Outlaw Galaxy Books
Outlaw Galaxy Stories
The Tip Jar
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BillSmithBooks, Outlaw Galaxy, Outlaw Galaxy Tales and Imagination Forge are trademarks of Bill Smith. © 2009 by Bill Smith.
It is a time of legends and myths, of technology and magic, of epic struggles and journeys to the stars…
A time when great heroes confront the forces of darkness…
A time when adventure beckons across the Billion Worlds of Outlaw Galaxy!
Outlaw Galaxy 1: Trip and the Space Pirates, Chapters 31-42See the Author's Note following this story to find out about other books in the Outlaw Galaxy series or to get Bill Smith's newsletter.
Trip and Jinx both held the grate, not daring to move a muscle. The two pirates stepped into the communications bay. The pirates looked at each other, shrugged, and put their weapons back into their holsters. The screeching alarm drowned out their conversation.
While one pirate examined the access panel that Trip had used to program the message drone, the other examined the computer console Jinx had used to get the lightspeed jump coordinates.
Both pirates had their backs to the heating duct where Trip and Jinx were hiding. Jinx leaned over to Trip.
"The grate’s clips. Fix them now, Trip. Before they turn off the alarm!"
Trip nodded, carefully sliding his fingers to find each clip, using all of his strength to slide each one to its proper position. Finally all of the clips were secured. Trip withdrew his hand and then Jinx slowly released the grate, easing it down into place. It settled a fraction of an inch and there was little noise—certainly not enough to be heard above the shrill alarm siren. At least the grate didn’t fall to the floor.
The alarm sirens and lights stopped as abruptly as they’d started. Now the only sound that could be heard was the soft whirl of the heating system and one of the pirates tapping away at a computer screen. Trip realized that even the constant rumble of the Diamond Shadow’s engines was missing.
Jinx whispered as softly as possible to Trip, "We got the grate on just in time."
"You’re right. I think we might be able to pull this off."
The pirate at the computer console flipped a switch to open an intercom channel.
"Bridge, this is Brenmian. I’m down in the communications bay. It looks like the alarm was just a malfunction."
Trip heard Diamond Black Joe on the other end of the broadcast shout in the background, "Let me talk to him!"
There was a pause and then Diamond Black Joe’s voice came back on, much clearer now.
"Are you sure about that? The alarm went off before the power surge blew the engines. A message drone launched within seconds after we dropped back to normal space. Are you sure it was all a malfunction?"
The pirate studied the computer screen. Trip could tell he was carefully choosing his words. Diamond Black Joe was furious and Brenmian wouldn’t want to face his wrath.
"It’s tough to tell, sir. It looks like the power surge wiped out the log, which isn’t all that unusual. The same goes for the message drone launch. All that energy has to go somewhere and it could have easily fried the drone’s circuits. As for the alarm that sounded? I don’t know how to explain that one."
Diamond Black Joe was speaking again, almost before Brenmian had finished his report. "What about Fradon? Where is he?"
"That I can’t tell you, sir. There was no one here when we arrived. But there was no sign of trouble, either."
The other pirate, his inspection of the access panel complete, walked over to the intercom and added, "Fradon isn’t known for being all that reliable. He might be sleeping off a little too much celebration. This is a routine flight. He probably thought he could get away with not showing up for his duty shift. It’s not like he knew this was going to happen."
Diamond Black Joe sighed and cursed under his breath. "Fine. Complete your inspection and report back to your duty stations."
"Yes, sir," Brenmian said. Both of them listened patiently as they overheard Diamond Black Joe barking orders. Then the second pirate leaned over to the intercom and whispered, "Hey, Yulag, this is Tunnet. What’s the story with the engines?"
A voice on the other end of the intercom warned, "Keep your voice down! Diamond Black Joe’s riled up as it is. He doesn’t want to overhear the crew gossiping about what’s going on!"
Then Yulag’s voice dropped low, as if he was about to spread a precious secret.
"The Diamond Shadow’s drives are destroyed. Looks like a power surge fried the whole system. Lightspeed generators, control programs, circuitry—everything’s blown apart. We’re gonna be stranded here for a while. Nearest repair estimate is at least sixteen hours. Diamond Black Joe isn’t happy. He’s gonna hand the engine mechanics their heads when he finds them."
Brenmian asked, "Really? Where’d they go? Where are they?"
"No one knows. When the repair crews got to the engines, there was no one on duty. In theory, they could have been disintegrated if they were working on the engines when they blew...but that happening to all of them? I don’t buy it."
Brenmian was lost in thought. He absent-mindedly muttered, "Yeah, yeah, that doesn’t sound right. Communications bay out."
Brenmian clicked off the intercom and turned to Tunnet. "That’s strange. The mechanics don’t show up and Fradon doesn’t show up here. That can’t be a coincidence."
Tunnet turned away, a bored look on his face. "Yeah, it must be a conspiracy. Or else they all just partied together, Brenmian. Come on, let’s get out of here."
Tunnet walked to the door and Brenmian slid out from behind the computer console. He stumbled and caught himself, leaning heavily on the counter. The impact was enough that a storage bin’s door popped open with a loud clang! Unfortunately, it was the bin where Fradon’s unconscious body had been hidden. Fradon’s hand popped out of the compartment.
"Jinx, that wasn’t the best hiding spot, you know!" Trip whispered.
Jinx shot him a glance that could kill. She whispered back, "I was working on a deadline, you know!"
Brenmian leaned down to close the bin door. He stopped when he saw Fradon’s hand. He called out, "Tunnet, I know what happened to Fradon!"
Tunnet, looking away and still sounding bored, asked, "Yeah? Where?"
He turned to see what Brenmian was talking about. He stopped when he saw Fradon’s.
Trip mumbled to Jinx, "We’re not going to get out of this one, are we?"
They both backed down the heating duct and away from the communications bay, while the two pirates gathered around Fradon’s body. Trip saw Tunnet lean down and take Fradon’s pulse.
"He’s alive," the pirate muttered.
Brenmian activated the intercom.
"Bridge—Yulag—this is Brenmian in the communications bay. We found Fradon. He’s been stunned by an energy blast. Let Diamond Black Joe know we’ll start searching the ship. I get the feeling that the engine failure was not an accident."
Trip turned and scrambled down the heating duct, crawling blindly through the darkness, deeper into the Diamond Shadow. The ducts were small and claustrophobic. It was like being in an endless box. There was a constant stream of hot air blasting into his face. As he crawled, he could feel dirt caking on his hands and clothing. He nearly sneezed as clouds of dust swirled around him. He stopped just long enough to let Jinx catch up and he wondered how she was able to move comfortably through the ducts with her triple-jointed legs. Then he saw that she was able to brace her arms and legs against the sides. It looked like she was climbing through the ducts rather than crawling. Trip sat on the duct floor, trying to catch his breath.
"We have to find a place to hide. A place where we’ll be safe for at least four hours. That’s the soonest the Frontier Rangers can get here."
Jinx looked around. "I think we’ve found it, Trip. These heating ducts must go everywhere throughout the ship. We could be anywhere and they’d never find us. Does your map of the ship’s deckplans include these ducts?"
Trip searched his computer. "No. Nothing. It’s going to be hard for us to keep track of where we are if we move around."
Jinx pulled her portalight from her belt. "At least we have one of these so we can see where we’re going."
Trip grabbed the light before she could turn it on. "No! If the light goes through the grates and into any of the rooms, it won’t take them long to figure out we’re in here. I’ll use my light crystal. It’s not as bright."
Trip pulled out his crystal. It glowed softly. He wiped the grime off his face and nearly sneezed because the dust was so bad.
"I could really use a shower. These ducts are filthy. I feel like I’ve been rolling around in the mud."
"Yeah, but it beats being held prisoner and wearing a slaver rig, trust me."
Trip winced, feeling guilty for the part he’d played in helping capture the Sh’nar. He sat in silence, feeling his skin crawl as the dust and dirt seemed to get under his clothes. His skin itched. He tried to put it all out of his mind as he sat on the duct flooring. An aching weariness crept into his bones as he finally had a chance to rest. Then he realized that what he wanted even more than a shower was some sleep.
Jinx pulled the transcomm she’d stolen from Fradon, telling Trip, "Shine the light on the transcomm. I just need to tinker with it."
Trip couldn’t see what she was doing. He heard squeals of static but then the transcomm picked up an active channel. No one was speaking, but Trip could hear a low, background noise, indicating a channel was open and being used.
Jinx was proud of herself. "I knew it! The Diamond Shadow relays all of its intercom messages on a standard transcomm frequency. That way they can contact any crewmember, that’s not near an intercom port. We can listen in and find out exactly what’s going on!"
Jinx turned the transcomm’s volume down low so the sound wouldn’t carry far. Having one of the pirates overhear the transcomm coming from somewhere inside the heating ducts would be a bad thing for Trip and Jinx. They heard the intercom click and then a familiar voice spoke. Trip instantly recognized the sound of wheezing.
"Captain, this is Whistler. I’m down in the prisoner cells. We just found Datz. He’s been stunned and he’s out cold, but he’s alive. You’ll never guess who was last assigned to guard duty with him!"
Diamond Black Joe’s irritated voice come on. "Let me guess. It wouldn’t be our newest recruit, would it? Old Craz’s nephew. The one who would know how to sabotage lightspeed engines? That wouldn’t be the missing one, would it?"
"That’s the one. We can’t get Datz to come around yet—he got stunned pretty good—so we can’t confirm yet, but that blasted little human is missing. As a safety precaution, I’d like permission to scour the ship for him. And when I find him, I’d like to shove him out an airlock."
"No, not yet," Diamond Black Joe said. "I will deal with him."
Whistler added, "One other thing. We took a head count of the Sh’nar prisoners. One of them is missing. None of the other Sh’nar will talk, of course, but I’m sure he let one of them go."
Diamond Black Joe paused before continuing.
"So, our little traitor has an ally? That won’t matter much in a moment."
Another crewman came on, explaining excitedly, "Captain, we found the mechanics. They were bound and gagged. One of them confirms Whistler’s report. A boy dressed as one of the crewmembers and a Sh’nar forced their way into the engine room and stunned them all."
Diamond Black Joe sounded irritated, the edge in his voice warning that he was about to blow. When that happened, anyone on the ship could be in danger.
"Do any of them have an explanation for how three grown men were overpowered by a teenage boy and an unarmed prisoner?"
Jinx and Trip laughed, picturing the three mechanics squirming as they tried to explain this to Diamond Black Joe. There was an uncomfortable silence before the pirate in the engine room spoke again.
"They, ah, said he was armed with an energy pistol. And he surprised them."
"Pathetic," was Diamond Black Joe’s only response. "Pathetic."
Trip whispered to Jinx, "You know, those guys are never going to live that down."
"You’d think they would have exaggerated a little. You know, ‘There were twenty of them, sir. They used stun gas and rounded us up before we knew what hit us.’ Diamond Black Joe just doesn’t seem like the most patient man."
"Jinx, you just have no idea."
Diamond Black Joe keyed another station and asked, "Landing bay, are all of the shuttles still onboard? Have any of the escape pods been launched?"
"That’s the one good piece of news I’ve received since you fools let this happen. That means they are still on board, somewhere. This will be simple enough to resolve. I’ll just activate Trip’s poison capsule. Whistler, you may begin searching the Diamond Shadow for them. Surely it won’t be hard for you and your men to find a young boy’s corpse and an escaped Sh’nar prisoner, will it? Prove to me that not everyone in my employ is incompetent."
"Captain, it will be my pleasure. I will personally deliver both of them to you within the hour."
As Trip heard this, he reached for the transcomm jammer. Jinx nodded and said, "Now."
