Barrett’s Privateers – Plague Ship I

by | Jan 8, 2024 | Fiction | 17 comments


The post-war years

While the end of the First Galactic War ushered in a boom of exploration and trade, it also marked the beginning of an economic slump for the Confederacy. The loss of defense contracts and the sharp drop in spending by the Confederate government caused many corporate executives, shipbuilders, and small business owners to find new markets for their products.

At the war’s end, twelve privateer ships were serving under letters of commission from the Confederate Navy Department. The end of hostilities also meant the end of the employment of these privately owned ships. While most of the ships disarmed and disbanded, some did not. While the libertarian laws of the Confederacy did not prohibit privately owned ships carrying armament, the few privateers that retained their wartime arms were regarded with considerable and increasing suspicion by the Navy and the Confederate government as time went on. This suspicion was reciprocated by the privateers, aware as they were of the increase and, from their perspective, the undeserved scrutiny.

It was also during this period of enhanced exploration that many new sources of mineral resources were uncovered, including some in systems lacking habitable planets. The exploitation of these resources frequently fell to a new class of independent, “wildcat” miners, who were accustomed to operating at the very edges of settled space – and sometimes beyond the reach of established legal authorities.

– Morris/Handel, “A History of the First Galactic Confederacy,” University Publications, 2804CE




2255CE: A wildcat mining station

Around an unnamed star, in an unnamed system, with no habitable planets, there was an asteroid belt between the star’s two small rocky planets and the three Saturn-sized gas giants.

The asteroids were unaccountably rich in power metals, iron, tin, and even diamonds – especially diamonds. This, and the possibility of getting to them without the trouble of hauling the metals back up a planetary gravity well, made the system a hot spot for wildcat miners.

Over the last two years since the end of the Grugell War, a small city had grown on one of the larger asteroids, one large enough to have almost one-sixth gee, although much of the city now walked firmly under a one-gee artificial gravity generator.

Six thousand people lived under the transparent domes of the city that sat perched on the edge of nowhere. Four thousand of them were miners, the balance storekeepers, support staff, processing machinery technicians, cooks, medical staff, and management – even a few family members. Under the city’s four domes, the city’s activities and housing was housed in nineteen great towers, called kraals, with small plots of truck gardens and artificially lit forest in between, to help with the oxygen budget. Power was readily available from collector panels outside the domes aimed at the nearby red giant star, but oxygen, water, and other volatiles were in short supply. The city had two good sources of volatiles; a Confederate world, New Albion, lay six parsecs away; a Grugell world, Gorazant, lay two parsecs in the opposite direction. This led to some interesting exercises in logistics.

Adam Bolin was the prospector who found the belt, now known as Adam’s Belt; he was the prospector who founded the mining city, now called Adamstown. Five years had passed since Bolin had stumbled across the mineral-rich belt in his tiny, one-man scout ship. He sat now in an expansive office in the highest level of the central kraal under the largest pressure dome of Adamstown, watching idly as the shuttles moved back and forth during shift change.

A freighter loomed overhead. Bolin looked up; it was the freighter Cape Fortune, back on its regular run. Any kind of small industrial operation requires supplies; besides volatiles, the city needed food, medical supplies, repair parts, equipment, and even liquor to keep the miners happy on off days – almost everything had to be brought in, and only the mineral wealth of this belt made the effort worthwhile.

“Boss,” a voice came from behind him, from the elevator door.

“Yeah.” Bolin stood up, and turned to face his assistant, Remy Brichot. “What is it?”

“Another order from Mr. K,” Brichot said.

“All right.”

“He wants twenty percent more this run,” Brichot added.

Bolin yawned. “We’re going to need more miners at this rate.”

“Probably so, Boss.”

“Mister K, my ass,” Bolin muttered. He knew the identity of ‘Mr. K’ as well as he knew his own face – ‘Mister K’ was Group Commander Kestakrickell IV, of the Grugell Imperial Navy. “He thinks he’s so damn smart.”

“Better he go on thinking that, Boss.”

“I suppose. Not like it’s so hard to figure out – the guy insists on never meeting face to face, and here we are only a parsec from the border, with the Grugell out there on the outside of the arm with no metal-heavy planets. I’m not sure I’d risk it, but we’re getting volatiles from that big moon of the gas giant in the Gorazant system; as long as I keep selling them diamonds, they’ll keep renewing our license to harvest volatiles.” Bolin owned the three small ships that were employed in moving huge rafts of water ice and massive tanks of other volatiles from the ice moon to Adamstown.

