17TH YEAR OF THE REIGN OF HIS TERRAN MAJESTY RODERICK IV
IBERIAN NEUTRAL ZONE, 25 AU OUT OF THE LUNAR SHOALS
The void of space was not particularly empty in this part of the Solar system today. It was littered instead with glittering debris and sparking flotsam, the unmistakable remnants of a fierce battle between two spaceships. Fragments of armor plating, melted by the hellish fires of atomic cannons and then refrozen by the cold of space, drifted in long streamers and liquid-looking blobs. Other bits of detritus, once parts of thrusters, weapons, and other systems, still held recognizable semblances of their once-purposeful shapes.
On the flying bridge of the interceptor HMS Unrelenting, Commander Jason Dalesworth stood with his electrobinoculars to the eyeport of his combat suit, peering through the powerful magnifiers at the scene of the recent conflict. In the distance he could make out the shapes of the two combatants. One, a slab-sided Royal Io and Ganymede Company bulk transporter, was badly scarred and battered, its thrusters dark, a fire still burning amidships. The other vessel was much sleeker, its lines sharklike and cruel, and much less damaged. RIGco vessels were well-armed and their crews trained to defend their ships... but against such a predator of the spacelanes as this, no mere merchant vessel stood much of a chance.
Dalesworth's gauntleted hands tightened unconsciously on the housing of his binoculars. He knew the other ship's lines like he knew his own dear wife's face, but the sight of them filled him with a quite different emotion.
"Mr. Castlereigh," he said. "Time to firing range?"
"Ten minutes, Captain," First Lieutenant Walter Castlereigh's voice replied tinnily in Dalesworth's earphones.
"Fire's not even out aboard the Lady Mirabella," Dalesworth murmured half to himself, his voice steady. "Even he can't get in and out in so little time." One of his hands came away from the binoculars and clenched into a fist. "We have him."
Aboard the transport, Captain Marcus Donkle was just starting to wonder whether the control room's security systems might, in fact, be up to the challenge when the door opened and they entered. Donkle was a veteran of several pirate encounters, but this was different. There was something reassuringly normal about a horde of unkempt, unwashed rowdies burning down your CR door with plasma torches, storming in, roughing up your men, gloating at you, and taking your cargo. It wasn't fun, but you could learn to live with it.
Having your CR door just open and admit a swarm of highly disciplined masked warriors was quite another. Silent, wraithlike, the grey-clad men swept in like a grim wind and went with swift efficiency to their places - this one securing the helm, that one maneuvering the crew into a corner with sword drawn and eyes cold, others taking up watchful positions all around the room. Pirates Donkle could handle, but there was something about ninja that just gave him the creeps.
As such, it was almost a relief when their leader entered the room in their wake - even if the sight of him filled Donkle with dread, at least he was definitely human.
More than six feet tall, with long hair and a bushy red beard, and dressed in a swallowtailed red silk robe and baggy, gold-trimmed scarlet trousers, the last of the control room's invaders was a vibrant and colorful figure amid the silent grey and black figures of his crew. Though extensively disfigured by his life's work at a hard and dangerous trade - his right leg was a wooden peg from the knee down, his left hand was a large steel hook, and the patch over his right eye wasn't just for show - he seemed immensely strong and capable, as though he could whip everyone in the room without his crew to back him up and with his hook tied behind his back. His brocaded scarlet robe stretched across a barrel chest. A buccaneer's hat, complete with the traditional skull-and-crossbones badge, sat at a rakish angle on his head.
"Top of the evening to you, gentlemen!" he boomed. "This is a red-letter day for you, I'd say. It's not every day a man's ship is taken by Captain Rik Vortex!"
Donkle found his voice. "You won't get away with this, Vortex," he said, painfully conscious as he spoke of what a flat cliche the statement was. "The Unrelenting is on her way even now."
Vortex grinned broadly. "Let 'em come," he said with an expansive gesture. "It'll take more than the likes of Jay Dalesworth to bring the Dark Matter to heel. Besides, we won't be stayin' long enough for them to join the party. I'm not interested in bulk sulphur - I'm just here for your navigational charts. Eh, Bill?"
The ninja at the helm kept working the console for a few seconds, then straightened, turned, and bowed to Vortex.