Trip pressed the transmit button and in that moment, Jinx’s transcomm was filled with an ear-piercing static. She turned off her transcomm while Trip held the transmit button.
Jinx watched her chrono and they both sat silently in the dust, the heat and the darkness, wondering how things would turn out. Thirty seconds passed, then a minute, then two minutes, then three, four, five minutes.
Finally, Jinx nodded. He had to let the transmit button go sometime. The pirates were probably convinced he was dead by now. It was as good a time as any. He let his finger relax just a little, then, gradually, he lifted it from the transmit button.
Then he touched his hands, his shoulders, his chest, and finally he reached out in the dark to touch Jinx.
"I’m alive," Trip said. "I’m okay, I’m alive. It worked. It worked! Jinx, you’re a genius!"
Jinx smiled and said, "Now, who was the brains of this operation?"
Before Trip could answer her, she reached out and gave him a hug that cracked his ribs.
Jinx let Trip go as he muttered, "Ow, that hurt! Lay off the hugs, Jinx. Or, at least don’t use all your strength!"
Then Trip smiled and laughed. "But that hurt! I’m still alive! It feels so good to feel pain! It means I’m still alive! Weird, huh?"
Jinx "Shhh!"-ed him. "Will you be quiet! Now, we need to listen in to find out what they’re doing. While we’re at it, we have to get moving. They’ll be able to track that jamming signal."
Trip held his light crystal in front of him and crawled down the heating duct. He turned back to Jinx, saying, "Follow me. We’ll get into the center of the ship. Remember, if in doubt, go up since we’re on the Diamond Shadow’s lowest level."
Trip scrambled away, being careful to make as little noise as possible. He carefully slid his hands and feet along the ductwork as he crawled, knowing that one mistake could cause a huge clang that would echo throughout the ducts and might be heard by pirates in the halls.
Jinx turned on her transcomm to listen in on the Diamond Shadow’s communications.
"The interference is gone, Captain," a tired sounding pirate said. "It seemed to be a broadcast on standard transcomm frequencies. It lasted just a little over five minutes. I can’t nail it down exactly, but the origin point is near the communications bay. I think it’s a communication systems failure. It could be the result of a the power surge that swept the ship."
Diamond Black Joe cut him off.
"We seem to be having a lot of mysterious failures today. And they are all particularly inconvenient. It’s probably some of the communications gear shorting out. I’m sure the kid sabotaged that equipment, too. No matter."
Diamond Black Joe paused. "At least I can be sure that the boy is dead. I want his body brought to me. Have all available men sweep the ship to find the body and the escaped Sh’nar prisoner. This has gone on long enough!"
The pirate said a curt, "Yes, sir."
The transcomm frequency was quiet.
Trip and Jinx continued their trek through the heating ducts, only stopping at intersections to choose a direction. They passed several grates that opened into the Diamond Shadow’s hallways. Each time they heard search crews of pirates passing by, but so far it seemed that no one had figured out where Trip and Jinx had gone into hiding. In fact, the pirates seemed almost unconcerned. Trip could understand why. They thought he was dead and Jinx was supposed to be alone, lost on an unfamiliar ship.
Trip led Jinx up several levels, using the maintenance crew handholds molded into the vertical heating ducts to climb. After nearly an hour of ever-so-cautious movement, Trip finally sat down. They were somewhere in the middle of the ship. He shook his head and an avalanche of dirt and dust fell to the floor. He had to rub his eyes to get the grit out. He shined his light crystal on Jinx just as she caught up with him. He laughed when he saw how dirty she was.
"What are you laughing at, mud boy?" she asked.
Trip looked at himself. All of his clothes, even his white shirt, were now a sickly brown-black. He sneezed as a cloud of dust shot into his face. With no tissues or handkerchiefs around, he had to wipe his face with his sleeve. Trip got a mouth and noseful of dirt. He felt grosser than ever.
Trip said, "This is just so disgusting—but at least I’m still alive. And that feels good!"
"Good for you. Now, quiet down. I thought I heard something up ahead."
Trip shut up and flicked his light crystal in the direction Jinx had indicated. He saw nothing—no movement. He heard nothing to indicate the pirates had found them.
Trip glanced at his chrono.
"Three hours and ten minutes to go, Jinx. That’s under the best of circumstances. It could be a lot longer. You think we’ll be safe here?"
Jinx tried not to sound worried, but Trip knew her well enough that she couldn’t hide her feelings from him. "I think so, Trip. At least this is the safest place on the ship for us."
Trip and Jinx sat in silence as time crawled by. Jinx listened in on the transcomm and heard that the repair crews were still cleaning up the engine areas. They hadn’t even started repairs yet. Diamond Black Joe gruffly told the crew to keep at it. Then he demanded a report from Whistler, who sounded quite worried when he had to admit that he’d found no sign of Trip or Jinx.
Diamond Black Joe screamed, "Find them! Find them and bring them to me!"
Trip and Jinx at least got a chuckle out of the exchange, but soon they settled back into the silence and the darkness. While there were so many things they wanted to talk about, they didn’t dare, knowing how easily their voices could carry throughout the ducts.
In the silence, with nothing to do but wait for help, Trip found himself nodding off to sleep. In the darkness, Trip’s imagination started to get the best of him. He pictured the pirates sneaking up on them. He thought every creak of the ship was the pirates pulling off a heating grate and crawling into the ductwork to come after them.
Then Trip heard a sound, not his imagination but a tap-tap-tap on the metal duct flooring.
"Did you hear that?" Jinx asked.
Trip reached out to touch her on the shoulder and let her know that he had heard the sounds as well.
Minutes passed in silence. Growing impatient, Trip flashed his light crystal up and down the ducts. He saw nothing but dirt and grime covering the metal crawlways. Nothing—except marks in the dirt.
"What the?" Trip muttered to himself. He crawled ahead a few feet for a better look. He shined his light and saw a pattern of little marks in the dirt, almost like … animal tracks?
Then Jinx called to him. "Trip! There it is again! There’s something in here with us."
Trip saw a flicker of movement in the shadows. Something small ducked around a corner.
Jinx squealed and Trip had to whisper back, "Quiet! They’ll hear us! What is it?"
"Something brushed my leg. Something furry. Something alive."
Jinx flicked on her portalight and Trip caught a glimpse of something small and blue hopping along the duct floor. It took him a second to swing his light crystal around, but by that time, all he saw was a blue, fur-covered tail slithering around a corner.
"Lights out," he told her. Jinx shut off the portalight. He turned his attention back to the duct’s floor. He saw more animal tracks in the dirt.
"Jinx, when Datz was showing me around the ship, he said it was infested with creatures called drannets. He says they’re nothing to worry about. They’re supposed to be afraid of us. I’ve never seen them up close."
Trip flicked his light crystal up and down the duct again and saw nothing. But they both heard the noises—dozens of tiny, clawed feet clicking along metal. Trip pictured dozens of rats coming after them. He tried to push the image out of his mind.
Jinx squealed again.
"Here comes one!" she shrieked.
Trip flashed his light crystal in the direction Jinx was pointing. He saw a pair of glowing orange eyes in the darkness. Instead of running, the creature stood its ground.
It wasn’t the creepy rat-creature Trip had imagined. It was something that could almost look like a pet. It was perhaps a foot tall and covered with bluish fur. Most of the height was in its long, lanky legs, which ended with small claws. The drannet perched on its hind legs, balancing itself with a long, furred tail that swirled back and forth ferociously. It was scratching at the air with its front legs. The head, on the end of a long neck, moved back and forth, its flexible snout wrinkling as the creature sniffed the air, its long ears flat against its lizard-like skull. It almost looked like a miniature dragon.
Its wide eyes blinked rapidly. A long, forked tongue snaked out into the air and then pulled back. The creature took another step forward. Trip heard a low growl come from it.
Jinx said, "Shoo! Shoo!"
She waved her hand in an attempt to frighten the dragon-creature away. Instead of fleeing, the drannet moved from side to side across the duct. It growled again, showing off a set of small, sharp-looking fangs.
Trip tried to shoo it away, but the creature would not turn and run. The drannet crept towards Jinx, the snout swinging through the air as it inched forward. Jinx held still and the drannet sniffed her leg. Trip didn’t know what to do.
The drannet sniffed Jinx and made its way up her body to her face, where it finally stood, face to face with Jinx. The drannet stared into her eyes. It growled and then made a high-pitched squeak. Then it flopped on its back, wagging its tail in the air, rubbing up against Jinx.
Jinx whispered, "He’s so cute. His fur is so soft. I think he likes me."
Trip snorted. "You know, he’s a scavenger. Probably eats garbage. It might even carry diseases."
Jinx reached out and the drannet leapt into her arms, muzzling up to her like a pet. "Look at him. He likes me!"
Trip had to admit the little furry dragon-creature was cute, but now wasn’t the best time to pick up a stray animal. Trip heard more scrambling of claws, this time coming from both sides of them.
He flashed his light crystal up and down the ducts and saw more of the glowing orange eyes. He saw one pair of eyes, then two pairs, then four. There was more movement in the shadows. He shifted his light further down the duct and gasped as he saw nearly two dozen drannets, slowly coming towards Trip and Jinx.
"I wonder if they’re hungry?" Jinx asked nervously.
Trip and Jinx huddled together, Jinx petting the drannet that crawled into her arms.
"I wonder what they want?" Jinx asked as she studied the pack of drannets gathered around them.
Trip held his hand out to another drannet. It slowly, untrustingly stepped up, sniffed Trip’s hand, made a high-pitched howl and backed away, growling softly.
"They’re pretty skittish, Jinx. Maybe they’re just curious. The pirates try to scare them away. I’d be willing to bet they don’t see people in these heating ducts very often. And I’m certain they’ve never seen a Sh’nar before."
The drannet cradled in Jinx’s arms started mewling softly, a contented, happy purring sound. It burrowed in close to Jinx’s body, almost like it was going to settle down for a nap.
"I told you not to make it a pet," Trip snorted.
Jinx started laughing.
"It tickles. He’s licking me—and his fur is so soft."
"Oh, brother," Trip said as he put his head down. He noticed three or four of the drannets had snuck up close to him, their tails wagging back and forth.
"Shoo! Git! Go bug some other escaped prisoners," Trip said, swinging his hands and feet in the air to scare them.
The drannets stayed just out of range, but instead of leaving, they just sat down and cooed softly, their heads swinging back and forth as their snouts scrunched up, sniffing the air.
Trip turned to Jinx and said in disgust, "See what you started?"
Jinx said nothing, quietly petting the drannet in her arms.
"I think I’ll name him Comet."
"No pets, Jinx."
Jinx looked down at the drannet, who stared up into Jinx’s face, a look of trust in its eyes. Or, at least it looked like trust to Trip, but he wouldn’t know since he’d never seen drannets before. For all he knew, the little beast might be wondering what a Sh’nar tasted like.
Jinx talked softly to the creature, stroking its chest.
"Comet? You like that name, don’t you? Well, Comet it is."
"Comet, huh?" Trip asked. "You picked that because ‘disease-infested, lice-ridden vermin’ was taken?"
Trip turned to the drannets sitting at his feet, held in rapture by the strange human and his actions. He waved at them again. "I said, ‘Shoo!’"
The drannets just sat there, their tails and necks swaying. Trip could have sworn they looked like they were smiling at him.
Jinx giggled as Comet suddenly sat up and started digging at her clothes with his front claws.
"Hey!" she said as she tried to pull the creature away from her, but the little blue ball of fur snorted, its snout and tongue waving back and forth in the air. Comet burrowed under her outer tunic until only his tail was visible, swaying back and forth so rapidly it was a blur.
