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Chapter 1

Smash Hardn shivered in the recycled air of the dome on the asteroid’s surface. A tough metglass dome, but scant protection against the dead cold of space, and he wore only a szken, the formfitting suit of a fighting man. Still, he didn’t expect to be topside for long. Smash wasn’t the galaxy’s smartest man—not that he was the stupidest either. The most daring and reckless maybe? An unknown craft fast approached, and he’d opted to meet it alone.

He stood relaxed but ready, feet apart and arms akimbo, watching the luminous disc growing larger and larger above him. Once, in peacetime, this asteroid had been a resting and refueling stop for traders. Smash had stopped here often en route to Isis-3. But the good times were long gone, and now Captain Hardn, ex-trader and current raider, used the abandoned asteroid as a hidey-hole for his band of renegade space rats. Rebellion was a rough business, but it beat the alternative. Slavery to the Imperial Federation.

Speaking of which, look at that. The craft now hovered directly over the dome, close enough to see the Federation insignia on its hull. Interesting.

Smash whistled while he unholstered his mazer and set it on stun.

The dome’s double hatch, stuck on automatic, slid open and shut in sequence—first the outer, then the inner—as the small ship floated through and gently touched down. Smash watched the landing with as much envy as alertness. His own ship’s G-pods had been knocked out several skirmishes ago, and he hadn’t known a soft landing since. Talk about a pain in the tailfins. He had bruises all over his—

Never mind. The RATs took what they needed, and he needed a new ship. Real nice of the Feds to send him one, huh? Her hatch opened, and out climbed a huge, hairy humanoid figure. Smash stepped forward to confront him.

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