After their old headquarters were demolished by a competing security firm, the Star Risk, Ltd. team moved into swanky new offices. Unfortunately, there haven’t been any customers to impress—until the Reverend Josiah Williams drops by.
He represents a group of oppressed union workers from the planet Aretegal, and he would like the team to put a stranglehold on all shipping in the area. He also offers them a check for one million credits, which doesn’t hurt.
But where Star Risk goes, trouble follows. And before long, the rogues of Star Risk are forced to ask; what good are a million credits if you aren’t alive to spend it?
Release date: July 3, 2007
Print pages: 352
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Chris Bunch's The Gangster Conspiracy
Table of Contents
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Praise for the Star Risk, Ltd., Novels
“The genius of the Star Risk, Ltd., series is that it is unrepentant action and fun. . . . The Scoundrel Worlds makes for great vacation reading.”—SF Site
“Bunch’s pacing is superior, his characterization is better than that of most others who produce similar books, and hardware as well as characters display some nice authorial touches. . . . Well up to Bunch’s standards for intelligent action SF.”—Booklist
And for the Last Legion Series
“Lovers of military science fiction could hardly find better fare.”—Painted Rock Reviews
“The books of Chris Bunch . . . are well-written books with complex plots, intrigue, and great descriptive narratives of battle and combat. The Last Legion is no exception. . . . Fans of Bunch’s previous books will not be dissatisfied.”—SF Site (featured review)
“A powerful piece of military science fiction that includes a well-crafted universe that seems starkly real. . . . Bunch’s military tone and sense of atmosphere will delight fans of military SF.”
—Affaire de Coeur
“Good, fun military science fiction, with many similarities to David Weber’s work.”
—Community News (Oregon)
Praise for the Other Novels of Chris Bunch
“Bunch knows how to mold heroes, how to keep the pace fast, and how to create exciting scenes of battlefield mayhem and convincing webs of political intrigue.”
—New York Times bestselling author Michael A. Stackpole
“Glorious swashbuckling . . . absolutely riveting.”
“An excellent fantasy adventure.”—Chronicle
“A fantasy sex-and-violence fest, courtesy of Bunch’s sure grasp of military history.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Fast-paced action and aerial battles as well as a smattering of romance and intrigue. Fans of military fantasy . . . should enjoy this fantasy adventure.”
“Bunch’s military background stands him in good stead as he concocts strategy and depicts battle in the air and on the ground. A good bet for military SF and fantasy fans.” —Booklist
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First published by Roc, an imprint of New American Library,
a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
First Printing, July 2007
Copyright © The Estate of Chris Bunch, Steve Perry, and Dal Perry, 2007 All rights reserved
REGISTERED TRADEMARK—MARCA REGISTRADA
Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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eISBN : 978-1-101-01083-9
This book is for Karen
And for Dianne
And for Pop, for being there when I needed him—
and for my boys, for needing me to be there
Our thanks this time to Liz Scheier, Jean Naggar, Jennifer Weltz, and Shawna McCarthy, for help aiding and abetting.
And Chris, wherever you are, we miss you, buddy.
Gangster: 1) A member of a gang of violent criminals. See also mobster, thug, brigand, bushwhacker.
If you had to go broke, there were worse places to do it than the new Star Risk Ltd. offices. The team ought to know, since they had been to many such places. . . .
Their conference room was a perfect example: genuine Naugahyde pleather-covered tuck-and-roll seats filled with biosensitive memory gel set under full-spectrum lamps, adjustable to the solar radiation of a being’s choice. A huge inlaid wood table held the latest issues of Modern Mercenary and leather-bound volumes of the current Jane’s Spaceships of the Galaxy . The fact that the hardware catalog was no longer routinely published in hard copy made it all the more extravagant.
Plush, hand-knotted carpets representing years of work by a family of the multiarmed aliens of Ferris V waited to soothe the feet of potential customers. Of which, lately, there had been exactly none.
“Just one score,” said Chas Goodnight. “One little job, and we’ll be set for months. Bills paid, tanks topped up, happy as clams—whatever they are, and however happy they can be.”
Goodnight was tall and handsome. He had been, among other things, a successful jewel thief before being rescued from a death-row cell by Star Risk. His criminal success had been due in part to having been an Alliance covert ops specialist, a variety known as a “bester”; he had been surgically modified to be able to see in the dark, listen into radio frequencies, and operate at triple the speeds and reaction times of Olympic athletes—for about fifteen minutes, after which the battery at the base of his spine ran out. At which point he was pretty much worthless until it was recharged.
His amorality was almost as much an asset to Star Risk as his physical abilities. Or at least it usually was. Sometimes they just shook their heads at what he thought. Or did.
“My boy, a job will come along. They always do, eventually.”
