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In the distant future...

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

An Outlaw Galaxy novel
by Bill Smith

www.BillSmithBooks.com | www.OutlawGalaxy.com

See the Author's Note following this story to find out about other books in the Outlaw Galaxy series.

Sign up for Bill Smith's newsletter: Email bill@billsmithbooks.com and type "subscribe."

Preview

Benjamin "Trip" Trippany dreams of someday traveling to the stars but he is stuck working in his uncle's starship repair bay. He hears amazing stories of space adventures from his best friend, the insectoid Sh'nar named Jinx, and he can't wait until he has his chance to go out into space. A normal journey across the starport town of Pennick's Crossing, however, turns Trip's whole world upside down when he is chased and captured by dangerous strangers...and he finds himself prisoner aboard the pirate battlecruiser Diamond Shadow and forced to join Diamond Black Joe's infamous pirate gang!

Just $2.99. Novel, 69,000 words, 230 pages, reading time: about four and a half hours.

Order the book at: Smashwords (all formats), Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, Kobo or buy direct from the author.

Chapter 1 * Joyride in the Sand Pits (Outside Pennick's Crossing Cargo Port)

"Trip, we haven't got all day! When's that generator gonna be fixed?"

Trip wiped the sweat from his eyes and released the power-driver. The tool floated in the air, its anti-gravity generator softly whining as it held the molecular screw in place. Trip glanced over his shoulder.

Johnnie O. paced back and forth. He was a good friend but he'd never been known for his patience. He'd worn a groove in the dirt while he waited for Trip to fix the scooter so they could race it through the sand pits just west of the Cargo Port. His pant legs were caked with reddish-brown dust.

Trip sighed loudly.

"You know, Johnnie, you could give me a hand. Just this once."

Johnnie's face went blank while his mind raced at lightspeed to come up with an excuse not to get his hands dirty.

"Trip, fixing the scooter is your job. I mean, it's what you're good at. I'm just the pilot."

"Well, if you were a good pilot and didn't wreck this thing, we'd be flying now, right?"

Johnnie shrugged and looked away.

"Trip, I don't know what to do. You've never shown me how to tune the thrust module or align the airfoils or anything like that. Why don't I just go sit by our packs while you finish up?"

Johnnie shuffled out of the hot afternoon sun and into the shadows underneath a rock outcropping. He rummaged around and found a small water cylinder in Trip's backpack.

Trip felt a small sense of accomplishment. At least he would get a chance to fix the scooter's motor without someone squawking in his ear.

"The scooter will be ready in five minutes if you keep quiet. And this time, don't push the power flow past seventy-five percent. That's what blew the thrust feeds last time. It's an old motor -- probably older than both of us put together."

Johnnie smiled. "Yeah, I'm glad I found that old air scooter in my dad's salvage yard."

Trip frowned as he studied the tangled wires and power feeds that wrapped around the thrust generator. He smelled engine coolant; it was probably leaking from a worn silicone-gel hose fitting.

Trip looked over to Johnnie and said, "You know, there's a reason it was in a junk pile! In the last two weeks we've probably put more work into this thing than it got in the past twenty years."

Then Trip smiled. "But it's been a lot of fun, hasn't it?"

Trip tinkered with the scooter for several more minutes, finally shutting the battered yellow cowling that protected the motor. He took a step, straddled the saddle seat, and pressed the ignition switch. The motor fired with a hearty throom. The scooter rose and hovered two feet above the ground. Trip twisted the throttle bar and watched the readout dials. Everything looked good.

Within seconds of firing up the motor, Johnnie was standing beside Trip, watching the gauges and dials. Trip looked over at his friend, grinned and gave a thumbs up. He had to scream so Johnnie could hear him over the roaring motor.

"It's ready! Want to take a spin?"

Trip slid into the back half of the seat and latched his restraint belt. Johnnie scrambled into the driving position. The scooter dipped and rocked back and forth as the anti-grav motor compensated for the added weight. The scooter rose back to its original height while Johnnie snapped on his own restraint belt. He revved the motor. Deep vibrations rattled through their bodies with each twist of the accelerator.

Trip grinned with excitement. His heart pounded. He leaned forward, screaming in Johnnie's ear, "Watch the power flow. I marked it with red tape. If it goes above that line, cut the motor. If you blow her up again, I'm not gonna spend all afternoon fixing it!"

Trip's stomach felt like it stretched and dropped two feet as Johnnie twisted the throttle and the scooter bolted forward, suddenly accelerating to nearly one hundred miles per hour. As the wind ripped at their hair, Johnnie made a quick right turn around a pile of metal slag. Then he gunned the throttle, accelerating and climbing to shoot over a mountain of rock nearly thirty feet tall.

Johnnie dived down the hill at full speed while Trip's stomach climbed into the back of his throat. Half-terrified and half-thrilled, Trip learned forward and screamed to Johnnie, "This is so cool!"

Johnnie just nodded and snapped another quick right turn. As the scooter twisted through the turn, it began tumbling left, almost rolling over. Pulled over by the twisting scooter, Trip saw the rocky soil just a foot below.

Johnnie pulled on the steering handles and gently twisted the throttle controls to fire the left thrusters. Trip pushed against the frame rails, straining his neck and twisting his body to the right, hoping that shifting his weight would be enough to prevent the scooter from flipping upside down. He stayed on the scooter only because the restraint strap held him close to the seat.

The scooter's turbine screamed as the motor fought to level the vehicle while gravity tried to turn the speeder upside down and spill the riders to the ground in a wild wreck. There was a high-pitched whine and the smell of burning circuitry and fried lubricants filled the air. The scooter skidded through the air, slowly turning right side up and finally coming to rest, the riders safe.

Johnnie screamed in victory as the scooter straightened. Trip rocked his head back and forth, trying to loosen his neck muscles. He knew he'd be feeling whiplash by the end of the day.

With the scooter stationary, Johnnie smiled back at Trip, screaming, "Nothing to worry about! I knew I could bring it back around! Hey, Trip, you okay?"

Still rubbing his neck muscles, Trip nodded.

"Yeah, no problem. Just watch the turns next time. I guess they suggest crash helmets and armored flight suits for a reason, don't they?"

Trip stared at the smoke coming from underneath the motor cowling. "I'd better check things out. Off for a second. Then it's my turn to fly!"

Reluctantly Johnnie eased off the scooter while Trip flipped the motor cowling open. In seconds, the smoke was gone and the burning smell faded.

"Nothing too serious," Trip said after a few moments. "I think you strained the motor. Let's take it a little easier on this thing. This scooter probably has a lot of worn parts looking for any excuse to give out. C'mon, get on."

Johnnie eased onto the back half of the seat while Trip slid behind the controls. He gunned the throttle. The scooter rocketed down a narrow alley, racing through jagged mountains of rock. Trip split his attention between the scooter's readout dials and the dangerous terrain that surrounded them.

Trip turned left and hurtled towards a narrow opening. He held the throttle and tugged at the elevation controls, popping the scooter over a pile of scrap metal about ten feet tall. With the sudden change of elevation, Johnnie let out a scream. Trip grinned and scanned the horizon, trying to pick a flight path; he'd never raced through this section of the pits.

The scooter topped the hill, plummeted back to ground level and bottomed out with the crunch of metal on rock. As it sprinted away, the scooter left behind a cloud of dust. Johnnie let out a loud, "Ooofph!" as he grabbed onto Trip's belt and tried to himself tight to the scooter's seat. Trip grinned as the scooter raced, first dodging left to maneuver around a discarded drainage pipe, and then climbing and twisting right to jump over a large, corroded permacrete mixer.

Trip eased the scooter through a broad, sweeping right hand turn, swinging around several twisted steel girders that rested on a rusted-out cargo module. Up ahead, Trip spotted at least three possible trails. Johnnie tapped him on the shoulder, pointing right. Trip followed his friend's instructions and raced down the right trail. He zoomed up a short rise. Not able to see what was beyond, Trip gunned the throttle and guided the scooter up the natural jump ramp.

The scooter's generator whined and strained as it rocketed off the ramp. Trip's heart leapt into his throat when he looked straight down. They were jumping across a pit at least fifty feet deep.

Trip kept the accelerator pinned at full power even though it probably wouldn't do any good since the scooter's anti-grav generator had nothing solid to push against. If they didn't have enough momentum to complete the jump, the scooter would drop down into the pit.

The scooter started dropping.

Trip hoped they would make it to the other side, perhaps thirty feet away, but he wasn't sure.

The power flow indicator rose, shooting well above the red tape indicating seventy-five percent. Trip heard the motor pop. Under this much stress, the motor could explode at any second.

Trip's eyes widened as the scooter raced towards the far side of the pit. It just barely completed the jump, striking the ground. The bounce forced Trip to let out the breath he'd been holding since he left the ramp. His next breath was cut short as the scooter's front end dropped down and dug into the soft soil. The scooter's forward twin metal shafts bent and broke off, and the front end again struck the ground. A shower of sparks sprayed out from under the engine cowling, singeing Trip's legs through his thick pants.

The scooter careened out of control toward a pile of twisted metal girders. Trip hoped he'd be able to walk away from this crash....

Chapter 2 * Crash Landing

Trip yanked at the controls in a frantic attempt to regain control, but the scooter's front end struck the ground again. The vehicle started to tumble to the left. It was headed right towards a pile of metal girders. Slamming into them could be deadly!

Ignoring his sore neck muscles, Trip leaned right and rocked back, hoping that by shifting his weight he could wrestle the scooter under control. Instinctively, Johnnie followed Trip's lead, also twisting back and to the right.

The scooter started to level out but it still rocketed along at over one hundred miles an hour. Trip jammed the brake and pressed the throttle over and over again, trying to steer the scooter to the right so they wouldn't careen into the metal girders.

Trip kept on feathering the throttle. He had to be careful because with the front control shafts already sheared off, too much thrust would cause the scooter to flip out of control. Trip shuddered at thought of how that would feel.

The scooter started to turn right, but not quickly enough. The anti-grav generator revved once, sputtered, and then a horribly loud boom made Trip's ears ache. Trip felt a sudden blast of heat from beneath the engine cowling as the motor died.

The scooter was now just a tumbling piece of metal with two frightened boys strapped to it. The scooter hit the ground again and Trip heard the lower frame rails crack as they were wrenched away from the motor. If those rails completely gave way, the scooter would break apart!

Trip and Johnnie both leaned as far to the right as they could, but the scooter started to roll in mid air. Flame belched from the underside of the motor.

"Hold on!" Trip screamed.

The scooter smashed into one of the metal girders. Trip felt every bone in his back shift with the impact, but the scooter's frame rails took the brunt of the crash. The scooter skidded along the girder, the shrieking of metal drowning out Trip's frightened scream. Finally, it came to rest on a pile of rocks and dirt, right side up.

Johnnie O. and Trip unstrapped themselves as quickly as possible to get away from the flaming, smoking wreck. The flames flickered out. Johnnie and Trip collapsed to the ground just a few feet from what remained of their scooter. Johnnie's face was covered with soot and dirt. Trip shook, terribly frightened. He realized how lucky he was to be able to walk away from this wreck.

After Johnnie'd caught his breath, he laughed, shouting, "Wow! We did it! WE DID IT!"

Johnnie's voice echoed off the rocks, but Trip didn't pay much attention to his friend. All he could do was look at the scooter.

Trip muttered, "Johnnie, we nearly got ourselves killed. All that work -- all that time -- and now the scooter's wrecked."

Johnnie grabbed his friend's arm.

"But Trip, don't you see? We made that jump! We made it! How many other kids up at the Cargo Port -- or even in all of Pennick's Crossing -- can say that? We're the best pilots around!"

Johnnie stood. He pulled Trip up to his feet. Trip dusted himself off. Johnnie was so excited he couldn't stand still.

"Trip, I knew we could make it! I mean, when I first saw that pit, I just knew it!"

Trip couldn't believe what he was hearing.

"First saw it? You mean, you knew it was there? You sent us this way on purpose? We could have been killed!"