"I have the data, honored captain," he said.
Vortex's grin widened further. "Well, then, we needn't detain Captain Donkle any longer," he said. "Let's go, lads. A pleasant day to you, Captain. Do try not to be to hard on yourself - you put up quite a fight for a RIGco pleasure barge." He tipped his buccaneer's hat and swept out of the room. By the time Donkle looked, the ninja had vanished as well - no doubt they slipped from the room while all eyes were on their colorful captain.
The pirate captain's bonhomie was entirely absent as he led his men at the run through the red-lit, smoky corridors of the Lady Mirabella to the boarding tube.
"Damn and blast that bastard Dalesworth!" he snarled. "How the blazes did he get that hulk of a ship of his out here so fast?"
"Honored captain, we have suspected for some time that His Majesty's Solar Navy might alter the Interdiction Squadron's patrol routes," his second mate, Iron Guts Tanaka, observed calmly. "This is more evidence in support of that suspicion."
"Aye, well, 'tis either that or Dalsworth's struck a bargain with the Devil - and I wouldn't put that past him if he thought it would help him bring me to the gallows!" Vortex said. No sooner had he and the boarding party plunged through the hatch into their own ship than he was barking out crisp orders. "Secure boarding hatch and jettison the tube! Rig the ship for evasion! All hands stand by to make sail!"
The ninja crew of the Dark Matter, the Solar system's most feared pirate ship, snapped to with a will. In complete silence they carried out their leader's commands. By the time Vortex arrived on the flying bridge, still locking down his bubble helmet, they had the ship free of the drifting Lady Mirabella and ready to take flight.
Too late! To starboard, the Unrelenting was bearing down on them, thrusters aglow with the multicolored corona of full power. Vortex's practiced eyes could see that the interceptor's deflector sails were set for a full-on battle. Hell's fire, Dalesworth even had his t'gallants set. He really meant business this time.
"Belay evasion!" Vortex barked. "Rig ship for combat! If Dalesworth wants a fight, then by Old Scratch's horns we'll give him one!"
For twenty years Rik Vortex and the Dark Matter had terrorized the Solar system's seven spacelanes, from the Pluto Drift to the Trans-Solar Slingshot Route and back again. For twelve years, Jason Dalesworth and the Unrelenting had followed. The two captains had never met face to face, but a dozen years of near-constant opposition had made them, in a sense, closer than brothers. They knew each other's strengths (which were many) and weaknesses (which both acknowledged were few and far between). They could even read each other's moods from the way they had their ships set up. They had come within a hair's breadth of destroying each other a hundred times, laying and escaping traps, carrying out elaborate plots, always stalemated, one always left becalmed while the other sailed away, too badly hurt to finish off his rival.
Both men knew in their bones that today was the day the game ended.
The final battle between the Dark Matter and the Unrelenting, witnessed by the men of the Lady Mirabella, went down as one of the greatest spaceship battles in the history of the seven spacelanes. The Dark Matter was, in absolute terms, the more powerful of the ships, but the Unrelenting was fresh, not having had to fight a RIGco merchantman into submission earlier in the day. Both crews were the best of their kinds, both captains wily and ruthless and intimately familiar with each other's tactics.
In the end, as Jason Dalesworth had been convinced all along, the might and the right of His Majesty's Solar Navy prevailed.
Rik Vortex cursed in Technicolor as his ship heaved under him and the gravity compensators sputtered. Uncompensated acceleration drove the captain to his knees, then slammed him face-first to the deck as the ship rolled to port. Dalesworth's last broadside had taken the Dark Matter in a weak spot and compromised the main energizer.
"Get us out of here, Bill!" Vortex snarled, clawing his way hand-over-hook toward the bridge hatch. The impact had cracked his helmet; he could hear the whine of air escaping.
"I am trying, honored captain," replied Bloody Bill Ito, the Dark Matter's helmsman. "Engineer Sato reports that we are losing power."
"I can - nf - feel that for meself," Vortex said, dragging himself the rest of the way to the hatch and throwing himself down it. It clanged shut behind him; the airlock cycled, then the inner hatch dropped open. The gravity inside the ship was still working; Vortex fell through the open hatch into the main corridor, wrenched off his cracked helmet, threw it aside, then staggered to his feet and made for the control room.