"What are you doing?" Jinx asked the creature as she frantically tried to pull it out of her tunic.
In a second, Comet snaked his way out of Jinx’s tunic, a foil food packet clutched in its front paws.
"Hey, that’s mine!" Jinx said as she tried to grab it out of Comet’s front paws.
Comet placed the packet in his mouth and turned to try to leap away. Jinx grabbed him in mid-jump and held him, his arms and legs kicking in the air. Comet growled and twisted, trying to wriggle free of Jinx’s grasp, snaking his head and long neck to keep away from Jinx’s hands. The growling continued, playful but serious at the same time. Comet had no intention of giving up the food packet.
Jinx shot at Trip, "A little help, if you could."
Trip mumbled, "Oh, for goodness sakes," and crawled over.
"Come on, Comet, give it up. C’mon boy," Trip said, trying to sound friendly as he closed in on the squirming drannet. Comet stopped wiggling, looked into Trip’s eyes and growled, baring the teeth that clenched the food packet.
"Aren’t you a good boy?" Trip said as he reached for the food packet. Comet growled again and scratched at Trip with his front paws. Trip pulled his hand back, afraid the little drannet might mean business and slash at him with those small but probably very sharp front claws.
Trip knew he needed to distract the creature. He grabbed Jinx’s portalight and set it to flash softly. Trip held it off to the side with his left hand. Comet’s eyes followed the flashing light as if it were a toy. The drannet stopped growling. Trip started moving the flashing light around and Comet followed its every move.
With Comet distracted, Trip’s right hand flashed out and grabbed the food packet. As Trip pulled it away, the foil ripped as it snagged on one of Comet’s teeth.
"Oh, yuck, it’s got beastie drool on it!" Trip said in disgust. He looked at the opened packet and threw it on the floor.
Jinx struggled to hold on to Comet as he kicked and wiggled, trying to break free of her grip. He wrapped his tail around her wrist while his tongue rapidly flicked in and out of his mouth, obviously savoring the prospect of wolfing down the nutrition bar. As Jinx held on, Comet looked back at her and howled a high, piercing squeal.
"Oh, great! Thanks a lot, Trip. That really helped out!" Jinx said.
Trip sat up, irritated. "What do you want me to do?"
Then Trip noticed two of the drannets racing for the packet. He lunged for it, but the drannets were faster, scooping it up and carrying it beyond Trip’s reach. In an instant they had ripped the packet open. After a brief bout of wrestling, complete with high-pitched snarls and growls, each of the drannets walked away triumphant, munching comfortably on a large chunk of nutrition bar.
Trip heard a strange new sound, like a dozen people inhaling sharply. The remaining drannets were now sitting up straight on their hind legs, their heads and necks swaying back and forth, their noses wriggling wildly as they sniffed the air.
It was the nutrition bar. They obviously liked what they smelled.
One of the drannets took a step towards the food wrapper. Two more followed. Then all of them pounced on the wrapper, while the pair who had already taken the food tried to quietly slip off into the shadows to munch on their prizes in peace.
The drannets wrestled, growled, snorted and pulled on the foil, but after a few seconds they realized the wrapper was empty. Then they turned to stare at Jinx, their tails wagging. They stood up on their hind legs and reached their front paws out towards her, as if they were beggars on a street corner.
Then the howling started. At first it was a low growl, not threatening but almost a cry for attention. Trip thought it was cute when just one drannet cried. When the rest joined in, the volume and pitch rose in a chorus of protest until their high-pitched wails hurt Trip’s ears. In the midst of the cries, Comet had begun tugging at Jinx’s clothes again. He—Trip assumed Comet was a "he"—was digging at the pockets where she’d hidden additional food packets.
"Jinx, shut them up!" Trip cried, straining to be heard. "Before the pirates hear them!"
Jinx shrugged, asking, "What do I do when I run out of food packets?"
Trip considered joking—just joking—about stunning them with his energy pistol, but he knew Jinx would get upset. Instead, again shouting to be heard, he said, "Let’s worry about that when it happens. Just shut them up for now."
Jinx pulled out her food packets, wrestling them away from Comet. She ripped one packet open and split the nutrition bar into three or four chunks. As soon as she opened the packet, the howling stopped. The drannets creeped up to surround Jinx, their heads following her every move. Their noses wrinkled as they sniffed and snorted the air, their forked tongues flickering out over and over again to taste the air.
Finally, with each bar broken up into chunks—enough for all of them—Jinx tossed the pieces of food out onto the floor. While the more aggressive drannets charged after the food, wrestling and snarling playfully until one emerged the victor, the more passive drannets that stayed next to Jinx were rewarded with extra large pieces of nutrition bar and a loving stroke of their furry snouts. The little creatures purred and cooed like kittens.
Trip had to admit to himself that the drannets were actually cute. Demanding, noisy, troublesome royal pains but nonetheless cute.
After a few moments, all the food bars were devoured. Instead of cries demanding more food, it was almost as if the drannets understood that Jinx had given them everything she had.
Comet again dug at her clothing. But this time, instead of forcing open her pockets, Comet flopped on Jinx. He stretched out and rolled around, exposing his belly and reaching up with his front paws to grasp Jinx’s hand. He pulled her hand down until it rested on his furry chest. Almost instinctively Jinx began stroking his fur. Comet looked up at her, stretched and yawned. He closed his eyes and in moments he looked as if he was sound asleep.
The other drannets watched from a distance. Trip wondered if they were waiting to see if he and Jinx were "safe." He knew that the Diamond Shadow’s crew had made a habit of frightening and probably abusing these creatures. Maybe the drannets felt they could trust the two strangers who’d joined them in the heating ducts. After all, to these animals, anyone that feeds them can’t be all bad, right? Maybe the drannets realized that, like them, Trip and Jinx also had to hide from the pirates to be safe. Maybe they were smarter than he’d given them credit for.
Slowly, skittishly, the drannets approached Trip and Jinx, ready to run if there were any sudden moves. Trip and Jinx stayed quiet and still, with Jinx just grinning.
Trip silently mouthed to her, "No pets!"
Then one of the creatures came up and nuzzled him. Trip found himself petting the creature’s soft, blue fur. Trip relaxed as the drannet made that soothing, cooing sound. This one also drifted off to sleep. Soon Trip and Jinx found themselves covered in drannets as the creatures crawled up onto their laps, chests, shoulders, and nuzzled against their legs and arms, all making themselves comfortable as they sought a place to sleep.
Trip felt like he was wrapped head to toe in fur, but he wasn’t complaining. Maybe these creatures weren’t so bad after all. Trip’s hands drifted from one drannet to the next and he found himself relaxing. The troubles and dangers of the situation seemed to fade away. Now, the only thing that he was aware of was how tired he was. Besides, there was little else to do except wait for the Frontier Rangers to arrive. He felt one of the drannets curl up against his neck and he leaned his head over to rub against it. The creature sneezed, stretched out and purred softly as Trip drifted off to sleep.
Trip’s sound, deep sleep was shattered by an ear-piercing shriek that ripped through the heating duct with the ferocity of a summer thunderstorm. Trip sat up straight, his heart pounding. His mind raced to catch up with his body.
He had no idea what was happening. Where was he? What was going on? What happened?
Trip felt a moment a panic as he felt rather than saw the tight confines of being inside the heating duct. With the ceiling just inches from his head, he reached out suddenly. His hand collided with the wall before he even extended his arm fully. He felt several small, furry creatures leap off him and scamper into the darkness. It was like being locked inside a trunk, trapped with who knows what kind of animal.
Were they dangerous? Would they bite at him while he was unable to see them coming?
He breathed deeply, trying to calm himself. Instead, he sucked in a noseful of dirt. Trip sneezed so hard he felt his neck crack. His chest hurt.
And there was the constant, blaring alarm siren.
Then Trip heard a voice, a familiar voice, that somehow called to him above the din.
"Trip? Are you okay?"
It was Jinx! Then Trip remembered it all. The attack on the Sh’nar convoy, the prison break, sabotaging the ship’s engines, hiding from the pirates in the heating ducts, even the drannets. It all had happened so quickly—all of it in less than a day.
Finally Trip found his voice.
"What’s happened, Jinx? Some kind of alarm?"
Trip wondered how Jinx was handling being in these ducts. He saw how she had to stretch her long legs out straight. It didn’t look very comfortable.
He asked, "Are you okay?"
Jinx answered, "Yeah, I’m doing okay, although I’ll be glad when I can get out of here and walk the kinks out of my muscles. Still, it beats being in a prison cell."
"I understand. How long was I out?"
"I don’t know. I slept myself. It looks like the alarm scared away all of our friends except Comet, here." Trip saw her petting the drannet that snuggled in her lap, seemingly unconcerned about the hubbub.
Trip checked his chrono. "It looks like we were out for about three and a half hours. It sounds like a ship-wide alarm. Do you think the Frontier Rangers are here?"
Jinx said, "I don’t know. I was just going to listen in with my transcomm."
Jinx pulled out and turned on her transcomm. The Diamond Shadow’s main communications channel was a chaotic jumble of messages. The only thing they had in common was that all of the voices sound like they were on the verge of panic.
One voice that Trip didn’t recognize screamed, "We count two dozen short-range fighters that have already deployed from the cruiser. Markings indicate the vessel is part of the Frontier Ranger fleet."
With barely a heartbeat’s break, a voice in the background—obviously a crewman on the bridge—screamed, "Captain, the ship has identified itself as the Golden Star, Frontier Ranger cruiser based at Capessia. She’s nearly double our size. She outguns us and can carry four dozen fighters. Sir, the Ranger captain is demanding our surrender!"
Jinx said, "We did it! They’re here. We’re going to be saved!"
Jinx hugged Trip, although she pulled away quickly as Comet let out a little growl when he was nearly squashed.
Diamond Black Joe’s voice screamed over the transcomm, "Let them eat energy blasts! Launch all fighters. Activate defense screens and shipboard energy cannons. I will not surrender to the Rangers. This is going to be a fight to the finish!"
The Diamond Shadow trembled as the first blasts of energy splashed against its hull. Trip assumed the shields handled the blasts with no damage.
Another pirate voice sheepishly spoke up. "Not to question the Captain’s orders, sir, but we’re dead in space. There’s no way to activate the lightspeed engines. There’s no way to escape."
Diamond Black Joe shot back, "I will not surrender. You heard my orders. Now follow them or I will replace you."
The voice offered a frightened, "Yes, sir."
Diamond Black Joe announced his plans.
"Repair crews, get those lightspeed engines up and running. I don’t care what you have to do, get them fixed. If it looks like the Rangers will be in a position to capture us, we shove the prisoners out the airlock."
A crewman announced, "Fighters surrounding us. Our fighters are holding them off for now, but their ships are faster and more maneuverable. We don’t stand much chance."
"Sir, the Golden Star is closing to engage us in ship-to-ship combat with her energy cannons. They’ve realized we can’t move. If we don’t surrender, they’ll open fire on us. Their energy cannons—sir, our shields won’t be able to take the pounding. These guns will cut our hull plating apart in minutes."
Diamond Black Joe snarled, "Then we’ll die in battle. I have no room on this ship for cowards. We will die like men if that’s what it takes. There will be no surrender!"
Trip and Jinx reached out to the heating duct’s walls as they heard a massive explosion. They felt the Diamond Shadow lurch in space as it was rocked by a barrage of energy cannon fire. From the force of the blast, they both knew it was the Golden Star’s cannons and not the fighters.
If the crewman was right, the Diamond Shadow would not survive the Golden Star’s onslaught for long. If Diamond Black Joe was truly determined not to surrender, that meant the rescue effort, trying to save the Sh’nar prisoners—all of this—was for nothing.