Trip smacked his friend in the shoulder, pushing him away.

Johnnie could only smile.

"Oh, come on, Trip. I knew I could make it and I was pretty sure you could. It's no big deal. Look, not even a scratch!"

"Johnnie, if we'd hadn't had enough speed...who knows what we would have hit on the way down!"

"Hey, Trip, I wouldn't have put us in danger on purpose. I knew you could do it -- and I knew you'd never prove it to yourself unless you had to. Any good pilot has to believe in himself. Sometimes you gotta be pushed or else you'll end up spending your whole life as just a starship mechanic."

"Don't say that! I'm not gonna be stuck here on Karrison forever! I'm gonna be a pilot. One of the best. Someday, the two of us will be flying all over the galaxy -- the Human Worlds, the Mren Confederation, Borderspace, everywhere! Maybe even the Sh'nar Dominion if they ever open up to us. We'll see the whole galaxy!"

"Yeah, maybe. But when you doubt yourself, you'll remember this jump." Johnnie stared at his friend. "Trust me, Trip. You can't grow until you take a few risks. You can't beat your fears until you face them."

Trip knew he should be angry, but it was hard to stay mad at Johnnie.

"You're right, Johnnie, I guess. We can always build another scooter, can't we? There's probably dozens of them out in your dad's parts yard."

Johnnie looked back at the smoking wreck. "Yeah, we can put together another one. How about we get to work tomorrow after school?"

Just as Trip and Johnnie turned to head back to town, they heard the rumble of another scooter. The sound of the finely tuned motor got clearer and louder. Trip knew it couldn't be one of the older kids who went joyriding up here in the Pits. He saw a flicker of sunlight bounce off a bright blue scooter as it came into view.

Trip felt his stomach churn.

"Oh, man. It's Sergeant Frederickson from Cargo Port Security."

Johnnie laughed. "He's not going to be too happy to see us up here, is he? Maybe we can lose him. You wanna run for it?"

"You know we're not supposed to do that." Trip grinned. "Let's move!"

The two boys turned and broke into a run, heading for the nearest pile of rock. They raced around it and shot down an uneven path, leaping over rocks and scrap metal. Climbing and scrambling over piles of rock, they skidded down a short hill and took off down another narrow winding path that wove between piles of discarded junk. Several trails opened up ahead of them.

"Go right!" Johnnie O. screamed.

They turned right, but a few seconds later the blue scooter pulled into view, blocking their way. There was nowhere to go. The boys slid to a stop.

In between deep breaths, Johnnie muttered, "We're busted."

Trip wondered how he would talk his way out of trouble when Uncle Craz heard about this.

Sergeant Frederickson shifted on the scooter's seat and turned the motor off. He sat in silence, watching the boys. Frederickson was going to make them wait. Instead of fear, however, Trip noticed that Frederickson seemed to be eating too many glazes again. He looked like he might topple off the scooter's seat any second.

"You boys know you aren't supposed to be up here. What do you have to say for yourselves?"

Johnnie stammered out, "Well, we were just working on our scooter and -- "

Frederickson's face reddened and his cheeks puffed out. He screamed, "Did I tell you two you could say anything? Quiet!"

Frederickson paused and let the silence linger. Finally, he spoke again.

"Look, if it were up to me, I wouldn't care. You two can go ahead and splat yourselves all over the rocks if that's what you want to do. But I don't want to spend my day up here cleaning up the mess. I have better things to do."

Trip thought about Frederickson's "better things." He pictured Frederickson sitting at his desk, curled up with a box of fresh-baked glazecakes. Trip hoped he was able to keep a smirk off his face.

Frederickson stopped and looked Trip in the eye. Then he stared at Johnnie.

"First, boys, never run away like that! It'll just make me angry. But, to tell you the truth, I don't want to be bothered with the paperwork today. I'm gonna let you go."

Johnnie and Trip both relaxed.

"Now, don't come up here again or I'm gonna bring you down to the detention center. You'll be held until your parents come down to get you out. I don't think your dad would be too crazy about that, would he, Johnnie? And Trip, your uncle would make you sweep floors for two months if you ended up in my custody. Go home and stay out of here."

Johnnie stammered, "Uh, we have to go and get our backpacks."

Frederickson sighed. "Go! Get them and get out of here! Move it!"

Frederickson restarted the scooter and slowly headed back towards the cargo port.

"I meant it! I don't want to see you two up here again!" he shouted.

Johnnie and Trip ran back for their backpacks. As soon as they were out of Frederickson's sight, Trip chuckled.

"You know, Johnnie, the whole time he was screaming at us, all I could picture was him shoveling glazes into his mouth. ‘You boys stay out of here. Mmm...glazes. Give me a dozen.'"

Johnnie laughed. "It is kind of hard to take him seriously, isn't it?"

"But we'll be in big trouble if we get caught up here again."

"Yeah. We should wait at least a week before we come back."

Then Trip looked at his chrono and realized he was late.

"Oh no! Uncle Craz was expecting me half an hour ago! I'm gonna get it! We'd better get moving!"

Chapter 3 * Uncle Craz's Repair Bay

"Benjamin Davis Trippany, you are late!"

Uncle Craz's voice echoed throughout the cavernous repair bay.

Trip shuddered. Uncle Craz only used his middle name when he was really in trouble.

Trip slowly shuffled into the bay, searching for his uncle. Finally, he spotted Uncle Craz curled up underneath a small freighter, his hands reaching inside the ship's engines. He was lying on an anti-grav work pad that floated about six inches above the permacrete floor.

Trip softly muttered, "Sorry...."

Craz looked at him and pushed several dangling cables out of the way. He shoved out from underneath the freighter. A pile of parts fell over and crashed to the ground as Craz's pad slid out into the open. Craz dropped his feet to the ground to stop the pad, then sat up and wiped his grease-covered hands with a rag. He glanced at his chrono and then back at Trip.

"Well? What's your story? You're nearly an hour late. School's only a twenty minute walk away."

Trip slowly lowered his backpack to the ground, hoping to come up with a way to not tell his uncle the whole truth.

"Well, Johnnie and I were doing some work -- science problems -- and we lost track of time."

Uncle Craz nodded slowly, then cracked a crooked smile.

"Hmm, science problems is it? You wouldn't be stretching the truth a little, would you, Trip? Wouldn't have had anything to do with fixing the anti-grav generator on an old yellow scooter, would it?"

Trip wanted to shrink down into the permacrete floor and disappear.

"How did you know?"

"Trip, do you really think Johnnie's dad didn't notice when your friend pulled that piece of junk out of the scrap yard last week?"

Trip blushed.

Uncle Craz grinned.

"So, how's it run?"

"It doesn't...anymore. We kind of wrecked it."

Uncle Craz sighed heavily, walked over and put his arm around Trip's shoulders. "Trip, I've told you a thousand times, you have to be careful with those things. There's no protection when. And from the looks of it, you found that out the hard way. You're probably lucky to be able to walk right now. One wrong turn with one of those things and you could end up with a lot worse than a sore back and some bruises!"

Trip nodded and looked up into his uncle's clear blue eyes. "Then you're not mad at me?"

Craz eyed him sternly. "Of course I'm mad at you! But I can't look over your shoulder every minute. You've got to learn some common sense. If you're not smart enough to look out for your own hide, there's not much I can do to protect you. Now, get to work. And you'd better hurry. After your chores, you have to sweep the whole floor before dinner."

"But that could take two hours! I've got homework -- "

Uncle Craz held his shoulder firmly. "That's enough. You've got plenty of time if you hustle. If you'd prefer, I could ground you for three weeks."

"Three weeks! No! That's all right. I'll sweep the floors!"

"I thought you'd see it my way. First, I want you to tear down the laser cores in Reik's laser cannons. I'm upgrading the guns, so just strip the laser cores down and tomorrow I'll modify the output tubes. Then, Thamlon's freighter needs to have the power converters aligned. Get Brick to help you with that. And after that, get sweeping. By the time you're done, dinner should be ready...or cold."

It was a long afternoon for Trip. The heat of the running starship engines inside the repair bay made an already hot afternoon even worse. In the one-hundred-plus degree heat, Trip often had to stop working to wipe the sweat from his eyes.

It took over an hour to strip the laser barrels on Reik's ship. Uncle Craz was increasing the intensity of the laser cannons, but he had to disguise the modifications so that local customs inspectors or the Frontier Rangers wouldn't stumble over them too easily. The local law didn't like freighter pilots gallivanting around space with heavy-duty weaponry. The inspectors automatically assumed that anyone with these kinds of laser cannons was a pirate or smuggler up to no good.

Trip had been around long enough to know better. Sure, pirates and smugglers did use these weapons on their ships, but so did honest freighter pilots. There were too many dangers out there, like raiders, slavers, pirates, unknown aliens, and mercenary fleets. Any of them could attack you in deep space -- far from any help -- and the only way to survive was to have powerful weapons to hold them off while you tried to calculate an emergency jump into lightspeed. The Frontier Rangers didn't see it that way. The Rangers said it was their job to protect freighters from pirate attacks. Try telling that to raiders when they ambush you in deep space and take your ship!

With Reik's ship finished, Trip tracked down Brick, who was working in the back of Uncle Craz's repair bay. The old labor robot stood on an anti-grav sled that floated about twenty feet above the ground. The robot slowly pushed a cargo crate onto one of the raised shelves. Nearly seven feet tall and half as wide, Brick was in many ways just like any other labor robot: He was slow and bulky but incredibly strong. The crate Brick moved so easily probably weighed over a thousand pounds.

The robot hadn't been painted in years, with spots of bare metal showing through the chipping red and blue paint. He design was basically humanoid, with two arms, two legs and a head attached to a central torso, but his height and wide build made him look like a giant wrapped in smooth metal. Brick's pistons and gyros clicked with each movement.

Brick was more than just another machine. Trip had known him his entire life and the two were good friends. While Brick wouldn't lie to Uncle Craz, on more than one occasion the robot had neglected to tell Uncle Craz the entire truth to keep Trip out of trouble.

Trip called out, "Hey Brick! Uncle Craz says we've got to do some work on Thamlon's ship."

Brick looked down at his friend and then responded in his surprisingly human voice, "Good afternoon, Benjamin. Earlier, I heard Uncle Craz muttering something about you being late."

The floater slowly dropped, coming to a stop about six inches above the floor. Brick turned from the controls and looked at Trip with his pinpointed, blue optical scanners.

"You know, Trip, he cares a great deal about you. You shouldn't worry him like that."

"Yeah, I know. But he shouldn't worry about me. I'm not going to get hurt."

Brick slowly stepped off the sled. He towered over Trip. His large footpads -- nearly two feet long and a foot wide -- clanged loudly with each step.

"Most foolish young men think that way. Some of them even live long enough to learn from their mistakes," Brick muttered

Trip wanted to change the subject. He nodded towards Thamlon's freighter.

"Come on, let's get to work. I want to be done before dinner."

Trip and Brick set off towards Thamlon's ship, the Old Fool's Galleon. Knowing Thamlon and his wild ways, Trip knew there had to be a great story behind the ship's name. As they neared the ship, Trip heard a short, high-pitched squeal as Brick used his internal communications transmitter, or transcomm, to summon several worker drones.

Trip heard the soft hum of anti-grav motors. Soon, three small, boxy drones hovered into view, slowly circling Brick. The drones were cube-shaped, roughly a foot on each side. Their exteriors were unremarkable and a bland brown color. Their only visible exterior features were small video and audio sensors, and a pair of manipulator arms that hung from the sides of the small anti-grav drive. Inside each drone, however, there were over a dozen compartments holding specialized tools and accessories.

Another high-pitched squeal from Brick's transcomm system sent the trio of drones scurrying off to the corners of the repair bay to gather the proper tools.

Trip lay down on a floating anti-grav pad and slid underneath the ship's engine cowling. Brick helped him remove two heavily armored access panels while the floating drones moved in, holding tools with their manipulator arms.

