Everyone had returned to the sitting room and the younger family members had come in from the garden. Ludwina, tea in hand, was the centre of attention. “It’s been years since anyone’s called me that,” she told them. “It’s been Frack or, occasionally, Miss Frack.”
“We would have paid your ransom,” her father, Tibold Frack, told her, “But we never heard anything, no demand, nothing.”
Ludwina replied prosaically, “The pirates were after crew, not ransoms, so they didn’t send out demands.”
The first mate had inspected the rank of pressganged youngsters, snatched from the concourses of Bessamine Transfer Station and handed over to the pirates as a coffle in a blacklight transaction somewhere in the back depths of the station. They were off the lighter and on the pirate ship now, unchained but with nowhere to run and guns trained on them by rough men. “You will work for us or you will die, your choice is that simple,” the first mate held a pistol in his right hand. “Do you all understand?”
“My family will pay your ransom, just take me to my cell.” The speaker was a blonde girl in a more expensive version of Ludwina’s travelling outfit.
The first mate’s arm rose, he fired a shot before the movement had ceased and the blonde girl’s body fell to the deck, headless. “Work or die. Do you all understand?”
A ragged chorus of, “Yes sir!” had answered him.
“And of course the pirates didn’t let us write home. Not that there was much to write home about, I was confined to quarters when I wasn’t on duty or eating. Then, after two years, the Fleet caught us.”
All the survivors from their ship were in two side-by-side cells, all of the crew in one except for Frack, the last survivor from that purchased coffle of help from two years before, who was on her own in the other cell. Being alone in the same amount of space the rest of the crew were occupying made her feel vulnerable, although she tried not to show it, so she sat up against the bars that separated her from her crewmates, hugging the ship’s cat on her lap.
“Don’t be stupid and try to help us.” The voice over her head from the other side of the bars was Ditko, the away team leader and her boss. “That’ll only get you over this side of the bars and we’re all for the high jump.”
“They’ll probably offer you a deal,” that was the first mate, speaking, like Ditko, without looking at her. “If it’ll keep you alive, take it. Captain says all debts are wiped, Frack. You don’t owe us anything. Give us up if it will get you a better deal, we’re all dead men walking anyway.”
“Be practical,” urged Ditko, “and look out for yourself.”
“It was much the same on the privateer. Technically I’ve been a prisoner so I haven’t had mail or shore leave privileges, until today.”
Ludwina’s mother, Stephanie, had her hands clutched around her teacup and asked, “What’s different about today?”
“Today I get a day out on parole,” Ludwina gave the room a twisted smile, “because tomorrow I have to front a Naval Penal Board.”
“But you didn’t join the Navy, did you?” Young cousin Hale, about the age Ludwina had been when she’d been sent off to the school she hadn’t reached, looked confused.
“Apparently there’s been some creep of responsibilities,” Ludwina told him easily. “Frankly, I’m expecting to be made another offer I can’t refuse. The cold war on the Unian border is turning hot and the brushfires along the Alusan frontier seem to be taking hold. I notice there a lot of people in the news who are upset because they’ve been reminded that they’re in the inactive reserves and how easily they can be moved to the active reserves. The military won’t be letting anyone walk away at the moment.”
“You think there’s going to be war?” That was one of the uncles, nervously.
Ludwina gave a sad smile, “I think the shooting’s already started and they just haven’t caught up with the paperwork yet.”