“He’s paying in gold,” Brichot pointed out.

“Yeah. Wonder where he’s getting that. They aren’t exactly heavy on metals out there – that’s why they want the diamonds.” Fueled by the belt’s mineral wealth, Adamstown had a state-of-the-art Signals station, operated by a former Confederate Navy Signals Officer – an expert at back-tracing and decrypting signal traffic.

“I suppose it doesn’t make any difference,” Bolin said. “Long as he keeps paying half again the going rate for diamonds and power metals – and as long as the Confeds don’t find out.”

“I hear rumors, Boss,” Brichot began.

“Tell me some other time. The last shipment went out all right?”

“As usual. We should try to tie the Orlando down to a regular run.”

“I’ll talk to them about it, next time they’re around. Their Captain’s an enterprising sort; he might not want to tie down to a regular run.”

“He’s also an ex-Navy type, too, Boss. He’s not too comfortable with our setup here. He’s been talking about it when he’s been ashore here.”

“So I’ve heard,” Bolin said. “Nothing more dangerous than an idealist, Remy.”

“Could be trouble if he ever gets any more pangs of conscience, Boss,” Brichot observed. “He knows our whole operation.”

“Trouble for him, but only if he says no to a regular run.”

“What if he does?”

“Well, then,” Bolin picked up a tiny ceramic vial from his desktop, “something bad might happen to his crew. You know how it is, when something gets into a starship’s air system, some little bug or something – goes right through the crew like wildfire. ‘Mr. K’ won’t mind boarding to get one shipment off the Orlando, and stuff that makes us sick won’t scratch his crew.”

Brichot laughed. “You’re always on top of it, Boss.”

“Something you need to learn, Remy, if you ever want to boss a station like this of your own.”

Remy smiled and nodded. He entertained just such thoughts himself.

The privateer starship Shade Tree – somewhere near the Grugell frontier

The Bridge was well and truly wrecked. One major panel had exploded, and the compartment was strewn with shards and splinters of metal and plastic, splashes of blood, and worse. The Bridge crew was cut to pieces.

Just then, a low moan came from the floor behind a fallen ceiling panel. Barrett stepped over the panel to find a burned, blasted figure in the remnants of a Navy uniform, the one side of his collar that remained bore the silver leaf of a Commander.

She knelt beside the man as his eyes fluttered open. “Can you hear me?”

He looked at her, squinting. “Who are you? Not Navy…”

“No. I’m Captain Jean Barrett of the privateer starship Shade Tree. I’m sorry we didn’t get here sooner.”

“Nothing… you could have done,” he gasped. “There must have been a dozen ships… I’m Commander James McAllister, commanding the Giles D.”

“What were a dozen Grugell ships doing at Fortune? We thought they’d given up on this system.”

“It looked like a rallying point,” McAllister spoke with great difficulty and his face was growing paler by the moment. Beneath him, a pool of sticky red was growing, puddling on the deck.

“Doc,” Barrett barked into her mike, “Get up here to the Bridge.”

“Give me two minutes,” the reply came back.

“No time,” McAllister breathed. “We caught a frigate scouting the rally point yesterday before their main body showed up, boarded it, took eight prisoners, and hacked their main computer before blowing it up.” He reached into a pocket, produced a tiny object, and held it out. “This is a Phoebe,” Captain McAllister explained. “It’s got thirty terabytes of data encoded in it.”

“Thirty terabytes? In this?” Barrett took the tiny device and examined it; it was a three-centimeter chip of plastic with a tiny metal plug on one end for a standard data port.

“It will hold fifty,” McAllister breathed. His life was hemorrhaging away along with the blood that puddled on the deck beneath him, and the knowledge of the impending death showed in his eyes. “But this one has the plans for the Grugell Fleet’s plan to move on Earth. Coordinates, subspace jump points, rally points, everything. Lots more, besides. We destroyed the frigate before the main body showed up; they didn’t know we had this information. Get it to Admiral Gauss…”

“You bet I will,” Barrett agreed. With this kind of info, we could hit the Grugell unawares at a rallying point. It’s the perfect chance to hammer their fleet hard, and maybe finish this thing for keeps… After almost three years, what if we could actually finish this war? It would be worth anything.

Captain Barrett looked away from the tiny plastic Phoebe to where Commander McAllister lay bleeding on the deck of his shattered ship, but his eyes stared back lifelessly.