Then Trip realized his error. "Oh, no! The message! The Frontier Rangers don’t know about the Sh’nar prisoners! All they know is that this is a pirate ship!"
Jinx’s eyes widened with fear. "That means they won’t force a surrender. They’ll just destroy the Diamond Shadow if they can’t convince Diamond Black Joe to give up. Oh, Trip, we can’t let my people die!"
"I know! I know! There’s got to be something we can do."
Trip turned and started crawling back the way they had come. He pulled out his light crystal. "I don’t care if they see me now. They’re probably too busy to worry about us right now, anyway."
Trip crawled as fast as he could, following his and Jinx’s tracks in the dust. As he moved away, Jinx asked, "What are you doing, Trip?"
"Simple. I’m going back to the communications bay. I’ll send them a transmission. They’ll know me from the message drone’s recording. I hope they listen. But I have to get there before the Diamond Shadow is destroyed. Let’s move!"
With that, Trip scrambled through the darkness, this time not caring how much noise he made. The only thing that mattered was getting to the communications bay as quickly as possible!
Jinx followed Trip through the maze of heating ducts. Trip could hear her just behind him the whole time. The next ten minutes were spent racing through the darkness, broken only by glimpses of flashing red alarm lights that trickled in through the vent openings.
There were moments of incredible fear as the ship rocked and deafening booms shook the Diamond Shadow. Each time the ship rocked, Trip prayed that this blast wouldn’t be the one to slice the Diamond Shadow open to space or blow apart the reactor core and trigger an explosion that would shatter the ship into a million metal fragments.
Then, after each blast subsided, Jinx would listen in on her transcomm and give Trip the latest update.
… Shields damaged, but emergency repairs kept the generators operating …
… Two Ranger fighters destroyed …
… Pirate fighter assault against the Golden Star caused minimal damage and the ships were recalled to protect the Diamond Shadow …
… Port side energy cannon sheared off in a blast from the Golden Star …
… Hull rupture on deck three. Emergency bulkheads in place. Crewmen in the section presumed lost …
… Shield generators overheating, reduced to sixty percent of capacity to prevent complete system failure …
… Ranger fighter destroys engine decks. Rear shields failing …
It went on and on, more hopeless with each incident, yet Diamond Black Joe barked orders to continue the fight even as defeat and death loomed over them. And the crew—out of loyalty or fear?—continued the fight without question.
Finally, Trip saw his destination. It was the all-important heating grate that led into the communications bay. Trip pocketed his light crystal and quietly crawled the last twenty feet. If there was a guard on duty, Trip would need surprise on his side. All it would take is one quick call to Diamond Black Joe and the pirate captain would be able to remotely rupture the poison capsule in Trip’s neck. Would the jammer work a second time? How much energy was left in the power cell? Trip didn’t want to find those things out the hard way.
Trip searched the communications bay. It was empty.
He heard Jinx coming up behind him and he called back to her, "All clear."
As Trip looked back to see how far behind Jinx was—barely twenty feet—he saw a fast-moving lump of fur race underneath Jinx and charge up to greet him. Before Trip could look away, he felt a warm, wet forked tongue snake across his face and he heard a playful snort.
"Aww, Comet! Jinx, that pet of yours just got drannet slobber all over my cheek. That’s just rude."
Jinx crawled up and gave Comet an affectionate pat.
"He likes you. He can’t be as smart as I thought he was. What’s the situation?"
Trip slipped the grate’s holding clips off. Trip managed to explain as they both wrestled with the heavy grate, "Room’s empty, although I’d be willing to bet money they have a guard posted in the hall. Grab the grate. We can’t let it crash to the floor."
They carefully lowered the grate to the floor.
They were soon at the communications console. Trip let his impatience show as he ordered Jinx around.
"Just get me a general broadcast channel. The Golden Star should be able to pick that up."
Jinx muttered, "Glad you’re here to tell me what to do. I know I couldn’t have figured this out all by my little old self."
Her fingers flew over the touchscreen, but Trip felt a growing sense of dread as each action yielded the same result. A simple message on the computer screen read, "ACCESS DENIED."
Trip couldn’t restrain himself any longer. "What’s wrong?"
Jinx frowned. Even a general override command failed to produce any change.
"Trip, this entire bay’s been locked out of the Diamond Shadow’s systems. I can’t send messages, monitor shipboard or external communications—I can’t even launch a message drone. The whole system is being run from the bridge."
Trip’s heart sank. "Then we’re out of luck. There’s no way to send a message short of taking over the bridge."
The ship rocked. Lights dimmed as a terrifically loud boom rocked the deck. It felt like being in an earthquake.
Jinx’s transcomm screeched out a call from one of the pirates to the bridge. The pirate reported that the hull plating in his area had been breached and fighters were coming around for another volley. The crewman started to call out an order to evacuate the area, but then Trip and Jinx heard a scream, a loud boom over the transcomm and then … dead silence.
Trip and Jinx braced themselves as the explosion rippled through the Diamond Shadow and shook the communications bay. The upheaval was so violent that Trip thought the ship would rattle apart.
When the rocking stopped, Trip mumbled, "The ship won’t be able to take much more of this."
Jinx shut down the communications console and stood up.
"There’s another way to contact the Golden Star."
Trip said, "I don’t think we stand much chance of taking over the bridge. That’s if the ship even lasts that long."
Jinx shook her head.
"No, no! The escape pods!"
"Oh, yeah!" Trip said. "Every escape pod has a communications transceiver. In the confusion, I bet they haven’t even thought of locking those out!"
Trip used his portable computer to check the Diamond Shadow’s deckplans. To his relief, the nearest escape pods were only a couple of decks away.
Trip pulled his energy pistol, opened the communications bay door and leapt into the hall, stunning the lone guard.
"Didn’t even know I was coming," Trip congratulated himself. He grabbed the pirate’s transcomm and energy pistol. He handed Jinx his old energy pistol and said, "Okay, let’s get going."
He turned to take off for the escape pods, but Jinx grabbed his shoulder. "Trip, I can’t go with you."
Trip stopped. "What are you talking about? We have to use an escape pod to let the Frontier Rangers know about the prisoners. So they won’t destroy the ship!"
Jinx shook her head. "No, I can’t do that. Those are my people, Trip. I can’t let them just wait in those cells without even a chance to escape. This ship could blow up any minute. I’ve got to go free them and lead them out of here."
There would be no changing Jinx’s mind. In fact, if their situations were reversed, Trip would do the same thing.
"Jinx, you know where you’re going?"
"Sure. Can’t forget."
"Jinx, do what you have to do. But be careful."
Trip raised his transcomm. "Here, let’s set our transcomms on an unused frequency. Let me know what’s going on."
Trip paused, feeling tears coming to his eyes.
"Be careful, Jinx. I mean it."
Jinx grabbed Trip and hugged him tight.
"Trip, we’re gonna get out of this."
With that, the two friends split up, Jinx running for the prisoner cells while Trip started for the escape pods.
Comet watched his two new friends part and whined softly, unsure of what to do. He glanced back and forth from Trip to Jinx. He sniffed the air, looked back at Jinx and then turned, hopping down the hallway to follow Trip.
Trip ran through the Diamond Shadow’s corridors. With the hubbub of the battle and other crewmembers running to their duty posts, the few pirates in the halls took no notice of him. Those who did didn’t think to stop the young pirate with the filthy clothes and a determined look on his face.
And so it was that Trip got most of the way to the escape pods without so much as a second glance from anyone else. Several times Trip joined the other pirates in bracing themselves for balance as explosions rocked the Diamond Shadow.
Trip was almost to the escape pods when a particularly violent blast sent the Diamond Shadow rocking and momentarily listing off to the side. Moments later, the wounded ship righted itself and Trip fell to his knees.
"The ship can’t take much more of this," Trip muttered to himself.
The lights dimmed and flickered before they returned to full power. Trip stood, ready to continue his frantic sprint for the escape pods. Then the lights flickered again and dropped to night lighting conditions.
"Uh oh," Trip said aloud, almost without realizing it. The ship bucked again in a sudden explosion. He reached out and leaned against the wall as a panel down the hall blew off its hinges, the electronics behind it erupting in a shower of sparks before exploding into flame.
Trip knew the results of a power surge when he saw one. That meant the shields had been overloaded, at least for a few seconds. The blast energy, instead of imploding the main reactor, had just barely been deflected into the ship’s other systems.
Soon a shot, whether it was ten seconds or two minutes from now, would cut through whatever shields were left and reach the Diamond Shadow’s main reactor. The explosion would consume the ship in a spectacular fireball. There would be no hope of survival. The lucky ones would be the ones who were gone before they realized what had hit them.
The lights cut out entirely, leaving Trip in darkness without even emergency lighting. The only light was the rapidly fading circuitry fire. Trip grabbed his light crystal and shined it up and down the hall.
Behind him, Trip saw a flicker of blue fur. Not sure if he should be angry, he called out, "Comet!"
The little drannet scampered to Trip, his tail moving back and forth as the animal stared at Trip with its orange eyes.
"What are you doing here?" Trip asked his new companion. His irritation turned to amusement. Comet scrambled the last three feet to rub up against Trip’s shoes. Comet yelped playfully once and curled his tail around Trip’s feet. Trip had to admit the little drannet was amusing.
Trip stroked Comet’s neck and told him, "You can follow, but stay out of the way."
Trip started down the hall towards the escape pods. Up ahead he heard some movement. Suddenly a portalight beam shined on his face, blinding him.
A voice called out, "Hey, you! Stop! What are you doing here?"
Trip considered pretending to be just an ordinary crewmember, but then he heard a gruff voice say, "Hey, isn’t that the kid Whistler wanted us to find?"
Trip didn’t need to hear any more. He dropped to the floor and rolled away, trying to get out of the spotlight. He saw three forms down the hall, maybe thirty or forty feet away. Trip slid his light crystal away from him, realizing that in the darkness the light just gave them a general location to aim for.
The first volley of energy beams from the pirates followed the light crystal, the blasts exploding harmlessly off the deckplates and walls. They were not stun beams.
Trip heard Comet yip once and the drannet retreated, backing down the corridor and ducking behind a corner to hide.
Trip agreed with Comet’s plan, but he knew he had to stun the pirates before they could use their transcomms to call Whistler or Diamond Black Joe. Trip reached for his energy pistol. He squeezed off a couple of quick blasts and saw one of the pirates collapse to the floor, stunned into unconsciousness.
Trip scrambled away and backed down the hall as quickly as possible. He knew the next group of shots would be aimed for where he’d been just a few seconds ago. He ducked around the corner while the pirates’ portalight frantically searched the hallway for him. Trip squeezed off four or five quick shots. He heard a grunt and the sound of another body hitting the floor.
Now it was one on one. Suddenly the pirate portalight winked off. The remaining pirate had figured out how Trip was targeting them. Well, even though he was the genius of the group, Trip figured he’d be able to outsmart him. Trip listened carefully for any sounds of movement, but he heard nothing above his own rapid breathing and the pounding of his heart.
Then from down the hall, Trip heard the click of a transcomm being activated. Trip had to act now or else his own life would be forfeit.
He heard the pirate say, "Whistler, this is Ged. I saw—"
Trip dashed out from behind the corner and opened fire with his energy pistol. He fired six, perhaps seven times. His hand shaking, Trip lowered his energy pistol as he saw the pirate’s body slump over and fall to the floor in the near-darkness. But instead of relief, Trip wondered if it wasn’t already too late.
As Trip stepped into the hall, he heard a crunch and felt something give way under his foot. Curious, Trip bent down and searched the floor, finally discovering a transcomm. He looked at it closely and realized that it was the scrambler Jinx had rigged for him. It was broken into three pieces.
