The privateer frigate Jester prowled the edge of the Prairie Grove Two interdiction zone like a hungry cougar. Captain Holland “Dutch” McGee’s squadron was deployed around the planet in their standard ambush formation, with cloaks enabled and weapons hot. McGee’s formation was among the more unpredictable in the service of the Core Alliance, as they were the captains and crews least likely to follow Skywatch doctrine or protocol. Dutch McGee was not a man given to respecting the status quo and he definitely didn’t pay attention to regulations. He would also need a magician to get past most merchant authority checkpoints. The cargo bays of the Jester were carrying enough contraband to buy her crew 200 years at hard labor, and that was just the stuff humans could enjoy.

Assault Squadron 808‘s flagship was a study in flourish. Her bridge looked like a truck carrying a traveling swap meet had overturned in the center ring of a circus finale. It was illuminated by at least one honest-to-goodness oil lamp and was home to a spider monkey with a habit of lighting its own habba cigarettes with a flint disc and a piece of maserite.

McGee’s crew dressed like extras from a Broadway musical about 17th century highway bandits. Those that were human had been altered at the captain’s expense to provide enhanced abilities. The navigator had a bionic implant that occupied most of the right side of his skull and gave him an enormous variety of unique optical talents. The Jester’s pilot was a dwarf girl of perhaps 20 years of age who was so accomplished at the controls of the 808th’s flagship that McGee had ordered the pilot’s station customized to accommodate her height and reach. It had cost him nearly two million Proximan crowns to modify the ship’s navigational and control systems to match, but according to the captain it was worth it. The things his disavowed former Skywatch warrant officer could do at the helm were frequently subjects of songs spontaneously composed and performed by the crew.

The Jester had one other stylish feature: Her entire bridge was constructed of polished rosewood. McGee fancied himself an artist of sorts. He carried a sharp sword at his side and he penned poetry by hand. He had been known on occasion to compose lyrical apologies for his crimes. His speech before sentencing after a particularly contentious trial for bootlegging turned ten years imprisonment into a suspended sentence. His arrest was ordered an hour later after it was discovered he had stolen the judge’s briefcase and supply of illegal narcotics. After a brief and highly entertaining chase, the authorities arrived to find Holland and the Jester had escaped. An automated police robot was found at the scene turning in circles trying to take itself into custody.

McGee was most famous for offering his condolences on the death of a young man on his wedding day. It seemed the newly married groom was quite taken with his gorgeous bride. He was filled with hubris and imagined invincibility as young men often are. All the attention he was getting didn’t help. After one drink too many, he challenged Dutch on the grounds the captain’s invitation to dance offered to one of the female guests was “ungentlemanly.” Despite Holland’s attempts to pass it off with a laugh, the new groom would not be appeased. The young man drew a weapon and was swiftly dispatched by the captain. Holland left a flower and a hand-written apology tucked into the groom’s tuxedo for the pretty young widow. After all, Dutch wasn’t about to risk getting a reputation for being rude.

He was feared, however, for being cunning and a deadly opponent in deep space. Few experienced starship commanders were inclined to engage the 808th straight up. Far better to offer a truce and buy their way out of trouble. Holland’s eight ships were all ostensibly frigate-class vessels, but only Heaven knew what surprises they had hidden in sleeve and boot. They maneuvered like a fighter squadron with ten times the punch and twenty times the resilience.

McGee was the only human being in recorded history to have been formally pardoned three times, and by three different presidents, no less. He was not the least bit interested in legitimacy or honor. He exercised authority under the Core Alliance equivalent of a Letter of Marque. His ships formed a quasi-military unit, and Holland had limited authority under deep space rules of capture to engage any vessel found to be violating Alliance space, including civilian hulls. His charter hovered somewhere between regular fleet and the space equivalent of the Coast Guard, and Captain McGee was a master of using his knowledge of arcane regulations to his advantage.

His attachment to the Hunters dated back to his numerous attempts to seduce Jason’s twin sister. During a brief and flashy affair that was simply too intense to last, the two young starship officers fell for each other and then promptly separated. Jayce turned out to be a more than adequate challenge for the fugitive captain. Holland became fast friends with Jason after the then Lieutenant Hunter vouched for McGee after the privateer was fraudulently accused of piracy. The leader of the Intergalactic Screwballs was not an honorable man by any stretch, but Jason Hunter was like a brother. In fact, Holland planned to make that arrangement formal one day.

In the meantime, Dutch was a stone-hearted mercenary, and at the moment, he knew there was a gold-plated payday pinned to the scanner contact designated Whiskey India Five. Its crew claimed to have information on the whereabouts of a missing Skywatch bridge officer, and it had launched a thermonuclear contact mine at the destroyer Constellation while escaping from Gitairn space. The captain would collect handsomely for taking her a prize.

The missing starship was either down or in some kind of concealed orbit over Prairie Grove Two, and at the moment, the magnificent men of privateer squadron Eight Zero Eight had it surrounded.

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