Author : Liz Lafferty

Max Fraser banked his craft hard right. Two blasts lighted the interior of the cockpit and caused a ferocious rip as his navigation blinked off for two eternal seconds.

He gripped the manual control levers. The muscles in his shoulders knotted. “Come on, darling!”

A smuggler’s worst enemy: Pirates.

They wouldn’t get the Crown.

Max was the hardest working smuggler in the galaxy and he’d just bagged his biggest prize, but those damned offworlders had another thing coming if they thought they’d get their hands on it. They’d intercepted him as he’d past Jupiter’s Titan moon. If Earth would guard their solar system, he wouldn’t have to dodge would-be thieves every time he had a cargo worth some money.

Another blast shot past him and exploded off port.

He pictured the cargo, strapped in, surging against the restraints built into the walls, floor and ceiling, keeping the pallets secure. Normally, he’d use every trick in the book, but not this time. This time he’d needed cunning and agility and the best modified Firewing flying. Reckless bravado and firepower might get this cargo damaged, and he wouldn’t take that risk.

The profits would be huge when he sold. Well, he wouldn’t sell all of it.

The lumbering cruiser had more firepower, but didn’t match his speed in the turn. Max laid in coordinates. The ship slipped quietly into zone, feeling as if the universe hung in an unmoving balance while he transferred into near invisibility. Likely, they’d pick up his fuel signature. Once he got to Cullo, he’d ditch to the highest bidder and head home.

“Captain Fraser,” the computer said, “a transference beacon followed you through the zone.”

“Neutralize it.”

The flashing light indicated the computer calculated firing range. “There’s a problem, sir. A stagnation bomb is attached to the probe.”

“No! Do not let that thing attach to the shell. Evasive.”

Damn. If the probe attached to the outer hull, he’d have less than ten minutes to return to regular space and bring the ship to full stop. He’d be a sitting duck waiting for the pirates to catch up.

His visions of retirement and the Altus Prime beaches faded.

“What can we drop to stop that thing? And do not tell me the cargo.”

“Calculating, Captain.”

Max could see the incoming beacon as it flashed on the tracking screen. Even as the Firewing zipped and jagged, the incoming probe gained.

“Based on the size and speed of the probe, it will attach to nothing smaller than thirty cubic feet. Calculating inventory. The aft guidance system. The galley refrigeration unit. Either of the wing cannons-”

“Or one cargo pallet.”

“You told me not to include the present consignment, sir.”

“Shut up, Cecily.”

“Yes, Captain.”

“Continue evasive.” Max unbuckled. He had ten pallets. He’d have to dump a tenth of his cargo.

On unsteady feet, he got to the cargo bay where he grabbed at the security straps wrapped around the nesting shipment. Unfastening one precious pallet, Max slid a booster underneath and with the press of a button, the pallet hovered. With one hand he pushed it toward a jettison bay. He’d never cried over the loss of cargo, but almost felt the need.

“Bottom’s up.” He scuttled the cargo and with the whoosh of a vacuum, the pallet of Crown Royal dropped into space.

“Probe attached.”

“Blow it up,” Max said. The snaking sound of the missile was loudest in the cargo hold. The recoil minor.

Max lifted a toast to himself. Always buy the first drink, but never throw the first punch. “To hell with that.”

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