Now he had no way to block the signal that could rupture the poison capsule in his neck. He had to hurry and get to the escape pods before Diamond Black Joe or Whistler realized he was still alive.
"This is just so bad," Trip muttered to himself.
He grabbed his light crystal and raced to the escape pods without any further trouble. Trip reached out to open the access door. Before Trip sent his message to the Frontier Rangers, however, he had to know how Jinx was doing. It was hard to concentrate on his mission without knowing if she was okay.
He pulled out his transcomm and clicked it on.
"Jinx, are you there?" Trip said softly.
After a second, Jinx’s voice came over the transcomm.
"Trip? Things are going great. I just got past the guards and into the prisoner cell area. I found the codekey to open the cell doors."
Before Jinx could put the key into the lock and open the cells, he heard her say, "Oh, no!"
Trip heard a human voice in the background. "Who’s that?"
Another voice shouted, "The escaped Sh’nar prisoner!"
Trip heard a volley of energy blasts. Jinx let out a cry of pain. Trip heard a loud crash as he realized Jinx’s transcomm fell to the floor.
Trip dropped his head. Jinx had once again lived up to her nickname.
Trip didn’t know what to do! He had to complete his mission and call the Frontier Rangers, but he couldn’t just leave Jinx at the mercy of the pirates.
Over the transcomm, he heard the sound of footsteps approaching. The transcomm was still on and broadcasting. The sound of the footsteps grew louder. One of the pirates was standing right next to Jinx’s transcomm.
Finally, one of the pirates said, "She’ll be fine. Just stunned."
Trip let himself relax. There was hope for rescuing her!
"Put her in the cells with the other prisoners," the pirate continued. "And hook up those slaving rigs. Diamond Black Joe wants us to move the prisoners to the airlock. He must be getting desperate if he’s gonna space a cargo this valuable."
Trip cringed at the thought. Diamond Black Joe and his men were cold-blooded killers! They had to be stopped!
The pirate spoke again. "Look at this. A transcomm. Well, she won’t need that where she’s going! Still, she must have been talking to someone. Perhaps it was that traitor friend of hers. Time to tell Whistler."
The transcomm turned off. Trip had to rush. It would be just a matter of seconds before Diamond Black Joe and Whistler knew he was still alive. With his jammer broken, Trip had no defense against Diamond Black Joe’s transmitter. It could rupture the poison capsule inside his neck from anywhere on the ship.
Trip desperately wanted to help Jinx, to charge up there with his energy pistol, to burst in and save her and free the other Sh’nar prisoners, but time was not on his side. Even if the ship didn’t blow up from the beating it was taking, he wouldn’t have more than a minute before the poison capsule would be activated.
Trip turned to the door that led to the escape pod. The Diamond Shadow’s deck rocked again and the lights flickered. Even the emergency lights went out, plunging the hall into complete darkness. Trip grabbed his light crystal while he tired to ignore the sounds of explosions that rumbled throughout the ship.
Trip felt vibrations from a major blast. He knew that would be energy cannon blasts digging into the Diamond Shadow. Then he heard and felt half a dozen smaller tremors, secondary explosions inside the ship from the power surges. There wasn’t much time left for the Diamond Shadow.
Trip was relieved that the escape pods didn’t require an access code. He simply hit the open button and watched the light flash green. He grinned as the door slowly started to slide open. Beyond it was an escape pod.
Emergency lights flickered back on. The door to the escape pods seemed to be maddeningly slow as it crept open, but Trip knew it was just his impatience getting the best of him.
Then the door light changed from green to red. The door abruptly changed direction, sealing shut.
Trip screamed, "No!"
He pounded on the door, but it made no difference. The escape pod was just a few feet away from him, but blocking his way was a reinforced blast door. The escape pod might as well be on another planet.
Trip heard footsteps behind him. There was a familiar wheezing sound. Trip turned in the low lighting and saw the outline of someone standing in the hallway.
Whistler stepped forward. In one hand was an energy pistol. In the other was something Trip couldn’t make out at first. Then he realized he’d seen the small remote controller before, on the bridge of the Diamond Shadow. It was Diamond Black Joe’s.
Whistler laughed and stepped forward.
"You know, kid, I knew when we didn’t find your body right away that you were going to show up sooner or later. It wasn’t too hard to figure out your plan—or too hard to lock down the escape pods with this controller. Personally, I’m glad you’re still alive. That way I can finish you off myself."
Whistler had his energy pistol pointed right at Trip’s heart. His smile was evil and malicious. He hefted the controller in his left hand.
"Which was should it be, Trip?" he asked. "Energy blast or poison capsule?"
Trip said nothing.
Whistler asked, "No spirit to joke around? I’m disappointed. Normally you have so much to mouth off about."
Trip was too busy trying to figure out how to get out of this one alive. He wanted to stare into Whistler’s eyes, to intimidate him, to show that he would be brave even in the face of death. Instead he just glanced into Whistler’s cruel red eyes and looked down at the floor.
As Trip uncomfortably shuffled his feet, he felt a tug at the back of his pants. It was Comet! He saw Comet huddling behind his leg, clutching at his pants, tail moving ferociously. The little drannet was silent.
Another attack shook the ship. Whistler reached out with the hand holding the controller to brace himself. Trip briefly considered lunging at Whistler in a crazy attempt to wrestle away both the energy pistol and the controller, but Whistler must have seen the moment of consideration—and the hesitation.
Whistler waved the energy pistol, shaking his head.
"No. You’re not that fast, Trip," he sneered.
But Trip wasn’t paying any attention to Whistler. Instead, he looked down as he heard a high-pitched snarl. Comet became a blur of blue-black fur, almost impossible to spot in the near darkness. He raced across the corridor and lunged at Whistler.
The drannet wasn’t powerful enough to hurt Whistler, but in the dim emergency lighting, Whistler hadn’t seen Comet until he made his attack. Reflexively, Whistler leapt away from the mysterious, small creature that scooted across the hall after him.
The moment of distraction gave Trip a chance to fight for his life.
Trip jumped at Whistler. He knocked the remote controller from Whistler’s hand. The controller dropped and slid out of reach.
Whistler tried to kick Comet away from him, but the drannet was already standing on the controller, cowering and whining.
Trip reached for Whistler’s energy pistol, but with the alien’s greater strength and speed, Whistler was able to easily push Trip away, sending him across the room. He felt excruciating pain as he slammed into the escape pod access door. Stunned and out of breath, Trip crumpled to the floor, unable to move and barely aware of what was going on around him.
Trip stared across the hall, almost as if he was watching a dream. He struggled to keep his eyes open. Whistler sat up. Instead of raising his energy pistol, Whistler looked around the room and saw Comet huddled over the remote controller, his tail and bared teeth indicating he wasn’t about to give up his new toy.
Whistler said, "What are you doing with that, you little beast?"
Whistler crawled towards the remote and reached out to push the seemingly helpless drannet away from the controller. But, instead of a cry of triumph, Trip heard a howl of pain from Whistler as he pulled his hand back and cradled it.
"You bit me!" Whistler snarled.
Whistler raised his fist, ready to pummel the drannet, but even now Comet wasn’t backing down. Instead, he continued snarling and growling, his tail and neck racing back and forth in anticipation of a battle. Comet looked ready to pounce on Whistler as if he was nothing more than a mouse that would soon be a meal.
Whistler spoke carefully, with neither anger nor aggression. "I’m going to crush you for biting me! It will be the last mistake you ever make!"
Then Trip came to his senses. The fog and haze from the pain lifted. With Whistler’s back to him, Trip had his chance. He pulled his energy pistol and aimed it at Whistler’s back. Whistler’s fist clenched tight as he prepared to strike Comet, but the blow never came. Instead, a bright green beam of energy splashed on his back, enveloping the alien’s body.
Whistler stiffened as the shocking energy blast convulsed through his body. Then he slumped to the floor, silent, unmoving. As Whistler hit the floor, Comet’s aggressive pose faded instantly, replaced with curiosity. Comet sat up straight on his hind legs and sniffed the air, obviously confused by what had happened. After a few seconds, when it was clear that Whistler wasn’t playing some kind of trick, the drannet grabbed the remote controller and carried it in his forepaws as he crept forward and sniffed Whistler.
Comet jumped on Whistler’s back and scampered towards his head. Trip was curious about what Comet was up to, but then he winced when Comet leaned over Whistler’s head and chomped down hard on Whistler’s ear! Trip shivered as he imagined what those sharp little teeth would feel like biting his own ears.
Comet turned and retrieved the remote controller, picking it up with his teeth. Then Trip realized exactly what Comet was carrying around in his teeth. Since Trip was sure Whistler had already keyed in Trip’s identity number, the drannet might accidently hit the wrong button and rupture the poison capsule.
Trip reached out with his hands, waving Comet to come to him.
"Come here, Comet! Come here, boy! Good drannet. Just give me that. Come on, now, put it down."
Comet, however, had other ideas. The drannet seemed to think that Trip was playing a game. As Trip pleaded with the creature, it hunched down into a pounce position. Comet’s head, neck and the forward part of his body hugged the ground, his hindquarters up in the air as his rear legs prepared to leap into the air. Comet’s tail waved back and forth playfully while he growled, clutching the controller in his teeth.
Trip pleaded, "Please, put that thing down!"
Trip reached for the controller but Comet jumped out of the way, just out of arm’s reach, growling and daring Trip to chase him. It was a game. Trip took a step toward Comet, who backed away another step.
Trip dropped to his hands and knees and looked the drannet in the eyes.
"I know you don’t understand, but please give me that. It’s not a toy!"
Trip reached out and this time, Comet let him grab the controller. Instead of releasing the device, Comet tried to play tug-of-war, pulling on his end of the controller and snarling half-playfully, half-ferociously while Trip tried to snake it away without hurting the small animal that had just saved his life.
Finally, Trip wrested the controller away by pulling on it with one hand while petting Comet on the neck with the other hand. Confused, Comet released the controller and rolled onto his back, expecting Trip to rub the thick blue fur on his chest and belly.
Trip petted him, explaining, "Good boy, Comet. Maybe you aren’t so bad after all."
Then, another blast rocked the Diamond Shadow. Trip couldn’t afford any more delays. He walked over to the escape pod and hit the open button once again. Nothing happened. Trip studied the controller and found the code to release the escape pod door. He pressed the button and this time the door slid open without delay.
Trip scooped Comet up into his arms and crawled towards the escape pod, telling the drannet, "Let’s get out of here!"
Trip crawled through the escape pod’s small door. The main compartment had six acceleration couches, with a single flight control panel. A hatch led to an emergency supplies cabinet. Small viewports sandwiched between the couches gave the passengers a view of space. At full capacity, the pod made for uncomfortable quarters. Even with just himself and Comet, it felt cramped.
Just like any other escape pod, the onboard supplies were probably barely adequate. Most pods of this type carried enough food packets and water to sustain six people for two weeks, plus emergency gear for survival if the pod crash-landed on a habitable planet. Behind the supply compartment were the pod’s engines, with just enough fuel for a few hours of flight. The pod had no lightspeed drive, no navigation computer, no artificial gravity generator, nor any weapons. It was merely emergency transportation.
Without even a message drone, if the people in the pod never got a message drone away before abandoning ship, they could be stranded on a strange planet for a very long time. In fact, there had been stories of people crashing on a planet and being stuck there for years until a passing ship just happened to pick up their transcomm transmissions.
Trip settled down behind the flight control and communications panel. He fired up the communications systems so he could send out a distress signal to the Golden Star. While Trip waited for the console to reach full power he had to scold Comet to take a seat since the drannet tried to wriggle up under Trip’s left arm to see what was happening. Comet snorted once, upset at being hollered at, but he quickly retreated to the next acceleration couch and sat quietly, watching Trip’s every move.
