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An Outlaw Galaxy short story
by Bill Smith
www.BillSmithBooks.com | www.OutlawGalaxy.com
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I remember the exact moment when I lost my best friend.
It was one of those glorious summer hot days at Port Tarrant Starport, late afternoon, the time when you know the call for dinner is coming soon. And while dinner itself isn't so bad, it's what comes after that you dread. After dinner is the time of chores and baths and finishing school work you'd been putting off 'till the last minute.
Dinner means an end to a day spent with your best friend.
But we still had an hour, perhaps two, before dinner and we were determined to enjoy the time we had left. It was just Moas and I, sitting on the bench of the observation deck, watching the starships.
The clouds were low over the city -- so low that you could hear the roars of the motors even before the ships appeared. It was so hot that sweat trickled down your nose and ran into your eyes, and no matter how much krazzi'mist you drank, you couldn't get cool.
Of course, we could've stayed cool if we went inside...but then we wouldn't be able to watch the starships come and go, and that...that was what summer was all about.
We were perched on the observation deck, above the landing bays, five stories up. We felt like kings as we looked down on the streets, watching the hawkers and merchant booths, the transports as they shuttled from the landing bays to Tarrant's distant warehouses and back, over and over again, an endless parade. Up here, we could look down on the landing bays spread out before us like miniature models. Crews of robots and men and aliens rushed around the freighters, refueling, making repairs, loading and unloading crates that contained the most marvelous goods from hundreds of distant worlds. We could see out across the entire starport, watching each ship come and go.
That was the best part of summer.
"That one," Moas suddenly called out, pointing towards an old Shazi-style freighter that rumbled in from the west. I couldn't figure out which specific model it was since there was a run of five or six lines about sixty years back that looked almost identical. All I knew, though, was that she was old.
The Shazi was flying just above the building rooftops, great licks of fire shooting from her engines as she started gliding down. Three landing skids shot out from the ship's underside. The battered white hull was decorated with gold and blue trim, the name Sharrokoll painted next to the seal of the planet Zgani'kei.
I stared at the ship, noticing the numerous battle scars on her hull, the faded trim...and yet she moved with a grace that was impossible to hide.
"A smuggling ship," I said.
I was just about to get started when Moas took a drink from his bottle of krazzi'mist, wiped his lip and shook his head. "You say that about every ship, Broden."
"Do not," I said, bristling at the thought. If anything, I was creative. Never the same story twice.
I stopped to recall the day's encounters. "There was the freighter out of Kthas -- the one that was sheltering the prince and his love, the pair of them disguised as commoners as they hid from her father's mercenaries and tried to get to the secret Maarohke'eiln Temple in the N'Crix Belt."
"That's one." Moas admitted. He frowned. "And?"
I mentally ran through the day's other ships.
A-ha! "What about the Lay-lo? Aboard her, an Ayos'hei mystic who's been entrusted with a sacred kyaidae, what they call a 'sliver of life crystal.' He's taking it halfway across the galaxy, back to the mysterious planet Hau'jhin...but he knows this quest will have to be handed off to a young adept, pure of spirit, brave and noble. The old mystic knows he will not live to complete the long, dangerous journey. Instead, he will sacrifice himself in a battle against Drixxian mercenaries to give the adept a chance to escape and prevent the kyaidae from falling into the hands of the gangster Lirssin."
My heart began to beat faster at the thought of that one. It was going to be a grand adventure.
I smiled at Moas. "There was that one."
Moas took a breath and sighed. "I suppose...but almost every ship? A smuggler...a bounty hunter...a young adventurer out to find his fortune?" He looked out across the starport. It had dozens of landing bays. Most of them were filled with small freighters just like the Sharrokoll.
He turned back to me and shrugged. "They can't all be like that. Somebody's got to be hauling robot parts, food, clothing."
I didn't know what to say. The comment was an unwelcome intrusion.
And in that moment, my friend, my best friend...was different.
He looked older. Wiser.
He looked down at the Sharrokoll as she dropped, settling neatly between the faded yellow guide marks painted on the bay's floor. The ship's landing lights flickered as a pair of robots lugged a hose towards the refueling port at the back of the ship.
I saw the gleam come back into his eyes, but it was dimmer than before. He nodded towards the newly arrived ship. "So, what's the Sharrokoll's story?"
I studied it for a few moments before I began. "Well, she looks like any ordinary freighter -- old, a little beaten up -- but you saw how she flew in here. She was as smooth as...as Brialgi fast-talking his way out of trouble when he got cornered in the lair of Chiem the Scandalous One. That means she's got some mighty powerful engines pushing her through space. You don't need those for lugging around robot parts or food. And those laser cannons? I bet the captain's got some extra power generators hidden away to give those cannons the power to slice through armor plating like it was flimsiplast. No, she looks like a normal ship...but there's a lot more to her than meets the eye."
"Go on," he said.
I pointed at the rear of the Sharrokoll's hull. "You see those blast marks on the hull? That ship's been in some terrible battles. I bet they fought the Emosi Pirates at the --"
Now where would a ship like that have been in a battle?
