast or maneuverable, and fairly small. They were built for law-enforcement duties like stopping smuggling and for search and rescue. All of the Old Colonies have retired and sold their Buckets, which is how a new colony like Scatha could get its hands on one for what was probably a cheap price. But in this star system, as the only ship equipped to fight, it's as dangerous as it needs to be. The sensors on the Wingnut are too badly maintained to tell us any details about the Bucket that showed up here, but it's probably got the standard weapons. That would be a single grapeshot launcher and a single pulse particle beam projector. Those are both close-in weapons. They'll have to be right on top of us to hit us, and their particle beam is probably early second-generation equipment, which means its hitting power is limited."
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