The speaker, Friedrich von Baldur, was a dapper man with gray hair who looked like someone’s kindly uncle. Von Baldur’s appearance was deceptive: In addition to being adept in a handful of martial arts, he was an accomplished con artist who had skillfully embezzled his way out of the Alliance military one step ahead of a court-martial. He was a pretty good card-sharp, and not unacquainted with other forms of gambling. As the founder of Star Risk, he had more than a little say about the company’s direction, despite the fact that they were all equal partners. In theory.
The current conversation had been going on in various forms for the several months since peace had broken out in their little quadrant of the galaxy. With no large conflicts nearby, being mercenaries just wasn’t paying.
In addition, during their recent clash with archrival Cerberus Systems, their former forty-second-floor offices had been crushed and then blown to pieces, necessitating a move. Whether potential customers were leery about coming to see them, fearing another such event, or just couldn’t find them, the result was the same.
So Goodnight, in the same way that a surgeon sees most problems as steaks, had suggested augmenting their limited funds with some burglary.
“I believe the excitement of being ‘on the lam,’ as it is known in some of your epic poems, could be quite stimulating,” Amanandrala Grokkonomonslf—generally known as Grok—said.
The nearly two-meter-tall alien was also nearly two meters wide, most of it claw, fang, and muscle, covered with silky fur that seemed to never need care. Grok’s race was known as great philosophers, thinking deep thoughts—and then acting on them with a ferocity to match. A good combination in a lot of cases, not always so good in a merc.
“To see the lights strobing as the fuzz close in—what thoughts it might promote!”
“Well, yeah—one being the realization that you’re going to prison,” said Goodnight. “When the lights start flashing, it’s game over. What is a ‘fuzz,’ anyway?”
“It is a reference I scanned from an ancient law enforcement manual,” said Grok. “It apparently referred to the hirsute nature of prominent law enforcement officers.”
“Well, hairy or not, I’m with Freddie,” said Jasmine King, their research specialist. Jasmine had the blond hair, as well as the body, of a male fantasy—an appearance which made her seem ill-qualified for the job. Said perfection had caused her no little grief; her former employer, Cerberus, had accused her of being an android, and therefore property that did not need a pay-check. She’d been pissed off enough to quit, and go to work for Star Risk. But she was more intellectually fit and physically adept than she was beautiful, something that still boggled all their minds. Still, it didn’t hurt that she was easy on the eyes, Goodnight felt. A side benefit.
“Principles aside, pulling a job here would be stupid—you don’t crap in your own backyard. And the cost of getting us all offworld would eat up one of the two months’ expenses we have left. How smart would that be?” Jasmine asked.
The conference room went silent for a moment as they regarded her comment.
“Well, hell’s bells. Smart or not, I’m getting bored enough to try it,” said M’chel Riss.
Riss, a tall blonde with emerald green eyes, also looked like she could be a runway model, but was in fact formerly a major in the Alliance Marine Corps. She’d left when her commanding officer insisted that her next assignment should be in his bedroom. A decision he regretted pretty fast.
“Exactly!” said Goodnight. “Why be bored and broke?”
He started to say something else, when they suddenly heard a loud brrrriing!
“What is that strange noise?” asked Grok.
“Got me,” Goodnight said. “I never heard it before.”
Even the ultraefficient Jasmine looked stumped for a moment—until she and Freddie looked at each other and simultaneously said, “The front door!”
Grok, moving surprisingly fast for a being of his size, reached across the table and tapped a button on a control panel.
Immediately, a high-resolution image of a somewhat elderly man standing at their front door appeared. Given their location, this might not be unexpected—there were a lot of old people about—but this one didn’t look as if he had gotten lost, Goodnight thought.
The man was dressed in a uniform of sorts, black with a white collar. It looked vaguely familiar.
The man pressed the button one more time, filling the room with the noise yet again.
The five of them were almost too stunned to move. A customer?
The man looked at the locked door, shook his head, and turned to go.
Goodnight reached a hand toward his chin to trigger bester mode, but Riss had already made it to the front door, which she opened.
“Good afternoon!” she said. “Welcome to Star Risk, Limited.”
She didn’t sound out of breath or anything.
The man looked at her and smiled.
“Well, it is a minor miracle, then. I had about given up hope when I saw your old offices. The rubble, I mean.”
Riss forced a smile and ushered the man down the stairs to their greeting room.
“We decided to look for something more, um, down-to-earth,” she said.
In the case of their new office, they’d taken the sentiment literally. One of the curses of being a developer on a holiday world was finding new land. Too much vertical growth spoiled the view, so a few years back an entrepreneurial sort had done the opposite—and gone down.
Developers, in cahoots with local lawmakers, had tugged at the tapestry of law and created a loophole that allowed them to sell both above- and below-the-ground rights on a single section of land.