Captain Jean Barrett woke suddenly, her bedclothes awash in sweat. Third time in a week. Two years since the end of the Grugell War, and still the nightmare came.

Her ship, her command, had fought as a privateer in that war under a letter of marque from the Confederate Navy Department. The Shade Tree was small for a combat ship, but she was fast – and with a state-of-the-art charcoal gray ceramic/polymer hull, six ship-to-ship missile bays, particle beam emitters above and below the bow and on the outlet end of the Gellar star drive, she was admirably equipped to stand in harm’s way. Viewed from the outside, the necessity of building the ship around the huge mass tunnel of the Gellar drive made it look unwieldy, with the round cylinder of the drive surmounted by a large superstructure that housed everything from the Bridge to cargo storage to crew’s quarters. But the Shade Tree was her ship, and she loved it – and the wandering life it made possible.

Most of Barrett’s wartime crew had moved on to greener pastures. Only three had stayed; the balance of the Shade Tree’s complement of five officers and twenty-five crew were new hires.

Through the haze of awakening, she finally heard the paging tone. Shaking her head, she hit the contact on the panel over her head.

“What is it?”

The voice of her Executive Officer, Indira Krishnavarna, came tinnily through the speaker. A long way from her Earthside home of New Delhi, Krishnavarna had served as Barrett’s chief Scanning tech during the war. She had turned down several lucrative offers from shipbuilding and design firms to stay on the Shade Tree as second-in-command.

“We have a beacon signal coming in, Captain,” the Exec said. “Looks like our rendezvous is here.”

“I’ll be up in a minute.”

Barrett dragged herself off of her bunk. She looked wryly at the chronometer on the wall. I guess six hours of sleep will do.

Seeing her face in the mirror brought a grimace. Her short red hair was tousled, as usual when aboard ship; she didn’t bother with excessive grooming while space-side. A petite, trim woman with a dancer’s muscles, she knew that even now, at forty-three, she could hold her own gussied up and on the floor at any planet-side nightclub – but on the ship, it just wasn’t worth the trouble.

She yawned, stretched, yawned again. Getting old, she mused. She picked up her toothbrush, stuck it in her mouth, bit down, and closed her eyes against the buzzing as it scrubbed her mouth ruthlessly clean. After a quick look at her static-jet shower, she shrugged and splashed half her tiny morning water ration on her face before swallowing the rest. Her black fatigue pants lay on the deck where she had dropped them before going to bed; she pulled them on, pulled her nightshirt over her head, and tossed it in the bunk before pulling on a black t-shirt. It was only two steps across her stateroom to the entrance, where she kicked her bare feet into her sandals before heading to the Bridge.

The second watch was alert when she walked into the Shade Tree’s claustrophobic Bridge. Indira Krishnavarna got out of the command chair as Barrett came in.

“It’s got to be our contact, Captain,” she said. “The Cape Fortune. We should have visual contact in a few minutes.”

“Good. Scanning, get them on the main screen as soon as you can.” Barrett sat down in the leather bridge chair. “Signals, no contact until they hail us. Keep it on low power – short-range radio comms only.”

“Roger that, Cap’n.”

“We’ll see if they still have a job for us,” Barrett muttered.

“Captain,” the Exec leaned over the back of the command chair, keeping her voice low. “You know, they’ll be calling us pirates if we do this.”

“It’s only piracy when you’re stealing from honest folks,” Barrett smiled. “It’s not like they can report us to anyone without explaining where they got the stuff, or who they were going to sell it to. Don’t worry, Indira. We do have to eat, you know.”

“It would be nice to able to eat in a nice restaurant on Tarbos without worrying about a CBI agent recognizing us from an arrest warrant,” Krishnavarna said.

“There are always the Rim worlds,” Barrett answered.

“No thanks.”

“You worry too much.”

The crewman at Scanning, a new hire from their last planetfall on Halifax, called out suddenly. “Visual, Cap’n. On the main screen now.”

Barrett looked up as the image of an old Narwhal-class freighter swam into view. The old ship’s kilometer-wide cargo disk was dented and chipped; the undersized Gellar drive glowed a faint, dull blue as the ship reversed to a stop a hundred kilometers off the Shade Tree’s bow.

“Signal from the Cape Fortune,” Signals tech Vada Newman called.

“Very well. I’ll take it here.” Barrett picked up a headset from the arm of her Bridge chair, put it on, and tapped a contact. “Barrett,” she said into the wand mike. “Who’s this?”