Trip hit the transmit button, selecting a general broadcast frequency he knew the Golden Star would pick up. As he was about to speak, the console flashed a simple, heartbreaking message:
COMMUNICATONS STATION LOCKED OUT FROM MAIN SHIP COMMAND.
"They know what I’m trying to do!"
Trip sighed in frustration. His escape pod shook as another blast pummeled the Diamond Shadow.
There was only one option.
"Hold on, Comet! We’re going into space," Trip said.
He secured the restraint belts to hold him in place during the high-gravity blast-off. Trip grabbed Comet and pulled him onto his chest, hoping he’d be able to hold the drannet tightly enough to protect him from the worst of the launch’s effects.
Trip closed his eyes and hoped for the best. He reached out and pressed the "LAUNCH" button. There was no way the Diamond Shadow’s bridge crew could override the escape pod’s launch systems.
Trip felt the escape pod rumble as its engines started. In seconds the engines were up to such a high energy level that Trip couldn’t hold his mouth shut to prevent his teeth from chattering. His arms felt like they were going to shake right off and he had to loosen his grip on Comet. The drannet was looking around the pod in terror, trying to figure out the cause of the sickening movement and the deafening roar.
Trip glanced out his viewport and saw the launch hatch slide out of the way, exposing the launch tube to space. However, instead of clear, open space, Trip saw a nightmarish vision of deep space combat. Intense flashes of light and energy beams filled his view. A pair of Frontier Ranger fighters flashed across, pursued by energy blasts from one of the Diamond Shadow’s energy cannons.
The Ranger fighters split up, one peeling back towards the Golden Star in the distance, while the other dove in closer to the Diamond Shadow, perhaps hoping to use the large pirate ship as cover. Trip saw more of the Diamond Shadow’s energy blasts arc across the sky, chasing after the second Ranger fighter. The fighter raced out of view but Trip saw a flash of light a split-second later, and then a plume of fire and glowing metal fragments erupted from the surface of the Diamond Shadow. As a shockwave rippled through the ship and rattled the escape pod, Trip knew the fighter had crashed into the Diamond Shadow and caused a tremendous explosion.
The escape pod’s vibrations increased until it felt like the pod would fall apart. Then the engines threw the pod into space. The launch shoved Trip down into his acceleration couch with such force that he couldn’t even lift his head.
The escape pod was in open space, spinning wildly through the battle. Trip saw pirate and Frontier Ranger fighters, as well as energy cannon beams and pieces of metal debris, some as small as coins and others as large as his escape pod, all tumbling in space around him.
The pod’s main drives cut out after just a few seconds. The intense blast was preprogrammed to send the pod hurtling away from its home ship, the assumption being that the pods would only be used in the last seconds before a home ship’s explosion. Now the escape pod tumbled through space, moved only by its own momentum.
Comet, looking pale and frightened, crawled off Trip’s chest and curled up on the next acceleration couch. Trip wasn’t sure, but he got the distinct impression that Comet was about to get sick.
Trip loosened the acceleration couch’s restraints just enough to reach for the flight and communication controls. He fired the pod’s thrusters to eliminate the spin and then aimed the pod towards the Golden Star.
Trip’s heart skipped a beat as he saw a pirate fighter flash by at close range. It was too close. The pirate fighter spun to the left and fired its maneuvering thrusters to rotate one hundred and eighty degrees, trying to turn and face a pursuing Frontier Ranger fighter. However, the Ranger fighter pilot had already anticipated the maneuver and swung low and left. The pirate fighter, now facing empty space instead of an enemy ship, seemed to hang in space.
Trip imagined the pilot racing to reorient his ship. The Ranger fighter swung low in a gentle curve and then cut up suddenly towards the pirate fighter. A volley of blue energy beams from the Ranger fighter finished the maneuver. The beams smashed into the pirate fighter. Trip looked on as first the rear wing was sheared off in a small burst of flame, sending the wing spinning off into space with a trail of energy and white metal shards flashing behind it.
Another energy beam smashed into the pirate fighter’s nose, slicing through its limited armor plating and igniting something that exploded in a bright blue blast. The explosion literally broke the fighter in half, snapping it like a branch. More energy beams smashed into the fighter’s main engines. It exploded in a ball of orange and red flame.
Trip braced himself as he felt small metal fragments pelt the side of the escape pod like a hailstorm.
"We’ve got to get out of this or we’ll get blasted," Trip said to Comet.
Trip reached down to turn on the communications transmitter. He paused, considering exactly what he should say. How would he convince them to listen to him? Would they even believe him? What if they decided to just blast the escape pod?
No, Trip told himself, I’ve cheated death too many times to go down this way. This has to work!
"Attention Frontier Ranger cruiser Golden Star! This is an emergency signal from the escape pod drifting just off your port side! You have to break off the attack on the pirate ship Diamond Shadow! There are over two dozen civilian Sh’nar being held prisoner on that ship! Please help!"
Trip paused, counting the moments while he waited for a response.
Trip saw through the viewport that he’d set his course correctly. The Golden Star was looming larger and larger every second. The Ranger cruiser was nearly twice the size of the Diamond Shadow.
A pair of heavy energy cannons opened up again on the Diamond Shadow, the blasts ripping through the shields and cutting into the protective hull plating. The Diamond Shadow was badly damaged. The engines were out and the ship was now listing badly. Trip could spot at least half a dozen fires burning inside the ship. There were several spots where the hull plating had been gouged away, revealing ruined internal decks. A cloud of energy blasts, debris and fighters seemed to envelop the crippled pirate cruiser. The battle would not—could not—last much longer.
Finally, Trip heard the transcomm come to life.
"Attention, escape pod. Explain yourself. Are you to have us believe that you are an escaped prisoner?"
Trip was about to answer when he noticed that one of the Golden Star’s guns was turning away from the Diamond Shadow and towards his escape pod. Trip realized it was tracking him, ready to blast the escape pod into space dust if they didn’t believe him or thought he presented a danger to their ship.
Choosing his words with the utmost care, Trip hit the transmit button again.
"I’m not an escaped prisoner—well, I am in a way."
Trip groaned as he thought to himself, So much for a smooth delivery.
"I was captured by this pirate gang on Karrison and forced to serve with them. But they captured a Sh’nar convoy after it left Capessia. They’re holding all of the Sh’nar as prisoners. They’re going to let them all die if you don’t do something!"
Trip’s mind raced as he tried to think of some way to convince them he was telling the truth.
The escape pod was rammed by a large piece of debris, sending it spinning, but fortunately the hull stayed intact. Now the Golden Star filled his viewports as he drifted farther and farther from the heart of the battle. The gun turned, the cannons lowering, still tracking his escape pod.
Trip hit transmit again.
"Please! You’ve got to believe me! I’m the one who sent the message drone that called you here in the first place. Compare my voice to that message."
Trip listened and waited as his escape pod drifted in closer to the Golden Star. The Rangers were running out of time. They either had to take the escape pod onboard or destroy it. He hoped they’d believe him. Comet growled, sounding afraid, and Trip reached out to stroke his back.
"It will be okay, Comet. I hope," Trip whispered as he stared at the Frontier Ranger cruiser. Comet curled up beside him and started purring softly.
The moments dragged on as the Golden Star got closer and closer. Then the escape pod suddenly lurched as if it had been snagged on a hook. It was an invisible tractor beam. Trip shut down the pod’s drive system. Now that he was in the Golden Star’s tractor beam, there was no way the escape pod, with its comparatively weak engines, would be able to break the beam’s grip anyway.
Trip watched through the viewports as the escape pod was pulled in close to the Golden Star’s hull, drifting along towards the belly of the ship. The Golden Star’s guns had stopped firing. Trip looked for the Diamond Shadow and finally found her, a wild orange glow highlighting the ship in the blackness of space. Fires aboard the pirate ship raged out of control. The Frontier Ranger fighters still buzzed the Diamond Shadow.
As the escape pod was pulled below the Golden Star’s lower edge, Trip spotted a huge belly landing bay, with launch cradles for catapulting dozens of fighters into space. As he was pulled into the bay, Trip spotted support craft—repair drones, work pods, landing craft and assault shuttles—arrayed in holding berths that stretched five levels high from floor to ceiling. The landing bay took up a good portion of the Golden Star’s interior. This was a full-fledged combat ship!
The Diamond Shadow never stood a chance against her.
Trip felt a momentary wobble as the escape pod was transferred from the external tractor beam generators to the smaller but more precise landing tractor beams inside the landing bay. The beams gently guided the escape pod to a soft touchdown on the main deck.
Trip unsealed the pod’s main hatch. As he pushed the hatch open, he saw a half dozen energy pistols pointed right at his face. Behind the guns were somber-faced Frontier Rangers in their familiar blue and crimson uniforms.
Trip immediately raised his hands.
"Hey, whoa, whoa! I surrender! Hold on. Don’t fire!"
One of the Rangers muttered, "It’s just a kid."
The one who seemed to be in charge—probably a squad commander—holstered his weapon and told two of the other Rangers, "Get him out of there. We need to talk."
Trip was grabbed roughly by the arms and pulled from the escape pod. Comet came bounding out of the pod, snarling and growling at the strangers, but Trip explained, "It’s okay. He’s with me. He’s kind of a pet."
Trip held his arms out to Comet, who rushed over and jumped into them. Trip explained, "Believe it or not, this little thing saved my life."
The squad commander seemed unimpressed. He spoke quickly, his stiff bearing and grim expression making it clear that he wasn’t going to put up with any nonsense.
"You told our bridge crew that there were Sh’nar prisoners aboard that vessel. Do you have any evidence to back that up?"
"No, I don’t. I wish I did. But I didn’t have much time. It took all I had just to escape from that ship."
The officer laughed sarcastically.
"Escape? You’re dressed like one of them! I don’t think you are who you say you are. I think you turned coward and came here to beg for your life."
"No! No!" Trip shouted. "That’s not it at all! They forced me to join them. They threatened to kill me if I didn’t help."
Trip showed them the scar on his neck.
"That scar is where they put a poison capsule. The captain—Diamond Black Joe—uses them to keep all of his crewmembers under control. It just takes a signal from a remote controller to rupture the capsule and kill the target."
The commander asked, "Then why aren’t you dead?"
Trip held up the controller. "One of the pirates wanted a personal showdown. Comet here distracted him and I was able to get the controller."
One of the Rangers grabbed the controller and examined it closely. He reported, "It is a highly modified controller. His story might be true, boss."
The commander nodded and turned back to Trip. "I don’t know if I believe you, kid, but the Captain does. He’s having assault troops suit up for a boarding action. But we still have a major problem. It will be difficult to capture the pirate ship. We don’t even have a copy of the deckplans, so we don’t know where to concentrate our forces."
Trip couldn’t help but smile.
"You need deckplans? Like the ones I have stored on this portable computer?"
"Really?" the commander asked. "That’s convenient."
"I needed a set of them so I could sneak around the Diamond Shadow without getting caught. And their internal security—well, let’s just say it isn’t the best."
Trip offered the squad commander his computer. The commander eagerly took it and scrolled through several screens before handing it to one of his troops.
"Here. Take this to information systems and download the plans. Each assault trooper gets a copy. And send a copy to the main projector on each assault shuttle. We have to map out a battle plan."
Trip wanted to tell him more, but the squad commander had already turned on his heel and was walking towards the assault shuttles.
One of the other Rangers grabbed Trip by the arm, saying, "Come with me. We’ll get you cleaned up and let you get some rest."