Peering up into the complex machinery of the Galleon's engines, Trip unsnapped several restraining clips and moved three insulated power feed cables aside. He winced when he saw the two power converters.

The converters were scratched and carbon-scarred from too much heavy use and too little maintenance. He didn't have to measure them to know they were off-center. Any time you could see a misalignment by a visual inspection, it meant the pilot was flirting with disaster.

When the converters were working properly, they converted energy from the ship's fusion reactor into a modulated power flow that could be used by the ship's engines. When they weren't working properly, they tended to explode spectacularly.

Trip grabbed a converter calibrator from one of the drones and confirmed his suspicions. The converters were nearly half an inch out of alignment and the calibrator's scanner said they were unstable. Thamlon was lucky they hadn't blow up and punctured the engines!

The more Trip looked, the worse things got. The converters' mounting connectors were worn. They'd need to be replaced, too. They probably got ruined when the converters got knocked out of alignment. And with that kind of misalignment, who knows what kind of power fluxes punched into the engines? While the odds were low that any serious damage was done, Thamlon would be pretty upset if his engines blew up while in flight. That meant Trip would have to run a diagnostic on the entire drive system. That could take ten hours!

Then Trip smiled. He was off the hook! Uncle Craz probably didn't have the replacement parts on hand. Besides, with something this serious, Craz would want to do the work himself.

Of course, Uncle Craz would want to know that Trip did a thorough job. Trip called out, "Brick, take a look at these and tell me what you think."

Trip pushed out from under the ship and wiped the sweat from his forehead. The labor robot slowly crawled under the engines and looked up at the converters. He didn't say anything, but Trip knew the robot was surprised when the machine lifted his head up into the engine compartment for a closer look. When Brick spoke, his voice was muffled by the engine compartment's hull plating.

"No, this doesn't look good at all. It seems that a complete replacement of the converters is necessary. I would recommend an engine diagnostic, too."

"Just what I was thinking, Brick. I knew I could count on you."

Brick crawled out and stood, the bulky robot moving more gracefully than most people would have thought possible. "I don't understand why you consider this favorable, Trip."

Trip smiled, "Because I'm not going to have to do the work myself. I'm gonna tell Uncle Craz."

The robot muttered, as much to himself as anyone else since Trip was already gone, "I hope you don't think you'll get out of work that easily, Trip."

Trip soon found Uncle Craz, who was sitting at his counter and studying a holographic technical schematic. Trip thought the hologram showed the interior of a Czaylmrit 2j6 laser cannon, the type of weapon used on Reik's ship. Uncle Craz looked closely at the hologram and frowned.

Craz saw Trip out of the corner of his eye. "Done Thamlon's freighter already?"

"No. Both the converters are shot -- "

Craz cut him off. "Wait! Don't want to forget what I started. Just a minute, Trip."

Uncle Craz looked back at the hologram. "Trip, could you hand me that laser ignition regulator? The one on the left, with the Y-shaped silver connector."

Trip glanced around the counter and then handed the part to Uncle Craz. Uncle Craz held it up to the hologram. With his left hand, Craz typed a series of numbers on the computer's touch screen. The hologram displayed the part code number and flashed a message that the part would be within the cannon's acceptable tolerance.

Uncle Craz looked back at Trip.

"Got the problem solved! I can replace the cannon's old connectors with these, then attach two power boosters along the energy cycling line and get a seventeen percent boost in power. And that's with no obvious exterior modifications on the guns and no need for a larger power generator. The guns will slide right past the customs inspectors. Reik will be a happy man -- rather, a happy Dublirrian -- when he sees this. Now, what were you saying about Thamlon's ship?"

"Both the converters are shot and the mounting connectors need to be replaced. And I think you should run a full diagnostic on the drive system. Brick agrees."

Uncle Craz looked back at the hologram.

"Well, Thamlon won't be happy about that. That should set him back over eight thousand Steds. Of course, it's not our fault if he doesn't take care of his equipment. I guess I'll have to handle the repairs."

Trip grinned and Uncle Craz shot him a stern look.

"So, have you swept the floors yet? And when you're done with that, I think I'll have you tear down the life-support system on Shi'yaran's ship. She says the oxygen filtration system isn't working properly."

Trip couldn't believe it! More work!

"Uncle Craz, why do I have to do all of this? I don't want to be a starship mechanic. I want to be a pilot! Why can't I have a scooter to practice on?"

Craz turned to the computer and said softly, "Save schematic. Shut down."

He then turned back to Trip. Instead of anger, Trip thought Uncle Craz almost looked sad.

"Trip, I know you've got your heart set on the stars, but that is for another time. That's a long ways off. Now, I want you to learn how to take care of equipment. If you want to fly a ship, you've got to know how to repair it. You might not see this now, but someday knowing how to repair a drive system or jury-rig your weapons systems with patchwork wiring could mean the difference between living and dying. I have you do all this work because I want you to know how to survive."

Trip thought he saw tears in his Uncle's eyes, but he kept quiet.

"And Trip, someday you're going to realize that being out in space is more than just adventure and excitement. It can be dangerous. I've lost a lot of friends out there. I don't want to lose any more of them."

Trip didn't say a word, but his uncle looked away from him.

"Trip, go home and get your homework done. I'll have Brick sweep the floors. But I want you to think about what I said."

Chapter 4 * Dreaming of the Stars

Trip lay on the roof of Uncle Craz's house, gazing up at the thousands of stars in the clear night sky. It was beautiful! For as long as he could remember, Trip loved watching the stars at night.

Trip shivered as a gust of wind blew in from the mountains a few miles to the west. Up here in Pennick's Crossing Cargo Port, one the main port cities on the planet Karrison, the altitude was great enough that it got chilly at night, especially now that it was autumn. Winter would be here soon. Despite the chillier temperatures -- sometimes they even got snow here -- winter was Trip's favorite season since the night skies always seemed crystal clear. They were perfect for stargazing!

The metal roof creaked when Trip shifted his weight. Trip winced, hoping Uncle Craz wouldn't hear and send Brick up to shoo him inside for the night. Given the chance, Trip would stay out here all night to watch for meteorites.

Even though the Cargo Port was only half a mile away, the landing lights didn't interfere with star gazing too much. Off to the north, Trip saw Flarestaff, Karrison's only moon. It had risen quickly tonight and its brilliant blue surface reflected plenty of light into the night sky. Trip saw several mountains and a few scattered lights on Flarestaff's surface. If he'd thought to bring his computer-enhanced binoculars, or combinocs! Then, he'd be able to see three or four of the biggest mines and at least a dozen of the colony domes. If he got lucky, he might be able to see the exhaust from the cargo ships taking off. Trip knew from experience that you couldn't see the ships unless the sunlight reflected off their metal hulls, but you could follow their exhaust trails as they flew into space. The cargo ships typically headed for one of the orbiting space stations, although the smaller ships that were streamlined for atmospheric flight might come down here to land at one of Karrison's cargo ports. The lucky ships were headed out-system, flying until they reached a safe point for the jump to lightspeed and distant stars.

Trip sat up when he thought he saw a flicker of light to the west. He hoped he would catch a glimpse of a meteorite. Instead, he spotted a yellow-orange flame and realized it was just another bulk freighter coming in to land at Pennick's Crossing Cargo Port. The ship was probably coming in from one of the orbiting foundry stations.

The local trade cycle was simple. Pick up metal ore on Flarestaff and drop it off at one of the orbiting foundry space stations. At these stations, ships picked up finished goods like lightweight, high strength metal-alloy products. Ships up at the stations were often sent planet-side to Karrison to pick up loads of food such as meats, high-yield grains, and vegetables fresh from the sprawling agriculture complexes down in the valleys, close to Karrison's capital city of Sorsel River. While the stations grew some of their own food in hydroponics labs, many people felt they could tell the difference between the lab-grown stuff and the food from down here on the surface, so Karrison's produce was in high demand.

Trip gazed up at the stars again. The sky was clear tonight, beautiful. He got lost in the stars. He remembered all the adventures he'd read about and wondered what it would be like to finally go out there.

Trip jumped when Brick called up to him.

"Trip, it's time to come inside and get ready for rest."

Trip sighed, knowing he'd only be able to stall for a few minutes.

"Brick, it's a beautiful night! Why don't you come on up?"

Trip soon heard the clanking of metal on metal, as Brick climbed the rickety metal ladder. Soon enough, Brick's red metal hand -- which was probably twice the size of Uncle Craz's hand -- grasped the roof and the robot slowly pulled himself up. If he had been human, Brick would have been huffing and puffing by the time he got the bulk of his body up on the roof, but being a robot, Brick simply looked at Trip and then followed the young boy's gaze, peering up into the night sky.

"I wasn't designed for this...but I enjoy spending time with you, young Benjamin. Or ‘Trip,' as you seem to prefer."

Trip chuckled. "‘Trip' will be fine, Brick."

Brick gazed at Trip for a few moments, seeming to wait for the boy to invite him to speak. Eventually, the robot broke the silence.

"Your Uncle would not approve of me being up here with you. You are supposed to be getting ready for bed now."

Trip shivered as another cold breeze came up suddenly. As much as he tried not to look cold, Trip couldn't stop his teeth from chattering. Brick reached over to the ladder and grabbed the light brown windbreaker he'd brought up with him. He handed Trip the jacket.

"At least put this on so you don't catch a cold."

Reluctantly, Trip took the windbreaker and put it on. Then, silently, he returned to stargazing. He couldn't help it. Every time he looked up at the stars, the sight of all those lights, knowing that each was a star, each with its own planets...it was amazing. But there was so much more! While he could see perhaps a few hundred stars, the galaxy had billions of stars, billions of planets.

More than anything, Trip wanted to see the wonders of the galaxy. He wanted to visit so many things: The triple-stars of Unsii and their amazing rings...the tree-mounds of the Sh'nar...the Tombs of Drixxia, where it was said that if you listened closely enough, you could hear sounds of battles that happened thousands of years ago and had been preserved in the natural crystal formations...the ancient Temples of Krinaegia and their impenetrable plasma shields. If Trip had his way, some day he would see all of these things and so much more!

Trip still stared at the stars, but now his mind was millions of light-years away. Someday, he would have his own freighter, travelling between worlds as he pleased, taking only the cargo runs he wanted to take. He couldn't wait to get off Karrison, but being only fifteen, he still had three more years of studies. Then, he'd probably have to sign on as a cargo hand aboard some freighter since he knew Uncle Craz wouldn't be able to scrape together the money to get him his own ship. Trip wondered what it would be like. He wondered what it had been like for Uncle Craz when he had been young and free like that.

"Brick, do you ever miss the adventures you had with Uncle Craz? Back when he was a pilot?"

Brick still gazed up at the stars as he softly replied, "Your Uncle Craz enjoyed that life for a while, but that time has passed. He lost too many friends. Piloting is a dangerous business, especially when you work for the types of people your uncle used to associate with. There's no need to dwell on those times. It was a long time ago. Still...."

Brick paused for a few moments, then continued, "I do miss the company of your parents. They were good people."

Trip felt tears well up in his eyes as he thought about the parents he never knew. All he had were a couple of old holographs that sat on his dresser. He turned to look at the labor robot, who was probably nearly twice as old as he was. Like Uncle Craz, Brick was a link to Trip's past, a past he knew very little about.

"My parents. I don't remember them. Uncle Craz said they used to be freighter pilots. You know, I want to travel among the stars like they did. I wonder what it's like out there. I've never been out in space."

"Yes you were, when you were first born. You humans forget so much of your lives. Sometimes it is so sad...but other times it is a blessing in disguise."

Trip wiped his face and looked back up at the stars. "Someday I'll have my own ship. Someday I'll race between the stars."

"Trip, you have to realize there's a lot more to being a pilot than adventure. It's a dangerous business, especially when you're an independent hauler like your parents were. Sometimes I don't understand you humans. You cling to life, yet you think nothing of putting yourselves in danger. It's quite bewildering at times."

