29 January 2012

HEROES DIE YOUNG Excerpt



I awoke to a seductive female voice. “Aston…”

Too bad for me, it belonged to Jeanie, my ship’s computer. A cruel joke, designed mostly for male pilots traveling long distances alone. It was even worse when I ignored the fact she was simply a machine, programmed to think.

I grumbled, “What?”

“We’re entering the Toris system.”

I sat up from the hard, low-lying bunk, stood and walked toward the front end of my ship. My hope was that Toris would be my gateway to temporary financial security. It was a short distance, nonetheless painful, as metallic floor panels clanked under my feet louder than normal.

As I walked onto my bridge, the hyperspeed engines disengaged and slowly wound down. I held onto my captain’s chair to steady myself until we reached a constant velocity.

I sat down in my chair, stuck my hand into the side pocket, and grabbed the same bottle which put me down after our last stop. “How are we doing on time?”

“Far ahead of schedule.”

In the second of my four cargo hatches was a cargo container full of blue organic crystals. When I’d picked it up, the seller had instructed me to take it to Toris, the outer planet in the system of the same name. I hadn’t been told why they were needed so quickly, but he’d said I’d double my pay if I made it to Toris ahead of schedule. I didn’t need to be told twice.

“Let me know when we reach the station.”

I took a small taste of the light yellow liquid in the bottle. The Vladirian storekeeper peddling the stuff at my last stop had given me the full story behind the drink. An animal native to Vladiria, a small passive thing called a Roshtu, would secrete the liquid as a defensive measure when attacked. The sweet smell and taste of the liquid would cause the attacking predator to concentrate on lapping up the liquid, intoxicating it and allowing the Roshtu to escape unharmed.

I took another drink, this one longer. It was a dangerous combination of tasty and addictive. I had to wonder if those predators ever woke up feeling like this. “So, what would you like me to buy for you once I get paid?”

“I am currently running at peak performance, and have no requirements.”

I smiled and leaned back in my chair. I usually found scuttled and abandoned cargo, then sold it for profit. Scavenging was a less aggressive form of piracy, and usually safer, since you didn’t have to carry out threats of violence. Unfortunately, such cargo tended to be scarce, and had been more so lately. So, when I’d stumbled into an opportunity to carry cargo, I jumped at the chance. An extra bonus for speedy delivery didn’t hurt matters.

I took another sip of the Vladirian liquor and put it away. There needed to be something left to celebrate my newfound fortune with. “ETA?”

She ignored my question. “I’m picking up a ship on medium range sensors.”

The hairs on the back of my neck rose. “Show me.”

My viewscreen lit up along the front wall of my bridge. A couple of kilpars in length, the lines of the ship were smooth, tapering from the nose to a constant rectangular cross-section around the first quarter of the hull. Near the back of the ship, I could see bell shaped nozzles behind four embedded engines, darkened against the starfield. I recognized the configuration, but wanted confirmation. “Rulusian freighter?”

“Designation Green Three.”

I took another look at the sensor screen beside my left armrest. “I don’t see any other ships out there.”

“There are none in the vicinity.”

A Rulusian freighter in an alien system, all by itself, made no sense. They often stuck together in vast convoys, to give themselves a better defensive position through sheer numbers.

“Status of the freighter?”

“Engines and main power are down, backup systems are in effect. No shields, no weapons charged.” She paused a moment. “No life signs.”

With the condition of the ship, and no crew, I wondered what happened. Then a smile crossed my lips. I was a scavenger pirate at heart and wasn’t about to let a prime opportunity escape. “Any cargo in the bays?”

Jeanie was hesitant. “Yes.”

“Well,” I chuckled, “what is it?”

“Signs of cargo without accompanying records in the transport manifest.”

Contraband. My smile grew. Rulusians were usually law-abiding as well. I had no idea why one of their ships would be hauling illegal cargo, but with three open bays on my ship and plenty of time to spare, there was only one thing on my mind.

Jeanie was too smart for her own good. “The logic of this situation does not compute.”

“It’s nice you worry about me, but I’ll be fine.” I smirked at the thought of a machine having feelings.

She remained silent.

“Access their computer, and drop their cargo.”