Trip broke free of the Ranger’s grasp and caught up with the commander. "Let me help with the plan. I know where the prisoners are and even where the pirate troops are concentrated. A lot of the crewmembers are away from the Diamond Shadow now. They’re delivering the captured Sh’nar ships to black marketeers."
"That’s good, kid," the commander spat out, not even slowing his pace.
"But you don’t understand!"
Trip stepped in front of the squad commander. The commander stopped, anger flashing in his hazel eyes.
"What, kid? Don’t you see I’ve got a mission to finish? I do not have time for this!"
"You’ve got to move quickly and take that ship. Diamond Black Joe won’t surrender. He’ll dump the Sh’nar prisoners into space if he thinks they’re getting in the way."
The squad commander said, "Look, Frontier Ranger operations are no place for a civilian, a kid …."
Then he looked directly into Trip’s eyes. Something, perhaps the intensity in the boy’s eyes, made him pause.
"Well, the Captain wanted this. Let him deal with the paperwork. Come on, kid, let’s go plan a battle."
The battle plans were mapped out as Trip pointed out the Diamond Shadow’s airlocks, weapons systems and key troop concentrations. The Ranger troops climbed into their deep space combat suits while the Golden Star’s captain ordered the Ranger fighters to maintain a pattern of low-damage, harassment attacks. The idea was to keep the pirates busy so they wouldn’t be prepared to respond to the Rangers’ boarding action.
Trip beamed with pride as he realized that the Rangers were listening to him. These Rangers—the toughest lawmen on the galactic frontier—actually followed his suggestions.
Within moments, the Ranger troops were armed and aboard their assault shuttles, while Trip found himself on the bridge, standing next to the Captain’s chair. He had a breathtaking view of the battle. The Golden Star’s viewports offered an amazing view in all directions. Trip watched respectfully while he held Comet, who seemed like he wanted nothing more than to sleep in Trip’s arms.
Off to Trip’s left—the ship’s port side—he could see the Diamond Shadow. It was much the same as it had been before: listing, battered, portions of the ship shattered, with huge, black battle scars where the Golden Star’s weapons had dug into the armor plating. Perhaps a dozen fighters—a roughly equal number of pirate and Ranger fighters—circled the Diamond Shadow in a deadly ballet, tumbling through space and trading deadly green, blue and red energy beams. The Golden Star’s massive energy cannons were silent instead of showering destruction down upon the Diamond Shadow.
There was an air of confidence aboard the bridge, a sense that victory was a certainty and defeat inconceivable. Trip felt out of place in his filthy and tattered clothing, his skin crawling like he hadn’t bathed in months. The Rangers’ military discipline was a different world from the barely restrained chaos aboard the Diamond Shadow.
Right in front of the Captain, a detailed hologram floated in mid-air, showing the details of the battle. Trip watched as tiny images of light duplicated the maneuvers of the Ranger and pirate fighters, while an image of the Diamond Shadow hovered in the center. As Trip glanced out the viewport and saw a pirate fighter explode in a flash of white-hot light, its corresponding holographic icon faded off the battle map as if it had never existed.
The hologram showed the Diamond Shadow’s status, indicating current damage levels, location and status of weapons and shield generators, and other battle data. The Golden Star’s bridge crew was quiet and orderly.
A sensor operator announced, "Captain Harkins, sensor readouts show the Diamond Shadow to be severely damaged. All drive systems disabled. Primary shield generators destroyed and secondary shields down to thirty percent. Weapons systems downgraded and only two cannons remain operative. They are down to five—now four—fighters. They refuse to answer our demands for surrender. It appears that they are willing to fight to the end."
Captain Harkins asked, "What is the status of critical internal systems?"
"Internal heat readings indicate the main power core is overloading and close to exploding. If nothing is done, it could detonate within minutes. There are several hull breaches, although the emergency bulkheads seem to be holding. We estimate moderate casualties. However, there are several areas of severe superstructure stress. That could lead to critical fractures and cause the Diamond Shadow’s hull to buckle."
Captain Harkins nodded before speaking again.
"If we’re going to save the ship, we have to act now. What is the status of the assault team, Flight Operations Officer?"
"Assault shuttles have just launched, sir. They should rendezvous with the Diamond Shadow in one minute and forty seconds."
Trip looked out the viewport and saw six assault shuttles, similar in design to the one he’d been aboard during the attack on the Sh’nar ships. Then he realized that they were much more heavily armed, with four energy cannons each, two fore and two aft. Trip also noticed their speed. They were almost as fast as the fighters, compared to the relatively slow pirate shuttles. The Ranger assault shuttles raced across open space towards the Diamond Shadow.
Almost instantly, six more blue points of light—miniature representations of the assault shuttles—appeared on the holographic battle map. The shuttles kept in tight formation at first. Then, as they neared the Diamond Shadow, they split into pairs, two headed for the bridge area, two for the lower docking bay and the last two for the ship’s midsection. It was all according to plan; the last two shuttles were headed for the area where the Sh’nar prisoners were being held.
One of the Diamond Shadow’s turrets suddenly swung around to target a Ranger shuttle. It fired off a quick blast. The shots slammed into the shuttle, buffeting it as the destructive energy splashed off the shields in a spectacular fireworks display.
"The shuttle suffered no significant damage," one of the bridge crew members announced.
Captain Harkins called out, "Order our fighters to concentrate on the pirate ship’s two remaining cannons. I want them knocked out of commission. Now."
The crewman offered a quick, "Yes, sir," before relaying the orders.
"Evac shuttle has just launched," another voice called out.
Through the viewport, Trip saw another assault shuttle roar off towards the Diamond Shadow, but this one was empty instead of packed with assault troops. After the other shuttle secured the airlock, the plan was to herd the Sh’nar prisoners onto the evac shuttle and whisk them away to safety. Then, the Ranger boarding troops would slug it out with the pirates in shipboard combat.
Trip watched silently as two pirate fighters swarmed after the assault shuttles. The Ranger shuttles held them back, ripping off volleys of energy blasts. The shuttles instantly destroyed one fighter and forced the last fighter to break off the attack.
The Ranger fighters split into three pairs. Two pairs strafed the last of the Diamond Shadow’s energy cannons. When two red clouds of flame shot out into space, Captain Harkins grinned for just a second before his stone-faced command presence returned.
"Well, Trip, that takes care of the Diamond Shadow’s weapons. Now our shuttles are all clear for boarding," Harkins said softly.
The final pair of Ranger fighters hounded the last pirate fighter, which was now trying to flee the scene and break into open space. The pirate fighter disappeared from view as it dipped under and then flew behind the Diamond Shadow. Trip glanced over to the holographic battle map and saw the two blue icons representing the Ranger fighters closing on the pirate fighter. The Ranger fighters circled around behind. There was no escape. Suddenly, the red image of the pirate fighter disappeared off the map as the ship was destroyed.
The two Ranger fighters suddenly appeared, flying up and above the far side of the Diamond Shadow. As they passed the two assault shuttles closing in on the bridge, the pair of fighters gave a coordinated victory flip.
Now there was nothing to defend the Diamond Shadow. Her fighters and weapons were destroyed. All the Rangers had to do was whisk the Sh’nar prisoners to safety and seize the bridge.
Where just minutes ago the space around the Diamond Shadow was filled with energy beams, now there was no sign of combat. It was as if the Ranger shuttles were guarding a crypt in space.
Captain Harkins called Trip over to a duty station with perhaps a dozen video screens. Then Trip realized that the screens were tied to cameras in the Rangers’ combat suits. Trip saw space and the hull of the Diamond Shadow, then a flash of brilliant blue fusion cutter beams as they sliced through the outer airlock.
"I thought you’d want to watch the rescue mission," Captain Harkins commented.
Trip watched as the first group of six Rangers forced their way through the airlock.
"Seal the breach," one of the Rangers commanded. Within moments, a flexible, metallic tarp was draped over the airlock, adhesives fastening the tarp to the main hull.
Harkins explained, "It’s a woven combination metal and ceramic fiber. Obviously not as strong as hull plating, but it will hold a seal for a few minutes. It was designed for emergency hull patches. And, of course, boarding actions like this one, so you don’t expose a ship’s passengers to space."
The tarp was secured down the middle by magnetic fasteners so it could be opened and closed, just like a tent flap.
Trip glanced out the viewport and saw the evacuation shuttle cozy up to the airlock, right over the tarp. From one trooper’s audio pickups, Trip heard metallic clamps fasten to the hull around the airlock as the shuttle docked with the Diamond Shadow. There was now a seal between the shuttle and the pirate cruiser.
The Rangers fired up their fusion cutters again, this time slicing through the airlock’s inner door. It took just seconds. As the cameras bobbed and the images jerked around, Trip strained to follow what was going on.
One of the Rangers shouted, "Drop your weapons! We’re Frontier Rangers. Surrender now and no one will be injured!"
Four pirate guards, all standing just inside the door, responded by firing their energy pistols at the Rangers. The blasts splashed harmlessly off the Rangers’ spacesuit armor. The Rangers responded with four quick shots, each on target. The pirates all collapsed to the ground. The Sh’nar prisoners, over two dozen of them, stood speechless.
"Or, we can do this the hard way. They always pick the hard way, don’t they boss?" one of the Rangers quipped.
Another Ranger stepped forward.
"This is your evacuation shuttle. Hurry aboard so we can clear the ship."
The prisoners moved as quickly as they could despite being bound by the slaving rigs. The Ranger commander barked, "Jennings, accompany the Sh’nar on their shuttle. Cut those blasted slaving rigs off them."
As the Sh’nar filed onto their evac shuttle, one Sh’nar—it was Clanmother Son’knex—stopped and asked the commander, "How did you know to come and get us?"
"A young boy. I think his name is Trip."
The clanmother nodded and motioned to the final two Sh’nar, who were cradling an unconscious Sh’nar onboard the evac shuttle. Trip recognized the unconscious alien as Jinx.
Captain Harkins said, "Don’t worry. We already have our medical crews down in the landing bay. You know, if you got moving right now, you could get to the bay by the time their shuttle arrives. They might want to see a familiar face when they get here."
Trip barely stopped to thank Captain Harkins before he was on his way.
Trip reached the bay just as the evac shuttle touched down. It was a frustrating wait as the shuttle landed and lowered its walkway. The medical crews were first in line but Trip hung just behind them, eager to see how Jinx was doing.
The first Sh’nar off was Clanmother Son’knex, elegant and self-assured as ever. She looked at Trip and acknowledged him with a nod before heading onto the open deck. Then Trip saw another Sh’nar helping someone to the stairs. The Sh’nar being helped was Jinx! She was limping and she looked like she was exhausted, but she was moving under her own power.
Jinx spotted Trip as soon as she started down the walkway. Her pace quickened as she hurried to reach Trip. As soon as she reached the floor, she moved past the medics, squealing, "Trip!"
She wrapped him in one of her hugs.
Comet growled as he felt like he was going to be squished, but as soon as he sniffed the air and realized it was Jinx, he let out a contented yelp and reached over to snuggle up against her. Jinx and Trip lost track of time as they stood and talked, ecstatic that they were all finally safe. The only time they stopped their animated retelling of the whole adventure was when the fleet of assault shuttles returned to the Golden Star and began unloading the captured pirates.
There were many men and aliens they didn’t recognize, but then Trip spotted Datz in manacles. A few minutes later, Whistler and Diamond Black Joe joined the pirate captives on the flight deck. None of the pirates dared to say a word, but Trip shivered when Diamond Black Joe spotted him and smiled cruelly.
As they were being led away, Jinx looked at Trip and said, "They’d better get used to being in chains."
Trip grinned. "Yeah, but it looks good on them!"