Star Risk’s new building was underneath a retirement village that commanded an astonishing view of the western sea. Unfortunately for the developers, they’d neglected to realize how unpopular having no windows would be.
So the building had been perfect—cheap, bunkerlike walls, and buried under another target. And if baddies did decide to attack, von Baldur had noted that the collateral damage would be minimal—at least in terms of years of life lost. A lot of the old people up there were teetering on the abyss anyhow.
Riss thought that sounded a tad insensitive, but it was true.
The man walked slowly down the stairs with the shuffle of a low-gravity dweller, placing each foot carefully.
When they reached the meeting room, Riss noticed it had been tidied in a hurry.
Von Baldur sat at the conference room table staring at a blueprint on the monitor. Jasmine leaned over and handed him some papers. Goodnight and Grok were nowhere to be seen. It looked almost as if they had things to do.
“Freddie, this is—um . . .” Riss turned to the man. “Mr., ah . . . ?”
“Reverend. Reverend Josiah Williams.”
“Well, Reverend Williams, this is Friedrich von Baldur, our founder, and Jasmine King, our research specialist. Our other two members, Chas Goodnight and Grok are—”
“A preacher?” Goodnight’s voice came from the doorway. He stood next to Grok—or rather in front of him, since the alien’s bulk would have filled the doorway and then some.
“I like to think of myself as more of a helper,” said Josiah. “Helping each man do his best to do good to each other.”
There was an uncomfortable silence.
Riss picked the conversation back up before it died completely.
“Ah, yeah, so how can Star Risk help you? Not being in that line of work, and all. Have a seat, Reverend.”
The man did, and she sat across from him.
“I come from a system called Artegal. A rather corrupt place.”
The members of Star Risk seemed to let out a silent sigh. Corruption. Comfortable territory at last.
If the reverend noticed, he gave no sign.
“Some of my flock—a good many—work for the loaders’ union on Artegal’s four key space stations. They wish to be allowed to live better lives.
“So they have decided to strike, and freeze the ports. They feel that this will air their grievances in a peaceful, yet meaningful, way.”
Williams spoke in a resonant tone, his words almost musical in their cadence. All that practice to the congregation, Riss supposed.
“Yet within their organization there are men, evil men, those who are afraid of making a change, who wish to stop such growth. These are powerful folk, and they are willing to do anything to keep their pockets lined and the status quo as it is.”
Riss nodded and smiled to keep him talking.
“These people have been working to break the strike, to steal our ability to choose our own destiny.” He paused for what was surely dramatic effect. “We must stop them.”
Riss heard Goodnight mutter something under his breath.
Von Baldur spoke. “Indeed, Reverend, I agree this is terrible. Not everyone shares your morality, however.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Riss saw Goodnight open his mouth, no doubt to say, “Like me,” but she glared at him. He stayed quiet. Not a good idea to alienate the customer.
“However,” continued the Star Risk founder, “it is a hard universe, and sometimes truly difficult to know when to take action.”
The reverend smiled. “Indeed Mr. von Baldur, indeed. The Lord works with what He has, however, and my beliefs are nothing if not pragmatic. I wasn’t always a preacher,” he added, sliding his sleeve up to reveal an Alliance Marine tattoo.
They were still absorbing that when Williams reached into his pocket and pulled out a piece of paper, which he carefully set on the conference room table.
It was a check. A real, paper check—you didn’t see a lot of those bank drafts these days. It had a lot of zeros in it—one, two, five, six . . .
A million credits!
All of them stared.
“I understand that money won’t make you agree with my beliefs, but I’m hoping it will hire me some serious support for them.”
“Supporting beliefs is our specialty, Reverend. Consider us hired,” von Baldur said.
“For once,” began von Baldur, “it’s going to be simple—”
And then a bomb went off. A really loud bomb.
The skylight imploded and, in the sudden absence of sound that came from auditory overload, pieces of safetyplas cascaded down in silence—the nanorounded spheres and oblongs resembling large droplets of water.
But by then the team was already in motion.
Riss waved at Grok, von Baldur, and Jasmine and circled her hand over her head. She pointed at Goodnight and then the front door.
Goodnight triggered himself into bester and blurred for the door, drawing his sidearm. Grok, Riss, von Baldur, and Jasmine hopped up on the table as Jasmine touched a control. The table started to rise—
Grok pulled a panel off the table and removed a terribly large hand weapon. Riss had already pulled her blaster, as had von Baldur, and Jasmine tapped more controls on the table.
Within seconds the conference room table had served its secondary purpose, and they were at the top of the skylight. Grok leaped off first, followed by Riss, while Jasmine worked the console on the table to check the sensors they’d carefully hidden around the rest home.
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