There was a faint hiss of static before a disembodied voice rang through the earpiece. “Captain Amyl Bond of the Cape Fortune,” it said. “I hear it’s raining a lot on Halifax these days.”

Barrett grinned. “I have an umbrella.”

“Windy, too.”

“I have waterproof boots.”

“So,” Bond said into Barrett’s ear, “You’re the ones that Baxter sent?”

“That would be us.”

“You can get in and out of that asteroid belt without attracting a lot of attention?”

“We got in and out of the Grugell system undetected in the war,” Barrett snapped. “We took out an Occupation ship without attracting any attention until the nuke went off.”

Bond’s disembodied voice chuckled. “Grugell, eh? The asteroid strike. That was you?”

“That was us.”

“You’ll do,” Bond said. “That was a hell of a job.”

“Thanks. Baxter said you’ll have the ship’s departure, course, and speed.”

“Sending now – Guard channel nine-zero, encrypted. If you came here from Baxter, you should have the encryption key.”

Barrett looked over at the Scanning station, her eyebrows raised in an unspoken question. The tech there looked back, nodded.

“We’ve got it.”

“All right. Baxter told you the terms of the deal, right?”

“Yes. Three-way split, between you, Baxter and us.”

“Good. See you at Halifax in a couple of weeks.”

“You bet. Shade Tree out.”

Barrett removed the headset. “Helm, new course, one-eighty by zero. Ahead two-thirds.” The response was quick; the ship began to turn on its internal gyros even as the main drive rumbled to life. “Signals, as soon as you decrypt that message, give the coordinates to the navigation computer.”

“Ten seconds, Captain.”

“Helm, make the best speed to the coordinates indicated as soon as they come through. We want to get to them before they clear Adam’s Belt, or they’ll be ten times as hard to track.”

“Sure thing, Cap’n. Recommend we drop out of subspace sort of entering the belt – we’ll have to go in slowly,” Helm replied,” but it looks like we can drop in and lay an ambush – according to this flight plan, we’ll have plenty of time to get in and lay in wait.”

“That will be fine. Set it up.”

“Programming now.”

“We’ve got a job, people,” Barrett announced. “Let’s get our game faces on.”



To see more of Animal’s writing, visit his page at Crimson Dragon Publishing or Amazon.

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About The Author



Semi-notorious local political gadfly and general pain in the ass. I’m firmly convinced that the Earth and all its inhabitants were placed here for my personal amusement and entertainment, and I comport myself accordingly. Vote Animal/STEVE SMITH 2024!


  1. ron73440

    It’s been a while since I read your Grugell books, this should be good.

  2. Sean


  3. slumbrew

    Right up my alley.

    Thanks, Animal!

  4. Aloysious

    Very cool. Nice read before heading off to work.

  5. SDF-7

    I’ll have to go pick those up — looks like Barrett’s Privateers itself isn’t available via Amazon — just the first two in that universe?

    And given the main page image — I know who’d be playing Barrett if I were running casting and there were a movie. She’s about the right age now, too I think.

    • Sean

      Alicia Witt?

      • SDF-7

        I was thinking of Ms. Johansson.

      • Tres Cool

        Karen Gillan ?

  6. Gustave Lytton

    Fro, the ded thred. I find it hilarious that Twizzle’s cat is named after the fictional raging asshole of L&O SUV. Someday, some psychologist is going to make mint picking her psychosis apart.

  7. R.J.

    Thank you for this, Animal. Super busy work day, I hope to read it tonight.

    • Sensei

      Same! Thanks.

  8. Sean

    Besides flying experiments for NASA, Astrobotic drummed up its own freight business, packing the 6-foot-tall (1.9-meter-tall) Peregrine lander with everything from a chip of rock from Mount Everest and toy-size cars from Mexico that will catapult to the lunar surface and cruise around, to the ashes and DNA of deceased space enthusiasts, including “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke.

    The Navajo Nation recently sought to have the launch delayed because of the human remains. saying it would be a “profound desecration” of a celestial body revered by Native Americans. Astrobotic chief executive John Thornton said the December objections came too late but promised to try to find “a good path forward” with the Navajo for future missions.

    Why are we sending junk and ashes to the moon? Not that I think the Navajo Nation gets a fucking veto on it…

  9. R C Dean

    Looks like fun. Thanks, Animal.

    One question:

    Who’s Baxter?

    • Animal

      Just wait…


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