Trip's stargazing was interrupted when he heard Uncle Craz moving downstairs. Finally, Trip heard the ladder creak and Uncle Craz appeared at the edge of the roof, puffing on his pipe.

"Come on down, Trip! You have work to do tomorrow, and studying, too. And you, Brick! I sent you up here to get him, not to keep him up till all hours of the night."

Both boy and robot responded, "Yes, sir," as they crawled towards the ladder. Uncle Craz ducked back inside the house while Brick carefully stepped down the ladder.

Trip gave once last glance up into the night sky, but soon enough his thoughts turned to the work he had ahead of him tomorrow....

Chapter 5 * A Fond Reunion

After yesterday's scolding, Trip was sure to arrive at Uncle Craz's repair bay on time today. While he wasn't looking forward to all that he had to do, Trip hoped he could get everything done quickly and then head down to Johnnie's so they could work on their new scooter.

Trip placed his backpack on a shelf and grabbed a portable computer, heading for Shi'yaran's freighter. Yesterday his uncle had mentioned the life-support system needed work, so Trip called up the work order. The work order showed that the oxygen scrubbers weren't working properly and she'd reported some strong odors.

Trip sprinted over to the ship, a boxy Ansleur Starworks design, and entered the hatch's security access code. When the airlock opened, Trip couldn't believe the overwhelming stench of rotted garbage! Trip didn't know a ship could smell so bad. He seriously thought about sealing the ship up and sending Brick in to fix the problem, instead.

Trip sprinted back over to the shelves and grabbed an oxygen scrubber-breather. He pulled the clear mask over his face. Beneath the mask's "chin," a long, flexible tube connected to a small, silver tube, the filter unit. It was barely six inches long and dotted with tiny venting holes. Trip clipped the filter to his belt and tightened the mask's straps so the device fit snugly over his face. The scrubber's fresh air was a welcome relief, even if wearing the mask made him even more uncomfortable in the fierce afternoon heat.

Just as Trip was about to enter Shi'yaran's vessel, he heard Uncle Craz come up behind him.

"Ack! What's that smell?"

Trip explained, "I think the oxygen scrubbers need to be replaced."

Craz covered his nose and stepped back several feet. "She wasn't kidding! Seal the ship up. That's awful!"

After a few moments, Trip had the ship sealed up and then joined Uncle Craz over at the parts counter. Uncle Craz scratched absent-mindedly at his beard before he spoke.

"Trip, I know I shouldn't do this, but I'm going to give you the afternoon off."

Trip was surprised but he wasn't about to argue.

Uncle Craz explained, "I just found out that one of the ships from a Sh'nar trade convoy is in port. I spoke with Clanmother Son'knex earlier this afternoon and she says Jinx should be free to take the rest of the afternoon off as soon as she's done unloading the cargo. If you hurry, you could be at Port 43 before Jinx is done."

"Thanks!" Trip cried as he raced out of the repair bay. He hadn't seen Jinx in nearly three months, not since the last time her Sh'nar ship was in port. He wondered what she would want to do today!

As he sprinted through the busy Cargo Port streets, dodging around pedestrians and slow moving anti-grav cargo sleds, Trip realized he had to get Jinx something. It was a Sh'nar custom to offer gifts to welcome friends and guests. While Jinx wouldn't be upset if he didn't have something -- after all Trip had just found out that she was here -- but he still thought it would be nice to have something for her. He had to hurry. He checked his chrono and then looked around at some of the nearby shops.

Trip hated buying gifts! How could he possibly know what she would like? And how could he expect to find anything worthwhile in a tiny cargo port like the one here at Pennick's Crossing?

The crowd bustled around him as he looked up and down the street. He stepped out into the roadway for a better look. He saw candy and clothing shops. Stores offered robots, computers, and electronics. There were quick-meal restaurants and snack shops catering to spacers and cargo hands. A couple of shops sold energy pistols and other weapons. No, none of those would do.

From behind and above him, Trip heard a booming voice holler, "Move it, boy!"

He turned and looked up to see an angry merchant atop a twenty-foot-tall pack beast. The beast, a nolla, looked around impatiently with its dull black eyes. Its rippled purple and blue lizard skin wrapped tightly around its huge, muscled frame. The nolla pulled three anti-grav cargo sleds loaded down with crates.

The merchant leered down at Trip. He was a Ghioss, an alien race noted for their short tempers. Trip could tell that he -- or perhaps she, since Trip had trouble telling the difference -- was already furious from the way that his chin sacs puffed out, turning a deep black in contrast to his red-purple skin. The merchant's chin sacs vibrated with anger.

"How long should I wait while you decide when to move out of the middle of the street? Step aside, now!"

Taking time to apologize would only make the merchant madder, so Trip jumped up onto the permacrete walkway and watched as the nolla slowly plodded past, pulling the sleds as if they weighed only a few pounds. As the nolla advanced down the street, the merchant cursing anyone who got in his way, Trip spotted Old Ray's, the shop with the best collection of vids, holos and audio recordings in town. He was sure to find something there.

Trip waited for a break in the traffic and scooted across the street. Once inside, his eyes needed a few minutes to adjust to the dim lighting after being out in the bright sunlight. The store smelled a little musty and the shelves needed to be dusted.

Trip knew that Jinx would especially appreciate something to watch or listen to since she spent most of her time on starships travelling between planets. There wasn't a lot to do on those long journeys. Jinx often complained that it was boring, but Trip couldn't imagine star travel ever getting boring!

A few minutes later, Trip emerged back into the busy street traffic, squinting to keep the bright sun out of his eyes. He'd gotten Jinx an audio disk, Songs of the Starfaring Sh'nar. It was supposed to feature at least twenty different Sh'nar "folk songs" recorded by human artists from throughout the Trishellian Frontier, the worlds along the edge of the Sh'nar Dominion. Trip didn't know whether it was any good. He'd asked to listen to one of the songs in the store, but after about ten seconds of what sounded like metal screeching on metal, he figured he'd heard enough. Besides, Jinx was a Sh'nar so she'd like it. He hoped.

Trip had to carefully pick his way through the crowd as he sprinted to Port 43. While he really wanted to run, it wouldn't do any good to plow into anyone. He walked as fast as he could, ducking around people and cutting out into the street to get around people who were blocking the way because they'd stopped to talk. That was one thing he sometimes hated about this place: It seemed that people sometimes had all day to do whatever it was they were doing and they didn't think twice about moving as slowly as they wanted to!

Trip made his way through the broad but busy streets. He ducked down a side alley that led to the older, narrower streets and alleys that snaked around the Cargo Port's original buildings. Most of these buildings were over five hundred years old, built back when Karrison was first settled.

Back then, Pennick's Crossing was simply a small town. Buildings were haphazardly placed wherever the owners decided they wanted one, while incoming ships landed on the flats just beyond the town. The roads were simply paths worn into the soil.

Only after the planet had been colonized and inbound starship traffic increased did local authorities realize they needed a few full-time starship ports. Pennick's Crossing was picked as one of them because it was close to the valley cities but convenient for incoming ships because there were no major navigational hazards. The cargo port's architects simply built the new streets and landing bays around the existing city, designing a modern, efficient Cargo Port that ringed the chaotic "Old Town" buildings.

Trip worked his way through the old streets. They were barely ten feet wide so at least they were free of anti-grav vehicles and pack animals, but he still had to twist around open-air merchants' booths and the many people who slowly shuffled along the paths. The streets were in shadow, the ancient buildings blocking the sun. Many families -- mostly poor ones -- lived on the second and third floors of these buildings. Trip smelled meals being cooked and heard the shouts of children playing in back alleys.

Soon, Trip emerged from the shadowed side streets onto a broad avenue lined by dozens of starship cargo bays. These streets were wide enough for the transport vehicles that delivered and took cargo from the many vessels that landed in the Cargo Port every day. He looked across the street and saw Port 31. He sprinted towards Port 43.

Two blocks and five minutes later, Trip arrived at Port 43 just as a large anti-grav tractor pulled through the wide-open cargo doors and out into the street. The tractor's engine strained as it pulled three linked trailers around a corner. The trailers rocked as their anti-grav generators struggled to keep the loads upright during the turn. The tractor slowly pulled away, headed towards the storage warehouses several blocks away.

Trip scooted through cargo door entrance and into the bay. He saw five freighters. The first two ships he didn't recognize. The third ship in line was a Mren design even though a human, probably the ship's owner, was directing labor robots as they stacked cargo modules on an anti-grav trailer.

Then, fourth in line, Trip saw a Sh'nar ship. It was short for a freighter, only about seventy-five feet long, but the wide, rounded cargo section beneath the elevated cockpit module could hold hundreds of small cargo containers. The Sh'nar ship could be carry anything from dried foods to computer parts or liquid fertilizer for the agriculture complexes down in the valleys.

The ship was black with dark green and blue trim. Trip didn't understand the Sh'nar letters on the side that spelled out its name, but he recognized one symbol that marked the ship as belonging to the Knex'slii clan. Another strange-looking but familiar symbol indicated the ship's homeworld was Sh'Bahral, the homeworld of Jinx's clan.

The ship was ugly but it was everything Trip wanted in life. It traveled among the stars, visiting dozens of planets every month. It allowed Clanmother Son'knex's small crew to earn a living.

Trip raced towards the vessel as a cargo robot slowly walked down the exit ramp, cradling a heavy-looking crate in its arms. While the robot looked like it might lose its balance and tumble onto its back any second, Trip knew the robot's auto-balance system and the mechanical piston lifters inside its arms and legs gave the robot tremendous strength and balance. In many ways, the robot was like Brick, but Trip was pretty sure that this robot hadn't developed nearly as much personality as his friend back at Uncle Craz's garage.

Trip walked up the ramp, making sure to stay out of the robot's way. Another cargo robot appeared at the top of the ramp, followed by Clanmother Son'knex. As usual, Son'knex was stern and serious. Trip had met her five or six times and never once had she smiled, laughed or even talked more than absolutely necessary.

Son'knex looked like most Sh'nar. As a full grown adult, she was about six and a half feet tall, although more than half of her height was the set of long, well-muscled, three-jointed legs. With two sets of "knees" in each leg, Sh'nar had excellent balance and they were fast. They could run at nearly three times the speed of the best human athletes. When they ran, they looked like they almost leapt through the air. Sh'nar were experts at picking their way through rough and uneven terrain. While Sh'nar preferred to run as much as possible, they'd adopted the "human" custom of walking, although for them it was terribly slow and they swayed back and forth as their double-kneed legs adjusted to this strange type of movement.

Sh'nar had a layering of tiny, glittering scales, similar to snake skin. Clanmother Son'knex's skin was green-blue, although Sh'nar could be almost any color, including black, red, yellow, or even silver or gold.

Son'knex's brilliant golden eyes, with vertical pupils like a cat's, shone out from underneath a bony ridge where a human's eyebrows would be. The ridge jutted out a full four inches. The ridge curved back to cover the skull, spreading up the forehead and around the entire back of the head. It provided the head and brain with a double layer of protection and the Sh'nar called it the cibra'noct, which roughly translated as "head covering."

Instead of ears, Sh'nar had four ear holes in their head coverings -- one just above the eyes, one on each side of the head and one at the back of the head just above the neck. Each ear hole had a complex series of echo chambers and nerve endings that gave Sh'nar incredibly sensitive and accurate directional hearing.

Like her legs, Son'knex's arms were triple-jointed with an "extra" set of elbows. The elbows could bend in almost any direction, giving the Sh'nar remarkable dexterity and agility. Each hand was wide and slightly curved, with four long fingers. While Sh'nar didn't have thumbs, their fingers were so flexible that they could work most tools as easily -- perhaps more easily -- than a human could.

Clanmother Son'knex wore a baggy brown tunic-robe that ended above her first pair of knees. A tool belt clipped on the tunic at the right shoulder and crossed her chest before clipping to her waist on the left side. In addition to the dozens of work tools, the belt also had a hand-held transcomm and a holster for her tiny energy pistol.

She stared at Trip for a second and then slowly nodded at him.