Just as he arrived, an alarm started howling. Vortex didn't have long to wonder what was causing it; his attention was immediately drawn to the main viewscreen, and what he saw on it chilled his blood.
"What the hell is that?" he demanded, leveling his hook at the screen.
"I do not know, honored captain," Bloody Bill said. "The ship's sensors can get no useful reading on it. It is a space distortion of some kind - and we are being drawn into it."
Twenty seconds later, the Dark Matter vanished into what witnesses described as a disc of swirling silver light. The light itself disappeared almost instantly upon the ship's passage, leaving the Unrelenting with guns glowing and no one left to fight.
Jason Dalesworth would get his knighthood and a promotion to commodore for the battle, but Captain Rik Vortex's final audacious escape would never be forgotten. The Dark Matter became a vessel of legend, a sinister ghost ship reputed to be lurking somewhere in the unlighted corners of the Solar system, beyond the margins of the charts, where His Majesty's cartographers were wont to note the presnce of monsters.
OCTOBER 17, 2005
BAUMTON, RHODE ISLAND
When the skies over Baumton split open on the evening of October 17, there weren't many witnesses. Since the incident several years before, the Paragon City conurb had lain abandoned, its crazily tilted buildings and still-smoking chasms left to the Clockwork and the Lost. Though the gate in the War Wall from Steel Canyon was still labeled "Baumton", most knew the ruined district by its ironic nickname: Boomtown.
Few ventured into Boomtown aside from the outlaws and criminals who had adopted it as a refuge after the disaster that left it in ruins. Occasionally a hero or two would venture in and try to thin the numbers of one or another criminal group - a few Trolls here, some Outcasts there. The only really organized presence in the whole district was that of the criminal conspiracy called the Council, who used the area as a training ground.
As it happened, the closest witnesses to the crash of the Dark Matter were part of a Council training cadre. The crippled pirate spaceship almost crashed on top of them, and would have if it hadn't hit one of the wrecked skyscrapers that jutted like broken teeth into the Boomtown skyline and been deflected. With a noise like a hundred train wrecks, the ship plowed into the ground, tearing a long furrow in the cracked pavement of what was once a highway before fetching up with a final thunderous bang against the War Wall.
"Well, you don't see that every day," Archon Garrett Breen observed thoughtfully. "Hapsteen, Bloch, take two squads and check it out."
"I've never seen a ship like that before," said Adjutant Stan Szlewski. "It's definitely not a Rikti design. Are those sails?"
"So they would appear," Breen said. "And look there - a Jolly Roger. Certainly not a marking one expects to see on an alien spacecraft. Most peculiar."
Bloch and his squad were nearly to the side of the ship when a hatch suddenly blew open with a sharp crack of explosive bolts.
"Halt!" Bloch ordered, raising his rifle, as the first figure emerged from the wreckage. He would have gone on to say something about being prisoners of the Council, but he was momentarily too astonished to speak - for the survivor who had just emerged from the wrecked spaceship appeared to be a ninja, and he was followed by several more.
For a few moments, the Council soldiers and the small group of ninja stared at each other, the Council surprised, the ninja inscrutably silent. Then another figure emerged from the ship, and whatever this one was, he was no ninja.
"And who might you lads be, eh?" Rik Vortex demanded ill-temperedly of Bloch. "I don't recognize your uniforms. Has the King of Iberia finally decided to stop making his soldiers wear peacock feathers, then?"
"... What?" Bloch replied.
"I am Archon Breen," the Council detachment's leader snapped as he strode up next to Bloch. "You and your men are now prisoners of the Council."
Vortex smiled an unpleasant smile.
"Me an' my boys don't take well to being anyone's prisoners," he said. Arrayed around him, his ninja all dropped into fighting positions, shuriken and swords appearing in their hands. The Council soldiers half-stepped back and readied their weapons with a chorus of menacing metallic sounds.
Before the seemingly-inevitable fight could break out, though, Szlewski spotted something that changed everything.
"Sir!" he cried, pointing. "Look!"
Breen looked. A flying human figure was approaching from the south. As he rounded the skyscraper the pirate ship had clipped, sunlight glinted from his helmet.