Trip stood, watching, and it finally hit him that they’d been successful. They’d freed the prisoners and stopped the pirate gang. He wondered what Uncle Craz would think of all of this.
The commander who first talked to Trip when he was brought aboard the Golden Star walked up to Trip, drenched in sweat and tired-looking, but smiling.
"Kid—Trip—thanks for helping us. I’m glad I listened to you. It was a good mission, a success. There’ll be a layover at Capessia so we can get rid of the pirates and then we’ll get you back home to Karrison."
Three days later, a Frontier Ranger shuttle dropped into Karrison’s atmosphere. The shuttle gently settled down in a landing bay at Pennick’s Crossing Cargo Port. As the walkway lowered, Trip stepped into the bright afternoon sun and inhaled the fresh air. He scratched at scars where a tatoo and the poison capsule had been removed. The fresh quick-skin itched as it healed.
Trip turned to Jinx and said, "Boy, it feels good to be home!"
"I’m just glad Uncle Craz offered to fix our ship. I can’t imagine what those pirates did to it."
Comet crawled from Trip’s arm to his shoulders and perched there, sunning himself. Trip went to take a step but had to stop as the drannet dug in to hold on.
"Hey, Comet, no claws! These clothes are new."
From behind them a stern voice said, "Move it, little ones. We can’t keep the Rangers waiting all day."
Trip and Jinx looked at each other before saying in unison, "Yes, Clanmother Son’knex!"
In the bay, Uncle Craz, Brick and Johnnie O. waited. Johnnie tried not to appear too starstruck by the prospect of meeting a group of Frontier Rangers.
Trip and Jinx raced over to Uncle Craz, with Clanmother Son’knex and a Ranger officer not far behind.
Uncle Craz called out, "Trip! Stop and let me look at you!"
Trip beamed with pride as his uncle smiled, looking him over from head to toe.
"What’s that thing on your shoulder, Trip?"
"His name’s Comet. Jinx picked him out, but he seems to want to stay with me. And he saved my life. Can we keep him?"
"Well, if he saved your life, I guess we have to."
Craz paused and studied his nephew some more. "The Rangers told me what you did. I’m proud of you. Your mom and dad would be proud of you if they were here."
Trip patted his alyaman and it whistled softly. He said, "Somehow, I think they know about this."
Uncle Craz hugged Trip, then Jinx. "I’m so proud of both of you!"
Clanmother Son’knex walked up to Uncle Craz and stood respectfully, waiting for a chance to speak.
Uncle Craz asked, "Clanmother, how are you feeling?"
She bowed. "I am quite well. And thank you, old friend, for offering to repair our ship. And for raising such a resourceful nephew."
Craz messed up Trip’s hair, saying, "He’s a good kid, isn’t he?"
Trip said nothing as he blushed.
The Ranger officer stepped up.
"On behalf of the Frontier Rangers, I am here to commend your nephew for tremendous courage in a life-threatening situation. Thanks to his efforts, all of the Sh’nar were rescued without injury. The pirate gang is confined at a prison facility. They won’t be bothering anyone for a long time. Plus, we were able to track down the Sh’nar ships by the coordinates on the Diamond Shadow’s navigation computers. We recovered all of the stolen freighters."
The officer turned to Son’knex. "Clanmother Son’knex, your vessels will arrive here by tomorrow afternoon."
"Thank you," Clanmother Son’knex said quietly.
The Ranger turned back to Uncle Craz and continued.
"With the information we learned, the slaving ring has been broken up. Thanks to Trip, we managed to rescue over five hundred slaves who were previously thought to be lost in deep-space incidents and presumed dead. We performed minor surgery on Trip to remove the tatoo and the poison capsule that had been injected into him by the pirates."
Trip asked, "Uncle Craz, Clanmother Son’knex, is it okay if we head out to Draul’s for a real meal? That Ranger food nearly killed us. I don’t know how the Rangers can stay so healthy on that stuff."
The Ranger cracked a smile. Uncle Craz and Clanmother Son’knex looked at each other and nooded.
Uncle Craz leaned over to Son’knex and whispered, "Brings back memories, doesn’t it? We were like that once … a long time ago."
Son’knex nodded. Finally, she let the tiniest of smiles creep across her face.
"Go ahead," Uncle Craz said. "One thing, though. Next time you disappear, tell me before you leave."
Trip laughed. Then he, Jinx and Johnnie O. headed out of the landing bay and into the bustling streets of the Cargo Port. Johnnie wanted to know the whole story.
"Where were you? When you didn’t show up, I was worried that you’d be too scared to fly a scooter again!"
Trip smiled and clapped Johnnie O. on the back.
"Boy, have I got a story to tell you!"
As the three tore off into the street, Jinx asked, "Why do I get the feeling that this is just the beginning of the story, not the ending?"
As an independent writer and publisher, I take great pride in being able to share my stories directly with readers. Thank you for reading!
Be sure to visit www.BillSmithBooks.com or www.OutlawGalaxy.com to find out about the latest Outlaw Galaxy short stories, ebooks and novels.
If you enjoy this Outlaw
Galaxy adventure, I'd ask you to consider purchasing one of the
other Outlaw Galaxy ebooks
novels at BillSmithBooks.com.
Or, you can show your support by tossing some spare change into the Tip
Jar (see below).
Remember, I'm just a small, independent publisher. For me, every single reader and every single sale really matters.
THANK YOU FOR SUPPORTING
Each issue of my newsletter includes news and previews of upcoming Outlaw Galaxy books.
Read my newsletter at www.BillSmithBooks.com/newsletter.htm.
OUTLAW GALAXY BOOKS
Read the latest adventures in the Outlaw Galaxy saga! Outlaw Galaxy 2: Fugitive Among the Stars and Outlaw Galaxy 3: Hunter's Truth and Other Tales are now available. To learn more or read sample chapters.
Outlaw Galaxy 3: Hunter's Truth and Other Tales. Seven short stories filled with the adventure and wonder of the Outlaw Galaxy universe. (24,000 words.)
Order the Ebook (HTML file): Just $1.
Outlaw Galaxy 2: Fugitive Among the Stars. Trip and his friends are planning a simple vacation in the wilderness of Karrison, but they are caught in a life and death battle against the hired guns of gangster Croll Weixx! (72,500 words.)
Order the Ebook (HTML file): Just $2.
Outlaw Galaxy 1: Trip and the Space Pirates. Trip dreams of someday traveling to the stars...but he never imagined that he'd be kidnapped and forced to join Diamond Black Joe's pirate gang! (69,000 words)
Order the Printed Version: $4.00!
Read the ebook online for free--donations to the Tip Jar cheerfully accepted!
To order: Visa, Mastercard and other credit/debit card orders are processed through PayPal.
* Go to www.PayPal.com:
* "Send Money" (in the correct amount) to email@example.com
* In the message fields, be sure to list the items, price and quantity ordered. For ebooks, please provide your email address. For printed books, please provide your name and physical address.
To Pay by Cash, Check or Money Order. Mail to:
Bill Smith Books
PO Box 124
Malone, NY 12953
All prices are in US funds. For all orders, be sure to list the items, price and quantity ordered.
Ebooks: Pricing is good around the world (PayPal has a currency conversion calculator so you can conveniently pay the US equivalent in your home currency). Ebooks will be emailed to you as attachments. Be sure to provide your email address with your order.
Printed Books: All prices are per copy and include applicable sales tax, postage, shipping and handling to U.S. addresses. Printed books will be autographed upon request. Be sure to include your name and mailing address with your order. International Orders: For printed books to be mailed outside the U.S., please email firstname.lastname@example.org for pricing details.
Outlaw Galaxy ebooks are simple HTML files that may be read in any web browser such as Firefox or Internet Explorer. They have no DRM (Digital Rights Management), so you may save them to your computer, make backup copies, print, reformat and even share with friends. (More details below.)
THE TIP JAR
If you enjoyed these Outlaw Galaxy stories, any contribution to the Tip Jar is welcome, whether it’s a dime or a quarter for a short story or a buck or two for a novel. Your support and encouragement is greatly appreciated and enables me to keep on writing and publishing Outlaw Galaxy stories. Thank you!
To toss into the Tip Jar via credit card or PayPal, go to www.PayPal.com and "Send Money" to: email@example.com.
To contribute via cash, check, or money order, mail to:
Bill Smith Books
PO Box 124
Malone, NY 12953
OUTLAW GALAXY EBOOKS
Outlaw Galaxy ebooks are affordable and easy to use. They're in HTML, a "universal format" that can be read by any web browser, including Firefox, Safari or Internet Explorer. No special software, no conversions, no encryption--just click on the file (or open with Firefox) and start reading.
These ebooks and stories are formatted to reduce eyestrain while reading onscreen, but you can adjust your browser's settings to suit your tastes. Go to "View," drop down to "Text Size" and increase or decrease as desired. You can also change your browser's font and color settings.
You can print directly from this file. If you wish to reformat the story, "Save as" to .txt format (plain text) or highlight the text and paste it into a word processor (such as AbiWord) and then apply whatever formatting you prefer. You can convert this story to PDF format with any of the free PDF convertors, such as PrimoPDF or the FoxIt PDF Editor (FoxItSoftware.com).
All of the major ebook reading devices can read either HTML, .txt or PDF files, but there are many free programs to convert files into specialty ebook formats for use on your cellphone, PDA or other portable device.
Why Pay? Some of you may be wondering why you should pay for an Outlaw Galaxy ebook.
Here's my thinking: They're a dollar or two. Each book provides hours of entertainment. And Outlaw Galaxy ebooks are customer friendly, so you can use the ebook the way you want to.
Compare that to other items: Novels run about $8 these days. Comic books are $3-4 an issue. Don't get me started on the price of gas or a movie.
As for other publishers' ebooks? Many come with DRM to prevent you from making backup copies or printing. There are format issues: Will this ebook work on my computer or portable device? Not to mention that many publishers' ebooks are much more expensive.
But if a buck or two is over your budget, get some friends to chip in. Have them toss in a dime or a quarter...it adds up. Then read and share.
These ebooks are shipped without any form of DRM, so you can make backup copies, print, and reformat for other devices such as PDAs and cell phones. And I think it's cool if you want to share them with a few friends.
You don't see movie studios or record labels doing that, do you?
No. They sue people (even little old ladies who don't actually own computers). They treat their customers like criminals. They secretly install spyware and rootkits that can destroy your computer. They tell you that you're not allowed to make back-up copies of stuff you've already paid for. They want to make "piracy" a crime punishable with enormous fines and jail time.
Me? I'm trying to be reasonable. I offer Outlaw Galaxy ebooks at a fair price, in an easy-to-use HTML format that can be read by any web browser, and with no DRM. I expressly give you permission to print them, make backup-copies, and format them for use on other devices.
And I think it's cool if you share them with a few friends. I discovered most of my favorite authors by word-of-mouth from friends or by borrowing from libraries, so it's okay with me if you slip a few copies to other people who'll enjoy these Outlaw Galaxy stories. Just don't sell these stories, make any changes or post them on other websites.
So if you like these stories and want to see more, please consider showing some support with a purchase or by tossing something into the Tip Jar.
LET ME KNOW WHAT YOU THINK: I love to hear from my readers. Send comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
To the Stars!
-- Bill Smith
COPYRIGHT NOTICE: © 2009 by Bill Smith. Permission granted to copy this story for personal use and limited sharing as outlined in this Author's Note. This work may not be altered, resold, or reposted on other websites without the author's permission.
Author reserves all other rights, including (but not limited to) derivative works, adaptations, dramatizations, licensing, merchandise, and subsequent stories in any form using Outlaw Galaxy characters and situations. For further information or commercial permissions, contact the author at email@example.com.
END AUTHOR'S NOTE