She softly said, "In there. Stay out of the way."

That was a close to Hello Trip, good to see you! How are you doing? as he was going to get, so Trip blurted out a quick, "Hello Clanmother Son'knex!" and raced up the ramp and into the cargo hold.

Trip glanced around the ship's almost empty cargo bay. There were a dozen cargo containers tucked into one corner. The ship could carry full-size cargo crates like those hauled by the anti-grav tractors outside, but these smaller cargo modules, which were cubes about four feet to a side, allowed the ship to mix different types of cargoes. At the front of the cargo hold was a small ladder that led up to the ship's main deck, above the cargo hold.

Trip heard the steady stomping of the cargo robots as they slowly walked back up the ramp. Not knowing where to go, he called out, "Jinx! Where are you?"

Trip heard a couple of Sh'nar voices talking in their high-pitched, whistling language. From the main deck above, a Sh'nar wrapped its legs around the ladder's rails and slid down to the cargo hold floor. It was someone Trip didn't recognize, but then he heard a familiar voice above him. It was Jinx.

Jinx soon slid down the ladder to the cargo bay floor. She looked much like Clanmother Son'knex, although she was young, like Trip, and only about five feet tall. She had green and red scales while her cibra'noct was still a light gray, indicating that she was still in adolescence. She was dressed in a light brown worksuit. The many tools on her waist belt jangled as she leapt onto the cargo bay floor.

She continued speaking in the Sh'nar tongue to her co-worker when she turned towards Trip. She stopped in mid-sentence as her bright green eyes grew wide. She smiled, charging towards him to give him a great hug.

She screamed, "Trip, you're here!"

Chapter 6 * Together Again

"Ow!"

Trip felt his back crack as Jinx gave him a tight hug. She was stronger than she looked!

"Trip, it's so good to see you! You wouldn't believe everything that's happened! Let's go get some lunch!"

It had been nearly three months since he'd last seen Jinx, so Trip was excited that they would be able to spend the afternoon together. He remembered his gift and shyly handed the small bag to her.

"This is for you. I hope you like it."

Jinx pulled the disk out of the bag and examined it carefully, almost like she didn't quite know what to do with it. She silently turned it around in her hands, reading the label. Trip's hopes crashed as she said simply, "That's very thoughtful, Trip."

Trip could tell what she really thought of it by the tone of her voice.

"You don't like it. I'm sorry."

Jinx laughed and grabbed his hand.

"No, I do like it. I've really interested in seeing how -- " She read the label out loud, stumbling over the name of one of the artists, " -- how Communicon Quasar will interpret The Three Tiny Quaztik. It always was one of my favorite nursery rhymes."

"Nursery rhymes! Oh no! I just thought, it being Sh'nar music and you being a Sh'nar, that you know, I hoped it would be something you'd really like. I'm just lousy at picking gifts for other people. It's a lot easier to find stuff for myself!"

Jinx laughed. "Of course it is! You know just what you want! But what means the most is that you took the time to get me something. You must have run the whole way to get here on time."

That made Trip feel better.

"Well, Jinx, you are faster than I am. You have the legs for it."

"Trip, we all have our natural gifts," Jinx said as she smiled. A Sh'nar's smile was unnerving to many humans since Sh'nar had a row of short but sharp incisors.

"Now, wait a second while I go get something for you," she said as she leapt back up at the ladder, her long legs allowing her to climb four rungs at a time.

Jinx disappeared out of view. Trip waited uncomfortably while the other Sh'nar workers and the labor robots pulled the final cargo modules out of the ship's cargo hold. Clanmother Son'knex slowly strode into the cargo bay, rocking gently back and forth with each stride. Her eyes soon came onto Trip and she stared at him for several seconds.

Nervous from her gaze -- almost like having a teacher's stare bore into him -- Trip stammered, "Thanks for your help! Boy, I bet you are all tired after the long trip here. I can't imagine what it's like being out in space all the time. It must be exciting. Anyway, Jinx is up in her quarters getting the gifts she brought for me. I got her an audio disk. I hope she likes it."

Clanmother Son'knex listened patiently. She responded with a quick nod.

Trip felt himself beginning to fidget as he glanced around the cargo bay, looking anywhere but into her eyes. He finally muttered, "Jinx should be back any minute. Is it okay if I stand here?"

Again she nodded, saying nothing.

Finally Jinx returned to the cargo bay, clutching two small cloth bags. She looked inside both of them and then handed the larger of the two to Trip. Carefully, he reached inside the bag and pulled out what appeared to be a small necklace, although the "chain" was made not of metal, but small, smooth pebbles that were yellow with orange stripes. On the end of the necklace was a very thin, flat ring about three inches across. Suspended at the center of the ring by small metal pins was a black globe. The globe appeared to have a hole drilled through it from top to bottom, with several more pinprick-sized holes drilled at odd points. The globe whistled whenever it moved.

"Jinx, this is beautiful. What is it?"

"It's called an alyaman. It's like a spirit guide. Each one is unique, handmade by the spirit crafters of Tamensorb. Their warriors wear them when they have to travel to the jungles in the high mountains to hunt luptors. The warriors believe that when they wear their alyamans, their ancestors can hear its song and watch over them from the spirit realm. They believe their ancestors guide them during hunts and protect them from danger."

Trip's eyes widened as he studied the necklace.

"Jinx, this is great! But I never have to worry about danger. Nothing ever happens here on Karrison!"

"Trip, if I know you, you probably had a close scrape with death in just the past two days! The number of anti-grav scooters you've wrecked in the past year is enough to get me worried."

Trip's eyes narrowed as he studied Jinx's face.

"How did you know? Did Uncle Craz tell you?"

Jinx smiled.

"No, Uncle Craz didn't tell me about anything. But I just know you. You're always up to something! Besides, someday you're going to get into real trouble and then you'll really need your ancestors to look out for you!"

Trip carefully undid the chain's clasp and put it on. He slipped the chain, globe and ring beneath his shirt. As he moved, he felt the cool pebble necklace slide across his skin and he heard a faint, barely audible whistle. Maybe it wouldn't hurt to have the extra luck on his side. Just in case.

When Trip looked back up at Jinx, he saw her holding a flat, oval rock about two inches across. The rock was a soft, pale white color with several streaks of brilliant blue. She handed it to him. It was cool and comfortable in his palm. When Trip looked at it closely, he realized it was not a rock, but a crystal. It had a small hole drilled through one end. As Trip held the crystal, it started to glow, quickly becoming bright enough to light the whole cargo hold.

Trip asked, "What is it?"

"It's a light crystal from Opophryn. It constantly absorbs light. When it reaches a high enough temperature -- like when you hold it for a couple of minutes -- the light is released. It's like having a natural portalight that never needs to have its energy cells recharged! I figured you could use it at Uncle Craz's garage since you always seem to be crawling around inside dark cargo holds and engines. Here, run the chord through the crystal and clip it onto your work belt. It will absorb light whenever you're in daylight!"

Trip was thrilled with Jinx's thoughtfulness. She always gave him perfect gifts!

"Jinx, these are wonderful! I'm sorry you don't like the audio disk. Why don't I treat you to lunch?"

Jinx said, "Trip, that's perfect! How about Draul's? They've got the best braised freeltip I've ever tasted!"

Trying not to look too anxious, Trip and Jinx patiently walked out of the cargo bay and past Clanmother Son'knex. Again, she just nodded at both of them. Trip was trying to fight his urge to break into a run. He knew that Jinx probably wanted to do the same thing, but she wouldn't want to be corrected by the Clanmother for being rude, so they both walked carefully, slowly, silently trading smiles as they headed towards the street.

After a few steps, Trip leaned over towards Jinx and whispered, "I don't think Clanmother Son'knex likes me. She never talks to me. All she does is nod at me whenever I see her."

Jinx chuckled.

"Trip, don't be silly. She's like that with everyone. She likes you."

Trip relaxed. "I hope so."

Then, Jinx turned back towards her Clanmother, rocking slightly as her legs and body spun around. She screamed, "Trip is afraid you don't like him, Clanmother! I told him he had nothing to worry about. You like him, don't you?"

Clanmother Son'knex nodded, saying nothing. Trip felt his face flush. He should have known better than to tell Jinx about that! Before Trip could say anything, the Clanmother said, "You have until lift-off to be back here. That's three hours! Stay out of trouble."

Jinx said, "Thank you! And we'll be okay! Don't worry."

Jinx looked at Trip and said, "Cool! Let's go!"

Trip said, "I'll get even with you for that!"

Then the two of them took off towards the street, Trip running as fast as his legs could carry him, while Jinx slowly jogged along beside him.

Chapter 7 * Draul's (In the Heart of Pennick's Crossing Cargo Port)

Trip and Jinx ran all the way to Draul's, about three blocks from Port 43. It was a basic diner, nothing special, but it was busy at all hours, even in the middle of the night, because it catered to starship crews and the Cargo Port's laborers.

The menu boasted dishes from fifty different planets so there were always many aliens huddled around the small tables. It was the middle of the afternoon and the place was packed. The air was thick with smoke from pipes, smoke-tubes and aroma snifters. Trip and Jinx had to wait nearly ten minutes for a table while a pair of burly Vnedrian traders finished their meals.

Trip ordered a roast prond sandwich smothered in gravy. Reluctantly, he ate the fresh vegetables, but only because he knew they were good for him. Besides, he'd forgotten to take his vitamin supplement tablet because he was in a rush to get to school.

Jinx ordered braised freeltip. To Trip it looked like a pile of lumpy oatmeal, except it was pink and fuzzy and covered with a strange blue sauce that smelled a little bit like cinnamon. Jinx loved every bite. Trip politely refused Jinx when she offered to give him a bite. For all he knew, he might be allergic to it!

After lunch was complete, Trip got into line to pay. It was just eight Steds! That was one other thing Trip liked about Draul's -- he could afford the prices! As he and Jinx turned to leave, Trip heard someone behind him say, "Hey, you!"

Trip turned and saw a young man, maybe three inches taller than him and probably two or three years older. He was dressed like a spacer. He wore a black vest, dirty white shirt and dark brown pants. He was wearing a red cap and thick leather-hide work gloves. Trip also noticed the holster and energy pistol strapped at his hip. Whoever this guy was, he wasn't someone to be messed around with.

He looked at Trip and said, "I thought that was you. You work for Old Man Craz, don't you?"

Trip nodded. "Yeah. He's my uncle. I do a little bit of everything around there. Who are you?"

The young man took off his cap and wiped his forehead, then set the cap back in place.

"My name's Datz. I work on the freighter Timeon Runner. I've been to your uncle's place before. He worked on our ship once."

There was a moment of uncomfortable silence. Trip didn't have much else to say, although Datz certainly seemed like he wanted say something.

Finally, Trip said, "Well, I've got to get running. I'll see you around."

"Yeah, I'm sure you will," Datz finally said.

Trip and Jinx made their way into the street.

Trip said, "That was weird. He seemed like he wanted something. I guess he was nice enough."

Jinx shook her head. "I wouldn't trust him. Something about him bugs me. I guess it doesn't matter now. Hey, we've only got a little while before I have to leave! Let's get going!"

Trip and Jinx decided to spend time wandering the downtown streets of Pennick's Crossing. It was a beautiful day with clear skies and plenty of warm sunshine. A light breeze coming off the mountains kept the temperature comfortable.

Jinx just smiled and talked about how much she enjoyed being out in sunlight and breathing real air. Trip had forgotten that she'd been cooped up in a starship for nearly three weeks, breathing recycled air, eating pre-packaged food packets and not feeling any natural sunlight. Trip loved the idea of space travel, though. It seemed like a small price to pay for the freedom of traveling among the stars.

The beautiful afternoon was well spent as they wandered through countless shops and amused themselves with a constant stream of jokes. Trip brought Jinx over to try the new holographic space combat game that had just arrived at Ric'cci's. They laughed and joked just like old times -- they'd been friends for nearly six years -- but Trip could tell that something was bothering Jinx. While in one of the stores, eyeing the newest holocubes, Jinx asked, "Trip, have you thought about what you're going to do when you're done school?"