"Damn," Breen muttered. "All troops withdraw!" Quick and disciplined, the Council troops backed off, keeping the ninja covered, until they were far enough away to break for it. Then they scattered into the ruins, vanishing almost immediately.
Captain Vortex turned and watched the flying man approach. At first he assumed the man was wearing a jetpack, but as he drew nearer, Vortex could see that he had no visible means of support at all. Moreover, he was dressed even more unusually than Vortex himself. The man had on a tight-fitting red-and-blue outfit with a big white star on his chest, and he wore a metal mask that looked like it should be the front of a helmet.
"Who in the sixteen circles of Hell are you supposed to be?" Vortex asked him.
"They call me Statesman," the man replied. "And who might you be?"
"I be Cap'n Rik Vortex o' the Dark Matter," Vortex said, "an' these be my boys." Narrowing his eye thoughtfully, he regarded Statesman for a moment, then said conversationally, "You carry yourself like a man who thinks o' himself as the law in these waters, as it were."
Statesman looked taken slightly aback. "Well," he said after a moment's consideration, "I suppose I am, after a fashion."
Vortex smiled. "I thought so," he said. "Me an' my boys... we don't take too well to lawmen, especially after the day we've had." Raising his right hand, he snapped his fingers. The surviving members of crew fanned out around him, silent and purposeful.
NOVEMBER 5, 2005
PARAGON CITY, RHODE ISLAND
It wasn't the first dungeon Captain Rik Vortex had been thrown in, but it was certainly the strangest. Still, it fit in with the rest of wherever the blazes he was. Who ever heard of a man strong enough to throw a truck? A man whose hide was invulnerable to blades and arrows, so tough that attacking him was like kicking a bulkhead? Who ever heard, for that matter, of men like the one who had the cell next to Vortex's? He was a mind reader, if you please. Two days ago he'd almost made one of the guards unlock his cell before the others adjusted the dosage of the drugs they used to keep him docile.
The former pirate captain lay on the hard, narrow bunk in his cell, hand behind his head, and stared up at the ceiling, thinking. He'd been in dire straits before, but this was the darkest fix he'd ever been in. Locked up in an alien prison, his ship a grounded hulk, his crew scattered from Hell to breakfast - he didn't even know how many of them were still alive... the guards had even taken his hat away from him. He had nothing but his wits and his hook, and no clear idea how he would ever get home again, even if he were free to try.
First things first. He was never going to get any of that done moldering away in this dungeon. First order of business: escape. Then find as many of the lads as possible. Then... well, in a world as wild and improbable as this one, surely anything was possible. Someone brought the Dark Matter here. Someone could send her home again - preferably after a lengthy refit, and possibly even with some new alien tricks to teach Dalesworth a lesson or two...
Vortex was jolted from this pleasant reverie by a sudden reverberating shock to the building. Having seen the structure's size and solidity when they brought him in here, he found that impressive. Alarm bells started ringing; red lights flashed. The cell doors all slid open with a grating crash.
By the time Vortex was on his feet, a man dressed all in black was standing in the doorway to his cell. He had a helmet on that completely covered his eyes but left the lower half of his face visible, and there was a red symbol like a stylized spider on his armored chestplate.
"Captain Rik Vortex?" he asked.
"Who's askin'?" Vortex replied.
A half-smile touched the masked man's lips.
"I represent an organization that is interested in discussing ways in which we can help each other," he said. "I've been commanded to bring you to the Rogue Isles so that you can meet with my superiors."
"The Rogue Isles, eh?" Vortex gave the black-clad man a thoughtful look. "I can't say I don't like the sound o' that. What about my boys?"
"We've already located one member of your crew - one William Ito," the man said, as though reading it from a note, though he held only a small black bag. "Searches are ongoing for the others." The sounds of armed conflict drifted up from the cellblock below. "My colleagues can't sustain this diversion forever. Are you ready to go?"
"Not without me effects," Vortex said. The man gave that same little half-smile and tossed the bag he held at the captain's feet. Inside it were all the things the guards had taken from him when he'd arrived at the prison - his bow with its special fitting to lock onto his hook, his arrows, his compass, even his hat.
Settling this last on his head, Vortex grinned.
"I'm right behind ye," he said.