“Unable to comply.”

If she wasn’t programmed to obey, I would have been upset. There had to be something wrong. “Explain.”

“The on-board systems were placed under a command-level lock-out by the Captain of the vessel. Only the Captain can remove it.”

I clasped my hands behind my head and sighed. Green Three grew larger in the viewscreen as we approached it. Finding the freighter made me think my luck was turning for the better. Now, the situation was tougher than it first seemed.

My thoughts drifted to the state of the ship. “Looks like they didn’t want anyone else gaining control. Maybe they abandoned ship.”

“That theory appears plausible.”

I ran my hands through my dark brown, wavy locks, then massaged the tension out of the back of my neck. “I guess I’ll just have to go over and drop it manually. Move us to the starboard docking hatch.”

* * *

Soon, I stood inside the airlock compartment of the Rulusian freighter, my Mark II blaster in my right hand. A crude and stubby weapon, it was small enough to hold with just the one hand, with a recoil guard propped against my arm. It had always been there for me, and never let me down. Hopefully I wouldn’t have to put that streak to the test.

I lifted the left sleeve of my black leather jacket up and spoke through the embedded transmitter. “Can you get me through the airlock hatch?”

“Negative.”

Green indicator lights above the inner circular hatch told me the pressures had already equalized. I stooped over to the left and looked at my reflection in a dark computer screen mounted in the wall. My face was rugged, covered with a few lines and weathered by experience. My once bright blue eyes were dim from the passage of time. I quickly grew tired of looking at myself and yanked the screen from the wall. It dangled from a large jumble of wires.

It was a mystery which ones controlled the locking mechanism, so to save time, I ripped all of them out amidst snapping sparks and rancid fumes. The screen dropped to the floor and smashed. The door popped loose, just enough where I could put my fingers around the edge. The muscles in my arms bulged slightly as I strained. Finally, the door hit a point where it rolled out of the way on its own and I ducked through the entryway.

“I’m in,” I announced to Jeanie, out of breath.

“Be careful.”

Inside, I broke into a sweat, both from the physical exertion and the climate controls on-board the freighter. Rulusians were from an extremely warm and humid jungle planet, and liked to make their ships feel like home. My heavy jacket didn’t help matters. Lines of sweat made their way down my face, as I stepped away from the airlock hatch.

I turned my gaze down the entry corridor and saw carnage I wouldn’t soon forget. Rulusian bodies were piled on either side of the hallway, burn marks from energy weapons appearing as black patches on their dark green skin. The putrid scent of scorched flesh was in the air. I passed an open doorway on my left, and looked inside at crew quarters. More Rulusian corpses lay amidst sparks and clouds of smoke.

I lifted the transmitter again. “You’re sure there isn’t anyone on this ship?”

“Affirmative. All scans show nothing but yourself.”

“This damage is far too recent.”

“Did the crew abandon ship as we had thought?”

I grimaced. “Doesn’t look like it.”

I continued down the corridor toward the bridge. Smoke particles lingered in the air and I detected a faint chemical odor while my eyes watered. Dark blast marks lined the doorframe and floor, where an access hatch had been blown open with some sort of bomb. I took slow, cautious steps through the opening and became witness to even more carnage. Ten more Rulusians had collapsed against the outer wall or slumped over consoles, all roasted by weapons fire. I definitely didn’t need to meet up with the people who had done this. I didn’t get into the scavenging business to be a hero. Everyone loves heroes, but heroes have a tendency to die young.

I glanced at the console screens while stepping around the short end of an oval-shaped half-wall. All of the displays flickered with minimal power from backup systems, while I stepped over a pair of corpses. I stopped at one and attempted to bypass the lockout. The sweat fell off my face onto the screens and formed little pools which slowly worked up enough courage to slide down the panel. I realized my attempts were useless and walked to a single access hatch at the back of the bridge.

“Jeanie, which bays contain contraband?”

“All of them.”

A huge smile spanned my face. This was definitely a dream come true.

Unfortunately, I only had three bays open and there was no way I was dumping the crystals. Perfect opportunities like these were the exception and after these weapons were sold, I’d likely have to run some more regular cargo. Even in such a huge universe, it wouldn’t take long for word to spread that I couldn’t be trusted to complete a delivery.