"I think about it all the time. I know I'm not the type for one of the universities. Too quiet. It's going to be a life in the stars for me! I'm gonna find an old starship, fix it up, and then I'll be out travelling around the galaxy, working when I want for whoever I want. I won't have to take orders from anyone! Of course, Uncle Craz really wants me to take over the repair business. You know, something stable and safe. He wants to get out it. But that's not what I want. I'll bring him around to my way of thinking. What about you, Jinx?"

Trip looked over at his friend. It wasn't easy for most humans to understand Sh'nar facial expressions because their facial muscles were arranged differently, but Trip had spent enough time with Jinx. He could sense her anxiety. She nodded her head as if she was still listening, but Trip knew her mind was on other things.

After a moment of silence, Jinx finally realized that Trip was waiting for an answer.

"Trip, I've got to make my life-path choice soon. I know what I want to do. I want to be a starship pilot. It's all I've ever thought about since I was five or six cycles old. But Clanmother Son'knex wants me to be a logistics programmer. She says the clan has more than enough pilots but not enough people to organize the ships and manage the business. And she's seen my test scores -- she knows I did well in math, logic and abstract thinking. According to the numbers, I should be a great programmer."

"So what? If you want to be a pilot, if that's what your heart is calling for you to do, then you have to do it! Who cares if the clan needs more programmers? Let the clan find them! You only get one life!"

"Not if you're a Wevver. Their spirits sometimes pass through as many as ten or fifteen bodies before they transcend."

"Oh, that's not the point! You've got to live your life in a way that's going to make you happy!"

Then Trip realized Jinx was trying to make a joke. He added, "Of course, it would be fun to have ten or fifteen lifetimes to play around with, wouldn't it?"

Jinx laughed and pushed him "softly" in the ribs. Softly for her was hard enough to shove him back about three feet.

Jinx said, "Trip, you do know how to make me happier when I'm upset. It's good to spend time with you. But I'm still worried. I've got to make my decision soon. And if I decide to become a pilot, I'll be cast out of the clan, considered ‘clan-less' until I can prove my worth and a clan is willing to accept me into its ranks. That means leaving my family, my cousins, everyone I've ever known. If I'm not successful early on -- assuming I can find a ship that'll take me -- I might never be accepted into a clan."

Trip looked into Jinx's eyes. "Jinx, you will always have friends no matter what. And you will always be part of my family. Tell you what, we should go into business together. You, me, Uncle Craz, wandering the stars -- you can be a part of our clan. All you have to do is be yourself!"

Jinx whistled a short song. She used her two-chambered voice box to create two distinct melodies that she wove together beautifully. One sounded like a light flute, free as the wind, while the other was deeper, rumbling. The song was sad at first, sounding like an ending and mourning period, then suddenly it burst into a new beginning with a rush of excitement and joy. Trip thought it was beautiful.

Jinx hugged her friend, saying softly, "Thanks, Trip. I knew I could count on you to be my friend no matter what."

Trip blushed and didn't know what to say. Finally, he blurted out, "Well, how can we be the best pilots in the galaxy unless we help each other?"

Jinx mentioned that they should get going so she would have time to stop in and greet Uncle Craz.

After skirting through several alleys, they made it to the back door of Uncle Craz's repair bay. Trip entered the security code on the electronic lock. Uncle Craz didn't feel that he needed a more sophisticated and expensive unit like a genetic, voiceprint or retinal scanner. Besides, who'd want to break into some greasy old starship repair shop?

The lock flashed green as it accepted Trip's code. There was a hiss of air as the thick security door cracked open and slid into the wall. Trip and Jinx stepped into the repair bay's back hallway and the door sealed behind them. Trip and Jinx dodged around piles of old starship parts as they made their way toward the repair bay's main chamber.

Just as they were about to walk out to greet Uncle Craz, they heard several voices.

Trip whispered, "Uncle Craz has customers. We'd better be quiet."

Trip and Jinx ducked behind two crates, being careful not to knock over the precarious stacks of parts resting on the crates. One of the voices suddenly rang out loud and angry.

"You listen to us, old man. You'll work for us -- or you won't work for anyone!"

Chapter 8 * Threatening Strangers

Trip didn't know what to do. Who would threaten Uncle Craz?

Trip whispered to Jinx, "What do you think is going on?"

"Shhh! If you listen, you might find out!"

Trip looked around and spotted a shaft of light coming from between two crates. Kneeling low, he put his eye to the light.

He whispered, "Jinx, find a gap between the crates. You'll be able to see what's going on!"

Jinx searched around and found a spot where she could watch.

Uncle Craz was surrounded by a group of strangers, one human and three aliens. Craz looked worried, but he was standing straight and tall. He was at least half a foot shorter than all of them.

The human was bald, with bright red eyes and a thin mustache. He had a strange mark on his cheek. Trip realized it was some kind of tattoo. He was dressed in a brown leather battle vest that was covered with scars and laser burns. Trip assumed the vest had poly-ceramic armor plates hidden underneath or else it would have been useless in battle. On the man's hip was a low-slung holster with a dangerous-looking energy pistol.

The man pointed directly at Uncle Craz. He warned, "I don't think you understand me. You'll do the work we need done and you'll do it today! We don't have time to wait around!"

As the man spoke, his other three companions slowly lowered their hands towards their energy pistols. Trip was very worried. Would they attack Uncle Craz? Who were they anyway?

Trip knew he had to help. Maybe he could sneak into Uncle Craz's office and grab the old energy rifle Craz kept around for emergencies. This sure looked like an emergency to Trip!

Trip started to stand, ready to head off to Uncle Craz's office. Jinx grabbed his shoulder. She squeezed hard. She was strong! She whispered, but Trip could tell she was getting angry.

"Where do you think you're going?"

"Where do you think I'm going? I'm going to help Uncle Craz!"

Jinx shook her head. "Oh, no, you're not! Your Uncle can take care of himself. You stay out of this or you might get yourself shot!"

Trip tried to pull away, but Jinx's grip just got tighter. Now it hurt!

"Oww, Jinx, let go! You don't have to break my shoulder!"

Jinx smiled. "I'm just making sure you stay put! Now sit down and let Uncle Craz straighten this out. He knows what he's doing. I wonder who they are?"

Trip peered back through the crates and studied the strangers. Then he noticed that the human had a tattoo on the back of his right hand. It looked like a stellar diamond, but with a dangerous-looking snake-like creature wrapped around it. The creature -- a coiler from Dahlinor if Trip remembered correctly -- looked like it was ready to sink its fangs into the diamond.

Trip then noticed that the aliens had the same tattoo on their right hands. Trip glanced at Jinx.

"Do you think they're smugglers? Look, they all have the same tattoo."

"I'm not sure. But they look like they're ready to cause trouble for anyone who gets in their way!"

Uncle Craz backed away a step and shook his head. He stood tall even as the strangers closed in on him.

Craz said, "You tell Diamond Black Joe that I don't need the work. I'm plenty busy."

One of the aliens laughed. He -- Trip assumed it was a "he" -- was yellow-skinned, with large breathing flaps that started under his eyes and ran all the way down his cheek, hanging down below his long, curved jaw. They were almost like a dog's long jowls. There were strange green stripes on the flaps. The breathing flaps fluttered with the alien's laughter. Then Trip realized that the green stripes were slits, probably like gills for breathing water. The alien's laugh was mean and harsh. It was the kind of laugh someone makes when they're angry. The alien inhaled deeply and a shrill, high-pitched whistle came from his gills.

"You don't look busy, old Craz. You only got two or three ships here. And I'm sure no one is as important as Diamond Black Joe. He was kind of expecting you to fit him in. For old times' sake."

The alien laughed again. It made Trip shiver.

The tattoo-faced human stepped forward and talked to the alien. "Whistler, how do you think Diamond Black Joe will take it if Craz doesn't install those power boosters in our ships?"

Whistler's right hand, resting on the butt of his energy pistol, twitched like he was ready to draw it. Then the hand relaxed.

Whistler said, "Well, Slayton, I think he'll take it real personally. Craz, he might think you don't like him anymore. And after the beating our ships took at Kweniclapt Nebula, we need the repairs done quickly and quietly. Once upon a time, you could be counted on for these things, old man."

Craz held his tongue for a few seconds as he glanced at each of the strangers. Finally his gaze settled on Slayton, the tattoo-faced human.

"I'm out of that business. I've been out of it for a long time. You tell Diamond Black Joe I'll never work for him again! Now get out of my shop before I call the law squads!"

Whistler's hand tightened around the energy pistol. He drew it so fast that the gun was out of its holster and pointed at Uncle Craz's heart in an instant. The others pulled their weapons, too. Uncle Craz didn't say a word.

Whistler stood quietly and stared down into Craz's eyes. Finally, he said, "Boys, now's not the time. Put the guns away. But, Craz, you'd be wise to change your mind. There was a time when people were smart enough to help us out when we came calling. It's all about respect. I guess times change."

He holstered his gun and started towards the front door. He took three steps and turned back to look at Craz.

"Watch your back. On these frontier worlds, things can happen quickly. Bad things. Remember that, old man."

He spun on his heel and started off again, calling, "Let's go. We have other business around here."

The others returned their energy pistols to their holsters and in seconds they were gone. Uncle Craz picked up a plasma cutter and headed back towards Reik's ship, acting as if nothing had happened.

Trip hid behind the crates and trembled with fear as he realized that Uncle Craz could be in serious trouble.

Chapter 9 * Uncle Craz's Warning

After a few moments, Jinx and Trip finally got up the courage to talk to Uncle Craz. So they wouldn't frighten him, at least not anymore than those thugs had already, Trip called out loudly, "Hey, Uncle Craz, we're back!"

Uncle Craz turned, smiled and shut off the plasma cutter, placing it on the counter. If Trip hadn't known better, he'd think nothing unusual had happened while he was gone. Craz held out his arms to give Jinx a big hug.

"Jinshia'Knex -- Jinx -- welcome! You look well! It has been too long since you've been here. Can I get you something to eat?"

Trip Hrmphed!, muttering, "I never get treated this well," under his breath.

Uncle Craz frowned and messed up Trip's hair before replying, "That's because Jinx is a special guest. You, Trip, I'm used to."

Jinx said, "It is good to see you as well, Uncle Craz. And I thank you for the offer, but Trip and I ate earlier. I just wanted to come over and see you while I was planetside."

Trip knew he should keep quiet, but he couldn't contain himself any longer.

"Uncle Craz, who were those guys that were here earlier? I hope they didn't threaten you!"

Trip felt a hard smack on his leg. Jinx had kicked him. When Trip glanced over at her, she silently mouthed, "Shut up!"

Uncle Craz pretended not to notice but he suddenly got very serious.

"Stay away from them, Trip. They're dangerous. If you get mixed up with them, you'll be in serious trouble. And you won't be able to get out. Be careful."

Craz looked over at Jinx. "Especially you, Jinx. You watch yourself! You're not in Sh'nar space anymore. I hate to say this, but people aren't as likely to look out for a Sh'nar around here."

Trip realized that Uncle Craz was trying his best to hide his concern, but the incident had obviously upset him.

Changing the subject, Uncle Craz asked, "Jinx, what is going on with you? It has been too long since we've had a chance to talk."

Jinx looked into the small sack hanging at her waist, while explaining, "First, Uncle Craz, I have this for you. It's from Clanmother Kitrax'knex."

Jinx handed Uncle Craz a small crystalline statue. It looked like a chiseled star made of white crystal and it glowed. Craz carefully cradled the fragile-looking statue. "How is she? I haven't seen her in, what, two and a half years?"

Jinx smiled. "Clanmother is doing well. She commands over one hundred vessels now and she's enjoying being home on Sh'Bahral. Her great-grandchildren are keeping her quite busy. And she's finding politics to her great liking. She's become very influential within the Waysearchers Council."

