As the man left the camouflaged doorway of the gravtube from the pirate base and headed out into the jungle, he got the distinct impression he was being watched. The prickling of the small hairs on the back of his neck, the suspicious absence of movement, the too-quiet stillness all around him—all these were danger signals to his wary mind. He’d gone through too many perilous situations before, had put his life on the line too many times, to ignore his instinctive feeling that something was not quite as it should be.
He stood stock still for a moment in a seemingly casual pose—but his hand was no more than a few centimeters from the hilt of the stinger tucked into his belt. Turning his head slowly he surveyed the landscape before him, alert for a myriad of possible dangers.
The pirate base was organized along very utilitarian lines. All the important areas—headquarters and strategy, supply depots, communications, living quarters for the chief pirate officials—were buried below more than a hundred meters of solid rock, secure from all but the heaviest weapons the Empire could throw at them. Closer to the surface were the barracks for the “enlisted men,” the pirate hordes, representing nearly six hundred worlds. At this base alone there were more than twenty-two thousand people, men and women—alumni from the toughest planetary and imperial prisons, graduates all from the school of survival-at-any-cost. Ringing the base in a series of underground silos were the ships the pirates used for their expeditions—more than five hundred of various sizes, ranging from small, swift scouts to large cruisers brimming over with destructive capacity.