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There are a lot of pirates in the galaxy, and in most cases, the prudent hitchhiker will avoid them if at all possible. This is for several good reasons. First, hitchhikers tend not to have much on them of value, which makes pirates... tetchy. Second, while some types of pirate are fairly solicitous of the passengers of ships they're raiding (the cargo pirates of the Corporate Sector, for instance, recognize that today's victim might be tomorrow's customer), they generally aren't that bothered about people who have no more legal right to be aboard than they do. And third, the hitchhiker who doesn't end up getting spaced or shot in the course of a pirate raid may well get... let's call it "recruited". None of those scenarios is very encouraging (and if you're thinking, "Hang on, recruited by pirates sounds pretty badass," keep in mind that it's generally not the kind of recruitment where you get paid).
The pirates of the Salusian Empire, on the other hand, can be a hitchhiker's best friend... because they aren't really pirates at all, in the traditional sense. They call themselves pirates, and most of them adopt some or all of the popular "trade dress" of same, but in legal terms they're really privateers - licensed and bonded professionals. Each Imperial pirate captain holds a special commission from the Salusian monarchy known as a letter of marque and reprisal, which authorizes them to own and operate privately registered warships against the enemies of the Crown.
Many governments around the galaxy have sanctioned privateers of one kind or another at various points in history. What sets the pirates of the Salusian Empire apart from most of them is that Salusian admiralty law sets down an extremely broad and discretionary definition as to what constitutes an "enemy of the Crown". Unlike virtually every other letter-of-marque convention in the galaxy, Salusian Imperial pirates are not confined to operating solely against the warships and commercial traffic of polities with which the Empire stands in an outright state of war.
Instead, the Salusian letter-of-marque law essentially leaves the decision of whether any given starship constitutes an enemy of the Crown up to the letterholder - that is, the individual pirate captain. Should ambiguity exist, it becomes a matter for the Admiralty Court - the same body which rules on prize-of-war matters - to sort out. If the Court concurs, no further action is taken. If it does not, sanctions are meted out against the offending captain, up to and including revocation of the letter of marque and possible criminal proceedings.
Offsetting this extremely broad latitude of action, Salusian letters-of-marque are very difficult to get. Technically, they are impossible to get most of the time, as - except by special executive action of the Crown - they may only be issued during declared periods of national emergency, and can only be inherited by direct descendants of their holders.
(One should perhaps note that, though they're called "Salusian pirates" because their letters of marque emanate from the Salusian Crown, not all of these individuals are actually Salusians. In fact, many are human. The last round of letters of marque was issued during the 22nd-century Covenant War, and many of them went to the captains of starships homeported in the Rigel, Vega, and Centaurus sectors.)
Further, Salusian letters of marque must be kept active - at least once every fifty Standard days, each letterholder must log at least one properly documented action with the delightfully named Royal Salusian Bureau of Piratical Affairs. Failure to do so will incur a warning; two warnings result in the letter's revocation, at which point it cannot be reinstated except by a personal act of the monarch (which is generally not forthcoming).
With those two stipulations in place, attrition has thinned the ranks of the Imperial pirates considerably since the last time Salusian letters of marque were readily available. Regardless, as you might imagine, there are a more than a few other bodies in the galaxy that are not entirely comfortable with this state of affairs; but as it has been a matter of settled Imperial law since the Standard Year 1074, there is little recourse for anyone who isn't prepared to attempt the wholesale overthrow of the Salusian legal system.
Since the Federation Charter is crystal-clear on the priority of local statute, Salusian pirates may operate with impunity (except for the Imperial Admiralty's own review policies) anywhere in Salusian space, and in a number of other territories whose governments have reciprocal agreements with Salusia, including the Republic of Zeta Cygni. Outside these areas, Salusian pirate ships operate under a Federation legal status similar to that enjoyed by registered hunter-investigators, which permits them their armed starships, but more closely circumscribes what they may shoot at and when.
As such, the modern Salusian "official pirate" functions (for the most part) as a particularly colorful version of the fairly commonplace armed mercenary, undertaking the usual run of missions such vessels tend to carry out - from straightforward freight haulage and courier tasks to escort and bodyguard assignments, spiced with more exotic fare like high-risk extractions and interdiction activities against actual pirates. Many are contracted through the Empire's large insurance syndicates to provide these services to syndicate customers.
One interesting sideline that some Salusian pirates have taken up in recent decades has been a sort of "piracy theater", wherein they will raid luxury starliners for the amusement of the passengers. These encounters are meticulously arranged with the shipping lines (again, generally through the insurance syndicates) and precisely choreographed to minimize risk of injury to anyone. The valuables they take are either returned to their "victims" later, or paid for by the insurance companies as part of the cost of doing business (which is more than handsomely offset by the premiums the starlines will pay for such premium entertainment).
Underlying all of that, however, is the most significant and yet least well-remembered clause of the Salusian letter of marque: The one that binds its holder to the service of the Crown. In practice, this is hardly ever invoked, and virtually never outside times of national emergency, but at any time, regardless of anything else, if the monarch calls, a licensed Imperial pirate must answer. They are, at their most fundamental core, royal irregulars, like a particularly motley branch of the Imperial Guards.
The pirates of the Salusian Empire are thus a curious breed - part indie spacer of an earlier age, part literal corporate raider, part hunter-investigator. They have a loosely collegial culture based largely on an ideal of rugged, devil-may-care individualism, but by their very nature they can't be the lawless tearaways they often wish to resemble. The result is a strange combination of rulebending and punctiliousness, infused with a strong but flexible honor code.
Salusian Imperial pirates are hardy, independent folk who know that most of the galaxy either thinks they're extinct or regards them as bizarre anachronisms whose usefulness, if any, has passed. This makes them, virtually alone among the galaxy's many kinds of pirates, the hitchhiker's natural allies. Many a hitchhiker has found a haven, and a perfect balance of rootlessness and security, among their crews.
This Guide entry was written by Captain Bartholomew "Black Bart" Roberts (1682-1722), the scourge of Martinique.