Craz smiled while spinning the statue so he could examine it from every angle. Finally, he looked up at Jinx.

"I'm glad she has been so successful, although I have a great deal of trouble picturing her being happy staying home instead of getting into the middle of all the action. Please pass on my thanks for the gift."

Jinx nudged Trip and smiled before asking Craz, "Do you know what it is?"

Trip could tell that she didn't expect Craz to know.

Craz held the statue up and the shop's lights seemed to make it shine. "Of course. It's a prizstar, reputed to watch over its owner and bring them good fortune -- if my memory of Sh'nar tradition serves me right. It is supposed to ‘light the path' of one's destiny. Of course, some say that prizstars are given to those who are old and feeble-minded. Is Kitrax'knex trying to give me a hint?"

"Oh, no! She just wanted to bestow good fortune and guidance. How did you know about the feeble-minded part? Most off-worlders don't know about that."

"Jinx, I have been around this part of space for a few years. I've even been to your homeworld five or six times."

Trip was surprised. "But you gave up flying years ago. And before that, we were at war with the Sh'nar. There was a blockade. Humans weren't allowed on Sh'nar worlds. That means you were either a traitor or -- "

Craz chuckled, "Or a smuggler, of course. Well, that was a long time ago. Let's just say that I sometimes skirted the law a little bit. Back then, as now, there were certain things that people needed or wanted and they were willing to pay almost any price to get them. With our two governments spending all their time shooting at each other instead of talking -- as any civilized folks would do -- there were opportunities for a young man such as myself to make some very good money hopping back and forth across the border. It was fairly safe provided you could avoid the battles and patrol ships. I met Kitrax'knex back when I was making the rounds."

Trip said, "That must have been exciting!"

Uncle Craz sighed. "It was...for a while. How else do you think I learned how to build such fast starships? I tried most of these crazy ideas on my own ships years ago. That was back before I was smart enough to realize how dangerous this whole business could be. And besides, I made some good friends. Just because our governments were too stubborn to get along, it didn't mean that all Sh'nar and humans had to hate each other. Why, it's not all that different from you and Jinx being friends now."

Jinx added quickly, "Clanmother Kitrax'knex says that the Sh'nar Dominion is getting ready to open up more trade with the worlds out here in the Trishellian Frontier. I know I like traveling out here."

"Well, the war's been over for ten years. I think its been over long enough that people are willing to trade again, even be friends again. I mean, the demand out here for brosh alone is enough to keep your merchant fleets going as fast as they can."

Trip wrinkled his nose. "I think that stuff tastes awful."

Craz said, "Trip, on some worlds it's considered a delicacy. Besides, you haven't had real brosh until a Sh'nar has prepared it. Maybe sometime Jinx will make it for you."

Jinx got excited. "Mine tastes great! Even you will like it, Trip!"

Trip wasn't convinced, but he didn't want to hurt Jinx's feelings. "Okay, someday I'll try it. But only if you make it, Jinx."

Uncle Craz laughed and then walked over and placed the prizstar on the counter. He took a second to admire its remarkable beauty. "Jinx, please tell Clanmother that I appreciate the gift. And I look forward to returning the favor personally. Now, Jinx, where are you headed next?"

"We're leaving this afternoon. I've actually got to head back to the landing bay in a few minutes. I guess our next stops are on Orocies and Capessia before we head home to Sh'Bahral."

Uncle Craz frowned. "There's been a lot of pirate activity in that area. You're not travelling alone, are you?"

"We're joining a convoy as soon as we leave here. I didn't know about the pirates." Jinx said.

Craz sighed. "The Frontier Rangers don't want to talk about the problem. That would mean admitting they're not getting their job done. But all the freighter captains headed out that way are extremely worried about pirate attacks."

Trip knew that pirates were trouble. Ships that were captured by space pirates disappeared without a trace. No one ever heard from their crews again.

Uncle Craz added, "Well, at least you're travelling with a few other ships. That may be enough to scare the pirates off. They normally aren't well enough armed to attack more than one or two ships. But you'll be out in a remote part of space. The Frontier Rangers won't be able to get to you in time if you get into trouble. Run away if you can because you're going to be on your own."

Chapter 10 * The Space Pirates

Trip couldn't believe what he'd just heard. It was outrageous.

"How can space pirates get away with attacking so many ships? How come no one has stopped them? Why haven't they been caught?"

Uncle Craz shrugged. Trip hated things that were unfair, but Uncle Craz seemed to be able to just accept them.

"Trip, our ships can travel between stars in a few hours but we forget how far apart they actually are. It's impossible for the Rangers to patrol every possible route and search every possible hiding place. The pirates are masters of getting away before the Rangers can arrive on the scene."

Trip knew that a ship's options were limited. "Sending an emergency beacon won't do you much good. By the time the beacon jumps to another system and someone responds by sending a ship back, you're either been captured...."

"Or destroyed. I know."

Jinx knew about the only real choice. "The best way to protect yourself is to have energy cannons on your ship and hope you can hold the pirate attackers off long enough to plot a jump back to lightspeed. Once you've made the jump, normally you can get away from them."

Craz looked doubtful. "When the pirates attack, no one knows what happens to the ships, their cargoes or their crews. They just disappear. That's what's made it hard to track down the pirates. Without any witnesses or any accounts of the battles, it's almost hopeless. No one even knows what types of ships to look for. The pirates could be flying around in civilian freighters, going from port to port to scope out likely targets. They could be right here in Pennick's Crossing for all we know. These pirates are going to go after anyone they think they can get away with attacking. And Jinx, since your ships belong to the Sh'nar Dominion, the Frontier Rangers aren't going to place a top priority on protecting them."

Craz headed over to the counter to grab a plasma cutter.

Trip looked around uncomfortably. "Isn't there anything else we can talk about? Jinx, how long have you been out in space?"

Jinx's eyes suddenly lit up with excitement. "Oh, Trip, it's been so much fun. I mean, aside from moving cargo crates, which is pretty boring no matter what planet you're on. But I've been studying stellar navigation and using it to plot courses on the ship. I'm getting good at it. On Krondiele, I saw the thousand-foot tall waterfalls...and the water is purple! It's unbelievable. Oh, and then I met a Urellik pilgrim. Her name was Kalak-nist and she had the most beautiful red eyes. You know, you don't realize how big the Urelliks are until you meet one in person -- her wings were as big as that ship there."

Trip was impressed. It was unusual to meet an Urellik away from their home planet. Most of the time they stayed to themselves, but it was well known that they were among the most loyal and honest beings in the galaxy. Befriending one meant earning a loyal friend for life.

Jinx reached down to her belt and pulled out a small chrono. "Oh no, I've completely lost track of time. I've got to go! I'm so sorry, Trip. I'd stay longer, but I've got to help the cargo robots load the ship. If I'm not there, I'll be in big trouble with Clanmother Son'knex. The ship is small enough that it'll be hard to avoid her, especially if she's sore at me."

Trip understood. "I know that you've got to blast off on schedule. Get going. I just wish I was going with you or something."

As Uncle Craz returned from the counter, he scolded Trip.

"I heard that! Don't you even think about it!"

Finally, Craz rested his hand on Jinx's shoulder. "Jinx, you be careful. I mean it!"

Jinx laughed. "Don't worry about me. And, Uncle Craz, I'll see you soon."

Jinx turned to leave and Trip walked her to the door.

"Jinx, do you want me to walk you to your ship?"

Jinx shook her head. "No, Trip, you've got work to do and I'm already late. I've got to hurry. But we'll be able to spend more time together next time I'm here."

She sprinted out the door and down the street. She darted through the slow-moving crowds while cargo transport trucks and pack animals rumbled up and down the street. Jinx had almost faded into the crowd when she stopped, looked back at Trip and waved goodbye.

Trip waved slowly and whispered, "Until next time. Be careful, my friend."

Chapter 11 * An Errand...And Trouble!

The next afternoon, Trip had barely gotten back inside Uncle Craz's repair bay when Brick slowly waddled up to him, the ground shaking with each step of his large, treaded feet.

Brick's soft voice called out, "Trip, how was your day?"

Trip put his small backpack on the counter and shrugged. "Same as always. Nothing too exciting happened. Be sure to tell Uncle Craz when I got here. Right on time. I want him to know that I came back right after school."

Brick nodded. "I will be sure to let him know. I have an errand for you. You need to pick up some parts for a ship your Uncle is working on."

Trip unsnapped the backpack's magnetic fasteners and pulled out several data crystals, which he dumped on the counter. Brick watched as a couple of them tumbled to the floor. Trip then pulled out his personal computer for homework.

"Brick, can you be sure to put these on my desk in my room? I've got a report to finish tonight. Now, what do I have to do?"

Brick retrieved the crystals from the floor and put them in a neat pile before answering.

"Run down to Ojin's Salvage Yard. Your uncle had them set aside some power converters. He needs them for Reik's ship and he wants to finish the job today, so go as quickly as you can!"

Great! Johnnie O.'s father owned Ojin's. Trip hoped Johnnie would be working at the counter. Maybe he'd find out if the new scooter was finished.

"No problem, Brick! I should be back real soon!"

Trip raced through Pennick's Crossing Cargo Port, using side alleys and shortcuts to avoid the congested main streets. Now that it was late afternoon, most street traffic slowed to a crawl because of the constant stream of cargo barges and anti-grav cars and trucks. It took Trip half an hour to get all the way across town and he was completely winded by the time he walked through Ojin's front door.

As Trip tried to catch his breath, Johnnie O. looked up from his computer screen.

"Trip! I bet you're here to get those power converters for your uncle."

Trip nodded, still too short of breath to speak.

Johnnie ducked through a pair of sliding doors and entered the back rooms. A couple of minutes later he came back through the sliding doors, cradling six two-foot-long metal tubes. Johnnie walked carefully, slowly, as if cradling a helpless baby. He gently placed the metal tubes on the counter and held them so they wouldn't roll away.

Trip quickly examined the converters. They were fresh out of the box, had never been used, and, by the stamping on their cases, they had some kind of new technology that provided more power to a starship's systems. They were expensive -- but in the middle of a space battle, they'd be worth every Sted.

Trip wrapped each converter in a thin sheet of flexiplast and stuffed all six of them into his backpack. He quickly glanced around to make sure no one else was listening. Then he whispered to Johnnie, "Your Dad's not around?"

Johnnie whispered back. "No. Big John's in the back rummaging around for something. Wouldn't even notice if I took the rest of the afternoon off."

Johnnie O. flashed Trip his "You want to get into trouble?" grin.

"No, Johnnie, I've got to work at Uncle Craz's. But, well, did you get anything?"

Johnnie nodded enthusiastically. "Yeah! I found another scooter. It needs some work but it's gonna be fast when we're done with it."

Trip couldn't wait to get started. "I can't work on it tonight, but tomorrow after school let's get started. Sand pits, same as before?"

"Right. Let's just not get caught by big, fat Frederickson this time."

Trip quickly added, "Or wreck!"

Johnnie just smirked. "Wrecking's half the fun!"

Trip shook his head in disbelief. He tried to pull his backpack shut, but the ends of the converters stuck out and only two of the backpack's five magnetic clasps would seal. He swung the pack over his shoulder and nearly stumbled to his knees. Those converters were heavy!

Trip heard the converters clang as he shifted the pack to his other shoulder. He thought to himself, Better not do that too often. Uncle Craz won't be too happy to see them all banged up before they're even installed.

Trip had to be careful not to move too quickly or the converters would fall out. Each converter was worth at least four thousand Steds. If they fell out or Trip lost them, he'd be working past his high school graduation to pay them off!

"Gotta get back to Uncle Craz's, but I'll see you tomorrow."

Johnnie held his hands out, gripping the invisible handle controllers of a make-believe anti-grav scooter. He twisted the throttle and tried to make vrooming! motor noises with his mouth, although he sounded more like a sputtering robot about to break down than a high-speed anti-grav scooter. "Wouldn't miss it, Trip! Tomorrow!"