“Get ready to pull three containers in. The winches should be adequate.” I had a loading arm installed, and even though it was a lot more accurate, it was slow and cumbersome. There was still a bonus on those crystals to keep in mind.

“Acknowledged.”

The door into the cargo hold slid open easily, which I found odd as I walked inside. The air was stale and dry in my lungs as the floor panels clanged and echoed with each step. The door closed behind me and I glanced down the dimly lit corridor at six bays on either side. The best thing would be for me to drop the first three bays and ignore the possibility of a better catch in the others.

A computer console beside the bay door monitored the ambient conditions inside, while a marked service panel underneath drew my attention. I shoved my Mark II into its holster inside my jacket and knelt beside the panel. The cover pried off in no time and I tossed it aside. A lever on the right, and two dimmed lights next to it looked like what I needed. Even though I’d never jettisoned cargo manually from a Rulusian freighter before, there were plenty of bays left to find the proper technique. After I pulled the lever, the lights flashed in an alternating sequence, rapidly increasing in speed before they turned solid. A miniature explosion sounded off as the bay evacuated itself.

Just to make sure I hadn’t destroyed a perfectly good cargo container, I lifted my transmitter again. “Do you see it, Jeanie?”

“Pulling in the cargo now.”

“Two more on the way.”

I moved on to the other bays, going through the same process. As the third bay jettisoned, I heard a metallic clang echo farther down the hold.

I pulled out my Mark II and stood, as a woman with bronze skin and black hair jumped out from a crawlspace under the floor. She raised a disintegrator cannon and pointed it at me. I dropped to the floor just before her first shot hit the bridge door behind me and showered sparks down onto the floor grills. I fired a three-shot burst and she dropped down in the crawlspace again, while minimal damage was done to the aft bulkhead. At least it gave me the opportunity to run toward the bridge door, where the impact mark from her first shot still glowed. Eager for cover, I ducked into a small alcove at the front of the hold as another shot struck the wall. Sparks fell at my feet while I pressed my back firm against the cold hard metal. My heart beat faster than it had in quite a while.

I yelled out, “You can have the rest. I’ve got all I can carry.” I had no idea how this person evaded Jeanie’s scans, but my main concern now was to get out of this alive.

“This is my ship, idiot.” Her footsteps drew closer.

“Funny, you don’t look Rulusian.” I eased my head out and quickly jerked back as another shot hit the corner. More sparks showered the grating at my feet.

“Come on out. You can’t escape.”

“And get myself shot? No thanks.” The blaster felt loose in my hand, while my palms grew damp.

“Slide your weapon out first.”

I had no choice. Disintegrator cannons were outlawed for civilian use almost everywhere, and for good reason. “Okay, okay. I’m coming out.” I slid the blaster along the grill and lifted both hands high in the air.

She taunted me as I walked out to face her. “You board ships, and arm yourself with a toy?”

I didn’t care for her insults, but wasn’t in a position to complain. “I didn’t expect visitors.”

“Glad to see some old tricks still work.” She smirked.

Jeanie’s voice was frantic over my transmitter. “Aston, Aston!”

A little late, I thought. I looked at my captor with an edge to my voice. “Mind if I take this?”

She scowled and grabbed her weapon a little tighter.

“My ship’s computer,” I told her.

She gave a stern nod and I held my wrist over to my mouth. “What is it, Jeanie?”

“A pair of attack cruisers are on an intercept course from Toris.”

My captor relaxed her grip on the cannon. “You’re not part of a boarding crew?”

“I’m just a scavenger pirate.” I reached down for my blaster. “We need to go.”

She was loud and abrupt. “Hold it.”

I looked up, the barrel still pointed at my face.

I frowned. “Come on. We don’t have time for this!”

“How can I trust you? You’re a thief.”

I let the insult slide. “Right now, it doesn’t look like you have a choice. You can stay here and wait for those attack cruisers to show up if you want. Me personally, I plan to be on a ship that can run.” I grabbed my blaster and stood.

The reality of her situation finally sunk in. “Okay, let’s go.”

“Finally,” I muttered as we ran back toward the docking port.

***

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