Then I looked at Moas and smiled. "At the Cursed Rings of Kriecc!"
And from there, the story just spilled out of me. I could picture everything in my mind -- the blue energy beams reaching out from the pirate ship, trying to blast away the Sharrokoll's engines and destroy her laser cannons. Kriecc filling the sky, the green gas giant observing this struggle of life and death as the Sharrokoll dove down through one of the outer rings, dodging asteroids the size of houses, dust sandblasting the hull as she desperately tried to outrun the pirate ship....
"The captain of the Sharrokoll was terrible afraid she was going to die...told her crew to fight to the end...but she knew the pirates had a bigger, faster ship and better guns...and lots of bloodthirsty thieves eager to get their hands on the fuel cylinders she had in the hold. There was no getting away --"
I paused and raised my eyebrows. "No way to escape."
"But?" Moas finally asked, knowing I wouldn't go on without the encouragement.
"But then, a mysterious black ship was detected off the pirates' bow. No hyperspace energy burst, no flash of light. One moment, it was just the Sharrokoll and the pirate cruiser locked in mortal combat, only escape or death...and the next, this black ship just appears, like a phantom...like a ghost ship. The Sharrokoll's captain, why, she took the chance to turn tail and run for open space, while the pirates turned and fought off the black ship. And the Sharrokoll's captain, well, her jaw hit the deckplates when she saw that the pirates' energy bolts passed right through this black ship like...like she wasn't even there! Maybe she was a ghost ship after all."
I took a deep breath and pointed towards the ship. "As for the Sharrokoll, she delivered that cargo to Orocies right on schedule. But the captain, she's vowed never to go near Kriecc again...."
I paused, squinted, and let out a sly smile. "Less'n of course, the price is right."
Moas nodded and let out a slight chuckle. "That's a good one."
I nodded and looked across the starport. Yeah, it was.
I heard Moas release a long, slow, heavy breath. He sounded like the burden of the Billion Worlds was pushing down on him.
"I'm not going to be able to come here much longer," he finally said. "Dad wants to start training me. Says I'm gonna take over the family business someday, so...."
He paused. He sounded so sad.
"Dad says I need to get started. Now. That way I'll be ready when the time comes. 'Time to grow up,' he says." Moas looked at me, then glanced away, staring down at the landing bay below us.
I wanted to say just the right thing -- but try as I might, I could find no right thing to say. I kept quiet.
Moas started talking, a ramble, all of it coming out, all at once. He wasn't talking to me as much as he was talking to himself and I just happened to be there to listen.
"Don't like the idea much. Dad's always mad or upset about something. Even when he's home, it's like he's not really there." Moas shrugged. "But I'm going to have to learn. Dad says, 'You're not supposed to like work. That's why they call it work!' He says it like it's something I should just accept. 'Part of being a man,' he says. He told me that what matters is making as much money as you can. That's what life's all about."
Moas paused, like he was trying to think it over. He looked up into the low clouds that filled the sky. His voice was a whisper. "I guess he's right."
I didn't know what to say.
I turned to watch as one of the spacers we'd talked about yesterday made his way across the landing bay towards his ship. He was a Bersosi, tall, thinly built, with arms that reached almost down to his knees. A pair of long, thin tails trailing from the back of his head almost dragged on the ground. He wore a breather mask since the Bersosi needed some trace gases that weren't in Wynnsparrle's atmosphere.
"He really doesn't look like a pirate-king to me," Moas muttered as he watched the alien bound up his ship's ramp. "Broden, do you ever think of asking the spacers what their stories really are?"
"Why would we want to do that?"
Moas sighed. "We come up with these crazy stories. Don't you ever want to find out the truth?"
"But then the magic goes away."
I said it, not really thinking about what it meant, not even knowing where the words came from. It just came out.
Then I searched my friend's face.
The sparkle in his eyes was gone. And I knew, I just knew, he no longer saw the world the way I did.
He was going to become a man, a bitter, angry man. Just like his father. Not right away, but slowly, one wound, one hurt...one disappointment at a time.
He looked down at his chrono. "I gotta go. Gonna be late for dinner. And Dad wants to take me to the office tonight -- to start training me."
He stood. He seemed so different...the way his jaw was set, the way he looked out across the starport, the city, everywhere...except at me. He looked so serious.
"See you tomorrow?" I offered.
He nodded, but I saw the far away look on his face. He wasn't going to be here in the morning.
I watched him walk away.
I knew the truth. This was a grubby starport, filled with old, beaten-up starships and pilots who only wanted to deliver their cargo and get their pay and get on to the next delivery.
And yet, I believed in more.
I believed in all of those innocent daydreams of grand adventure...of distant planets like Abaater and Vashuungor Minor and Yongui, and the billions of worlds beyond the Frontier...of planets where the skies were red and purple and there were lost artifacts buried in ancient temples...of adventures where there were pirates and smugglers and warlords...and heroes who fought for what was right and just....
There was magic in those stories....
I thought of Moas and the world he was entering: Charts. Balance sheets. Deadlines. Productivity reports.
All of those things and...and growing old.
He would never feel the magic again.
Tomorrow I would be here. Alone.
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