Trip made his way back through Pennick's Crossing Cargo Port along the same route, although it took him nearly twice as long to get across the city because he had to be careful not to damage the converters. It was a hot afternoon. Only a few blocks from Uncle Craz's, the heat finally got the best of Trip and he decided to stop at one of the shops for a cold drink.

A few minutes later, Trip stepped back out into the sun, clutching the chilled drink cup in his hand while he put the change into his pocket. Without a second thought, he stepped back out onto the permacrete walkways to head to Uncle Craz's.

Then Trip froze. Not thirty feet away was Whistler, the yellow-skinned alien who'd threatened Uncle Craz yesterday. Whistler was looking the other way down the street. He rested his hand on his holstered energy pistol, tapping his fingers on the grip, while he intensely scanned the street. The alien breathed heavily and Trip heard a high pitched whistle escape from his gills. The alien looked impatient. He was watching everyone who passed his way, almost as if he was searching for something -- or someone.

Trip's heart raced. Uncle Craz had warned him to stay away from Whistler and his companions. It was probably nothing. Trip knew he shouldn't worry. He'd just slip away and get back to Uncle Craz's repair shop and by dinner he'd forget about this.

But something bothered Trip. Something felt wrong.

Whistler searched the street and started to turn back towards Trip. Rather than risk being spotted, Trip quickly scooted in front of a couple of tall humans, figuring that he could hide himself from view while they walked away from the area. Trip was almost to the corner when he glanced back to where Whistler had been standing.

Whistler had disappeared. Where had he gone?

While he continued walking away, Trip glanced back again, but he couldn't see the alien. Then Trip spotted Whistler, now just ten feet away. The alien had one hand on his energy pistol, ready to draw it, while he held a small transcomm to his mouth. He was speaking into it and Trip knew the signal was being carried to other transcomms on the same frequency, probably ones carried by Whistler's buddies.

Trip tried to turn the corner quickly, but someone in pilot's clothing stepped in front of him. Trip stopped quick so he wouldn't run over the man, who shouted, "Hey, watch it kid!"

The pilot's angry voice carried across the street. Trip really didn't need this attention right now! As he tried to get around the man, he glanced back to see if Whistler had spotted him.

Whistler shouted into his transcomm, "There that kid is! Get him!"

Chapter 12 * The Safety of Shadows

Oh, no! He's spotted me!

Without thinking, Trip dropped his drink and took one, then two steps. He bounced off the pilot in front of him. The pilot screamed, "I said watch it!" but Trip was already gone.

Trip jumped right and darted around a corner, running hard. Trip's backpack bounced up and down with each step, throwing him off balance. Trip knew he'd never get away from Whistler at this rate! He stopped and pulled the pack off his back. Trip held the backpack with both hands and carried it in front of him. He took off again, racing down the street as fast as his legs would carry him.

As Trip ran, he knew he'd only be ahead of Whistler for a few moments. Whistler would catch him -- or Slayton or one of his other friends would show up. Trip knew he didn't want to get caught by them no matter what happened.

What could he do? He had to find a place to hide -- or maybe a short cut so he could get back to Uncle Craz's before they found him.

Trip ducked into an alley and raced around several trash dumpsters. Up ahead, a cargo sled nearly blocked the alley. Next to it, there was a door leading into a building. It was wide open.

Trip ran as fast as he could, shimmying between the cargo sled and the building wall. Then he heard someone just inside the open door.

Trip shouted, "Look out!" as a man carrying a cargo crate stepped from the building into the alley, right in front of Trip. Trip bounced off the man and ducked. He felt the crate brush the top of his head. He kept on running at full speed and bounced off the cargo sled before breaking into the clear alley beyond.

When Trip got into the open alleyway, he looked back and saw the cargo sled was rocking, with several crates now scattered on the ground. The man was scrambling to scoop up the crates. When he saw Trip, he shouted, "Look out, you blasted kid!"

Trip had just a moment to scream back, "Sorry!", but then he saw Whistler back at the beginning of the alley.

Fear drove Trip as he raced down the alleyway and soon he emerged on another street. The sidewalks were clogged with pedestrians, so Trip darted out into the vehicle roadway. He looked behind him down the alley and smiled to himself when he realized that Whistler got held up by the worker Trip had bumped into. At least that would give him a few more seconds.

Trip looked up and down the street and realized he had just a few moments to cross without getting run over. In a mad dash, he was on the other side of the street and down another alley. He smelled fresh-baked sweet cakes and scared two kids that were playing with toy starships, but he got through the alley and onto another street in just moments. That might give him a little time, he hoped. Trip stopped for a few seconds, panting heavily as he tried to catch his breath: Those power converters were heavy!

Trip couldn't see the street signs, but then he recognized Dom's Robots just down the block. Now he knew where he was. It was another ten or fifteen blocks to Uncle Craz's. He'd never get there without being caught! What could he do?

Whistler and his gang were faster than he was, so he'd have to hide. Then, when they weren't paying attention, he'd sneak back to Uncle Craz's or call for help.

Trip saw a dark alley just across the street. It was filled with trash dumpsters and discarded items -- plenty of things to hide behind. Trip knew he could easily climb over the wall at the end of the alley. Once Whistler lost track of him, he should be able to get away.

He darted across the street, dodging around slow-moving anti-grav cars. One of the cars grazed him and nearly knocked him to the ground, but Trip held his balance as he jumped up onto the walkway on the other side of the street.

Trip had to stop himself from falling and smashing the power converters. Trip steadied himself and stood up. He was just a few feet from the safety of the alleyway. Trip glanced back down the street.

Oh no!

Whistler was already at the street corner, searching the street. Trip had to hide -- right now -- or he'd be spotted. He tried to keep himself low and use the anti-grav cars and the people on the crowded walkway as cover.

Trip moved slowly, carefully. Whistler would be sure to spot any sudden movement. Trip heard his heart beating so loudly he was sure everyone could hear it, but no one seemed to notice him. Trip carefully slid towards the alley. Three steps, two, then one last step to the safety of the shadows! As he made the final step, Trip glanced back one last time.

Whistler hadn't seen him. Trip hugged the building wall and slowly backed into the shadowed alley. He relaxed as he realized he'd made it. Finally, he was safe.

Then, from behind, a hand grabbed Trip's shoulder and squeezed!

Chapter 13 * A Friend Saves the Day!

"Hey, where are you going?"

Trip nearly jumped out of his skin when his shoulder was grabbed, but he relaxed just a little when he saw who it was: Datz! Trip didn't know much about him -- after all, he'd only met him just yesterday at the diner -- but he was a friendly face and Trip was in big trouble. Any second Whistler and his buddies might show up. Trip had to find help or a place to hide right now!

Datz was standing inside an open doorway, smiling. He rested his gloved hands on his hips. His energy pistol, strapped to his right thigh, gleamed as it reflected the sunlight streaming into the open doorway. Behind Datz, the inside of the building was hidden by shadows, but the building sure looked safer than being out in the street.

"Trip, you look like you're running for your life! What's wrong?"

Trip tried to explain, but first he had to catch his breath. In between gasps of air, he explained, "Help me! Strange men...chasing me! Don't...know why! Got...to hide...from them!"

Datz smiled. "Trip, don't worry. Just follow me!"

Datz stepped back inside the building and flipped the light switch. It was a small storage room, with another door going deeper into the building directly across from the entrance where Trip stood. The room was filled with crates of all sizes, with stacks reaching to the ceiling. From the packages of food lying on the shelves, Trip figured this was the back room of a restaurant. Considering the dirt on the floor, it wasn't someplace he'd want to eat. Still, a dirty place to hide was better than no place at all!

Trip glanced down the alley again. Whistler was nowhere to be seen. Trip stepped inside the storage room and closed the door behind him. Trip's mind whirled. He spoke as quickly as the thoughts came to him.

"Am I safe here? I think those guys are criminals or something. They were threatening Uncle Craz yesterday."

After a few moments, Trip finally let himself relax. Datz looked pleased with himself.

"See, Trip. I told you it would be safe here. Nothing to worry about."

Trip started to move and nearly fell as the exhaustion caught up with him. All the energy drained from his body. The power converters clinked loudly as he dropped his backpack to the floor. Datz reached out and held him steady.

"Hey, hold on Trip! You look like you need to sit down for a few minutes."

Datz slowly guided Trip over to a small crate and helped him sit. Datz grabbed Trip's backpack. Trip's heart skipped a beat when he heard the power converters clink again.

"Hey Datz, be careful! Those power converters are worth a lot of money!"

Trip was dead-tired and just wanted to rest. The plastisteel crate wasn't the most comfortable thing to sit on, but Trip felt he could fall asleep for years right now. Datz was still messing with the backpack, but Trip was too tired to argue.

Datz set the backpack down on the crate next to him and pulled out one of the silver power converters. He slipped off his left glove and ran his fingers up and down the smooth metal cylinder.

"So, this is what all the fuss is about. It's heavier than I thought it would be."

Trip, half-asleep and only half-listening, wondered what Datz was talking about.

Trip asked, "Fuss? For who, Datz? And be careful. My uncle needs them for a ship he's fixing."

"Trip, don't be too concerned about it. It's not anything important. The guys on my ship have been looking for some power converters."

Then Datz paused. He stared into space, his mind seemingly a million miles away. "Unfortunately, the one man who could help them -- someone who used to help them and at one time wasn't too different from them -- turned his back on them. Does he think he can get away with that and act as if nothing happened? Does he think we'll just walk away and forget?"

Trip was suddenly wide-awake, his heart pounding. What was Datz talking about? This sounded like trouble. Datz stared at the power converter, his voice trailing off, as if he was talking to himself instead of Trip.

"Imagine. People you used to trust with your life and then you turn them out into the cold. You'd think they'd be a little upset, maybe? Trip, what do you think?"

Datz gently slid the power converter back into the backpack, cinched the straps and moved the backpack to the floor. That was when Trip noticed the scar on Datz's neck -- small, hair-thin, barely two inches long.

When Datz looked up he had a smile on his face. Not a warm, friendly smile, but one that made a shiver roll down Trip's spine.

"But that doesn't matter now, Trip. Our problem is solved, kid, now that we have these," Datz said while patting Trip's backpack.

Then Trip was certain. Datz was planning to steal the power converters! Trip couldn't let this go, even though he felt too exhausted to move. Trip wondered what he should do. Should he make a run for it? How would he get the backpack away from Datz? Trip wondered if he would be fast enough to get out of here before Datz grabbed his energy pistol.

Trip weighed all the options, but Datz seemed to read his mind.

"Don't try it. Don't even think it, Trip. It won't work. You'll only get hurt."

Datz then slowly pulled off his right glove, revealing the same coiler tattoo that Whistler and the others had on their right hands. Datz was one of them! Trip was trapped. Datz reached down and pulled his energy pistol.

Trip had just a split-second and he tried to make the most of it. He leapt for the back door and pulled it open. Standing in the doorway was Slayton and one of the alien thugs who'd confronted Uncle Craz yesterday.

Trip tried to dash between them, but Slayton just shoved him back into the room. Slayton chuckled when Trip fell and slid backwards into the crates. The two stepped into the room and locked the door behind them. They pulled Trip to his feet.

The other door swung open and Whistler stepped into the room. He laughed -- a high-pitched laugh so loud it almost hurt Trip's ears -- while the gill-pouches on his cheeks wheezed a high whistle.

Whistler said, "There's our troublesome little friend. Good work, Datz. Diamond Black Joe will be very pleased to get both the power converters and the boy."

Datz chuckled and shrugged off the praise.

"It was easy, really. He thought he could trust me."

Then, Datz raised his energy pistol and pointed it at Trip. Trip's heart pounded and he panicked. Trip knew he didn't want to die, but what could he do? There was no escape.

For a second, Datz almost, almost, looked like he felt sorry for Trip, but then the cruel smile returned. He winked at Trip and said, "Sorry, kid. This is just business."

Trip saw a flash of green light and felt a surge of intense, burning heat. Then his world went black and his knees gave out....

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